Last week Fairfax’s Tom Arup had a great scoop on the extent to which Agriculture Minister Tony Burke was retreating from Labor’s election commitment to ban the importation of illegally-logged timber.

As a Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry minute to Burke in late December showed, his Department had convinced Burke that the domestic timber industry was concerned bans on illegal timber would affect them, and countries that exported illegal timber might object as well, and retaliate.

The Department suggested that instead of banning illegally-imported timber, the Government settle for “establishing systems that will promote trade in legally-logged timber.”

Inconveniently, timber industry companies A3P and Timber Queensland and timber importer Agora promptly released a statement contradicting the Department’s position and calling on Burke to fulfil the commitment properly. “It’s time the government lives up to its promise to stop illegal timber entering Australia; it’s bad for our own timber industry and for the public at large,” said Timber Queensland CEO, Rod McInnes, said.

Big timber users like Freedom, Ikea and Bunnings have also previously called for ban on imports.

Oh well, some days the stakeholders don’t play fair.

Burke’s response to the article was to argue — and he has a point — that the identification of illegally-logged timber, which is a fairly important pre-requisite for preventing its importation, was difficult. “Unfortunately, illegally-logged timber doesn’t come with an identification sticker,” Burke said. “A piece of illegally-logged kwila (merbau) timber can look exactly the same as a legally logged piece. Without that knowledge, the only option would be a blanket ban on all imports — including the 91% of timber imports believed to be logged legally.”

Oddly enough, Eric Abetz, Burke’s predecessor as Forestry Minister said almost exactly the same thing before the last election.

Burke says his Department is working on agreements with PNG and Indonesia and hopes to have agreements in place with China and Malaysia. “We still aren’t in a point of being able to deliver until you get through the countries where the timber’s being processed, and that’s why the agreement with China is so important,” Burke told a surprisingly well-briefed Grant Goldman on 2SM last Thursday.

Funny thing is, under the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, Australia will rely heavily on importing carbon permits from countries like Indonesia and PNG. Much has been said of the idea of permits based on trading off reductions in logging in those countries for Australian cash.

The Coalition’s “CPRS Intensity” model from Frontier Economics relies even more heavily on buying in foreign permits so that we can actually increase our emissions under a target intended to be aimed at lowering our emissions.

Timber is an actual physical product that can be tracked and monitored from its felling through processing to its end user.

A carbon permit is nothing — a slip of paper or an electronic transaction certifying that a tonne of carbon has been saved somewhere in a forest.

If we can’t even prevent illegally-logged timber from entering Australia from PNG and Indonesia, how on earth can the Government seriously expect anyone to have confidence in an international trade in permits that allows countries like Australia to continue polluting more than ever?

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW