Speech to Parliament - Forestry industry

"We need policy initiatives to expand plantations and farm forestry to develop sovereign capability. We need to invest in the next generation of forestry workers and we need to recognise the role of sustainable forestry in climate change mitigation."

Address to the House of Representatives

Monday 25 October 2021

Subject: Forestry industry

I rise to support the motion regarding the timber shortage, moved by the member for Eden-Monaro, and to commend her for introducing this important business. The member for Eden-Monaro, since she came to this place last year, has been a strong advocate for a modern forestry industry and for the communities that, in turn, are supported by a strong forestry industry, rightly arguing that this should have been included as part of the national manufacturing strategy.

We know that the industry has a critical role to play in relation to housing affordability, with timber shortages having a flow-on effect to the cost of housing around the nation. We also know that sustainable forestry practices can play a significant role in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Australia's forest industries directly employ 80,000 people and contribute more than $24 billion to the economy every year. Across our region, the industry has gone through significant challenges, with the region's softwood timber industry hit hard by the 'black summer' bushfires, with about 40 per cent of the softwood plantations burned—and then, of course, COVID. Nonetheless, despite these challenges, the industry has proven itself in response to bushfires and COVID-19 and has found ways to continue operations despite lockdowns and disruptions to timber supply. But, as the resolution notes, Australia has a severe timber shortage.

A report by the MBA and the Australian Forest Products Association concludes that Australia is heading towards a deficit of a quarter of a million house frames by 2035. The Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment states that numerous studies show the need for 400,000 hectares of new plantations over the next decade in order to meet Australia's demand for timber. To put this in perspective, Australia is facing a timber production shortfall that is equivalent to the combined land size of Geelong and Newcastle because we don't have the trees growing in the ground right now to meet that demand.

Our timber mills have massively increased production to meet demand through the COVID-induced building boom, as noted by the previous speaker. But across the country we're experiencing severe timber shortages as demand soars and timber imports dry up. Now that some COVID restrictions have eased, you can check for yourself by comparing the current prices in Bunnings with prices this time last year.

Australia's two-million-hectare plantation estate has been declining over the past decade, and it's critical to turn that around. An increase of 400,000 hectares in forestry hub regions would be a tiny fraction of the land devoted to agriculture in Australia. This increase won't only create certainly in supply for new homes and buildings. It will also create jobs and increase the supply of sustainable building material—a material that stores carbon and fights climate change.

The government first promised to expand Australia's timber plantations by a billion trees in 2018. That year was a great year for this government to make promises, yet answers to questions in the Senate reveal that the concessional loan program, set up to help meet the target of one billion trees, is yet to even open, despite the government promising half a billion before the last election.

Just as there have been 1,000 days since the government announced that they would establish a national anti-corruption commission, 1,000 days have passed on another promise that this government has failed to deliver on. This is a government that plays the shell-and-pea game without the pea. It's all sizzle and no sausage. Wait for them to attempt to sell the same set of words without follow-up over the coming weeks and months. At the same time, watch them try to blame other parties and jurisdictions for the litany of promises they haven't been able to keep.

The opportunity to implement a national strategy has clearly been there, with the national cabinet. To make up for the lost opportunities of the last few years, what is now needed is a national-level strategy to grow our timber plantation estate, including joint commitments to establishing new tree plantings in key strategic timber-processing regions, to achieve that goal of one billion trees.

We need policy initiatives to expand plantations and farm forestry to develop sovereign capability. We need to invest in the next generation of forestry workers and we need to recognise the role of sustainable forestry in climate change mitigation. The IPCC has noted:

"… a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit."

Sustainable forest industries are part of the solution, not the problem. We need an Albanese Labor government. I commend the motion to the Chamber.