Forestry sale dominates Question Time discussion

Labor changed tack in Question Time on Thursday, pivoting away from health to scrutinise Resources Minister Guy Barnett’s announcement that the government would be selling Sustainable Timber Tasmania’s 29,000 hectares of plantation assets to the tune of $60.7 million.

Opposition Leader Rebecca White called the transaction a “fire sale”, saying the cost of putting the trees in the ground alone had equated to $90 million.

“Why have you signed taxpayers up to a dud deal?” Ms White said.

Mr Barnett attacked Labor for opposing the plantation sale.

“The announcement today (Thursday) is consistent with our plan for a sustainable future … for Tasmania’s forest industry,” he said.

“You should be saying, ‘Congratulations and well done.’”

The minister said 3000 Tasmanians had lost their jobs as a result of the former government’s Tasmanian Forest Agreement.

Greens leader Cassy O’Connor was also critical of the sale, telling the house that the Auditor-General had said in 2012 that the assets were worth roughly $101 million.

“Can you explain how it is the government is selling these public plantations at a loss?” she asked Mr Barnett.

“How can you claim this is a good deal?”

The minister said the Greens wanted to shut down the native forest sector.

“The person who asked this question … opposed the establishment of the plantations she’s asking questions about,” he said.

But Opposition resources spokesman David Llewellyn took Ms O’Connor’s line of questioning even further, claiming that Tasmanians could have “reasonably expected” a net sale of $190 million for the assets.

“How can you justify this … short-sighted sale of a public asset?” Mr Llewellyn said.

Mr Barnett replied that forestry rights to the trees had been sold, not actual land.

“It’s not like selling a farm, it’s like selling a crop,” he told the house.

Ms O’Connor said the company to which the assets had been sold, Global Forest Partners, was owned by a parent company in the Cayman Islands.

Mr Barnett “condemned” the assertion, saying it was “disgraceful, grubby behaviour” from the Greens leader.

“The company has not even commenced operation in this state and this member is trying to denigrate this company,” he said.

Treasurer Peter Gutwein informed the chamber that the money from the forestry sale would be invested into the state’s health system.

Opposition primary industries spokesman Shane Broad asked Primary Industries Minister Jeremy Rockliff whether he agreed with Braddon Liberal MHA Adam Brooks’s belief that seal relocations should be “halted immediately” and that the aquaculture industry should “simply tolerate aggressive seals”.

Tassal engages in seal relocation as a means of protecting its workers and livestock.

Mr Rockliff said seal relocations had risen to “unacceptably high levels” in the past 12 months.

“This is causing problems for fishers,” he said.

“Mr Brooks, unlike the Labor Party, has an opinion.

“The Labor Party’s lips are literally sealed.”

As Question Time was drawing to a close, Labor launched a critique of Mr Barnett’s speech at an anti-same-sex marriage forum held in Hobart last Thursday.

Opposition education spokeswoman Michelle O’Byrne quoted from a passage of the speech in which Mr Barnett expressed concern that the legalisation of same-sex marriage could result in “gay and lesbian sexual activity” being taught in schools.

Ms O’Byrne asked the Education Minister whether there was any truth to such a claim, which Mr Rockliff appeared to deny.

Franklin Labor MHA Lara Giddings directed a question at Tourism Minister Will Hodgman over Mr Barnett’s speech, namely regarding the Resources Minister’s criticism of Qantas’s pro-same-sex marriage stance.

Ms Giddings asked Mr Hodgman how he could tolerate such a criticism of a major airline carrier.

Mr Hodgman said Qantas was “entitled to have its say” on the matter.

“I don’t think what Minister Barnett said … contravened that,” he said.