Politicians Don’t Think 30 Years Ahead

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Tuesday, June 28th, 2016
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I recently gave the keynote address at the Timber Queensland Conference, which was titled “Shaking the Trees.” Our forest industry is vitally important.

What struck me during Timber Queensland’s (TQ) field visits and conference was the foresight and boldness needed to invest in the timber industry. Planting new forests requires at least a 30-year outlook. And you would not build a new timber mill or processing operation without a line of sight to a viable wood supply. Above all of this, it struck me how seriously the stewardship of this industry is so deeply embedded at every level, and how that stewardship might be used to drive the potential of Australian forests, wood and fibre innovation related industries into the future. This level of custodianship may have been years in the making, but there is no doubt that its truly embedded now.

The theme of the TQ Conference was about opportunities and challenges for growth and investment in QLD Forest and timber industry. It could have passed for an election slogan, but there there was much more to it than that. Here are a few issues that our politicians should get their heads around which might help them resonate better with the community:

  • Australia has a wood trade deficit exceeding $2 billion each year. And that’s growing, because our population is growing and our forests have never kept pace. If you simply extend this trade shortfall out 30 years, we are talking about $60 billion. I believe this trade deficit will be wider as new engineered timber and wood technologies enable increased applications in construction, especially multi-storey.
  • Planting new forests, and sensibly managing multiple use forests the sequestration of atmospheric Co2 through an increased uptake in wood-based construction materials, has great potential to help Australia meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets. But it will take political will to provide the certainty needed for the industry to make the required investment in this future.

The scale of these challenges become apparent by tracking Australia’s various natural ecosystem types since 1788. This tracking reveals that open forests have been 45 per cent cleared, woodland forests 32 per cent cleared, Mallee forests 30 per cent cleared, rainforests 25 per cemt cleared, coastal wetlands in southern Australia over 60 per cent destroyed, and temperate lowland grasslands over 99 per cent cleared.

The Greens claim to have provided the public and political advocacy for the protection of Australia’s most precious of forests and natural scapes. But the short-term nature of our political cycles creates negative counter forces to developing a forest and timber industry future that Australians should rightly aspire to. The differing cycles and complexions of federal, state and territory politics makes a comprehensive national industry plan even more challenging and undermines trust.

Modern media, via extreme grabs for public attention, are all too quick to bring images of harmed wildlife or negative forestry events into urban living rooms. This has played a role in eroding the political confidence needed to optimise the social and economic good a viable forestry sector has to offer. These visual confrontations are often played while urban dwellers are comfortably detached from the realities of farming and other essential non-urban activities that make their lives possible.

The reality is that today’s modern forest industry is all about stewardship and chains of custody that evidence the seriousness of these players. Gone are the cowboys who epitomized the forest managed investment schemes of the 1980s and 1990s. We are overdue for informed public policy leadership and a community mandate to step up to the plate and play ball. As I stood in the Queensland Bauple State Forest and later at the Robertson Bros sawmill near Gympie, I wondered how the genuineness and openness of the industry people I spoke to could be conveyed to a public so desperately needing positive news.

Rob de Fegely is the Co-chair of the Forest Industry Council. The Council prepared a Strategic Directions Issues Paper in March 2015 aimed at how the industry might go about meeting future demand. It’s worth reading as it provides readers with a good insight into the facts surrounding Australia’s forest industry. de Fegely has just delivered the distillation of feedback from the industry’s stakeholders about the issues, in time for our politicians to consider these as they shape their four-year next term aspirations and policy platforms. The Transforming Australia’s Forest Products Industry recommendations are not an overly indulgent call for direction and modest investment by the next federal government.

In summary, that direction and support should embrace Australia’s forest industry, tripling its sustainable economic value by 2050 (in forestry terms, that’s the immediate future as you need to get planting trees now!)

Australia’s forestry must be recognized and deployed to make the maximum contribution to sequestering atmospheric carbon, increasing the use of wood products to contribute to a low carbon future and providing carbon neutral fuel. This nation must develop a network of industry hubs that optimise the use of forest infrastructure, leading to the creation of sustainable, compatible employment opportunities around those hubs, often located in more socially and economically challenged areas.

These don’t seem like a big leap, but implementation will need to spur confidence for the industry to make the necessary investment to make it all happen. The Council proposes public investment in a government funded $300 million, 10-year program to introduce mechanical fuel reduction as a bush fire measure for forest and community protection, matching a proposed increase to the levy the industry makes to advance its own research and development activities. Acceleration of the inland Brisbane to Melbourne rail corridor to connect many hubs and industries along this proposed economic corridor, was voiced.

Unless Australian politicians understand the critical nature of revitalising and growing the Australian forest industry we will become spectators to another industry that has yielded to overseas supply. The growing use of engineered wood products generally, and in tall timber buildings in particular, exemplify where an increasing dependency on northern hemisphere softwoods can disproportionately contribute to our lowering of carbon emissions and jobs locally while transferring our terms of trade balances elsewhere. So much for jobs and growth.

The Timber Queensland conference drew together a wide range of industry insights. Forest Wood Products Australia CEO Ric Sinclair outlined the rate at which timber was becoming an increasingly important part of construction’s future, both globally and in Australia.

“The recent changes in the deemed to comply provisions in the Australian Construction Code now pave the way for more innovative uptake of timber in residential buildings up to 25 meters in height,” he said.

Sinclair’s recent Wood Outlook presentation to The Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Water Resources captures much of what he shared at the conference.

HQPlantations manage 343,000 hectares of Queensland forests, of which 212 hectares are used for hardwood and softwood plantation production. HQP’s Steve Worley said that “each year some two million tonnes of wood is harvested for sawn timber, plywood, reconstituted panels and woodchip for domestic and international markets.”

HQP offers an enterprise model which shows that long-term investment can be a viable investment asset class in Australia’s forest industry.  Their commitment to forest stewardship is confirmed by international accreditation of the Forest Stewardship Council and local forest standards. HQP are already planting trees that will not be harvested for 30 and more years.

It would not do TQ’s conference justice if the breadth and depth of speakers were not acknowledged. Warren McGregor, CEO of PrefabAUS gave an up-to-date overview of where the local momentum in offsite and prefabrication was now headed. He spoke of the developments in concrete, steel and wood as the emerging pieces and parts of construction respond as the industry’s digital and industrialised future unfold. McGregor acknowledged the increasing role of timber products and enabling technologies, but stressed the challenges ahead to assure the reasonable expectations of the industry’s customers and investors are met.

I do not point to particular companies or services unless they are about innovation and leadership. I was impressed with HQP and Hyne Timber’s collaboration to re-engineer a solution to repairing old timber bridges in rural areas.

Hyne Timber’s Jeremy Mead built on McGregor’s perspective about the rapid influences of digitising construction and noted how “investment in digital becomes an investment in customers. Future customer relationships will be built on direct digital connection, with 60 per cent of customers likely to make a decision to buy without relying on traditional sales streams.”

And Michael Hartman gave a case study into how his company Skills Impact was responding to the dissatisfaction of government and industry with the current mixed quality of industry training and certification programs. In many ways, Hartman described the challenges confronting the modern day classroom in schools and universities, and how a collaborative approach built on shared digital platforms will lead to better skills delivery and verification.

Mead’s parting insight was that “the day of the conglomerate monolith was under challenge by the prospect of new start-ups deploying new customer facing digital capabilities and integrated collaborative networks to deliver services like never before.”

If ever there was a time for politicians to start getting their minds beyond the current electoral cycle, TQ’s Conference offered ample evidence. And it’s not just Australian forests that need a 30-year chain of custody and stewardship. Perhaps the momentum building in other places might be a motivating way to finish. The work of the Forest Genetics Council of British Columbia – Protecting Forest Health for Future Generations, is worth a look. It’s enough to make you want to shake a few trees, and perhaps a few politicians.

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