Illegally sourced timber hurts Australians too

Senator Colbeck answers claims the government is turning SMEs into 'criminals' and 'amateur detectives' via new controls on illegally sourced timber.

The harvest and trade of illegal timber is a significant issue around the world and it would be irresponsible for an Australian government to sit back and do nothing.

Interpol and the United Nations Environment Program estimate the global trade in illegally logged timber could be as much as USD$100 billion annually.  This represents between 15 and 30 per cent of the total global trade and makes it the most  significant (by value) environmental crime in the world.

In Australia we import approximately AUD$4.4 billion of timber and wood products annually,  with an estimated AUD$400 million (or 9 per cent) estimated to have come from sources with  some risk of being illegally logged.

Some people claim the trade of illegal timber is not an issue in Australia. However, we have  recent evidence showing product entered Australia that had been harvested from a national  park in South-East Asia.

With illegal log production estimated to cost between US$19-29 per cubic meter compared to  legal log production of an estimated US$63-76 per cubic meter – it is clear legitimate importers cannot compete with illegally sourced timber.

The Coalition is committed to combating the harvest and trade of illegal timber for numerous reasons, including:

— It has significant environmental, economic and social costs.

—  It creates unfair competition for Australian importers and domestic producers and can  undercut domestic market prices.

—  It has been linked to armed conflict in developing countries.

—  It has been linked to providing finance to organised crime and non-state armed groups  including terrorist groups.

The Coalition is committed to protecting Australian businesses, increasing profitability and  protecting jobs. This is why legislation to combat illegal logging and support the trade in legally  harvested timber has been a key part of our forest policy since 2006. The Illegal Logging Prohibition Amendment Regulation 2013 will come into effect 30  November 2014, and will require timber importers to carry out due diligence on imported  timber products.

Ken Phillips, executive director of Independent Contractors of Australia, gives a misleading personal perspective of the government’s illegal logging laws in an opinion piece published on  Business Spectator website recently (Why can’t Colbeck see the wood for the trees? October 2).

His claim that these laws will “turn honest small business people into criminals” is factually  incorrect and extremely misleading.

It is concerning that Phillips does not support regulations that will actually protect Australian  small businesses against the economic and social threats posed by illegal logging.

Timber importers will not face criminal penalties for unwittingly importing illegal timber  products. Only deliberate breaches of the high-level prohibition such as knowingly,  intentionally or recklessly importing or processing illegally logged timber may face prosecution.

We note that this prohibition has been in place since November 2012 and despite this a  number of businesses I have spoken to have made no changes to their business systems  because they were already conducting checks on their supplies.

The laws do not require businesses to become ‘amateur detectives’ investigating the legality of  their timber. They only require businesses to take reasonable steps and ask suitable questions about the origin of the timber to assess if there is any risk the source may have been an illegal  operation.

Country specific guidelines, available on the Department of Agriculture website, will assist  importers to justify a decision to access a particular timber source.

For example, the guidelines  will provide examples of documents associated with legitimate timber sources. There is no reverse onus of proof and it would be up to the Commonwealth Regulator to prove if businesses had not conducted due diligence.

At all times we have worked to make the regulations close to business as usual to minimise the cost burdens.

We asked industry to provide cameos of their systems and tried to align with  those as much as possible.

The new requirements are not intended to be a significant burden and in most cases  businesses should be able to rely on existing, or slightly modified, systems and practices.

Businesses that use reputable suppliers should have no problems. We are removing red tape wherever possible and working to fix the mess created when the  previous Labor government introduced laws that went too far and imposed unnecessary and  onerous red tape on industry.

We are committed to supporting businesses through these changes and have undertaken  significant consultation with industry to develop our policy and achieve a balance between  encouraging business to do the right thing and minimising impact on day-to-day operations.

The Timber Development Association (TDA) has developed tools and additional industry  information for business, with support of Forest and Wood Products Australia (FWPA), and  these are available online.  

The TDA reports that a number of importers have recently downloaded these tools and are  using them to work with their supplies to comply with the new laws. TDA is also conducting  seminars on how to meet due diligence requirements around the country.

In addition, the Australian Timber Importers Federation (ATIF) has developed a training  package that will be rolled out in a series of workshops around the country in October and  November, supported by the Department of Agriculture.

The illegal logging laws complement legislation already introduced by the European Union in  2013 and the United States in 2008.

These frameworks are already having a positive impact  on the international timber trade. In developing its laws, Australia has sought to learn from the  experiences of these governments in implementing effective and streamlined regulatory  arrangements.

Recent consultation with supplying countries in South East Asia has indicated their support for  Australia’s stance on illegal logging. It is clear that the harvest and trade of illegal timber is a serious concern and the government  is taking reasonable steps to protect the reputation of Australian business and industry.  

Richard Colbeck is a federal senator for Tasmania and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture.

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