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Friday Analysis: Victorian forestry fighting back

Fenning Sawmill Bairnsdale

There are signs the timber industry is getting organized for a fight in Victoria. Well, better organized. The Australian Forest Products Association started the ball rolling some time ago working at times with joint media releases with the Victorian Association of Forest Industries (VAFI), and the Australian Forest Contractors Association (AFCA). Source: Bruce Mitchell

This was followed this week by Victoria’s processors of hardwood timber forming a new association to fight the Victorian State Government’s decision to shut the native forest industry.

The Victorian Hardwood Sawmillers Association is separate from VAFI the industry’s traditional lead body.

But VAFI still represents the entire life-cycle of forestry products, including hardwood and softwood forest growers, harvest and haul contractors, hardwood and paper processors, and associated businesses across both the native forest and plantations sectors.

Some of the new group are still members of VAFI.

But it does represent a solid collection of sawmillers – Fenning Timber,  Ryan and McNulty (Benalla), Walkers (Corryong), Powelltown Sawmills, AG Brown (Noojee and Drouin West), Reid Bros (Yarra Junction), Radial (Yarram), ASH (Heyfield), Longwarry Timber, Parkside (Orbost and Bairnsdale), Kellys Timber (Yarra Junction), Warburton Timber, Dormit (Dandenong), Mectec (Newmerella) and Montana Timber (Montrose).

It is the sort of group that can speak with genuine authority to governments about the impacts policies such as the native timber decision can have.

It’s an excellent tactic because the Victorian Government certainly isn’t really listening to anyone at present unless they support the native timber decision.

Victorian Minister for Agriculture Jaclyn Symes is a case in point.

Her comments in State Parliament bizarrely blaming diminishing timber supply on the coronavirus pandemic and the bushfires beggar belief.

As the AFPA was quick to point out, timber demand has never been stronger and, as the world moves away from plastics and carbon intensive building products, that demand is forecast to grow.

This has been backed up in part by this week’s announcement that the world’s talent timber building is to be built in Sydney.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences’ forest and wood product statistics show an annual increase in consumption.

There can indeed be little doubt the Victorian Government certainly isn’t listening to anyone at present.

The atmosphere in Victoria turned even uglier this week with VicForests handed another legal injunction to stop its operations, after the Supreme Court heard allegations it had breached logging regulations in 14 coupes in the Central Highlands.

This new court action places further pressure on the agency, which is now facing five court challenges from crowdfunded community environmental groups.

The new sawmilling group and the AFPA has a fight in front them.

The industry did have a win this week with bushfire-impacted industries welcoming the $50 million bushfire recovery package announced by the Federal Government.

In the big picture, it doesn’t seem a lot, and how it will be distributed wasn’t fleshed out.

But, with more than $1.4 billion in recovery and relief already rolling out to bushfire-affected communities for everything from direct hardship payments and support to clear debris, through to wildlife rescue and financial counselling, these new programs will certainly be a boost for recovery.

AFPA Chief Executive Officer Mr Ross Hampton said the support package would go a long way to helping forest product industries in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, devastated by the Black Summer bushfires and now facing unprecedented long-term resource shortages.

That the Federal Government did listen and did respond to the crisis facing the industry because of the bushfires deserves a big tick.

Forest and Wood Products Australia WoodSolutions program reached a milestone this celebrating 10 years of providing high-quality, easy-to-understand information about the benefits of timber to the build sectors.

Initially designed to support FWPA’s mission of increasing demand for and acceptance of timber in construction, the program has proven successful in demystifying timber and educating those involved in building-material specification about how it can be most effectively used.

The message is getting through. Anyone who watches television programs such as Britain’s Grand Designs and Grand Designs Australia can’t help but notice the increased use of timber in construction.

Meanwhile, the Eden-Monaro by-election looms – it’s just a week away.

The by-election looks a lot different to previous elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with changes to both campaigning and voting because of social distancing regulations.

It is expected that this by-election will have an increase in pre-poll and postal voting, as was also seen in March at the Queensland Local Government elections when the coronavirus pandemic was picking up in the country.

Labor’s Eden-Monaro candidate Kristy McBain launched her campaign “virtually” on Facebook, in what she is calling the first ever live-stream campaign launch in Australia.

A poll of 800 voters across Eden-Monaro, commissioned by the AFPA, confirmed that bushfire recovery is a priority for voters, with 58% saying they are more likely to vote for a political party or candidate that stands for increased funding to help bushfire-affected communities.

Whether the latest cash-injection announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the electorate this week will have that desired effect remains to be seen.

It’s going to be a long week in Eden-Monaro.