Today the Victorian Auditor-General's Office (VAGO) tabled an independent audit into Victoria's native forest logging regulator in Parliament. The report is another stain on Environment Minister Lily D'Ambrosio's Department of Environment and their on-going reputation for failing to prosecute illegal logging in Victoria's state forests. State-owned logging company VicForests has for years been found to be in breach of state environment laws.
The independent audit found;
- Serious gaps in acting on reports of non-compliance and no procedure to investigate widespread illegal logging allegations;
- The regulator has limited powers to actually enforce the law, and no avenue whatsoever to issue infringement notices;
- No available measure or record of the quality or effectiveness of any of their activities, and the agency does not produce a rationale for decisions relating to non-compliance;
- Has no access to appropriate data and satellite imagery to enable prosecution of illegal logging.
The audit shows the strongest tool that the Department has available to it currently, is to send a warning letter - essentially a slap on the wrist. The report states;
Currently, OCR’s officers cannot issue infringement notices under the SFT Act for timber harvesting noncompliance. This contrasts with the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022 introduced into Parliament in May 2022. If passed, this will include stronger penalties (maximum fines of more than $21,000 or 12 months imprisonment) for protesters who illegally enter timber harvesting safety zones.
Despite the audit acknowledging that the Department relies almost solely on third-party reports from citizen science groups, the government recently passed legislation which could slap whistle-blowers with thousands of dollars worth of fines for surveying for endangered wildlife in areas scheduled for logging.
Previous reports and audits also found the Department to be ineffective. They’ve had years to address crippling problems with non-compliance, illegal logging, and corruption allegations. The government set up a specific regulator’s office to investigate and penalise lawless logging, but it has been little more than window dressing aimed at protecting the interests of the logging industry, rather than holding them accountable to the law.
Only a few months ago in August the ABC reported that Victoria's government-owned logging agency VicForests illegally cleared 1,000 square metres of protected Leadbeater’s possum habitat and broke the law in 25 out of 30 logging areas, according to a government-commissioned audit.
Statement from Victorian Forest Alliance spokesperson Chris Schuringa:
“State-owned logging company VicForests has repeatedly been found to be in breach of state environment laws. This is yet another independent report confirming that no-one is policing Victoria's taxpayer-funded woodchipping industry.”
“The audit shows that the strongest tool the Department currently has available to it is to send a warning letter, essentially a slap on the wrist. Victorians are left to wonder why the state government would rather throw the book at whistle-blowers and citizen scientists holding VicForests accountable, than police their logging agency?”
“Illegal logging, allegations of corruption, countless breaches to the environment laws; it’s shocking that this is happening in Victoria under a so-called progressive government.”
“We don't log native forest to build houses - around 90% of the trees from native forests become wood chips. Labor’s policy for this lawless logging to continue for another 8 years is wasteful and senseless. Native forest logging must end now - particularly when we know how important forests are for tackling climate change.”
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