LIBERAL, National and Labor parliamentarians, including all Gippsland MPs, united last week to back Victoria's timber industry.
The MPs have formed a bipartisan parliamentary support group for the forest and wood products industry, which was launched at a function at Parliament House on Tuesday evening.
Convened by the Narracan MLA Gary Blackwood, and Ripon MLA Joe Helper, the group was formally launched by the Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh, who has responsibility for forestry.
About 40 MPs and 100 industry representatives attended the event.
All Gippsland parliamentarians are members of the group: Mr Blackwood, Deputy Premier and Gippsland South MLA Peter Ryan, Morwell MLA Russell Northe, Gippsland East MLA Tim Bull and Eastern Victoria MLCs Peter Hall, Phil Davis and Matt Viney. Also a member is the Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Water and Resources, John Lenders, who was born in Warragul and educated in Drouin and Trafalgar.
Mr Helper was the agriculture minister in the last Labor state government.
Forestry is a key industry in Gippsland, which forms the backbone of the Victorian timber sector, both native forest and plantation. According to the Victorian Association of Forest Industries, the industry produces more than $400 million in sawlogs each year, generates $7.8 billion in sales and services income, and directly employs 24,000 people, both in regional areas and Melbourne.
VAFI chief executive Lisa Marty said forestry and the industries that rely on it for wood and paper products had too often been subject to political debate without the appropriate understanding needed to make decisions about such an important part of the economy.
''The products we produce are renewable and store carbon,'' she said.
The keynote speaker Paul Klymenko, chief executive of environment group Planet Ark, spoke about the importance of using forest and wood products as a sustainability resource.
Mr Blackwood, who is also the Parliamentary Secretary for Forestry and Fisheries, said the high attendance at the launch was a strong sign that MPs from all major parties recognised the importance of the industry.
Mr Helper also praised the bipartisan nature of the group, but said Labor still retained the right to disagree on certain aspects of government policy.
''Victoria manages its forests to world's best standards. It is great to see Victoria's elected representatives out in force, and choosing to engage with the industry,'' he said.
The ALP has been accused in the past of sacrificing rural jobs for Green votes in the city. The Bracks' government stopped logging in the Otways at the 2003 election despite timber harvesting there being deemed sustainable under the West regional forest Agreement. Also, at the 2007 election, the Bracks' government added 40,000 hectares of forest to reserves in east Gippsland without offering industry any other forest as compensation.
Mr Lenders told the Gippsland Times that Labor had not yet finalised its timber policy for the next election.
''This year is a listening year,'' he said. However, a policy would be put in place next year before the elections scheduled for the end of November.
Mr Lenders said the party was conscious of the need for jobs in regional Victoria.
''We realise the industry has to have sufficient resource to do what it needs to do and that is more than plantations. We have to finalise that,'' he said.
Value-adding to the resource was a key way to generate jobs.
Mr Lenders said the starting point for the policy would be the timber industry strategy the party took to the last state election.
''This had a number of priorities, such as the review of VicForests, but we have a right to develop new policies if circumstances change," he said.
The State Government is working to put in place its timber industry strategy, launched in December 2011. Its features include giving industry greater resource security through long-term contracts of up to 20 years; compensation for industry if future government policy changes affect timber supply; greater autonomy for VicForests; and a renewed emphasis on biodiversity conservation through surveys and monitoring.
* Philip Hopkins is a former Age business journalist and Gippsland journalist who will be writing occasional articles for the Gippsland Times.