Senator Bartlett on the Regional Forest Agreement Legislation and the Democrat's opposition to the bill

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (4.07 p.m.)–I will not speak long on this Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee report and not in great depth on the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 1998 because we will have the opportunity to address that when the legislation comes before the Senate. Suffice it to say the Democrats, my colleague Senator Woodley and I have a dissenting report. The Democrats do not believe that this legislation should be passed as it stands.

Whilst it was a very unsatisfactorily brief and truncated inquiry, it was quite sufficient to at least highlight the number of problems that are present with the RFA process around the country and the real con we will be putting over ourselves if we actually think this is going to solve the so-called forest problem. Clearly, if this legislation did go through, it would entrench many of the concerns that have been expressed over many years and indeed are growing in terms of both the extent of them and the number of people in the community who also share those concerns.

It does not resolve one of the longest running and contentious issues to face this nation. It fails to deliver on jobs. It unfairly discriminates against the plantation industry. It will destroy more areas of native forest, including old-growth areas. It does not protect biodiversity. It discriminates unfairly against other important cultural values. It will mostly be controlled by state governments which have vested or financial short-term interests in the outcomes. It removes the Commonwealth's legitimate oversight of Australia's biodiversity in our world heritage obligations, among other things.

I would like to speak briefly of the concerns about the processes of this inquiry, which have been alluded to by Senator Brown and Senator Forshaw in his brief comment before, in terms of the unnecessary speed of the inquiry and the somewhat unusual process of the committee reporting out of session last week. I would like to also repeat the commendation of the committee secretariat because I think the pressure that was put on them to try to deal with the huge number of submissions, the great deal of public interest and the extremely short time frame was very unreasonable. I am concerned that it potentially places committee staff in a situation where they can unfairly be portrayed as not being competent or capable when clearly they were put in a situation that was virtually untenable.

I am also concerned about the reputation of the Senate and Senate committees as a whole when we have processes such as this which clearly generate an enormous amount of public interest and make people from whatever side of the argument feel that they are not being taken seriously, that it is a sham inquiry just for the sake of appearances and that legitimate concerns of the public are not taken on board. I think, unfortunately, that is the situation that did occur with this inquiry. It ends up reflecting very badly on the Senate itself, on the parliament and on the Senate committee process when clearly inadequate time frames are allowed to consider issues of great importance, great significance and great public interest. I would like to register the Democrats' concern and dissatisfaction about that.

The need for Senator Forshaw to make his statement before indicates the problems that have occurred in terms of the correct printing of this report. I assume our dissenting report is appropriately incorporated in the report that has been tabled, although I know there were some problems last week with that. Again I think that highlights the inadequate time frame that was allowed for this. I have no idea why the report needed to be tabled out of session last week and supposedly in some urgency when, when we get here this week, the bill is not listed for debate. Apparently we were meant to do all this irregular process and put enormous pressure on Senate committees that are already under-resourced and overstretched so that we could meet the apparently absolutely urgent imperative of the government to bring on this legislation today. It is not only not on today but, at least as far as we know, it is not listed at all for this week. Regardless of one's views about the content of this legislation–whether you feel it is good or bad–that process makes it very difficult for us as parliamentarians, makes it impossible for the Senate committee staff, Senate staff, and generally brings the parliament into disrepute.

It is probably also worth noting the action, prior to this debate coming on, of the withdrawal of a notice of motion of Senator Murphy's which was aimed at referring these broader matters relating to regional forest agreements to a Senate references committee in recognition of the range and importance of the issues that relate to forestry, particularly the regional forest agreements and, again, the depth and strength of public concern. If that motion had been continued and voted on and the issues were put to a Senate committee, it would have at least enabled these issues to be examined in the depth that they deserve, but, unfortunately, that motion was withdrawn by the Labor Party just a few minutes ago as well. So clearly we are not going to have that opportunity.

We have not had an adequate opportunity with this legislation to address those issues. Unfortunately, that looks like all the examination we are going to get of what is clearly a crucial issue. In the Democrats' view it clearly puts the future of our forests, indeed the future of our forestry industries and people dependent on the timber industries, very much at risk. To lock up some public resources for the long-term benefit of foreign owned woodchip companies is an outcome, from the Democrats' perspective, we find hard to believe and something that should be adequately examined.

Unfortunately, because of the time frame imposed on the committee–and, again, this is no reflection on the committee staff or the members of the committee from all parties who had to work within the time frame that the Senate imposed on them–I think this is a perfect example of an inadequate process which reflects badly on the Senate and on the parliament. I hope senators keep that in mind next time there is consideration given to appropriate reporting dates for contentious legislation.

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