Conservation, Forests and Lands Amendment Bill 2022

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (14:38): Can I put on record, on behalf of the Liberals and The Nationals, that we support our sustainable native timber industry. We will continue to support our sustainable native timber industry, and when we are elected on 26 November this year we will ensure that it is sustainable and it is retained and that the government’s shocking policy to ban this fantastic industry will be out the door forever.

What the Victorian environment minister, a string of agriculture ministers and the Andrews government have done to our public forests and our native forest industry is nothing short of scandalous, appalling, disrespectful and ignorant of science. If the government’s policy, as the minister’s second-reading speech claims in this bill, is to provide more clarity and protections for the native timber industry, she would have embedded into this bill the closure of the loopholes that are enabling third-party litigators—green lawfare—to take coupes to court to have them injuncted.

She would have closed it. Indeed in a short period of time I will move amendments on behalf of The Nationals and the Liberals to close this loophole, and I ask for the house’s investigation of those amendments and support of those amendments. Minister D’Ambrosio should have laid before this house such clauses in this bill—parts to this bill that would see this vexatious litigation no longer able to terrorise the lives of our native timber industry workers and staff, curtail the terrible crisis that we have in terms of timber and wood supply and stop these vexatious litigations. It is absolutely terrible what we have seen.

Over the past seven years Labor has walked away from its obligation to actively manage our forests. If there was one thing I heard throughout the inquiry into ecosystem decline in Victoria, something the Greens brought to this house, it was scientists over and over again—real scientists—talking about the need for a landscape-wide assessment of threatened species and active management of our forests, and that means forests under wood production and forests that are locked in land reserves and national parks. But through the government’s poor policy and mismanagement of threats such as mega bushfires and weeds and predators we have seen our beautiful environment actually be under more threat than it was when The Nationals and Liberals left this state to the hands of the Andrews government. What we also know is that there are many talented people, talented staff and talented scientists that work in the agencies, in the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and in VicForests, who are constantly frustrated and constantly thwarted from doing proper work and their good role. We also see the fact that over 51 per cent of the staff from DELWP—remember DELWP looks at the environment—are situated in the CBD of Melbourne. How can you have properly managed forest and landscape when you have overwhelmingly got your staff having think tanks in the centre of Melbourne rather than having boots on the ground? I congratulate those staff who work so very hard in the right vein.

The quantum of footprint: let us look at what the actual forestry industry has—the footprint in this state. We have approximately 7.5 million hectares of public land estate—forests and the like—and 94 per cent of that is locked up. It is locked up in forest reserves. It is locked up in national parks. It is locked up—94 per cent of this forest reserve. Of that there is 6 per cent available for harvesting and regeneration, for harvesting and replanting. On an annual basis that is 0.04 per cent, or four in 10 000 trees that are harvested and then replanted under the auspices of the business arm of the government called VicForests—and I will go into that shortly. VicForests has statutory requirements up to its eyeballs. It has significant requirements in legislation under which it operates.

The other thing that is important to note is that trees since time immemorial have been carbon sinks. They take in carbon dioxide. We talk about the importance of reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the air. They take in carbon dioxide, and they trap it in their wood, in their structure. Indeed the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in about 2019 states:

… a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.

It is no shock to those who understand forestry, or at least a portion thereof—those who live in the bush, those who work in this area—that trees capturing carbon and storing carbon in some of the most fabulous wood products is a positive for the environment. It is run, as I said, by VicForests, and it has multiple, we will say, layers of requirements and regulation. One of them happens to be the Code of Practice for Timber Production, and it has had a revamp, we will say, in recent times. Deb Kerr, the CEO of VFPA, the Victorian Forest Products Association, said this of regional forest agreements—that is, agreements between the federal government and the state government:

Regional forest agreements (RFA’s) are the means … to bolster protections for Victoria’s unique forest biodiversity and threatened species, and they govern commercial forestry on public and private lands.

Now, as I said, there are multiple layers. That quote came out of the minority report that The Nationals and the Liberals put forward at the end of the Environment and Planning Committee inquiry into the decline in ecosystems.

We have a timber code of production, the management standards and procedures for timber harvesting, timber release plans, allocation orders; we have special protection zones, buffers, special exclusion zones. They are all set in place to ensure that the right balance is struck between conservation of biodiversity values and sustainable timber production. This is the ideal. There should be that balance—noting that, as I said, 94 per cent of the forest estate in this state is never going to be touched for timber production.

Victorians have certainly seen under Daniel Andrews and Minister D’Ambrosio an open season on timber harvesters, on timber contractors, on mill workers and on their business arm, VicForests. We have seen the systematic destruction of the industry at the hands of the minister. I remember very clearly that it was in November 2019 that the plan came down that they would shut down the industry and bring on this somehow magical Victorian Forestry Plan. If you go out anywhere in Gippsland, in East Gippsland, in the Central Highlands—anywhere where we have timber production and our timber towns—and you say that word, people will say it is a swear word; people will see it as a flawed failure to replace the native timber industry and compensate industry workers. They know, like we on this side understand, that plantation timber has an absolute place in this state. It has been around for a long time and it will continue to serve this state, but plantation timber will never replace native timber. It will not do that work.

Indeed, back in about 2017 the then Minister for Agriculture announced $110 million to create this change and form new plantations. We know that there is still no new net plantation land—no plantation seedlings, trees in the ground, on new land. They might have replaced some, but there is no new net land. So some years down the track—we are now in 2022, five years down the track—there are no new net trees in the ground to replace native timber. It is not going to happen.

Recently Geoff Dyke from the CFMEU, at our Latrobe Valley parliamentary inquiry—this is a public document on the parliamentary website—said:

I think it is a disgrace to shut down the timber industry … We have—

in his words—

7.1 million hectares of native forest, we have got some of the best timber in the world, and we are importing timber and we are going to put timber workers out of work.

We know that Michael O’Connor of the CFMEU has been rallying against the Labor Party on this issue—

Mr Finn: For years.

Ms BATH: Absolutely, for years, and we have been in lockstep on that. What we also know is that the government very attentively listens and even has the chief of staff having coffee in the upstairs dining room in Parliament House with various groups, with various—we will call them—scientists and lobbyists. But do they talk to the other side? Do they talk to Forestry Australia? There are professionals. There are professors of science. And are they talking to them? I do not think so.

Now, in anticipation of some of the comments the Greens might make in this debate, the last VicForests annual report says that VicForests spent $5.5 million fighting court cases against green lawfare litigators—$5.5 million. ‘VicForests made a loss’, they will say. They will come out—I can absolutely read minds—and say that VicForests made a loss of $4.9 million. Simple mathematics will tell you if you had not spent $5.5 million defending an industry that is acting lawfully against these third-party lawfare litigators then you would have made a profit. It is always disingenuous when we hear part of the truth, not all of the truth.

I note too the minority report from that inquiry into declining ecosystems, and I will quote it:

VicForest has not had a single prosecution of illegal harvest operations upheld against it in the past three years as evidenced in Ms Pulford’s answers to questions in parliament in relation to the debate on the Forest Legislation Amendment (Compliance and Enforcement) Bill 2019 …

in this house. Indeed I think it was Mr Rich-Phillips who was prosecuting those questions, and Ms Pulford said:

So in 2019–20 investigations completed by the conservation regulator—

a couple of other words in between—

… no prosecutions.

For 2020–21 there were … no prosecutions.

Environmental groups have not been successful in any litigation case. Some of the court injunctions that they are seeking to put up kind of defy logic. I went to East Gippsland. Behind Forestec there are two coupes, and these litigators thought it was wise to shut down these two coupes. One was called Lior, and one was called Tiger. These coupes are provided by VicForests to the TAFE sector, to TAFE Gippsland. The trainer has won awards on how to train safety, how to a fell a tree safely for people doing the work and also for those around in cases of fire. They train first responders. They train participants how to spot threatened species or species of any form. They train them to look for habitat. This group decided that it was a sensible idea to shut down the training coupes. These are the sorts of mind-blowingly crazy things that are happening in our state system because these groups are being enabled to seek court injunctions and take these issues to court. VicForests in that case had to scramble to find some alternate coupes.

If you go out into the regions, into Gippsland, there will be people who know people who work in VicForests, and indeed I do too. Some of the work they are doing about species surveys is in the middle of the night on long transits across the hills and the mountains. They do an amazing job, and I respect the work that they do. Others will feel frustrated with VicForests. Well, on my gather, VicForests feel frustrated with VicForests because they are being tied in knots by the Andrews government.

VicForests has not stayed still. From my understanding, from when I came in about seven years ago, they have been evolving models. They are looking to improve their practices. They have evolved to an adaptive harvesting model. They certainly, as I alluded to, upskill their staff to assess coupes. Contractors work with highly skilled machinery and operations who are contracted to VicForests. They check for habitat. You look on their iPads and you see lines and squiggles making sure that they stay away from the buffer and exclusion zones. It is a high-tech industry, and people take it seriously. Indeed one of the Meyers—I think it was Brad Meyer—only recently on 3AW, when someone was challenging him about litigation and locking up and threatened species, said threatened species like the greater glider are never out of his mind. He watches for them every part of the day. Also VicForests is still certified in terms of the Responsible Wood certification scheme.

In the context of this code of practice, the background of this code is that it was developed, I believe, probably about 40 years ago now, in the 1980s. A key part of this code is in the context that it was prepared with the recognition that timber production has an undeniable environmental impact but that it occurs in designated areas that are not expected to be pristine bastions of conservation value. The code is designed to enable practical and economical workable timber production in a way that minimises its environmental impacts. As such the code is a workable compromise between the needs of conservation—very important—and the practicalities of cost-effective production of timber. If the government starts to pull and push the code over time, a code skewed towards conservation by aiming to totally prevent environmental impacts will upset this balance and eventually make timber production unworkable or unviable, and really that is what we are seeing come to fruition at the moment. We are seeing that it is being twisted and contorted.

Looking to the Conservation, Forests and Lands Amendment Bill 2022, it is a fairly slim bill, and it has two main functions. One is that the code will now ‘apply, adopt or incorporate any matter contained in any document, standard, rule, specification or method’. And two, the code will now bestow discretionary authority on the minister or the secretary of the department and ‘leave any matter or thing to be from time to time approved, determined, dispensed with or regulated by the minister or the secretary’. So in effect it is giving more power to the minister.

The bill’s intent is to provide clarity for all groups around the precautionary principle, and I believe particularly the timber industry has been calling for more clarity. Whether this is achieved in this bill or not needs to be seen. The application of the precautionary principle means that if there is a threat—this is the background of it—of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental damage. The minister’s second-reading speech mentions the precautionary principle clause in the code. However, it neglects to mention that the code applies, as we have said before, to a very minor proportion of the state’s 7.8 million hectares of public forest. Therefore the timber production operations that are subject to this code are of such a proportionally minor scale—an important scale, but minor—that there is virtually no chance of them creating a threat of serious or irreversible environmental damage that justifies invoking the precautionary principle. The mooted addition of compliance standards into the code could be used therefore to protect VicForests and used in a court by a judge during that litigation. They need clarity, and we have seen in the past where indeed some judges have actually been quite frustrated in their discussion around a case where the government is providing court cases as a means of understanding, rather than providing that real clarity in the code.

Some of our concerns are in relation to whether the bill will actually achieve the aim it sets out to achieve. The establishment in legislation and common law makes it very clear that environmental protection hinges on this precautionary principle, but by its nature it is quite vague. The bill empowers the government to have effective discretionary authority in terms of binding guidance. What the bill lacks is any limit to power and any requirement to consult or review in relation to these measures or these new powers. While the government’s intentions are reasonable, the bill as it stands does not address the constant threat of litigation that VicForests has been subjected to.

We on this side—in particular the new Shadow Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Mr James Newbury; the timber man, by name and nature, who is about to retire and who we have great respect for, Gary Blackwood; and the shadow for forestry, Mr Peter Walsh—regularly speak to the Victorian Forest Products Association; AFCA, the Australian Forest Contractors Association; AFPA, the Australian Forest Products Association; Forestry Australia, which has a wealth of knowledge and respected knowledge; and others, like Timber Towns Victoria. There is a quote that I would like to read in in relation to the Victorian Forest Products Association, and I will just find that quote. It says:

The Conservation, Forests and Lands Amendment Bill 2022 comes into the Legislative Council … The bill gives the Minister for the Environment … unfettered … power … What it does not address is third-party litigation against the government’s own harvesting company …

This is Deb Kerr, and I thank her for that.

Opposition amendments circulated by Ms BATH pursuant to standing orders.

Ms BATH: Our amendments provide the clarity that Victorians need and the industry deserves. It provides that clarity. Indeed these are based on the New South Wales Forestry Act 2012 in relation to third parties. I will just make mention of them. I will move them in the committee stage, but I will read them now: ‘offence proceedings must not be taken by a person who is not authorised to take offence proceedings by this section’. In effect that is those that have authority to do so, the power to do so—the minister, and we know that the Office of the Conservation Regulator has oversight and broad-reaching powers. Those people that have the ability to do so should and can bring any cases forward for litigation. Those green lawfare people who exist in Victoria should not have that option. That is the basis for our amendments.

In summing up, this state is in a timber crisis. There is no doubt about it. There is a timber shortage for pallets. There is a timber shortage for construction materials across the state. We have a shortage in value-added high-end products. Indeed, in my electorate in Eastern Victoria Region, ASH, Australian Sustainable Hardwoods, are doing an amazing job. They are seeking to re-create themselves and find new ways, but eventually when there is no timber from our Victorian forests, then our whole system will diminish. It will diminish it and cost jobs. It is already causing huge mental stress on the people in the industry, on the workers and forest contractors who are being locked out. I have had many conversations with people, forest contractors, who are scared that green lawfare people will jump out—I think they are called Black Wallaby Forest Action—from behind a tree and will actually injure or maim somebody. They are absolutely at frazzle point and in mental anguish that this government is not protecting them further.

In effect what this government is wanting to do is just shut it down, unless these amendments go through and we stop this, we shut this loophole, so that where there needs to be litigation it is done by those authorised to do so. There has not been a successful case. There has not been a case that has gone through the courts, meaning that our forestry industry is one of the best in the world. It sticks to the law, it has people who care to do the right thing and they are getting attacked time and time again. The Nationals and the Liberals are pleased to foreshadow these amendments that will go through in the committee of the whole. We feel that the government needs to stand and support the industry but also support common sense around this. If there is a need, it can be done through authorised officers, and to date there has never been a successful litigation by these third-party activists.