Timber tantrum

File photograph



LABOR Member for Eastern Victoria Region, Harriet Shing and Nationals Member for Gippsland South, Danny O’Brien had some heated debate that resembled something of a high school quarrel at the recent Parliamentary inquiry into the 2023-24 state budget estimates.

Ms Shing, who is also Minister for Regional Development, came under fired by Mr O’Brien, during question time. Mr O’Brien, a member of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee tasked with inquiring into the budget, let rip on Ms Shing regarding the state government’s decision to end native forest logging at the end of the year.

The original debate was the discussion of Latrobe Valley Authority funds, but moved onto the transition of the timber industry as Mr O’Brien posed if industry in the Latrobe Valley had a future.

“We’ve now got the government shutting down the timber industry, we’ve lost 130 jobs already at Maryvale Mill so far this year, and there’s more to come. We’re going to see Yallourn closing in 2028, where is there actually a bright future and industries coming to the Valley or to Gippsland?” he asked.

Ms Shing answered, saying, “Transition has been incredibly difficult for Latrobe Valley and Gippsland more broadly.”

“The announcements around the end of native timber harvesting in state forests from 1 January next year has been incredibly distressing, and this is where again that $388 million, which is in this year’s budget … is part of that overall package. I think it’s more than $875 million,” she added.

“Transition is occurring, as you well know, across a range of sectors and industries within Gippsland.”

Mr O’Brien suggested that the hardship in transition was “driven by government policy.”

To which Ms Shing retaliated with, “What would you have done where in fact, Vic Forests spent $14 million on litigations?”

Mr O’Brien was quick to interrupt to say, “You could have amended the timber code of practice” and “Take out the precautionary principles from the act.”

Ms Shing was unfazed by Mr O’Brien’s interjections, continuing her speech to say, “Where timber yards have been empty for the last six months. Where people have been at home while their mental health suffers, and you say that this could be fixed with the stroke of a pen … we have advice that this cannot be fixed with legislation.

Mr O’Brien once again interjected, accusing the state government of withholding the legal advice given to them regarding the timber industry.

“Ah, here we go, the advice that no one knows about … and yet your government won’t provide anyone with that advice,” he said.

Ms Shing went on the defensive and accused the previous Liberal state governments of “botched” efforts to manage forestry.

The Minister for Regional Development went on to say that the government was acting on the reality that timber can’t continue.

“What we are trying to do is not string communities along because they deserve better: To be told,” she said.

To which Mr O’Brien replied, “They deserve their jobs, Minister.”

The debate began to enter another level as Mr O’Brien resulted to waving his hands in the air as Ms Shing withdrew further on the defensive.

“We are not hiding our heads in the sand and saying that there is some magical solution to a problem for the devastation across timber towns,” she said

“No one said it’s magic,” Mr O’Brien commented.

Ms Shing reiterated her speech that she was sure that the transition period will be difficult and offered further criticism of the opposing sides.

“I am under no illusions, none whatsoever, about the difficulty of this task. But unlike, unlike those opposite who are very, very happy to say things should be different. We are actually acknowledging the reality of the situation,” she said.

Using other states as an example, Ms Shing defended the government’s decision to end native forest logging.

“You look to New South Wales, this great example that is held up by you and your colleagues as an answer to all of these questions. They are facing the same sort of uncertainty, and we need to respect the fact that these workers deserve the decency,” she said.

Mr O’Brien reverted the debate back to the undisclosed legal advice that resulted in the government’s shutdown of timber.

“So once again, you and your Premier say, we have legal advice that said we couldn’t act, but you will not release it and tell people,” he said.

Ms Shing said, “The work is hard, Mr O’Brien, and it was hard, we established the Latrobe Valley Authority because Engie gave us six months before they backed out.”

“And now you’re giving the timber industry six months notice,” said Mr O’Brien

“You have just sold out the timber industry, and you’re saying trust the good legal advice,” he added.

As the question time ended, Ms Shing closed her remarks by stating how the government will invest a record amount of funding into the transition, while also ending the uncertainty of Vic Forests many court and litigation processes with the sweeping decision that logging is unsustainable.

“The last thing you should be doing is giving people false hope that this is an industry that can continue just because you make up a narrative that is not legally sound, that is not sustainable despite the best effort of these communities to actually have a future for them,” she said.