Editor's Desk

Mill stalemate suggests it?s time to rein in the bureaucrats

We’ve been a producer of commodities, food, agricultural products, energy, gas, oil, aggregates and other extractive products for more than 200 years.Those products have underpinned the built environment that Australians enjoy – yet we often acknowledge them in times of crisis. By then it can be too late.

The timber industry is at the moment topical. Despite high housing demand for timber across the nation and increased wood exports (according to Australian Government agency ABARES), a Victorian community is on its knees.

In late March, Australian Sustainable Hardwood (ASH) announced that it would close its timber mill in the small Gippsland town of Heyfield within 18 months and lay off its 260-strong workforce. This followed months of protracted negotiations between ASH and VicForests about timber supply. The Heyfield mill has produced 150,000m3 of timber annually but VicForests, married to the view that the state’s timber volumes are unsustainable, offered ASH a contract for just 140,000m3 over three years.

Heyfield residents have been keen to emphasise to the Victorian Government – and Victorians at large – that this is no arbitrary closure. It’s not just the mill’s 260 workers at threat but other parts of the Gippsland supply chain, from local cafes and hardware stores to transport companies and plant and equipment suppliers.

Would there be similar carnage if it were a quarrying operation on the line? State governments (including Victoria) have in consultation with the industry identified unused reserves and legislated their priority over other land uses. To that extent, aggregates do not seem to be at the same risk as timber plantations but nevertheless the quarrying stream shares much of the timber industry’s frustrations.

I’ve informally spoken to a couple of quarry managers on opposite ends of the country in the past 12 months about approvals. They’ve argued that approvals processes are onerous and impractical, and that even when they believe they’ve satisfied the consent conditions, the agencies raise other matters that are peripheral to the consent. Indeed, Quarry’s stories have suggested there is a ‘discordant interpretation’ of regulation by bureaucratic bodies that exceeds the requirements of the applicable mining acts. Further, in states like Victoria, it’s increasingly difficult to obtain approvals just for brownfield sites, let alone greenfields. Unlike NSW, not all state governments have established joint regional planning panels that provide independent, merit-based decision-making on extractive developments.

It seems as if the triple-bottom line has been forgotten by the bureaucracy, with economic issues taking a distant backseat to social and environmental considerations. Negotiations between VicForests and ASH have been protracted because the former has been inflexible and the Victorian Government has stepped in too late to intervene. Indeed, in complete contradiction of VicForests’ position, the Victorian Government has suggested it may even bail out the Heyfield timber mill, effectively pitting the government against its own agency! Surely the simpler, logical course is for VicForests to work with ASH on a ‘win-win’ for all sides.

Let’s hope sanity prevails because it is essential that the Heyfield situation is never repeated in the quarrying industry. For the sake of future infrastructure and jobs, it is imperative that necessary protections are established to protect aggregate reserves from urban encroachment, there is a faster facilitation of approvals for brownfield quarries and encouragement and smoother progress for greenfield projects.

The extractive industries are all in favour of sustainable practices – but not at the cost of their own existence.

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