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There is a new way for our native forests

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 21 Apr 2016

Two weeks ago, Senator Di Natale and I made the short trip to Victoria's Central Highlands—on Melbourne's doorstep—and met with local community members about the beautiful forests that make up their backyards. Their stories were inspiring and their concerns were justified. They see their backyards being demolished, their livelihoods smashed and their opportunities taken away. But they have hope that their voices will be heard.

A similar story is playing out among many communities near native forests across the country. These forests are part of our national heritage—from Bruny Island, in Tasmania, to Eden, in New South Wales, and to the great southern forests in Western Australia. For the local communities, they provide a way of life. Visitors provide a living for local tourism, accommodation businesses, shops, cafes and restaurants. Residents wake up every morning, breathe in the fresh air and take in their surroundings. What a wonderful thing for anyone's mental wellbeing.

People visiting these forests enjoy a break from the hustle and bustle and connect with nature. And if they are very lucky they might see one of our endangered animals such as the Leadbeater's possum in the Central Highlands or the swift parrot on Tasmania's Bruny Island. These animals and birds that can be found nowhere else on this planet call our native forests home. People in our cities all benefit from the fresh air and water flowing from these forests. And for the planet, at a time when the effects of global warming are being felt worldwide, our native forests are of massive value in storing carbon. Letting our forests grow old and soak up carbon is a critical part of seriously tackling climate change.

Our native forests belong to all of us, but they are under threat like never before. In Victoria's mountain ash forests, for example, it is estimated that the amount of old growth at the time of white settlement was about two-thirds the area of these forests. It is now only one per cent. This is of massive concern, because it is only when these trees are well over 100 years old that they form hollows that are needed by many animals and birds to nest in.

Too many of our forests have been destroyed by an industry that is stuck in past centuries—industrial-scale clear-fell logging. Destructive logging of our forests puts short-term gains ahead of their long-term benefits for our water, for our precious animals, for tourism and recreation, and for our safe climate. Even if the trees regrow—and many do not—the forests are never the same and will not regain their grandeur and value as homes for wildlife until they are well over 100 years old—if they are not relogged well before then. As I said in my first speech in this place, perhaps the worst thing is that this destruction is just so unnecessary.

The native forest industry likes to make out that wood from these forests is used for high-quality furniture and wood for our homes, but this is far from the truth. The vast majority of the wood is shredded into wood chips, heavily subsidised by the taxpayer with minimal job creation. Only four per cent of the wood from Victoria's Central Highlands mountain ash forests ends up as sawn timber. Four per cent! Yet both the government and the Labor Party want to continue to allow the destructive logging of our native forests and to continue the failed management practices of regional forest agreements.

There are 10 regional forest agreements between the federal and state governments. When they were introduced almost 20 years ago they were meant to end the forest wars, but instead they have failed to protect our forests and failed to protect jobs in the industry. What is more, they exempt the industry from our national environmental laws. Even the mining industry does not get exemptions like that.

Let us look at what happens in the forests of East Gippsland. Here we have majestic forests with massive trees that were growing when Captain Cook sailed past in 1770. These forests are being razed to the ground and burnt to a crisp, killing animals like spotted quolls and long-footed potoroos and polluting the formerly pristine streams and rivers. These agreements between state and federal governments are coming to an end. They should be scrapped, but both the Liberal and Labor parties seem set to lock in these outdated agreements for another two decades of destruction.

Not satisfied with trashing our forests, the government has trashed our renewable energy legislation by allowing the burning of wood from native forests for energy to be labelled as renewable and to be eligible for subsidies. Labor could have made native forest burning a deal breaker when they assisted the government in gutting the Renewable Energy Target, but they did not. Let us be clear: burning native forests for energy is neither clean nor renewable. It increases pollution and reduces the value of our forests as carbon stores.

Only today we have seen the suggestion from the Australian Forest Products Association to allow renewable energy credits from the burning of native forests for direct heat energy. The Liberal and Labor parties must now make it clear that enough is enough. Perhaps the Liberal Party is a lost cause, but I call on the Labor Party to make a sensible decision and pledge to protect these forests before the upcoming election. Pledge that clean energy means actually clean energy. Acknowledge that the regional forest agreements have failed. Vow to put our native forests back in the hands of local communities and shift the industry out of native forest logging.

It is interesting to explore the reasons behind the reluctance for this to happen. It is a case study in the power of big business over the old parties. Take the company Brickworks, for example. Brickworks are the parent company of Auswest Timbers, one of the largest native forest wood products companies in the country. They are also a major donor to the Liberal Party. They gave $263,000 to the federal Liberals during the last federal election campaign. They got a lot out of that donation. They were big campaigners against the price on carbon. They were big supporters of allowing the burning of wood from native forests to be eligible for renewable energy certificate subsidies, and they received $17 million in grants made to companies to improve their energy performance. What value for their donation! I am sure that Brickworks are also big supporters of the push for renewable energy certificates—that is, big subsidies—for the burning of native forest wood for heat—wood that they burn in their brick kilns.

Our forests are just pawns in these deals. It is time to get money out of parliament. We need a national corruption watchdog, a national ICAC, to prevent corruption and investigate allegations of misconduct. The Liberal and Labor parties should clean up their act and stop taking donations—dirty money—from the big end of town.

In contrast to these dodgy deals, the Greens are working with local communities to bring forest management into the 21st century and protect our forest for generations to come. This will mean taking action to ensure that our wood and paper industries are fully based on plantations. Given that we are already at 85 per cent, this is not an unrealistic goal. We have to make sure that communities are supported to shift to new economy industries, including plantation-based forestry, land and water management, production of clean energy as well as recreation and tourism.

When Senator Di Natale and I visited the Central Highlands, we announced our vision to boost tourism in the area: $3 million of federal funds to invest in the tourism potential of the area. We recognise that tourism in regional Victoria is an industry that already contributes $3.3 billion statewide and provides jobs for thousands of people. These grants for innovative local tourism businesses and tourism attractions, along with establishing the Great Forest National Park, will put the forests back in the hands of the local community. They will give more people the opportunity to experience incredible bushwalks, the crystal-clear water, our precious Australian animals and everything else that is wonderful about these forests. It is just the sort of thing that we need to do around the country to ensure the creation of new, sustainable jobs for nearby communities and to protect our native forests for generations to come.

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