On Tuesday afternoon, the Environment Select Committee published its report on Shane Jones’ Forests (Regulation of Log Traders and Forestry Advisers) Bill in Parliament ahead of its second reading.
Despite its many flaws – and an unprecedented chorus of disapproval (including full page advertisements in the media) – the Bill has emerged from the Select Committee largely unscathed.
Of course, this outcome was well choreographed by Jones. By diverting the Bill to the Environment Select Committee, rather than the better-qualified but National-chaired Primary Production Select Committee, the Bill was always going to have an easy ride.
Yet, anyone interested in the forestry industry, the wider economy, or the principles of good government, should be deeply troubled by the Bill.
Introduced under faux-urgency, the Bill’s purported purpose is to create an occupational licensing regime for log traders and forestry advisers. This, Jones proclaims, will ensure mum-and-dad forestry owners get reliable advice about when to harvest their trees and where to sell them.
But the regime is a Trojan Horse for invasive regulation. The Bill deems all forest owners to be “log traders” and subjects them to the registration and regulatory oversight of a new “Forestry Authority.”
The Bill’s purpose statement includes ensuring “equity of access” and the “continuous and predictable supply” of timber for domestic processing, paving the way for the Forestry Authority to control when, to whom and even whether forest owners can sell their trees.
Jones’ goal is to promote grandiose plans for a “revitalised” wood processing industry that will “create jobs” and “add value” beyond what the apparently myopic log exporters have done. In regulating forest owners, Jones doubtless has at least one eye on his Northland electorate (he is reportedly concerned about two Northland sawmills struggling with log supply).
But if wood processors want a secure supply of logs, they should solve it either by planting trees or entering long term contracts with forest owners. The answer is not subjecting suppliers to ex post regulation.
Nowhere in the Cabinet Papers or supporting documents does Jones present an assessment of how forest owners might be economically impacted by all this. Nor is there even an attempt at defining the problem. These omissions show a remarkable contempt for decades-old principles of good government.
More concerningly, Jones’ protectionist approach will have a chilling effect on forestry investment. It will also jeopardise both overseas investment in New Zealand and the country’s reputation (and obligations) as an exporting nation. Unfortunately, the extent of the potential damage is uncertain, as Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials were blocked from briefing MPs on the Select Committee about the Bill’s potential consequences.
Parliament should pull the pin on the Bill before it blows the legs off the forestry industry. The country cannot afford this meddling when the economy is struggling to get back on its feet.