Tuesday 11 December 2012

Hansard of the Legislative Council


6.52 p.m.

Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - There is no plan B and we have been told that time and time again. We first heard there was no plan B from Jane Calvert of the union representing forestry and timber workers, the CFMEU - a key player in the Tasmanian forest agreement issue. The federal Environment minister, Tony Burke, used the term when he briefed us last Wednesday. We heard it today from Ta Ann: there is no plan B. If the bill is not passed, there has been too much deferment, and they will shut down. The phrase that has stuck in my mind is 'plan B' and led me to think deeply about the possible plan B.

I am not an expert on the forestry industry. I spoke to many people in the industry and eventually came to the conclusion that any plan B meant going back to where we were, watching an industry continue to decline, losing jobs, being excluded from world markets, and continuing to split the Tasmanian community. We have seen that for at least the past 30 years.

I find it important in considering issues such as this to keep an open mind from the very beginning of the public debate. If I tell the public how I intend to vote at the beginning of the process, half of them will write me off and not bother to send me their views. For example, if I had declared my opposition to the Tasmanian Forests Agreement from the start, many of those who supported it would not bother to lobby me and I would have received a skewed impression of public perceptions. Half of my electorate would have written me off, and vice versa. It is important for me to hear from the community, to listen to the briefings and some of the debate before making up my mind.

Since the state opposition made its commitment to tear up the intergovernmental agreement some months ago there have been significant developments, as we all know. Whatever I may have thought about the Tasmanian Forest Agreement, at the eleventh hour, after 30 months of negotiations, the forestry industry, the main union and the ENGOs have made substantial compromises and reached an agreement and I bow to their judgment. They know the industry far better than I do.

I feel if you disagree with their judgment and oppose this bill, you are obligated to explain your plan B. I have no plan B and I am therefore inclined to support the agreement because I do not want to see Tasmania go back to where we were before. I do not want to go back to the forest wars that have split communities and families. I do not want to go back to the decades of massive subsidies to keep an ailing industry going. I do not want to go back to the lack of transparency regarding prices paid for the taxpayers' forest resource, to the total confusion of where the forestry industry is heading. I do not want to go back to the time when forestry and tourism were in apparent conflict.

If anyone can come up with a plan B, an alternative plan for the Tasmanian forestry industry, and for the protection of places like the Styx and the Florentine valleys, and if they can demonstrate that they have the support of the main players - the industry, CFMEU and the ENGOs - then I would tend to vote with them. That is highly unlikely at this stage.

If this House rejects this bill without a viable alternative, it will be negating more than two years of intensive negotiation. It will be rejecting federal funding for regional development and the further restructuring of the forestry industry. If we reject this bill, we will be telling the forestry industry that we know better, that we know more about the forestry industry and its problems than they do. That is a worrying prospect.

My electorate on the West Tamar has only a small forestry industry but many of my electors are very interested in the future of a Tasmanian industry and I have been at pains to listen to their views. I have received plenty of emails. Because I have not taken a public position on this bill and have demonstrated an open mind, I have received emails from both sides of the argument, roughly 50:50, for and against. The balance might have changed somewhat in recent days with the majority of messages coming from employees or people connected with Ta Ann who are supporting the TFA.

I suggest that those who have declared a firm view, either for or against, early in the process will receive a distorted view of public attitudes. If you declare that you are implacably opposed to the TFA, then those who back it will write you off. If you say you are all for it, most of those who oppose the agreement will not bother with you. If there is a public perception of how you intend to vote, half of the argument will potentially ignore you.

What will Tasmania lose if we reject this agreement on the future of forestry? For a start, a substantial amount for regional development, desperately needed from the forestry industry. The figure at the moment is $96 million. We would lose the remaining $15 million for payouts to contractors for restructuring. We would lose the indexed $7 million a year to help manage forest reserves under the IGA. If there are other potential commonwealth funding losses - I believe I am okay to speak, Leader and Madam President, about the money today?

Mrs Taylor - It has been on the 6 o'clock news.

Mr FINCH - It must be okay to release it. That is another $102 million that will not come. We will have wasted 30 months of extensive negotiations.

A northern plywood mill valued at about $10 million, promised by Ta Ann last Wednesday, will not go ahead and it is likely that Ta Ann will leave the state. If that happens Tasmanian private landholders would lose an opportunity to supply as many as 140 000 cubic metres of peeler billets a year to Ta Ann, to make up the 160 000 cubic metres it needs.

It is possible Tasmania would lose a potential share in carbon credits but I will leave that to the member for Rumney to explain, knowing his dedicated interest in the subject. Above all, we would lose even more export markets because of uncertainty and the lack of confidence in the Tasmanian industry, not to mention intensifying protest action.

We were told last week at the Ta Ann briefing that the company had lost markets in the UK and Europe because of bad publicity by conservationists. We were told, in no uncertain terms, that without the agreement, Ta Ann will pull out of Tasmania. That is as recently as the briefing today.

We were also told of the potential benefits if Ta Ann stayed in Tasmania in an atmosphere of security and certainty. That briefing, also attended by ENGO representatives, was convincing. I was amazed to see conservationists sharing a public forum with a major player in the forestry industry. That bodes well for the future. The national director of the Wilderness Society, Lyndon Schneiders, was one of those present.

I quote from an article that Mr Schneiders wrote for The Australian newspaper on 24 November 2012.

More than the forests or the timber industry, it is the Tasmanian community and Tasmanian economy that most desperately needed the Forest Peace Agreement that has been reached between environment groups, union and industry.

For it is the Tasmanian community, split asunder for years by the battle for forests, that has been affected most by this debate. The scars are deep and the uncertainty and constant political heat around this issue have created a serious dent in investor confidence in the state and cast a shadow over the prospects for sustainable economic growth and opportunity.

It is for these reasons, not just for the forests or the workers, that the agreement now needs political support to give Tasmania a new start. The fate of this agreement now rests on the shoulders of the independent members of the Tasmanian upper House who have the power to bring it to life.

It is hard to realise how intense is the international scrutiny of Tasmania's forestry industry. Anyone, anywhere in the world, with internet access, can watch Miranda Gibson sitting 60 metres up the Observer Tree. Likewise, any other forest protests. Potential buyers of Tasmanian forest products can use Google Earth to zoom into areas where products are likely to be harvested. They can evaluate the effects of clear‑felling for themselves and we, in this House, are under intense scrutiny as we debate this bill. It is as easy for potential buyers in Japan, South Korea and China to watch this debate live, as it is for Tasmanians.

These observers can judge for themselves what happens in the harvesting of the products they might buy. If they see protests, if Google Earth shows environmental damage, if they see a lack of political will to sort out the Tasmanian forestry conflict, they will buy their forest products elsewhere, and there is evidence that they are doing that.

This TFA agreement on the future of Tasmania's forestry industry has 11 signatures confirming the agreement and some of them were arch-enemies previously. They have signed now without reservation. 'This is the agreement', it states, 'we have signed it' - and you might listen to this, member for Windermere - 'and will not resile from it'. Regardless of your view of the TFA, this is an historic document.

There has been talk about amendments to this bill but as we heard from the Premier, as long as the thrust of the agreement is not changed and enhances the bill, the government is likely to agree but some issues appear to be a matter for legislation in future negotiation. The bill is not specific on the cut-up of resources, leaving that to later negotiation and regulation. Much has been made of the reduction from the current statutory minimum of 300 000 cubic metres of high-quality sawlogs from public forest, to the minimum of 137 000 cubic metres under the Tasmanian Forest Agreement. It is important to realise that the 300 000 figure was recognised by the industry as too high and not sustainable. The Forests and Forest Industry Council assumed a realistic figure of 150 000 cubic metres a year, well before the intergovernmental process began.

Ms Forrest - In 2008.

Mr FINCH - Thank you, 2008.

Ms Forrest - Yes, the report in 2009 and that was when they did the work.

Mr FINCH - Much has been made of the perceived reduction in specialty craft and other types of wood, especially by the furniture and boatbuilding industry but, while the bill is not specific on quantities, these can be fixed through negotiation and regulation. There is no reason to suppose that harvesting 137 000 cubic metres of sawlogs will not yield sufficient specialty timber as part of the harvest operation. We have all heard stories about some of the stuff that was put into windrows and burnt, and the impassioned discussion by Kevin Perkins in respect of the waste of that specialty timber.

We heard in yesterday's briefings from Mark Leitch. Mark started as a craft timber worker at Circular Head. He worked for Forestry Tasmania, then Private Forests Tasmania and eventually became a forest consultant. He has never lost his interest in Tasmania's unique craft timber. He is not so much worried by the overall supply but the cost. Nevertheless, he believes Tasmania can be a leader in providing specialty timbers and their products with proper management. People who talked about the craft and furniture industry felt that there has not been proper management in the past. Particularly Kevin Perkins, who spoke yesterday on the same subject. He says that Tasmania's timber heritage has been sold for firewood in the past. He says with proper management and proper conversion we can do better, and that is why we need a fresh start.

It is important to mention the contribution by Bob Annells who made the point that half the forestry industries' income has gone with the demise of Gunns which has had a devastating impact on communities which rely on forestry. He mentioned forest stewardship certification and its importance in the marketplace. Much of Tasmania's forestry industry backed the wrong horse some years ago. Mr Annells mentioned the relatively new player in the forestry debate, the internet.

Apart from resource allocation, the other side of the agreement is the legal protection of 504 000 extra hectares. This will be in three stages under a special council of the parties involved in the Tasmanian Forest Agreement, so there is flexibility and input from all sides in Tasmania's forest debate. We are not now voting on reserves and how they will be used. In Monday morning's briefings we were shown a flowchart of the process for creating reserves. We have had more input this afternoon. It seems to me to be a long process with plenty of places for input including from parliament.

In no way are we voting on reserves, what kind of reserves, where they are, who will have access, land tenure and so on in this bill. That is a task for next year. We have all been lobbied intensively by the Tasmanian Forest Agreement members on this bill. Nowhere near the number on the same-sex marriage bill, but substantial nonetheless. I have tended to give more weight to those presently engaged in the forestry industry but some arguments from other sources that I have taken note of have been well thought out. Helen Hutchinson is the daughter of a sawmiller who had timber leases and sawmills in the north-east, the north-west and in my patch, the Tamar Valley. Her email puts the decline of our forestry industry in context.

My father had timber leases and sawmills in the north-east and the north-west, as well as a sawmill in the Tamar Valley. He was a believer in a strong sawmilling industry, an industry which value added in Tasmania and which received a good price for its products. At the time there were a large number of community-based sawmills, a plywood mill and numbers of companies making furniture. When industrial forestry became the norm, most of the small mills and construction companies vanished. In turn, the small communities vanished along with schools, post offices, hotels and eventually houses. Communities were big losers.

The promise of largesse for Tasmania by the large timber companies did not eventuate. The price we received for our forests resource dropped lower and lower. The Tasmanian people who owned the forests did not receive proper compensation for logging of the resource, only the buyers and the company directors made money. At the same time the international markets did not favour the type of timber industry we were promoting. Markets moved away from logging native timber, businesses were affected by a high Australian dollar, and woodchips were being produced more cheaply from plantations in other countries. It became uneconomic to keep doing things the old way. It is still uneconomic.

It is time for a reality check. The latest inquiries into the sustainability of the timber resource have proven that we are logging at a rate which exceeds the capacity to regenerate. We cannot keep cutting forests at the same rate without losing the resource altogether. Then what do we do? Easter Island provides a graphic example of people who squandered their resources. Not only that, but we are destroying habitat for native birds and animals and some of our history at the same time - particularly the historical artefacts and dwellings of the first Tasmanians. Some people believe that we are also threatening the health of communities through forest burning and the use of chemicals.

Our community has been divided into people who believe that we can continue to extract timber at the same rate, and those who can see that it is impossible. As the community became polarised there was more tension, and more distress. It is time for that to stop. Just as people in war torn countries such as Palestine became dazed by conflict, many people in Tasmania are also experiencing this. We live in a state of limbo when we should be accepting of the scientific reports and beginning to move towards a different future.

The IGA may not be perfect, but it has the capacity to heal if people on both sides act in good faith.

Here is part of an email from a contractor at Riana, Fielding Logging:

I believe that along with the other remaining contractors that our last chance to remain in an industry that we have dedicated our heart and soul to is to implement the Tasmanian Forest Agreement.

If the Tasmanian Forest Agreement is implemented not only would it stop the ongoing 'war' between the forestry and Greens but also we would gain forest stewardship certification for our wood supply. With this certification in place the result for the timber industry in Tasmania would be similar to curing somebody with the flu. Our timber products would be sold worldwide without any conflicting interest.

I said earlier I have tended to place more stress on views of those engaged in the industry. The Padgett family has been an important player over many decades, so I would like to quote Ken Padgett from an interview in The Examiner last Sunday:

Northern Tasmanian forest contractor Ken Padgett of Australian Forest Contractors Association, a signatory to the Tasmanian Forest Agreement, has spent hundreds of hours over the past two years arguing for his industry's survival at the so-called forest roundtable.

More than 60 meetings, mostly in Hobart, have taken his focus from the fight to keep his own business afloat.

Mr Padgett said that the emotional capital invested in getting the forestry industry deal had been huge.

He said that when the process started, there were 137 Tasmanian forest contractors. Now there are 27.

Mr Padgett believes that the state could have a new, flourishing and vibrant timber industry within two years given the will of those involved to look to the future.

'The industry has been bashing its head against the wall for so long that everybody's foreheads are bleeding', Mr Padgett said.

'There are hundreds of thousands of hectares of trees growing in this state that are totally unaware of the collapse of companies like Gunns - they are just growing,' he said.

'We know in Asia that major change has been projected, including a shortfall in wood product, and we are sitting in a place with a lot of wood with new owners who will be free to do with it what they want.'

Mr Padgett also said that the potential sale of the former Forest Enterprise Australia and Gunns' assets would change the face of the Tasmanian forestry industry.

He places the demise of the state's forest industry not on the drawn-out peace talks or environmental lobbyists' attempts to turn the international market against Tasmanian timber but on the uncompetitive Australian dollar.

'It's been going on for the past three years', he said.

'It means we haven't had access to markets.'

But that will end', Mr Padgett said. 'It will change with the end of the mining boom, and that is already here', he said.

The other surprise for those who have known Mr Padgett and his father, Andy, as tough fighters for the timber industry, will be his support for the controversial Tasmanian Forest Agreement. He admits to being sceptical about its success at the start of the process but he believes that the positive has been the major shift by both the industry players and the environmental groups at the table.

'I think they've (environmental groups) given up quite a bit and I think we have modified our views.

I'm confident of the industry's future but we have to step back from lobbing incendiaries at each other - we have to give peace a chance.'

Some who oppose the TFA do so because they want something better, something that addresses a much wider range of issues and incorporates many more views of how forests should be managed. A group of seven non-partisan individuals, some from my electorate, have written an open letter, published in the Tasmanian Times at the weekend. A leading signatory is Frank Strie, an experienced forester who has long argued against established Tasmanian forest practices in favour of a more sensitive approach and higher quality products. The following quote sums up the group's argument:

The best way forward for the Tasmanian industry is a real focus on high‑value adding which benefits Tasmanians, not on a continuation of resource-stripping for the benefit of a few through the promotion of monopoly control.

That model has failed and will continue to fail in the future. It is really incumbent on the Legislative Council to look beyond the foreign corporate lobbyists to places in the world where practices, such as selective harvesting, ensure careful maintenance of land and water resources for the future, as well as a timber resource for the future as well.

It is clear that the current agreement does not cater adequately for a viable sawlog industry in the future, for it allows the harvesting of the resource while it is still immature for the short-term benefit of a single company.

That is a valid point, but we have to start somewhere. I suggest that the TFA is an appropriate beginning.

Ms Forrest - In the briefing Forestry Tasmania spoke about selecting specialty timber logs by helicopter as a different way of doing things, which is what Frank speaks of; similar practices.

Mr FINCH - Exactly. When you know Frank, you know his opinion, you know his passion for forestry, and you know the emails that we receive quite constantly.

Mr Hall - They did not support the TFA, did they? They have some issues with them.

Mr FINCH - Yes. I said that it is clear that the current agreement does not cater adequately for a viable sawlogging industry in the future. No, I did not intend to mislead in being selective with that quote.

Mr Hall - I never thought you would have done.

Mr FINCH - Thank you. I talked, before I was interrupted, about this being an appropriate beginning and that is a view expressed by many.

The TFA is not perfect but it offers a new start. Many, particularly younger people, are fed up with the whole argument. They are too young to remember the forestry industry in its heyday. They just know of an industry declining against the background of constant bickering. Just get on with it, they tell me, just get on with it.

I would like to quote from an email from Melva Truchanas, the wife of the man who helped put Tasmanian wilderness on the world map. She wrote:

The Tasmanian Forest Agreement acknowledges that compromise has been reached between leaders representing many interests. It must be responded to positively.

Though far from perfect, such an opportunity will never be presented to Tasmania again that can provide a new respect for the forests whilst planning successfully for the earning capacity of previous workers.

In the past, I have watched with anguish as Tasmania's endemic specialty timbers have been chipped, burned and destroyed.

There are indications that ahead will be a recognition of their value, acknowledgement of their increased rarity, respect for their beauty, and understanding for their valuable, limited use in a select industry.

Further debate and negotiations undoubtedly will be needed, but this is the beginning of the chance to improve.

I have seen no other.

Please allow the agreement to proceed.

Melva Truchanas from Kingston.

Olegas Truchanas, coincidentally, is quoted by Patricia Wilson of Prospect in Launceston when she says:

If the bill is not passed, the outlook is grim for Tasmania. If the cutting down of native forest continues on an unsustainable basis, the state will lose precious heritage and forest workers will lose their jobs anyway.

Remember the words of Olegas Truchanas who said, 'Tasmania can be a shining beacon in a dull, uniform and largely artificial world.'

The TFA bill delivers a good outcome for all Tasmanians and for the land of Tasmania.

As you would be aware, the Tourism Industry Council has reservations about the TFA, particularly about maintaining the same access or being given those opportunities for access and also opportunities within land areas to be protected as it has been up until now. We heard from Simon Currant this morning about that extra funding that he would like to see come towards whatever our new landscape looks like if the bill is passed. I have always been a great supporter of the tourism industry and the forestry industry but I can also see the synergy between the two in those new opportunities that might arise from the agreement to this bill.

The Tourism Industry Council says correctly that there are no provisions in the agreement to realise the tourism potential of newly protected land areas. The agreement does not specify future use of reserves and this is a matter for later decisions and there is no reason why tourism will not be taken into account. Not all reserves, as we have heard, will be equal.

To get back to the extensive briefings over the past couple of days, most agree that the future of Ta Ann is crucial and today we heard the company's problems in the present situation - compelling evidence. We heard of the company's monthly losses which have been going on since March and we were told that if this bill is deferred for too long they will shut down. We heard that if the TFA is buried it is doomed to fail. My impression from the briefing was that Ta Ann will close unless this bill is quickly passed and this bill is merely the auspicious start of a long process. If we kill it at birth there is nowhere to go. I have already laboured the point that there is no plan B.

I have said that this bill is not perfect but it is the best we have to try to solve a ridiculous situation, a situation where the state is split over an industry which employs a minority compared to retail, agriculture and tourism. For the sake of Tasmania, Madam President, let us get on with it. Stop the antiquated arguments. Stop the posturing. The world has changed. Let us get on with it.