Senator RICE: I want to start with forest products—plantations and regional forest agreements.
CHAIR: Could I put on record that Mr Thompson has approached the table having broken his leg in a bicycle accident. Welcome back.
Mr Thompson: Thank you, Senator. If I was a horse, someone might have shot me.
CHAIR: That is what they say about me!
Senator RICE: I want to start by asking about plantations and in general about initiatives and programs that the government currently has underway supporting plantation wood production.
Mr Thompson: Outside of our natural resource management programs and the support that is available within them for farm forestry, I do not think we have any direct programs supporting plantation forests at the present time. Plantation forests certainly have opportunities for participating in carbon programs and plantation forestry is an area where significant research is being undertaken by the relevant R&D corporation.
Senator RICE: Given the failure of the MIS schemes, on which the Senate inquiry is about to conclude and report, are there any plans or prospects for ongoing other programs that potentially support both better use of the resource from existing plantations and potential for further expansion?
Mr Thompson: In terms of future programs, that would be a matter for the government. There are no current programs being planned. In terms of more efficient use of plantations and forest timber, again, the major activity in that area is in the research field, where the RDC is doing work to improve utilisation, management and those sorts of things.
Senator RICE: What is the relevant RDC?
Mr Thompson: Forest and Wood Products Australia.
Senator RICE: How much of that is supported by government?
Mr Thompson: It is like the other RDCs: There is a levy that is paid by industry. I do not have the numbers with me at the moment, but the government does support it. I think the RDC had a total budget of around $9 million to $10 million, so around $4 million to $5 million. We will come back on notice on the exact financial details.
Senator RICE: Moving on to the regional forest agreements, Minister, you received the independent reviewer's report on the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement in December. It is for the period 2007 to 2012. I note that we are now in 2016.
Senator Ruston: Unfortunately, as you probably know, we do not have control over what state governments choose to do or not to do.
Senator RICE: I would like an update on what the planned process is from here on that agreement and the other regional forest agreements.
Senator Rice: As I mentioned in my throwaway remark before, the state governments are the ones who have jurisdiction over the delivery of the RFAs. We are working closely with the governments in Australia where RFAs apply. As you well know, they do not apply in a number of states. We have the review back from Tasmania. We understand that the reviews from New South Wales and Western Australia are well underway. In your home state of Victoria, we are still waiting to find out from the Victorian government when they will be providing that view. I understand that consequentially they are also looking at some issues in relation to the future of how they wish to deal with their forestry arrangements into the future, and they are running them concurrently. So we are still awaiting advice from the Victorian government as to how they wish to progress that in your home state.
Senator RICE: With the Tasmanian one, where you now have the independent review of it, what is the time line for action on the Tasmanian RFA?
Senator Ruston: I might just hand to the department, because they will have all the statutory time frames.
Ms Lauder: As far as Tasmania goes, as you know the independent review has been completed. We are working with the Tasmanian government now on the combined government response to that and then the negotiation of the RFA. Because we need to get agreement between both governments, there is an expectation that it could take between six and nine months. They are hoping to get it done by midyear, but at the latest by the end of the year.
Senator RICE: What is the timing of the expiry of the Tasmanian RFA?
Ms Lauder: 2017. As long as it has done this year we have time for all of that. That is Tasmania. Western Australia have just agreed on the scoping agreement, which is the agreement of the process for the independent review. They are working with us at the moment to identify the independent reviewer, and then that process will happen. So Western Australia is on track. Theirs is due in 2019. Again, they are expecting it to be completed, if not by the end of this year, early next year. You have had an update from the minister on Victoria.
Senator RICE: I would like to focus on Victoria, particularly the East Gippsland one, because that expires in just under a year. That was the first one. I am interested in what the process is going to be, given that expiry date.
Senator Ruston: At this stage there are preliminary discussions being undertaken with the Victorian government. I am probably not in a position to give you any more information. Obviously it is a negotiation that has to be agreed between the Commonwealth and the Victorian government. If the Victorian government choose not to proceed within the time frames that are statutorily required, the department can give you an indication of the triggers that follow from that. As you probably well now, if the RFAs are not in place the situation reverts to what the legislation would require of Victorian forestry in the absence of those RFAs being in place. Is there anything further you want to add that?
Ms Lauder: Not on Victoria.
Senator RICE: Looking at the independent reviewer's report for the Tasmanian RFA, we have had almost 20 years now of management of forests under RFAs, but the review is filled with statements such as: Assessment of the overall outcomes of the RFA for the conservation of biodiversity requires a greater commitment to appropriate research and assessment … Judging the overall success of threatened species management and the broader biodiversity outcomes under the RFA is difficult given the limited monitoring of outcomes … there is a need to build knowledge both to determine the success or otherwise of the integrated land management approach of the RFA … It is not clear how some of the data adequacy concerns can be addressed. There is limited data in some areas, and a lack of, or declining resources available to collect data across a number of areas covered by criteria and indicators— And finally, sadly— … Forest research in Tasmania reached a high water mark during the first fifteen years of the RFA. The future outlook is much less encouraging … How is the proposed process to extend the RFAs going to take into account the absence of meaningful data that would indicate that native forest logging is in any way ecologically sustainable?
Senator Ruston: There are a heap of things that obviously feed into your very long preamble to the question. Obviously the process of the RFA, because it allows the people that are on the ground to be making the decisions and providing the information about what is operating in Tasmania—that is the reason we have these particular reviews that occur every five years—obviously the report informs what the new RFA will look like and, therefore, the issues that you have raised in the preamble to your question will inform what the RFA looks like. It probably demonstrates to a large extent the value of the process that was put in place.
Senator RICE: I understand that the government's intention is to roll them over for another 20 years. How do you see that a new RFA is going to address this fundamental lack of data that we have now experienced for 19 of the 20 years of the first RFAs? 19 years on the independent reviewer is telling us that there is insufficient data, insufficient monitoring and we cannot assess whether ecologically sustainable forest management is a reality or a complete furphy.
Senator EDWARDS: Define 'furphy'.
Senator RICE: Something that is not proven.
Senator Ruston: Reiterating my comments in answer to your previous question, the purpose of these reviews is to inform further decision making. In relation to issues about the comments from the independent reviewer about the lack of data, that obviously tells us that in the future RFAs we need to address the research component of forestry. I assume you are only talking about native forests.
Senator RICE: Yes, native forests in particular.
CHAIR: Do the officers want to answer?
Mr Thompson: I was going to make the point that the review of recommendations go quite a way to some things that could be improved in forest management. Some of them relate to transparency and the development of plans. They relate to engagement of various people in doing things, and they do call for further research. They are the sorts of things that will have to be taken into account in implementing the new RFA. The only other thing I could say is that I am relatively new to forests, but in all other areas of natural resource management, data and absolute knowledge about the resource you are managing is difficult to come by and expensive, so it is a matter of making sure we target the right sort of information that enables management decisions to be made. They often do not have to be comprehensive information. It is good indicative information about what the behaviour is. So they are talking about, as the recommendation of the review was talking about, with the state build better monitoring frameworks and those sorts of things.
Senator RICE: We have had 19 years of doing that and we still have not got there, so how can the community have any confidence that we are going to be any better in the next 20 years? That is probably a rhetorical question.
Senator Ruston: And I think the problem you have here is that we are talking about a point in time, but quite clearly this final review that we have before us is the one that will inform the decision in terms of the terms of the rollover of the RFA for Tasmania. The whole purpose of this review is to inform what goes on. You can talk about anything that happens historically. I am not in a position to comment on that. What I am in a position to comment about is that I have the review, I have the recommendations, I have the concerns of the expert panel and obviously they form part of the process to make sure that the RFA deals with the issues that have been identified.
Senator RICE: The review concludes, with reference to the objective of providing for future growth and development of Tasmanian industries associated with forest and timber products, that this has not been achieved for the native forest based industry because of economic conditions and broad market force. And it reflects on the other objective, of encouraging significant employment opportunities and investment throughout Tasmania, that this has not been achieved with significant reduction in the size of the native forest industry. So my question is: given this combination of things will you, as part of your review process, at least consider the option of letting the RFAs gracefully expire and begin the full transition of logging out of native forests into plantations, where 85 per cent of the industry is already based?
Senator Ruston: Obviously you know the answer to that question before you even asked it. We believe that there is a sustainable opportunity for forestry in Tasmania not just in plantations. If you are going to look over the last 20 years of forestry in Tasmania there are a whole heap of things that have impacted on that. And I think you would have to consider they were quite exceptional. The listing of quite a substantial area—
CHAIR: That will do. We surrender.
Senator Ruston: Sorry, I am not going to surrender, Senator Heffernan.
CHAIR: I do!
Senator Ruston: This is actually a really significant issue for the people of Tasmania, Senator Heffernan, mainly because their economic viability is vested quite substantially in the forestry industry. They have been through a tremendously traumatic time over the last 20 years, and it is a pretty significant issue for them, even if it may not be a significant issue for you.
Mr Thompson: I would like to I just add something to an earlier question, and it might shed some light on this. You asked earlier what the income of Forest and Wood products Australia. In 2015-16 they had an income of $9 million, and $5.2 million from industry levy contributions with Commonwealth matching contributions of 3.5 million. The reason why the matching contributions are lower than the industry ones is that the industry makes voluntary contributions. That industry can make a voluntary contribution clearly depends on the profitability of that industry, and legislation has recently been passed to enable Commonwealth matching contributions to be made to those voluntary ones. So as the profitability of the industry increases they make voluntary contributions. That would provide better research information, some of which can go towards monitoring or improved management practices, including for native forests as well as plantations.
Senator RICE: In a situation where the profitable part of the industry is the plantations sector, that is increasing. Native forest logging is the rump of the industry, so I do not see why the government should not just accept the writing on the wall.