FORESTS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (COMPLIANCE AND ENFORCEMENT) BILL 2019

Council’s amendments

Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (10:01): Let us be very clear on what is going on here. This is another part of the continuing attack on the timber industry, its workers and its communities by this government. This is a piece of legislation that has been sitting on the notice paper for two years. There is a murky process around the moving of these amendments and this bill more broadly, absolutely murky. We had this bill sit there for two years and, as the member for Evelyn suggested, the government had given an assurance that this legislation would not be pushed through until the code of forest practice was finalised. Now, that has been put on the never-never by this government and continues to be so. Then we had the bill brought on last sitting week. We expressed our opposition to it in the upper house and made it clear that we would continue to fight for timber workers, for timber communities and for the timber industry generally, and the government proceeded. But then, lo and behold, out of the blue they pulled the bill—they adjourned it and did not want it voted on.

What has happened in the interim? What has the government actually been doing to get the votes it needs to get this legislation through? Why did the government withdraw the bill last sitting week? We know that there was pressure from the CFMEU. Previous speakers have talked about the efforts of Michael O’Connor. Quite rightly he has called the government out on it and he has called out the government backbenchers. I quote from a press release he issued on 13 September in which he referred to the legislation as an ‘outrageous approach that was reminiscent of a Kennett-style attack on workers and communities’. How do Labor members of this government feel about that, being referred to in the same breath as Jeff Kennett—by their own union, by their own affiliated Labor union, by a bloke who is on the national executive of the ALP, saying that you are undertaking an attack on workers?

This is the signal that the government got this wrong and it is a continuation of the government’s attack on the timber industry, on the rural communities that rely on the timber industry. And just quietly, they are going to reap what they sow at some point because that timber industry actually provides thousands and thousands of jobs downstream, particularly in the south-eastern and eastern suburbs of Melbourne, where many of those Labor backbenchers sit. They are absolutely unwitting as to what they are doing to the industry and to jobs in their electorates.

These amendments are part of that—rushing this on, giving the opposition no notice whatsoever to deal with these amendments. I note the minister at the table, the Minister for Agriculture, read out the amendments. Well, I am pretty sure all of us in this place can actually read. We can read what the amendments say, but as she said, for example, amendment 1 is:

Clause 2, line 28, omit “November 2020” and insert “March 2022”.

Did the minister explain what any of that means? ‘Did the minister know?’ is probably a more appropriate question. Did she just take the amendments and hand them over without actually even understanding what they are? Because she spoke for 2 minutes and clearly gave no indication of what these amendments actually do, what they say.

Now, they are dates and, as the member for Ripon indicated, there are a number of different dates in there, so it is clearly not just the same date replicated throughout the legislation. And we do not know what they are. For all I know, having not seen these amendments and having not read the bill for two years, this could be bringing forward the date of the government’s planned closure of the timber industry. Perhaps that is what it is. I do not know because we have had no opportunity to actually prosecute what is in these amendments and what this legislation is actually about.

We know the government has form on this. We cannot trust the Labor Party when it comes to the timber industry more broadly. When they announced the shutting down of the native timber industry a few years ago it was going to be as part of a transition, and we were going to transition to plantations. Well, that was an absolute sham. The government announced $110 million for additional plantations in the Latrobe Valley in 2017, and we are now past halfway through 2021 and there have so far been 500 hectares of plantations planted, all of that on land that was previously plantations anyway. The government eventually after a number of years and after a lot of questioning from us, particularly through the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee process, was forced to admit that, no, there is not really a transition. There is no way that we are going to have plantation timber available for sawlog production by 2030.

So what did the government do? It decided to bring in new legislation to make it even harder for timber workers, to make it harder for those contractors who are on the ground actually doing the job under already very, very strict conditions under the timber code of practice, under the VicForests practices that they implement. They are going to make it even harder. And as the member for Evelyn said, they are effectively putting in a strict liability clause to make timber workers liable if they breach a code of practice that we have not actually even seen—and they will be liable with a situation of ‘guilty until proven innocent’, completely reversing the onus of proof on the timber industry—and doing that at a time when that industry’s union is calling it out and calling on government backbenchers and ministers to oppose this. The union, in that statement I referred to earlier, on 13 September called for the government to withdraw the bill from the notice paper and hold an inquiry, and I quote:

There is no reason why this Bill needs to be debated before proper consultation and serious concerns are addressed …

said Mr O’Connor. He continued:

As the laws would not come into effect until March next year, the Government has no excuse to try and rush this through now.

Well, that applies to these amendments too. I mean, even sitting here I heard the Leader of the House say ‘later this day’ with respect to these amendments—when we would deal with them—and then effectively move forthwith to actually debate these amendments. That is completely at odds with the good practice of this house and completely at odds with the views of the timber workers union, which has made the point, as I say again, that the laws do not come into effect until March next year. The government has no excuse to try and rush this through.

I know Michael O’Connor. I remember working with Michael a lot—Michael and Yorick Piper, both from the CFMEU—when I was a journalist in Gippsland back in the 1990s. We had regular conversations with them, and I know they were very passionate about their jobs and very passionate about the jobs of their workers and the industry more broadly. And it is just extraordinary that this government completely ignores the views of the union and not only with the bill but, contrary to what Mr O’Connor has said about that, we are now seeing these amendments being rushed through with no discussion. As I said, we have not had the opportunity to see exactly what these amendments do, and it is unconscionable that the government would expect the Parliament to just wave them through in a circumstance where, as I said, the government has had this legislation for two years sitting on the notice paper. It decided last sitting week in the upper house to bring the legislation on. So it had the opportunity then to change the dates if it chose to do so, and yet here we are two weeks later and we are having to deal with this mess. As I said, we just cannot trust this government. I know part of the concern of the union and certainly the concern of members in the upper house was about the fact that the code of practice has not yet been finalised—the new code of practice—and that is having an impact. Mr O’Connor actually said that this legislation, quote:

… only further enhances the ability of opponents of the industry to use warfare and strategic ‘SLAPP’ lawfare—which is not really about upholding the law but manipulating it.

Now, that stands for ‘strategic lawsuit against public participation’, and we are seeing that time and time again in the industry at the moment, where environmental activists and groups are taking legal action. It is happening in my own electorate, in the forests of Alberton West, where timber workers had been locked out of a coupe that they had almost finished because of lawfare, because of legal action. The union is calling that out and saying that this government’s legislation is going to do the same and that there is no need for this government to rush this legislation.

This is yet another attack on timber workers. It is another attack on timber communities. It is an attack on the timber union. It is an attack on the timber industry right throughout Victoria, including in those parts of Melbourne where downstream supply creates huge amounts of jobs. I think the figures are around 20 000 jobs in the furniture, construction and manufacturing industries, and this government turns its back on this sector because it wants to fight off the member for Brunswick and his colleagues. It wants to fight off the Greens. It wants to be greener than the Greens and show that it can be tough. I condemn this government for its action on the timber industry broadly, I condemn them for this legislation and I condemn them for rushing through this amendment now.

Stay up-to-date

Subscribe to Danny’s regular newsletter to stay informed about issues relating to Gippsland South.