Legislative Council Forestry Inquiry

On 17 January 2013 Alistair Graham and Peter McGlone gave a presentation on behalf of the TCT to the Legislative Council Select Committee Inquiry (Select Committee) into the Tasmanian Forests Agreement Bill (TFA Bill). The Councillors seemed very keen to hear the TCT’s views. Questions focused mainly on our key concern i.e. the TFA Bill, if unchanged, will lead to the weakening of the Forest Practices Code or prevent it being strengthened and the negative impacts this would have on biodiversity.

There were a few questions regarding certification and surprisingly nothing regarding the Vision Statement, which we see as seriously flawed, nor the implications of the TFA Bill for the possible reform of Forestry Tasmania (FT). Our full submission including attachments is available on the Parliament of Tasmania website. The key points raised are included below.

Will the Legislative Council address the TCT’s key concerns?

From questions and comments during our presentation and during the several days we were present in the hearings, it looks as though a clear majority of Councillors acknowledged and have some level of concern regarding our key concern that the TFA Bill will lead to the weakening of the Forest Practices Code or prevent it being strengthened.

The Councillors did not want to discuss any amendments at length nor show their support or opposition for them. This may come later after the formal committee process has been completed. Being the good poker players they are, it was not possible to know how concerned any Councillors are and if any, let alone a majority, would support our suggested amendments to safeguard the Forest Practices Code.

It is also not possible to determine if they were truly concerned and would want to address this flaw in the Bill or would just use our concerns just to justify voting against it or seeking amendments. We are seeking meetings with key Councillors to press them to support our proposed amendments.

Will the Select Committee process effect how they will vote?

The select committee has received more that one hundred written submissions, totalling many thousands of pages, heard presentations over days of hearings which have been transcribed into pages of Hansard. The committee has also had countless hours sitting in private.

What will the result of this be? If you were thinking the Select Committee would come up with a clear agreed recommendation that would tell us how they would vote, then you will be disappointed. On 11 February 2013 the Chair of the Select Committee Paul Harriss was quoted in the Examiner and Mercury newspapers saying that the committee’s report would contain findings but would not include any recommendations. He said it would be up to each individual Councillor to propose amendments.

Put another way, it seems clear that the committee could not reach a consensus view on the TFA Bill and the outcome will be decided on the floor of the Legislative Council – it sits again on the 19 March.

Hopefully, all the work of the committee is not a waste of time and helps Councillors to identify flaws in the Bill and what amendments are required to fix them.

How will the Councillors vote? Will there be amendments?

By protocol, the President of the Legislative Council, if called upon to vote, is required to vote down a Bill. For the TFA Bill to be passed, a 7:7 split vote must be avoided. It must get a minimum of 8 votes in support to be passed. Conversely, there need only be 7 opposed for it not to pass.

Note: The committee includes 13 of the 15 councillors. By protocol the President does not participate in a Select Committee and one councillor, Kerry Finch (who strongly supports the original TFA Bill), declined to be involved in the committee.

It seems very clear though that out of the 13 Councillors who are members of the Select Committee 10 are strongly fixed in their view of the current TFA Bill: 6 are opposed and 4 are supportive.

During the debate on the TFA Bill in December, all Councillors except for the President stated voting intention. The Councillors were split 7:7.

It seems clear that 5 of the 7 who stated in the debate that they were inclined to support the Bill are rock solid and the presentations have not made them change to being opposed.

Six out of the 7 who indicated in the debate they opposed the Bill have not shifted their position to being supportive.

But their position on the original Bill is not as important as what amendments get proposed.

But the 3 who did not strongly support or oppose the original Bill will probably be the key to the final fate of the TFA Bill.

Tony Mulder and Rosemary Armitage said in the debate they were inclined to support the Bill but voted for the committee inquiry and, in the case of Mulder, had significant concerns and wanted the opportunity to propose amendments. Mulder also identifies himself as an ‘Independent Liberal’, and has said many things which make you believe he sides with the Liberal Party approach.

During the committee hearings Rosemary Armitage has not overtly supportive of the Bill nor did she stated any clear concerns – she says very little.

Adrianna Taylor indicated during the debate that she would not vote for the Bill at that time but nor did she reject it. She wanted more time to consider its implications and perhaps improve it. She was particularly aggrieved at being pressured by the state and federal governments.

In recent media comments she has said that some of her concerns have been addressed but watching her in the Select Committee it seems that she is still wanting to see how the Bill can be improved and will not want to be bullied into accepting what the government gives them.

My guess is that both the supporters and opponents will want to attempt to avoid the Bill in its current form being voted down. Both groupings will propose amendments to attempt to sway the three fence-sitters – Tony Mulder, Rosemary Armitage and Adrianna Taylor.

These three critical Councillors have not shown any clear sign they are swaying one way or the other but based on comments they have made it seems unlikely all three can be convinced to support the TFA Bill unchanged.

The most likely outcome is that the councillors who have stated their opposition to the original Bill, who are close to a majority, will put up substantial amendments but they face the difficult task of convincing all three of the fence-sitters. This is because Vanessa Goodwin must follow Liberal party policy and vote down the TFA Bill regardless of any amendments which are proposed.

Why would the opponents propose amendments? The Councillors appear to be feeling enormous pressure to not block the TFA Bill, to avoid the tag of being an obstructionist house. But at the same time these Councillors face pressure from their constituents and some in the forest industry to not ‘lock-up more areas’ or ‘not close down the forest industry’. So the opponents could be expected to pass a greatly amended Bill and leave it to the lower house to decide its fate.

So this is why we have some hope that serious amendments will be proposed and the TCT’samendment to safeguard the Code has a chance.

The most likely amendment that the opposing Councillors will seek is to enable each house of the parliament the option to vote for or against each individual reserve or small batches of reserves. This would give the Councillors the ability to vote against reserves that are opposed by their constituents. This would probably appeal to the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania (FIAT) because it would enable them to actively lobby against the reservation of areas with important timber resources. The Australian Government would be happy as long as the World Heritage area extension was approved and having the Tasmanian Parliament reserved those parts of the extension which are currently state forest, 123,000ha, would be a bonus. The signatory ENGOs would say they are concerned but would not withdraw their support for the TFA Bill. This all sounds plausible.

The $64,000 question is: will the Legislative Councillors support our proposed amendment to safeguard the Forest Practices Code or will they support the ‘sovereign risk’ amendment proposed by the FIAT which in effect will guarantee that the Forest Practices Act and other acts cannot be strengthened in any way which restricts industry?

Summary of the TCT submission to the Legislative Council:

  • The need to ensure that the Forest Practices Code is not downgraded (and the Forest Practices Authority (FPA) that implements it is not undermined) and that the FPA’s advice currently before the Minister to upgrade the Code to improve its biodiversity conservation provisions is acted upon.
  • The importance of ensuring that any certification of native forest harvesting regimes is a genuine attempt to incorporate best practice forestry rather than allowing additional reservation to excuse poor standards and that overcutting native forest as part of a transition to plantations is not given any imprimatur of sustainability.
  • The importance of recognising the serious deficiencies in the ‘Signatories’ Vision Statement included as a Schedule to the Bill as a de facto statement of government forest policy; and the resultant dangers of exempting Vision-implementing actions from the state’s planning and environment laws.
  • The need to ensure that government commitments to reform Forestry Tasmania, in line with advice from URS Australia’s Strategic Review stage 2 report of August 2012, are not frustrated and that fundamental reform of institutional arrangements for the management of both state forest and reserved land is undertaken as a matter of urgency.
  • The need to recognise that the TFA Bill would deliver significant conservation outcomes, primarily through reservation of wilderness and World Heritage value forests on public land.
  • The importance of recognising that the Commonwealth, with the support of the Tasmanian Government, is likely to proceed immediately with a renomination of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area to extend the boundaries to the east and north, based on Map C annexed to the Signatories’ agreement.
  • The importance of getting it right on ‘forest carbon’ policy not only to take advantage of commercial opportunities afforded by reductions in greenhouse gas emissions associated with reduced levels of logging, but also to avoid the perversities associated with encouraging the development of biomass or biofuel industries based on wood from native forests.