Brigalow and Nandewar Community Conservation Area Bill
Debate resumed from 7 June 2005.
Mr IAN SLACK-SMITH (Barwon) [12.20 p.m.]: The Brigalow and Nandewar Community Conservation Area Bill is singularly the most pointless and community-destructive piece of legislation I have seen in this place in 10 years. What does it achieve? Does the bill achieve conservation outcomes different to what have existed previously? No, it does not. Will the so-called threatened species of flora and fauna that inhabit the Pilliga be better off? No, they will not, because the majority of the biodiversity is occurring on the managed timberland of the bioregion, so biodiversity will diminish. Will the area be less fire prone? No, it will not, because it will become a monoculture of a desert with wall-to-wall trees. The first fire will include the smell of burning fur from the greatest koala barbecue in the history of Australia. Make no mistake, the great crazy, unwashed extreme Greens of this State will consider this a small price to pay while they toast the death of a sustainable timber industry in inland New South Wales.
The result of the bill will be that 348,000 hectares of the Brigalow Belt South bioregion will be locked up, curtailing access to timber by 35 per cent. Mills that were offered a 20-year contract to log in the bioregion—mills at Dubbo, Gunnedah, Baradine, Quirindi, Gulargambone and Gwabegar—were offered contracts with access to supplies of 57,000 cubic metres per annum. However, there are only 23,000 cubic metres of sustainable timber available. So far that has resulted in the closure of four hardwood mills at Baradine, Gwabegar, Bingara and Narrabri and a downturn in production in Gulargambone, Gunnedah, Coonabarabran, Gilgandra, Dubbo and other Baradine mills. Four hundred jobs in the mills are at risk. Sawmillers are still looking at their future supplies and have not made a decision at this time. The western woodlands decision stretches from Dubbo to the Queensland border, straight through my electorate of Barwon, and includes Pilliga, Goonoo, Terry Hie Hie and Bebo State Forests.
The Minister for the Environment should note that an official map is on page 4 of the bill. This map is flawed, and so is this bill. Pilliga and Gwabegar on this map are situated in the wrong place! That proves the total ignorance of the Minister and the Government and their speed in seeking to appease the extreme green ratbags in Sydney, at the expense of our rural communities. How many other mistakes are there in the bill? It is obvious that this Minister does not care about being factual, such is his impatience to get those green votes in Sydney. The decision impacted upon 10 major mills, closed four, and severely impacted upon the production capabilities of the remaining mills. Timber exports alone stand to lose $25 million per year across the State. Last year cypress exports from this region alone were $6 million, and were heading towards $10 million this year and a predicted $25 million in the next two years. That has now gone.
Where has the honourable member for Northern Tablelands been in relation to this debate in the past three years? He has been very quiet on the subject. He does not want to stir up his Labor mates. Instead he has left his people out to dry. He has not said a word but has been busy claiming credit for every single government dollar that has been spent in his electorate, even to the extent of recently claiming that he had fixed the Bingara employment problem once the timber workers had lost their jobs. All he did was repeat the Premier's statement that included all sawmills. He also announced that he had fixed the employment situation of the displaced timber workers by employing the remaining workers with Gwydir council. However, Gwydir council still does not know anything about that. Two days ago the Minister for Primary Industries in the Legislative Council was questioned about the special deal for Bingara. The Minister assured us that no special rules apply to Bingara that do not apply to everyone else.
The honourable member for Northern Tablelands reminds me of Toad of Toad Hall in the great classic Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. The honourable member supposedly was reported to have fixed the threatened funding for the Bingara multipurpose services when it was discovered, by a quick call to the health Minister, that the funding was not in jeopardy at all! That was a bit of a joke and a beautiful con of the people of Northern Tablelands. It is obvious that the honourable member for Northern Tablelands tells a lot of lies in this place and in the media. It is interesting that the Minister in his second reading speech thanked the honourable member for Northern Tablelands and the honourable member for Tamworth for their input to the bill. The honourable member for Northern Tablelands did not contribute to the debate at any stage. He did not utter a word about this bill until the decision was released.
Incidentally, the town of Bingara is not even in Mr Fix-it's electorate, it is in mine. He obviously takes his electorate for granted, much the same as the honourable member for Tamworth. They seem to spend more time in my electorate than in their own. My electorate is about 20 minutes away from theirs and is bigger than the size of England. It is obvious they think they have carte blanche to come into my electorate. At the latest performance of the honourable member for Northern Tablelands at the rally at Gunnedah he was booed and jeered by the crowd.
That was a definite signal that the people in his electorate have become sick and tired of this so-called Independent who, in the past three years, has not supported his people employed in the timber industry but has acted like a member of the Labor Government. The silence from the three so-called Independents on this matter, including the new member for Dubbo, had been deafening prior to the decision. Now they are announcing to the world that they are the saviours! After all, they owe their positions in this place to the Australian Labor Party, so why would they bite the hand that feeds them? Labor does not care whether they remain members of this place or not. Those members know, as we do, that they will never be members of government; they will always be on the back bench.
At the rally in Gunnedah on 2 June, when 2,500 people attended and 75 per cent of businesses closed their doors, the honourable member for Tamworth, who had supported the Labor Government during the last three years of this Brigalow disgrace, claimed that the Premier and the Minister for the Environment should hang their heads in shame. It was no surprise that the honourable member for Tamworth was booed and heckled off the stage. His actions are commonly referred to as running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. The response of the honourable member at Gunnedah just proves that you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time. As that great man Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen once said, "My word, if you have one foot on one side of a barbed wire fence and the other foot on the other side, it will get very uncomfortable in the middle."
I am not surprised that the Minister and Bev Smiles declined invitations to attend the rally at Gunnedah. They succeeded in what they had to do. The Minister had the support of the extreme green vote of Sydney, and Smiles had destroyed the timber industry. Incidentally, Minister, guess where these ratbags are going now? Down to the red gum forests further south! The day these extreme green ratbags toasted the death of the timber industry, Bev Smiles announced on ABC radio that they had concerns about the mining industry as well. The Minister should realise that these people have an insatiable appetite and will never rest until every person is forced off the land and lives in organic mud huts. I guess you can describe them as the cancer that destroys our rural communities by closing down our industries—animal farming, cropping, timber, bee-keeping, mining—the list goes on. Don't worry about washing! They will oppose every water scheme the Government tries to introduce, and I have been very reliably informed they do not use the stuff! Nor do they use soap!
The rally at Gunnedah called on the Government to revert to the BRUS option for further management of forest regions, and asked the Government to honour its commitment to provide access to resources needed to maintain the viability of industries relying on the forest for their livelihoods. Both of those calls were unanimously accepted. The mass rally was attended by 2,500 people and was supported by 75 per cent of businesses closing their doors to reinforce the desperation of the situation to the State Government. The chair of the rally, Mike Broekman, who, incidentally, is not a member of The Nationals, said:
The bush is alive and we're sick of being kicked.
The timber industry and country towns have been given a raw deal by the Government's decision to lock up sustainable timber resources. The mayor of Gunnedah, Gae Swain—also, I might add, not a member of The Nationals—said:
We are not here for politics. We are here for no reason other than to send a message loud and clear that the decision on the Brigalow is a bad decision, a decision based not on fact, but fallacies. It was a decision that the Government wanted and nowhere were the people of the Brigalow given a leg-in on the outcome. This decision was all about politics. This is not just a rally for the timber industry; it is a rally for the survival of rural New South Wales.
In a letter to the editor of the Gunnedah Independent, Ron McLean—also, I might add, not a member of The Nationals—wrote:
What do you know about the Pilliga, Mr Debus? Or the timber industry? If you were in touch with reality, you would know that the harvested area of the Pilliga is just a blip on a vast landscape. You would know that timber has been harvested in the forest for close to 120 years, without any serious environmental effects.
If the policy of locking up potentially productive timber reserves, the harvesting of which does not represent a threat to the environment, is allowed to continue, then a further species will be added to the endangered list.
That species is the timber worker.
What are the flow-on effects from this Government decision? Some 22 industries will be affected. Those were mentioned by my colleague the shadow Minister. They include Universal Composts, which will be forced to close without compensation. Two full-time employees' wages, $78,000 in raw materials, $220,000 on freight, $40,000 on fuel, $77,000 on repairs and maintenance, and $66,000 on expansion—all money spent in the local community—will be lost. Namoi Valley Brickworks used cypress pine sawdust in 50 per cent of its products. Its export markets include Japan and the United States of America. The unavailability of sawdust will result in job losses for some of its 38 employees and contractors.
In another example, a haulage company relies on 28 per cent of its business coming from the timber industry. To date, it has injected $750,000 into local businesses over the past nine years. Its second biggest customer is Namoi Valley Brickworks. Towns such as Gwabegar have no industry other than the timber industry. Baradine has only farming and grazing apart from its timber industry. With the drought the way it is, it does not need this sort of decision. It is exactly the same at Bingara, which will be badly affected. The impact of the decision on jobs will be felt in Dubbo, Gunnedah and Narrabri.
Commonsense dictates that the BRUS option should have been taken. The Government said it sought consultation with 27 stakeholders. However, it completely ignored 26 of those stakeholders. The honourable member for Coogee mentioned that among those 26 were the Aboriginal communities in the area. They are absolutely disgusted with the attitude of the Government. The honourable member for Coogee said that this proposal would advantage Aboriginal groups. That is an absolute, blatant lie. Incidentally, the Western Conservation Alliance was the only peak body of the 27 stakeholders that the Government listened to. It is interesting that 97 per cent of conservation outcomes demanded by the Western Conservation Alliance were agreed to by BRUS. The difference was 3 per cent, yet that 3 per cent was the difference between destroying a timber industry and preserving it.
The bill is so blatant in its desire to secure the vote of the ratbag extreme green element in Sydney that to achieve this end it will destroy a sustainable export industry, in which people do real jobs with their hands in the communities they love. With the passing of the bill their alternative will be to paint rocks under some sort of RED scheme—a scheme dreamed up by a brilliant Prime Minister by the name of Gough Whitlam! That was an insult to every working man and woman and every child in the Australian community. Not only do I oppose the bill, but I oppose the very people who crafted such community-destroying legislation to gain a handful of ratbag votes. Bring on 2007!
Ms KRISTINA KENEALLY (Heffron) [12.35 p.m.]: I support the Brigalow and Nandewar Community Conservation Area Bill. The honourable member for Barwon suggests that this is a grab to get green ratbag votes in the inner city. I am proud to be an inner city green. On behalf of myself and my constituents I reject the implication that we are ratbags. We are supportive of strong environmental outcomes whilst ensuring the wellbeing of local communities. This is Labor legislation through and through—providing significant conservation measures and ensuring that local families have a viable economic future. This legislation again demonstrates Labor's unique and highly successful approach to conserving natural and cultural heritage by recognising the need to permanently preserve areas of high conservation value as well as ensuring strong employment and industry outcomes to protect working people in regional communities.
We should bear in mind that this legislation will ensure a 20-year timber supply. That provides a level of certainty that those industries have not had previously. The bill will permanently protect 352,000 hectares of high conservation forests in new reserves. From an environmental perspective, this is significant. The Brigalow Belt has experienced a high rate of extinctions; species decline in this region is among the worst in Australia. The Brigalow Belt bioregion, which stretches from Dubbo to the Queensland border, covers 6 per cent of the State, yet it contains more than 40 per cent of the State's plant species.
Why does the Opposition believe that people who live in Sydney or rural areas cannot have a view on this important legislation? We are talking about a large portion of the State and a large portion of the State's plant species and biodiversity. Many endangered animals and plants call the Brigalow Belt home, including the black-striped wallaby, the koala, the Mallee fowl and the glossy black cockatoo. Plants and animals have been subject to some of the highest rates of decline and extinction in Australia. It is believed that 17 mammals are now extinct in the region. Woodland birds in the region are experiencing a wave of extinction. The Brigalow has one of the highest mammal extinction rates in Australia. The Brigalow Belt has been subject to very heavy clearing of native vegetation since European invasion. Only 30 per cent of the region remains covered by woody vegetation. The existing level of reservation is extremely low, and the bill seeks to reverse that.
Analysis of ecosystem mapping in the Brigalow region indicates that it contains at least 23 endangered ecosystems, 15 vulnerable ecosystems and 10 rare ecosystems. In many endangered bioregions, such as the Brigalow, the opportunities for further reservations are extremely restricted because all remaining habitat is extremely fragmented. However, the Brigalow Belt is unique because it contains several of the largest remaining temperate woodland patches in Australia, and they occur on publicly owned lands such as the Pilliga and Goonoo State forests. The land the legislation sets aside is the highest quality habitat for the most endangered species. Indeed, the Brigalow region is one of the 15 recently declared biodiversity hot spots around the nation—declared by the Commonwealth Government. The bill introduced by the Carr Labor Government's will protect 60,000 hectares of endangered ecological communities and vulnerable ecosystems.
However the legislation does not just provide crucial environmental protection, it also delivers a viable, value-added timber industry with up to 57,000 cubic metres of cypress pine per year available to the cypress industry in secure 20-year wood supply agreements. Again, this is a level of certainty for this industry. The Carr Government will also ensure that any timber worker affected by the legislative changes will have a job either at or near where they now live. Some $80 million will go towards job creation, timber industry development and conservation management over the next five years. Any person in the State who is interested in sustainable industry and sustainable environment should be proud to support the legislation. The Government is further ensuring that the full economic and employment potential of the region is accessible by ensuring that local gas and coal reserves can be accessed by the mining industry, that the apiary industry has full access to the forests for honey production, and that the timber industry has the support it needs to transition to low-volume, high-value industry.
Indeed, the legislation delivers what the Federal shadow Minister for the Environment, Anthony Albanese, describes as "the best economic outcome, the best employment outcome and the best environmental outcome". If the Opposition thinks that supporting legislation that delivers these outcomes makes one an inner-city green ratbag, then I am proud to embrace the term. History will show that only Labor governments protect forests. The Gallop Government took a principled stance to end the logging of old-growth forests. Its re-election confirms the merits of that approach, as do the actions of State Labor governments around the nation. The Beattie Government legislated to end broad-scale clearing of remnant vegetation forever, and in December it announced a comprehensive plan to protect more than one million hectares of western hardwood native forests. The Bracks Government has announced increased protection for the Otways in Victoria.
The Brigalow and Nandewar Community Conservation Area Bill demonstrates yet again that modern Labor governments establish significant conservation measures whilst always ensuring that communities are looked after. The bill furthers the Carr Labor Government's commitment to pursuing environmental protection hand-in-hand with economic growth. This legislation ensures sustainability: sustainable ecosystems in the Brigalow region, and sustainable jobs for local communities. I commend the bill to the House.
Mrs SHELLEY HANCOCK (South Coast) [12.43 p.m.]: I am pleased to contribute to the debate on the Brigalow and Nandewah Community Conservation Area Bill. I note some of the comments made last night by members opposite who are currently in the House which reveal that they neither read the bill nor tried to understand it. They were rather bemused by my intention to speak and made comments like, "What has this got to do with the South Coast electorate?" or "Why is the honourable member for The Hills talking about a waste levy?" Interjections of irrelevance on this point only added to the profound picture of ignorance that emerged last night from members opposite, one of whom is in the House today.
The purpose of my contribution is not to discuss the objects of the bill, because I appreciate the comments of the honourable member for The Hills last night and earlier comments of the honourable member for Barwon. However, I am certainly aware of reaction to it in communities such as Gunnedah and elsewhere which apparently feel betrayed by the actions of the Government given previous commitments by the Premier about their concerns. My purpose in speaking to the bill is to focus on object (g) in the overview of the bill. I ask honourable members present to note the provisions of object (g), which states:
abolishes the Waste Fund established under the Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Act 2001 and requires the money from that fund to be transferred to the Environmental Trust Fund.
I note that object (e) states:
enables payments to be made to the Consolidated Fund from the Environmental Trust Fund, established under the Environmental Trust Act 1998, to offset payments from the Consolidated Fund for the purpose of implementing forestry restructure and assistance programs and schemes in the Brigalow and Nandewar and adjacent regions.
The bill provides for a trade of funds from the Waste Fund to the Environmental Trust Fund then to the Consolidated Fund for the purposes of the restructure packages. To fund some of the programs in the area outlined in the legislation the Government intends to abolish the Waste Fund. Those on the other side might ask, "So what? If we need to fund jobs in the area, why not use money already in the Waste Fund?" I understand that the fund has $80 million. The answer lies in the fact that the Waste Fund was set up by the Government as a tax on waste, a levy required to be paid by certain operators of licensed waste facilities such as local councils and, therefore, their ratepayers. Section 88 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 required that the levy be paid to the Environment Protection Authority for the purpose of providing an economic incentive to encourage waste avoidance and a resource recovery by increasing the cost of waste disposal.
We would probably all applaud that aim, except that for some time councils such as Shoalhaven City Council, Wollongong City Council, Kiama Shire Council, Wingecarribee Council and others in the Illawarra region objected to having paid the levy over a number of years with the expectation, backed by the commitment of the Premier, that 55 per cent of those funds would be hypothecated back to those councils for projects in their communities involving mitigation, waste reduction and other environmental considerations for the sake of their communities and their ratepayers. Councils argued that they wanted hypothecation. The Government gave some indication that there would be hypothecation, but in September 2003 councils in the Illawarra region were enraged to discover that the Government announced there would be no hypothecation, despite previous assurances, and that the full amount of funds generated from the section 88 waste levy would be retained by the Government.
Therefore, the Waste Fund would become the Government's slush fund and would not used for the environmental projects for which it was originally created. I was still a member of Shoalhaven City Council when it expressed its outrage about that, as did all other councils in the region. They have continued to do so in meetings of the Southern Councils Group, which was previously the Illawarra Region of Councils [IROC]. I have been present at a number of meetings and witnessed the sense of betrayal caused by this Government. Shoalhaven City Council showed its disappointment in reports to the council from staff and in a press release by the mayor. The council report states:
The NSW Government's actions are clearly inequitable in terms of the levy amounts, the catchment of operators who pay the levy, and the distribution of the levy funds for waste minimisation purposes. Strong representation needs to be made to government to:
• Express Council's concern that the intent of the levy is being ignored;
• Question the validity of classifying Council as part of the Extended Regulated Area;
• Question the method of administering the grant funding;
• Recommend that the total amount of Section 88 levy contributions is returned to the stakeholders who paid the levy for the explicit purpose of reducing waste and improving recycling and recovery.
In other words, councils wanted part of that money to be returned to them so that they could apply the funds to local projects, such as the rehabilitation of the old rubbish tip site at Sanctuary Point in my electorate. They had an expectation that part of the levy would be returned to them for environmental projects. Part of the report also called on IROC to form a lobby group to pressure the Government into reconsidering the abolition of the Waste Fund through this legislation. The lobby group was responsible for a postcard being printed and distributed to people throughout the Illawarra local government areas. The postcard points out the hidden tax that people pay to the State Government.
The postcard also states that in 2003 the State Government imposed a levy on all waste landfill at the rate of $13.20 per tonne. It is currently $15.20 per tonne. That contribution used to go toward waste minimisation but now it goes straight to State government coffers. The postcard also points out that the State Government keeps 18 per cent of the amount that councils charge ratepayers for waste disposal. The mayor of Shoalhaven has also been enraged by the Government's departure from the purpose of establishing the waste levy. He stated that the New South Wales Government's attitude to the waste levy, which has returned little or nothing to councils such as Shoalhaven, is a disgrace. He issued a press release which stated:
The Waste Levy is yet another cynical revenue-raising exercise by a State Government focused on extracting dollars rather than assisting local Councils to deliver services to their communities.
"Councils already are struggling with insufficient funding support from this State Government and the Waste Levy does little or nothing to assist."
At the Southern Councils Group meeting last week representatives were united in their opposition to the Government's position to retain the mass of assets reserve from [the] Levy.
"This money has been paid in by Councils—more precisely ratepayers—for more than seven years and little or nothing comes back to assist in waste management initiatives and projects... The fact that the NSW Waste Fund has a current cash surplus of $57 million—
and that was in 2003—
indicates that the whole levy scheme was inappropriate and ill conceived. This so-called Levy is a blatant de facto taxation revenue grab by this State Government."
The mayor went on to state the amounts that had been paid into the levy up to 2003. Shoalhaven City Council estimates that in 2005-06 it will contribute over $1 million towards the levy, but for no return. Despite continuing arguments advanced by councils that the money should be returned to them, the fund will be abolished as a result of this bill and the revenue that has been collected will be directed to an Environmental Waste Fund. The funds will then be directed to the Consolidated Fund in accordance with the bill's provisions. I have no doubt that when the councils in the Illawarra region discover the truth about the purpose of the bill as set out in object (g), they will be as outraged as they have ever been. I witnessed their anger regarding the provision relating to the Waste Fund and they will be absolutely appalled, as I am, to know that the fund that was correctly established to fund local community projects will not be directed to that purpose in any way whatsoever—at least the bill does not provide to the contrary. The revenue will go straight to this Government's slush fund to support its own private and pet projects.
Local government areas everywhere in this State are groaning under the cost-shifting practices of this Government over the past 10 years. I am aware of widespread applications by councils to increase their rates above the capped levels. Councils are finding it extraordinarily difficult to complete some of the basic projects that are required by ratepayers in their areas and are being forced to apply to increase rates above the prescribed levels—in some cases by as much as 9 per cent. That is not surprising when one considers that councils are paying contributions to levies of more than $1 million per year and that the money will be directed to a purpose associated with the Brigalow that is remote from the concerns of ratepayers in the Illawarra. The average ratepayer probably accepts unselfishly that people should be assisted to retain their employment. The people of the South Coast are aware of many decades when timber workers lost their jobs, and they do not want others to lose their employment.
However, when a levy has been set up under an Act of Parliament specifically to provide funds for resource recovery and waste minimisation projects in areas that have contributed to the fund, and the funds are later applied to some hidden purpose, that constitutes yet another example of this Government filling its own little slush fund for its future pet projects. Today I call on the Government to be accountable for the expenditure of funds associated with the trust fund established by the bill and show how the funds will be spent, including the amounts, if any, that will be returned to local communities that have contributed to the fund. I urge the Minister to ensure that 55 per cent of the funds already contributed by some local council groups will be returned to local communities to be applied to local projects such as waste minimisation, resource recovery and environmental waste projects—for example, the rehabilitation of the rubbish tip site at Sanctuary Point.
I call on the Government to be honest, accountable and open about how funds will be expended, instead of hiding its real agenda in paragraph (g) of the objects of the bill so that the people of this State and members of the Opposition will not be aware of what is happening. I also urge the Government not to dress up this legislation as a feel-good motherhood statement similar to those so frequently made during recent debates about protecting threatened species and biodiversity. Those aims are very easy to state, but the Government should think about the people, communities and environments that will be directly affected by this bill, especially the people who have been devastated by the Government's decision. Let us also consider people in areas such as the Shoalhaven, Wollongong, Wingecarribee and Kiama who feel cheated and betrayed by the Government redirecting their hard-earned money and thwarting their justifiably high expectation that at least 55 per cent of the money would be returned to them to be applied to local environmental projects. They will no doubt feel betrayed by this bill.
Debate adjourned on motion by Mr Russell Turner.
[Madam Acting-Speaker (Ms Marie Andrews) left the chair at 12.58 p.m. The House resumed at 2.15 p.m.]