Second reading

Danny O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (12:01): It is with great sadness that I rise to speak on this legislation today. The day the government decided to shut down Victoria’s native timber industry was a very sad day for the people of Victoria and indeed probably the start of the end of the once great blue-collar worker Labor Party. It is a symbol that the government has given up on the blue-collar worker and on the people that get out and harvest timber, drive the trucks, take it to the mills and process the timber and on many others in downstream industries as well that were once the heart and soul of the Labor Party in many respects – the F in the CFMEU. Yet this government turned its back on them in 2019 and has absolutely destroyed the industry ever since. Previous speakers have made it clear that the native timber industry in Victoria is a sustainable, renewable resource and one that provides jobs in our regions, industries in our towns and timber for our building sector. In a time of a housing availability and affordability crisis, to be shutting down one of the sources of the materials for that sector is just bizarre.

We have heard from previous speakers about the issues of sustainability. I would like to go to that, particularly in relation to climate change. Some members of the government, and absolutely those people up the back who call themselves Greens, will tell you that this industry is bad and contributes to climate change. Well, do not take it from me – take it from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Chapter 9 of its 2019 report stated:

… a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit …

That is what the IPCC said about a sustainable timber industry, which we had in Victoria. The simple fact is that trees grow back. You cut them down and the carbon does not disappear into the ether. It is here. It is here in this timber, here in this chamber. The carbon stays locked up. And what happens? You grow a new tree. And what do those new trees do? They capture carbon. For the Greens and some of the members of the government – I am only saying some of them because we know there are plenty over there that actually support this industry – to say that this is a bad industry for climate change is just the opposite of understanding the science. It is the opposite of good management of our environment, and it is the opposite of good deals for our economy.

I would like to thank and acknowledge all those people who worked at VicForests, the organisation that is being shut down by this legislation. I want to thank the VicForests employees – actual government employees – and their contractors, particularly the harvest and haul contractors, who have mostly been put out of work, or the work that they have usually done in this, and indeed all the workers in the timber industry, whether downstream in the haulage sector, in the mills or in the downstream industries utilising that timber, for their work over the years. I want to thank them for being stewards of our environment – notwithstanding all the stories that we have heard from particularly the left-wing media, saying repeatedly and often erroneously that they have been damaging the environment when they have not.

I am not saying they have got it perfect every time. But I thank VicForests in particular, and I thank those in senior management, who have done their best in the face of very difficult circumstances where for the past 10 years they have not once had a minister or a Premier who would defend them – not once has a minister gone out and defended VicForests and said, ‘They are doing what the government of the day wants them to do, they are looking after our forests, they are producing timber for our communities.’ Not once have they had that support, yet this organisation have been subject to some of the most aggressive lawfare of any organisation, certainly in the state of Victoria.

We have the green NGOs, the Greens political party and some in Labor who say, ‘The industry’s not sustainable; VicForests keeps losing money.’ It has lost money because it has had to spend tens of millions of dollars defending itself from lawfare. I will add the finding from the Auditor-General in his report in 2013 that VicForests does not receive subsidies. Yet those up there – the member for Melbourne – and those across there and those out there who would shut this industry down have been saying for years that it is subsidised by the taxpayer. It has not been subsidised by the taxpayer – the Auditor-General found that – and it has been subject to this lawfare, which has made it virtually insolvent because of the costs, and not once have we seen a Labor government minister go out and defend VicForests.

On the contrary, as the member for Narracan said, when My Environment lost a case against the government and against VicForests and were awarded $1.2 million in costs against them, what happened? Did they pay it? No, they did not pay it. Indeed it blew out to at least $2 million in interest costs, and yet the government turned a blind eye. So on the one hand you had VicForests suffering this lawfare to shut it down, to increase the costs on VicForests and the timber industry, and the government did nothing; and on the other side when one of the environmental groups gets $1 million in costs awarded against them, we just turn a blind eye – we do not worry about that. How disgraceful of this government. That money was owed to the people of Victoria but for base political reasons the Labor government chose not to pursue it.

And we have seen throughout this process the government chopping and changing. The member for Lowan did an exceptional job in outlining the timeline that we have seen with this industry and how the government has chopped and changed its views. First they said, ‘We’re going to transition to plantation timber’. It took them six years to do anything with $110 million allocated in the 2017 budget. They did not do anything with it. The government took six years to actually start planting some plantation timber, which of course was never going to replace us by 2030. Then in 2019 the government came out and said, ‘We’ll shut down the industry by 2030.’ So the industry started to plan for that; they started to make allowances. In particular the mills started to work out how they were going to survive without the supply of native timber. That did not happen because we had this decision in 2023: ‘No, sorry – we’re going to bring it forward by six years.’ And now ministers on the other side, including the Minister for Energy and Resources, had the gall in the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearings last week to say, ‘It’s not our decision to shut down the native timber industry; it was the courts.’ Well, that is absolutely false. As the member for Lowan pointed out, the government had the opportunity, just as New South Wales did, to legislate to minimise this third-party legal action that was attacking the timber industry, and they chose not to do it. I was the one that asked the Premier at the time last year, ‘Have you got legal advice? Why did you not take legal action to shut down this loophole?’ ‘We’ve got legal advice that we can’t do it’, said Daniel Andrews. And when I asked him for it, what did he say? ‘I can’t show you that, it’s legal confidentiality’ – so effectively ‘Trust me.’ It is just rubbish.

I now see the changes to the Gippsland landscape and the Gippsland economic landscape since I came into Parliament, which happens to coincide with this government being in power. You come across the hill at Hernes Oak and you look out to the blank space where Hazelwood power station used to be, and that saddens me every time. We knew it was going to close eventually, but it was brought forward by this government. And now we are seeing fewer and fewer native timber trucks on the road, and the absolutely extraordinarily stupid thing that we are seeing – the native timber trucks that you are seeing on the road these days are coming off the ferry from Tasmania. Indeed you are also seeing trucks bringing in timber from the United States to go into the mill at Heyfield. How do you reckon that is going for the emissions? How good is that for the environment, to be importing it from the United States instead of sustainably harvesting that timber right here in Gippsland and in Victoria? It is an absolute disgrace.

This government stands condemned for shutting down this industry, and I believe it will rue the day. We are already seeing that those blue-collar workers in the west and north are waking up to the Labor Party abandoning them, and it will continue.

Stay up-to-date

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