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Opinion: Gary Blackwood – I grieve for the Victorian native timber industry

Gary Blackwood

The following is an extract from the Grievance Debate in Victoria’s Legislative Assembly- Wednesday, 1 December 2021.

I grieve for the Victorian native timber industry, the immediate threat to its existence caused by feral green activists, the medium-term threat to its existence posed by the Andrews government’s forestry plan and the impact of its potential closure on the economic recovery of Victoria from the COVID pandemic.

Despite 94 per cent of our public native forest being excluded from harvesting, locked up in parks and reserves, leaving 6 per cent for sustainable timber production, feral green activists continue to use vexatious litigation to stop harvesting in our native forests. VicForests has defended every court case with factual evidence about their forest management practices that are held in high regard. VicForests have won outright or on appeal every case they have had to answer and defend. However, the time taken by the court process has severely impacted on their ability to maintain supply to their customers. The feral greens know this and deliberately apply for court injunctions to undermine the timber release plan. Victoria is already battling with a massive shortage of timber products, and homeowners are being slugged with massive price increases because of the enormous demand and dwindling supply. Of course, a big reason for this is the impact of the recent bushfires on our softwood plantations, where there will be a gap in supply for construction material for at least 10 years. However, the alternative, to switch to hardwood, is being undermined by the supply constraints imposed by green federal court action. Our pandemic recovery is going to be seriously hampered if our construction industry cannot be supplied with building product in a timely manner and if the contribution of around $600 million in economic activity created by the native forest industry is withdrawn. Right now we have workers at Dormit in Dandenong being stood down. Dormit manufacture pallets that are a critical accessory used in the transport of goods to supermarkets and hotels, including confectionery and many other products. The shortage of pallets is going to seriously impact the deliveries of beer and chocolates for Christmas, as the member for Murray Plains said earlier. I should not be making light of this matter because the impact is going to be devastating. My major concern is the workers and their families—stood down just before Christmas. How is their Christmas going to go? Why should they be impacted just because of the politics of a minority group who want to shut a legitimate industry down? The CFMEU manufacturing division, led by Michael O’Connor and Travis Wacey, have been extremely active in this space on behalf of their workers doing something all union organisers should take heed of—standing up for their members despite the political pain they will be subjected to. Can I quote from a recent flyer put out by the manufacturing division of the CFMEU. It says: Stop Victoria from running out of timber Tell Daniel Andrews to save timber jobs, save timber communities, and save Victorians from more pain this Christmas caused by the State’s worsening timber shortage. With shortages in Victorian timber supplies escalating because of the Andrews Government’s mismanagement of regulations meant to allow timber harvesting, urgent Government action is needed to prevent a pallet shortage impacting the delivery of goods and supermarket supplies ahead of Christmas. Forest contractors, their crews and timber workers should be busy producing timber for building supplies and to assist the economy keeping on moving by supplying pallet manufacturers with sawn timber Instead, many are already stood down and they, their families are facing a bleak Christmas as contractors are ordered out of coupes and mills run out of wood. Meanwhile, the pallet shortage could impact production and delivery of alcohol, and household supplies like toilet paper in the lead up to Christmas. And they go on to say: Call on Labor MPs to act now! Now, there is one of your own—your own union—calling out for a reasonable and sensible outcome and a reasonable and sensible amount of support to the industry from the Andrews government.

In recent days there has been a flurry of activity from anti-logging activists providing information to the media that is not based on science or fact. They are desperate to bring this industry to its knees before next year’s election.

It would not matter what the science is, what the facts are, what the needs are or what the alternatives are, they will continue to downgrade the importance of the industry and continue to downplay the reality of the situation in terms of science just to support their own particular agenda.

The Victorian native forest industry has become the most unjustly maligned industry in Victoria over recent years, the subject of unscrupulous, false and manipulated information from pseudo-scientists using their position to cause great harm to the reputation of VicForests, which in turn undermines the security of the native timber industry and causes enormous stress to contractors, processors and their workers—an industry that has proudly provided world-renowned timber products from a renewable resource that is regrown and an industry that has shared the forest with threatened species for decades.

Not one species of animal has become extinct because of timber harvesting in Victoria. The IPCC has supported the sustainable harvesting of native forest as a major contributor to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as harvested trees produce products that store carbon and the trees replanted increase our carbon sink. Indeed Senator Ciccone, the federal Labor senator for Victoria, recently referred to a paper produced by the Centre of Policy Studies at Victoria University. The report found that the forest industry was Australia’s greenest form of carbon capture and would need to grow to meet carbon targets. Senator Ciccone also said that radical activists needed to understand that attacking the timber industry is not going to prevent climate change. It is targeting an industry that needs to get bigger not smaller to protect our planet. So not only are radical activists shutting down an industry that addresses climate change, they are also trying to kill off an industry that is critical to the pandemic recovery of our state.

The Andrews government have no idea how to trigger a genuine COVID recovery, and their forest policy and lack of action to protect our sustainable industry is going to destroy the legitimate livelihoods of forestry families and wreck the economy of Victoria. The Greens have cost our state a lot of jobs but never created one. If something is not done to save this industry by this current government in the short term, Victoria is going to lose 20,000 jobs. The promise of this government to wind the industry back gradually from 2024 is fast disappearing. That promise is hollow now unless this government acts to stop feral activists from taking out court injunctions to stop harvesting. It is hollow. It is a complete backflip on their promise. I call on the Andrews government to really do something about this. Pull the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change into line, support the Minister for Agriculture to do what I know she wants to do and protect our industry. I do not agree with the closure of it in 2030, but at least keep it going until 2030 as promised and then we can deal with things from then on. So, I call on the Andrews government to stand up. Be serious about your union mates. Be serious about the people that support you. I am talking about the CFMEU manufacturing division. Be serious about them. Show them your true support, as they support you at every election. Do not let them down. Do not let their families down. Do not let this state down. Do something.

Gary Blackwood has been a Liberal Party member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly since November 2006, representing the electorate of Narracan. He has worked in the timber industry as CEO of Timber Transport and Harvesting business 1973-2003. Chief Executive Officer, Victorian Forest Harvesting & Cartage Council 2003-06.