Native Timber Motion November 2020

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria)

I rise on behalf of The Nationals and Liberals this afternoon in response to Mr Bourman’s motion 421 on the notice paper. I actually feel a little bit sick listening to that whole lot of diatribe that we have heard from the government. I actually feel offended on behalf of the timber industry and the timber harvesters. That is a load of drivel.

What I do congratulate Ms Terpstra on is being able to read the rhetoric from the government directive. She is fantastic at reading the directions.

I will save a range of comments in relation to the government’s contribution. I will hold those and go through them time after time in my contribution, but I would like to first talk about some points and in effect look at the 12-month anniversary. I can say, Mr Bourman, that it is about 12 months since the government made this most appalling and shambolic announcement. It is 12 months since we, the The Nationals and Liberals, put up in this chamber a motion, and that motion is worth reading because it goes to the heart of this government’s betrayal of the native timber industry and shambolic assessment of the reality of this. The motion that we moved last year at this time says the house:

… condemns the Andrews … government for sacrificing the livelihood of thousands of Victorians and their families through the closure of the native timber industry …

It notes that:

the government’s decision is politically motivated …

plantation timber cannot meet the needs of markets currently supplied by native hardwood timber by 2030 …

And I will speak to that later. It notes that:

native timber production in Victoria is a sustainable and internationally accredited industry which provides employment for up to 21 000 workers …

It is at the very root of the tree in planting, in harvesting, in milling and then taking it downstream to make the highest quality native timber and highest quality products that we use throughout Victoria and throughout Australia and export internationally. Indeed our own new building out there, the $42 million building which houses MPs and their offices, has ash timber all throughout—the most magnificent hardwood species. It was made and milled here in Victoria, and it adorns our offices.

The closure of the native timber industry will have a devastating impact on towns like Orbost, Heyfield, Powelltown, Benalla, Corryong and more. Indeed it sticks in my neck when we hear from the government that they are going to transition workers and that they care. These people in this industry have been gutted by this decision. You can paint it any way you like, but that is the absolute truth. I have spoken on a number of occasions with wonderful family-based businesses, intergenerational family businesses who care about their work, who are exemplary in what they do, who care about the forest and understand the forest intimately because they have worked in it. They are devastated. Some have left the industry already because they just cannot cope with the stress and the uncertainty, and many are wanting a direction that is different to this one.

My fifth point is that Victoria’s native timber industry is less than 0.04 per cent of the forest estate each year. Now, 94 per cent is locked away in national parks, forest reserves and unattainable areas—and so it should be. We should have national parks; we should have forest reserves. These are important places. But if you listen to those on the opposite side, if you listen to the Greens and if you listen to the Wilderness Society, they would have us believe that there is carnage everywhere, and that is absolute fabrication and lies. Only about 3000 hectares each year annually is harvested and replanted.

My sixth point is that the government’s decision to close the industry will increase the need for imported timber. Now, it is all very well and good to stand there and pontificate about how they are saving whatever it is that they think they are saving, but across the waters there will still be trees cut down in other areas, hardwood trees cut down in other nations that do not have the stringent oversight and high regulation that Victoria has, and those will be harvested and not necessarily replanted.

We talk about deforestation. There is no deforestation in Victoria. It is harvested and regenerated, and that has been the model for many years and the model that should continue. When they talk about importation, it is going to be the death of other animals—flora and fauna.

The timber industry also plays a vital role in bushfire mitigation. It absolutely does, and I want to speak more on that. This motion that Mr Bourman rightly supported a year ago, he is duplicating today. But the Nationals and the Liberals will support this motion. So what has happened in the last year, since that time? Well, the government has, as an art form, shut its ears to the cries of the native timber industry.

I have got to know many of the most decent people in our regional areas and in our areas that manufacture the products that help cut down and harvest those trees. I have listened to their concerns time and time again. Their mental state has been shattered, and it is so unfair. What has happened is that the government have put their hands over their ears and gone, ‘La, la’. They have squeezed the members out of dialogue. I have asked Minister Symes time and time again to meet with the East Gippsland harvesters. I gave her their numbers, and she refused, yet she puts up on Facebook the fact that she can have Zoom meetings now with a whole range of other people, yet she will not give them the courtesy. She is the minister in charge of forestry, and she has walked away. The government has locked them out of coups, and, as I said, there is uncertainty and mental anguish through this.

I looked at my Facebook post from a year ago, when I stood in ANC, which is in Morwell—it is a haulage and harvest operator; they deal with both plantation timber and native timber—and I stood with those people there, a whole raft from the native timber industry and the plantation industry, and said that this was an act of political bastardry, and I stand by that today.

Victoria’s forestry plan is a sham. The Liberals and Nationals have worked long and hard with and beside—indeed I will praise my colleague in the lower house—the very dynamic Shadow Assistant Minister for Forestry, Gary Blackwood. Blackwood by name and blackwood by nature: he is passionate about this industry and its viability.

Mr Finn: He is a very good man.

Ms BATH: He is. My colleague Mr Bull in East Gippsland has been passionate about this. Peter Walsh has stood up for this. I appreciate all of their support and, indeed, in this place as well. We have worked closely with the timber industry. Getting to know them has been an absolute privilege—in East Gippsland, the Central Highlands, all over—and I have spoken about the multigenerational capacity that they have for this sustainable industry.

Only this week we have seen the Forestry Corporation of NSW—they are the equivalent of VicForests, in New South Wales—provide citations for timber harvesters as a result of their bushfire response. Time and time again, in the darkest—well, it was the most bright, smoky, hot, horrible—conditions, our timber harvesters risked their own safety, their lives and their equipment to protect and sandbag our fantastic communities and towns. It was gobsmacking the work that they did, and sometimes they would ring me up in the middle of the night, or the following day, to tell me that their machine was on fire. They do not want a citation, I am sure; they just want an industry to keep going. They want to be able to do the very good work that they do. In relation to the hardwood timber mills, I am really pleased to see that the seven mill owners across Victoria have formed the Victorian Hardwood Sawmillers Association, and their very wise leader and spokesperson is Leonard Fenning from Bairnsdale.

There are other groups that support this industry and know it so well: AFPA, the Australian Forest Products Association; AFCA, the Australian Forest Contractors Association—and they work very hard against a wind, a tornado, of government disinterest; the Institute of Foresters of Australia; and even the CFMEU and the secretary there, Michael O’Connor. I was down last year when he came into the valley and he spoke with industry, and he was wild that this government is shutting down this industry. Now here is the CFMEU—I never thought I would congratulate the CFMEU, but I absolutely did on that day because they were wild with this government. They have walked away from their roots of workers. They have walked away from this, and any other platitude that you want to give in relation to ‘We’ll transition them’ just sticks like dry sand in their mouth.

In terms of the plantation industry, it is a really important industry. It is a vital industry, and The Nationals and the Liberals support it completely. We support it. It has been providing great hardwood and softwood—predominantly softwood but also hardwood—into Maryvale for many years. It is providing other sources of our great need in our regions and throughout our state for building and construction. Indeed only as recently as a couple weeks ago I was out at Mount Tassie, which is a very mountainous and very lush place out between Traralgon and Yarram. I went out there to speak to the plantation timber industry, and I saw the most beautiful, beautiful plantation that was planted in 1980. They were mountain ash that were planted in 1980, and they are harvested only now in 2020. That is a 40-year rotation, so for this government to say that we will be able to transition by 2030 would be absolutely laughable if it were not so painful. I appreciate the discussion I had with Ian Reid, who has been a strong advocate for the timber industry as a whole. As I said, anything that is even planted today will take to 2050 before it is ready, and the quality of that hardwood that needs to be planted today to be ready in 2050 still needs to be well developed, as does the science around there.

When the government came out with its announcement of $110 million in terms of funding for a replacement to native timber, it was in 2017 and 2018. I contacted VicForests only recently because I noticed that there was some timber being planted near Maryvale between Morwell and Traralgon. It was 70 hectares, and it lay dormant for a number of years. It was previously land that was leased by HVP, Hancock Victorian Plantations, and it had grown their timber. A fire had come through, and the bottom line was it lay fallow for a time. Then the government put the price up of that so that it was not economical for HVP, and the government came out in their media release and said, ‘Guess what? We’re planting new timber plantation’. Well, it is not new; it is planted in the land that was already timber plantation. Their grand plan about this was 250 hectares planted last year—thank you, VicForests, for telling me that—and 250 hectares this year. That is not going to transition a native hardwood timber industry that plants, harvests and re-sows on a rotation. So it is not going to cut it. In relation to, as I have said, the regrowth industry, again it sticks in my neck when you hear ‘old-growth forest’. If you go onto the VicForests website, they do not say, ‘We still harvest old-growth forest’; they harvest 1939 regrowth forest, and even for the government over there to start to discuss that I find just appalling—that they do not even know the facts from their own VicForests website.

Only recently I met with a very reputable organisation in the form of Committee for Gippsland. Committee for Gippsland is made up of about 90 industry and business members mixed all across Gippsland, and they are apolitical, but they are passionate in relation to the forward planning and the future of Gippsland as a whole.

The CEO, Jane Oakley, came to me with a document that she had provided to the Premier. Even C4G are calling for this. She raised a particular piece of information, and I will quote from her document:

SGS Economics and Planning in May 2020 stated that, ‘East Gippsland is likely to see a decline in annual GDP of over 22 per cent—three times the national decline’ and that it could take three to four years before East Gippsland’s economy recovers to 2018–19 levels.

We are simply asking that the government push the timeline out and show compassion …

in relation to the closure of the native timber harvesting. The government needs to show some compassion and show some sense in relation to the closure of this industry and stop this closure. It is absolutely ridiculous.

Now, the other thing that the government has come out recently and done is put out a media release with some fluffy commentary around a seedling nursery at Nowa Nowa. I think it was around $2 million for that. Now, I endorse any seedling nursery, but the government says, ‘This will be the future of our transition’. Any tree planted from that nursery will not go into the ground until 2022—by the time it is established, and any of those trees will not be ready for another 40, 50 or 60 years after that. So it is rhetoric that gets into the heads and minds of certain Victorians, and they feel like they can sleep well at night. Well, many of my constituents cannot. Labor’s Victorian Forestry Plan is bogus, and a seedling nursery will not replace those 21 000 jobs that deliver $7 billion through this economy. Gippslanders do want secure permanent jobs, and yet even this nursery will only serve up a temporary solution. This is more smoke and mirrors. Many of my constituents know that Labor is starving us out of the resources.

The other bit that I will relate is about a very apt and sensible person who has worked in the forestry industry in East Gippsland for many years. Garry Squires goes around firsthand on the ground and has discussions. Consider the impact only on Orbost. In speaking with the industry and people on the ground, he said that 25 per cent of full-time and direct jobs will go when the native timber industry leaves Orbost—25 per cent. On top of that are 35 per cent of ancillary jobs, so the mechanics and the various other entities that have work there.

In relation to Ms Terpstra’s commentary, it felt like we were just told to serve this up and go on. Let me unpack some of this transition plan. First of all—and I just love this comment—that the industry members, so harvesters on the ground, can have a $25 000 business plan to transition to something else; they may just want to get out altogether and transition to something else. For a multigenerational family member who has got kids in school in Orbost, who has got family there, they do not want to transition to something else. They certainly do not want to see—and this is what will happen—that $25 000 go to a consultant that has a nice little chat about what you are doing and probably comes out saying, ‘Well, actually you were a pretty astute businessperson at the start’. On this commentary around retooling, the one thing that Ms Terpstra did say that was most accurate was that hardwood industries and mills cannot just up and change over to plantation timber. They cannot just retool, because there is specific equipment for hardwood.

The retooling conversation around the $250 000 to retool—when you talk to those harvesters on the ground or the mill owners, the summation of their equipment ends up being in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, so providing anything around $250 000 is just bogus.

Finally, I will just go back to mental health. This is a sustainable industry that the government is squeezing out. There is no transition. There will be no time line that will in any way equate to that. There will be no trees in the ground of hardwood nature ready by 2030. There will be no grand plan of this government. They can write a transition plan to their heart’s content, but it will not mean that it will happen, and I feel for those families and I feel for the job losses and the lost economy in all of Gippsland and all of Victoria. So I endorse Mr Bourman’s—if I have to say, in effect—own ‘wet tea towel’ personal endorsement of the industry. I endorse this from the bottom of my heart. The Nationals and the Liberals want to see a sustainable, ongoing timber industry.

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