Timber harvesting bill slammed

The Forests Legislation Amendment (Compliance and Enforcement) Bill 2019 passed last week and has been sent to the Governor for Royal Assessment. PICTURE: ON FILE

By Renee Wood

The State Opposition has slammed the Government for the passing of the The Forests Legislation Amendment (Compliance and Enforcement) Bill 2019 last week.

Eildon member Cindy McLeish believes the Bill is being rushed through without the Code of Practice for Timber Production being released later in the year.

It’s feared timber workers, businesses and VicForest will suffer under the ‘strict liability’ clause in the Bill.

“We need to fight for the rights of forest workers and contractors before they are steamrolled.” Cindy McLeish said.

The State Government said the clause is already in the act and the Bill did not seek to change that.

“The Forests Legislation Amendment (Compliance and Enforcement) Bill 2019 improves the regulation of timber harvesting and illegal firewood collection in Victorian State forests by clarifying the existing legislation, strengthening regulatory tools and introducing new powers,” a spokesperson said.

Peter McConachy who’s a fourth generation timber industry worker in the Upper Yarra said he feels neglected by the decisions being made.

“I feel the Labor party that once supported Victorian workers has lost their way of original direction, and are only focused on inner city Melbourne and people in outer city regions are not on their agenda,” he said.

Mr McConachy also expects changes to the industry will see supplies dry up.

“We have been informed at present the plantation timber suppliers cannot supply any pine or hardwood logs to our own sawmill, and by 2024 they will completely run out of resource supply for the domestic market.

“All the trades people associated with the industry, need to ask the government where will they get all the timber supplies and what costs for importing into Australia, as we know timber prices are increasing dramatically as we speak, therefore the cost factor goes onto the consumer.”

The Bill was introduced to the Legislative Council last year to address recommendations of an Independent Review of Timber Harvesting Regulation.

The State Government’s continuing to the back the Victorian Forestry Plan and believes this Bill doesn’t alter that and won’t affect VicForests’ ability to meet timber supply commitments, or change the volumes committed to within the Plan.

The government said it will:

• Clarify the offence of unauthorised timber harvesting operations to ensure it applies consistently to all timber harvesting operators and ensure VicForests can be held responsible for the timber harvesting it engages contractors to perform.

• Create a new offence for the illegal taking of timber from public land to ensure that offences for illegal firewood activities apply consistently across the state.

• Expand regulatory tools, including enforceable undertakings and injunctions to provide the Conservation Regulator with the ability to apply graduated and proportionate tools in response to non-compliance.

• Create a power for authorised officers to require the production of documents related to timber harvesting.

However, the opposition said it will see those accused of making an ‘honest mistake’ face penalties of more than $20,000 for an individual worker or more than $100,000 for a contractor or VicForests for ‘minor’ code breaches including harvesting outside a designated coupe perimeter and dropping in a buffer zone.

“This Labor Government will stop at nothing to burn hard working legitimate forest workers and their families, to impress their Green buddies,” Ms McCleish said.

Industry workers are also concerned about environmental activists interfering with their work for perceived environmental breaches.

“Forest Contractors and workers are constantly having activists intruding onto authorised work sites, locking onto machinery, with a barrage of verbal abuse and work place harassment and intimidation, causing contractors and workers loss of production, huge costs and mental stress,” Mr McConachy said.

The government spokesperson said consultations were made on the changes to the Code of Practice to make it clearer and improve enforceability.

“The Bill confirms that VicForests and its contractors must comply with the Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014. Timber harvesting contractors must currently comply with the law, these obligations are not changing,” they said.