Press conference in Launceston, Tasmania

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
LAUNCESTON
TUESDAY, 12 MARCH 2024

SUBJECTS: Albanese Government’s $100 million Australian Forest and Wood Innovations program; forestry; fisheries; supermarket review

PROFESSOR RUFUS BLACK, VICE-CHANCELLOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TASMANIA: Today we’re launching Australian Forest and Wood Innovations, which is a $100 million investment by government in the future of forestry and wood products for Australia. Enormously important for creating a sustainable future for Australia. Wood products are going to be critical to a carbon zero future for the nation, and for seeing us have regional jobs in turning all that timber into the kind of products we need for a sustainable future.

JOURNALIST: What’s the significance of having this research institute based in Tasmania?

RUFUS BLACK: It demonstrates Tasmania’s capacity to lead the nation in providing the knowledge and skills needed for a transition to a sustainable economy.

JOURNALIST: And I know it’s not set in stone, but there’s going to be perhaps be one on the Sunshine Coast and one in Melbourne. What are the benefits of having it across the state?

RUFUS BLACK: Yes, it’s a national project. We have timber all around the nation, and, of course the need to be manufacturing timber all around the nation. So, yes, we will have nodes nationwide, but it will led from here in Launceston.

JOURNALIST: And what sort of jobs will be created from that?

RUFUS BLACK: Well, if we look to the examples of northern Europe, what you’ll see is the next generation of high-skilled, knowledge-based jobs that are involved in the production of timber - the kind of large engineered timbers that you can build very large buildings out of. Those jobs come with all sorts of new levels of skill. So this is a jobs renewal for regional Australia.

JOURNALIST: And what are the possibilities in terms of products, of problems that can be solved by setting up this facility?

RUFUS BLACK: So this will enable us to be replacing our high carbon buildings, even very large ones, with building that are carbon sinks built of timber, even kind of large, multi-storey office-type scale buildings or apartment kind of buildings much more sustainably; but also fibre ends up being critical to many other kinds of chemistry that can all be biologically based, and that creates a whole new suite of possibilities for sustainable products to be made from the fibre which come from our forests.

JOURNALIST: Why was Tasmania picked as the centre of this project?

RUFUS BLACK: Because Tasmania, the University of Tasmania, has been absolutely a national leader in doing sustainable forestry, sustainable forestry and wood product research. We’re launching it here today in a centre that’s been working on how do you use timber sustainably in architecture for a long time. Tasmania has been a national leader in this kind of research.

JOURNALIST: Is Tasmania already doing it? I’m not sure – correct me if I’m wrong – but is the new St Lukes building made out of the same material?

RUFUS BLACK: It is. It is. It’s a mass timber building, but the University of Tasmania has really been playing a central role in seeing that kind of construction. It came after we used very large mass timber in our construction in Inveresk and our constructions in Burnie. So as a university we aim to lead by example, using timber in innovative ways to make large – and  indeed - really beautiful human buildings.

JOURNALIST: You’ve got $100 million for this institute. How long do you expect that to last?

RUFUS BLACK: Well, it’s funding for four years. It’s about $25 million a year which will be used here and in other places around the nation. And it comes at a critical time. Australia had stopped really significantly funding forestry wood product research. If this money hadn’t come now we might have lost that capability as a nation. So it’s a real rebuild of a vital set of skills and types of knowledge that a nation that wants to be sustainable needs.

JOURNALIST: Will you require another $100 million commitment from the Government to continue that work?

RUFUS BLACK: Well part of the work the institute needs to do is to create its own sustainable future by working out what are the income streams that come from the innovative ways in which we can be creating new kinds of wood and timber products and other fibre products.

BOB GORDON, CHAIR OF AUSTRALIAN FOREST AND WOOD INNOVATIONS: Well, like Rufus said, this is an opportunity to remanufacture Australia. Wood has always been used in Australia from 60,000 years ago. And what we could do is just imagine regional hubs manufacturing modular timber houses, maybe making a house a day. We can solve the housing crisis and solve the carbon crisis. We can plant more trees absorbing carbon for the future. Wood really is the solution to a lot of our challenges. And as Rufus said, the amount of research that’s been conducted in Australia over the last 20 years has dropped significantly. This is a real opportunity to focus on outcomes. And I think Minister Watt and his Government should be congratulated for taking the brave move to actually invest in our future, both in remanufacturing regional jobs and in carbon and climate change.

JOURNALIST: Do you think Australia has sort of fallen behind those Scandinavian countries that have been working with mass manufactured wood like [indistinct] and things like that? Are we playing catch up?

BOB GORDON: I think that’s probably the case. But there’s also some advantages in playing catch up. So the Finnish research institutes [indistinct], the ones in Vancouver and at the University of Washington have done a lot of the base work. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel. But particularly our eucalypts have different chemistry and physical properties so we need to adjust for that. And the physical properties particularly of our eucalypts give us some substantial advantages in mass timber and engineerable products. And there’s a whole range of engineerable products that aren’t currently made in Australia. We’ve got some small glulam and CLT which are mass timber products, but we’ve got a long way to come in terms of some of the really exciting engineerable products. And the chemistry is sort of interesting. So I don’t know how many of you have rayon clothes on, but they’re made out of timber. So it’s actually a natural product that’s involved a chemical process that spins rayon fibre out of [indistinct] in wood. Almost anything you currently make out of fossil fuels you can make out of wood. The chemistry is very, very similar. And in Europe they’re well down that track. Even [indistinct] has done some work on producing solvents that used to be made from fossil fuels out of timber products. So, again, there’s an exciting opportunity if we all work together. And to emphasise Rufus’s point, there are researchers spread all around Australia. The challenge is to get that network working and connected.

JOURNALIST: When would you hope to see some of the first products being put to market in Australia?

BOB GORDON: So Cusp at Deep Creek Road in Wynyard is already making small volumes of both Glulam and cross-laminated timber. The veneer mill at Smithton is currently making plywood. There’s an opportunity there to make some new engineerable products with the different manufacturing methodology. But I think we have to move quickly. We haven’t got time to wait. And I think particularly with the Federal Government’s focus on establishing manufacturing industries back in Australia, this is a real opportunity both in the manufacturing industry and in providing much more affordable houses for Australia.

JOURNALIST: Lovely, thank you.

BOB GORDON: Thank you.

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Well I'm delighted to be here in Launceston today to see the fruition of an election commitment the Albanese Government made at the last election. We went to the last election with a $300 million package to fund expansion and growth in the forestry industry, and this commitment that we’re unveiling today is a key part of that. The Albanese Government will be delivering $100 million to help establish the new Australian Forest and Wood Innovation based right here in Launceston, and I can’t think of a better place in Australia to be establishing a world-leading research centre for the forestry industry going forward.

Today is a big vote of confidence from our Government in Tasmania and in the forestry industry going forward. We’re really excited about seeing the potential growth of this industry, the development of new products, the use of timber as a carbon sequestration option as well. And more than anything, what this announcement is about, it’s a key part of our government’s plan to build a Future Made in Australia. We want to rebuild Aussie manufacturing. We want to do more value-adding in Australia. We want more sovereign capability, and that’s what this commitment is about.

JOURNALIST: I just have a different question; there were calls from the Prime Minister to back in the salmon industry on a visit to the state yesterday. Should he have stopped to take questions, and is supporting the salmon industry a priority?

MURRAY WATT: Well the Albanese Government had been very clear in our support for the salmon industry. In fact, not too long ago the Prime Minister was at a Tassal plant just outside of Hobart, and towards the end of last year I visited Strachan myself to meet with workers and industry representatives around the Macquarie Harbour area. So there can be no doubt whatsoever about our Government’s support for the salmon industry. We’ve invested in it. We believe in the jobs. Obviously this is an industry that needs to conduct itself sustainably, but we think that can be done.

JOURNALIST: Minister, are you surprised by some of the comments coming out of the inquiry into supermarket pricing from farmers?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, what we’ve seen in the comments from farmers is exactly why we needed to have this inquiry. For too long Aussie farmers have been ripped off by supermarkets and big retailers and not being able to make a fair profit margin. And that’s exactly why our Government was keen to have this inquiry underway.

There are now three inquiries underway at the federal level to deal with this issue – a review of the Food and Grocery Code being done by Dr Craig Emerson, an ACCC inquiry into supermarket behaviour, and, of course, a Senate inquiry now as well. And I think all of the evidence that we’re seeing come out shows exactly why we needed to take action. It’s a shame that it didn’t happen earlier, but the Albanese Government is determined to make sure that farmers and families get a fair go from supermarkets.

JOURNALIST: So do you think the ACCC should specifically look at those relationships between farmers and supermarkets and why things have gone so sour?

MURRAY WATT: That will certainly be something that the ACCC looks at. But the ACCC is going to have a broad remit. They’ll be looking at the whole food supply chain. They’ll be looking at the relationship between supermarkets and producers, but also how supermarkets treat consumers as well. I think we’ve all been into supermarkets at different times and seen quite misleading advertising about what prices are. It’s not good enough that supermarkets are squeezing consumers and farmers, and our Government is determined to take action about that.

JOURNALIST: Thank you.