The Guardian March 20, 2002


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."

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