Question Time – Forestry Industry, Thursday 16 November 2023

Senator BABET (Victoria—United Australia Party Whip) (14:48): My question is for the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Minister Watt. We’ve seen the unscientific decisions made by the Western Australian and Victorian state governments to shut down native forestry in their states. Australia is already a net timber importer, and, because we’ll be producing less timber locally, from which countries are Australia going to source their timber floors, timber decks, timber furniture, wood to build houses, et cetera, especially since we’re going to be importing so many more migrants? Do these countries practise sustainable forestry where at least one tree is planted for every tree harvested, as we currently do in Australia? Where’s our wood going to come from?

Senator WATT (Queensland—Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Minister for Emergency Management) (14:49): Thank you, Senator Babet, for the question. I’ve obviously been asked questions about forestry on a number of occasions by representatives of the Greens, but I welcome questions from other senators on this topic as well.

Senator Babet, the question that you asked goes to what I’ve said before when I’ve been asked about this issue, which is that the Albanese government supports a sustainable forestry industry, we support the committees that rely on that industry, and the reality is that the calls from some to eliminate native forestry on a very short timetable would leave us open to exactly the problems that you’re talking about. We are in a point in Australia where about 87 per cent of our timber and wood needs are met by plantation timber, and that number seems to be growing, so there are more and more uses for plantation timber.

But the reality is that, as things currently stand, we do rely on Australian native forestry to produce a number of products, including some of the home furnishings and other highgrade products that you’re talking about, Senator Babet. If we were to follow the calls of some to eliminate that industry very quickly, that would leave us open to the need for imports from other countries which do have, in general, lower environmental standards than Australia.

So what we want to do as the federal government is work with the states and territories, with industries and with the community to ensure that we can meet our forestry and timber needs. That’s exactly why, heading into the election, we made around $300 million of commitments to expand the forestry industry, modernise it, improve its efficiency, improve the skill base of its workers and actually plant more plantations. That’s what we want to do: to develop that sustainable forestry industry that all Australians rely on, not to mention the regional committees in particular that depend upon it for their livelihoods and their local economies.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, first supplementary?

Senator BABET: Thank you, Minister. The native forest workforce are obviously skilled forest firefighters, and they assist our firemen and firewomen in fighting bushfires. In the 2019-20 fires, 284 forest contractors used 190 harvesting machines to save rural properties and lives. Since we’re shutting down the native-timber-harvesting industry in Victoria, what work, if any, is being done by you to help with the next fire season?

Senator WATT: Thanks, Senator Babet. Your question goes to one of the other reasons that we need to have a sustainable forestry industry, and that is the role that our foresters play in ensuring that forests are maintained in a way that reduces bushfire risk. That’s, of course, a very real risk, as we enter this summer, in many parts of the country. The work that our foresters do to maintain those forests and preserve bushfire trails and all sort of other things in our forests is critical work to make sure that we prevent that bushfire risk. Again, if we were to proceed down the path that some are calling for in immediately locking up forests in a way that wouldn’t allow for that kind of forest management activity, that would present a risk of increasing the risk of bushfires, something that we need to take seriously. That’s why these matters are not simple matters. They don’t work simply as the bumper sticker slogans that some are fond of using. We need to actually approach the issues carefully and in a considered manner, and that’s what we’re doing.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, second supplementary?

Senator BABET: Last year the current Prime Minister made an election commitment to protect the Tasmanian native forest industry. He said: I promise you that if I become Prime Minister, a Government I lead will not shut down the native forest industry in Tasmania. Why won’t the government show the workers in Victoria the same support that they have given in Tasmania? Is it because Tasmania is the last Liberal state? Is that what’s going on?

Senator WATT: Senator Babet, I know you’ve attempted to transform yourself into Inspector Clouseau by solving the mystery there, but I’m afraid to say that you’re incorrect there. You are correct that the current Prime Minister did make a commitment to Tasmanian forestry workers and Tasmanian forestry communities heading into the election: that this government would not shut down Tasmania’s forestry industry. I can’t remember the exact terms of that commitment. I know that was a commitment that Senator Duniam welcomed, but more so the Tasmanian senators sitting on this side of the chamber, who very much appreciate the importance of the forestry industry to Tasmania.

That’s exactly why we are, as I said before, investing in our forestry industry, because we do want to see it continue. It’s not going to remain exactly the same. As I say, there is an increase in plantation timber going on. But we’re investing $300 million to modernise this industry, upskill its workers to be able to use the higher forms of technology that are coming online, build those plantation estates and continue to undertake native forestry.