Question Without Notice:
Ms SHEED: My question is for the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change. A number of my constituents who live close to the forest in Shepparton and Mooroopna have reported to me that they constantly hear chainsaws being used at all hours of the day and night. When they go and check the next day, they observe that there is much evidence of trees having been chopped down, cut up and presumably taken for firewood. Firewood collection in our forests is illegal. I hear of many reports at my office of firewood being illegally taken throughout forests in the north. Minister, I ask: what is your department doing to support the local ranger who is attempting to police this illegal activity in our local forests?
Ms D’AMBROSIO: I thank the member for Shepparton for her question. It is absolutely a serious question for those people who live in local communities, are a part of the community fabric and have a reliance on firewood for their own warmth and in some instances for their own cooking. It is absolutely the wrong thing for some people to go off and do the wrong thing, and absolutely it is a priority for us to demonstrate that this cannot be allowed to be gotten away with. It is important that everyone who collects firewood does that from designated collection areas or buys it from reputable sources. The illegal removal of firewood certainly has been identified as a significant environmental threat, and it is a massive issue for people in the Shepparton area and surrounds for reasons that I know are very close to the member for Shepparton’s heart and knowledge in terms of the reliance on firewood for the wellbeing and comfort of her local community.
Last year there were 183 people that were fined for illegally removing wood from across the state, and the conservation regulator together with Parks Victoria have got a program underway—right now in fact—that looks at the illegal removal of firewood in the Murray River area, including in that area of Shepparton and Mooroopna, through what they call ‘Operation rivergum’, so the department together with Parks Victoria have got that underway. In mid-June—just this month in fact—authorities seized some equipment from people who indeed may be illegal firewood collectors. They seized some chainsaws and seized some timber and a vehicle as part of that operation. They are pursuing other persons of interest—as the phrase is—and certainly I am hoping that we can hear better news on this as investigation continues.
The operation is also working with firewood sellers to ensure that they know where their wood is coming from. It is really important that there is no excuse here for there to be, even in an inadvertent way, the receipt of firewood that might be collected illegally. The operation is working to continue that targeted approach of those that do the wrong thing, and they will continue to have patrols on public land in that area, because it is really critical to be able to be onsite and obviously have a presence—a presence in terms of dissuading the wrongdoing but also having the opportunity to catch people in the act. Certainly I thank the member for Shepparton for raising an important issue. We will keep working together to get some better outcomes for her community.
Ms SHEED: To be clear about this, I am not really referring to those people who may be stealing firewood just for their own use. This seems to be a very organised activity where large amounts of wood are being taken from those areas of forests where there is no collection allowed at all, not even for those who may rely on firewood for their own purposes. It does seem that there are perhaps insufficient penalties associated with the people who are doing these really quite illegal activities. I know that some rangers are even unafraid to approach these people. My question for the minister is: will she review the current penalties for theft of firewood in this manner and make them reflect the seriousness of what these offences really represent to our community?
Ms D’AMBROSIO: thank the member for the supplementary question. I cannot argue with that. Absolutely, I think we are not necessarily just talking about the one-or two-person operations. If there is a broader organised syndicate involved in this, it is something that we are absolutely wanting to run to ground. But just on the issue of penalties and whether we have a penalty regime that is actually fit to do the job, number one, of dissuading wrongdoing, and number two, of actually applying the penalty to meet the level of the crime, if you like, and the extent of the crime, my department will very soon be initiating a review of firewood, and that will include a review into the penalties regime that is in place. We want to make sure that they are fit for purpose—absolutely. You cannot have a system where you have your compliance and you have a lot of people out there enforcing compliance activities and the like, but not actually have a penalty regime that reflects the extent of the problem.