Labor declares forest wars should be over

THE state Labor opposition has declared that the “forest wars” in Victoria should be over, but has held back from declaring there will be no more national parks in the state.

In contrast, the Coalition government has strongly stressed a ban on new parks to give the forest industry the confidence to invest.

The issue became a point of contention at the annual dinner of the Victorian Association of Forest Industries in Melbourne last Friday night.

Gippsland is the backbone of the state’s native forest industry, with Australian Sustainable Hardwoods in Heyfield Australia’s largest hardwood processor, and Australian Paper in the Latrobe Valley Australia’s largest paper manufacturer.

Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh twice emphasised that the government would not introduce any more national parks.

However when questioned, Shadow Agriculture Minister Jacinta Allan, said she could not comment on whether there would be a new national park ahead of the release of further policies during the state election campaign.

However, she stressed that no matter what was announced, the forest industry would be fully consulted.

“I appreciate that the timber industry views election campaigns with a worried eye as competing groups push political parties to make decisions on the future of the industry,” she said.

“This is a battle you have seen too many times and does not always treat the industry, owners, employers and workers well when decisions are made in the heat of an election campaign.”

The forestry industry’s timber resource was dramatically cut back in successive elections by the Bracks Labor government.

In 2002, the government unexpectedly declared a national park in the Otways, shutting the timber industry, and in 2006, added 45,000 hectares to a national park in east Gippsland without allocating any forest to industry as compensation.

VAFI chief executive Tim Johnston said historically, elections had not been kind to forestry.

“Promising a national park or another forest lock-up is the easiest thing a politician or political party will ever do,” he said.

“Unfortunately, revealing the economic and social costs and the details to industry and impacted communities is often barely even an afterthought.”

Mr Johnston said this approach was not sustainable – for the industry or from a public policy standpoint. “It is simply unrealistic to expect the industry to invest in the future when their future is held to ransom every four years,” he said.

“A secure future for the forest and wood products industry starts with bipartisan support across the parliamentary aisle.”

Resource security would remain an issue for the foreseeable future, as would “our industry’s social licence to operate,” he said.

Ms Allan, who is also the Shadow Minister for Regional Cities and Regional and Rural Development, said the modern Victorian Labor Party recognised that forestry brought great value to the Victorian economy.

“I believe the ‘forest wars’ should be behind us,” she said.

“I believe our focus should be on investment and jobs, and securing the necessary resources – in your industry’s case, renewable and sustainable resource to support that investment.”

Ms Allan said Victorian Labor was committed to promoting growth and encouraging sustainable, vibrant communities outside metropolitan Melbourne.

Forestry’s value to the Victorian economy needed to be given prominence similar to that of construction, tourism and hospitality. Should Labor win government, she said, “you will continue to have strong supporters of your industry in government, within the Labor Caucus”.

Mr Walsh said the government had delivered on its promises, putting in place a timber industry strategy that gave industry confidence to invest.

New legislation prevented protests from occurring inside logging coupes, allowing the workers to carry out their work, although protests still took place outside the coupes.

Mr Walsh emphasised the timber industry’s economic importance.

It directly employed more than 20,000 people — many of those in the city — indirectly more than 40,000 people.

Forest products contributed $684 million in exports in 2013-14, including round wood exports at $178 million, he said.

Ms Allan said forestry would be supported through Labor’s Back to Work jobs plan, which aimed to create 100,000 full-time jobs. It included a $100 million fund to provide payroll tax relief and a $200 million regional jobs fund.

“Regional and rural young people and workers need access to training to help them secure and keep the job they want,” she said. Labor would do this by returning funding to local TAFEs, Ms Allan said.

Mr Johnston said attracting the next generation into the forest and wood products industry would take place in a world of emerging complexity and uncertainty.

Common themes were an ageing population, globalisation, the growing dominance of Asia, the increasing take up of technology and a need for Australia to increase its stock of qualified workers.

Mr Johnston said forestry’s best days “are still ahead of us”. “The future will be both resource constrained and carbon constrained, and it is our industry and our products that are best placed to address those challenges,” he said.

Melbourne would need to build a million new dwellings by 2040. “It is our industry that has the resource and technical capacity to deliver this,” he said. “Wood and wood products are both sustainable and sought after. We are the material of the 21st Century.”