Tuesday, 21 June 2022
Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022
Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022
Debate resumed on motion of Ms THOMAS:
That this bill be now read a second time.
Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) (16:59): I rise to make a contribution on the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022. I suppose I might start with the Minister for Agriculture’s second-reading speech and make some comments on the second-reading speech and then move on to the details of the bill. In the minister’s second-reading speech she spoke about how all Victorians deserve to have a safe working environment. Forestry workers, like other workers, are entitled to be mentally and physically safe as they go about their work, regardless of how people may view that work, and the same principle applies to authorised officers and police officers as they go about performing their duties.
I think you will find that there is absolutely unanimity on that particular statement from all members in this chamber: we all believe that workers deserve a safe environment to work in. The trouble is that forestry workers in Victoria have not had that for a number of years now. They have been victims of protesters and the tricks that protesters play that have put their lives at risk, put their machinery at risk and put their livelihoods at risk and have caused them untold mental and financial anguish over that time. The minister touched on that further down in her second-reading speech, where she said:
Since the announcement of the Victorian Forestry Plan in late 2019, not only has forest protest activity increased in Victoria but protesters have developed dangerous new tactics to deploy at these protests. These tactics are continuing to evolve. These activities create an unacceptable risk to the safety of workers, authorised officers and police officers and the protesters themselves.
The Victorian government’s forest plan was released in 2019. We are now in 2022. To have had the forest workers of Victoria exposed to those risks for three years before we saw this piece of legislation coming forward I think is unacceptable. It is not something that a good government would do. If it was identified that there was a problem after the forest plan release in 2019, why did the government not act sooner to make sure that our forest workers were protected into the future? The minister went on further to say:
As a result, this shift in protest tactics has had a significant and detrimental impact on the mental health of some native forestry contractors and their families who are placed at risk of hurting themselves or others by these tactics.
I could not agree more. All the forestry workers that I talk to and particularly that a member for Eastern Victoria Region in the other place, Melina Bath, who has done a lot of work with the forestry industry in Victoria, talks to—they have been at their wits’ end. They have been suffering mental anguish. They have had severe financial pressure put on their businesses. Quite a few of those harvest-and-haul contractors have actually left the industry. They have left the industry for a number of reasons, the first obviously being that they were not getting enough work, and they had the challenges that I have just talked about that are mentioned in the minister’s second-reading speech. But they have lost staff. Their staff were not guaranteed continuity of work because of the protesters, so they had to go and find other work to make sure that they could feed and house their families, and the workers had the mental anguish of not knowing what was going to happen next with the protesters in those logging coupes.
This legislation is a good start in protecting the forestry workers in the logging coupes, but it is a start, it is not the end. There needs to be more done in the future to make sure that they actually have a safe workplace. But the fact that it has been basically three years that the government has known something should be done and nothing has been done I think is a total dereliction of duty on the part of the minister of the Crown and the industry that she purports to represent.
If you talk about, as in the second-reading speech, the three most common and dangerous tactics which have emerged in forest protests in logging coupes, they are:
The erection and occupation of ‘tree-sits’ at hazardous heights. These ‘tree sits’ have been built at heights where falls can cause death and with structures that are intentionally built to collapse if they are attempted to be removed.
For a logging team to have someone up a tree that they do not know how they can get down and not to be able to go about their role in actually harvesting that timber is something that I think is totally unacceptable, and a resolution should have been found before this legislation was brought before the house. Another tactic is:
Protesters locking onto or attaching themselves to active timber harvesting machinery. Due to the nature and size of this machinery this can cause significant safety issues.
It is not only a safety issue for the protester, it is a safety issue for the operator of that machinery. I do not know if other members have used large machinery in the past, but to have protesters in the close vicinity of that machinery and potentially locking themselves onto it while it is moving—I think it is just absurd that a protester would think that is acceptable behaviour at all, let alone doing it in a logging coupe, which puts them at even more risk.
Then they talk about the black wallaby tactics, which involve camouflaged, masked protesters running in and out of timber harvesting zones and back into the surrounding bush, causing significant safety issues, and they are very hard to detect on the premises. Again, why should that be allowed in today’s society and in a workplace? There should have been something done about this far sooner than the three years it has taken to get this done.
So under all that duress and stress, I would like to put on record from our side of the house our total support and thanks to the timber workers and the timber industry participants here in this state for what they have put up with over the last few years with protesters and for what they have done to make sure that they can create the employment they do down the value chain with the sawmills, with the furniture manufacturing industry, with the door makers, with the floor makers and with the stair makers. I would like to put on record our thankyou to those people for doing what they do to make sure we have the timber in this state under what I consider as quite significant duress.
Might I say also that some elements, I believe, of the Andrews government, if not directly, have tacitly supported these protesters and what they do, because there is this agenda from some in the government who want to appease the inner-city Greens to get preferences and do not really mind if there are protesters. They do not really mind that the workers in the timber industry were put through the circumstances that they were put through over the last few years. Yes, this legislation is a good first step in correcting some of that, but it has been far too long in coming. As I said, I believe not everyone in the government has been as firm as they should have been in making sure that these issues were resolved sooner.
One of the things that I think is lost sight of by those people who have been opposed to the native timber industry is that it is a sustainable industry. It is an excellent carbon store. If you look at the research, one of the best carbon stores we have is actually taking a mature tree, harvesting it, turning it into furniture, turning it into a sustainable product and then growing a new tree, because it is in that first 30 to 35 years of a tree’s life when it stores the most carbon. So it is important that we recognise that the native timber industry as part of climate mitigation is an excellent tool in storing carbon into the future. But there is an ideological view that you have to lock forests up and leave them. Now, that may have some benefits, but I suppose the key issue there is if you do not actually manage fire, if you do not actually manage the landscape, you have a worse outcome because you have the mega-fires we have had over the last couple of decades. If you have not done the controlled burns, if you have not managed the forest, you actually have more carbon released than any harvesting activity would release at all. And you only have to go to the 2009 Black Saturday royal commission to see the reports there and that particularly recommendation 56—that recommendation about planned burns and managing the landscape—has not been implemented. Initially the Andrews government embraced those recommendations, but it has since walked away, particularly from that recommendation. It is not doing the planned burns, it is not doing the management of the landscape, to make sure that we reduce the risk of mega-fires into the future.
One of the things that, again, Melina Bath in the other place has done a lot of work on is the firestick program, which is where we can work with our Indigenous community to actually manage the landscape in a better way. Victor Steffensen from north Queensland is an expert in this. We have had him down a number of times. He has run workshops to talk about how you manage the forest better, how you have white smoke compared to black smoke and how you do not have too hot a burn; you actually go back to managing the landscape as it was managed in the past, and you would not have that risk of mega-fires.
So I am very concerned that there seems to be an ideological view from the other side of the house that we lock our forests up, we do not harvest them, we do not manage them and somehow that delivers a good outcome for the environment. I do not believe that is the case, and I wish the other side would actually do something about that particular issue.
To get to the bill, the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022 amends the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004 to strengthen the existing regulation framework for timber harvesting and timber harvesting safety zones. This includes increasing penalties for existing offences, creating new offences and the introduction of a regime of banning notices.
Timber coupes are defined in a timber release plan that sets out the defined area that can be logged by VicForests contractors. There are signs up that define those coupes. There are signs up that actually designate the roads where the trucks will go in and out, and those coupes, as I said, are defined. This legislation applies to those coupes and within a 150-metre boundary of those coupes. I suppose the concerns that I would have, that this side of the house would have, with the legislation are that by having that defined as the coupe and the 150 metres a protester can effectively step over the line and an authorised officer or police cannot do anything about them as a protester, even if they know that as soon as they go away that protester will run back into the coupe and potentially cause trouble. As I said, this legislation is an important step in keeping the workplace safe, but I do not think it necessarily gives the authorised officers and the police the powers to deal with protesters who will game them and make sure they go on one side of the line and then run back across the line and cause trouble into the future. So I think there is the opportunity there to give the authorised officers and the police a little bit more power about potentially the intent of what someone might be doing to make sure they can actually move them on so they cannot just wait there for the police to go home or for the authorised officers to go home and then cause trouble into the future.
There has been a lot of support for the legislation. All members of Parliament would be aware of the email campaign that we had, where we all received a lot of emails from people out of the forest industry supporting this legislation, supporting it as a good first step. An example of the emails that I received—to me, obviously—is:
We support The Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022
Timber workers, like all Victorian workers have the right to go to work each day and do their job without having their health and safety compromised.
The Victorian Government has acted in the face or persistent and shocking behaviour by workplace invaders intent on disrupting activities in Timber Harvesting Zones in a way which is detrimental to the health, safety and mental wellbeing of forest contractors and crews and the economic security of workers, contractors, and timber communities.
People have a right to protest but the actions should be safe, properly targeted and appropriate and certainly not be directed toward timber workers, contractors and crews just trying to work on land allocated by the State for timber production.
Et cetera, et cetera. So the minister has, as I said, got a good first step and the industry is supportive of that first step, and I commend everyone who got behind that and ran that particular campaign. Deb Kerr, the CEO of the Victorian Forest Products Association, again with her group was very supportive of getting change in this industry. But if you talk to people out of the industry, like I said at the start, they believe it is only a good first step and they believe it should have happened a lot sooner than it has happened.
This bill increases the maximum fines, but one of the concerns historically the industry has had is that the court system does not necessarily use those higher fines as a discouragement into the future, or if they do, through crowdfunding or rich benefactors protesters effectively have their fines paid for them and they can go back and protest into the future without worrying about how they are going to pay those particular fines. I think a classic example of that is the fact that MyEnvironment got found guilty of an offence against VicForests for what they had been doing illegally previously. They were taken to court, they lost and they had costs awarded against them to the tune now that MyEnvironment has a debt to VicForests of something like $2 million. That has been sitting there for something like five or six years now, and at the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearing this year on 19 May, the Minister for Agriculture, under questioning from the member for Gippsland South, effectively conceded that VicForests has been instructed not to pursue that debt.
The minister—and I will paraphrase the minister—effectively said that she had instructed VicForests to be a model litigant and that if VicForests or the government was of the view that MyEnvironment could not pay that debt, they should not be pursued for that debt. Well, if the Victorian law got to the point where those who were viewed to not be able to pay a fine should not be fined, I think there would be a whole breakdown of the justice system of Victoria—
Mr M O’Brien: They chased after the plaintiff in the curfew case for costs.
Mr WALSH: They did. Again this legislation is a good first step, but if the Andrews government is serious about protecting workers in logging coupes from protesters, it would be a good sign of intent to the industry if VicForests was actually allowed to pursue MyEnvironment for the $2 million in court-ordered debt that is owed to them. That is a debt to all Victorians. That sits somewhere in the balance sheet of the collective government. The $2 million is owed to Victorian taxpayers by MyEnvironment. Why shouldn’t that money be pursued? Why shouldn’t that money be paid? Why should you and I have to have that debt sit there? Why shouldn’t our taxes have that money put in so we can have services delivered here in Victoria? So, yes, this bill goes as a good first step, but let us make sure the government actually shows it is serious. That seriousness would be a very good thing. It would be a very good sign of intent if the government pursued MyEnvironment for the $2 million that they are owed.
In, as I said, this bill not going quite far enough, there are restrictions of powers on police officers and authorised officers. For argument’s sake, they cannot do body searches of protesters. If a protester is standing there with a relatively tight pair jeans on and you can see a device in their pocket, like a thumb lock, for argument’s sake, which is a prohibited item to be having in those particular harvesting coupes, a police officer is unable to do anything about that because it is on the person’s body, even though they might see it in their pocket. The member for Benambra looks puzzled. As a former police officer, I am sure he would wonder: why, why, why? Why if an authorised officer or a police officer can see that someone has an illegal object in their pocket that no doubt is not there just for the picture of it—not just there because they want to feel it in their pocket; it is there to be used at some stage in the future—why can’t an authorised officer or a police officer do something about that particular device that is in someone’s pocket to stop them doing something?
As I said before, the restriction on the actual 150-metre radius around a logging coupe—again, why can’t an authorised officer or a policeman actually go outside that area if they believe there is an intent there for someone to do that? Because they can literally stand metres over the line and a police officer or an authorised officer cannot do anything. They are not going to be there 24/7. At some stage the shift is going to change. There are never enough people. It usually takes a day or two for authorised officers to turn up at these coupes where there is a protest. They are not going to stay there forever. They are going to go home at some stage. That protest is in the bush. They can come out and then they can do damage to the machinery of the contractors that are there. They can drive spikes into trees, which are very, very dangerous if hit with a harvesting saw. So they can do all those things by just waiting out there until the authorised officer or the police officer goes home. I think there needs to be an expansion of that in the future. They can effectively be taunting the authorised officers or the police and they cannot do anything about it at all.
One of the things that I find intriguing in this piece of legislation is that the government has increased the fines for having a dog in a harvesting zone. If I am a harvesting contractor and I have my faithful dog that goes everywhere with me, goes in the ute with me—when I was on the farm I had a dog that was in the ute or in the tractor or in the truck with me all the time—I cannot take it into a logging coupe. I cannot take my dog into a logging coupe. The excuse that is given is that it might be dangerous to the protesters if it attacks a protester. Spare me. If a protester did not go in there, they would not be at risk, so I do not see why a forest harvest worker is being denied the right to take his dog to work. What is he supposed to do—tie it up on the road before he goes in? Leave it at home when there is no-one there and it is not being socialised at all? That part of this legislation should be changed. A forest worker should be entitled to take his dog to work. Plenty of builders, plenty of brickies and plenty of tradies take their dogs to work. Why shouldn’t a forest worker be able to take their dog to work? I just do not see why they should not be able to do that. The context that was given to us in the briefing was it could be dangerous to a protester. As I said, if the protester does not go into the coupe and the protester does not cause any trouble, they will not be at risk, so I do not know who we are trying to protect in these particular circumstances.
The fines, as I said, have been increased substantially. The fines have been increased in line with the Wildlife Act 1975 to have a similar quantum of penalty units for the fines in this piece of legislation. What I find intriguing is that when we dealt with the Livestock Management Amendment (Animal Activism) Bill 2022 a few months ago we moved amendments to increase the fines in that legislation to the same level as is in this legislation and in the Wildlife Act, but the government opposed those increases. I do not know why farmers are not entitled to the same penalties against farm trespassers as there are in the Wildlife Act or in this forest legislation.
I pay tribute to John Gommans, who tragically passed away a month or six weeks ago. He was the owner of the Gippy Goat Cafe who suffered all the trauma and anxiety of the invasion there, which was the start of the whole campaign to get the farm trespass bill through this Parliament. Even now, if someone did a repeat offence at Gippy Goat, they would only get a maximum fine that is not as high as the penalties in this legislation or the Wildlife Act. I do not know why the government opposed those increases in fines that the coalition moved to the farm trespass bill that would have brought it into line with the Wildlife Act and the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act. Again, I would urge the government to go back and bring before the house a bill to increase the fines in the farm trespass act to marry them up with these other two pieces of legislation. If they do not and we have the opportunity to be in government, we will do that in the future.
I would just like to finish off, as I was paying tribute to the industry earlier, by thinking about all those harvest and haul contractors who are now working in the Wombat State Forest doing salvage timber there and what they have had to go through to get in there and be able to do the valuable work that they are doing. We all remember the storms of June last year and the literally thousands and thousands of trees that were blown over in the Dandenongs, in Gippsland and in the Wombat forest. There is an estimation that in the Wombat forest there are something like 500 000 tonnes of windfall timber, and it has taken far too long, with the government red tape and the issues that the department have put in front of the industry stopping them, to get in there to get that particular timber.
As the member for Narracan would know, if you do not harvest that timber in a certain time, the quality diminishes over time and it will not be sawlog, it will effectively just be firewood. Given the shortage of timber in Victoria, it would be a criminal action by the government if that timber ended up being downgraded to firewood rather than being sawlog. But if you look at those people that are in there now harvesting that timber for the good of all Victoria, they have got not only the protesters working against them, which this legislation will help to mitigate in some ways I hope, they have got the conservation regulator and the department working against them. Not only are they facing protesters, they have effectively got quasi-protesters from the government through the department that are putting them at risk and causing a lot of angst for them.
If you look at a particular contractor, Mr Greenwood and his wife, Chris, run a small business, JD Logging, with three harvest workers and four or five truck drivers, and the conservation regulator had demanded that they actually have documentation for all the truck routes, their drivers’ names and addresses, workers’ time sheets, all their business records—everyone that is linked to them and the salvage operation in the Wombat forest, and if they did not provide that they were going to face a fine of something like $18 000. So you have got someone who is going about their work harvesting this timber to clean up the fire risk and for the good of Victoria to have that timber, and you have got the regulator saying they demanded all this extra paperwork, otherwise there was going to be $18 000 fine. They actually demanded that there be:
COUPE attendance and sign-in sheets for all workers
ALL business records of dates and hours of work of employees
LISTS of all activities undertaken by employees relevant to each day of work
DETAILS of haulage operators if subcontracted outside JD Logging Pty Ltd
DATES and times of all haulage activities such as arrival and departure
DETAILS of vehicle types used, e.g. semi or B-double
Why does the regulator need to know what sort of truck is actually carting this timber away? It defies logic to me, some of these things I am reading out.
VOLUMES of timber removed from the coupes
Well, that is for VicForests to manage and the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, who are actually doing this particular contract. I do not see how it is an issue for the environmental regulator.
ROUTES by which timber haulage vehicles accessed the coupes
Why does the environmental regulator need to know what roads a truck is going to drive on? This is just crazy, crazy red tape stuff.
COPIES of all pages of the coupe diaries
ALL documents relating to any lease, licence, permit, agreement, arrangement or authorisation that authorised or authorises active or planned timber harvesting operations at coupes
DOCUMENTS pursuant to any contract or subcontract agreement for the conduct of timber harvesting operations at coupes
Why? Why do they have to provide all is paperwork to the environmental regulator? It just defies logic. It is government red tape gone mad to try and drive the timber workers out of a job into the future. Fortunately after a lot of complaints this request was actually withdrawn by the environmental regulator. So after causing the Greenwoods huge grief, huge worry, having to do a lot of work to produce all this paperwork, they actually withdrew that particular request.
I go back to where I started: I think the Andrews government over time has been very comfortable with the protesters and with the problems that have been caused to the native forest industry to try and drive them out of business. The Andrews government have made it very clear they are going to close the industry down by 2030. Can I say that I do not think the majority of the industry will survive past the end of 2022. If you look at the sawmills, they are only getting 50 to 70 per cent of their log requirement at the moment. Fenning in Gippsland, as I understand it, will be out of timber in the next couple of weeks. Australian Sustainable Hardwoods in Heyfield, something the government owns a half share in, are actually now bringing timber from Tasmania to process and from overseas because they actually cannot get enough to be here.
The Andrews government, I think, is just effectively committed to destroying this industry, destroying a key industry of regional Victoria. This legislation gives the harvest and haul contractors some protection. It does not give them protection from government policy to actually put them out of business, and it is an absolute shame that a government of the Crown, that ministers of the Crown, would so actively work to destroy what is a sustainable industry here in Victoria—an industry that actually is a good start carbon store and creates a lot of employment in regional Victoria. All it will mean is that we will actually be importing more timber from overseas—from countries that have less regulation than we do, less environmental regulation than we do—and I just think it defies logic. But this bill is a good first step, and the Liberal and National parties will be supporting it.
Mr MAAS (Narre Warren South) (17:29): It gives me great pleasure to rise to speak in support of the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022. I do so as part of a government that actually understands a collective ethos and actually understands the principles which guide us through every single piece of legislation in this place. Firstly, principles of fairness; secondly, the principle of sustainability to ensure when transition does occur that it happens in a sustainable way not only when we are speaking locally but globally as well; and thirdly, that safety considerations are taken into account. Taking those three principles into account—that of fairness, that of sustainability and that of safety—we know on this side of the house is excellent for workers. It is actually pretty good for the markets as well, and it is fantastic for the economy. Everyone on this side of the house is very, very pleased to speak in favour of this bill, and we are certainly not divided as I know others are.
This bill is a part of the much broader Victorian Forestry Plan, which is designed to ensure smooth transition out of native forestry for workers, businesses and communities that have relied on the industry for generations. The plan itself supports the transition of the native timber industry to a future that is based on plantation supply while protecting as many jobs as possible. That transition has been made with a $200 million package.
The transition has started and there is already a good take-up of support and evidence of innovative thinking within Victoria’s native timber industry. Since the announcement, however, there has been an increase in protest activity. It is sad to say this, but protesters have developed dangerous new tactics to deploy at these protests. The tactics are continuing to evolve, and they create an unacceptable risk to the safety of workers, authorised officers and police officers who are present on site—and indeed to the protesters themselves.
Having been a longstanding union official that has worked in the private sector with that union for decades, it occurs to me that safety has to be paramount to any of those other principles that I spoke about earlier, or it has to sit very consistently with those principles of sustainability and fairness. To not have a safe workplace is just absolutely unacceptable to this side of the house. To that end, I note that Mick O’Connor, the CFMEU national secretary, has this afternoon put out a media release saying that, sure:
People have a right to peacefully protest but they should not target timber workers—
because like all workers, timber workers—
… have the right to go to work each day and do their job without having their health and safety compromised by dangerous activity.
I note from some comments in the house earlier today that the Greens will be opposing this bill. But I point to a line from Mick O’Connor’s press release from the CFMEU saying that:
The flawed logic that we should wait for a death or serious injury of a worker or protestor before we take action to better deter misconduct should hold no weight with serious legislators.
I think that rings very, very true. Not only will this bill achieve safety for workers but it will also achieve some safety for the protesters too. The government does not oppose peaceful protesting. It does not oppose protesting that takes place in these areas. But what it does oppose is protesting that inhibits workers’ safety and inhibits the safety of the protesters themselves. As a government, we will not stand for that.
As I said, the government respects the rights of those who are opposed to native timber harvesting to protest as well as the contribution of citizen scientists undertaking research in our forests, but the timber harvesting safety zones are not suitable for those protests. So this legislation will be covering those particular zones. The timber harvesting safety zones are relatively small. They are restricted areas where forestry activities are being undertaken and are inherently dangerous for members of the public due to, amongst other things, the use of heavy machinery. They are hazardous worksites in these places, and they must be carefully managed to ensure the safety of those working on or entering the sites. This is no different from the obligations that apply in any workplace or any worksite. Indeed this government, as I have previously said, has a very, very proud history of supporting workers and their safety in the workplace, whether it be through the introduction of workplace manslaughter offences or investing in on-farm safety. Irrespective of the kind of business, safety of employees is paramount, and the primary goal of any workplace safety program is to reduce the risk of injury, illness or death to workers. Additionally, a safe work environment can lead to better mental health and less anxiety and stress for employees.
Timber harvesting safety zones are already restricted areas under the act. In prohibiting certain items, however, we need to respond to the enhanced use of new and sophisticated tactics that protesters are using, which have placed the safety of workers and protesters themselves at significantly higher risk. This also includes the mental health of forest workers who fear seriously harming or accidentally killing a protester as they go about their work. Just to give you some examples of the types of dangerous tactics that have been employed, they are as follows: the erection and occupation of tree-sits at dangerous sites where falls can cause death and with structures that are intentionally built to collapse if there are attempts to remove them; increasing evidence of protesters locking onto or attaching themselves to active timber harvesting machinery—and due to the nature and size of this machinery, this can cause significant safety issues—and what they call black wallaby tactics, which involve camouflage, where masked protesters run in and out of safety zones and back into the surrounding bush and can cause significant safety issues, as it is very difficult for a forest contractor to detect their presence while driving their truck. These tactics have all led to increased reports from timber contractors who fear unintentionally causing the serious injury or death of a protester.
So you can see that the purpose of this legislation is completely sound. I will be leaving it to some of my other colleagues to speak to some more specifics of the bill, including enforcement and some other jurisdictions which have followed our lead here. But at the end of the day every single Victorian is entitled to a safe workplace, and this bill will ensure that that occurs. No worker or their family should have their livelihood and wellbeing adversely impacted by illegal activities at their workplace. Unsafe workplaces can have significant mental health impacts, especially when the illegal activities make them unsafe, potentially endangering others while they are working too. We of course respect that right to protest, but we will not tolerate illegal behaviour where that illegal behaviour is causing safety concerns. I would like to commend the work of the Minister for Agriculture in bringing this bill to the house. It is good legislation, and I commend it to the house.
Mr BLACKWOOD (Narracan) (17:39): Whilst it is a pleasure to rise to speak on this particular bill, it has been such a long time coming. It is pleasing that it is happening, but my experience goes back over 30 years, and for a large part of that time this activity was occurring—back in the late 1980s and 90s, so it has certainly been a long time coming. The suggestion that the current Labor government really care about forestry workers I question, given their propensity and their promise to shut the industry down by 2030, but worse still is the breaking of their promise to ensure that industry could keep harvesting at current levels—2014 levels—until 2024–25, which is clearly not going to be able to happen unless they take further action. This action is welcome, but there is more action needed in terms of third-party litigation and making sure that that does not shut the industry down by Christmas, because that is effectively what is going to happen. I will talk more about that later, but certainly the supplies that are supposed to be arriving at sawmills at the moment have stopped. We have sawmills that will be standing down staff probably by the end of July and early August, and worse still there are 1000 jobs at Opal Australian Paper that are at risk as they will run out of supply of fibre by August as well.
So this is a very, very serious matter. I will talk a bit more about the Wombat as well in terms of how that has progressed, because the way that has been managed to me is an indication that we have one minister working against the industry trying to undermine it and another minister, the Minister for Agriculture, trying her best to keep things going. How that can happen within the confines of one government I do not understand, but maybe it just shows the shambolic mess that this current Labor government are really in. It is an absolute disgrace.
But anyway, in terms of public safety it was actually the Napthine government and the member at the table, the leader of The Nationals, as he was minister then that made amendments to the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004 to introduce timber harvesting safety zones. We recognised back then the need to protect our forest workers—and also protect our protesters, but I question the integrity of protesters who break the law. They break the law to protest, and there is no need to break the law to protest. If that happened here in the city on a worksite, the police would be there in no time and they would be marched off the site. Why should forestry workers be treated so differently? Why should they have to wait three, four, five, six, eight or 10 days until search and rescue arrive to move those protesters on? That is what has got to happen in terms of tree-sits and lock-ons to machinery, which I will talk about later.
However, getting back to the timber harvesting safety zones, these are to ensure that workers are safe and that others that come onto the coupe are safe as well while timber harvesting activities are occurring. The safety zone is a coupe or it is any road within that coupe that has been closed for timber harvesting and any area of state forest that is within 150 metres of the boundary of that coupe. Surely there is plenty of opportunity outside that 150 metres for genuine protesters to stage a genuine protest. They can do what they like—sing hallelujah, do whatever they want to do, bring in Hare Krishna on the side of the road. Do not block the traffic, but just stage your public protest.
Mr BLACKWOOD: Yes. I just do not understand why they have got to break the law to get their point across. They can do all sorts of things. They can come here to the steps of Parliament. They can come into Parliament and talk to us about it, but do not hamper the legitimate activities of timber workers and their families. Do not hamper their income. Do not stop their activity. Do not shut their job down for weeks at a time, and that is what has been happening for nigh on 20 years now—probably more, probably longer. Closer to 40 years, really, it has been happening, and now all of a sudden we need to do something about it. What worries me is that you fix this problem—maybe, I do not think it goes far enough but you fix this problem—but with the way things are going, as I said before about third-party litigation, if you do not fix that, there will be no coupes to harvest and no coupes to protest in. So if you really care about the protesters, fix that problem so they have got something to protest about. Otherwise the industry is gone and the protesters will have nothing to do. They will have to go back to university or wherever they do nothing. Anyway, it really does worry me, this whole issue.
This is just one problem. The industry does not deserve to be treated like it has been treated. It does not deserve to be told ‘Your jobs will be gone by 2030, but we’ll keep you going until then with a gradual staging back of production from 2024–25’ and to now be facing a massive decline in access to resources because of third-party litigation, which is going to mean the industry closing by Christmas. I am serious—it will genuinely close by Christmas unless these two ministers get their heads together and sort this out. But like I said, I do not believe, sadly, that the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change has got any inclination to do that. She is too influenced by people like Lindsay Rayner and others in the department who are just purely there to ensure that the industry is shut down. There are too many environmental activists within the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and that is making it harder and harder and harder for the Minister for Agriculture and for VicForests to keep operating, which in turn impacts those hardworking timber people and their families. It is just not fair. I have never known an industry to be treated so roughly and so harshly and without care by any government in my life.
In a physical sense the timber harvesting safety zone replaces previous public safety zones, and as I said, that was done through an amendment that we, the coalition, when in government, put through the Parliament in 2014 under the leadership of the Leader of The Nationals. In terms of the safety zones, they commence when the coupe becomes active. So until that coupe is active, there is no issue for people to drive past the coupe, have a look, do what they like. But once that coupe becomes active, once the machinery moves in, once trees start to be felled, processed and removed from the coupe by truck, then it is off limits. It is closed to unauthorised persons, including protesters.
Back then, going back to 2014, we, the coalition, decided to introduce penalties for breaches of the timber harvesting safety zones, and we introduced offences which included:
entering or remaining in a timber harvesting safety zone if you are not an authorised person
removing or destroying a barrier or fence that has been erected to prohibit or restrict access to a timber harvesting safety zone
allowing a dog to enter a timber harvesting safety zone—
so a little bit in conflict with what the Leader of The Nationals wants to do, but I am backing him—
hindering, interfering with or obstructing timber harvesting operations;
possessing a prohibited thing in a timber harvesting safety zone …
This is what amazes me: a ‘prohibited thing’ is defined as ‘a bolt cutter’, ‘cement or mortar mix’, ‘a constructed metal or timber frame’, ‘a linked or a heavy steel chain’ or ‘a shackle or joining clip’. These are the sorts of things that these feral green protesters will bring onto the coupe to try and disrupt harvesting. They will lock onto the machinery. They will employ ‘black wallaby’ tactics, as the previous speaker mentioned.
One of the most frightening things that I have heard happen: in most cases those that cart the wood, transport the wood, out of the coupe to sawmills or Australian Paper or other clients will start their working day at about 2, 2.30 in the morning. They will get up there early, and the drivers will load the wood themselves—so they will back into the loading area, they will drop their trailer, they will get out and they will go out and get an excavator and load it themselves. What is happening is the poor truck driver gets out of the truck, and it is pitch black—very little lighting—until he gets to the excavator to turn the lights on. These feral protesters—hooded, masked—jump around the corner of the truck or jump out of the bush and frighten the daylights out of him. That is just absolutely disgusting. If you understand what the environment is like—pitch black, dark—it is a fairly scary place. I have been there often in the dark, and I get scared too, I can tell you. But then to have someone jump out of the scrub at you and frighten the daylights out of you—you know, we are talking about mental health issues, we are talking about bullying, we are talking about harassment. We are talking about things that contravene a safe workplace, and that is just an example of the sorts of things that they will take on: black wallaby tactics, running through the bush while a tree is being felled. And honestly, how would you feel as an operator if you killed somebody? (Time expired)
Mr Walsh: By leave, can I seek an extension of time for the member for Narracan.
Ms HALFPENNY (Thomastown) (17:50): I also rise to make a contribution to the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022. This of course continues to build on the work that the Andrews Labor government is doing around Victorian forests and the Victorian Forestry Plan. In 2019 the Andrews Labor government announced the Victorian Forestry Plan to assist the timber industry as it manages a gradual transition away from native timber harvesting while protecting as many jobs as possible. In December 2021 we boosted funding to more than $200 million to continue this support for workers, businesses and communities as they move out of this unsustainable industry.
Labor governments have had a proud history of supporting workplace safety, whether it has been in recent times with the introduction of workplace manslaughter offences or taking action on the increasing rate of mental injuries through provisional payments and also adding particular on-the-spot sorts of infringements to the list of things that WorkSafe inspectors can do when they see breaches in workplaces. I think it is very true to say that Labor governments are the ones that are most interested in and most concerned about workplace safety, and really this amendment is all about making sure not only that workplaces are safe—in this case areas within the timber harvesting safety zones—but also that those people attempting to enter those areas are also made safe by making sure that there are penalties and actions that can be taken by authorised officers and police against those that breach orders around not entering safety zones, for the very reason that they are unsafe and that people should not be in there.
This legislation is in response to an increasing number of anti-logging activists going into these safety zones and creating risks that are really not acceptable to themselves or to those people that are working in the area. Of course Labor believes that people have the right to protest, and these protesters also have the right to protest, but they need to do it not within the timber harvesting safety zones, which causes a real threat to their safety and that of the workers within them.
This is not dissimilar to, for example, the safe access zones that, again, Labor imposed to protect women accessing legal health services and also to protect the medical staff and the health workers that were also being intimidated or harassed, risking their mental health welfare, as well as the possibility of—in fact sadly there has been—aggression or assault in these situations. This is not dissimilar to that. While people can have their views and they can protest, they cannot do it at the expense of the health and safety of others, and they should not do it at the expense of even themselves, putting themselves into situations where they could be injured. As I think other speakers have said, for a working person, whether it was not their fault or otherwise, to be responsible for a serious injury or fatality is just something nobody, no worker, should have to live with. So we want to make sure through this legislation or these amendments that working people are not subjected to that sort of terrorising in the case of timber harvesting.
The end of timber harvesting has been nominated to be in 2030, but up until that time forestry and forestry industries will continue to operate—and like workers in any other legal industry, they have to have and deserve to have a safe and secure working environment. Unfortunately the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries have one of the highest fatality rates of all industries. We do not have to have protesters contributing to that when we can install these timber harvesting safety zones and ensure that there are penalties and powers that go along with that to ensure that people are not there causing risks to the safety of themselves or others. The changes in this legislation aim to deter people who engage in dangerous behaviour within the safety zones by increasing the penalties that already exist for offences that relate to accessing these timber harvesting safety zones.
We have talked a lot over recent times about mental health and mental wellbeing and what the global pandemic has done to really all of us in some way. Of course psychological harm is something that is continuing to increase within the workplace, and there have been a number of reports that for forestry workers this psychological harm has been increasing. In one aspect it is around protesters who are entering safety zones and creating situations that cause trauma for people who are working in the industry. There have been a couple of examples recently where certain incidents have happened, creating terrible situations for those that are working there, traumatising them with what could be called near misses when it comes to fatalities or serious injury.
Between February and June 2020 protesters targeted a specific timber harvesting safety zone, where they are alleged to have caused significant psychological distress to forestry workers by first of all monitoring the radios of the workers to obtain their names and then calling their names out in the bush, shining torches from the bush to alarm workers and threatening self-harm in front of machines. Workers in this situation reported developing serious mental health issues, including feeling like they were always on edge and they just could relax or wind down.
In 2019, a contractor suffered significant psychological harm after narrowly avoiding causing serious injury or killing several protesters who leapt in front of his moving vehicle within the timber harvesting safety zone. The contractor then reported seeing images of himself on anti-logging social media posts following drone presence in the area, again taking photos, all designed to harass and intimidate those who are working in the industry—an industry that is legal and that people have a right to be working in as it transitions and finishes in 2030.
The maximum penalties for most offences related to the timber harvesting safety zones will increase, with the maximum penalties for some offences increasing to 120 penalty units—that is $21 000 or more or 12 months in prison. Overall the measures are designed to deter protest activity in those safety zones but not protest activity in total—just within particular areas that are deemed to be extremely unsafe for both the person protesting against native timber felling and also the workers that are working in that industry.
While WorkSafe is interested in the operations of VicForests, including equipment and machinery, it has got no jurisdiction over protesters and their conduct as they are neither employees nor employers. So even though WorkSafe has attended forest protests, its attendance has only been to focus on systems of work as they relate to VicForests and its contractors. Therefore this bill is needed because there is a gap, there is a hole, when it comes to safety for workers and also those protesting the logging. While WorkSafe is unable to provide that oversight or those powers to take action, this legislation fills that gap and allows action to be taken to ensure that there is a safer workplace when it comes to the timber industry in these areas. It also protects people who have the right and are more than able to continue to protest to do it in a safe way, out of the timber harvest safety zones.
Ms STALEY (Ripon) (18:00): I rise to speak on the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022, and in doing so I want to concentrate my remarks in relation to the fallen timber in the Wombat State Forest. There are 500 000 cubic metres of windfall timber that came from bad storms that hit western Victoria and went all the way through the Wombat. Almost a year ago, on 1 August 2021, I visited the Wombat with the Leader of the National Party, the member for Murray Plains, and Dale Tiley and Ray Sonnberg, who are both timber contractors in the region—Dale is my constituent from Beaufort—and they showed us the significant timber that was on the ground as a result of this storm. What they explained to me was that about three-quarters of these 500 000 cubic metres would be sawlog-quality timber. That was assuming that it could be salvaged within 12 to 18 months. After that it deteriorates and would become only useful for firewood, and it eventually would not even be useful for that—and it would cause and was already beginning to cause a significant fire risk in the Wombat. Even then they were agitating—then the member for Murray Plains and I took up the cause, and we were agitating—to get a solution to get this timber salvaged from the floor of the Wombat.
At this point I want to recognise that the Dja Dja Wurrung saw that there was a necessity to work there and get this timber harvested, and they tried to broker a deal to get that going. They thought they had got there. They thought that it was going to go ahead, but then in a bizarre case of the left hand not doing what the right hand was doing we had the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning repeatedly trying to block VicForests’ attempts to broker this deal with the Dja Dja Wurrung. In the end the deal was done, and they started cleaning this up but very late; it was right on the edge of when this timber was beginning to deteriorate.
Then we go forward from there. They started in, I think, probably only about April. It was really late—it might even have been May. They started, and then the protesters arrived. Now, this is not standing timber; this is windfall timber that has come over in a natural event in a massive storm and that will be worthless and just cause a fire risk unless it is removed. But no, the protesters then appeared and started to occupy the coupes where they were trying to get this timber. As a result, there were enormous fights about this, and it was very disruptive to the contractors. And the activists succeeded in halting this forest clean-up for some time. It turned out that in the end the Game Management Authority had to step in to try and stop the protesters, which they did, and they got it going again. This is why we need this legislation, because we are not even talking about native forests of standing timber; in this case it is fallen timber. It is of no use to anyone unless it is salvaged within a very short time frame. The government had taken so long to get going with it, and then once it did get going the protesters were stretching out that time line again to a point where this timber will not be worth anything and will just be a fire risk.
Now, at the same time as this is going on, we then got the conservation regulator ordering one of the haulage and harvest contractors, the Greenwoods, to produce hundreds of pages of documents or face a penalty of $18 174. I mean, again, how ridiculous is this? On one side you have VicForests, a government agency, and the minister saying, ‘Yes, we are going to harvest this timber; we think it is a good thing to have the—
Ms Thomas: Salvage?
Ms STALEY: Sorry, salvage—the minister has—correctly—corrected me. I have used the word ‘salvage’ many times, and I agree that is the real point here: it is salvage, this timber. Yet Victoria’s conservation regulator wants to put in onerous, ridiculous levels of regulation that would stop the salvage going ahead. Now, that combination of activist bureaucrats and timber activists protesting could well lead to a situation where this timber, this salvage timber, will not be salvaged. This is why we need this legislation. Forestry workers, timber workers, need a safe environment. They need protection for their machinery—the machinery that they invest in—so that it will not be ruined. I think the member for Narracan explained in great detail the sorts of things that forest protesters do to forestry machinery, and I completely bow down to his knowledge on this.
The point is we have a situation where the government is bringing forward a bill which we support—there are elements of it we think that they could do a bit better on, but we support this bill—but the fact is there are still whole departments, whole agencies of this government, that are spending every waking moment trying to stop the salvage of timber in the Wombat and other places, and they are on the side of the protesters. This government needs to work out whose side it is on. On this side of the chamber we are very clear—very clear—that we do not agree that protesters should be able to go in and disrupt lawful operations, which is why we support this bill. But we also do not think that the rest of the government should be out there trying to assist some of these protesters. We think that that is an internal mechanism that the government could fix. Perhaps somebody could talk to the minister and suggest that the government is legislating to allow lawful salvage, in this case, or forestry operations more generally. As the lead speaker for this bill, the member for Murray Plains, the Leader of The Nationals, has said, we are supporting this bill, and I wish it speedy passage.
Mr EREN (Lara) (18:08): I am delighted to be speaking on this very important bill, the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022. I would like to congratulate the minister at the table, the Minister for Agriculture, for a very balanced bill that is protecting workers rights, and I thank her for it.
It is a house of cooperation. I just spoke on the Education Legislation Amendment (Adult and Community Education and Other Matters) Bill 2022 before, and the opposition are supporting it; we are speaking on this bill now, and they are supporting it. I have never seen such cooperation, which is fantastic to see. Obviously because we have got so many great bills that come through the house, we are getting some good cooperation.
I have got to say that this house, this chamber, this Parliament, is a battle of ideas. Every member in this house has their own passions, and every member is entitled to their own passions. I totally, totally respect the member for Narracan for his passion and commitment. Ever since I have been in this place I have known what he is passionate about—it is this stuff. Do I agree with him entirely? No, not entirely—but I would argue that he is most passionate in relation to this issue, and I respect that. Obviously from time to time we do have these battles of ideas, and we on this side of the house like to protect all workers within the legal frameworks of industry along with their legal employment. We protect workers rights. We do not pick and choose which workers we need to protect. I remember back in the 1990s the Maritime Union of Australia dispute. The whole community was very passionate about how those workers on the docks were being treated—you know, there were masked security men with dogs. I was there for three days. Some would call me an unwashed protester, but I could not have a shower. It was a very important issue and we had to make—
A member interjected.
Mr EREN: We took plenty of deodorant. But the issue is we are passionate about different things, and that is what makes this Parliament a great thing.
This bill before the house has been implemented across different jurisdictions. I think a number of other states have taken on this bill as well, because it is important. When you consider that Victoria is the place to be—we used to be the fastest growing population—I think we will retain that title for a bit longer, with that comes population boom and with that comes a need for housing and other timber products, so to speak. We are finding that the construction sector, with the amount of infrastructure work that we are doing at the moment as a state government, is enormously under pressure in terms of supply. Some of the worldwide calamities that are going on and the Ukraine war—that terrible war—are causing a lot of angst and pressure on commodities that we normally are very complacent about. We were very well resourced, and now we find that importing some products is becoming increasingly difficult. The housing sector is particularly being really disrupted. People are entitled to have a roof over their head, people are entitled to that Aussie dream of owning their own home and people are entitled to build their home.
I would argue that some of the people opposing this bill outside this place or inside this place would have timber-product furniture at home. I think that at some point it is an industry which actually provides hundreds of thousands of jobs right throughout the nation. We have got to protect that fine balance, and protecting forest and old-growth forest is our forte in relation to a sensible government protecting the environment.
As a former Minister for Tourism and Major Events, nature-based tourism is a big deal. People from all over the world come to the Great Ocean Road to see the nature-based tourism that occurs in that area. I remember when Steve Bracks was the Premier and as a government we put a policy in to actually stop some of the old-growth forest timbers being harvested in the Otways. There were a number of forestry workers that were affected by this, and we did put in an allocation of money for transition to other jobs. There were, I think, 67 workers that were affected by this change in policy at that time. My family and I have been going camping down there for over 40 years, and we love the nature-based tourism side of protecting our natural assets. Now when you look at that region there are literally tens of thousands of jobs that have been created in the tourism sector, with microbreweries and restaurants and cafes that are being opened up. So there is a fine balance.
From memory, we are allocating an amount of money for a transition according to our government’s announced Victorian Forestry Plan, our plan to phase out native forest harvesting by 2030. We are allocating a fair bit of money towards making this transition, and rightfully so. I think it is important to have a fine balance. It is important for those workers that are currently working under those circumstances to (a) work in a safe environment and (b) not be mentally strained by thinking ‘Is there somebody hiding behind those bushes?’. They are in charge of very big, heavy machinery and potentially, as has happened before, somebody can get hurt or killed as a consequence of their passion for protest. We totally get it. We get that people are passionate about certain issues. For some people it is a life-and-death struggle to protect the environment and there is a sense of—I do not know if I would call it extremism, but there are certain people that are very extreme in their views about this issue and very passionate and they may risk their own lives to make a point or make a protest. This is one thing that the harvesting workers do not deserve. They have got families at home. They are just earning a buck, and obviously they want to do it in the safest way possible. They want to do it in an environment where they do not unintentionally hurt someone else. That is why this bill is before the house.
This is not new. As I have said, other jurisdictions have taken this on, and again I go back to the point of our plan to phase out native forest harvesting by 2030. This includes an immediate ban on harvesting of old-growth forest in Victoria, protecting some 90 000 hectares of native forest and an additional 96 000 hectares of immediate protection areas. The Victorian Forestry Plan was designed to ensure a smooth transition out of native forestry for workers, businesses and communities that have relied on this industry for generations. We have backed this transition up with a $200 million package. The Victorian Forestry Plan is supporting timber businesses to transition out of native timber, explore opportunities and diversify into different ways of working. Further, the industry has a continued supply of native timber—I do not think, I know—until 2024. Then levels will step down before ending in 2030. Competitive processes will be used to allocate timber from mid-2024 to 2030, then commercial harvesting in public native forests will end.
I just want to finish off in the minute that I have left talking about the importance of making sure that we do not have some people that take it too far in terms of some of their protesting. The bill highlights that we are serious about this. There are some very stringent guidelines that we have put in place and mechanisms to hopefully prevent people from breaching this guideline, or this law, with heavy fines—$21 000 I think in fines—and 12 months imprisonment if people want to continue down the path of being destructive. I do not mind protests. I have been to many protests myself. You do it within the law, you abide by the rules and the law and you make your point, as we all do from time to time, but you do not go to that extent of not only causing mental angst to those workers but also potentially somebody getting killed.
This is a sensible bill before the house. We are a government that gets on with making sure this state is the best that it can be. I commend the bill to the house and wish it a speedy passage.
Dr READ (Brunswick) (18:18): In the last few years this Parliament has passed some good legislation that was based on science and evidence and balanced within Victoria’s established human rights framework, so it is hugely disappointing to now be debating the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022, euphemistically named. The government claims that this bill is about improving occupational health and safety and particularly the mental health of forestry workers, which would be commendable if it were true. But believing this bill is about OH&S is the equivalent of believing that lethal whaling in the Antarctic is about scientific research. Indeed, the whaling fleet has presented more data and evidence justifying its stance than the Andrews government has to justify this bill. That is to say even the whalers have presented some exceptionally weak evidence, as opposed to none at all. What this bill is really about is politics and money at the expense of human rights and the rule of law. It is also part of the broader trend towards authoritarianism and law-and-order politics that has shamed Victoria’s two old parties over the last decade, particularly in the lead-up to state elections.
The bill seeks to double or triple existing criminal penalties, including terms of imprisonment, for a number of current protest offences. It seeks to expand search and seizure powers, including the seizure of any item prescribed to be a ‘prohibited thing’. And it introduces a new form of discretionary oppression on the right of free movement, called ‘banning notices’, that can be issued by any authorised officer based on that officer’s clairvoyant-like ability to determine whether a person is likely to commit future offences in the next 28 days.
The government is claiming these draconian laws are necessary for three reasons: one, that forest protest activity has recently increased in Victoria; two, that forestry protesters have developed dangerous new protest tactics; and three, that this has resulted in a significant detrimental impact on the mental health and safety of forestry workers. Let us just unpack these. Point one is that forest protest activity has recently increased in Victoria. It is the singular claim to which the government has presented evidence, citing the fact that there have been 82 forest protests since January 2020, to which I respond: so what? Since when have we started capping the number of protests that are allowed in Victoria? At a time of climate emergency, when forestry has had a significant impact not just on raising atmospheric CO2 but also on the destruction of ecosystem habitat for thousands of animals and species currently at the point of extinction, should we really be surprised people are protesting about this more frequently? Should we perhaps listen to them instead of locking them up? Climate strikes have also increased in the last few years, as have protests against systemic and entrenched racism. Will the government be introducing new criminal laws threatening jail terms to discourage the frequency of these protests as well?
The government’s second justification is that protesters have developed and deployed dangerous new tactics at these forestry protests. For this, the government cites some examples. The first example they provide is tree-sits, perhaps the oldest and most widely used form of forestry protest, dating back to at least the 1960s. A 10-second search on Wikipedia alone provides a list of at least 28 separate examples of famous tree-sit protests that have occurred almost continually since the 1970s, many of them in Australia.
The second supposedly new tactic is protesters locking or attaching themselves to machinery. Well, this dates back at least 100 years to the suffragette movement. Famously in 1975 Zelda D’Aprano recreated this when she chained herself to the commonwealth building in Melbourne to protest about women being excluded from discussions about fair pay. The most famous environmental protest in the nation’s history involved protesters chaining themselves to machinery. It was a key part of the protests that saved the Franklin River in the early 1980s and later stopped the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine in Kakadu in the late 1990s. Should we have criminalised the dangerous suffragettes? Should we have removed the protesters that blocked the uranium mine at Jabiluka? Well, no. What actually happened back then was that government leaders like Bob Hawke visited Bob Brown’s Franklin River protests. He listened to the protesters, he listened to the community and the Franklin River was saved. That is a political legacy. That is real leadership. Rather than making up latent rubbish about these being new dangerous protest methods, this government could learn from its own history. If it did so, it might observe that the best way to respond to increased protesting and rising community anguish is not to suppress protesters and their human rights but to get out there and listen to what they are saying. And if it went out and listened it would be acting to save our native forests, our carbon sinks and our native species, not attempting to further enable their destruction, as in this bill.
The final, most egregious claim of the government is that this bill is about improving occupational health and safety and particularly the mental health of forestry workers. They say all workers deserve to be safe, and the Greens strongly agree with this statement and will always support legitimately required health and safety laws. So we asked for OH&S data or indeed any kind of evidence that shows the increase in health problems caused by forestry protesters. I thank the department for their bill briefing and their frank and fearless honesty in admitting that there are currently no data or documented evidence to indicate increased protest activity has led to adverse mental health or OH&S outcomes for forestry workers. So I say shame on the government for seeking to hijack these really important issues of workplace health and safety to use these as a smokescreen to limit the legitimate human rights of all Victorians. We might ask what would make a government sink so low. Well, to be fair, there is a lot of illegality currently going on in our forests, a lot of misconduct, but it is not coming from the protesters, it is coming from VicForests and its logging operations. We know this because protesters and citizen scientists are visiting logging sites. They are documenting evidence of these illegal practices, and they are successfully presenting this evidence to the courts to uphold the rule of law, to stop illegal logging and to protect old-growth forest and the native habitat of endangered species. This is a problem because VicForests is a for-profit, state-owned business—so it profits from illegal logging, and it also loses money when it fights complaints in court.
Logging in state forests is a broken business model, and VicForests is bleeding millions every year. For VicForests to have any chance of making money they need to carry out as much logging as they can before the industry winds up in 2030. They cannot afford to worry if what they are doing is legal or illegal logging, and they certainly cannot afford to continue to be reined in by any effective regulatory oversight, citizen oversight or judicial oversight from our courts upholding environmental protection laws, such as they remain. So the sole reason the Victorian government has introduced these repressive laws is to try and financially prop up VicForests to keep it going until 2030.
The government believes that by effectively shielding the public from seeing what is going on in our forests it will leave forestry oversight to a hopelessly weak and conflicted regulator, meaning VicForests can operate with less oversight and less compliance with environmental laws, which might finally mean it is able to make some decent money from logging. It is the same approach that worked so well for the Victorian government to prevent effective scrutiny and to enable the blatant illegality that helped sustain the bumper state revenue from Crown Casino for over 20 years, and this time they only need to shield VicForests for eight years. As for addressing climate change, conserving the remaining ecosystems and upholding human rights and the rule of law, well, the inevitable 2030 royal commission into VicForests will likely be a problem for a future government. This is an outrageous bill, which the Greens completely oppose.
Ms SETTLE (Buninyong) (18:28): I am pleased to rise to speak on the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022. I think many people in this house know that I am a very, very proud regional MP. I am also a very proud member of a century-long farming family, and those things are very clear in the house. But perhaps less known in the house is that I am also a very, very proud environmentalist. My mother has an Order of Australia for her commitment and work in the environment space, so this has been something that I have grown up with all of my life. One of the things that she has talked about is how environmental awareness has really changed—and we have watched it change over the years—but first and foremost my mother is also a Labor Party stalwart. Both she and my father have their lifelong memberships. And why I bring up those things is I think that this sense of a binary opposition between environmentalists and workers is just nonsensical. I am very glad that the opposition support us on this bill, but look, I was a bit distressed to hear from the member for Ripon, who seemed to seek to make this an absolutely adversarial bill. The idea that we have got to pit the community against the worker—that is not what we are trying to achieve here with this bill.
The Labor government and all Labor Party members have always supported peaceful protest. We always will. You know, my first protest was on my mother’s hip when I was about six months old, and it was an antinuclear protest, a peaceful protest in Melbourne. So protest is in our blood, and we would never, ever seek to quell that peaceful process. I find it disingenuous of the Greens to continue to suggest that we are in some ways trying to gag any sort of protest. On that note, I would like to acknowledge one of my local constituents, who is a lovely woman by the name of Linda Zibell. Linda is a Green, and Linda wrote to me about this bill. I will say she is the only person that has contacted me regarding this bill, but nonetheless I read her email and will be replying to her in due course. She talks about herself as a 70-year-old peaceful protester and that this bill is after the likes of her, and plainly that is just not true. I think the most important thing around this bill is really to understand that it relates to these zones, the very particular zones, and they are workspaces. The timber harvesting zones are just not suitable places for protests. They are fairly small, they are restricted areas where forestry activities are undertaken, and of course there is a lot of use of heavy machinery. So I do not think it is true to say that we are in any way stopping peaceful protest. What we are trying to do here is walk that sensible centre, which is to protect protesters but also to absolutely protect working people and also with an eye to the environment.
This government’s commitment to the environment is absolutely on record, and I think many of us on this side of the chamber do still baulk a little when we get lectured to by the Greens about the environment. It certainly sticks in my mind that we are 10 years down the road, and the federal space around protecting the environment is hopefully about to change under a new Labor federal government, but certainly we have suffered 10 years of climate wars. I lay that at the feet of the Greens because they chose not to support the Gillard government when we were trying to make real change. So it does grate a little to hear them suggest that perhaps we are not protecting the environment.
In this instance the Andrews government in 2019 announced the Victorian Forestry Plan, and our plan is to phase out native forest harvesting by 2030. This included the immediate ban on harvesting old-growth forest in Victoria, protecting 90 000 hectares of native forest, and established an additional 96 000 hectares of immediate protection areas. We have walked this line and we are trying to protect the environment, but we are also really conscious of working people. The clue is in the name—we are, after all, the Australian Labor Party. I think many on this side joined to protect working people. I know from talking to my mother—she lives in Anglesea—for example, about when Alcoa closed down, there were lots of people that were sort of jumping up and down and saying shut it immediately. But of course they were working people. They were people whose families relied on that income. In the same way I think what this government has done has been an extraordinary effort to make sure that we are protecting the environment into the long term but also to make sure that we transition very carefully.
It is incredibly important to us that that transition is done well. I will never forget what the Liberal federal government did to the car industry in this country; it is heartbreaking. We need to transition, and that is what is so wonderful about the forestry bill in general—it is transitioning over a period so that we can take the community along with it. The transition package is a $200 million package, and we really do need to transition. We do have to move forward, but likewise we cannot just shut it all down today.
This bill is really about protecting workers. Quite a few people have talked about the Wombat State Forest recently. The Wombat State Forest is not in my electorate, but it does border my electorate, and I believe Lerderderg and Wombat will come together as state parks. Certainly I have driven through those areas after the storms and seen the storm damage, and it makes a lot of sense that we should be clearing those logs, but the protesters there were acting in a fairly dangerous way. Mr Greenwood, who was the fellow responsible for doing the clearing, talked about people walking around after dark in grey and black clothing—you could barely see them. I mean, we all wear hi-vis jackets on building sites and so forth for a reason, and it is important that people can be seen in such a heavy machinery area. To quote him:
“It’s about making sure no one gets hurt,” he said.
“If I am lifting and moving a log that weighs 10 to 12 tonnes, I cannot just stop.
“They don’t realise the danger they are in. It’s crazy.”
So it is about trying to protect the safety of the workers and the protesters.
With all due respect, when I get lectured from someone who lives in Brunswick about what life is like on a farm or what life is like for regional workers and people in the regions, it is pretty galling. It is something that has always struck me about the Greens. There is not much diversity of ethnicity or anything like that. They all seem to live in the inner suburbs and really, I mean, there is a reason people refer to them as ‘teals’, because really they are wealthy people that are interested in the environment—which is lovely, but we on this side are both interested in the environment and of course very, very interested in working people. So I am very proud of this bill.
The member for Brunswick talked about checking what had gone on, and look, one of my colleagues quoted it earlier but I would like to quote Michael O’Connor, who today said:
People have a right to peacefully protest but they should not target … workers …
but more importantly:
The flawed logic that we should wait for a death or serious injury of a worker or protestor before we take action to better deter misconduct should hold no weight …
And he is absolutely right. The Greens might be citing this idea that we have had no deaths, but I do not think that we should be waiting for a death to change the legislation, and indeed we are not. I would like to acknowledge the Minister for Agriculture at the desk, who is taking action. I know some contributions from the other side have talked about how this has been a long time coming. Well, let us just say that this minister at the desk has got on and done it, and we should all stand behind her and support her in this, because this is a really important piece of legislation. It protects workers. It protects protesters. It is not stopping peaceful protest. I commend the bill to the house.
Mr T BULL (Gippsland East) (18:38): It is a pleasure to rise and make a contribution on the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022. I cannot believe what I was hearing coming out of the mouth of the member for Brunswick. I would doubt if he has even been on a timber harvesting coupe, but he has clearly been handed notes by someone. I was nearly going to do a point of order on him for reading. He read the whole thing, and it was full of inaccuracies. So I would encourage the member for Brunswick, who I have attempted to talk to about the timber industry in the past, to educate himself a little bit more on the basic facts around this sector.
As we have heard from previous speakers on both sides, this bill strengthens protections in timber harvesting operations, and that is something that we very, very strongly support for all the reasons that have been outlined before. But the member for Brunswick did not talk about people standing in the way of moving machinery. He did not talk about the spikes that are put into the ground in front of timber harvesting machinery and the dangerous activities that continually occur on timber harvesting coupes. What I want to talk about today is, while this legislation does provide protection for timber harvesters on coupes, there is a greater issue pending in the industry, and that is timber workers getting access to coupes at all. This is because in the short term there is litigation from environment groups that is limiting the state being able to pass on timber harvesting coupes and meet their supply commitments, and then there is the longer term issue that is hanging over the timber industry about the closure of the hardwood native timber sector.
In the short term this issue around this constant litigation has come to a head in relation to Fenning Timbers in Bairnsdale, a great local company. Leonard Fenning is a very well known and respected man in the town. They employ 50 people there. They have a great work culture. They are currently facing a critical shortfall in timber supply, and it all comes back to these coupes that are under litigation that is stopping harvest and haulage contractors getting in there. They have got a significant shortfall of winter stock. They have only got weeks remaining. They have explored all other avenues to access timber. It is a dire situation at the moment. So while we have legislation here today to protect workers when they are on the coupes, what we need from this government now is immediate action to get the harvesters on coupes that are available and meet timber demand supplies. The lack of action on this front, of being able to get harvest and haulage contractors into the forest, is jeopardising the short-term future of our timber workers. We are talking weeks here—weeks—and that mill in Bairnsdale that employs 50 will be impacted. So while we welcome this legislation here today, there is a greater issue that needs to be addressed also. The state has also advised mills that they are facing another year of undersupply of timber. They are not meeting the consumer demand for supply of native timber, and we are going to have workers out of jobs and mills closing down if action is not taken immediately.
I want to make a few more comments on the lunacy of all this. Consumer demand for hardwood is growing. Planet Ark’s slogan at the moment is ‘Do the world some good, build it with wood’—Planet Ark. The reason this is a sustainable industry is timber provides a renewable resource and it is a carbon-storing building material. We harvest 5 per cent of our native timber in this state—5 per cent. This is 0.04 per cent per year, because that 5 per cent is harvested on an 80-year rotation. So 0.04 per cent of our native forest is being harvested per year. The other 95 per cent is either inaccessible or in reserve. The timber industry simply cannot get to it. Those are not timber industry stats; those are the Auditor-General’s stats. We generate from this 5 per cent of the bush that we harvest an industry that employs thousands of people, and we want to close it down. We are closing it down under the guise of this commentary that we are going to transition. What are we transitioning to? What are we going to transition to? I am not sure if there are members of Parliament that know the difference between softwood and hardwood—
Ms Thomas: I do.
Mr T BULL: but softwood matures quickly and hardwood takes at least 30 years at a minimum to reach the age of harvesting. Now, the minister across the table, the Minister for Agriculture, said she knows the difference between softwood and hardwood, and I believe her. The minister can maybe then tell us, if she knows the difference, if we are transitioning to plantation: where are the hardwood plantations we are transitioning to? Because they should be 20 years old now if we are going to transition to them by 2030—they should be at least 20 years old now. But you know what? They do not exist. The hardwood plantations in Victoria to transition our timber industry to do not exist.
So what are we going to do? We are going to import timber. We are going to import our hardwood, and we are going to import it quite possibly from countries with less oversight. You and I have had this chat before, Acting Speaker McGuire. What will happen is, when we are importing this timber from countries with less oversight, the member for Brunswick will be standing up here saying we have killed the orangutan or something like that. What we are going to do is close down an industry in Victoria that has great oversight—some of the best oversight in the world—and we are going to import more native timber as a replacement for that. It is just absolutely ludicrous. We harvest 5 per cent of the bush—0.04 per cent a year. Whilst we certainly do need to look at harvesting practices and how we can do things better to harvest this timber—and some of the practices in the past have not been great—the answer is not closing down this industry; it is not closing down this industry at all.
In Australia we have the third-highest amount of forest per capita of any country in the world—we have only got Russia and Canada ahead of us—and despite having that much timber per capita, we are looking at closing down the industry when we are already a net importer of timber. So per capita we are only behind Russia and Canada, and we are currently a net importer of timber. You would think we maybe should be looking at addressing why we are a net import of timber and maybe opening areas up, but we are actually looking at closing areas down and ending this industry.
When I raise this issue to the Greens and others—‘If you want to transition out of native hardwood timber, where are our plantations and where is it coming from?’—the member for Brunswick and his colleagues do not have an answer: ‘That’s a little inconvenient thing we want to overlook while we pander to our inner-city Greens. We don’t want to have to explain to you where our hardwood timber is going to come from’. I will tell you one thing: the consumer demand for hardwood timber is going up, so we have got to get it from somewhere. Is it going to come from Borneo, Indonesia or the jungles of the Amazon? Wouldn’t it be better coming from our own sustainable, well-managed and well-governed native timber industry here in Victoria? I think it should, and that is why the industry should continue. We cannot transition to something that does not exist. We cannot transition hardwood timber to hardwood plantation that does not exist in this state. We will have to import that timber to meet the market demand. This policy of trying to get rid of our native timber industry is a policy in the inner city to try to outgreen the Greens, and we should not be to doing that at the expense of this sustainable industry and these long-term timber worker jobs.
I want to just quickly finish off with one story that explains the lunacy of this. I had someone knock on my door a couple of years ago asking me to sign a petition to end native timber harvesting at my little unit here in Fitzroy. I walked out and said, ‘Why would I want to do that? We only harvest 5 per cent of the bush. We’re only going to have to import timber to meet consumer demand’. And the young girl who was asking me to sign this petition said, ‘Oh, you seem to know little bit about this’. I said, ‘I do know a little bit about it’. And she said, ‘I didn’t realise we only harvested 5 per cent of the bush’. We had a bit of a chat; that was okay. I went back inside. I went out 20 minutes later to get a cup of coffee. I walked up the street and there she was at someone else’s door asking, ‘Do want to protect our native animals and ban the native timber history?’, ‘Oh, yes, I want to protect our native animals’—and people were signing it based on misinformation and lack of knowledge. It is time we got the real story out—that our timber industry is sustainable, it employs a lot of people and it has some of the greatest oversights in the world. It is an industry we should be proud of, an industry we should be protecting and an industry that to continue to support makes good environmental sense and produces good environmental outcomes.
Ms GREEN (Yan Yean) (18:48): I too take great pleasure in joining the debate on the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022. Just by way of background—I know a number of other members who have grown up in regional Victoria just set a little context about how they have come to this debate—I come to this debate as my ancestors, all sets of grandparents, were primary producers in grain, sheep, dairy, poultry—
Ms Britnell: Mangoes, avocados.
Ms GREEN: No, not mangoes. Dad grew a lot of things in the garden though. Particularly when Mum’s father and brothers moved from north-east Victoria—the Plozza family—to the Heytesbury settlement they cleared a lot of land for farming, but what they never did was completely clear all of the land. They always left sections of forest for biodiversity, and they understood that. But even as they grew older they actually revised some of that. And then the next generation thought, ‘We’re going to continue farming, but we need to plant more trees’. Particularly my late uncle, Bill Ermacora, was one of the early adopters of land care, and around the Simpson area they used to call him Red Bill when in fact he was probably more Green Bill because he was just really passionate about the environment and about farmers working together to preserve the environment, to ensure that there was good use of water, to diminish erosion and to ensure that people would work collaboratively and that there would be respect for Australia’s amazing biodiversity. Also, with that agricultural background that I have, my grandfather, Frank Plozza, was a shearer; he was a worker. He and his father were members of the Australian Workers Union, Australia’s oldest union. So we have always had that twin interest, I suppose, about the environment, about growing food close to home and also about the rights of workers to be paid properly and to be safe.
I have had only a handful of constituents contact me about this bill. As the member for Gippsland East said, there is an awful lot of disinformation and emotion that goes on around this industry and about the work of foresters. I say to the—I think it is—three, four constituents who have written to me about this piece of legislation asking me not to vote for it: I am someone that has been to many, many protests. I see the Minister for Agriculture at the table; I think we have been at them together many times. I first met the Minister for Agriculture when she was involved with the Victorian Independent Education Union. I was involved with what was then called the State Public Services Federation, now the Community and Public Sector Union, and then I worked at Trades Hall. During those periods in the Kennett government we protested constantly, but we understood that we were not protesting against any workers, we were protesting against the government. This is something that I have said to my kids too: ‘When you go on a protest, make sure it’s properly organised and that it’s going to be safe’. When I was at Trades Hall we always respected the police, even during the docks dispute. We respected the police as workers and said, ‘We’re going to protest, but we don’t want you to be hurt and we don’t want any of our protesters to be hurt’.
I want to say to my constituents who are really worried that this will take away their ability to protest that the proposed changes only apply to individuals and activity within timber harvesting safety zones. It is to protect the workers, and it is actually to protect the protesters. In a forest you have got a dark environment, you have got heavy machinery. As a CFA volunteer I see it from this point of view too: when you are around heavy machinery you have got to be careful. From the get-go becoming a CFA volunteer was all about safety, and it should be the same with anyone that is in our forests for whatever reason. Individuals who still want to protest will still safely be able to protest outside these timber harvesting safety zones, which are unaffected by proposed changes in the bill. It is really simple. To suggest that the bill affects all forest protesters is completely untrue. Under these amendments protesters who engage in genuinely safe activities can continue to go on with their business as before, as can citizen scientists and other people who currently use the forests within the law.
I was particularly taken with the contribution from the member for Thomastown, who is the Parliamentary Secretary for Workplace Safety, when she compared this to the safe exclusion zones outside abortion clinics. It really is the same as that—you know, just like those that are anti abortion still want to be able to protest and say their piece. They are still able to do it, they are just not able to harass women seeking that service. I suppose this is about trying to ensure that timber workers, forestry workers, are not being harassed but are also not the subject of huge safety issues. Certainly in relation to the exclusion zones around abortion clinics we actually saw the death of a security worker due to a firearm—someone wanting to take protest to an extreme level. Terribly sadly, that security guard lost his life. We do not want to get to the point where a forestry worker or a contractor loses their life.
I have spoken to a timber miller, Dale Tiley, in Beaufort. I have visited that mill in Beaufort and in the Pyrenees. They are incredibly proficient and committed to the environment, and indeed forestry waste from that mill goes into the burners to heat water for the hospital in Beaufort. That is how committed Dale Tiley—that forester, that miller—and that community are. He had been very concerned that it had taken a long time for him and others to be able to get into the Wombat forest to collect the salvage material after the terrible storms of a year or so back, and I am pretty horrified to hear about the protesters. I mean, it is salvage timber. It is salvage. It is going to go to waste rather than being made into products, whether it is furniture or whatever it is. This is going to go to waste and then pose a shocking fire risk not only to firefighters but to communities all around the Wombat forest, whether it is in the minister’s electorate of Macedon or whether it is in the neighbouring electorates of Ripon, Eureka or Wendouree. I just cannot understand the lack of common sense of anyone to think that you would protest about collecting salvage timber. I have fought many fires in this century, particularly in alpine areas, and it was our foresters that helped get that salvage timber out and ensure that people could safely access the mountains into the future. That is the great work that our foresters do.
This bill is pretty simple. It is a health and safety bill. It is not precluding the right to protest—it is not the end of the world as we know it in relation to protest—and I decry the politicisation that has occurred from the Greens political party. We are a government that will always be solid for the environment but will always stand up for the safety of workers, particularly while this industry transitions to 2030.
Ms McLEISH (Eildon) (18:58): I rise to show my support for the forestry workers through the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022, which we have before us. It is interesting that Labor are banging on so much about safety. Workplace safety is so important, but they have been very slow to the party here—very slow—because for years and years we have had haulage and harvesting operators subjected to very worrying, very concerning and scary tactics by protesters that are certainly unsafe. I think it is about time that these practices were cracked down on. I say that these practices have been going on for years—since the late 1980s and 90s. In 2014 the then Minister for Agriculture amended the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004 to introduce timber harvesting safety zones, but we see before us that with these safety zones there are still issues that are occurring. The workers are still subjected to illegal protesting, and these amendments go a little bit further to protect our harvest and haulage operations. They, like everybody, are entitled to a safe workplace, and illegal behaviour will not be tolerated—but it has been tolerated, and through the courts they have not really been given a good whack for the illegal behaviour that has occurred. We have very clearly seen protesters targeting timber workers through a variety of techniques. Now, the gear that is used in harvesting is very, very heavy—
Business interrupted under sessional orders.