New Premier taken to task on timber

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TWO Gippsland leaders, MP Darren Chester and senior agribusiness executive Alex Arbuthnot, have challenged the new Premier, Jacinta Allan, to reverse the decision by the state government to close the native hardwood forest industry.

Mr Chester, the Federal Member for Gippsland, said “the rushed plan to shut down the native timber industry was a plan to kill country towns, kill wildlife, and kill jobs in Gippsland and wider Australia.”

In an open letter to the Premier and the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, Mr Chester urged both leaders to put the issue on the agenda for National Cabinet because of the danger to local communities and national supply chain considerations.

Mr Arbuthnot AM, a retired farmer but still deputy chair of the Victorian Agribusiness Council, told Ms Allan that he had never tried to play party politics and make comments on policy on all levels of government.

“I am aware that you hold a regional seat, Bendigo, and welcome an awareness of the needs of regional Victoria,” he said.

Regarding timber, Mr Arbuthnot said he had become a director of a sawmill started by his great grandfather 130 years ago – Arbuthnot Sawmills (ASM), a specialist in processing red gum timber at Koondrook on the Murray River in north-west Victoria.

“ASM recently opened a new sawmill at Koondrook. Timber is very fashionable and has many environmental and carbon capture advantages. (I note the refurbishment and decor in Parliament House is timber – congratulations),” he said.

“I always look for win/win solutions and would welcome meeting you or your staff to discuss and explore some outcomes.”

Mr Arbuthnot said sales and demand were growing.

“Another option for ASM, and the sawmill at Heyfield is looking at the same, is to import from South America – Argentina, where there are no environmental standards,” he said.

Mr Chester said the Victorian native hardwood timber industry had changed dramatically over the past 30 years.

“It’s now a sophisticated, world-class and environmentally-sustainable industry that supports Australian jobs, protects our communities and wildlife from bushfires, and reduces our carbon footprint,” he wrote.

“The alternative to harvesting local timber on a long-term rotational basis is to raid other Australian states for their supplies, or import more timber from countries with poorer environmental protocols. Victorian mills and firewood suppliers are already sourcing timber from Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland to meet increased demand in our state.”

Mr Chester said he was at a loss to understand how it was a positive environmental outcome to transport hardwood timber long distances just because the state government had made a decision based on political science, and not environmental science.

“The COVID pandemic also revealed national supply chain fragilities in a range of areas and I would argue that Victoria’s ban on hardwood timber harvesting is an issue of national importance. As such, it’s an issue that should be included on the agenda for National Cabinet and Victoria should pause its reckless decision until all options are explored.”

Mr Chester said his community would be exposed to greater risks if skilled bush workers left the region as a result of the state government decision.

“My communities are well aware of the work undertaken by skilled bush workers in emergency situations and there have been many occasions where prompt action has saved lives and properties across Victoria,” he said.

“The Black Summer bushfires started on public land that had incredibly high fuel loads after decades of mismanagement due to a chronic lack of staff, resources, and commitment to protecting our communities.

“We need active forest management in our region which allows for multiple uses such as camping, hiking, prospecting, bee-keeping, fishing and a sustainable native hardwood timber industry.”