Heyfield timber mill
10th May 2017- Mr O'Sullivan- I rise this afternoon in support of Ms Bath's motion in relation to the Heyfield mill in Gippsland. Essentially this motion is about looking at the mill and its operation in Heyfield and understanding the consequences of the government's decision in relation to the timber supply for this timber mill and not only the impact it will have on the local community in terms of jobs but also the broader implications for flow-on jobs if this mill does close. What we have seen over the last little while is a government through its ideology deciding that it is going to restrict the amount of timber that is available for the mill. The timber that the mill has been operating with, by and large, has been somewhere in the vicinity of 150 000 cubic metres each year. What the government is going to do is restrict the amount of timber that this mill would be able to obtain and use in its timber processes.
The Heyfield mill currently employs about 250 people. Heyfield is a fairly small town in Gippsland in Tim Bull's lower house electorate of Gippsland East. The 250 jobs that come directly through the Heyfield mill make it the town's largest employer. If I looked at Ms Bath, she would probably tell me that there are about 1000 people who live in Heyfield. It is a fairly small community. To have such significant jobs at risk in such a small community could absolutely decimate this little community, and not just the community of Heyfield but Gippsland more generally.
We have seen that this government's decision to shut down the Hazelwood power station is going to cost some 750 direct jobs in the Latrobe Valley. Off the back of that, it would be an absolute tragedy if the Heyfield mill was unable to operate through the Australian Sustainable Hardwoods company. There is a whole range of reasons why this looks like it is going to occur. If we look at the response from the government, we see that that has been very, very disappointing. They have decided that there are priorities that are much higher on the list than the people who are directly employed at the mill in Heyfield and the community of Heyfield itself in terms of the flow-on impacts. Unfortunately this government have decided that they are not going to be too concerned about what happens down there in Heyfield. They are more concerned about what is probably going to happen in terms of preferences and votes in the inner city come the election at the end of next year. It is really disappointing that this government is putting ideology ahead of the community when it comes to those direct jobs down at Heyfield.
What the government has broadly spoken about doing is offering the mill a timber supply that is much smaller than it is currently getting. We are hearing numbers of 80 000 cubic metres in the first year and then 60 000 in the couple of years after that. Obviously a reduced timber supply will be insufficient. Australian Sustainable Hardwoods have actually indicated that if that is the case, they will be not willing to continue those operations and they will shift their business down to Tasmania, which would be a terrible, terrible situation, if that was allowed to occur.
We go back and ask ourselves: why is the government wanting to put the votes in those inner-city seats ahead of the people of Heyfield and Gippsland more generally? What that comes down to are the exclusion zones around some of the timber where our little friend the Leadbeater's possum has been found. What has occurred is that, as part of the surveys in those areas that produce some of the timber that goes to the mill, whenever a possum is found an exclusion zone with a 200-metre radius is put around that area, which gives protection for the Leadbeater's possum. That is a good thing to occur. It will give those possums a chance to survive and breed and hopefully continue to breed.
It has almost worked too well, if you can believe it. A whole range of possums have been found. The exclusion zones established around each one of those possum sightings as part of the surveys have meant that the exclusion zones have taken over the areas that produce the amount of timber that would be required for Heyfield. What the government said they would do was that once the number of exclusion zones reached 200 they would do a review of that exclusion zone policy with a view to perhaps doing something different in relation to that.
Unfortunately in relation to the number of exclusion zones — which cover about 12 hectares, when you look at the 200-metre radius — I think it was in June last year when we reached the 200 exclusion zones limit, which should have triggered a review into that particular policy. What we have seen since June last year is that there has been no commencement of a review of those exclusion zones. It should have commenced as soon as we hit that 200 trigger, but that has not happened. It is as a result of that that we are in the situation we are in, where there seems to be a stalemate in terms of exactly what Heyfield will have to deal with in the future.
I understand that there was a proposal — the media widely reported it — that actually went to cabinet and that probably would have solved this issue. As I understand it from reports, the cabinet considered a motion that there be 135 000 cubic metres supplied to Heyfield. I understand it was brought to the cabinet by the Premier and the Minister for Agriculture, but it appears from reports that they were rolled in the cabinet meeting. That motion was defeated and therefore it was not possible to go forward with that view of supplying 135 000 cubic metres.
It is very unfortunate that the Premier and the Minister for Agriculture were not able to carry that through the cabinet. Obviously the people in the cabinet who had much more of a view to the votes in the inner-city seats than the jobs of the people in Heyfield won. So that is what happened. With the number of leaks that come out of the cabinet it is not surprising that that was the case. We saw that just over the weekend with Mr O'Donohue and the leaks in relation to what was happening with the secret committee to start to pull apart the Country Fire Authority. But I will move on.
What we are seeing here is a situation where it appears that the plight of the possum is more important than the people of Heyfield. I find that really disappointing because I am sure there would have been a way where the possums could have been protected — and they were being protected — and also those 260 direct jobs down in Heyfield could have been protected. As a result of where this looks like ending up, it appears that the possums will get a higher priority listing than the people of Heyfield, so that is really disappointing.
We must remember that this could have been solved early on in the piece. When this government came to office there was a note sitting on the Treasurer's desk which would have allowed this agreement to be signed. A note in terms of supplying the amount of timber that Heyfield would have required was sitting on the Treasurer's desk, but the Treasurer for some reason decided that he would not sign that, which led to the situation that we now find ourselves in in terms of the Heyfield mill not getting the timber that it requires.
Just before I conclude my remarks on this, I note that I think it is very disappointing that the Premier has made direct commitments to some of the local people down in Heyfield, in particular Anthony Wilkes, who was in Parliament House last week. The Premier made a commitment to Mr Wilkes that he would come down and visit the Heyfield mill, and I think after several months that still has not occurred. I wonder whether it is possible, whether the Premier might fulfil his commitment to Mr Wilkes and come down and visit the Heyfield mill and actually talk to the workers and explain to them why he thinks that possums are more important than people.