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Labor pro RFAs unless EPA or Greens interfere

Joel Fitzgibbon

The federal ALP has backed the Regional Forest Agreements and denied the party’s proposed federal Environment Protection Authority would overrule the RFAs. Labor’s shadow minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Joel Fitzgibbon, said the party was committed to the ongoing RFAs. Source: Philip Hopkins for Timberbiz

He was speaking during a debate in Launceston last week with the federal Coalition’s Assistant Minister for Agriculture, Senator Richard Colbeck, that was organised by the Australian Forest Products Association.

“The RFAs underpin the certainty for industry. From a policy perspective, we are committed to the five-year reviews and a long-term future. We will try and rebuild confidence in RFAs to ensure the reviews take place in a timely way,” he said.

“We want to strengthen Commonwealth-state ties further. The Coalition abolished the COAG committee in forestry for some reason. We want maximum co-operation between the Commonwealth and the states.”

The ALP’s forestry statement stipulates that the RFAs should be based on the best available science taking into account social, economic and environmental factors.

“Labor supports proper, independent and full scientific assessments of RFA outcomes as part of the agreed framework. This includes all relevant science, including climate science and impacts on threatened species,” the policy says.

AFPA chief, Ross Hampton, queried whether some ‘guidance’ could be recommended to the states, which had regularly unilaterally removed taken productive forests from industry despite the RFAs.  Victoria just recently removed another 5000 hectares from production, he said.

Mr Fitzgibbon answered: “We expect the states to adhere to the principles of the RFA.”

Senator Colbeck said to take land out was part of the negotiation process.

“That’s how most of the changes have occurred …. States do have sovereignty over their own land and they do make decisions in that sense,” he said.

Mr Fitzgibbon said the reserve system was a matter for state governments.

“No one wants the Commonwealth to take over forestry management. We have RFAs because the Commonwealth has constitutional impediments to manage the forests. We try to do that through agreements with the Commonwealth, but the management of forests is with the states,” he said.

“We want the states to make their own decisions, but we hope the states consult their own communities, and produce the economic, social and environmental benefits we expect as a community.”

Former Tasmanian forestry leader, Terry Edwards, queried whether the RFAs’ exemption from the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act would remain if Labor won government.

Mr Fitzgibbon said: “I believe it will remain exempt. We won’t have an agreement with the states and override it at the first opportunity.”

Senator Colbeck said it was a legitimate question whether the new EPA arising from the review of the EPBCA would have an effect on the RFAs. The rhetoric of Labor’s environment spokesman, Tony Burke, emphasised damage to the natural environment and spoke about stricter management on land clearing.

“My concern is the influence of Tony Burke on environment policy at the national level.  What is the impact of the EPA? That is a hanging question, it is a serious question. They will need the support of the Greens to get it through the Parliament and the Greens will extract their pound of flesh for that. We know the Greens hate the RFAs and they will want to have some impact on the RFAs to pass the legislation,” he said.

Mr Fitzgibbon rejected the suggestion as a “scare campaign”.

“Tony Burke will be environment minister. He’s a former forestry minister, he knows the issues well,” he said.

“We want farmers and forests to be in the CFI (Carbon Farming Initiative), to earn money in the carbon economy, which they can’t do currently. They will be able to get carbon offsets, so that when the big polluters can’t keep below their targets, they can buy offsets from a farmer or tree growers.”

On the issue of the environment and native forest, Senator Colbeck said the broader science confirmed that the landscape approach was the best way to harvest the forest.

“You can spread the impact and cycle of forestry over a wider area … to manage the forest and biodiversity and other values, the more widely it’s spread across the landscape, the less the local impact can be, the better you can manage the forests and all the potential impacts,” he said.

While not wishing to provoke an argument between the native forest and plantation sectors, Senator Colbeck said in the context of timber supply, environmental values were better managed by native forest.

“A native forest regime is better for biodiversity, water quality and carbon storage, and can assist with fire management,” he said.

“Plantations are really important for a strong supply of a common, consistent product. Both have their place but the native forest industry should be the basis of high-quality products because the best quality timber is slowly grown in a native forest regime.”

Senator Colbeck said the Coalition had completed RFAs with Tasmania, New South Wales and Western Australia, and “we are in conversation with Victoria”. The 20-year rolling RFAs had five-yearly reviews. The minimum time for resource security was 15 years, which was extended to 20 if the reviews were done.

“That is our continued commitment. We must stop mucking around with them. That’s been the problem, particularly since 2004, when we keep chipping away at them to get votes in Sydney and Melbourne,” he said.

Before 2004, forestry policy was bipartisan, but then Labor leader Mark Latham changed that in 2004. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years meant there was no continuation or extension of bipartisanship in the forest industry, especially in Tasmania, he said.