Legislative Council Wednesday 14 August, 2019
Ms FORREST - Mr President, in speaking about this bill, I will not go over the territory other members have covered so much, but I note the Leader and member for Montgomery's contribution when she mentioned what Dr Broad had said in the other place about Tasmania having some of the best forest practices in the world.
It is true, and it is important we recognise that. It does not mean we should be complacent, and the Government is not being complacent, but, as the member for McIntyre said, some of the provisions in this bill have been a long time coming.
I talked to other key stakeholders about this this bill and I would like to raise a few points for the Deputy Leader to respond to in terms of some comments made by other key stakeholders.
With regard to the responsible persons, overall this change is quite sensible. The forest practice plans should be like an approval to construct a building. The right goes to the title owner if it is sold, or if the owner dies, which is one way you could look at it.
Should there be clear criteria for transferring the responsibilities, if they are transferred? Could there be situations where transferring them would not be appropriate? Maybe there are some examples of where it might be acceptable or not acceptable to transfer those responsibilities.
The Forest Practices Tribunal is a positive change. It will be an independent tribunal and it is right to make it experience- and skills-based. That is where we should be heading with those sorts of situations.
The changes to the Forest Practices Advisory Council add three new positions - a forest policy officer, a nature conservation officer and a forest practices officer. I think it is quite reasonable to expect that this will benefit and add value to the council. These skills are important to have at this level, and there is certainly some benefit to having the forest policy background around the table when decisions are being made.
I note it is beneficial to have the forest policy position open to State Service officers because some of them have such relevant and current experience in that area. In one, it was suggested to me that nature conservation forest practices officer positions should possibly be filled by people who are not currently state servants, and from outside the state potentially, to avoid some of the conflicts.
In the second reading speech, the Deputy Leader commented -
A forest practices officer can be an employee of the authority or employed by an external employer involved in the industry. The co-regulatory structure of the forest practices system makes it particularly important that high standards for forest practices officers are maintained and seen by the broader community to be maintained.
That is part of the bill's purpose: to make sure it is seen to have that transparency, that high standard. Potentially, because of the nature of the skill set and requirements around these appointments, conflict of interest is an issue that may need to be addressed.
The member for Mersey commented about the code of conduct. Codes of conduct are needed in these various roles, particularly for those undertaking forestry operations, to ensure accountability and also so that any conflicts are identified when approvals are being made, because these processes need to be transparently managed.
I raised a question in the briefing about the code of conduct. As I read the second reading speech and the bill itself, a key factor was maintaining that standard and ensuring that forest practices officers had clear directions about how they were to conduct themselves. A code of conduct would be an essential part of that. If that is to be the case, a code of conduct is required.
I know the Deputy Leader will have some further information from the briefing in regard to this. However, I understand from further discussion during the briefing - and I would like the Deputy Leader to clarify this - that the board actually requested the power to make a code of conduct should it be needed, rather than being requested to make one regardless. I would like that clarified.
I understand through the process and the negotiations - and, of course, negotiation would occur with the industry while the code was being developed - that the industry was concerned this code would be a disallowable instrument. I think it is almost unprecedented that we have a code here. At other times we have discussed codes of practice not being regulatory instruments - not having any legal weight, if you like - and here we are putting in a code that has to be approved by parliament to be adopted. Without the approval of parliament, it cannot be adopted; the minister cannot lay it on the Table, or they can lay it on the Table but the board cannot issue the code of conduct unless the parliament has approved it. It gives this code a whole new status.
I understand the reason for that. I understand some in the forest industry fear a code may be so limiting that it may be unworkable from their point of view. If they feel they have not had their voices heard around the table of the board, and the board puts out a code of conduct they think may be unworkable or manifestly unfair, or whatever, they may have the recourse to parliament, mainly through this House - let's face it - to have that code disallowed. It is a significant step, such is the weight of a code if it is made.
My reading of this is that because such importance is placed on the code, it should be required because we would like to think that forest practices officers have clear direction about how they are to go about their business, how they are to operate and conduct themselves as a code of conduct would require. However, I understand the board has asked for the power to prepare a code of conduct or put in place a code of conduct if and when it believes it is necessary. The agreement with the industry was that if it does that, it would need that assurance of a parliamentary process if it believes the code had some overreach.
Anyway, we will get a chance to look at it if it is made. I expect it should be made. I think it will give clear guidance when there is clear potential for conflicts of interest. In terms of openness and transparency, conflict of interest is one things that is least understood and most poorly executed at times. This is an industry which has seen much unrest at times and there have parties warring around our forest practices. I think most of us here agree we have very high forest practice standards, but some people do not agree. Some people might agree this is a much improved step forward, but there are those who watch and see problems wherever they turn.
It is important we have an open and transparent process like this. If there are any real, or even perceived, conflicts of interest, there will be a process to identify and deal with them. That would be part of the code of conduct, as well as a whole range of other matters.
Clearly, I do not expect we will see a code of conduct the first day after this bill is enacted. There is a whole process to go through to develop it. The board is required to consult with the Forest Practices Advisory Council and forest practices officers. However, once the code is made, it will come to parliament. I understand the board also requested the power to revoke a code of conduct if it became no longer necessary, or it was inappropriate for whatever reason. In that case I imagine they would go back to the start and look at whether a code is needed or whether it needs to change. There is a process to rewrite a code of conduct if that is necessary. That is important because circumstances and standards change, so you need that power to change those requirements.
Another question posed by a stakeholder was with regard to the application of the forest practices officers' work and how they go about their business. Who actually judges whether a forest practices officer is applying the code? Assuming the code of conduct has been put in place, whose job is it to monitor the application of the code? Does a forest practices officer have recourse if they feel they have been unfairly targeted in some way, and how do they do that?
Regarding amendments to facilitating environmental repair following unauthorised forest operations: this is an important requirement of this legislation, but it is hard to stand a tree back up once it has been cut down. The harm can be done overnight. We see houses knocked down in the Hobart city overnight that were not supposed to be -
Ms Rattray - And fences in Launceston.
Ms FORREST - Yes, fences in Launceston, and we see trees in rural communities cut down and cleared without proper authority and, clearly, without a forest practices plan. Once the damage is done, the damage is done. Could I have some clarification regarding the last two changes the proposed power to direct a responsible person to repair damage through revegetation, and the related change to allow funds to be allocated to pay the person who did the revegetation. Some real-worded examples of how that has or would apply would be helpful.
The proposed changes relate to where forest clearing or logging occurs that is unauthorised and to make an intervention that is required to repair the site, especially where there may be ongoing and accelerating damage.
Obviously, when you cut down a whole heap of trees, erosion is a major issue. These things need to be acted on fairly promptly if the whole side of a hill is about to fall down into the creek.
They are the major points raised but, overall, the bill has been met with fairly broad support. My consultations did not raise any major concerns other than those I have mentioned; they are more about seeking clarification about how that would operate rather than major concerns.
Some in our community believe more needs to be done. We always have to keep our eye on current practices and how we can improve things; overall, we have a very well managed forestry industry, but we cannot be complacent.