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Blindsided by Victorian Bill that would result in huge fines for contractors

The Nationals Member for Eastern Victoria Region Melina Bath and East Gippsland timber harvester Rob Brunt.

A Bill which opponents claim would result in Victorian native forest logging contractors facing huge fines for failing to comply with a Code of Practice for Timber Harvesting that is still under review has been passed in the Upper House and sent to the committee stage.

The Victorian timber industry was blindsided on Friday by the government’s decision to bring this Bill forward despite it having been sitting on the notice paper for the best part of 18 months. Source: Timberbiz

The member for South Eastern Metropolitan Gordon Rich-Phillips told the Upper House on Tuesday that the Victorian timber industry was blindsided on Friday by the government’s decision to bring this Bill forward.

“It has caused a great deal of concern in the Victorian timber industry that this Bill has suddenly been brought on after being in hiatus for 18 months,” he told the house.

“It has caused that industry to over the weekend respond very quickly, to have to contact members of Parliament and make representations unexpectedly.

“It highlights the government’s failure to consult, the government’s failure to engage properly, that this has been brought on with no notice, with no consultation.

“We are in a situation now of the industry which is going to be heavily affected by this having to scramble to respond.”

The Forests Legislation Amendment (Compliance and Enforcement) Bill would grant departmental officers the right to halt harvesting, and the Office of the Conservation Regulator the power to demand contractors hand over diaries and documents, to check for breaches of the code.

There are fears the new laws will encourage even more anti-logging activists to harass and dob in harvest and haulage contractors for the most minor code breaches, from dropping a tree into a buffer zone to harvesting just outside a designated coupe.

But the Opposition says the government should halt the Bill until it completes its Code of Practice for Timber Harvesting review, otherwise the entire timber industry would be left in the dark over what it can and cannot do.

“This has left timber workers in an untenable situation, and they will have no idea whether they will be breaking the law or not,” Opposition environment spokeswoman Bridget Vallance said.

“It makes no sense to ram through these new unfair laws that target timber workers when the timber industry doesn’t even know what requirements will be contained in the new Code of Practice.”

Eastern Victoria MP Melina Bath told the House she believed the government “seems to want to always focus specifically on the timber industry as if somehow it is a pariah, as if somehow it is the whole representation of forests in our state”.

“But what is happening in this particular Bill is a flawed overhaul,” she said.

“The Bill makes it easier for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning or third parties to prosecute VicForests, the contractors and the timber harvesters.

“These harsher penalties are the very chains around their legs and their industry.

“It removes the right to defend against a charge that would constitute a minor infringement under the code. It really seeks to somehow, again, penalise and drag down a very sustainable industry, and you have to ask why.”

Forest and Wood Communities Australia managing director Justin Law said timber workers were already suffering the effects of years of legal challenges, activists shutting down coupes and the Victorian Governments’ decision to phase out native forest logging by 2030.

“Contractors feel like they’re being persecuted, not only by the activists, but now by the government,” Mr Law said.

The union representing timber workers, CFMEU Manufacturing, said there had been inadequate consideration of the impacts of the Bill on timber workers and forest contractors, and the state’s timber supply. The outrageous approach was reminiscent of a Kennett-style attack on workers and communities, according to the union.

The union has serious concerns the new laws will embolden the behaviour of forestry workplace invaders compromising health and safety of contractors and crews, prevent forest contractors from doing their jobs, and further jeopardise Victoria’s wood supply in a time of shortage.

“There is no reason why this Bill needs to be debated before proper consultation and serious concerns are addressed,” the CFMEU Manufacturing Division’s National Secretary Michael O’Connor said.

“As the laws would not come into effect until March next year, the Government has no excuse to try and rush this through now.

“It needs to hold appropriate consultation and give an opportunity to have the impacts on timber workers and forestry contractors, as well as the ability for the Government to deliver its wood supply commitments, properly scrutinised.”

The union was given to understand that the Bill would not proceed until amendments to the Code of Practice for Timber Production were gazetted, which is yet to occur. The Bill increases penalties for non-compliance with the Code of Practice for Timber Production for forest and makes contractors and their workers to harsh penalties.

The union is particularly concerned at the potential for the Bill to enhance the ability of third-party litigants to use the supreme court to shut down the industry by having contractors injuncted out of coupes for simply doing their job in accordance with government policy including delivering wood volumes as outlined in the government’s forestry plan.

“This only further enhances the ability of opponents of the industry to use warfare and strategic ‘SLAPP’ lawfare – which is not really about upholding the law but manipulating it,” Mr O’Connor said.

The union said the legislation needed to factor in the impact of the 2019/20 bushfires and a potential increase in third party litigation against VicForests on Victoria’s timber supply.

“All of these issues should have been addressed before the legislation was brought back for debate, but there has been no further consultation with the union or industry prior to this happening,” he said.

“This chaotic approach to making laws is leaving out the voices of those most impacted.

“The union is calling on the Government to remove the Bill from the notice paper and hold a Legislative Council initiated inquiry which adequately provides stakeholders including the union to have our say on the Bill ahead of it being voted on.”