Stoush erupts over paper use

Michelle Slater

Commonwealth departments ditched Australian-made copy paper manufactured from the Maryvale mill in favour of imported paper at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a Senate hearing revealed.

According to figures released last week, the Commonwealth only purchased 33 per cent Australian made copy paper in the first three months of this financial year, July to September 2020.

The figure plummeted from 85 per cent Australian made paper pre-COVID.

Some departments including the ACCC, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Fair Work Commission were among the worst offenders sourcing all office paper from Indonesia.

However, other departments were using 100 per cent Australian made paper including the Reserve Bank, Department of Veterans Affairs and the Australian Tax Office.

The Department of Finance, which oversees procurements, blamed state border restrictions for significantly disrupting the production and supply of copy paper to Commonwealth agencies.

The figures sparked the CFMEU to lash out against the federal government for abandoning Latrobe Valley jobs at the Opal Australian Paper mill at the height of the “jobs crisis” in lockdown.

CFMEU manufacturing division national secretary Michael O’Connor said the union would be pressuring the Commonwealth to support Australian-made paper.

“When we saw these figures last week, we thought what the hell was going on? We were shocked to see it had plummeted, it felt like a kick in the guts,” Mr O’Connor said.

“The public sector uses a lot of copy paper, this is about sending a message to the community demonstrating that the government is backing local jobs and backing local products.”

Mr O’Connor said 200 Maryvale workers took enforced leave in July and August last year due to the reduced demand for copy paper, when offices closed in lockdown last year.

The union initially kick-started a campaign for the federal government to purchase local paper in 2013, when procurement contracts were being awarded to overseas suppliers.

Mr O’Connor said local procurements had steadily improved since then, but then dropped in the second half of 2020.

The union’s campaign is being backed by Federal member for Gippsland Darren Chester who said he would be encouraging all Senators and Members of Parliament to buy Australian paper.

“I have been a long-term advocate for all government departments to buy more Australian-made copy paper and I will continue to do so,” Mr Chester said.

“As we recover from the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, it is incredibly important that we support local businesses, particularly in regional Australia.”

The Finance Department has assured that Aussie-made copy paper procurement has begun to return to previous levels now that supply issues between borders have been rectified.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has labelled the CFMEU has being “selective in their use of data” when Victoria was in the midst of lockdown.

“The CFMEU is comparing apples to oranges by selectively using figures from the full 2019-20 financial year with the first three months of 2020-21, when Victoria was experiencing a significant COVID-19 outbreak and was in lockdown” Mr Birmingham said.

An Opal Australian Paper spokeswoman said the Maryvale mill had returned to full operating capacity since lockdown.

“As a major Australian manufacturer and employer in the Latrobe Valley, Opal Australian Paper encourages government to support Australian-made products through the procurement of locally produced goods,” the spokeswoman said.