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Upper Catchment Issues Vol 3 No 1 Supplement

Author: Tasmanian Community Resource Auditors Incorporated

Introduction

Following the publication of the Technical Note audit relating to impacts of logging on watercourses in the Weld Hill area of Northeast Tasmania (Eastman 2002), a substantial fine was imposed by the Forest Practices Board on Forestry Tasmania as the managers of the coupe in question (Appendix 1). It emerged that Forestry Tasmania was fined a total of $10,000 and had one of its Forest Practices Officers warrant to certify plans suspended for breaches relating to its management practices at the coupe.

Following these revelations community members contacted TCRA (Tasmanian Community Resource Auditors Inc.) with concerns about the way in which fines are calculated. This audit reports our efforts to extract an answer to that and a number of other relevant questions.

Methodology and methods

The approach followed a form of narrative/biographical inquiry that involved interpretation of textual messages (Manning and Cullum-Swan 1994).

In terms of method, an initial letter of inquiry was sent to the Chairman of the Forest Practices Board. Subsequent replies were then interpreted and further questioning was undertaken as the inquiry deepened. The research team met to discuss, analyse and interpret both inward and outward correspondence.

Results and discussion

The initial letter sent by TCRA (May 26, 2003) was quite detailed and specific, asking a number of questions (see Appendix 2). The aim was to introduce the organization as well as elicit responses across a number of key areas germane to the main audit objective. The questions addressed three main areas: responsibility for setting fines, the circumstances under which fines are issued and matters relating to fine amounts, including ultimate use of revenue gathered from fines. The reply (by Mr. Wilkinson, Chief Forest Practices Officer, Forest Practices Board see Appendix 3) written May 30, 2003 was carefully analysed and revealed little in the way of satisfactory answers to the initial questions. The erroneous assumption in the final line of Mr Wilkinson's letter, namely, "I hope the above provides you with the general background information that you seek" led the team to conclude that Mr Wilkinson had entirely missed the point of the initial specific questions and that the questions were in fact about issues of process, not legislative requirements.

The next move by the team was to consider a more efficient line of questioning in order to bring to the fore the nature of the process used to set and manage fines. Accordingly, a letter was sent to Kim Evans (see Appendix 4). The reply from Mr. Wilkinson, and an acknowledgment from TCRA are found in Appendix 5. The important outcome from that correspondence was the acknowledgement that, "The Act provides no specific guidelines with respect to the determination of the cost of making good any damage or loss and the Board is therefore required to exercise judgement on a case by case basis".

Conclusions and recommendations

This audit finds that the Act governing the setting of fines is unclear on the matter of fines and therefore places an onerous burden on the Forest Practices Board to make appropriate determinations. It is also evident that no clear documented process actually exists for fines determination.

This suggests that public scrutiny may be impossible, due to the lack of adequate checks and balances. The fact that public resources are at risk (water, land and forests) make it essential that open, transparent and accountable processes need to be put in place. These processes must be consistent and be based on recouping real costs.

The findings of this audit lead to the conclusion that the credibility and positive public image of the industry could greatly benefit from the development and implementation of clear and rational guidelines for the setting of fines. Such guidelines must be documented and capable of withstanding public scrutiny. By necessity, this will remove the onus on members of the FPB to exercise discretionary judgment on a case by case basis. At the same time, the scope of possible interpretations will also be narrower.

We therefore recommend further in-depth audits of processes that have led to actual fines to determine:

(a) If a consistent method exists;

(b) How far fine amounts go toward fixing problems;

(c) How fine monies are ultimately used to fix on ground problems, to what degree this improves corrective action processes, and whether root causes are effectively addressed.


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