Brigalow and Nandewar Community Conservation Area Bill
Debate resumed from 27 May 2005.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON (The Hills) [11.57 p.m.]: This bill is ostensibly about conserving forest in the Brigalow Belt South and Nandewar regions, including the Pilliga, Goonoo, Terry Hie Hie and Bebo forest as part of the regional forest agreement process. I use the word "ostensibly" deliberately because there is a very significant sting in the tail. It is about far more than conserving forest, important as that might be. The Brigalow Belt South and Nandewar bioregions in New South Wales are a vast area of 77,000 square kilometres stretching from Dubbo to the Queensland border. They have been identified by the Commonwealth Government as a biodiversity hot spot. The greater Brigalow Belt South contains 25 per cent more different species of native flora than the entire State of Tasmania. There are at least 24 threatened species in the region, including two endangered species, the Mallee fowl and the Bush Stone curlew, although with respect to the former the Pilliga Nature Reserve Fire Management Plan says there have been no sightings of Mallee fowl in the last 20 years and that the species potentially is extinct in the Pilliga.
The bill creates a whole new class of reserve, the community conservation area, which, in turn, is divided into four new zones. Zone 1 is equivalent to national parks. Zone 2 is conservation areas under Aboriginal management, which includes Terry Hie Hie, Kelvin and part of Bibblewindi state forests. Zone 3, which is conservation and recreation area permitting mineral extraction, includes Trinkey, Cubbo, Ruttley, Pilliga West and Goonoo state forests. Zone 4 is conservation and recreation area permitting mineral extraction and logging, except in designated special management zones. The rationale for the Government adopting this community conservation area concept is a little harder to understand. It is based on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature system, which was developed primarily for Europe, although it now applies in Africa, Asia and the Americas. A classic example of where one might see this system applied is the Yorkshire Dales. One could not really say that any national park in New South Wales is equivalent to the Yorkshire Dales.
All of these categories exist currently under the National Parks and Wildlife Act and the Forestry Act. The bill will change the status of Pilliga Nature Reserve to a community conservation area zone 1—and I wonder to what benefit? Forests become community conservation area zone 4, except for special management zones, which are effectively zone 3. These were coloured grey on the original map given to me with the Minister's speech. However, detailed maps show that more than half of this area are special management zones and cannot be logged. That is exactly the same form of protection given to many of the forests under the BRUS option, which the Coalition supports. I understand that there are likely to be significant coal reserves under Goonoo State Forest, which has been zoned as zone 3. This is a conservation and recreation area permitting mineral extraction.
Mr Paul Gibson: Point of order: It is definitely zone 4.
Mr ACTING-SPEAKER (Mr John Mills): Order! There is no point of order.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: It is likely to become an open cut mine and yet zone 3 is supposed to be a higher level of conservation than zone 4, which permits logging. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how an open cut mine can actually be a better example of conservation than a well-managed State forest, but that is precisely what this legislation will achieve. It really shows the mindset of the Government over conservation issues in this particular area. The Minister said in his second reading speech that the bill will be underpinned by strong community involvement. This is going to be achieved by managing the community conservation area via a new community conservation council, which comprises the directors general of the Premier's Department, the Department of Environment and Conservation, the Department of Primary Industries and the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources.
I do not think any of these people, decent human beings that they might be, qualify as being members of the local community. However, there will actually be input from three community conservation advisory committees, and that is perhaps what the Minister means when he says there will be significant community involvement. This community conservation council in turn will be subject to the control and direction of the relevant Ministers and will report directly to the Premier. I think honourable members will understand how little community involvement there really is going to be. There will be three community conservation advisory committees—that is, Border Rivers-Gwydir, Namoi and—
Ms Linda Burney: Point of order—
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: Would you sit down, please? It is a bit late, and you do not need to take stupid, spurious points of order.
Ms Linda Burney: Then do not talk for so long. My point of order is that I was a member of the Resource and Conservation Advisory Council, which started this process, and I assure the honourable member that that was absolutely community consultation.
Mr ACTING-SPEAKER (Mr John Mills): Order! I have heard enough. The honourable member for Canterbury will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate at the appropriate time.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: Why do you not send her home, Mr Acting-Speaker? It would benefit all of us.
Mr ACTING-SPEAKER (Mr John Mills): Order! The honourable member for The Hills will let the Chair run the House.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: Then run it and do not let her take spurious points of order.
Mr ACTING-SPEAKER (Mr John Mills): Order! If the honourable member for The Hills does not return to his speech I will ask him to resume his seat.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: There will be input from three community conservation advisory committees—Border Rivers-Gwydir, Namoi and Central West. Each advisory committee will be made up as follows: One member each from local government, forestry, mining and apiary; the chairman of the relevant catchment management authority; two Aboriginal people; two scientists; three members of local environmental groups; and one representative of the National Parks Regional Advisory Committee.
Mr Bob Debus: So there is community consultation.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: The Minister interjects that there is community involvement. However, I stress that these people will have an advisory role only. The council can take its own decisions and will be subject to the control and direction of the relevant Ministers and will report directly to the Premier. It does not sound much like community involvement to me. I say again that these committees are advisory only and the need for this new system of tenure is not clearly understood. The community certainly was not asking for it; they were happy with the existing system. There is also going to be an overlap between the national park regional advisory committees and the new community conservation advisory committees. In fact, as one person who was a member of one of those national park regional advisory committees suggested to me, they are likely to be tripping over one another's feet. In his second reading speech the Minister said that the bill will provide an appropriate balance between conservation and sustainable industries that will provide jobs in the timber, gas, minerals and apiary sectors. He went on to say:
It will ensure the continuation of a viable, sustainable and value-added timber industry with up to 57,000 cubic metres of cypress pine available to the cypress industry insecure 20-year wood supply agreements.
He talked about sustaining and improving the industry. It is certainly true that the bill provides security for beekeepers; there is no question about that. It specifically provides that security. It provides for the gas industry, and that is important. New South Wales produces virtually none of its own gas. As I understand it, it sources 85 per cent of its gas supplies from the Cooper and 15 per cent from Bass Strait, and those reserves are running out. There is an urgent need to develop our own reserve and the Brigalow Belt South bioregion is the most prospective region in the State and may indeed contain sufficient gas to supply New South Wales gas needs for most of the remainder of this century.
The future of the timber industry, however, is much less assured. A rally held last Thursday in Gunnedah was attended by 1,500 people. It was not attended by the Minister, who claims that it was a National Party stunt. The Minister was very critical of the Mayor of Gunnedah, Gae Swain, and claimed that she was a member of The Nationals. In fact she is not a member of The Nationals; she is an Independent. I will quote from a report in the Namoi Valley Independent of Thursday 2 June:
Mayor Gae Swain told today's protest rally outside Gunnedah Timbers that the NSW Government had treated Gunnedah with "monumental contempt" in its decision on the future of the Brigalow Belt South Bioregion.
After a fiery exchange last week with the Minister for the Environment, Bob Debus, Cr Swain told the rally she was "not backing away" from her assertion that Gunnedah and other towns in the Brigalow had been given a raw deal.
Mr Debus last week cancelled a planned visit to Gunnedah to open the new $700,000 waste management facility, saying that his visit would be turned into "a National Party rally" over the Brigalow Belt decision.
Member for Tamworth, Peter Draper—
It is good to see him in the Chamber. He has not had a lot to do with this issue so far.
—also weighed in with similar comments, which were strongly refuted by the Mayor.
Mr Alan Ashton: Point of order: I do not understand the relevance of reading from a newspaper article when we cannot verify what it has to do with the bill that the honourable member is speaking to. Merely reading an opinion in a newspaper has nothing to do with the bill before the House.
Mr ACTING-SPEAKER (Mr John Mills): Order! At this stage I do not uphold the point of order. However, I remind the honourable member for The Hills that precedent allows only brief excerpts to be read from articles and other publications.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: The article continued:
Councillor Swain told today's gathering she made "no apology" for her promotion of the rally.
"I have been attacked in the media by Mr Debus and Mr Draper for organising a "political rally" almost to the point of saying that I was trying to incite a riot.
"I strongly refute that assertion, nothing could be further from the truth.
"I am standing up for the community, as I should."
Amen to that! The Minister for the Environment in his second reading speech thanked the honourable member for Tamworth, the honourable member for Dubbo and the honourable member for Northern Tablelands "for their instructive involvement in this process".
Mr Bob Debus: "Constructive" was the term I used.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: It was probably instructive as well, so if the Minister used the word "constructive", I do not think it really matters. I think we get the general thrust of the argument. Irrespective of whether it was constructive or instructive, I cannot work out what their involvement in the process was at all, and I do not think any of their respective constituents can either. The major area affected by this legislation is the Pilliga scrub between Coonabarabran and Narrabri. Last Friday week one of the Minister's advisers gave me a map which was very interesting because it showed Gwabegar where the town of Pilliga should be, and the town of Pilliga where Gwabegar should be. That did not really suggest to me that the Department of Environment and Conservation had spent a lot of time on the ground in the Pilliga, whereas I had visited the region and spoken to industry representatives, workers, farmers and foresters.
As I understand it, the timber industry is worth approximately $50 million to the local economy and export orders account for more than $10 million of that amount. Paull's Pty Ltd exports 75 per cent of its production from Baradine and 20 per cent of its production from its Gunnedah mill. I saw truckloads of sawn timber heading for the wharves from both Baradine and Gwabegar. Given the size of Australia's current account deficit over the past 15 or 16 years, I would have thought that $10 million in export orders was something that the Government would be eager to retain.
On 4 May, when the Government's decision relating to the Brigalow was announced, the Premier issued a press release under the heading, "Western Woodlands Government Backs Jobs and Conservation". I do not know whether there was something missing—some punctuation or something—but I wondered whether the Premier was suggesting that the Government is a Western Woodlands government. I am sure that if The Nationals issued a press release of that type the Premier would have ridiculed them in this place. But I would not do such a thing. I am, however, trying to work out exactly what the Premier meant. The press release stated that the Government's decision would impact upon 10 major mills in the region that generate direct employment for 193 workers. The Premier went on to state:
Every timber worker who wants a job will have one and every timber mill that wants to continue in the industry will have new long term timber supply contracts.
Seven mills will continue to operate at around their current timber allocations secured by the new 20-year contracts which will guarantee total timber supplies of 57,000 cubic metres per annum.
That really sounds quite good, except that one of those seven mills was Tom Underwood's mill at Gwabegar, which will close. So by this stage we are down to six. Ironbark mills, such as Mick O'Neill's mill in Dubbo, which has been running for 50 years, will also vanish. The 20-year contracts are a real concern. I was told by a large number of sources during my visit that there are just 23,000 cubic metres of white cypress pine available on a sustainable basis from the 122,000 hectares of forest that remain. Previously there was harvesting of just over 70,000 cubic metres from 470,000 hectares. A comparison of the two sets of figures makes it very plain that timber getting is not sustainable and that the remaining forests will be totally overcut. What will remain will be so inadequate that the Minister for Primary Industries has decided to re-release an additional 15,000 hectares for logging.
In his second reading speech the Minister for the Environment said—if I can be forgiven for quoting approximately three paragraphs:
Forests NSW will also source timber from outside the ... bioregions, and dedicated resources will be committed to obtaining timber from private property and leasehold lands. The previous timber supply zones for the region will no longer apply and timber will be made available from areas to the south as well as from the west.
Haulage assistance will also be available as part of the wood supply agreements to equalise any transportation costs associated in obtaining timber from non-traditional supply areas.
What he did not say was that, based on the fact that there are only 23,000 cubic metres of white cypress pine available from the Pilliga and the Government is guaranteeing 57,000 cubic metres of white cypress pine, the majority of white cypress pine will come from outside the bioregion. The suggestion is that it will come from Queensland or as far south as Narrandera. That will generate extra pressure on those areas with the result that we will be trucking in thousands of tonnes of logs a year with all the associated problems of fuel, road safety, wear and tear on roads, and so on.
Under the Government's package, workers either get a new job or a choice between a $72,000 redundancy payment and $27,000 plus up to $45,000 in retraining. As far as the new jobs are concerned, approximately 50 workers will be employed in a white cypress thinning program, and $29 million will be provided over five years to employ 69 workers to manage the new conservation areas. The $80 million package also includes a $10 million capital investment fund to build new infrastructure and new conservation areas with a Department of Environment and Conservation visitor and information centre, which I gather will include workshop facilities as well, to be built at Baradine at a cost of $2.5 million. A $14 million business exit fund will be provided to assist mills that have ceased production as a result of the Government's decision. Perhaps that sounds too good to be true? Indeed, it is.
The package includes a number of initiatives that are supposed to aid the timber industry, including the refitting of sawmills with "state-of-the-art" milling equipment in all mills, including bandsaws which cut a narrower kerf than do conventional circular saws, which enables them to handle smaller logs than is the case currently and cut timber of the same size. The package also includes "the management of timber resources across different land tenures." Timber resources will be "better managed using the most effective means available on public and private land alike." Manual thinning has been proposed to boost timber volumes for the industry, and 50 workers will be available to carry out that work.
The big problem with the last initiative is that it will take a very significant number of years for the trees to grow after the thinning has taken place. The suggestion of thinning as a short-term solution to the supply problem is quite disingenuous. The package also includes recovery of non-commercial thinnings which will be transported to a processing centre for briquette making and cypress oil extraction. I understand that the two processes are very closely related because the oil has to be extracted or the briquettes burn too fiercely and would be of no value as firewood.
The industry has co-founded a process to evaluate the use of extractive chemical compounds that remain in cypress sawdust and it is suggested that this might be used in place of copper arsenate to preserve timber. That has not yet been proved. I understand that the results from initial experiments have been quite unsatisfactory. The package will also involve the purchase of finger jointing and laminating equipment for suitable sawmills to utilise sawn timber that would otherwise not be marketable. I believe that proposal will work. There has also been a suggestion that it might be possible to pre-finish flooring so that timber would not be provided in its raw state but would be coated with some type of laminate in the sawmill to add value. The problem is that even when all of those things are considered together—and there are problems associated with quite a few of them, including the bandsaws that cut a narrower kerf if there are knots in the timber, so very good quality logs are needed to be able to use them—that might add 10 per cent, but let me be generous and estimate 15 per cent, to the value of the product, that is not a substitute for cutting the timber allocation from 70,000 to 23,000 cubic metres.
The 57,000 cubic metres per annum guaranteed by the Government is significantly more than was estimated for similar combinations of forests and reserves in the options paper issued by the Government. The guarantee is fully compensable, so that if the Government does not supply the logs it will have to compensate the millers, and that could end up costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. It is not just timber mills that are affected; other businesses are also affected. At the rally in Gunnedah, Patrick Hennessy, who set up Universal Composts eight years ago, said that his business, which had a turnover last year of more than $800,000, relied directly on Gunnedah Timbers. He said the firm has developed environmentally friendly processes that utilise excessive woodchip and bark from sawmills at Gunnedah and Baradine. He said the firm has two full-time employees and last year paid $57,000 in wages. The firm also spent $78,000 on raw materials, $220,000 on freight, $40,000 on fuel, $77,000 on repairs and maintenance through local companies, and $66,000 on an expansion. So there is a multiplier effect.
The Managing Director of Namoi Valley Brickworks, Michael Broekman, said that his business relied heavily on cypress pine sawdust in its manufacturing process. He was very concerned that he would not be able to obtain adequate supplies of cypress pine sawdust. Fourways Haulage employs 11 people and last year paid out $680,000 in wages. The company's largest customer is Gunnedah Timbers and its associated Baradine plant. The company's second-biggest customer is Namoi Valley Brickworks, which would also be affected by any downturn. Each of these businesses is dependent on the others, and it seems clear that a complete collapse of Gunnedah mills would be disastrous for Gunnedah and Baradine.
Mr Bob Debus: Are you saying they are both going to collapse? Is that your position?
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: The two mills are operated by one person. The Minister has spent a lot of time up there, so he would know that. Much of the 122,000 hectares that is left is dense whipstick pine, which is useless for harvesting. That will mean a heavy concentration on the forests that contain harvestable timber, such as Kerringle and Cumbil. Earlier I referred to the problems with the thinning operation. Thinning will generate results in 20 or 30 years time. It is a good practice, but what will happen in the meantime? Thinning jobs are guaranteed for only five years. What happens then? One gets the impression that this is a make-work scheme. The last time thinning was carried out on this scale was during the Depression, when unemployed men with axes were sent into the Pilliga West forest. So I suppose this package is the Premier's equivalent of the New Deal. However, I doubt whether it will be as successful.
I met a 30-year-old timber worker from Baradine who was born and bred in the town. He lived and worked on the North Coast for a while, but he came back to Baradine because he got a job there. He owns a house that cost him $150,000. He has a mortgage on that house, and he has to service that mortgage. He believes that if the mill closes he will not be able to realise anything like the $150,000 he paid for his house, and of course the Government's $72,000 redundancy package will also not pay for his debts. So that will create some significant financial problems for him. I met a 55-year-old from Dubbo who had been educated to the Intermediate Certificate level. I am pleased to see the honourable member for Dubbo in the Chamber; I am sure she would be interested to talk to him. He said to me, "If I am not able to harvest ironbark, what am I going to do? I don't think there are going to be too many jobs for me out there." Perhaps he will get one of these thinning jobs. It does not seem to be the sort of job one would want to do in the twilight years of one's working life, building up superannuation for one's retirement.
What did the Federal Labor member for Rankin, Craig Emerson, who grew up in Baradine, have to say about the Government's decision? We have heard a lot of cackling and hooting from the other side of the House. Craig Emerson was highly critical of the Government's decision. He said that its decision to release an extra 15,000 hectares of timber to the town's mill was encouraging, but that it was not enough. He implored the State Government to ensure the survival of country towns in north-west New South Wales. He said that the fate of towns like Baradine will tell us a lot about whether we are fair dinkum about saving country Australia. He is obviously a genuine Country Labor man, which is more than we see in this House.
The Government's jobs package is not likely to lead to increased prosperity for towns like Gwabegar, Baradine and Gulargambone. In those towns the forest industry is the major employer. That is the message that Craig Emerson is trying to get across. He is talking about real jobs with a real future, not a temporary make-work scheme. The other big question mark still hanging over the Government's decision is: Will it result in better conservation outcomes? Will it guarantee the protection of rare and endangered animals and birds, and endangered ecological communities to a greater extent than at present? Conventional wisdom is that it will. If you do not go in and chop down trees, you are protecting habitat, and by protecting habitat you protect those rare bird and animal species, such as the barking owl, mallee fowl, squirrel gliders, eastern pygmy possums and koalas in what is one of their greatest strongholds.
However, the Pilliga forests as they currently exist are very different from the way they were before Europeans arrived on the scene. So we are not turning back the clock to the time before Captain Cook arrived, as I understand one conservationist proudly declared at a meeting in Coonabarabran saving the forests would do. We are embarking on a path of unknown duration and unknown destination. In 1818, when Oxley ventured into the southern part of the Pilliga, into what is now Yarragin State Forest, he described this country as follows:
The apple tree flats are uniformly of hard ground, while the soil on which the ironbark, pine and box grow is as invariably loose sand, rendered by rain a perfect quicksand. These bogs are the more provoking, as without such impediments the country is clear and open and as favourable for travelling over as could be wished.
Oxley also wrote of the same area:
We entered a very thick forest of small ironbarks which had been lately burnt … so thick was the forest that we could hardly turn our horses, nor could the sun's rays penetrate to the sandy desert on which these trees grew.
In other words, Oxley encountered country that was similar to much of the Pilliga today, where the trees—in this case, ironbarks—grew so thickly as to make the forest all but impassable. But Oxley only skirted the edge of the Pilliga. Eric Rolls wrote an excellent history of the Pilliga. The Minister might like to know that his writings have also been quoted in the Pilliga fire management plan, so the National Parks and Wildlife Service actually gives some credibility to Mr Rolls. Eric Rolls' excellent history of the Pilliga, titled A Million Wild Acres, provides a better description of the whole area. Eric Rolls wrote:
What grew in the forest before sheep and cattle changed it? …
The frequent fires of the Aborigines and the plentiful rat-kangaroos that eat young trees stopped almost all regrowth. Here and there patches of young trees that missed being eaten shot up till they were safe from fire and grew into the sort of ironbark scrub Oxley reported.
In other words, the denser forest was only in patches and most of the country was open. Eric Rolls went on:
South-west of Narrabri swinging in a wide arc between Bohena Creek and Coghill Creek at Cuttabri was a Brigalow forest so thick the roots laced together on the surface, and five metres off the ground the long shiny leaves crowded in a canopy grey as galvanised iron. Wherever there was a clearing big clumps of Brigalow Grass thrived on the nitrogen produced by the Brigalow.
All the rest of the area, perhaps 600,000 hectares, was a pine forest broken in places by bimble box flats or yellow box slopes or stretches of belar or oak, even belts of stringy-bark on the southern hills. The pines were big and straight and they were in the last hundred years of their lives. Over much of the area they were spaced even wider apart than the ironbarks.
I ask the Minister, as he interjected earlier, to listen to this, because he might learn something. Eric Rolls continued:
Among both pine and ironbark grew a scattering of other species of eucalypts, casuarina, acacia, cassia, hopbush and so many others—a small showing of the modern profusion. But the ridges that form a grid through all the south and the east carried heavy growth then as now. It was scrub. No tree dominated in height or in numbers. It was the seed bank of shrubs and flowers and the nursery of insect-eating birds.
That is a fairly good picture of what was there at that time: 600,000 hectares of pine forest with the pines spaced even wider apart than the ironbarks, that is more than 50 metres apart, except on the ridges.
Mr Bob Debus: And now there are no ironbarks.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: No, that is not true, there are ironbarks. When I visited the Pilliga and travelled through the forest from the Newell Highway to Baradine, and from Baradine to Gwabegar, nowhere did I find country where the pines, or indeed the ironbarks, were spaced more than 50 metres apart. In most parts I found scrub so thick one could walk 30 metres into it and get lost. Those little whipstick pines, if left by themselves, will never grow any thicker. They get to a stage called lockup, when the trees measure 14 basal metres to the hectare and simply do not grow any more. If they are not thinned out, if the forest is not managed, there will not be any big trees. That is exactly how farmers saw it almost a hundred years ago. Referring to 1917, Eric Rolls's book states:
The thick pine grew in belts. Much of the forest area was still fairly open. "Look at that!" an old man will say. "Sixty, seventy years ago I shepherded a thousand sheep out there. I could let 'em all feed out and I could stand in one place and watch the whole flock. Only twenty years ago I could walk out there and shoot a kangaroo a hundred yards off easy. Now if I walked in there twenty yards and didn't watch where I was going I'd bloody get lost."
It can be seen that the area changed rapidly. How did that happen? How did country that, apart from some dense ironbark woods and clumps of cypress pines that was so open thousands of sheep grazed on it, become the Pilliga scrub? First, fire had always been an integral part of that land. When Mitchell visited the Pilliga in 1931 he reported:
The whole country was on fire.
It obscured his view of the horizon and blackened the sky at night so he could not see the stars. The squatters who took up runs in that land also burnt, but less frequently than the Aborigines had, and when they did they killed many existing trees—white cypress pine is not tolerant to fire—and allowed new trees to germinate. Previously the plentiful rat kangaroos had eaten the new shoots, keeping pine numbers down. But an extreme drought in the 1870s, plus competition from sheep, drastically reduced their numbers. The graziers brought in more and more sheep and burnt the forest to provide green pick for them. An extreme wet season in 1879 provided ideal growing conditions for the pines. By the turn of the twentieth century the country already looked vastly different from the open country that Mitchell and the earlier graziers saw.
Timber getting had started south of Narrabri in the 1870s with the first forest reserve declared in 1877. The Forestry Commission took over 40 years later with the first State forests in the area being declared in 1977. The Forestry Commission stopped burning off because it killed the pine trees. Ultimately that proved very costly. In the big wet of 1950 the grass grew tall and there was an accumulation of ground litter, which resulted in a huge fire in November 1951. The new shoots grew in profusion after the fire, as they do, and unfortunately the rabbits, which had replaced the rat kangaroos as destroyers of new shoots, were dying of myxomatosis. There were not enough rabbits to eat and kill the new shoots. Page 185 of Eric Rolls's book, referring to 1951, states:
The pines came up ten thousand to the hectare. "One year the stockmen saw the little pines just up to the top of the horses' hooves," one man told me. "The next year the pine tops brushed their boots as they rode. And a year or two after that—those old stockmen used to ride at ten past ten, knees cocked out from the saddle like wings—well, they had to jam their knees in hard behind the pads or the pines would have pushed them backwards out of the saddle. Soon they just mustered their stock and got out. There was no room for grass to grow."
That is how we ended up with the dense, close forest we see today. What the Government wants to preserve is not what was there originally, because it is man-made forest that the Premier calls icon forest. Frankly, that is one of the most overused and misused words in his lexicon. Last Saturday I attended a community meeting in my electorate at which 100 people attended. I asked how many of them had been to the Pilliga. How many does the Minister reckon had been there?
Mr Bob Debus: None, not a one.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: No, you short sell them. One person had been there. I wonder to whom these forests are iconic—Government bureaucrats, all those people on the community committee, or the people who live and work there?
Mr Bob Debus: So cut them down, the whole lot.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: I certainly do not agree with that. That might be the Minister's attitude, but it certainly is not mine. The question is, and has been for some time, which parts of the Brigalow and Nandewar bioregions should be reserved for the best conservation outcomes? The Yarragin forest, for example, which was not in the moratorium, is now reserved as national park. It is a productive forest. I gather that under the Government's package the mills will be able to go in there and harvest for the next five months. If it has such high-conservation value why would that be so? Why not lock it up now? I do not know exactly what areas have been reserved because the maps referred to in schedules 1 to 4 to the bill, on which the bill depends, have not been produced as yet.
I ask the Minister whether he proposes to produce the maps before the bill is passed, or will this be another one of those take-us-on-trust operations for which the Government is renowned? Unfortunately the very forests that are of economic value to the timber industry are also the forests that have the highest conservation value. Thin stalks of whipstick pine are of no use for building houses, and they do not support large numbers of animals and birds; they live in the bigger trees and the more open forest. Barking owls, for example, are most prevalent in areas recently logged.
Barking owls are an endangered species, but members opposite laugh about that. They are barking up the wrong tree on this. Barking owls are not found among the small growth in the eastern Pilliga, neither are the glossy black cockatoos, the regent honeyeaters, the swift parrots, the turquoise parrots or the painted honeyeaters, all of which are listed by the Premier in his press release. There is a real illogicality about the Government's position. Is it the Government's intention to manage the forests in such a way that the country reverts to the open savannah woodland that dominated in pre-European times? Or are those jobs, described in such glowing terms by the Premier as short to medium term, the twenty-first century equivalent of those Depression era forest thinners?
Will those workers be forgotten after five years? I understand that the thinnings from zone 4 will be harvested and may be used for briquettes, but those in zone 1, that is the equivalent of national parks, will be left on the ground. It is a matter of real concern if that is the case, because there will be a build-up of ground litter creating the potential for major fires. There is an extensive prescribed burn regime in the nature reserve. I wonder whether that will be replicated in the new parks, because it will certainly be impossible to replicate that if the thinnings are left on the ground. So far as the thinning is concerned, the idea, apparently, is that 50 men will thin the entire area of reserves—that is 350,000 hectares—over the five years they will be employed. They are going to have to clear six hectares each a day, so I certainly think they will earn their money.
How is this going to be funded? Where is the $80 million going to come from? It is the perennial question of where the money is going to come from. It will be funded by abolishing the Waste Fund, which will be amalgamated with the Environmental Trust. The waste levy, which is supposed to have been paid into the Waste Fund, raised $102 million last year. Every time a householder in Drummoyne, Penrith, Miranda, Menai or Ryde takes his putrescible wheelie bin out to the kerb, he will be paying $1 towards the wages of a displaced timber worker in Gwabegar.
Ms Linda Burney: Read the bill.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: I am sure the honourable member for Canterbury knows all about this legislation. She is a real genius and I have really appreciated the benefit of her erudition, her wisdom and her interjections in the debate! I think they have added greatly to what is a very, very serious subject! So I thank her for her contribution; it has been most useful! The waste levy also applies to the Extended Regulated Area, which includes the Hunter, the Illawarra, the Central Coast, the Shoalhaven and the Southern Highlands. I wonder how they all feel about this. Ratepayers in the Shoalhaven will collectively pay $1 million next year to fund the protection of the "icon forests" the Premier was talking about. The Shoalhaven is not a particularly wealthy area.
Mrs Shelley Hancock: No, not at all.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: The honourable member for South Coast assures me that it is not a particularly wealthy area, and I think its residents have previously objected to the way in which they were being taxed—
Mrs Shelley Hancock: Conned.
Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON: —or conned into paying for something they were not getting. They were not getting improved recycling outcomes; they were not getting a reduction in waste going to landfill; the Government was not doing what it promised to do with their $1 million, so one can understand they will be even more up in arms if this bill goes through the Parliament.
The objects of the Environmental Trust are being changed so that money from the trust will also be used to fund environmental groups. Environmental groups do a good job in raising awareness about conservation issues—there is no question about that—and they are funded by both the Commonwealth and the State. But I think this is being done with a view to buying off the environmental groups and ensuring that they support the legislation, because they would not want to bite the hand that feeds them. Under this legislation money in the Environmental Trust—and, as I said, it is not just about Brigalow—will also be used to fund environmental flows for the State's rivers.
That is highly desirable, but the irony is that people in the Shoalhaven will be paying to provide environmental flows in other parts of the State while the Government is taking their water for the people of Sydney. I am sure that the people down in the Shoalhaven will be absolutely enthralled by this bill; it will be a real winner for the people of the South Coast. I might have been able to excuse all of this if the levy were being used for the purpose for which it was originally intended: the reduction of waste going to landfill. But it is not. That money has been siphoned off over the past two years; it has gone into consolidated revenue. No new money has gone into the waste fund, and what has happened as a consequence? On 17 September last year the Minister told the Budget Estimates Committee:
Recycling targets were set for 2014 and the progress being made is pretty good. The target for 2014 is 66 per cent municipal recycling. In the last year it has increased from 26 to 39 per cent. The commercial recycling target is 63 per cent, which has increased from 28 per cent to 33 per cent, and the construction industry recycling, which has a target of 76 per cent, has increased from 65 per cent to 75 per cent over the last year, which is a long way round of saying that really substantial improvements are being made.
That is simply not true. The budget papers reveal that almost a million tonnes more waste went to landfill this year than was predicted two years ago. The Government predicted it would collect $83 million from the waste levy, and that was allowing for the increase of $1 plus the consumer price index in the rate over that period of time, but in fact the Government is raising $102 million—$19 million, or 23 per cent, more than it predicted in 2003, and that represents an extra 950,000 tonnes of waste going into holes in the ground, and a total of more than five million tonnes from the Sydney and extended regulated area.
I agree with the honourable member for South Coast, it is absolutely appalling. Unless around 30 per cent more waste has been generated than anticipated over the past two years, which is contrary to the Government's strategy, that is not possible. No-one in the waste industry believed the Minister's figures when he quoted them, and they are the people who ought to know. The Government is obviously giving up on meeting those recycling objectives and the waste avoidance and resource recovery strategy. Before the bill was introduced, the Local Government Association had the following to say about the waste levy. The president of the Local Government Association, Councillor Genia McCaffery, called it betrayal. She said:
They removed vital funds for consolidated revenue and broke the trust the community placed in their leadership. We've investigated the possibility of simply refusing to pay the waste levies.
So the Government is now encouraging civil disobedience from local government! The bill is only going to exacerbate that situation. It provides for recycling almost as an afterthought. It amends the objects of the Environmental Trust to promote waste avoidance, resource recovery and waste management, including funding enforcement and regulation. That means it will now be used to pay the wages of all the people from the regional waste boards who were not sacked but were taken on by Resource NSW. Resource NSW folded but these people are still there beavering away at their little computers in the Department of Environment and Conservation and doing all sorts of wonderful things—everything other than the job they are supposed to be doing, which is reducing waste going to landfill and improving recycling outcomes. The trust will be used to defray the Government's cost of retaining those people.
Under the bill the Government now has a vested interest in sending as much waste to landfill as possible because the waste levy has become a tax goldmine. Every wheelie bin in the Sydney and Extended Regulated Area has become a tax cart and the Government now has no commitment whatsoever to the objectives of its waste strategy. So for a whole range of reasons—the Government's flawed logic and the fact that the legislation is flawed and will not provide all the sorts of waste and environmental outcomes that it should—the Opposition intends to oppose the bill. I foreshadow that we will move amendments in the upper House. It will be interesting to see what the Government's attitude towards those amendments will be. They are sensible amendments that will provide better outcomes for the people of the Brigalow and will provide better conservation outcomes for the people of New South Wales.
Mr PAUL PEARCE (Coogee) [12.50 a.m.]: I support the Brigalow and Nandewar Community Conservation Area Bill, which was introduced by the Minister for the Environment. The bill will give effect to an historic addition to the reserve system in western New South Wales. This is the fifth major forestry assessment carried into agreement following the regional forestry agreements in the Eden area of southern New South Wales and on the North Coast. The essence of these agreements is to strike a balance between social, environmental, cultural and economic values.
The approach adopted by the New South Wales Government has ensured the involvement of all affected parties. From an environmental perspective this has led to a significant network of conservation areas that seeks to protect biodiversity, old growth forests, and wilderness for future generations. The key employment principle is to ensure that the timber and related industries that continue in the region subject to the agreements will be sustainable both economically and environmentally. The bill will permanently protect over 350,000 hectares of high conservation value forest in a network of reserves, changing the status of public lands previously used for forestry purposes and private land that has been purchased over recent years.
Importantly, the bill will introduce a new land management tenure to be known as a community conservation area. This tenure was designed specifically for the area of New South Wales affected by the bill. The new community conservation area is aimed at achieving an appropriate balance between conservation for future generations and present employment opportunities on a sustainable basis. The key to achieving that will be a strong level of community involvement. The bill results from a five-year gestation period of extensive consultation with industry groups, the conservation movement, indigenous communities, and other affected local communities—all based on a detailed scientific analysis.
The Brigalow and Nandewar region has been subject to a century of exploitation, which has resulted in around 70 per cent of its original vegetation being cleared. The consequence of this massive vegetation clearing has been a high rate of species extinction. The Commonwealth Government even declared the Brigalow region a biodiversity hot spot, which is defined as a bio-geographic region that has a significant reservoir of biodiversity and is threatened with destruction. This region is one of a mere 15 such declared areas nationally. The Federal Department of the Environment and Heritage had this to say about the Brigalow region north and south:
The inland plains of the Brigalow belt originally supported vast vegetation communities dominated by Brigalow ... On the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range there are large tracts of eucalypt woodlands and the hotspot is also a stronghold for large numbers of endemic invertebrates.
This hotspot includes populations of the endangered Bridled Nail-tail Wallaby and the only remaining population of the endangered Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat, now limited to around 110 individuals. The area contains important habitat for rare and threatened species including the Bulloak, the Jewel Butterfly, the Brigalow Scaly-foot, Glossy Black-Cockatoo, Greater Long-eared Bat, Large Pied Bat, Eastern Long-eared Bat and the threatened community of semievergreen vine thickets. The hotspot provides important habitat for star finches and golden tailed geckos.
Broad-scale clearing for agricultural and unsustainable grazing is fragmenting the original vegetation, particularly on lowland areas, encouraging weed invasion and putting at risk woodland and grassland birds and the natural water cycle. Inappropriate fire regimes and predation by feral animals, in particular pigs, cats and foxes, pose additional threats to local biodiversity.
As I said, that assessment was made by the Federal Department of the Environment and Heritage. The declaration of the conservation reserves will go some way towards reversing the trend towards extinction. Based on a scientific analysis, the lands permanently protected by the bill arguably contain some of the highest quality habitat for a range of the most endangered species. The bill recognises that habitat preservation is the only viable means to preserve endangered and threatened species for future generations.
The forests in these regions contain an estimated 47 threatened fauna species. The bill will protect 60,000 hectares of endangered ecological communities, and it will achieve that in the context of maintaining a viable timber industry, focusing on value adding to the product. In addition, the regionally important apiary industry will continue to have access to the forest for honey production. As the Minister said in his second reading speech, the bill will also permanently protect the Goonoo and Terry Hie Hie forests, which are of particular heritage and cultural significance to the local Aboriginal community.
It is proposed that these and other forests covered by the bill could be managed through indigenous land-use agreements similar to the model used in the Arakwal National Park. The assistance package outlined by the Minister includes haulage assistance as part of the wood supply agreements, structural adjustment packages to ensure that mills remaining in the industry will focus on value adding, a business exit package for businesses that choose to leave the industry, as well as financial and new job creation funds for any timber workers adversely affected by the decisions of their employers.
The communities in the regions affected by the bill will benefit by securing long-term viable industries with appropriate levels of government support The knee-jerk reaction in Gunnedah was ill informed and demonstrates why an intergenerational view, not a simplistic focus on short-term impacts, must be taken. This approach correctly recognises that trade-offs should appropriately be borne across the community to conserve valuable flora and fauna habitat for future generations. It recognises that the current generation can no longer plunder and exhaust non-renewable resources and destroy irreplaceable habitat of endangered native fauna with impunity.
The approach of the Government reverses what non-indigenous Australians have done for hundreds of years. The bill reflects a recognition by the Government of its social, cultural and environmental responsibility to the future. The approach being pursued in the bill can be contrasted with the irresponsible decision perpetrated by the Federal and Tasmanian governments that will lead to the long-term destruction of significant areas of old growth forests, including significant portions of the Tarkine and Styx old growth areas. This is forest that can never be replaced, and this mindless approach by these governments is predicated purely on short-term political considerations.
Timber workers in these areas are being cruelly used as pawns in the debate by the Howard and Tasmanian governments and their cronies in the timber industry. The main beneficiaries of this obscene policy will be the likes of Gunns, which plunders our environmental heritage for short-term profits, destroys something irreplaceable for shareholder value, and then seeks to intimidate those who dare to make a stand against it.
As the Minister said in his second reading speech, an important part of the bill is the proposal to create a community conservation area. This concept, whilst new to Australia, is recognised internationally and is based on the categories recognised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In effect, it creates a framework for the co-ordinated management of all public lands. The community conservation area will have three statutorily defined conservation zones.
Zone one will be a conservation and recreation zone that reserves certain former land as a national park under the provisions of the National Parks and Wildlife Act. Zone two will be a conservation and Aboriginal culture zone that reserves certain land as an Aboriginal area under the National Parks and Wildlife Act. Zone three will be a conservation, recreation and mineral extraction zone that preserves certain land as a State conservation area under the same Act. No commercial extraction of timber can occur in those three zones.
Whilst minor adjustments may be made to facilitate roads, access and other defined operational matters, such adjustments must not result in any significant reduction in the size or conservation value of the land. Further, with an eye to the future, clause 16 of the bill provides that future additions to these zones may be made by proclamation. Revocation can only occur by an Act of Parliament. Thus, any attempt by a future conservative government to hand these important areas back to those who would seek to profit from the plundering of our environmental and cultural heritage will have to be by a public process and will expose such a government to justifiable condemnation by the broader community, which cares about what we leave as a legacy for future generations.
While the details of the management arrangements were clearly outlined in the Minister's speech it is important to note that the management of the new community conservation area will be linked directly to the management of the existing reserve system, including the spectacular Warrumbungles, Mount Kaputar national parks and the Pilliga Nature Reserve. This is excellent legislation. It adds significantly to the Carr Government's achievements in the conservation and preservation of habitats of threatened and endangered species. It is predicated on the recognition of intergenerational responsibility and the principles of ecologically sustainable development. It is a bill that deserves the support of this House.
Mr PETER DRAPER (Tamworth) [12.59 a.m.]: I strongly oppose the Brigalow and Nandewar Community Conservation Area Bill because of the detrimental effect it will have on many country communities but, in particular, the effect it will have on Gunnedah. I acknowledge that the Mayor of Gunnedah and the upper House member Jenny Gardiner from The Nationals are in the gallery at this late hour. We are hearing claims and counterclaims from both sides of the debate about the amount of timber that will be available to the industry. Therefore, I call on the Government to conduct an independent assessment of exactly what timber is available and on offer from State Forests over the 20-year life of the contract being offered to Gunnedah Timbers by the Government. I will return to this later in my contribution.
The Government's announcement of a new package of conservation and forestry initiatives has provoked anger and frustration in the timber community in my electorate, that is, Gunnedah. The town of Gunnedah, represented by around 1,500 people, aired their thoughts on this bill during a rally on 2 June. The rally attracted community members and timber workers from surrounding communities, including those who live near the Pilliga State Forest, Narrabri, Baradine and Tamworth. The sentiment expressed by the attendees was clear, and I fully support their stance. I quote from the resolution passed unanimously at the rally, which states:
That the Gunnedah and District communities condemn the State Labor Government for converting the Brigalow Belt South Bioregion into a Community Conservation Area, and requests that the Government reverts to the Brigalow Region United Stakeholders option which has overwhelming community support.
I have always supported the Brigalow Region United Stakeholders [BRUS] option. This option allowed for a 2 per cent reduction to the current volumes of white cypress pine with little or no impact on the existing timber industry. It proposed 189,000 hectares of conservation reserves compared to 348,000 hectares of the best quality timber to be locked away under this bill. The BRUS option took shape from 24 stakeholders and took into account Aboriginal cultural heritage, job security, a viable timber industry, industry development opportunities, community vitality, management and access to public land, and protection of native vegetation, biodiversity and natural processes.
The Government is yet to explain to stakeholders and the affected communities why it has not adopted this option. It is also yet to release Ian Sinclair's report—which is believed to have recommended the BRUS option—despite repeated requests that it make the document public. The Government has clearly chosen the Green vote over the best interests of country communities, and those attending the rally expressed the strong sentiment that the Government has forsaken country people to attract the Sydney Greens vote in the State election scheduled for 2007. Through the rally, the community of Gunnedah has also asked the Government to honour its commitment to provide access to the resources needed to maintain the viability of the industries that rely on this resource for their livelihood.
I was presented with a petition containing the signatures of 2,400 people from Gunnedah and surrounding areas asking for this commitment and The Nationals have submitted it in the other place. As the petition was distributed by the Hon. Rick Colless, it is only appropriate that he present it to the Parliament, but I am extremely disappointed that Jenny Gardiner has chosen yet again to politicise the issue by issuing a media release tonight somehow claiming victory for The Nationals because I am not in the upper House. She simply reinforces my original concerns that The Nationals are only interested in headlines, not outcomes for the community. It is time for Jenny Gardiner to put aside her disinterest in the issue. She stood up in the other place and said many offensive things about timber workers, and I shall quote in small part her contribution, which stated:
The people in the timber industry are the most defenceless people that one could meet. Many of them are illiterate workers.
These are not the words of somebody interested in the workers; they are the words of somebody looking for cheap headlines. She does the industry and the workers a great disservice by continually pushing this destructive agenda. The community has made it clear that this decision will impact not only on timber workers, but also on the economy of the entire town and district. Gunnedah Timbers currently employs 50 workers at its Gunnedah and Baradine mills.
Mr ACTING-SPEAKER (Mr Paul Lynch): Order! Government and Opposition members will come to order.
Mr PETER DRAPER: The workers in mills targeted for an exit package by the Government have been offered up-front payments of $72,000 should they choose to walk away from the industry or a reduced payment of $27,000 plus a guaranteed new job at or near where they live. I am not aware whether this package is currently on offer for Gunnedah Timbers, especially as the Government views it as a viable ongoing industry player. But no amount of alternative jobs will compensate for the fact that should Gunnedah Timbers qualify for a payout and decide to close, Gunnedah and district will lose the economic benefit and business diversity of an entire industry. Timber workers do not want council jobs or timber thinning jobs. They want to remain part of a thriving, sustainable timber milling industry. In Gunnedah 22 businesses have been identified as reliant on Gunnedah Timbers for its by-products, including timber transport, brickworks, composting, nurseries, landscape suppliers and disability services. If the mill closed, these jobs would be affected in these linked businesses, but there has been no consideration of them or the impact on the town, where there will be an inevitable downturn in trade.
Universal Composts owner Patrick Hennessy broke down in frustration and anger when he addressed the Gunnedah rally as his composting business, which is solely reliant on the mill's woodchips, will be bankrupt if the mill closes. However, not a single Government representative was on hand in Gunnedah to witness Mr Hennessy's heartfelt plea for commonsense to prevail. The Government maintains that the bill will provide timber millers such as Gunnedah Timbers with sufficient resources to remain viable throughout the life of the 20-year contract on offer. It has offered timber mill owners a fully compensable 20-year contract and a guaranteed quota of 57,000 cubic metres per annum.
I call upon the Government to have an independent assessment made of the actual volumes of timber available to the industry. Completely conflicting information is coming from the Government and from the timber industry in Gunnedah. Quite frankly, it is high time we heard the truth about the situation. I have been critical of the compensation package offered to timber millers since it was announced because, in my opinion, it is far too generous. It is so substantial that viable businesses such as Gunnedah Timbers, should they qualify for an exit package, will face a difficult choice—whether to remain in the industry with a guaranteed 20-year supply or take the $9 million on offer and walk away with a guarantee that their workers will receive compensation packages worth $26,000 and a guaranteed job or up to $76,000 on top of their existing entitlements.
The contracts being offered by the Government would lock in a guaranteed quantity and quality of timber for 20 years. If these were not delivered, Gunnedah Timbers would have the right to ask for compensation from the Government, which will underwrite the contracts. It would then be open to Gunnedah Timbers to litigate this issue if they were still unhappy and receive court ordered compensation. At any rate, nobody in the debate to date has mentioned the fact that Gunnedah Timbers has an existing contract that runs for a further five years. At the very least, I believe Gunnedah Timbers should let this run through to completion and then assess their options in 2010.
The five years of the current contract will deliver a guaranteed contracted 27,000 cubic metres per year, with an annual quota of about 8,000 cubic metres per year. That is a quota usually delivered in full but not absolutely guaranteed by Forests NSW in the same way that the contracted volume is. This means that at the moment Gunnedah Timbers can expect 175,000 cubic metres of cypress pine to be delivered to it over the next five years. I am advised that under the new 20-year contract Gunnedah Timbers would receive contracted volume of 33,000 cubic metres per year. That means that between now and 2025 it would have delivered 660,000 cubic metres all up guaranteed and fully compensable, should the Government fail to deliver the quantity or quality.
Mr ACTING-SPEAKER (Mr Paul Lynch): Order! The honourable member for Lismore will cease interjecting.
Mr PETER DRAPER: In addition, I have been advised that the Government is prepared to invest in the operations of Gunnedah Timbers to allow further diversification at the rate of $2 for every $1 invested by Gunnedah Timbers. The moratorium has been lifted and all compartments that were affected by it that are now in zone 4 productive forests are available and open to the industry. The Minister for Primary Industries has attempted to bolster the allocation through the announcement of an additional area of 15,000 hectares of forest transferred back to Forests NSW for productive use by the industry. But the offer has failed to appease Gunnedah Timbers principals, George and Paddy Paul, who still have concerns over access to quality and quantity of raw product. An independent assessment is important to bring clarity to the debate and resolve the dispute between the mill owners and the Government.
The bottom line is that the community wants the timber industry to remain in Gunnedah, and the mill owners are facing a clear choice between continuing their business with a guaranteed supply, with the guarantee of a full compensation package every year should the Government be unable to deliver on its contracted agreement in regards to quantity and quality. Alternatively, the company could take the $9 million package should it be deemed eligible. This is understandably a very difficult choice and the true availability of quantity and quality must be clarified. The independent assessment must make it abundantly clear to Gunnedah Timbers that there is guaranteed access to the right quality and quantity of timber supplies so it can accept the Government's offer of a 20-year contract.
The Government has indicated a willingness to then invest in state-of-the-art milling equipment to help Gunnedah Timbers maximise production and value add to its products, should the mill owners wish to expand their business further. The mill should stay, the industry and jobs should stay and the businesses reliant on it should remain viable. In the mind of the timber communities in the north-west, the BRUS option was the obvious way forward and, in the absence of its consideration and implementation, on their behalf I reiterate that I strongly oppose this bill in its current form. I call on the Government to listen to the community and adopt the BRUS option.
Debate adjourned on motion by Mr John Mills.