Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Regional Forest Agreements) Bill 2020; Second Reading

3:56 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the explanatory memorandum and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Regional Forest Agreements) Bill 2020 will support Australian forest harvesters who operate under Regional Forest Agreements by clarifying the exemption of these agreements from Part 3 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 ('the EPBC Act').

This Bill will affirm and clarify the Commonwealth's intent regarding Regional Forest Agreements to make it explicitly clear that forestry operations in a Regional Forest Agreement region are exempt from Part 3 of the EPBC Act, and compliance matters are to be dealt with through the state regulatory framework.

The amendment proposed by the Bill is a simple one that removes only eight words from the EPBC Act, and from a similar provision in the Regional Forest Agreements Act 2002, and by doing so it removes much greater ambiguity.

I introduce this Bill to make changes to the EPBC Act following the recent finding of Justice Mortimer's Federal Court decision in Friends of Leadbeater's Possum Inc v VicForests (No 4) [2020] FCA 704 that logging operations in certain areas of forest in Victoria's Central Highlands failed to comply with the Victorian Code of Practice for Timber Production, a requirement under the Regional Forest Agreement, and therefore that the exemption under the EPBC Act no longer applies.

The decision of Justice Mortimer has created ambiguity with respect to the provision of the EPBC Act that this Bill seeks to amend. This must be addressed expeditiously or else we will see continued uncertainty for forestry operations and the thousands of people employed by the industry. We could also see some people use this finding to disrupt legal, sustainable forestry operations not only in Victoria but other states and therefore require forestry operations to seek EPBC Act approval. This would create further congestion in the application pipeline.

While rare, minor breaches of timber harvesting regulations occur on occasion, but it would be completely impractical to have those forestry operations cease to be covered by the exemption from Part 3 of the EPBC Act and require they seek approval under the EPBC Act – where approvals can take years – because of minor breaches. The Regional Forest Agreement framework never intended this to be the case.

I grew up in a logging town and I can tell you: the Australian forestry industry is a brilliant one. They produce the raw materials that are turned into the products we use in all aspects of our daily lives. Timber is a truly clean, green, sustainable and well-managed resource.

Around 70 million trees are planted every year by the forestry industry, which is the equivalent of two seedlings for every Australian. All of Australia's commercial forest operations covered by RFAs are certified compliant with world's best sustainable forest management practices, and for comparison, the global average is 8 per cent. Only 8 per cent.

The industry is one of Australia's largest manufacturing industries; it is economically strong, employing around 80,000 hardworking people across the value chain and contributing more than $24 billion of economic turnover to our economy each year. A further 100,000 people are employed in jobs supported through flow-on economic activity.

However, the industry is continually targeted by environmental demonstrators and Justice Mortimer's ruling will expose many more operations to be attacked by these radicals.

This is why this Bill is so important to protect our forestry operations. It will give job security to the almost 200,000 people who are employed directly and indirectly by the industry and it will ensure forestry operations conducted under Regional Forest Agreements are given the certainty they need: that they are exempt from Part 3 of the EPBC Act and compliance matters will be dealt with through the state regulatory frameworks.

As we focus on securing our nation's sovereignty in this post-COVID world, we as a government must do all that we can to support already strong industries, like forestry, to contribute to our nation's recovery from the pandemic. The economic success of this sustainable industry makes it an obvious industry to back, and that is what this Bill does.

Economic growth, increased jobs, and production of sustainable fibre products in regional Australia is a triple-whammy win for our nation's recovery. It is the number of jobs that will indicate how we succeed.

By supporting this Bill, we are saying to industry "We back you!". This Bill is for the harvest and haulage workers, sawmill and paper mill workers, and thousands of workers in regional towns anxious about whether they will have employment next year. That's not a way to spend Christmas, especially after the year we have had.

This Bill is also for the environmental dissidents who swing at this green industry any chance they can. It beggars belief how anyone can attack such a sustainable industry that contributes the benefits I outlined earlier in this speech.

This is brutal for those employed in the industry who are doing the right thing, day in day out, conserving our environment and harvesting raw material for our fibre products - using world's best, sustainable practices.

By not making this simple amendment to the EPBC Act, there will be unnecessary and avoidable delays in planned harvesting operations that are already subjected to significant environmental planning, and arduous approvals processes that will become further clogged should there be increased applications.

The Independent Review of the EPBC Act Interim Report by Professor Graeme Samuel recommended addressing this uncertainty. The report also made it clear that under a regional model of empowering the states, the oversight functions would be the responsibility of the states through accredited frameworks, stating "as occurs with Regional Forest Agreements".

Unless this uncertainty is removed as soon as possible, there will be more legal challenges, and more uncertainty.

My Bill to amend the EPBC Act does nothing more than seek to remove uncertainty from the intersection of the EPBC Act and the Regional Forest Agreements, and reinstate the original drafters' understanding of how that works.

It is our duty as federal lawmakers to help by removing the ambiguity. It is also our role to give people confidence, and this amendment will do that for the hundreds of thousands of Aussies who make their livelihoods in our amazing forestry industry.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.