Senate debates

Thursday, 20 June 2013


Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee; Report

6:50 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

This is quite a troubling process that the committee has had to have a look at. The report of the committee, which was tabled yesterday, on the Auditor-General's reports No. 26 of 2007-08 and No. 22 of 2012-13 in relation to the Tasmanian forest industry, largely mirrors the work that was done by the Auditor-General in the first place, at the request of the committee. It is disappointing that we have a continuation of process where you get very similar recommendations from the Auditor-General in respect of this department over a period of time and yet the same issues continue or appear to continue to arise.

I do acknowledge that the department have put some measures in place to strengthen the processes they have around the administration of these exit grant type programs and do appreciate the work that has been done. But, again, we have a situation where there are legitimate concerns within the community but also wider concerns about the way the process has been managed, including the failure to keep records and changes in the way that program guidelines were assessed. That has seen a number of things occur, including contractors who sought access to the program either not applying, missing out or effectively slipping through the cracks. That has created quite a deal of concern within not only the forest industry in Tasmania but the broader community, and justifiably so.

Much of this comes back to what I have called, for a long time now, the sham forest process that has been occurring in Tasmania. Many of the misconceptions and many of the concerns that have been raised have come as a result of that process, where certain perceptions have been created, through public comment and through the negotiation behind closed doors with a small number of parties over the future of the forests in Tasmania. It is with that process that the blame lies, because there is no question in my mind that the process itself has contributed to the problems that contractors and sawmillers in Tasmania are facing. The process itself has been used as a weapon against the industry in their markets. It has reduced the capacity in the markets, it has cost them markets, it has cost further jobs, it has cost business and it has hurt communities. There is no question that the process is why those things have occurred, and that is still coming through in the broader community.

Of course, the Greens, who moved for this inquiry in the first place, have been part of that process, along with their partners in government at the Commonwealth level and at a state level. They have supported the government as part of their power-sharing agreement. That obviously has not stopped them from grandstanding or continuing to attack the forest industry, and it has not stopped them from making allegations against the forest industry—all of it designed to paint the forest industry in Tasmania and, more broadly, nationally in a negative light.

What we see now, though, is the potential for this process to continue. Just today, I heard concerns from sawmillers, who have said, 'We are not being spoken to about the sawmillers exit process.' That is the next stage in this sham forest deal in Tasmania. They said, 'It looks like we're going to miss out on that and we're going to fall through the cracks again, because we were eligible for the first process but we're not eligible for the small sawmillers grants. We've been told we can turn up to the meeting but that it'd be a waste of time because ''you're going to miss out on that too".' So we have this process of doling out taxpayers' funds—and, as I said earlier, the processes and the guidelines that are leaving people out—and it is going to hurt more people in the community.

It gets even worse. On the back of this sham forest process, there was $93 million available over 15 years for the structural adjustment of Tasmania. Two days after the budget, which highlighted that amount of money over that period of time, the Prime Minister arrived in Tasmania and said, 'We'll add $7 million to that and we'll make it $100 million over four years.' The allocation of that money is now being considered. We have the member for Bass, Mr Geoff Lyons, saying, 'I already know how some of this money's going to be spent.' However, we do not know what the guidelines are, we do not know what the application process is, we do not know what the assessment process is, we do not know any of the details about how these taxpayers' funds are to be allocated to Tasmania.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that this is nothing more than a $100 million taxpayer-funded slush fund for the re-election of Tasmanian members at the state and federal levels. There can be no other conclusion, because there is no detail on how the money is going to be spent, no detail on the application process, no detail on the assessment process—all things that were mentioned in these Auditor-General's reports and all things that should be part of a proper process. There is none of that detail, yet I have already seen documentation that shows there are people sitting in rooms in areas around the state trying to work out how to dole out this money.

There is no doubt that, in the lead-up to the federal election and then to the state election afterwards, there will be Labor members trotting around Tasmania handing out chunks of taxpayer funds as part of this process. How can that be allowed to occur? As part of this report, we have two Auditor-General's reports complaining about process, with guidelines not being in place, assessment processes not being in place and guidelines not being followed. We now have a $100 million slush fund to try and support this dud agreement. We have Labor members of parliament in Tasmania saying that this puts the forest industry on a sustainable footing. That is a lie. I know the sensitivities around that term in this place, but that is the only conclusion I can draw. This process is all about damaging the forest industry, all about shutting it down. In fact, if you look at the supply projections that come out of this sham forest process in Tasmania, you can see that is exactly what it is about, because there will be no timber left for the industry beyond 2030—no timber left—and that comes out of the government's own documentation.

So we have a situation where Tasmanian Labor members of parliament are talking about the forest industry being sustainable into the future when clearly it is not, and we have taxpayers' money being misused, effectively, as a slush fund for their re-election. It is nothing short of a disgrace that that has been allowed to occur.

The Greens align themselves with the Labor Party and support them in government both here at the federal level and at the state level. They claim to support proper processes, yet they are part of this terrible process that is going on in Tasmania with the forests. It is nothing short of a disgrace that $100 million of taxpayers' funds is being handed to this process effectively to be handed out around two election campaigns. And yet people continue to be hurt by the process. They continue to slip through the cracks. Something that was supposed to help people continues to hurt them. So, in the recommendations of this report we talk about dealing with those issues and setting up processes to ensure guidelines are complied with. We talk about continued oversight of the agriculture department by the ANAO. I have written to the ANAO to asked them to continue that process. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.