The new national forests scam
by Peter Mac In a move reaking of environmental treachery, the Howard Government and the ALP opposition last week joined forces to pass the new Regional Forest Agreements Bill. The new legislation follows complementary legislation passed by a number of State Governments. In cases where a State Government is not willing to provide protection for areas of old growth forests or endangered species, and the Federal Government steps in to ensure protection, the new law provides for huge payments to be made by the government to compensate companies that are denied access to log these areas. At the same time, the ALP and the Coalition guillotined debate on the bill, a procedure which has not been carried out in the Senate for ten years. This joint operation blocked moves by the minor parties to introduce amenments to the legislation aimed at compensating timber workers thrown out of work by forest protection. The result is a situation where the Federal Government has the power to protect important old-growth forests, and areas of endangered species, but has every incentive to do just the opposite. Moreover, the bill actually removes protection for the forests under previous legislation Federal Greens Senator Bob Brown commented: "This pernicious bill guarantees taxpayer-funded compensation to the woodchip companies if forests are protected in the future, but deliberately removes federal powers to guarantee protection of those forests which are already protected. "Already at Goolongook, Victorian Heritage River forests protected by law and under the RFA [regional forest agreement] signed by Mr Howard, have been cut down with no response from the Commonwealth." Under the legislation, moves to protect such areas would probably necessitate huge financial compensation to logging companies, combined with serious industrial action by timber workers. Faced with this situation the Howard Government is unlikely to take measures to protect the forests. The major parties obviously consider the bill which they passed is preferable to any legislation which would have necessitated the government defying the companies and compensating the timber workers. Significantly, the timber workers' compensation amendment, which was moved by the Greens, was supported by all three non-major party Senators from Tasmania. Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown, commented: "This is an awful example of Labor acting for the corporations but dumping the workers. Since the RFA was signed in Tasmania, more than 460 workers have lost their jobs." Regarding the opportunism shown by State Labor Governments, NSW Greens MP Lee Rhiannon commented "This bill takes the moral onus for conservation from the States at the same time as giving the Commonwealth a massive financial disincentive against conservation." She added, however, "Premier Bob Carr is wrong if he hopes that hiding behind the Federal Government's new national forest law will help him avoid environmental conflict before the State election next March."