Mr PASIN (Barker) (11:08): Whenever I’m in this place talking about the wood fibre industry, I like to start with a statistic, so that colleagues understand the scale and scope of this issue. It’s hard to believe that Australia is a net importer of timber. I’ll say it again: it’s hard to believe, but Australia is a net importer of timber—or, more precisely, of wood fibre. In a nation as broad as ours, so blessed with natural resources, it is literally hard to believe.
I grew up in a timber town. I live in a timber town. I came to this place in 2013 and I spent 12 months embedding myself in the agripolitics of the federal parliament. At one point I stopped and reflected and said to myself: ‘I hear a lot about farming. I hear a lot about farming production systems.’ And that’s quite right. It’s quite right, in a nation like ours, with the diversity of agricultural products and our reliance on agricultural industries, that we spend a lot of our time discussing issues relevant to Australian farmers. But what I was struggling to come to terms with is that we spend almost no time talking about Australian forestry: about foresters and sawmillers, the people that take that fibre and turn it into value-added products. Over time, I’m pleased to say—not just because of my efforts, but because of the efforts of many members who represent timber communities like mine in this place—we have raised the voice of the Australian forest industry in parliament. A lot of credit goes to the members of parliament and the industry peaks who have achieved that. But, in the lead-up to the 2019 election, I was experiencing a deal of frustration in my electorate.
My electorate includes the communities of Mount Gambier and surrounds, which is a softwood hub. Pinus radiata is the timber we grow. It’s the pine that goes into the timber frames of houses, but it is also used for other treatments. What I was experiencing was a situation where sawmillers, the downstream processors, weren’t able to get access to sufficient logs to meet the demand. Instead, they were watching truck after truck after truck of viable sawlogs being transported to the port of Portland, the deep-sea, bulk seaport, 100 kilometres from Mount Gambier. You can imagine the frustration. I had sawmillers telling me that they had demand for sawn timber products and that they had the capacity to increase the number of people employed in that manufacturing sector but that they couldn’t do it because they couldn’t get access to the fibre—not because the fibre didn’t exist, but because the fibre which was being grown in our community was being exported to be processed overseas.
I’m incredibly grateful to the Prime Minister, who at the time acknowledged my frustration and my concerns and who, as you heard from the member for Solomon, committed to a pre-election promise that, should we be elected, we would undertake an inquiry in relation to timber supply chains in this country. I remember at the time a number of the sawmillers in my electorate said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ on account of the fact that they were pretty confident we wouldn’t win the 2019 election. Thankfully, at least for the purposes of this report, we did, and the report has been undertaken.
I’m not a member of the committee, but for my sins—and given my advocacy and, effectively, my demands that we undertake this work—the Prime Minister seconded me to the committee. I want to take this opportunity to say how much I appreciated and enjoyed my time serving on the committee for the purposes of this report. The chair and deputy chair, but in particular the chair, my good friend, the member for O’Connor, did a magnificent job. He did a significant amount of work, which included personal travel to timber communities, quite separate to committee travel, where he got a deep understanding of the issues at play. This report will go a long way towards addressing the concerns.
In 2019, when we made the commitment that we would undertake this inquiry, we thought we had a set of problems, and we did. Little did we know that, by the time we reported—as occurred yesterday in the other place—there would be a whole series of other problems. The bushfires that were experienced last summer have significantly impacted our softwood timber industry. It’s a pain that I don’t think we’ve fully grasped as a nation as yet, but it makes it doubly important that we understand the need to put more trees in the ground and that we put the right trees at the right scale in the right places for the right purpose. For me, the right purpose has always been Aussie jobs, so I’m really pleased not only that we have developed these recommendations but that the report is titled Aussie logs for Aussie jobs.
Unlike other processing facilities in the agriculture space, this isn’t a crop that grows in 12 months. You can thin trees; you can achieve some of the fibre as the tree in the plantation is growing; but the reality is that this is a crop that takes around 33 years to grow. So when you talk about long-term planning, you understand the importance and need for it in this industry more than others. It needs the right government policy measures. It needs political will. It needs an understanding that we sacrifice, effectively, that land to this purpose, not just so we can grow the tree but, importantly—and this is the history of forest and the state development over our nation’s history—for the downstream jobs. We grow the trees because we want to process them. That’s where the real rubber hits the economic road.
I started by saying that it’s hard to believe that we’re net importers of timber in this country. I’m going to conclude with an observation. As hard as that is to believe, it’s even harder to accept—which we have to at the moment—that unless we change the settings in this country as it relates to this industry, we are tracking in the wrong direction. We are net importers, and those terms of trade are going to continue to deteriorate, because that’s the long-term trend we’re on. We’ve got to change that. I want Australians processing Aussie fibre and Aussie logs in Aussie mills for Australian consumers.
In the time I’ve got left, can I just give a shout-out to sawmillers across the country. The HomeBuilder program has been a runaway success, if you just ask the minister. It has meant that we’ve seen gargantuan demand for building products. One of those areas that’s seen unprecedented demand is timber framing. Right now there are sawmills all over the country that are working beyond capacity to meet that demand. I don’t think people in these sawmills perhaps understand how important their role is to our national economy, but let me just send a thank you out there to them. Because without these timber frames we can’t put these houses up. Without the frames going up, you can’t employ the carpenter, the tiler, the plumber, the person selling the furniture and fixings, the carpet layer, the landscaper. You are so important right now to the economic recovery that’s being driven through lots of sectors, but in particular the construction sector, and I want to take this opportunity to say thank you.