Bignell criticises ‘scaremongering’

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The sprawling CHH White Avenue pine panels operation in Mount Gambier. Around 180 people work in the company’s two panel production sites.FORESTRY Minister Leon Bignell has lambasted Liberal MP David Ridgway over what he claims as blatant political “scaremongering” over forestry jobs in Mount Gambier.

This follows the shadow forestry minister claiming the NSW Government was “courting” Carter Holt Harvey (CHH) to transfer its Mount Gambier panel board operations to Tumut.

Mr Ridgway called on the government to fast-track $10.5m in forestry investment funds to cement CHH’s future in the city.

While it is not confirmed, it is understood CHH hopes to attract a grant of up to $7m to modernise its panel production facilities in Mount Gambier.

Mr Bignell said he contacted CHH officials in Queensland last week after hearing rumours during his four-day visit to Mount Gambier.

The minister said members of the NSW government had a “chance meeting” with the CHH officials where the issue was raised.

“They said generally if it doesn’t work out in Mount Gambier then come and talk with us, it was as simple as that,” Mr Bignell said.

The MP said it was not “unusual” for CHH to have talks with other governments because they had operations in Queensland and NSW.

He said the statements by Mr Ridgway undermined hundreds of workers in Mount Gambier.

“This is scaremongering, it is really nothing to do with anything,” Mr Bignell said.

“He (Ridgway) has put two and two together and got 22.”

Explaining there were positive developments in the South East forestry sector, he said the Liberal Party should not be pedalling fear.

“You don’t go out and say ridiculous statements and upset the confidence of people in the South East, you have to work constructively with people,” Mr Bignell said.

“CHH knows Mount Gambier is the best place to have their operations.”

He said CHH had a good workforce and access to the fibre resource that it needed for panel production.

The minister confirmed the government had been in talks with CHH about future grants that would become available to the forestry sector for innovation-focused projects.

Mr Bignell said $10.5m was left in the forestry investment partnership program and the opening of this program would be announced as early as next week.

“We are just finalising the terms of reference,” the minister said.

“We have had some positive conversations with CHH and other companies in the region.”

He said $7.5m would be allocated this year and $3.5m in 2015/16.

Mr Bignell said regional forestry companies could also potentially tap into the $15m regional development fund accelerator pool, which was being overseen by Regional Development Minister Geoff Brock.