Taskforce to be formed

David Braithwaite

WELLINGTON Shire Council will establish a taskforce to lobby the state government regarding the proposed phasing out of native timber harvesting in Victoria.

Council will be looking to include representatives from other councils affected by the government’s decision in the taskforce, as well as Australian Sustainable Hardwoods in Heyfield, Radial Timber in Yarram, forestry contractors and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

The taskforce will also seek information the government used to make the decision to phase out native timber harvesting by 2030. Late last year, Wellington Shire Council wrote to the government, expressing its disappointment in the decision.

Council received a response from Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes in March.

“While cabinet decision-making is confidential, I can advise the government’s decision was informed by wide-ranging consultation and assessment,” the minister wrote.

“The policy aligns with the findings from the 2017 Parliamentary Inquiry into VicForests Operations, which took evidence from the industry, government and environment groups.

“The cross political party inquiry recommended that Victoria should prepare to transition from native harvesting to plantation timber, and actively support forestry-dependent communities throughout the transition.

“The 30-year Victorian Forestry Plan includes a $120 million Native Forest Transition Package to make sure all businesses, workers and communities are supported to plan for the future.”

The Native Forest Transition Package includes financial help for businesses, support for workers affected by the industry changes and investment in affected communities.

There have been concerns expressed that the ending of native timber harvesting will affect the management of forest fires, but Ms Symes claimed firefighting capability would not be compromised.

“Our hard-working forest industry workers played a critical role in bushfire response and clean-up activities over recent months, demonstrating the value of their specialised skill set for forest fire management going forward,” she said.

“It is the government’s expectation that there will be more roles in forest fire management, not less, as a result of the work we are doing to prepare for the changes to the forestry industry.

“Changes to the industry will not compromise forest fire management or firefighting in the state.”

In his response to the minister’s letter on behalf of council, mayor Alan Hall said it was disappointing evidence and analysis used to make the decision was not available.

“This is ‘an opportunity missed’ to demonstrate to our community that the Andrews government’s decision was indeed ‘above politics’ and was based on the balance of evidence,” Cr Hall wrote.

Instead of going in alone, Cr Malcolm Hole hoped the taskforce would strengthen council’s search for answers from government.

The shutdown of the native timber industry would affect more than 3000 jobs in Gippsland, Cr Hole said.

There is also concern in the timber industry over a recent Supreme Court decision to stop logging in 26 coupes, which poses challenges to ASH and Radial.

An environmental group launched legal action to protect the greater glider and other threatened animal species.

Council will lobby the government to implement a new timber industry code of conduct, replacing the one which industry representatives claim is ambiguous and creates unnecessary bureaucratic burden.

“The code of practice we’re operating under at the moment is 2014, and it’s full of insecurities and uncertainty so that nobody knows who can dance with who, and what the music’s going to be,” Cr Hole said.

“We’ve got to take the issue up by inviting the other councils that are affected and form this taskforce that will drive forward the ability and the strength that we need to protect the jobs in the timber industry in Gippsland.

“We do need to go out now and take the issue right up to the government and the ministers and get them to explain what they’re doing and what they’re going to do to get our industry, which is a primary industry, back on track.”

Cr Scott Rossetti said council and the community was not getting clarity and transparency about how the government reached its decision to end native timber harvesting.

“It may indeed be that if we had that transparency, that we may understand why they’ve made this decision,” he said.

“But the fact it’s just the responses are all fobbing off – not actually giving any indication of the decision process, the logic, the evidence – I think is a real slap in the face to another level of government, to all of our community, to all of the people who actually work in the timber industry, and to all of the people impacted by this change.

“To not explain, to not tell us what the reasoning is, is I think is really poor form.”