November 1, 2017  |  Matters of public importance

Great forest national park

MR HOWARD (Buninyong) (14:18:50) — I am certainly pleased to speak on this matter of public importance, and I do so being very proudly a Labor member of this house. I am a Labor member of this house not only because I care about the people of my electorate and I know Labor is the party that listens to and supports the people who need our support across my electorate and across the state, but also because I have a very strong and abiding concern about our environment and I know that Labor is the party that has acted when in government to address environmental issues. I just want to provide an account of some of the things that Labor has done to extend our national parks system and to protect our environment, because back in my teaching days, before I came into this house, I reminded and educated my students that we in Australia have a very sensitive environment that needs to be respected and that we need to live in a sustainable way in our environment, understand that environment and act to ensure it is protected.

It is great to see that Labor has acted in so many ways over many years, since it came to power in particular in the 1980s under John Cain, to support the protection of our environment. The major expansion of our park system happened in the 1980s, including in East Gippsland, the Alps and the Mallee. There was a legislative prohibition on mineral exploration and mining in national parks that came in in 1989 and then a significant expansion of protected wilderness areas also under the Cain-Kirner period of government.

Since I came to this house in 1999, with Labor again being elected at that time, we have continued to expand our national park system. Some of the things that we have done are we have expanded the box ironbark protection areas and put them under a national park, the Great Otway National Park; we have ceased cattle grazing in our Alpine National Park; we have created the Otway Forest Park; and I can go on, talking about the Cobboboonee National Park, the Cobboboonee Forest Park, the marine national park system — a first for any government around this country in creating a marine national park system — and the new river red gum park system, which has been extended and enhanced under this government.

We have looked at areas around this state that clearly need to be recognised for their value. We have expanded the national park system extensively. I remember that early in my time in government Steve Bracks listened to the people in my electorate in the Daylesford area, and we looked at the Wombat State Forest and other areas in my part of the state, recognising that under the former Liberal government they had been overharvested. Clearly they were harvested to an unsustainable level, and so we took great action to protect those areas, even though it meant the loss of jobs in my region, and to reduce logging. In fact we closed down the logging in many of these areas to ensure that they were protected, because they had been overharvested in a way that was not allowing them to regrow properly.

At the same time we took action to protect old-growth forest in other parts of the state. While there were many protests from workers in some areas and some concerns expressed, that is a challenge that we had to deal with. In paying out some of the timber mills, at least Labor made sure that we supported those workers with training to get them back into work. We have taken action to reduce harvesting in so many parts of the state and to ensure that we are not overharvesting areas so that these forests can grow on in sustainable ways.

Moving on to the issue of the park that the member for Melbourne wants to talk about, the great forest national park, the government has established the timber industry task force. Under the timber industry task force we have been listening to people across the electorates to ensure that we are able to hear all sides of the argument. We have not closed our minds to further action in regard to that. It is a matter of working sensibly through a process before declaring further national parks. The Labor Party has worked very well over the years to commission work to be done and to work through the issues so it does not go off half-baked, and it has shown it has a determination to protect our environment. I am a bit surprised that the member for Melbourne did not talk about the issue of the Leadbeater’s possum, which has clearly come up in looking at the issues of the great forest national park area.

Of course this government has commissioned extensive work, and it has continued to build on previous work —

Ms Sandell interjected.

Mr HOWARD — I hear the member for Melbourne’s retort about artificial nesting boxes. One of the issues that has been pointed out in regard to the Leadbeater’s possum, which clearly is endangered, is that the 200-metre buffers that we have put in place have helped the number of Leadbeater’s possums to increase. But we know that there are a number of issues that determine the success or otherwise of the attempt to save the Leadbeater’s possum. One of the most significant issues is bushfires. We are not in control of whether bushfires happen. Why do we need to have artificial hollows? It is not because of the logging that has taken place, it is because of the 2009 fires.

Ms Sandell interjected.

Mr HOWARD — The member for Melbourne seems to think that we should not go ahead with having artificial hollows to replace those that were destroyed. We know that when a bushfire goes through an area the first trees that it is going to wipe out are those hollow trees. The fire will get into the hollow trees and burn them out. We know that we need to take action in the short term, while we are waiting for the forest to regrow, to try and provide more hollows. So it is very sensible for workers to produce artificial hollows to make up for those that have been lost as a result of bushfires.

Ms Sandell interjected.

Mr HOWARD — It is not a ludicrous suggestion at all; it is a very sound suggestion to try and find new habitats for the Leadbeater’s possums and the many other animals and birds that live in our forests which require hollows but have lost so many of them through the major bushfires that we have had, particularly in 2009.

This government is listening to advice from scientists in regard to what we can do about the Leadbeater’s possum, and there are a range of actions that can be taken. But of course we cannot control the incidence of bushfires. There are a range of issues facing us in regard to that matter, including climate change. We will work as hard as we can to try and reduce the threat of fire but, as we know, we cannot control it completely.

There are many things that this government continues to do. As I say, we continue to listen closely to a range of perspectives on this issue, including from scientists, and to work sensibly to address the issues involved. When we hear from the Forest Industry Taskforce we will be in a position to look at further national park extensions.

Can I also say in regard to towns where logging takes place that this government is concerned about what will happen to workers in this industry. We know that in some areas we can retrain them. In Daylesford we can retrain them to go into the tourism industry and other industries associated with it. There are other industries that the workers formerly employed in timber mills might be able to go into, but we know that in Heyfield this has been a very difficult issue. As we know, the government has purchased the Heyfield timber mill. There is still timber available in the east of the state, so the government will be in a position to meet some of the needs of the Heyfield timber mill so that we can keep that mill going and keep workers in employment. I think that is a sound balance.

Clinton Tilley, the chief executive officer of the Hermal Group which ran the Heyfield timber mill, was very frustrated. He certainly had a lot to say about the Leader of The Nationals. Mr Tilley claims that the Leader of The Nationals provided assurances to him ahead of the last election. I will not read them out, but I have seen some of the quotes by Mr Tilley in regard to the member for —

An honourable member — Murray Plains.

Mr HOWARD — Murray Plains now — I was going to say Swan Hill, but I am a little behind the times on that score. Clinton Tilley claims that he believed he had very clear assurances from the member for Murray Plains, the Leader of The Nationals, which were not met, so he is very critical of The Nationals, which he has stated in his commentary on this issue over the years.

This government has tried get the balance right with regard to supporting the people of Heyfield. We are satisfied that there is timber available that can meet the needs of that mill and that we can keep people employed for some time to come. Clearly this is a government that continues to work to support our environment. It is a government that I am very proud to be a member of because it continues to weigh up the issues in regard to national parks. I read out a significant list of national parks that have been created by Labor governments in the past. We continue to look at opportunities to increase the number of national parks into the future.

I want to make further comment in regard to other works that this government has initiated. It is important that we recognise that there are opportunities available in any of the national parks that we have created and any of the areas we have protected. I should have mentioned earlier that I am very pleased that we have proclaimed the Woowookarung Regional Park, which is in my electorate, in this term of government. That is something that many people in Ballarat are delighted about. An area that under the former government was likely to be carved up, perhaps for residential development, has now been protected as a regional park. It is a very large park to the east of Ballarat. It is 641 hectares.

I am very pleased that people in my electorate as well as across the state know that Labor is the party that is prepared to consider all issues that come to it in regard to protecting our environment and our forests across the state. We have been pleased to listen to communities that come together to express their concerns and their desires to see areas protected, such as the people in my electorate who now see that the Woowookarung Regional Park is going to be protected and will be there for them into the future.

We recognise also the opportunity to build on tourism in those areas. Ecotourism is an area that we have strongly worked towards, whether that is through creating more walking trails or supporting the construction of more access points into our national parks. Certainly that has happened extensively through my electorate, through the Wombat State Forest areas where we have the Eureka Trail. We have so many other walking trails that this government has supported the development of, including the Great Otway trail, and I was pleased to be involved in some of the discussions in regard to its development some time ago. This government will continue to work with our communities, to protect important areas of land and to ensure that it is appreciated for years to come.