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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
Cameron, Sen Doug
Sterle, Sen Glenn
Back, Sen Chris
Siewert, Sen Rachel
Milne, Sen Christine
Edwards, Sen Sean
Bullock, Sen Joesph
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Sterle)
Ludwig, Sen Joe
Colbeck, Sen Richard
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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
(Senate-Monday, 23 February 2015)
Department of Agriculture
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Sterle)
Australian Fisheries Management Authority
Dr J Findlay
Department of Agriculture
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Sterle)
Dr A Cupit
Dr J Cupit
Dr V Findlay
Australian Livestock Export Corporation Limited (LiveCorp Australia)
Meat and Livestock Australia
Interim Inspector-General of Biosecurity
Department of Agriculture
Dr A Cupit
Ms van Meurs
Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority
- Department of Agriculture
- AGRICULTURE PORTFOLIO
Content WindowRural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee - 23/02/2015 - Estimates - AGRICULTURE PORTFOLIO - Department of Agriculture
Department of Agriculture
CHAIR: I welcome Senator the Hon. Richard Colbeck, representing the Minister for Agriculture, Dr Paul Grimes, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, and officers of the department. Senator Colbeck or Dr Grimes, do you wish to make an opening statement?
Senator Colbeck: No.
Dr Grimes : No, Chair.
Senator CAMERON: Dr Grimes, when did the executive management committee meet last?
Dr Grimes : The executive management committee of the department meets on a monthly basis. We do have weekly update meetings that we hold to consider more routine matters, but our formal meetings are once a month. I could not give you the specific date, but it was a couple of weeks ago.
Senator CAMERON: A couple of weeks ago?
Dr Grimes : It would have been earlier in February.
Senator CAMERON: Did you discuss the biosecurity issue in relation to the berry contamination?
Dr Grimes : No, we did not discuss the berries matter at that EMC meeting simply because the berries issue had not come to prominence at that stage.
Senator CAMERON: When is your next meeting?
Dr Grimes : Our next meeting is in early March. I do not have the specific date in front of me.
Senator CAMERON: Will you be discussing it there?
Dr Grimes : I do not know, because at our executive management committee meeting our focus is on organisational matters. A matter like the berries matter requires faster decision making and that would be made through the normal processes of the department.
Senator CAMERON: But the executive management committee has an overview of the issues.
Dr Grimes : It is effectively a governance body of the department. If we were waiting to make decisions based on input from the executive management committee, we probably would not discharge our functions.
CHAIR: Just pausing there, Dr Grimes. The actual decision making on testing is outside the remit of your department, isn't it?
Dr Grimes : We are probably going to more specific matters in relation to berries. If the committee wants to handle those matters on berries, it would probably be appropriate for us to have the relevant officers here. I would have thought that the appropriate place to handle that is under the compliance division, which has responsibility for the management of our—
CHAIR: You would implement any changes to compliance, but FSANZ would—
Dr Grimes : The standards centre is FSANZ. We implement our testing regimes based on advice from FSANZ. That does not mean that all the decisions are made by FSANZ. FSANZ provides us with the advice on the risk levels of foods and appropriate food safety standards, and then we carry out the inspections in accordance with the Imported Food Control Act 1992.
Senator CAMERON: I am not exactly sure of the words you used, but I think you indicated that the berries issue had not 'come to prominence'. Were they the words you used?
Dr Grimes : That is correct. The reports of the concerns around berries date from approximately a week ago, when the first reports were received. Again, if we were to answer very detailed questions on this it would be appropriate to have the relevant officers from our compliance division.
Senator CAMERON: I am happy for them to be here, because I am going to pursue this issue generally.
Dr Grimes : Yes. We can answer whatever questions in this session, and then we can come back to more detailed questions in the compliance division, when we will have all of the relevant officers.
Senator CAMERON: You say the issue became prominent a week ago.
Dr Grimes : Approximately a week ago, yes. For more specific timing I would have to refer to the relevant officers. I can speak from my personal knowledge that it was about a week ago that I became aware of the issue.
Senator CAMERON: So, you became aware of it a week ago?
Dr Grimes : Correct.
Senator CAMERON: When did your department advise you that they had become aware of it?
Dr Grimes : Again, it may be appropriate for us to have all of the relevant officers here so that we can actually answer your questions in full. The division that would handle this is the compliance division.
Senator CAMERON: Sure.
Dr Grimes : We can ensure that we have all available officers.
Senator CAMERON: But you have overall responsibility?
Dr Grimes : I do have overall responsibility.
Senator CAMERON: I am interested in overall responsibility.
Dr Grimes : But your question is now going to some detailed questions around timing and, as you would understand, I delegate many of my responsibilities within the department, which would be the normal arrangement.
Senator CAMERON: Has there been a reduction in employment in the compliance division over the last 16 to 17 months?
Dr Grimes : It would not surprise me if there has been, but I would prefer to have an officer who has the specific staffing levels advise you. It is important to recognise that the compliance division undertakes a very large range of functions, of which inspections of imported food are only one element.
Senator CAMERON: It would not surprise you that I am interested in berries.
Dr Grimes : That does not surprise me.
Senator CAMERON: It would not surprise you to know that you would asked questions on berries, would it?
Dr Grimes : It would not surprise me.
Senator CAMERON: No. So, you cannot tell me whether your department has reduced the staffing levels in compliance?
Dr Grimes : Senator, as I indicated, it would probably be more appropriate for a member of the staff here who might have the actual figures. I do not have those actual figures in front of me right at the moment.
CHAIR: It will surprise, but it should not surprise, Senator Cameron that for many years this committee has pursued these issues—everything from dirt fertiliser to beef from Brazil or god knows where—and it would not surprise I presume Senator Cameron that resources under the previous government were curtailed somewhat as well. This should not be a political issue—
Senator STERLE: There are 14 people with hepatitis A, Chair.
CHAIR: This is for the wellbeing of Australians.
Dr Grimes : Over the course of the last year the department has reduced its staffing. That has been something that has been subject to discussion here in the committee for some time and we have provided evidence. I just do not have the specific numbers. I understand that Ms Mellor has.
Ms Mellor : Officers from our HR area have some numbers to assist.
D r Cunningham : We had a restructure of the department last year so we do not have a direct comparator for the compliance division from June to December this year, but as at 30 June 2013 there were 2,062.01 FTEs in border compliance division and as at 30 June 2014 that number was 1,782.5 FTEs, so that represents a reduction through the 2013-14 financial year of 279.51.
Senator CAMERON: Let us round that up, so 280 jobs have gone in the compliance division.
D r Cunningham : During the 2013-14 financial year.
Senator CAMERON: Given that there have been free trade agreements signed with other countries that might mean an increase in goods coming into this country, was there any assessment made about the need for compliance to have at least the resources maintained or more resources, Secretary?
Dr Grimes : Senator, I think I understand the line of questioning you will be pursuing, but I think it is important to recognise that we also look for efficiencies in the way in which we undertake our work and where we target our resources. There is an important point to recognise around imported products. We are a cost-recovered agency for those functions rather than a budget appropriated funding agency in large part—not in total but in large part—so the revenue we receive can fluctuate depending on the level of imports and we have the opportunity to set our staffing levels appropriately should that be required.
CHAIR: I just seek clarification, with your indulgence, Senator. Are the 2,000 or so people looking at product coming in as well as going out?
Ms Mellor : They can do. There are some staff who operate in both exports and imports.
CHAIR: So can you break that up into imports and exports? Do some of these people go to sleep at their desks during the day? What do they actually do?
Ms Mellor : I will have to take that on notice. I think the key point here is that what we have done in that reduction is looked at where risk is in terms of different channels like mail, airports, cargo vessels et cetera. We have looked at middle management and management roles and, as the secretary says, how we can find efficiency in the way we deliver service to risk and then applied our mind to where we can actually reduce the resourcing.
CHAIR: But the point I am trying to make is that, from the field and having been on this committee for God knows how many years, it is totally obvious that we spend a lot more trouble looking at what we are sending out rather than at what we are bringing in. Do not ask me why. Surely you could give us a bit of an idea how much we spend looking at what we are sending out versus what we are bringing in.
Dr Grimes : I think the complexity may be where staff are performing both functions or could be performing both functions during the course of the year—so for part of the year they are performing one function and for another part of the year they are performing another. Trying to disentangle those numbers so we do not mislead you and we have accurate numbers I think is the issue at hand. The reason, I think as Ms Mellor indicated, would probably have to be taken on notice.
Senator CAMERON: Can I clarify that then? There would be no berry specialists?
Dr Grimes : We would not have a dedicated berry team that only has responsibility for checking berries.
Ms Mellor : May I just clarify? There are another 700 to 800 staff involved in export certification who are costed directly to that. There are a number of different roles that the department plays in imports. We have quarantine specialists and we have imported food administration managers. Clearly, where quarantine is an issue we have staff who may be specialists in certain products such as berries, depending on the risk we are managing. I think it is important for the committee to understand the difference between quarantine and imported food. We do have specialists in plants and plant products for quarantine purposes, so where it is a quarantine concern there will be people who are looking at product that may be at risk for quarantine purposes.
Senator CAMERON: But you would only quarantine products if you thought that there was a problem, wouldn't you? Or is there a systemic management system there that says, 'This product comes in and it gets quarantined'?
Ms Mellor : The difficulty here is that there are different levels of knowledge of our business in the committee. All product of quarantine concern coming into Australia has a level of risk management over it, depending on the risk it poses. Berries are coming into Australia. Fresh berries will be subject to a range of quarantine measures. Frozen berries are not subject to the same measures, because frozen berries do not pose the same quarantine concern. So for quarantine purposes we have staff in the plant specialties who will regularly, based on the risk profiles that we set, look at plant products, fruit, vegetables, grains—all sorts of horticulture: plant material, genetic material et cetera. For imported food the same people might be involved but for different reasons.
Senator CAMERON: People are contracting hepatitis A because of frozen berries. Has that meant that there has been a senior management decision to upgrade the assessment of frozen berries coming in? Has that been done?
Ms Mellor : During the compliance section we will answer the detailed questions on how we manage the compliance of frozen berries. If you are asking me whether we have increased staffing in frozen berry imports for food safety purposes, right now, no, we have not.
Senator CAMERON: Why not?
Ms Mellor : Because the scheme itself has a rate of surveillance in it that we have access to across all surveillance products. The actions that the department will next be taking are not directly on staffing at this point; they are actually on what powers we would exercise under the act. They are the sorts of questions that other experts will join us for in the compliance section.
CHAIR: I will clarify by way of an analogy for your benefit. Obviously we have been on this for a long time—on the import risk analysis et cetera. There recently was an importation of discounted fertiliser from China on the alibaba.com site. The reason it got through—this is the bit that is critical—is that in the paperwork it was described as being in a certain sized bag. That is why it was not given surveillance. When it got into Australia it turned out to be dead-set dirt with weeds and seeds and shit in it. The reason it got through was that the description did not enable the officers at the wharf to open the back door and have a look, because the paperwork said 'tick'. It is the paperwork tick that is critical in all of this and whether it is berries or whatever.
Senator CAMERON: Unfortunately someone has to tick the paperwork.
Senator Colbeck: It is important to make a distinction here. We are not talking about biosecurity for biosecurity purposes in respect of berries.
CHAIR: That is right.
Senator Colbeck: We are talking about a testing regime for the purposes of food safety. It is important not to confuse biosecurity with food safety in this. There are some officers who might perform, as far as the sampling processes, a similar function. But these are two very distinct things. This is not about biosecurity. This is about food safety, and it is quite distinct from biosecurity.
Senator STERLE: Food safety is part of this.
CHAIR: FSANZ. We need to inform ourselves.
Senator Colbeck: The other point I think is important to make at this point in time is that, while we believe that there is a link between the berries and the hepatitis A cases, that has not yet through testing been linked completely.
CHAIR: There has been no positive test.
Senator Colbeck: We do not have the test results yet, so that link has not been conclusively established. But there is a circumstantial link to them, if you like.
Senator CAMERON: A strong circumstantial link.
Senator Colbeck: Yes, a strong circumstantial link. But there is no actual link at this point in time, because the test results have not come back.
Senator BACK: Can we assist the process. Are the compliance officers here? If we are going to be discussing this with them, and I am very happy that we do, if they are here would it be of value for us to bring them forward and discuss it now?
Senator CAMERON: I am happy because I think there are overarching managerial issues as well as the detail stuff. We may as well get it done.
Senator BACK: If they are here, with the forbearance of the committee and the secretary and the minister, why don't we just deal with them, because I have questions as well.
CHAIR: Could we just deal with this at an appropriate time?
Senator STERLE: Chair, if I may: Senator Back makes a very good point. Let us get it all out. No-one is going to duck and dive and no one wants to duck and dive.
Senator STERLE: So while we are hot on the berry stuff, let us bring them all here. Once we have finished, Chair, then we can move off to other business. Senator Cameron has waited patiently.
CHAIR: Dr Grimes, would it take 10 minutes to assemble the appropriate people?
Dr Grimes : It may take a little bit longer. They were planning to come for the compliance division section. We have some officers, but we do not have our full complement of officers.
CHAIR: So will we agree within half an hour? What would be the appropriate timing?
Senator BACK: I am happy with Senator Cameron's approach because he is leading the questions.
Dr Grimes : As the committee would appreciate, we have got staff that are working actively on these issues as we speak. In bringing them up we are diverting them off the work that they are doing at the moment. They were planning to come a little bit later this morning. We can bring them up—obviously we can—but it would probably take half an hour or so. They are actually doing the compliance audit on this issue right now.
CHAIR: What time are they scheduled for?
Senator SIEWERT: Eleven forty-five.
CHAIR: We will leave it at that. We will deal in detail with that then. Senator Back, could you just inform the committee of what you said this morning about the frozen whatever it was?
Senator BACK: I was just raising the question—and I obviously would be interested and keen on the compliance officers responses to it—about the fragile nature of any virus and the likelihood of actually being able to confirm the presence of the virus back at the point of preparation or packaging and, as you have just said, Senator Colbeck, the likelihood that we may not ever see a positive result for the berries that we suspect are causing the problem. But I think it is most appropriate to ask the question in the compliance section.
Senator SIEWERT: I would have thought that if we cannot guarantee the safety of the food maybe we should be questioning whether we should be bringing them in.
Senator BACK: You have the same background that I have in this. That is why I thought it would be useful to ask the compliance officers those very questions.
Ms Mellor : When they come they will be able to talk about some aspects of that. Not to annoy you at all, Senator, but some aspects of your question belong in the health portfolio.
Senator STERLE: In what portfolio?
Ms Mellor : The health portfolio. We take policy advice from the health portfolio.
Senator STERLE: I was not getting up you; I just could not hear you.
Ms Mellor : I know.
Senator SIEWERT: It would still be interesting to know what they have got to say.
Senator CAMERON: Are they called food administration managers?
Ms Mellor : They are people who administer the Imported Food Inspection Scheme under the relevant act.
Senator CAMERON: The generic term is 'food administration managers'?
Ms Mellor : They are staff in the Imported Food Inspection Scheme program.
Senator CAMERON: How many food inspection managers have lost their jobs as part of that 279.51?
Ms Mellor : Regarding the people who run the program, there are approximately 10 FTE. That is not the people who order things into inspection; that is the people who run the program.
Senator CAMERON: So 10 people who ran the food administration program have lost their jobs.
Ms Mellor : No, sorry, there are 10 FTE in that program.
Senator CAMERON: Were there 10 as at 30 June 2013?
Ms Mellor : It is still sitting at around 10, and has been—
Senator CAMERON: So there have been no job losses in that area?
Ms Mellor : I will have to come back to you on that.
Senator CAMERON: So there are 10 what are colloquially called food administration managers and you do not think there has been any reduction in that.
Ms Mellor : I will confirm that.
Senator CAMERON: You will confirm that—that is fine. What other support mechanisms are in place for these food administration managers? Where do they fit into the management hierarchy of food administration?
Ms Mellor : They sit in the compliance division and they operate out of the compliance division out of the one of the branches in the compliance division. They have an SES officer who reports to a first assistant secretary, who reports to a deputy secretary, right through to the secretary. I am not sure if that is what you are asking.
Senator CAMERON: What I am trying to establish—and there is no secret in this—is: have there been any reductions of staff in the food administration area that would weaken our capacity to identify problems with berries or any food contamination problems from imported goods?
Ms Mellor : Again, I would have to check about the movement in numbers and whether there has been a reduction. It is a cost recovered program; it is not something that is funded out of general appropriations. I could not tell you. The system itself, the Imported Food Inspection Scheme, sets the rate of inspection, and so the rate determines the staffing.
Senator CAMERON: So the importers pay, basically?
Ms Mellor : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: Has there been any analysis done as to whether there would be increased costs of importing berries to ensure the safety of the Australian public arising from this berries contamination issue?
Ms Mellor : If there were changes to the scheme, whether they were changes to the rate of inspection or changes to the tests associated with the scheme, there would be additional costs for importers.
Senator CAMERON: What is the rate of testing at the moment? Is that something we should take up later?
Ms Mellor : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: And the types of tests?
Ms Mellor : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: We will take that up later. But, surely, at the management level—the secretary level—of the department, you have been getting some advice as to what needs to be done to avoid this happening in the future.
Ms Mellor : We have sought the advice of human health authorities, which we are now considering. The response to that is something that we are considering, in terms of what powers the secretary has to do something else and what impact that will have. We need to also confirm that impact with the human health specialists and again consider what impact it has on the importation of berries into Australia.
Senator CAMERON: Are you saying that, as the secretary, Dr Grimes has some limitations on his capacity to implement changes to protect health without legislative change?
Ms Mellor : There are powers that the secretary can exercise that may lead to greater assurance of certain product. Again, I would prefer to speak about that when the compliance people are here.
Senator CAMERON: No, this is the about the secretary's powers.
Ms Mellor : Yes, I understand. There are powers under the act where the secretary may do certain things, which we are considering, in order to increase assurance around imported food.
Senator CAMERON: What are those things that are under consideration?
Ms Mellor : The most important thing that we would consider is whether or not we put holding orders in place on certain products, and if there were a testing regime that could be introduced, what it would be: what sample sizes, what sorts of tests, what the reliability of tests need to be considered.
Senator SIEWERT: Does that mean you could do that without FSANZ bumping up the priority on a particular product, whether it is berries or whatever?
Ms Mellor : The secretary does need to take into account the risk posed to human health. He is not a medical doctor, so we actually do need to seek advice from the proper authorities.
Dr Grimes : To clarify and maybe amplify the point that Ms Mellor is making, I would work on the basis of advice that is provided to me on human health matters.
Senator SIEWERT: Can you exercise it without FSANZ saying that they are going to up the priority of a particular thing?
Dr Grimes : There is an obligation on me to act reasonably and on an evidence basis, as you would understand. Under the law, there needs to be a proper basis for any action, and I would act on the basis of advice from human health experts, for very obvious reasons, because they are the ones that have the expertise and can give me advice.
Senator SIEWERT: In this instance where there is already a clearly identified problem, can you act straight away?
Dr Grimes : Indeed, we have already acted. Again, this is probably a line of questioning that is better pursued when we have got all the officers so that we can ensure that any evidence that is provided is accurate and complete, but we have already acted. As the committee may be aware, all of the product that has been linked to the hepatitis A outbreak has been withdrawn and is being held. It is being held under arrangements that our department has in place with Patties Foods. So the committee can be absolutely assured that we have acted, and we acted quite decisively.
Senator SIEWERT: I am thinking beyond this product.
Senator CAMERON: I want to be exactly sure that you have. I am not questioning your honesty or anything like that, not for one minute, but I think we are entitled to understand the process that you, as the secretary, have undertaken to ensure the health and safety of the Australian consumers. Have you had discussions with the minister on this issue?
Dr Grimes : Indeed, we have had discussions with the minister on this matter.
Senator CAMERON: Have you provided any advice to the minister on this issue?
Dr Grimes : Yes, we have provided advice to the minister on this issue.
Senator CAMERON: When did you provide advice to the minister?
Dr Grimes : We would have provided advice on a number of occasions over the last week.
Senator CAMERON: I am not asking for what the advice is, but could you provide details of when the advice was provided? You can take that on notice.
Dr Grimes : I would have to take that on notice. It would take the form of both discussions and formal advice through briefing.
Senator CAMERON: How many pieces of formal advice have you given? Would that be advice in writing?
Dr Grimes : We have certainly given advice to the minister in writing on these matters. I would have to take it on notice to give you a precise number of advices. But we have most definitely provided advice.
Senator CAMERON: Have you written to other agencies like FSANZ?
Dr Grimes : I am very conscious of the obligations that we have in administering our act and in working very closely with FSANZ and with the Department of Health. So our department has been in continuous contact, which is probably the best way to describe it, with both Health and FSANZ over the last week, as you would expect, and we stand ready to take whatever measures need to be taken on the basis of advice to us.
Senator CAMERON: When Ms Mellor talks about the 'human health authorities', is that the Department of Health?
Dr Grimes : Department of Health and FSANZ. The adviser that we would rely on would be FSANZ. FSANZ is the technical adviser in this area. But, of course, we will talk quite actively to the Chief Medical Officer. Indeed, Ms Mellor and myself have both had contact with the Chief Medical Officer and work very closely with all of the senior relevant officers in the Department of Health.
Senator CAMERON: Minister Joyce has come out very strongly in relation to food labelling. He has made some very clear public statements on food labelling.
Dr Grimes : I am aware the minister has made comments in relation to—
Senator CAMERON: Have you provided any advice to the minister on food labelling?
Dr Grimes : The food-labelling matter has been under consideration for some time, as you are aware. It has been raised in a number of different places, so we will have provided advice to the minister on these matters.
Senator CAMERON: Have you provided any of that advice over the period of this problem with the hepatitis A outbreak?
Dr Grimes : I personally have not provided advice, but of course the department provides advice. I would have to check with the relevant officers what advices might have been provided in the last few days. But the minister is very well informed on these matters.
Senator CAMERON: In the context of berries, are there any other areas the department is looking at—not just berries—that could have similar problems with hepatitis A?
Dr Grimes : I would have to refer to relevant officers to see if there has been any broader consideration at this stage. I have been personally focused on the berries issue at this stage, but I do have many officers who consider food standards quite broadly.
Senator CAMERON: The minister has not raised with you or the parliamentary secretary any other areas to look at? Would it not be sensible to ask, 'If there is a problem with berries, is there a problem with other imported products?'
Dr Grimes : The minister and the department would obviously be concerned with ensuring we maintain proper food standards right across the board.
Senator CAMERON: That is not what I have asked you. You indicated that you as the secretary have not considered any additional areas where there might be problems similar to the berries issue—you have concentrated on the berries issue. That is your evidence.
Dr Grimes : No, I would not say that. We do of course consider a range of food matters. This is not the only food matter that has come to our attention in the course of the year or even in the course of the last week.
Senator CAMERON: Again, that is not what I am asking you. I asked you whether, in the context of the hepatitis A outbreak with berries, you had considered other areas. You said no. I asked you whether the minister has raised the issue of looking at other areas, other than berries, where there might be hepatitis A issues.
Dr Grimes : I would have to refer to the relevant officers here who have responsibility for broader matters of hepatitis A. They would be maintaining a very close focus on these matters, I am sure.
Senator CAMERON: Would you not have thought that alarm bells would be going off in the department and in the minister's office—if it can happen here, where else could it happen? Is that not a sensible question?
Dr Grimes : That is a completely sensible and reasonable question.
Senator CAMERON: Why has it not been asked?
Dr Grimes : I have not said that that question has not been asked. That was not my evidence. It is a completely sensible question and we would obviously at all times give consideration to whether there might be broader implications. But we would act on the advice of the human health experts. If you are going to the question of specific advice we have received from human health authorities, to the best of my knowledge—and again I refer to the fact that there are many officers who work on this—it is in relation to frozen berries at this stage. The point you make is a reasonable point—that is, that it would be reasonable for the department to extend its mind more broadly. Yes, that is a reasonable point and I would be very happy to have further questions on that referred to the relevant officers.
Senator CAMERON: But, Dr Grimes, the buck stops with you.
Dr Grimes : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: You are the secretary of an agency that is facing a very, very serious health issue in terms of hepatitis A. I am concerned that you have not looked at this issue on a wider basis. You did give evidence that you have concentrated on berries, and that is understandable, but I think that the department not having a wider look at this is a problem. I think the minister not raising the wider issues with you about what the problems are elsewhere is an issue.
Dr Grimes : That is not my evidence. If you understood it in those terms, I apologise. That was not my evidence. You are making this quite broad in saying that it has not been raised by the minister or has not been considered by the department. The point I was making is that the matter on which I have specific advice at the moment is in relation to frozen berries. I believe that the broader issues are entirely relevant and are appropriate to be considered further. I do not have formal advice from the food authorities on that matter. As you would appreciate, it makes sense for us to concentrate on the most immediate issues at hand, but the broader issues will be of concern both to the department and the minister. There is no doubt about that.
Senator CAMERON: There has to be a balance in terms of the concentration on the immediate issue and making sure that it is not a broader based problem.
Dr Grimes : Indeed.
Senator CAMERON: I am just surprised that the department has not received a request from either the minister or the parliamentary secretary to say, 'This has happened with berries; could it happen elsewhere?' I am surprised that you have not formally sought broader advice either.
Dr Grimes : That is not my evidence. We have other officers who will be joining us later. That is not my evidence. My evidence is in relation to advice that I have from FSANZ at this stage. We would, obviously, be turning our minds to whether there is a potential for broader implications.
CHAIR: Just pausing there: given the experience of some of the longer serving members on this committee over the many years of issues, I will ask a question. Given page 4 of the Australian today, where the Chinese are now owning up to the fact that they are importing their tucker rather than eating their local stuff because they do not trust the local stuff, that says something about the contamination—moving from 37 per cent urban dwelling to 68 per cent over a period of years—and the spread of cities et cetera. There is also the asbestos problem where we simply say, 'We haven't got the resources.' If we doubled the resources put to this issue, and the issue of food safety et cetera, that would not necessarily solve the problem, would it?
Dr Grimes : I might refer to Ms Mellor.
CHAIR: It is a bit like institutional child abuse which for 50 years we have looked the other way on. You just never have enough resources.
Ms Mellor : If I go back to your question—if we doubled the resources it would not make a difference. It depends on where you double the resources. The question you asked, Senator Cameron, about broader hepatitis implications for food is a fair question. We administer an act that tells us to apply certain rates of intervention to certain kinds of food. Frozen berries, currently, are what is called a surveillance food. There is a certain rate of intervention across all surveillance foods. If we were to have policy settings changed, by government, that said we were to do something different then we would do something different.
Senator SIEWERT: So who takes the initiative to say, 'The proverbial has hit the fan on berries; we may have a problem across the board'? Whose initiative is that? Are you saying it is FSANZ?
Ms Mellor : No, we are not saying that.
Senator SIEWERT: I understand that you are saying that you apply the law. Well, surely there is a place where initiative is taken up and you say, 'This is indicative of a broader problem.'
Ms Mellor : That is right. I think that, in fairness to the secretary's evidence, the focus in the last week has specifically been on getting on top of a particular berries issue, which is quite serious in this community, and then we will commence discussions with the Department of Health and FSANZ about what broader issues we can manage within the current system, and if we need to take advice to government we will.
Senator SIEWERT: Who does that initiative? With all due respect, I just heard you say you administer an act, so it goes: 'You do this; if this happens, you do this.'
Ms Mellor : Yes.
Senator SIEWERT: Does the act enable you to go: 'Problem—here'?
Ms Mellor : The act itself does not say that, but in government, in my experience, when senior officials see a problem they start working together on what is the future. I would expect that we will have conversations about that.
Senator SIEWERT: It has not happened yet?
Ms Mellor : No, because we have been particularly focused on the incident at hand.
Senator SIEWERT: What time frame do you then usually do—once you have flagged the problem, to initiating a broader—
Ms Mellor : It depends on the issue. In my experience with FSANZ, they will have people who may already be thinking about these issues in relation to their responsibility. But we have not done it yet.
Senator SIEWERT: In terms of the advice when FSANZ first set the risk level on berries, did they seek your advice on that? I know it was a while ago. I am pretty certain that you would have been looking into this in a bit of detail.
Ms Mellor : I would have to check. I really do not know.
Senator SIEWERT: Okay. By the time we get to the compliance section at 11:45, would you know?
Ms Mellor : I would hope someone is watching and would know.
CHAIR: If you are listening out there, get ready!
Ms Mellor : They are not here.
Senator SIEWERT: Are we able to get a breakdown of the areas of the 280 positions that have gone, because we got advised—
Ms Mellor : I think we have done that for you before, so we will just take our questions on notice.
Senator SIEWERT: So it is still the same? They are the same numbers we got?
Ms Mellor : I think we need questions on notice about airports, mail et cetera. And you also asked for it in the past by which region, I think we have provided that on notice to the committee before.
Senator SIEWERT: Okay, I will go and find it.
Senator CAMERON: I am concerned that if you have a hepatitis A break-out related to berries—and I do not buy the argument that it is not confirmed yet; everybody knows that this is the area where there is a problem—neither the minister nor the parliamentary secretary nor the secretary of the department has formally said, 'We need to look elsewhere and see if this is a bigger problem.' I am absolutely gobsmacked that that has not happened. You have just said that you expect that we will have—
Senator Colbeck: Senator, you are making an assertion—
Senator CAMERON: Just let me finish, Minister. You say that you expect that you will have discussions. I do not think that is good enough—expecting that you will have discussions.
Dr Grimes : Senator, I do not think—
Senator CAMERON: You have 2,000 people employed in this department, and you must have the capacity in this department to actually walk and chew gum at the same time—to focus on the berries issue and to have a look at the wider problem that may or may not be there, surely.
Dr Grimes : I do not want to interrupt your line of questioning here, but there is just the presumption in your question around questions from the minister. The minister is very broadly concerned about food safety matters, as you would expect, so I would not express his position in the way that you have. In my earlier comments I was very, very careful to refer to the matters on which we have formal advice. And we do consider a range of issues in the food safety area. This is not the only issue we would consider a food safety issue, as you would expect.
CHAIR: We are talking about food safety; we are talking about China. In the paper there—I have given it to Senator Cameron to read—a woman who is a farmer on the Wu River, which she is not going to use the water from, says, 'I get my water from a bore because I am not game to use the water in the river,' and that sort of thing. This is a huge problem of gross contamination. China itself knows that by 2050 it is going to feed half its population from somewhere else, and some of the feeding of its own population from its own resource is going to be seriously at risk. This committee has sat through hearings where we have looked at farm prawns going from an Asian country into Japan. Seventy-five per cent of those prawns were rejected by Japan for antibiotics, but they did not chuck them down the bloody chute; they resent them somewhere else where the surveillance entry was lower, and someone else ate the damned things.
This is a global problem—part of the global food task which does not have a solution and on which we are spending $40 billion a year in research. We should be spending $80 billion. We spend $1.4 trillion to $1.7 trillion on defence research and development. Let us get this into perspective. It is a bloody huge problem, and politics should get to buggery out of it and we should deal with the issue.
Senator CAMERON: Let me come back to some of the politics that we do need to deal with—that is, any decision to reduce resources within the department and this issue of red-tape reduction. Has there been any red-tape reduction in relation to the department that looks after food safety?
Dr Grimes : Senator, I would have to refer to the relevant officers. Just going back to my earlier advice, we are obviously looking at opportunities to make our services more efficient. That includes things like the improved use of technology to move from paper based systems to electronic based systems, which can generate significant efficiencies and do not compromise outcomes in any way.
Senator CAMERON: That is not red tape.
Dr Grimes : I know you had a very specific question. Again, we are taking very specific questions related to the compliance division in this section, so I would refer to the relevant officers on any measures undertaken over the last year.
Senator CAMERON: Sorry, Dr Grimes, but the compliance division do not work separately from the secretary. The secretary determines whether red-tape reductions will take place in the compliance division.
Dr Grimes : That is correct, and we are looking very actively at ways in which we can improve our efficiency and cut red tape. We have a very large service delivery modernisation program underway, a national service delivery reform program underway. We are doing a lot of work looking at the adoption of new technology. We have a very major trial underway. You are asking some very specific questions in relation to that section of our activities.
Senator CAMERON: I am asking you about any direction you have given for red-tape reduction to the compliance division. It is your responsibility. They will not go looking for red tape unless you tell them.
Dr Grimes : We are definitely looking for ways in which we can make our operations more efficient.
Senator CAMERON: Okay, but you have raised a range of issues. Technology is not red tape. Are you saying that technology is red tape?
Dr Grimes : We would include that in the red tape. For example, as I indicated before, some of our inspection systems over many years have been very heavily paper based. That can see our officers working off genuinely inefficient paper based—
Senator CAMERON: It has just jumped into my mind that you gave us evidence a few estimates hearings ago to say that your officers are now out with computers that can contact the department directly. So that area is covered, isn't it?
Dr Grimes : No, that work is continuing and, absolutely, this is a big focus for us. That is being introduced on a trial basis because it is a large IT reform project that we have got in place. We are actively rolling out, but that has not moved into the full implementation phase at this stage. That example, and previous advice I gave, is a good example of how we can get quite considerable efficiencies and in no way jeopardise any outcomes.
Senator CAMERON: Can you provide details of any instructions you have given to the compliance division in relation to reducing red tape and reducing costs in the compliance division—details of what you or any of your officers have said?
Dr Grimes : We would have to take a question like that on notice. It is very broad, Senator.
Senator CAMERON: I am happy for you to take that on notice. I think it is an important issue that we need to deal with. I think I have chased this down as far as I can go in the broad area. I will come back on some of the details.
Senator SIEWERT: I just want to clarify. The figures you gave us of 280 were to June last year. Have there been any job losses since then?
D r Cunningham : We do not have statistics on that because there is no direct comparison between the Border Compliance Division as it stood in June and the Compliance Division now. I can give you an approximation. The Border Compliance division has 1,758.68 FTEs of staffing.
Senator CAMERON: Currently?
D r Cunningham : Currently.
Senator CAMERON: You gave me a figure of 1,782.5.
Senator SIEWERT: Yes. That is what I was wondering.
Senator CAMERON: Why do you not give us the up-to-date figures and what is happening?
D r Cunningham : The 1782.5 was as at the end of June.
Senator CAMERON: I assumed those were the latest figures you had, but you have better figures, do you?
Ms Mellor : I think what he is explaining is that we had a structural change from 1 July, so when he talks about 'Border Compliance Division' until 30 June and 'Compliance Division' from 1 July, they are not apples and apples. He is trying to be helpful, but—
Senator SIEWERT: I understand that. The problem is that it makes it extremely difficult to see just what the extent of the changes is and how many jobs have or have not come out of compliance.
D r Cunningham : What I can give you at this time is that current FTE figure of 1,758.68. When the Compliance Division is on, they will be able to talk about what that means in terms of work area and function.
Senator Colbeck: I just want to put one thing on the record, given some of the lines of questioning—a message from the minister's office. He made it clear to the secretary, when he became aware of food safety problems, that he would like increased testing of imported food. So it is something the minister has discussed with the secretary.
Senator CAMERON: Would you please go back to the minister's office and ask when he first raised this?
Senator Colbeck: I think it is a conversation he has had this week. Frankly, I would see it as a responsibility to look out and see where food safety problems are. I follow a lot of food sites across the world—in the northern hemisphere and the US—on Twitter, because it is a good way to gather information about what is happening in food processing. I know that departmental officials do the same thing. It is an important way of picking up trends or issues that are arising.
Senator MILNE: Given that you follow it and, you would assume, that the department and FSANZ follow it, what happened with hepatitis A as a result of the contaminated berries scares in Ireland, Italy, France and Norway last year? Those scares were all over the internet—hepatitis A from contaminated berries. It happened in the United States as well. Did anyone in the department or the minister's office raise a red flag about the level of surveillance of imported berries at the time this was identified as a problem in Europe?
Senator CAMERON: Or did you just keeping cutting jobs and food compliance?
Senator Colbeck: I think that is a very unfair assertion to make given that, as Ms Mellor has said, this a cost recovered program, so as imports or product coming through increase, the resources go with it. Your assertion is therefore quite unfair. It is a pretty crass political point, to be honest. I think yours is a good question, Senator Milne. I would have to take that on notice and I am sure the department would as well.
Senator MILNE: I would appreciate it if you did take it on notice.
Senator Colbeck: It is a very reasonable question.
Senator SIEWERT: You just said that the minister has said that he wants to increase testing, but they have not yet done so, have they? I thought the evidence earlier was that they had not yet.
Senator Colbeck: He said he wanted increased testing where we become aware of food safety problems. That is the point he was making. The question was asked earlier: had there been any conversations? The minister has confirmed that he is had those conversations.
Senator SIEWERT: Okay.
Dr Grimes : I am quite happy to confirm that I have had conversations as well with the minister. The minister is very focused on these issues, as you would expect.
Senator SIEWERT: But the increased compliance has not occurred yet?
Dr Grimes : As I indicated previously, in relation to the product that is linked to hepatitis A, we have taken firm and decisive action.
Senator SIEWERT: That is the specific product.
Dr Grimes : I understand.
Senator SIEWERT: But across the board on berries?
Dr Grimes : We are looking quite actively at looking across the board on frozen berries. We have sought further advice on that matter.
Senator SIEWERT: But it has not happened yet?
Dr Grimes : No. We have been provided with advice on that matter, and we are giving active consideration to what measures we can take. At each stage we need to work on a proper evidence base to inform any decisions that the department makes, any advice that FSANZ makes, and that we can apply under our act.
Senator SIEWERT: The problem here, of course, is that we did not pick up it in the berries before. When you say evidence base, we know it is hard to get the evidence base here. So when does the precautionary principle kick in?
Dr Grimes : In fact, I think we do have an evidence base in relation to the implicating product—I really do. We have an evidence base—
Senator SIEWERT: Now?
Dr Grimes : Right now we have an evidence base—
Senator SIEWERT: But we did not have it before the stuff was coming here in the first place.
Dr Grimes : No. We had an evidence base that we acted upon last week. Last week we had an evidence base, and we did act.
Senator SIEWERT: After it had already come into the country and actually gave people hepatitis.
Dr Grimes : Yes, after it had come into the country, when we had an evidence base, we immediately acted in relation to that containment policy.
Senator SIEWERT: There is something wrong with our testing, if we did not pick it up before. So there was not an evidence base to stop it in the first place, but there is an evidence base after the fact.
Dr Grimes : This is now going to a much broader question about how you test for hepatitis A. What would the test be? Are there international standards? What are the arrangements? All of these are technical questions that would be better picked up in the relevant area.
Senator SIEWERT: In the compliance section?
Dr Grimes : If your question is: have we acted? Yes, we have acted.
Senator SIEWERT: On the particular product, my question was broader—about berries. You have not increased surveillance, as I understood from your previous answer, on berries.
Dr Grimes : It is probably appropriate for us to pick this up further in the compliance section, but we have not made changes on surveillance rates for berries, broadly, at this stage.
Senator CAMERON: I want to go to the issue that Senator Colbeck raised: that this is a political point I am making. If it is a political point, so be it. There is this push to reduce red tape. Cost-recovery is an issue that can be seen as red tape. Has the cost-recovery area been analysed in the context of red-tape reduction prior to this hepatitis A issue?
Ms Mellor : I am not sure I understand that question. Certainly what we have looked at—
Senator CAMERON: Let me clarify. There is no point in going on, if you do not understand. The position I am putting to you is: prior to the hepatitis A outbreak arising from these berries there was this monumental push across government to reduce red tape. Have you done any specific red-tape reduction in the compliance area that could be an issue for the health of the Australian public?
Dr Grimes : Not that I am aware of, Senator, in any way.
Senator Colbeck: In fact the major change that occurred in respect of that process occurred under Minister Ludwig, when he moved away from mandatory inspections to targeted inspections.
Ms Mellor : When we look at red tape, Senator Cameron, we are looking at, for example, very basic paper exchanges becoming electronic. Certainly, in the last five years, we have changed from receiving laboratory reports—from laboratories that do testing of imported food—in paper form to electronic form. And in doing that, for the laboratories to highlight any things that we should be aware of electronically, rather than with reams and reams of paper that we had to sort through. So there have been improvements in processes, which I would characterise as red-tape reductions that make good business sense and good risk management sense.
CHAIR: Senator Sterle, you have a question.
Senator STERLE: I do, Senator. Senator Milne asked the question to the officers at the table about the red flag warnings because there were berry contaminations in a number of countries. The minister did say he would take it on notice. Chair, through you, I would ask if Dr Grimes or Ms Mellor want to give us any extra information, because they did not—
CHAIR: Could I just add to your remarks that Senator Xenophon, who has gone out to do what he does really well, a media interview, was going to ask a question along the same lines.
Senator STERLE: Okay.
CHAIR: He said he will take it on notice.
Senator STERLE: The minister said he would take it on notice, but I want to know.
Dr Grimes : Was there a specific question you had, Senator?
Senator MILNE: The specific question is as follows. There were several berry contamination outbreaks in Europe which led to hepatitis A. In several countries the European Union did a study of that. There were major reports. Senator Colbeck mentioned the United States, but I am more familiar with the European experience. As early as April last year, there were strong reports out of the European Union after they did the investigation. What I am asking specifically is: what did Australia do in response to seeing a red flag raised in the European Union? There were not just accusations but reports about the considered view of the food authorities there. They introduced a software program to look at the lab through to the source et cetera. What did Australia do? And when did we do it? We were cognisant of the fact that it was happening in Europe; therefore, we should have been doing a similar sort of thing.
Dr Grimes : As I indicated before, we rely primarily on advice that we get from FSANZ and that question probably is best addressed to FSANZ. We can check to see whether there was any work done at our end on that matter. We do rely very heavily on the advice that we are provided by FSANZ.
Senator MILNE: In other words, if FSANZ do not act the Australian government does not act to protect the community.
Dr Grimes : I would not describe it in those terms. We would have to check what records we have got at our end of any involvement around those incidents at that time.
Senator MILNE: The frustration is for the public. Anyone of us can just google 'hepatitis A contaminated berries world scare' and have all the evidence in front of us in two seconds. We have got a whole department, thousands of people employed, FSANZ—the whole shebang—and nothing happens because nobody has actually got it up there as an issue. Yet we all know within two seconds that it has happened.
Dr Grimes : Again you are expressing that in broad terms. FSANZ is obviously not here at the moment. There will be an opportunity no doubt to talk to FSANZ about these issues as well. We are happy to check at our end on any involvement that we had or any actions at our end last year.
Senator MILNE: I understand. The problem here for you, and you can see it from the point of view of the community, is that we have got a whole ministerial office and a bureaucracy that is meant to be looking at biosecurity and keeping Australians healthy and protected from contaminated imports, fundamentally.
Dr Grimes : Yes.
Senator MILNE: That sometimes conflicts with trade rules and trade negotiations and so on. But putting that aside, surely there is an anticipatory capacity in government; there is a precautionary principle. We should not have to wait. Surely somebody's job is to be scanning what is going on around the world and following it up straightaway.
Senator Colbeck: I want to intercede just for a moment. You said in food imports. I would say in food more broadly. If you are talking about frozen berries and the risks in and around that, I would not align this with just food imports; I would say food generally. You have said that it occurred in Europe not China. There has been a lot of focus on China here this morning, but this did happen in frozen berries in Europe, where their food systems and their food safety systems are pretty good. But obviously they have had a number of issues around horticulture in particular over the last five or six years. There was a significant outbreak in what they thought was tomatoes. It ended up being, I think, in beans or spinach. This is an issue not just on imports but more broadly on food and ensuring the efficacy of our food safety systems. This could have happened here, if frozen berries were being managed here and there was a hepatitis occurrence in the supply chain somewhere. It could have happened here equally, had there been an occurrence of someone with hepatitis or some other E. coli-related disease in the supply chain. I think we need to be very cautious about saying, 'This is just about imports,' because it could happen in the broader food supply.
Senator MILNE: We have higher standards, I have to say, in Australian processing than you would find for some of the sources of these berries.
Senator Colbeck: I think that is an assertion that is made in some places, but my information in respect of the certification schemes that these berries were certified under is that they were either BRC, which is British Retail Consortium, which is one that all the major British supermarkets use, or SQF, which is a food certification system that was actually developed in Western Australia. So the two plants that we are talking about have certification systems which are equivalent to Australian certification systems as far as the processing goes.
CHAIR: When I was a kid, you grew them in the bloody back yard. It is interesting to note that the Chinese are prepared to pay double for our vegetables and berries and things, and we are prepared to pay half for theirs, and we will wear the consequences unless we wake up.
Senator EDWARDS: I will stay on the same line of questioning, but just go more broadly to the corruption that may exist, or corruption in terms of the way the system works. I understand that you actively monitor and profile non-compliant entities. However, a number of importers change their business identity, and indeed their import practices, obviously to rapidly circumvent quarantine intervention. What are we doing about the crooks? Can you provide some information on what targeted compliance activity has taken place this year, in relation to people who are trying to flout our current quarantine?
Ms Mellor : Are you talking quarantine or food safety? They are two different systems.
Senator EDWARDS: I am talking about targeted compliance activities.
Ms Mellor : I would prefer to have the targeted compliance specialists with me when I answer that, because they will have the detail. They are due at 11.45. That is very specific to compliance activities.
Senator EDWARDS: Can you talk about the biosecurity bill that is before us?
Ms Mellor : Yes, we can do that in this session, because you have the right—
Senator Cameron interjecting—
Senator EDWARDS: The issue is, Senator Cameron—
Senator CAMERON: Chair, you have just said to me that you are trying to—
CHAIR: Don't take the bait, mate.
Senator CAMERON: A point of order: I really think, to throw up a Dorothy Dixer, and ask the officers to talk about a bill is a bit rich, and I do not think we should be doing that at this stage.
Senator EDWARDS: Minister, you were critical in October about the number of officers that were called.
CHAIR: The technical explanation, I am instructed, is that we really should not be asking questions on an issue that is before another inquiry, which is the technical one on biosecurity.
Senator EDWARDS: Well, I will move on to a matter that I know is dear to your heart, deputy chair, when you were in the chair's role here, and I know the chair is, and that is the waste of resources at these hearings. In the October estimates—they were a protracted affair, as we remembered, with extended sitting dates—a number of agencies were called but actually finished up just twiddling their thumbs.
Senator CAMERON: Chair, can I raise another point of order?
Senator EDWARDS: What was the cost for the agency to appear before the committee?
CHAIR: Senator Edwards, he has the shits.
Senator EDWARDS: He always has the shits.
CHAIR: You are now leaving the area. He is going to object by way of a point of order.
Senator EDWARDS: You called these agencies and then you did not use them, so I want to know what that cost.
CHAIR: What is your point of order?
Senator CAMERON: My point of order is that the procedure that we were undertaking was to deal with berries. The procedure that we were undertaking was to deal with the issues that are identified for that period 9 to 10.30. This is going into another area. I have questions on this point, so can we finish—
CHAIR: When are you going to finish berries, tomorrow morning?
Senator CAMERON: I do not think we should go off on something else. It is really a up to you Chair, to finish this broad stuff. We will come back to berries. Finish the broad bit of discussion—
CHAIR: We are starting to eat our own vomit in terms of berries. I mean, we are repeating ourselves too many times.
Senator EDWARDS: I can talk about berries too if you want, but when are we going to finish up on berries?
CHAIR: We will go to that in a minute. We will just have a quick duck into berries and see if there are any—Senator Bullock, do you have a question?
Senator BULLOCK: I have a number of questions.
CHAIR: As pointed out earlier by Dr Grimes, we are going to come to this at a quarter to 12. I think we should leave it now—and that is the decision of the chair—and come back to it at a quarter to 12.
Senator Colbeck: I would have thought Senator Edwards's question would have come under finance and business.
Senator EDWARDS: It is clearly in there, and no matter how much you try and bully the place, Senator Cameron—
CHAIR: Order! Let us just not take the bait. Can we come back to this? Senator Edwards, you can ask your question now.
Senator EDWARDS: I would just frame it in the fact that we are looking at trying to make savings in a budget constrained environment. There are a lot of people who are called to turn up here. Dr Grimes, I am interested: last October, when we had the new regime here at Senate estimates, what was the cost for the agencies to appear before the committee that were not called at the last session?
Dr Grimes : We may have an officer here with information. I believe we had taken a question of this sort on notice, so I might hand to Mr Glyde.
Mr Glyde : The combined estimated costs of witnesses for those portfolio agencies that did not appear last time was, by our estimate, $30,152.29. The combined estimated salary costs of departmental witnesses from the Sustainability and Biosecurity Policy Division and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences who did not appear was of the order of $762. We provided a more detailed breakdown in answer to question on notice No. 146 at the last hearings. If you like I can re-table that, but it just has the estimates for the various RDCs and other bodies that were listed on the witness list but were not called during the hearing.
Senator EDWARDS: Are all the agencies that did not appear but were called listed in there?
Mr Glyde : They are. I can read them out if that would help.
Senator EDWARDS: Yes, that would be helpful.
Mr Glyde : There was the Australian Fisheries Management Authority; Animal Health Australia; Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation; Cotton Research and Development Corporation; Fisheries Research and Development Corporation; Grains Research & Development Corporation; Horticulture Australia Ltd; Landcare Australia Ltd; Australian Livestock Export Corporation Ltd, otherwise known as LiveCorp; Plant Health Australia; and Forest and Wood Products Australia Limited. The cost varied depending on travel and time that they were here.
Senator EDWARDS: I note that on page 75 of the previous estimates transcript you have predicted that it would have cost the relevant agencies around $80,000 in unproductive time. That was back then. But are you now saying that that figure is different?
Mr Glyde : No. That estimate was really based on the costs of having departmental witnesses here all day coming up at a particular time and then either not getting on or getting on much later than had been predicted. In that question on notice answer we estimated that after having a detailed calculation the estimated salary costs of having the departmental witnesses available all day was of the order of $70,000. So our first estimate was in the ballpark.
Senator EDWARDS: It was not far from the mark. Have all those agencies been called again for this session of estimates?
Mr Glyde : Not all of them. I would have to go back and check against today's agenda.
Senator EDWARDS: You brought up Landcare. There is a fair bit of confusion out there about the various Landcare entities and what their roles are. What is the role of the new Landcare Advisory Committee?
Mr Glyde : I am sorry, I do not have that information. It would be something that we would cover under the sustainability biosecurity policy division which is appearing later in the day. They can give you more information.
Senator EDWARDS: Okay.
Mr Glyde : I will put them on notice if you like.
Senator BULLOCK: I initially wanted to ask a question with respect to the role of the Inspector-General of Biosecurity. Were you suggesting earlier that that was out of order?
CHAIR: If it is not specifically about the bill, it is fine.
Senator BULLOCK: It is not specifically about the bill.
CHAIR: We will ask the advice of the secretary. What is your question again?
Senator BULLOCK: I wanted to ask some questions about the consultative process and what advice was given to the structure.
Senator STERLE: That sounds fair.
Secretary interjecting —
Senator BULLOCK: Thank you. When we did last talk about this Mr Williamson gave some helpful information. He said, 'The RIS that was put to government outlines two options—basically, the status quo and the statutory position.' In fact, where the government ended up was its decision to have a third option—to provide the minister with additional powers to enable the existing Inspector-General of Biosecurity to do things that a statutory position would be able to do. So there is actually a third option. There was not a third option, but the government went for another way and that is where the legislation ended up. To put it another way: I wondered, firstly, what was the consultation process that took place with regard to that change? I am looking at Mr Williamson. I am not sure if that is the right person to look to.
Mr Williamson : I am not sure I can really answer that question. That was subject to a government process, I guess. It was a matter for government at the time.
Senator BULLOCK: A question as to what consultation took place is something you cannot answer?
Mr Williamson : There was no consultation by the department.
Senator BULLOCK: There was no consultation?
Mr Williamson : By the department.
Senator BULLOCK: Right. Was any advice sought and given by the minister or his staff to the department with respect to that change of approach from the two options they had before them?
Ms Mellor : In the normal course of making a decision of that nature the department will provide advice to government, particularly in drafting material—so drafting instructions et cetera. So, yes, there would have been advice provided on that option.
Senator BULLOCK: Anything back the other way as to what the government wanted—advice from the minister to the department?
Ms Mellor : I am not sure I understand that question.
Senator BULLOCK: Given that what ended up was not option one or option two but a different one and that that was the government's decision and not your idea, presumably the minister or his staff spoke to you or others saying, 'We want this.'
Ms Mellor : If I can speak in general terms: if government decides to implement legislation of a certain kind and it comes to its landing it will seek the department's advice on how to effect that.
Senator BULLOCK: So the government sought advice from the department and the department provided advice to the government?
Mr Williamson : Can I just clarify? The department did provide advice on that approach.
Senator BULLOCK: I think that is what Ms Mellor said.
Mr Williamson : I am just trying to recollect. I think it came from the department first, that proposed approach. If your question is whether the minister or the minister's office sought advice from the department first-up on that particular approach, then I think the approach was proposed by the department in the first instance.
Senator BULLOCK: Could I ask why? We have two options presented to the government, and a third option is acted on, on the advice of the department.
Mr Williamson : Sorry, Senator: could you repeat the question, please?
Senator BULLOCK: There were two options presented to the government.
Mr Williamson : That is correct.
Senator BULLOCK: A third option was chosen.
Mr Williamson : Yes.
Senator BULLOCK: You have just told me that that third option was adopted on the advice of the department to the minister. What made the department offer advice contrary to the two options that were initially presented?
Senator Colbeck: The minister might have asked some questions on further options. That is quite possibly an option. At the end of the day it is a decision of government.
Senator BULLOCK: I am happy with that. I was just trying to find the chicken and the egg. We started off with the government asking the department, and then that was revised to the department offering advice to the government. And now, as you have suggested, Minister, perhaps it was initiated by the minister.
Senator Colbeck: Whatever the case is, it is, at the end of the day, a decision of government. I am not speaking directly for the minister in this context, because he might operate slightly differently to the way I do, but if I am not happy with the options that are put in front of me I ask for other options or think about other options myself for the way that I might want to do something.
Senator BULLOCK: Thank you for that, Minister. What I was trying to do was get to the bottom of consultative processes and the extent to which advice was sought and given, and whether—now I will ask—there was consultation with the stakeholders with respect to that change of position.
Mr Williamson : No, there was not. The department did not consult with stakeholders on that change. The department was giving effect to a government decision at the time.
Senator BULLOCK: And finally, on this matter, when was it that the minister determined to draw to himself the powers of the Inspector-General?
Senator Colbeck: I think the point that really is pertinent here is that the functions of the Inspector-General still occur. The issue is how they are managed. I think it is worth making the point that, despite the accusations that are being made publicly about this process, the functions that were part of the process all along remain. The issue is how they are being exercised. Now, the functions are now within the remit of the minister. It may be that the minister could actually delegate those functions to a particular individual to carry them out, which occurs with a lot of functions that are held by a minister that are delegated to individuals within the department.
Senator BULLOCK: In fact, that is what the minister's office itself said. The minister's office issued a statement on 18 February that said:
The Minister will be able delegate the review powers to an appropriately qualified or experienced person such as the Inspector General of Biosecurity or any other person the Minister considers suitable to undertake the proposed review.
Senator Colbeck: Correct.
Senator BULLOCK: So, he has taken these powers from the Inspector-General—
Senator Colbeck: No, we have not.
Senator BULLOCK: the powers that the statutorily appointed Inspector-General would hold, and drawn them to himself and can farm them out to whoever he wants to. And all I asked was: when was that decision taken?
Senator Colbeck: I think there might be a flaw in your question, actually, because I do not think there ever was a statutory position.
Ms Mellor : There has not ever been a statutory position.
Senator BULLOCK: No, I said that a statutory position would hold—
Ms Mellor : Proposed?
Senator BULLOCK: if there was one.
Senator Colbeck: There was a proposed one, correct. We decided not to go ahead with a statutory position.
Senator BULLOCK: I understand.
Senator Colbeck: We have decided to have one where the powers were vested in the minister and the minster may then delegate those powers to a particular position.
CHAIR: It has been my observation over a number of years that this committee does better than the bloody Inspector-General.
Senator BULLOCK: I think the last time we all gathered together for a chat I was asking some questions about decentralisation and the minister's decision to put some offices out in the country. And I wondered whether the government has asked for a cost-benefit analysis from the agencies that have been earmarked for relocation.
Dr Grimes : Our advice in previous hearings has been that government is considering the costs and benefits of relocation. That has been our advice previously. It continues to be the case.
Senator BULLOCK: Is that consideration based on an analysis done by the agencies themselves?
Dr Grimes : That consideration has not yet been completed. The government is giving consideration to it. We continue to work with the agencies concerned.
Senator BULLOCK: When will the government determine to relocate the agencies? I think we have the APVMA, the Grains Research & Development Corporation, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation. These are all, as I understand it, earmarked for moving.
Dr Grimes : That is a matter for the government to determine. We are continuing to work with those agencies and provide advice to the government.
Senator BULLOCK: So it is an ongoing process. Chair, I do not know whether it is appropriate to do this, but I have some questions on the sums.
CHAIR: Senator Sterle, you were about to get the call.
Senator STERLE: I just have a question on something that Senator Bullock touched on. I may wander into some other areas, and I hope you would give me some freedom. But, if you do not, I might have to refer it to another committee. I just want to ask Ms Mellor or Dr Grimes a question in relation to the Biosecurity Bill 2012. I asked Ms Mellor in another forum whether regulations had been put out with the bill. Do you remember, Ms Mellor?
Ms Mellor : I think it was actually Senator Heffernan asked me the question, from my recall of Hansard.
Senator STERLE: No—unless Senator Heffernan is now called Senator Sterle. We have the Hansard.
Ms Mellor : It was a bit short and sharp that day.
Senator STERLE: I just want to get this correct, because I did ask, in the previous—2012—crack at the bill, whether the regulations were put out with the bill.
Ms Mellor : And I answered no, because they were not; they were released later.
Senator STERLE: Yes, which you did not tell us.
Ms Mellor : Because I was asked for yes/no answers—
Senator STERLE: You never give yes/no answers; you are the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry!
Senator Colbeck: I think that is unfair. Ms Mellor just gave you a no.
Senator STERLE: I think I am on the money, Minister. They are far better at talking out an answer to a question than we are at giving it. But I just wanted to clarify, the reason being that I have the DAFF press release from 23 May, where I can quote you as saying:
The Deputy Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Rona Mellor, said the new legislation was designed to support a responsive biosecurity system that intervened where risk needed to be managed - off-shore, at the border and on-shore.
You went on to say:
During consultation on the primary legislation, interested parties said they wanted to better understand how it would work in practice. These regulations will help to inform the community …
I just want to know: what is the difference this time around compared with last time around? When we have asked for regulations, we cannot have them.
Ms Mellor : I am not sure that there is a difference. The bill was released, as I recall, in November 2012.
Senator STERLE: I will give you the date, yes. The first reading was 28 November.
Ms Mellor : Regulations were subsequently released—not all of them, and they were only draft for discussion. And I think we released them in May 2013.
Senator STERLE: Yes.
Ms Mellor : And as soon as the parliament was prorogued for the 2013 election we removed all that material. So, I guess when you are asking me if there is anything different yet, it is as yet undecided. The government is considering when it would release regulations, and which ones. I think the regulations that we released in 2013 were not the full suite. And that is not a yes/no answer, and I apologise. But I am not suggesting that it is any different now.
Senator STERLE: And it is unfair, because I have not gone through the whole transcript, but what we were trying to allude to was how we could be asked, as senators, to vote on a piece of legislation unless we saw the regulations. In the previous bill, the difference is that it did not go to the Senate.
Ms Mellor : The previous bill was introduced into the Senate.
Senator STERLE: It did not go through the Senate.
Ms Mellor : Sorry—yes, you are correct.
Senator STERLE: I know, because we had a consensus here. This was too important an issue for us to go tearing off on. And all I wanted to say is that I stand by my statements in the previous hearing that there is no way known that we can be expected to vote on a bill without seeing the regulations—on something as important as this.
Senator CAMERON: Who is looking after the relocation of the minister's office to Armidale?
Dr Grimes : The Department of Finance would have primary responsibility. We might provide some IT services in relation to that, obviously. There may be some ancillary services that we provide, but the responsibility for ministerial offices rests with the Department of Finance.
Senator CAMERON: So, the finance for the broader aspect—
Dr Grimes : Indeed. Most of that would be with the Department of Finance.
Senator CAMERON: And you for any—
Dr Grimes : Specific IT requirements that relate to the minister's duties as portfolio minister.
Senator CAMERON: That is the area I wanted to go to: the minister's duties. I do not want to know what the advice is, but have you provided any advice to the minister that the relocation of the office would enhance the operation of the department?
Dr Grimes : This is not a matter that we would be providing advice on. It is the minister's decision as to where is most appropriate for his office to be, and we would ensure that we provide support for that.
Senator CAMERON: The minister, on NBN, which is a local television station, on 24 December—and this may be to Senator Colbeck—argued that the minister relocating to Armidale would provide incentive for a centre of agricultural excellence in Armidale. Can you explain how that works?
Senator Colbeck: I have not seen the comments. I am not aware of those particular comments.
Senator CAMERON: You are not aware of those comments?
Senator Colbeck: No.
Senator CAMERON: You do not follow what your minister says publicly?
Senator Colbeck: Not on every television and radio interview he does around the country, no.
Senator CAMERON: That might be a problem with Minister Joyce.
Senator Colbeck: Well, Minister Joyce is quite prolific. He is out there talking to his community all the time, as he should be.
CHAIR: And I have to say that Senator Cameron covets his job; he says he would make an excellent Minister for Agriculture!
Senator CAMERON: I would!
CHAIR: He is going to try growing some tomatoes in his backyard shortly! There is a great agricultural prospect in Armidale with the uni and research, and there is some strength to the argument there. So, in a practical sense it is real.
Senator CAMERON: That is right. So, in terms of your IT fit-out, I notice that this is one of the older buildings in Armidale. Have there been any specific IT fit-out issues there?
Dr Grimes : I would have to refer to the relevant officers. Our chief information officer, Graham Gathercole, is here. He may be able to assist you with this line of questioning.
Mr Gathercole : There were not issues out of the ordinary with the fit-out in Armidale.
Senator CAMERON: What was the cost of the fit-out in Armidale?
Mr Gathercole : The set-up cost $96,276.
Senator CAMERON: That is the fit-out cost. Is that the hardware or is that the installation as well?
Mr Gathercole : That is the hardware, the installation and the people costs with travel and accommodation.
Senator CAMERON: Close to $100,000?
Mr Gathercole : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: Where is the current office? Where is the minister's current office?
Mr Gathercole : We service an office in Tamworth as well.
Senator CAMERON: No, I am talking about a ministerial office.
Dr Grimes : Senator, to the best of my knowledge—and Mr Glyde might be able to help here—the minister's electorate office is the office in Tamworth, not his ministerial office. He does not have a dedicated ministerial office at this stage, to the best of my knowledge, so this would be his first and only ministerial office.
Senator CAMERON: So how long has Minister Joyce been the minister?
Dr Grimes : Obviously since shortly after the last election.
Senator CAMERON: How long is that now? It seems like an aeon.
Dr Grimes : About 15 or 16 months.
Senator CAMERON: So he has been operating without a ministerial office for 16 months.
Dr Grimes : He has been operating without a dedicated ministerial office over that period, yes.
Senator CAMERON: Have you had ministers prior to this who have not had a dedicated ministerial office?
Dr Grimes : The only minister I have had in this portfolio has been Minister Joyce.
Senator CAMERON: Why do we establish ministerial offices?
Dr Grimes : As I have indicated before, as a department we do not have any responsibility for ministerial offices other than providing support services that might be associated with them with the department. Policies around ministerial offices, how they are determined and so forth are not a matter for us. We are not involved in any provision of advice in these areas.
Senator CAMERON: Okay, so we will track it down in Finance. I want to go to the issue of industrial disputation in the department.
CHAIR: Are you declaring an interest? What trade union official were you?
Senator CAMERON: I was the Manufacturing Workers Union. Dr Grimes, where is the bargaining process up to within the department?
Dr Grimes : The bargaining process continues. We are currently working through processes for approval of a position to be presented to our staff for further negotiation.
Senator CAMERON: What is the current position that you have put to the staff?
Dr Grimes : At this stage we have not put a formal offer. We need to complete our approval arrangements in accordance with the government's bargaining framework.
Senator CAMERON: That is quite a complex proposition, isn't it?
Dr Grimes : We need to work through that in a careful and considered way in accordance with the requirements.
Senator CAMERON: I have had a look at how this all operates. It is very complex, isn't it?
Dr Grimes : We are working through the processes. They are considered processes.
Senator CAMERON: They are 'considered processes'; they are not complex?
Dr Grimes : That would be the way in which I would describe them. Obviously they involve us doing work, consulting with the Department of Finance and the Public Service Commission and then seeking the appropriate approvals. We need to work through that considered arrangement.
Senator CAMERON: And Minister Joyce has no role?
Dr Grimes : The minister does have a role. The minister has a role in approving the position that is put to our staff.
Senator CAMERON: Have you made any informal offers?
Dr Grimes : I might refer now to the relevant officers, in particular Mr Tim Chapman, who is our lead negotiator. He will have personal knowledge of the conduct of discussions within bargaining to date.
Mr Chapman : I am the First Assistant Secretary of the Biosecurity Animal Division but also the lead negotiator for the enterprise agreement negotiations. The process is as we explained at the last Senate estimates hearing. We are required to get approvals for the offer we are going to make before we can present it to staff. That means we do not make an informal offer. What we have done is discuss the new enterprise agreement—the actual text of it—with bargaining representatives over the period of negotiations. We have outlined the claims that we are making; they have outlined their claims; we have had discussions about that.
Senator CAMERON: Would you take me to the productivity based issues that you are dealing with.
Mr Chapman : The issues that we are raising for productivity really centre on the way we have our staff operate, which means that they will be able to have a higher output with the same number of staff because we are changing the processes of work. They include areas such as improved contact management, which is supported by a revised telephony platform, and using contact centres so that you have one area which can deal with inquiries coming from different parts of the country and different clients. We are looking at using mobile devices to support a mobile workplace, and that basically means that officers can be on the road, go to see multiple clients, provide information back to the department, get further instructions and, therefore, service more clients in the course of the day. We are introducing online entry management services, which really is online lodgement of entries of goods being imported into the country, rather than having the historical process of lodgements by email, fax or in person at the front counter. That means that the same number of officers can deal with a larger number of lodgements. That is the basis of what we call service delivery modernisation and that is what we are founding our productivity elements on.
Senator CAMERON: Have you been conducting continuous improvement processes within the department over, say, the last 18 months?
Mr Chapman : As a business, I think we are always trying to improve the efficiency of how we conduct our business. It goes with the risk return and risk based intervention work we have been doing for a number of years and with the red tape reductions. So I think it is fair to say that improving the way we do our business is a constant element of work.
Senator CAMERON: What have you costed your red tape reduction within the department as?
Mr Chapman : I am not sure. I would have to take that on notice or get advice on that.
Senator CAMERON: So it is part of your bargaining but you are not sure how much the red tape reduction has—
Mr Chapman : The red tape reduction is a separate element from the productivity requirements. I mentioned the red tape reduction in the context of us constantly trying to improve the way we conduct our business.
Senator CAMERON: That is continuous improvement, isn't it? I thought you said the red tape reduction improved productivity.
Mr Chapman : I did not say that.
Senator CAMERON: So the red tape reduction does not improve productivity—is that correct?
Mr Chapman : I did not say that.
Senator CAMERON: Why are you raising red tape reduction in the context of productivity?
Mr Chapman : I did not raise it in the context of productivity. You asked me whether we had a process of continuous improvement and I provided you with a few examples of continuous improvement in the way we conduct our business, which is normal and which you would expect any enterprise to do.
Senator CAMERON: If the red tape reduction is part of your continuous improvement, there is an improvement that can be costed, surely.
Mr Chapman : The productivity that we are using as a basis to support a pay offer is based on the elements that I talk to you about before.
Senator CAMERON: Have you made any assessment of the productivity improvement through your processes of continuous improvement outside the bargaining process over the last 18 months?
Mr Chapman : I am not aware of the total, if you like, financial benefits of the whole range of continuous improvement for the department. Our focus has been on how we use the productivity elements we are talking about in the context of the enterprise agreement negotiations to ensure that we can get approval for the pay offer that we make.
Senator CAMERON: So the workers in your department contribute to improve productivity on an ongoing basis through continuous improvement; is that correct?
Mr Chapman : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: Okay. They would make that contribution. But unless that contribution is not calculated in the analysis as to their wage increases. Is that correct?
Mr Chapman : Sorry?
Senator CAMERON: So they are making continuous improvements—you consider they make continuous improvements—but that is not being counted in the context of an offer in bargaining. That is separate, is it?
Mr Chapman : We are seeking to use the productivity improvements that are being made and that will be made in the life of the agreement to support the pay increase.
Senator CAMERON: So there was no incentive for people to have made any productivity improvement previously because it was not counted in the enterprise agreement?
Dr Grimes : In a sense, that has been supporting past wage increases that might have been provided. I guess that is the point.
Senator CAMERON: Is that true? Are you saying that as a matter of fact?
Dr Grimes : No, I am saying that these were matters in the past. I think, as Mr Chapman has indicated, that we have to be looking forward over the period of the agreement, and that is the process that we need to work through with the APSC and Finance.
Senator CAMERON: Public servants in your department need to know that, if they do any initiative outside the bargaining period that is separate and distinct from the bargaining, they do not get any—
Dr Grimes : So—
Senator CAMERON: just let me finish—increases, they do not get any recognition of that improved productivity, because it is not prospective in the bargaining?
Dr Grimes : My reference is actually looking back. I understand the point you are making but, looking back, there have been real wage increases over a number of years. I simply offer that as an observation.
Senator CAMERON: Sure. And those wage increases might be tied to certain outcomes in an agreement. But what I am talking about are other continuous improvement issues that may not have been in a past agreement and may not be in a future agreement. They do not count?
Dr Grimes : We have to work within the bargaining framework. We are working within that at the moment.
Senator CAMERON: You say you are working 'within the bargaining framework'.
Dr Grimes : We have not gotten to the point of actually presenting a package.
Senator CAMERON: No. I am asking you a question about continuous improvement in the department. If the specific matter of continuous improvement was not part of a previous enterprise agreement—distinctly set out in the agreement—or is not part of a prospective enterprise agreement, the public servants do not get any recognition of that through increased wages, even if it increases productivity?
Dr Grimes : Not all of those sources of productivity would be linked directly to pay offers being made in the agreement. I think that answers your question.
Senator CAMERON: I think, Dr Grimes, you indicated this was an area that you had some past experience in—bargaining and productivity issues?
Dr Grimes : In the dim, dark past.
Senator CAMERON: Yes. You did raise it at the last estimates.
Dr Grimes : I think the point I made was that I was a labour economist by trade.
Senator CAMERON: Yes. So you would be aware, or someone in your department would be aware, of the clear implications of continuous improvement? In any government department or in private industry, continuous improvement goes on all the time; otherwise, you just falter in terms of productivity, don't you?
Dr Grimes : But continuous—
CHAIR: With great respect, how do you measure productivity? Efficiency in a crop is when you go from 12 bags to 14 bags. This is all political theory or bureaucratic BS.
Senator CAMERON: No. It is about workers' wages, something that the coalition—
CHAIR: I know, but how do you—
Senator CAMERON: do not worry about.
CHAIR: I realise you are focused on the wages. If, over 50 years, we have had productivity improvements every year in whatever the service is, cripes, it would efficient by now!
It would be no bloody different to what it was 50 years ago! You would be at home bored shitless.
Senator CAMERON: If Dr Grimes can answer that question, I would be very happy.
CHAIR: You would go home bored shitless every night.
Dr Grimes : I suppose in some sense—
Senator CAMERON: That is helpful.
Dr Grimes : you are going into slightly broader philosophical questions. There is a reasonable expectation, I would think, that when improvements are being made over time the taxpayer actually enjoys part of the benefit of that. It is appropriate for workers to share in it, as well. I strongly believe that. In the case of an organisation such as us, where we are imposing costs both on exporters and importers, it is incumbent upon us to be looking at making improvements and efficiencies. For example, this committee in the past has considered the cost for exporters. If we were appropriating any efficiency gains and they were just simply characterised of once sought, we would not be providing any benefit to the Australian exporters who are exporting internationally.
Senator CAMERON: But it is not the public servants in your department that are arguing that productivity should be narrowed down to a small range of issues; they are arguing broadly that they have made an input and that should be recognised. You are saying that that is in the past and, in the future, it has got to be what we say.
Dr Grimes : I am referring to the bargaining framework in which we are working, and we work within that framework.
Senator CAMERON: How complex is this bargaining framework to work through?
Dr Grimes : As I indicated earlier, it is a considered process and it requires a carefully managed process in working through all of the elements with the Department of Finance and the Australian Public Service Commission. It has taken us some time to work through that. That is true. But we have been working through to the best of our ability through that process.
Senator CAMERON: But you are not in a position for give and take, are you, in the context of bargaining?
Dr Grimes : Indeed, the process of bargaining will be for us to be putting a position once we have the appropriate approvals. And that is for further bargaining.
Senator CAMERON: There is a pattern established across the Public Service on this, isn't there?
Dr Grimes : We work within the framework that we are provided. I would not make that comment. As a department, we make our decisions based on the framework that we have.
Senator CAMERON: Based on the pattern that you have to fit into.
Dr Grimes : It would not be for me to describe it in those terms.
Senator CAMERON: The reason that you do not want to do that is that pattern bargaining is illegal, isn't it?
Dr Grimes : It goes well beyond anything that I have responsibility for. We are working through with the bargaining framework appropriately.
CHAIR: Not like Boral and CFMEU.
Senator CAMERON: Mr Chapman, are you the officer with the responsibility to wander through all of these complexities of the bargaining process? Is that your job?
Mr Chapman : I would describe my job as to be the person who has the primary responsibility of working with the staffs' bargaining representatives and to represent the department. There are HR specialists and finance specialist who do the support work in working with the Department of Finance and with the APSC.
Senator CAMERON: Who gives you that advice? Are they here?
Ms Russ : From the HR, or people side of it, I do.
Senator CAMERON: Can you just take me through briefly the various acts and directions that you have to comply with before you can make an offer.
Ms Russ : The bargaining framework is the policy in which we operate within.
Senator CAMERON: Tell me about the bargaining framework. Take me to the issues that you have to comply with within the bargaining framework.
Ms Russ : Specifically, around affordability and funding, the policy requires that improvements in pay and conditions are funded from within existing budgets without the redirection of program funding. An agency must not make offers or agree to proposals unless relevant approvals have been obtained.
Senator CAMERON: Who are those relevant approvals?
Ms Russ : The Public Service Commissioner, who also seeks advice from the Department of Finance and then the relevant minister.
Senator CAMERON: So there are three external—well, you would not call the minister 'external'. So there are two external bodies, plus the minister, that you have to deal with, in terms of you being able to say 'yay' or 'nay' on a bargaining position?
Ms Russ : That is the approval process that we have to work through.
Senator CAMERON: Has there been any productivity initiatives put forward that are genuine productivity initiatives?
Ms Russ : As Mr Chapman explained, the areas around modernisation are genuine productivity improvements.
Senator CAMERON: That is introducing new technology.
Mr Chapman : It is not really the introduction of new technology; it is the way that staff will be working. They will be supported by new technology that will assist them. But it is multitasking; it is using certain centres of excellence to provide a national service. So they are genuine productivity improvements provided by staff.
CHAIR: It is now 11 o'clock and we are going to come back in 15 minutes. They are going to introduce coal technology, at least, in these negotiations—unlike Mr Alex and the CFMEU, who can just say to Boral, 'Go and stick your concrete over the cliff.' It is a bit more civilised than that.
Proceedings suspended from 11:00 to 11 : 15
Senator BULLOCK: Looking at additional estimates, in 'administered assets and liabilities' there has been an increase of $90 million since the budget, which takes the provision now to $540 million, up from $250 million, in 2013-14. Could you give an overview of what is included in these figures, what the main changes are over the two year, and what the changes are that have added $90 million since May?
Ms Evans : With respect to that movement of $90 million, it was essentially a re-profiling of funding that had been available for the program—
Mr Hunter : Drought Recovery Concessional Loans.
Ms Evans : That is what it is going into. It was a movement in profile from one drought concessional loans program into the Drought Recovery Concessional Loans measure. So it is simply a movement of that allocation from one year forward into the others.
Senator BULLOCK: In connection with the APVMA, there is $11 million payable under Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals (Administration) Act and another $18.5 million payable under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act. Is that just an accounting change, too, or is that new money?
Ms Evans : That is an accounting change, as you have described it. Because of the changes that came through under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, the APVMA has now been classified as a corporate Commonwealth entity, and that has meant that some of their appropriation needs to come through the department. That is what you see in that accounting treatment.
Senator BULLOCK: With Grains RDC I notice the government contribution is down by $10 million or so. Does that reflect a 10 per cent drop in wheat production this year? How could that go down?
Ms Evans : Again, your own analysis has already answered the question. Those numbers are essentially driven by the levels of production and so on. They reflect both the levies collection and the matching component.
Senator BULLOCK: We may have already touched on this. The Farm Household Allowance has been revised to $70.2 million, up from $27.2 million, since May.
Ms Evans : That is correct.
Senator BULLOCK: All of that extra money has gone into that, has it?
Ms Evans : That is right. The level of demand for the program was much higher than originally forecast. That figure simply reflects the revised estimate of what that program will cost.
Senator BULLOCK: On the subject of intangible assets, they are going to grow from $66 million this year to $107 million in 2017-18. What are the intangible assets that are going to jump 50 per cent in three years?
Ms Evans : They are mostly related to our IT investments. If you want more detail than that I might have to take it on notice.
Senator BULLOCK: It is a big increase, so I will take it on notice. Administered personal benefits is up from $73.6 million to $172.5 million, between this year and 2016-17. What are the main components of that figure? It is a big increase.
Ms Evans : We will have to take that one on notice to confirm it. My understanding is that it once again relates to the change in the Farm Household Allowance, but I want to be sure before we give that as the final answer.
Senator CAMERON: Can we go again to bargaining. Mr Chapman, you are still 'negotiating' with the CPSU on an agreement? Is that correct?
Mr Chapman : That is correct.
Senator CAMERON: Do you have any give and take on the key issues that the CPSU are raising with you?
Mr Chapman : Yes. In the course of negotiations we have had to date there have been areas where we have worked out mutually satisfactory solutions. The obvious next stage, once the full offer is put on the table, will be our responses to all the claims that have been put by the bargaining representatives. Obviously there will then be further discussion.
Senator CAMERON: Can the CPSU take protected industrial action now? What is the process in front of the commission? Where is that up to?
Ms Russ : On Friday the commission issued orders. The orders allow for a vote for protected industrial action to take place. But until that ballot is completed and the outcome is known, no, they cannot yet take protected industrial action.
Senator CAMERON: What is the set time frame in which they would be engaged in getting this vote done?
Ms Russ : It is 20 working days from the date of the order.
Senator CAMERON: What are implications for the department if industrial action commences after 20 days?
Ms Russ : I will probably hand over to Mr Williamson, but I will say that for the different forms of industrial action that the ballot may support, there is of course a notice period that has to be provided before action can be taken.
Dr Grimes : We are going into quite speculative questions at this stage. A ballot has not been put and there has not been a vote, and it is probably not appropriate for us to be speculating on what might or might not occur.
Senator CAMERON: Whether it is speculation or whether it is what might be described within the department as taking action to avoid disruption, surely you have given some thought to it, because it is clear that the ballots to accept the agreements are being rejected across the public sector. You have the same pattern.
Dr Grimes : We will obviously continue to monitor developments appropriately. We work very closely with our staff, as you would appreciate. We have a very good relationship with our staff in the department. One of the things that is important for us is working through any processes in a very respectful, considered way. That is the approach we are taking.
Senator CAMERON: It is not very respectful when your hands are tied. You do not have the capacity to negotiate an agreement, do you?
Dr Grimes : We are working through the process at the moment. I do not think it is appropriate for me to be looking into the future and saying what the action would be in the future. Obviously, our focus is on negotiating an agreement that is supported by our staff, and we will be presenting that as the process continues.
Senator CAMERON: When I have asked similar questions of other departments they have outlined actions that they are going to take to minimise disruption. Surely you have looked at that.
Dr Grimes : They may have gone a little bit further down the track than us. We have not had a ballot in our department at this stage.
Senator CAMERON: So you are not giving any consideration now to the issue of disruption to, say, biosecurity issues as a result of industrial action?
Dr Grimes : No. We would properly give consideration to those matters, but it is premature to be speculating on those at this stage because there are no actions before us.
Senator CAMERON: But, surely, you have got to take into consideration the probability that this ballot will not go through?
Dr Grimes : We will always make sure that we take proper preparations. But, again, these matters have not come to a vote at this stage.
Senator CAMERON: But given what has happened in other departments, workers are not going to take a pay cut and cuts to their conditions for no pay increase, are they?
Dr Grimes : It is our department, and what happens in another departments is not necessarily what is going to happen in our department.
Senator CAMERON: So the offer that you are working on will be consistent with the guidelines?
Dr Grimes : We will work within the bargaining framework, but our circumstances are different to other departments. We will make our judgements in the circumstances that we have in our department.
Senator CAMERON: Would those circumstances allow you to make an offer over what other departments have offered?
Dr Grimes : We will be working within the framework and then presenting an offer when that has been completed and all approvals have occurred.
Senator CAMERON: So you have made an offers on salaries?
Dr Grimes : As a specific offer, the next stage in the process is for us to—
Senator CAMERON: So there has been no offer made, yet you are saying the CPSU have been to the commission and they have got an order that they can go to a ballot to consider protected industrial action.
Dr Grimes : That is correct.
Senator CAMERON: If it is all going so well, as you are saying, why would they do that?
Dr Grimes : I cannot speak for them.
Senator CAMERON: Ms Russ, have you made any specific offer on wages?
Ms Russ : No. As the secretary has said, and as the bargaining policy makes very clear, we are not able to make an offer until we have gone through the approval process.
Senator CAMERON: When did you start going through the approval process?
Ms Russ : I would have to look exactly, but toward the end of last year, the second quarter of last year.
Senator CAMERON: The second quarter of last year.
Ms Russ : Sorry, the fourth quarter of last year.
Senator CAMERON: Can you get me a specific date when you started the formal process of seeking approval?
Ms Russ : Yes, I will have to take that on notice.
Senator CAMERON: Have you had responses from the various departments that need to approve. Have you had a response from the minister, have you had a response from the Public Service Commission and have you had a response from Finance on these issues?
Ms Russ : It is an iterative process. We have been working with the Public Service Commission on our proposals to provide them with the information that they need in order for them to be able to provide the approval.
Senator CAMERON: So you cannot put an offer on the table unless the minister has approved, unless the Public Service Commissioner has approved and unless Finance has approved. That is correct, isn't it?
Ms Russ : It is whether they support, and the Department of Finance provides advice to the Australian Public Service Commission.
Senator CAMERON: Are you saying they do not have to approve, they only have to support? What is the difference?
Ms Russ : I think the language in the policy is 'support'.
Senator CAMERON: Do you have support from any of those areas for your proposal?
Ms Russ : Not as yet.
Senator CAMERON: Have you got anything back from any of those three areas as to when you might get a response?
Ms Russ : It is difficult. I do not want to speculate.
Senator CAMERON: I am not asking you to speculate. I am simply asking a straight question: have you had any advice from the Public Service Commission, from Finance or from the minister about when their support or non-support will come?
Ms Russ : We do not go to our minister until we have completed the process with the Australian Public Service Commission.
Senator CAMERON: So the minister is really a rubber stamp. Have you any information from the Public Service Commission as to when they will come back with their support or non-support?
Ms Russ : My expectation is that we are not too far away.
Senator CAMERON: I am not asking about your expectation. I am asking: have you got anything factual that you can put on the table to tell us where it is up to with the Public Service Commission?
Ms Russ : No.
Senator CAMERON: Similarly with Finance—have you had anything back from Finance about a timetable on when they would come back?
Ms Russ : As I said before, Finance provide advice to the APSC. They do not work with the department directly; they liaise with the APSC.
Dr Grimes : As I understand it, they can give us an indication of whether their advice might be favourable to the APSC. I think, as Ms Russ indicated, they do not formally provide that to us; they provide us with an indication as we go to the next stage.
Senator CAMERON: You have got no indications of when they will come back?
Dr Grimes : My understanding is that we have an indication—and Ms Russ will confirm or correct this—that there would be support from the Department of Finance, but I have not got that directly.
Senator CAMERON: So the Department of Finance have indicated they will support the proposition. Have you put the proposition to the CPSU, or you cannot put the proposition unless it was through these bureaucratic processes? Is that right?
Dr Grimes : The indication is that we can proceed to submit that to the Public Service Commission, and indeed we have done that.
Senator CAMERON: All right.
Dr Grimes : I will just pause for a moment, just to ensure that that advice is correct, and Ms Russ can correct me if there is anything that is—
Mr Chapman : The next stage in the process is the Department of Finance will advise the APSC that the numbers are correct. The APSC provides us with its support for us to put an offer on the table; we will then get the approval of the minister to do so. As soon as we have all of those required approvals, the next step for us will be to immediately get in touch with the bargaining representatives and put the full offer and package on the table for discussion.
Dr Grimes : I think it is relevant to note that my understanding is that the nature of Finance's role is a checking role. It is not a policy role.
Senator CAMERON: They are looking at the numbers.
Dr Grimes : Effectively it is arithmetic, to ensure that the numbers are correct. That is my understanding of the role that Finance plays.
Senator CAMERON: Okay. I might leave it there. It is as much chaos as it is everywhere else; a pretty chaotic bargaining process, I must say. Unless there is any more on the bargaining, can I move on to another issue?
ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Sterle ): It is all yours, Senator Cameron.
Senator CAMERON: We had some discussions last time about a freedom of information request. Is Ms Luscombe available?
Dr Grimes : Yes, she is.
Senator CAMERON: Correct me if this is wrong, Ms Luscombe, but I understand a freedom of information request came from shadow minister Fitzgibbon's office to the department. Is that correct?
Ms Luscombe : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: When did that take place?
Ms Luscombe : That was in November last year, I understand.
Senator CAMERON: Do you have a date?
Ms Luscombe : It was 14 November last year.
Senator CAMERON: Did you have any correspondence with the shadow minister's office on this?
Ms Luscombe : Not me personally.
Senator CAMERON: Not you personally, but is there a freedom of information office within the department? So did the office have any?
Ms Luscombe : Yes, there is a dedicated unit within the Office of General Counsel that processes freedom of information requests on behalf of the department. We would acknowledge a request.
Senator CAMERON: You acknowledge a request? Yes.
Ms Luscombe : In this particular instance the request was for documents of the minister, not for documents of the department.
Senator CAMERON: So you—when I say 'you', I mean the department. That was then transferred to the minister's office?
Ms Luscombe : No, it was not.
Senator CAMERON: What happened?
Ms Luscombe : The FOI team attempted to transfer the request, and that request was not accepted by the minister's office, which is actually a separate agency for the purposes of the FOI Act and so you need the agreement of the accepting agency to transfer a request. In my view, what we probably should have done was actually just redirect the applicant directly to the minister's office in the first instance.
Senator CAMERON: Who should have done this?
Ms Luscombe : Our team probably should have. It was not incorrect, but it would have been preferable to have redirected the applicant directly to the minister's office because we do not have an arrangement in place to accept FOI requests on behalf of the minister's office.
Senator CAMERON: But the department has in the past worked with ministers to—
Ms Luscombe : I did check this—
Senator CAMERON: You do not know what I am going to ask you.
Ms Luscombe : My apologies.
Senator CAMERON: So you have, in the past, worked with the minister's office cooperatively on FOI requests, even if they are issues that relate to the minister, haven't you?
Ms Luscombe : There have been a couple of FOI requests where there were department records and minister's office records, and so we have processed those collaboratively with the minister's office. We have been requested to do so. My understanding, though, is that for at least the last six years we have not had any arrangements with the minister's office to process on their behalf.
Senator CAMERON: Not to process—you are using the word 'process'. Have you, in the past, received an FOI and then worked with the minister's office to deal with that FOI request?
Ms Luscombe : Not to my knowledge. If the minister's office wanted us to assist them with their processing of an FOI request, we would do so, but to my knowledge we have not processed on their behalf.
Senator CAMERON: But you said last time—from the Hansard:
… there have been times when the minister's office has requested the department to assist in the processing of requests—
Ms Luscombe : Yes, but that would be something that had been accepted by the minister's office.
Senator CAMERON: You continued:
but not to accept on its behalf.
Ms Luscombe : That is right. We are not set up to accept FOI requests on the minister's behalf.
Senator CAMERON: But, if the minister asked for advice or support from your department, would you then provide that?
Ms Luscombe : Yes, we would.
Senator CAMERON: If the minister says, 'Look, there is a technical issue here.' Who is handling FOIs? Who do you deal with on FOIs in the minister's office?
Ms Luscombe : I am not aware if there is a dedicated FOI officer in the minister's office.
Senator CAMERON: Yes—no dedicated officer. So there is no FOI department in the minister's office, no dedicated officer. Where would they get support, then, if there were a complex FOI issue they had to deal with? Where would they get that support?
Ms Luscombe : It is really up to the minister's office, but it is open to them to seek assistance from the department.
Senator CAMERON: They could come to you. So, unless someone writes directly to the minister with an FOI request, if it comes to you, what will you now do?
Ms Luscombe : We would redirect the applicant to the minister's office.
Senator CAMERON: Is this something that has been worked out since this issue?
Ms Luscombe : No, it is actually what was always the case, but we have now clarified it on the website so that it is clearer that we do not accept FOIs on behalf of the minister.
Senator CAMERON: But you were aware this was an issue, weren't you—that there was a request from the shadow minister's office and that Minister Joyce has not dealt with it? Are you aware of that?
Ms Luscombe : I was aware. I became aware that there was obviously a misunderstanding and, as soon as I became aware of that, that was communicated to the applicant and the FOI request was correctly directed to the minister's office.
Senator CAMERON: Senator Colbeck, has this issue been finalised in the minister's office?
Senator Colbeck: That would be a matter for the minister's office. I do not manage his office and he does not manage mine.
Senator CAMERON: But you are here representing the minister.
Senator Colbeck: Correct. I will have to take it on notice. I am not aware of the procedures within the minister's office.
Senator CAMERON: I would appreciate it if you could just answer me without this sort of stuff.
Senator Colbeck: Seriously, I do not know. I will take it on notice.
Senator CAMERON: Ms Hallam is in the minister's office, isn't she?
Senator Colbeck: Ms Hallam is the minister's chief of staff.
Senator CAMERON: She did accept the document. Are you aware of that?
Senator Colbeck: No, I am not.
Senator CAMERON: My advice is that Ms Hallam accepted the document. Where is Ms Smith? Is she here?
Ms Luscombe : Ms Smith is a director in the Office of General Counsel.
Senator CAMERON: Is she here?
Dr Grimes : Ms Smith reports to Ms Luscombe.
Senator CAMERON: Are you aware that there was correspondence from Ms Smith to Laura—who is Laura?
Ms Luscombe : Laura is an APS staff member, an FOI officer within my FOI section.
Senator CAMERON: The correspondence says: 'Good morning, Laura. Could you please give me a call about a new FOI request the department received yesterday'—this was on Thursday, 30 October—'from Fitzgibbon's office to the minister seeking correspondence about the amendment to the Hansard record. I would like to talk to you about it before the department response to the request.' You are aware that there was a controversy over the Hansard being changed.
Ms Luscombe : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: What was the issue about the Hansard that came to your attention?
Ms Luscombe : There was nothing in particular that came to my attention.
Senator CAMERON: So nobody raised the issue of Hansard except Catherine Smith and Laura Johnson? It was an exchange between them about the Hansard being changed?
Ms Luscombe : The exchange is really a processing of the FOI request, so it is really not material what the question is. The only thing is that it is a request for documents to the minister's office. We do not get requests very often that are directed to the minister's office. I can only assume that it was a conversation about how to process it—whether to accept it and transfer, or whether to redirect to the minister's office.
Dr Grimes : At the time, there was obviously wide public reporting. So I think Ms Luscombe is responding in relation to the FOI matters that you are specifically raising.
Senator CAMERON: So you reckon you have fixed this problem up? If there is a request again, people will be advised that it should go to the minister's office?
Ms Luscombe : It has been clarified. In this instance, we acknowledge the misunderstanding. It was correctly redirected. We have done everything that we can do.
Senator CAMERON: Except you have put a process in that makes it clear for people seeking FOI how to go about it?
Ms Luscombe : My understanding is that it has been clarified on the website.
Senator CAMERON: Have there been any discussions between the minister's office and your internal department about how they should deal with FOI requests that come to them?
Ms Luscombe : We offer training from time to time. So if they want to have some updated information on FOI, that is the kind of information we would provide them.
Senator CAMERON: Has anyone in the minister's office taken up the offer of training?
Ms Luscombe : Not to my knowledge at the moment.
Senator CAMERON: So the minister's office is still on its own?
Ms Luscombe : I can take that on notice and provide the answer to you. I could not be exactly sure.
Senator CAMERON: Have there been any discussions between the department and the minister's office in relation to how to handle an FOI request?
Ms Luscombe : In the process of clarifying the receipt of this information, I think everyone is now clear that the minister's office and the department are separate agencies for the purposes of the FOI Act and that we need to follow the provisions of the FOI Act and handle the application appropriately.
Senator CAMERON: Has any correspondence been exchanged between the minister's office and your office on this issue?
Ms Luscombe : Not other than what is on—not that I am aware of.
Senator CAMERON: You said 'other than'.
Ms Luscombe : Other than the exchange that no doubt you actually have.
Senator CAMERON: Well, there might be some doubts as to what you have done or what I have got. Can you provide details of all correspondence between any of your officers and the minister's office on this FOI request.
Ms Luscombe : The department did receive an FOI request for the processing of the FOI request that you are referring to, and we have finalised that request as well.
Senator CAMERON: I am asking you to provide the Senate—
Dr Grimes : We can take that on notice—any correspondence that relates to the handling of the FOI request.
Senator CAMERON: Why would you need to take it on notice when I am simply asking for correspondence between the minister's office and the department in relation to an FOI request?
Dr Grimes : I cannot speak for Ms Luscombe, but I imagine the reason is that she does not have the correspondence with her at the moment. I am not sure.
Ms Luscombe : I do not.
Dr Grimes : So we will take it on notice to obtain the correspondence so that we can provide it to you. We will have got to go back and obtain the correspondence and then provide it to you.
Senator CAMERON: You will obtain it and you will provide it?
Dr Grimes : Yes. You have asked that very clearly. We will take that question on notice and provide that corresponds to you.
Senator CAMERON: Could you also provide details of the times and dates of telephone conversations between your department and the minister's office in relation to this FOI request.
Ms Luscombe : Yes, certainly.
Senator CAMERON: You said you were not aware that the minister's office had requested any training. Could you clarify that on notice and also whether any advice has been provided to the minister's office in a non-formal manner about how to properly deal with an FOI request.
Ms Luscombe : Yes, I am very happy to do that. Senator Cameron, could I correct the record. The 'Laura' that you referred to may have been the departmental liaison officer.
Senator CAMERON: In the minister's office?
Ms Luscombe : I believe so.
Senator CAMERON: That is exactly what the liaison officer should be doing—liaising. Is that right?
Ms Luscombe : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: Refresh my memory. The liaison officer is part of the minister staff? How does that work? What is the technical—
Dr Grimes : No, the departmental liaison officer is an officer of the department who works in the minister's office. They do not have the same role as an adviser, for example.
Senator CAMERON: I have asked about correspondence between the minister's office and the department. I would also need you to answer all the same questions going to the liaison officer—what discussions took place with the liaison officer, when they took place and any correspondence between the liaison officer and the department on this FOI request. When your department makes reference to a shadow minister or a minister, is it normal for the shadow minister just to be called 'Fitzgibbon' and the minister to be called 'minister'? Is there an issue here in terms of—
Dr Grimes : My expectation is that shadow ministers would be referred to in more formal terms. I do understand that officers are sometimes working quickly, but my expectation is that they would be referred to in more formal terms.
Senator CAMERON: Even a 'Mr' would have been nice.
Dr Grimes : Correct. I can understand—an officer may have been doing something quickly. But my expectation and, I am sure, the officers' expectation is that we would normally refer to them in formal terms.
Senator CAMERON: I am sure there are lots of adjectives assigned to shadow ministers but—
Dr Grimes : I would hope that there were not. I mean that quite seriously. That would not be my expectation and I would be disappointed if there was anything of that sort.
Senator Colbeck: Senator Cameron, for the record: my advice is that Ms Hallam did not accept the document but that Mr Fitzgibbon has now placed the matter as a question on notice through the parliament, through the House, and the minister will respond shortly. You indicated, I think, that you thought Ms Hallam had accepted the document. My advice is that she did not. Mr Fitzgibbon has put the questions relating to that issue on notice to the minister in the House of Representatives and the minister is going to respond through that process.
Senator CAMERON: Well, I am interested in it as well.
Senator Colbeck: That's fine. I was just clarifying that point, that's all.
Senator CAMERON: I would ask you to come back and clarify that issue within the time frame of the estimates hearings.
Senator Colbeck: What issue are you talking about?
Senator CAMERON: The issue of whether Ms Hallam actually accepted—
Senator Colbeck: My advice from Ms Hallam is that she did not accept the document.
Senator CAMERON: Well, can you then provide details of how that non-acceptance took place?
Senator Colbeck: I will have to take that on notice, as you might understand.
Senator CAMERON: If there were telephone calls I would like to know the times and when they took place and I would like to know if there are emails or any correspondence that says, 'We don't accept this.' Why wouldn't the minister's office accept an FOI request that goes to this issue?
Senator Colbeck: I will have to take that on notice. I am not aware of the circumstances. I understand the broader issue because, as the secretary said, it has been in the public arena. You have had a quite detailed conversation with the department around the processes backwards and forwards. All I am trying to do is to clarify a point which you have raised. I have had some advice from the minister's office and I am putting that on the record for your information. I am saying to you that, subsequently, Mr Fitzgibbon has put the question relating to that matter on notice to the minister in the House of Representatives and the minister will obviously respond through that process.
Senator CAMERON: The minister and you have obligations under the FOI Act.
Senator Colbeck: Correct.
Senator CAMERON: That does not go to the minister making a unilateral decision not to respond to a request, does it?
Senator Colbeck: Not as I understand it.
Senator CAMERON: In that context, could you explain why the minister unilaterally decided that his office would not proceed with an FOI request, when the minister has obligations under the act? Could you take that on notice.
Senator Colbeck: I will.
Senator CAMERON: In relation to the actual request itself: where is it up to now, other than buried somewhere in the minister's office? Where exactly is this FOI request up to?
Senator Colbeck: I will have to take that on notice, Senator. But, as I indicated to you, there is another process that is being undertaken to provide a response and—
Senator CAMERON: So, there are two processes in place for a response of the estimates: the response to the Senate and the response to the House of Reps?
Senator Colbeck: If you are saying there is an FOI process underway, there is that process underway and there is obviously a process through the House of Representatives. I might need some correction or advice on this, but my advice is that the FOI was sent to the wrong party. Ms Hallam did not accept the FOI transfer in writing as required. I am not sure where that actually leaves the FOI request.
Senator CAMERON: You are saying that was sent to the wrong party. You are saying that was the wrong party in the minister's office or the wrong party—that is, the department?
Senator Colbeck: The department.
Senator CAMERON: So an FOI request came through the department, the department then forwards that to the minister's office and the minister's office just goes: 'Well, we haven't got it through the proper bureaucratic processes. We are not going to deal with it.' Is that what you are saying?
Ms Luscombe : If I can clarify, Senator Cameron. The original request was misdirected to the department. It was actually an FOI request of the minister's office, and their documents. Once the applicant was redirected, my understanding is that the minister's office processed it and made a decision.
Senator Colbeck: And my advice is that the minister and his officers respond to all FOIs directed to him in accordance with the legislation. So, if it has been directed to him in accordance with the legislation, it has been dealt with.
Senator CAMERON: Okay. Can you then advise me when, on what date, the minister's office received the referral from the department? You can tell me that?
Ms Luscombe : I would have to take that on notice. As soon as we identified that there had been a misunderstanding about accepting the transfer or not, we immediately notified the applicant. We apologised, we noted that obviously it needed to be redirected and we told the applicant how to actually make that occur. And I understand that that is what happened.
Senator CAMERON: Okay. So can you give me the details of when you forwarded the FOI to the minister's office? And, Minister, if you could advise when the minister's office made a decision not to proceed.
Ms Luscombe : Can I just clarify, Senator Cameron, that we would not have forwarded the actual request. It would have gone directly to the minister's office. We do not accept documents on behalf of the minister's office. So once we had notified the applicant that we did not receive FOI requests on behalf of the minister's office the correct action was for them to correctly address the FOI request to the minister's office.
Senator CAMERON: But you did forward it, didn't you?
Ms Luscombe : When the department received it—
Senator CAMERON: You forwarded it to the minister's office.
Ms Luscombe : There was a question around whether we should transfer it to the minister's office or not.
Senator CAMERON: Which you did.
Ms Luscombe : We thought we did but that was a misunderstanding; we did not.
Senator CAMERON: So you are saying you did not forward anything to the minister's office?
Ms Luscombe : I do not know whether it was actually forwarded to the minister's office or not, but there was a misunderstanding about whether it would be transferred. It is just a mishandling of whether the request should be redirected or transferred.
Senator CAMERON: I might want to come back on this—
CHAIR: I have got a thick head, as you know. Can I just tell you that that is very good bureaucratic language you just used. Even Senator Cameron rolled his eyes. Does that mean that when the FOI went to the department from Mr Fitzgibbon, I understand, it was really a question of whether—you cannot remember, or whatever—you went back to Mr Fitzgibbon and said, 'Listen, old mate, you sent it to the wrong spot. You send it to the minister' or whether you said to Fitzgibbon, 'We will send it to the minister.' Which was it?
Ms Luscombe : When the department receives an FOI request there is a scoping. There are a number of steps that occur at a process level in my team—
CHAIR: I am sure if you employ all these people there has got to be a lot of steps.
Ms Luscombe : that I do not have any involvement in. It is not something that I am directly involved in. That is why I am saying I need to provide that information.
CHAIR: So you are not the right person for Senator Cameron to be asking the question of?
Senator CAMERON: I think she is.
CHAIR: But she does not know the answer.
Senator CAMERON: That does not mean that she is not the right person.
CHAIR: But someone in the department under you does know the answer—are they on the jigger there now trying to tell you?
Ms Luscombe : No.
Senator CAMERON: Is Ms Catherine Smith here?
Ms Luscombe : No.
CHAIR: Just to clarify in my thick head again: you cannot remember or do not know whether, when Mr Fitzgibbon made an FOI and it went to your department—it should have gone to the minister, in the judgement of the department—you sent it on to the minister or whether you wrote back to Mr Fitzgibbon and said: 'Mate, you have sent it to the wrong hole. Send it over there.' Is that right?
Ms Luscombe : I would need to look at the documents. There would have been, potentially, an FOI alert. I do not have that information with me.
CHAIR: The man at the back of the room there is shaking his head. He is independent.
Senator CAMERON: Ms Luscombe, you are the general counsel, are you not?
Ms Luscombe : Yes, I am.
Senator CAMERON: That brings with it some big responsibilities in terms of the truthfulness or otherwise of answers you give to the Senate—as with all officers; you are not singled out. But as a lawyer, a very senior lawyer, you would understand the importance of providing truthful answers to the Senate. I have a file note—
CHAIR: That is a worry.
Senator CAMERON: I have a file note—
CHAIR: On me?
Senator CAMERON: No, that would be a lot bigger than this one. It is from Catherine Smith to Lauren Johnston. Remind me what Lauren Johnston's position is?
Ms Luscombe : Is it 'Laura' or 'Lauren'?
Senator CAMERON: Lauren.
Ms Luscombe : She is an APS5 FOI officer.
Senator CAMERON: This is between Catherine Smith, who is the director of your office—is that right?
Ms Luscombe : She is, yes.
Senator CAMERON: So this is an internal file note—I will table it—from your department that says : 'Di Hallam, chief of staff, Minister Joyce's office, called me yesterday afternoon to discuss the Hansard FOI request (FOI 2014/15-21)'. That is Mr Fitzgibbon's FOI request. The file note goes on: 'She confirmed she has agreed to accept the transfer of FOI request to the minister's office.' That is MFOI 2014/15-02. It continues: 'I let her know that, consistent with the FOI Act, the department would advise the applicant of the transfer.' This seems to be a confirmation that there was a transfer.
Ms Luscombe : There was a request for a transfer. I think what later came to pass was that Catherine has acknowledged that there was a misunderstanding in that and that she was mistaken.
Senator CAMERON: How unclear can this be: 'She confirmed she has agreed to accept the transfer of the FOI request to the minister's office'? So the request was transferred?
Ms Luscombe : It was her note taken following a phone conversation. Obviously there was a misunderstanding.
Senator CAMERON: This is your director. This is not a junior officer in the department, is it? This is a very senior public servant. Is she a trained lawyer?
Ms Luscombe : No, she is not.
Senator CAMERON: But she is a senior, experienced public servant.
Ms Luscombe : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: Could she have got this wrong?
Ms Luscombe : For the transfer to be effective, it must be in writing. A verbal discussion is not sufficient for a transfer to be effective. It needs to be confirmed in writing. My understanding is that when it was confirmed in writing it was in the negative.
Senator CAMERON: When did you seek to confirm the transfer in writing?
Ms Luscombe : I do not have the date but, presumably, it would have been straight after that.
Senator CAMERON: Straight after 5 November?
Ms Luscombe : I would have to confirm that, but it would make sense that it would be.
Senator CAMERON: So you have Catherine Smith, the director, saying that Minister Joyce's office has requested that, has accepted the transfer. Why wouldn't Catherine Smith, an experienced FoI officer, not then say, 'Hey, there's a problem here because this can't be done under the act'?
Ms Luscombe : I was not involved in that conversation, so I can only accept Catherine's understanding that she acted hastily.
Senator CAMERON: Catherine acted hastily.
Ms Luscombe : Because she did not wait for the written confirmation.
CHAIR: I am behind here, Senator Cameron. Why wasn't it permitted under the act? What was not permitted under the act?
Senator CAMERON: I am not sure if Ms Luscombe—
CHAIR: That was your language.
Senator CAMERON: But that was Ms Luscombe's response to—
CHAIR: But what could not happen? You could not transfer it or—
Senator CAMERON: Unless it is in writing. The evidence is that, unless it is in writing, you cannot transfer it.
Senator STERLE: Senator Cameron, can I just, through the chair, ask whether Catherine Smith is still out the back?
Dr Grimes : Senator, if I can assist, my understanding, just based on conversations with Ms Luscombe—
CHAIR: Don't be frightened to talk up.
Dr Grimes : is that the issue here is that there was not a written request at that point. There had obviously been some oral conversations, but the issue was that the department—
CHAIR: So Mr Fitzgibbon would have had to go back and restart the process?
Ms Luscombe : In order for the transfer to be effective it has to be in writing.
CHAIR: From, in this case, Mr Fitzgibbon?
Ms Luscombe : No, from the department to the minister's office, it had to be in writing and then it had to be confirmed in writing as a response. So it is not confirmed until we have actually received confirmation in writing that they have accepted it.
Senator CAMERON: Let me just put this to you. This seems to be bureaucracy gone mad. You send the minister's office a copy of the FOI. They go, 'Okay, we'll accept it, we'll deal with it'—whatever the words were. Is Ms Smith here? Is she in the building?
Ms Luscombe : No, she is not.
Senator CAMERON: Lucky Ms Smith!
Senator STERLE: Can we get her here, Chair?
CHAIR: No, she is in Fiji holidaying. Give her a break.
Senator CAMERON: So a very senior public servant said, 'Yes, it has been accepted.' Is there any discretion in the minister's office, your minister's office, to start dealing with this FoI request?
Ms Luscombe : I do not know, because it needs to be in writing under the act.
Senator CAMERON: But you are the counsel. The minister's chief of staff says: 'I've got it. We'll accept it'—that is, in colloquial terms, what is in here, from an extremely senior—
Unidentified speaker: Director.
Senator CAMERON: director of your department.
CHAIR: Just pausing there: could you explain to me—and you can see why I have never sent an email in my life; it gets too many people into trouble—the legal status of this note here? When that file note is made by this person that Senator Cameron is quoting from, do they then put that into the departmental records or does it become part of her personal possession?
Ms Luscombe : All emails are departmental records.
CHAIR: Do not be frightened to talk up.
Ms Luscombe : All emails would be departmental records.
CHAIR: So this file note becomes the property of the department?
Ms Luscombe : Yes.
CHAIR: So someone in the department has obviously supplied it to clarify the situation?
Ms Luscombe : Yes. The department cannot just process a request from the minister's office without confirmation—without the minister's office asking us to do so.
Senator CAMERON: Ah! So this is the issue—another issue. You receive an FoI and you guys are going to take the fall on this—one of the most senior legal experts in yourself, in the bureaucracy—because you are saying that you made a mistake by forwarding this to the minister's office?
Ms Luscombe : In my view, the request should just have been redirected rather than attempting to transfer it.
Senator CAMERON: That is not what I am asking you. I am asking: are you saying that your department has made a mistake—
Ms Luscombe : Actually, we acknowledged immediately to the applicant. So, as soon as we realised that the transfer had not been effective, we wrote to the applicant. We acknowledged that it was an error and that they should correctly address the request to the minister's office.
Senator CAMERON: Why would Catherine Smith know this right away?
Ms Luscombe : I do not know the nature of—I was not in the conversation.
CHAIR: Can I just seek a clarification. What is the difference between a 'redirection' and a 'transfer'?
Ms Luscombe : A 'transfer' would mean that the department accepted the request and then sought transfer, which requires the consent of the agency that you are transferring it to under the act. That needs to be in writing. A 'redirection' would just be: 'This is not for documents of the department. You actually need to redirect your request to the correct agency.'
Senator CAMERON: Given the controversy that this started, have you made any inquiries as to how this operates in other departments? Is there a strict, black-letter law interpretation of these requests coming to the department, then going to the minister? Are you saying it has to be a strict, black-letter law interpretation and that the minister's office just cannot say: 'Okay, you've got it. It complies with the act, we will deal with it.' Can they do that?
Ms Luscombe : There is the FoI Act, but there is also the Australian Office of the Information Commissioner guidance. I believe that the guidance also refers to the transfer of requests and the requirement for consent.
Senator CAMERON: But guidance is guidance. What is the difference between 'guidance' and 'black-letter law'?
CHAIR: Can I impose a little discipline, because we are now doing some magnificent circle work. This is what I call classic circle work. Senator Cameron, could I seek some guidance on how much more circle work you need because if it is all about the bloody office of the minister, in Armidale, then deal with that. But can we do without all the circuit work?
Senator CAMERON: He has not yet got an office. He has been operating all this time and he has not yet got an office.
Senator STERLE: [indistinct] changing hands—
Senator Colbeck: That is not correct, either.
Senator CAMERON: I will retract that. You do not need to go any further. I am still trying to understand, Ms Luscombe, if a member of the public—it does not need to be a shadow minister—writes to the department and says, 'I have a FoI,' and it relates to the minister, if one of your officers, a senior officer, Catherine Smith, transfers that to the minister's office, or Di Hallam, and Di Hallam accepts it in the minister's office, you cannot do that? Is that what you are saying?
Ms Luscombe : We cannot transfer a request that is not meant for the department. It is not correctly addressed to the agency that is most closely related to the document that is the subject of the request.
Senator CAMERON: So if a member of the public does this, sends it to you because you are the department, but it has to do with the minister, you just will not now accept it?
Ms Luscombe : We would just call them, and say, 'You should direct your FOI request directly to the minister's office and here are the details on our website.'
Senator CAMERON: Have you issued a memorandum within your department on this?
Ms Luscombe : No.
Senator CAMERON: So a director of your department failed to understand this technicality? Is that correct?
Ms Luscombe : It is not quite so black and white. But there certainly was a misunderstanding and that is definitely an error. In the end it was correctly directed and, in the end, we acknowledged it immediately and it was correctly directed to the agency most closely related to—
Senator CAMERON: Would this need legislative change to deal with a member of the public who seeks FoI, puts it into the department and then it gets transferred to the minister's office? Is that a legislative framework that needs to be changed?
Ms Luscombe : I do not have a view on that. I do not think it would be necessary.
Senator CAMERON: I am not asking for your view. I am asking you for a fact. You are the chief counsel. I am asking you if there is a legislative requirement that needs to be changed.
Ms Luscombe : This was just a misunderstanding.
Senator STERLE: Was it?
Senator CAMERON: It goes further than a misunderstanding. What I am saying is that I cannot accept the proposition that someone in good faith—it did not have to be Mr Fitzgibbon; it could be a member of the public who writes to you. They do not understand the dark arts of the bureaucracy. They write to you with a freedom of information request, and you then believe that you do not have the power to simply send that to the minister's office and allow the process to take place. Is there a technical or legislative issue that should be changed to allow this process to be undertaken?
Ms Luscombe : There are provisions under the act for the transfer of documents between agencies. Ultimately, it is now clear on the website that if you want to contact the minister's office that is where the details are. As I said, we would just call them and tell them where to direct their request.
CHAIR: For a member of the public to FOI in this way, do they get a bill? Is there a charge?
Ms Luscombe : Yes, there is. The first, I think, five hours of processing are free and then there are charges and there is a calculator—
CHAIR: Just to go to the accounting side of this. I have just come from the DPS where you will be all pleased to know there is now this contention—hands up all those people who have got a car in the car park; I have got one in the car park—as to whether you are going to be charged a fringe benefit or you are going to be charged for parking your car in the parliamentary car park underneath the building. It is as vague as this, the interpretation of whether it is a fringe benefit or not. I have just had an interesting time next door exploring that. But on this one, I have spent—on one particular expedition I went on a few years ago—$1,500 on FOIs and did not even get the answers that I required. In terms of whether an FOI was misdirected, Senator Cameron—just say it was him—sent it to your department by mistake. You said, 'It shouldn't have come here.' Whether you rang him back or redirected it and it goes to the minister's office, who pays the bill?
Ms Luscombe : There would not be any bill.
CHAIR: To the minister there would be no bill?
Ms Luscombe : No, but no bill to the applicant either, because it would need to be accepted and you would have to agree scope and then you would have to—
CHAIR: If it is accepted; if Senator Cameron sends you an FOI, do you send him a bill?
Ms Luscombe : No.
CHAIR: I thought you said you have to pay for it.
Ms Luscombe : No, once you have accepted the request, you have agreed the scope, then you do some document retrieval—
CHAIR: So it has financial consequences?
Ms Luscombe : decision making time and the process—
CHAIR: That was never agreed in this particular interchange which we are doing all this circle work on?
Ms Luscombe : No.
CHAIR: But if it had come to a conclusion, there would have been an invoice?
Ms Luscombe : Personal information is free, for instance. As I said, the first five hours—
CHAIR: But in this case it is the shadow minister making an FOI request to your department. Does the shadow minister have to pay the FOI bill?
Ms Luscombe : We would issue charges at a point in the process if it was more than five hours—
CHAIR: Just say it was 10 hours, does the shadow minister pick up the bill or does the government pick up the bill on his behalf to pay itself back over there?
Ms Luscombe : No, my understanding is that the bill is not paid by the government; it is actually the applicant.
CHAIR: So Mr Fitzgibbon would have to foot the bill?
Ms Luscombe : Any applicant would have to pay the costs associated with an FOI request.
Senator CAMERON: Laura Johnson: just remind me what her position is?
Ms Luscombe : I think Laura is an APS5 FOI officer in the FOI and legislation section.
Senator CAMERON: That is your organisation? I have just been emailed another document which was sent on 6 November.
CHAIR: It could be said that the department is leaking.
Senator CAMERON: When the cabinet leaks the department is entitled to leak. It says, 'Dear Ms Sikman'—that is the shadow minister's adviser—'I refer to your email of 29 October 2014 seeking access to documents in the possession of the Department of Agriculture under the Freedom of Information Act.' So there was a request for access to documents in your holding. You then said, 'The department does not have in its possession any of the documents you asked for. Accordingly, your request was transferred to the Minister for Agriculture (the minister) on 4 November 2014. The 30-day statutory period for processing your request commenced from the date it was received by the department.' Then there is a reference number, which is MFOI 2014/1502. 'The minister's office will now undertake a search for relevant documents, and you will be notified of a decision on charges, if applicable, or access to documents as soon as practicable. I can be contacted via telephone'—then there is a telephone number—'or at firstname.lastname@example.org for any assistance.' So this is another confirmation that this was sent to the minister's office and was a transfer.
Ms Luscombe : I do not know whether that document was ever sent. Is that a draft or is that actually sent?
Senator CAMERON: It is from Lauren Johnson, and it was sent on Thursday 6 November. It was sent to—guess who—Catherine Smith.
Ms Luscombe : My understanding in that team is that they do draft emails. But that has not been sent to the applicant. It has been sent internally.
Senator CAMERON: They do draft emails? People sit around doing draft emails?
Dr Grimes : It sounds to me like this was—
Senator CAMERON: Well, how come I have the draft email?
Ms Luscombe : Because it was included in the FOI request that we provided.
Senator CAMERON: There is nothing here to say 'draft email'. It is an acknowledgement email, it says.
Ms Luscombe : But it is internal to the department. It is not an acknowledgement. It should have 'draft' on it.
Senator CAMERON: It should have?
Ms Luscombe : Yes.
CHAIR: The only thing you can be sure of, Senator Cameron, is that it was not from me.
Senator CAMERON: Then, I think three days later, after all this had been undertaken, and there has been a confirmation to the shadow minister that this is progressing, there is a notification from the minister's office saying that Di Hallam—when did Di Hallam say that she would not accept it?
Ms Luscombe : I think on the Thursday.
Senator CAMERON: That would be the 6th.
Ms Luscombe : If I recall correctly, the 6th.
CHAIR: That is the day after Wednesday.
Senator CAMERON: So on the Thursday, were you asked for any advice on this issue from the minister's office?
Ms Luscombe : No, I was not.
Senator CAMERON: Did your department provide any advice to the minister's office off your own bat on this issue?
Ms Luscombe : When I saw that that transfer, that email, had been declined, that is when I actually sought to understand what the nature of the issue was. I understood that there had been a misunderstanding, that the transfer had not occurred, and that we immediately wrote to the applicant acknowledging the error and asking them to correctly redirect their FOI request to the minister' office.
Senator CAMERON: You are the general counsel of the department. If you have a case to prosecute, and received an email that says, 'Yes, this has been transferred,'—there is no 'draft' on it—how would you explain to a judge that this is just a draft? What is this? Dr Grimes, is this a normal thing within the public service?
Dr Grimes : Ms Luscombe has indicated that it was a more junior officer sending to her director. Presumably they sit very close to each other, so no doubt they shared an email that was under preparation. It had not been sent out. There is no doubt that clearly they were working on that basis internally, but they had not got the point of actioning it.
Senator CAMERON: What I am concerned about, and I think the public would be concerned about it, and certainly the Senate would be concerned, is that this FOI—let us come back to what this is about—is about interference with Hansard. We are trying to get to the bottom of whether the minister or the minister's office interfered with Hansard. Anyone listening in would see this mass of silver foil getting thrown around to try to distract what is a very important issue. I do not think I can take this any further, but next time at estimates we will be back on this. This is a very serious issue. We have emails being produced in the department and the general council saying, 'It didn't go out; it was only a draft.' But it is not marked draft. What is this nonsense?
Senator Colbeck: The point is, it is not directed to anyone outside the department. The suggestion that it might have gone out is a bit questionable. It is an email between officers in the department. The suggestion that someone might have gained a perception that something was being dealt with, because of it, outside the department cannot be made. It was an internal email—quite likely, a junior officer saying to a senior officer, 'This is what I am proposing.'
Senator CAMERON: It would be quite likely, would it? I am not asking, 'Quite likely.'
Senator Colbeck: That is the evidence you received. If you want to play word games, that is fine, but the evidence you received is that it was a draft between departmental officers. I am saying the same thing. It never went to anybody outside the department, so no one could have got any perception that something was being dealt with when it was not.
Senator CAMERON: Not because of any perception, it was being dealt with when it was not. How do you explain—and maybe, Minister, your attempt to help; maybe you should not do that. This is official correspondence from the department to Natasa Sikman. It is headed up 'A Freedom of information request.' It says:
I refer to your request of 29 October 2014 in which you have sought access under the Freedom of Information Act to correspondence in relation to the amendment of the Hansard record of the Minister for Agriculture's answer to a question without notice on 20 October 2013.
It goes on to say:
Under section 16(1) of the FOI Act, a department is able to transfer a request 'if the requested document is not in' its possession but is 'in the possession of another agency or if the subject matter of the document is more closely connected the functions of another agency'.
The documents you have requested are not in the possession of the department. Accordingly, your request was transferred to the Minister for Agriculture on 4 November 2014, under section 16 of the FOI Act. The minister or an authorised officer by him will make a decision on access in relation to your request.
The department received your request on 29 October 2014 and the 30-day statutory period for processing your request commenced from the day after that date. The minister will treat your request as though it received it the same day that we did. You should therefore expect a decision on access by 28 November 2014. This period of 30 days may be extended if the minister needs to consult third parties or for other reasons. You will be advised if this occurs.
A representative within the minister's office will be writing to you directly concerning your request. Should you wish to discuss any issues arising from this letter please contact FOI Officer [inaudible]—
On the number—
for assistance with your request.
It is signed Catherine Smith, Director of Legislation and Freedom of Information Section, Office of General Counsel.
This is quite clear. This is an official recognition of this FOI and a transfer of the FOI. It is not some junior officer that was going to take the fall. This is from the Director of Legislation and Freedom of Information Section, someone who would understand the act. Why are we playing games with this, Ms Luscombe?
Ms Luscombe : I am not playing games. This was the mistake. What you have just read there is what we have already acknowledged—to the applicant—the very next day that was the error. That is the error.
Senator CAMERON: This is the Director of the Legislation and Freedom of Information Section, and this officer does not understand the basics of the act. Is that the issue here?
Ms Luscombe : I do not accept that characterisation.
Senator CAMERON: How else can we characterise it?
Ms Luscombe : It was a mistake.
Senator CAMERON: Mistakes are made because you do not understand. Does this officer understand the legislation that she has got responsibility for in your department?
Ms Luscombe : The record of FOI processing in the department for hundreds of requests over the last four years, when this person has been involved in FOI in the department, has been excellent. The other point I should mention is that if any applicant is unhappy with the FOI processing they can seek a review. There are a number of review mechanisms under the act.
Senator CAMERON: So it just so happens that this is the most senior officer in the FOI department of the Department of Health. Is that correct?
Ms Luscombe : The Department of Agriculture.
Senator CAMERON: The Department of Agriculture, sorry. Is that correct?
Ms Luscombe : Yes. This individual leads the—
Senator CAMERON: She is the most senior officer. She has responsibility for this. She did not understand how you transfer. Is that what you are saying? At the time she just made a mistake. And it just happened to be a mistake on an issue that went to interference in Hansard. This is a very serious issue. How could she make such a mistake? This letter came two days after you acknowledged that you got it. So there were two days to work through this mistake. And it was not picked up. Two days later you acknowledged and you transferred. What is going on?
Ms Luscombe : The transfer was not effective, is what I am saying, because it was not accepted by the accepting agency. So, as I have said a number of times, now, we have never tried to hide from the fact that once we identified the error we wrote to the applicant immediately. We acknowledge the mistake. We have not tried to shy away from that at all. We have also subsequently received an FOI request on the processing of the FOI request, and we have released all of those documents in full.
Senator BACK: Has the applicant of the original FOI request raised any concerns about the process?
Ms Luscombe : No. There are usual processes under the FOI Act for seeking a review or making any complaints, and we have not received any such complaint.
Senator BACK: From whomever provided it, do we know whether the applicant received a response to the request that they made?
Senator Colbeck: Can I just put something on the record with respect to that, because I think it goes to some of the discussion that we have been having. After receiving advice from the department around the error, the shadow minister's office, on 12 November, forwarded an FOI request to the minister's office. That was actioned by the minister's office and responded to on 11 December and it provided the documents that were sought by the FOI applicant.
So the loop has actually been closed out in respect of that matter. The minister's office have provided the shadow minister's office—the applicant—with the documents requested under the original FOI request. So the minister's office formally received the FOI in the correct format, directed in the right place, on 12 November. They actioned and responded to it on 11 December, and provided the documents that were in their possession.
Senator BACK: As a result of that, has the shadow minister or his office asked any further questions in terms of completion, or should we understand that the shadow minister believes that the response was complete and adequate?
Senator CAMERON: I have a point of order. We are dealing with the FOI Act, and I am not sure that how that document is being processed is appropriate, in terms of those issues.
Senator Colbeck: That is a separate question.
Senator BACK: I think I am entitled to ask a few questions. I have sat here very patiently.
Senator Colbeck: Senator Back asked a question about whether information had been received by the shadow minister. I am just putting it on the record, and you were out of the room, unfortunately, Senator Cameron.
CHAIR: No, Senator Cameron and I had signed a surrender document. That is why he left the room.
Senator BACK: That is fine. You say what you like.
Senator Colbeck: Whatever.
Senator CAMERON: No, it is not surrender.
Senator Colbeck: Whatever the case, Senator Back asked the question about the information that was the subject of the original FOI request that went to the department, and we have spent some time talking about the process around that. The shadow minister subsequently sent an FOI request to the minister's office. That was received in the minister's office on 12 November. It was actioned by the minister's office and responded to on 11 December, providing documents that the minister's office had in their possession.
CHAIR: I know, Senator Back, you are keen to get to AFMA, so could I just announce gleefully that we have completed this section and we will move on.
Senator CAMERON: I am not sure that we have. Have we done the Serana issues?
Senator STERLE: No, and there are still more questions to go in this area.
Dr Grimes : To assist the committee, if there were questions related to that matter that you just raised, they could be handled under the Compliance Division.
Dr Grimes : When we come to the Compliance Division.
Senator CAMERON: We have got some issues on the forward investment register.
Dr Grimes : That would be under our Agriculture Policy division, which is scheduled a little later in the day, although the committee is now a little off the program.
CHAIR: You could say that. Why I am trying to do this is that there are people waiting, wondering what the bloody hell is going on.
Senator CAMERON: As I do every time I look at the agenda for this committee.
CHAIR: Yes, we know. You are a tiger for punishment.
CHAIR: Can we go to AFMA?
Senator STERLE: No. There are still questions.
CHAIR: Who has got them?
Senator STERLE: Senator Ludwig.
Senator LUDWIG: I will be five minutes or even less, and then I will leave you alone for the rest of the day. Ms Mellor, I just wanted to follow up with one matter. You may have already dealt with it this morning. I was not here. I was at another committee meeting. Your response to a question from the Chair in the previous 2012 crack at this asking whether the regulations were put up with the bill was brought to my attention on 11 February 2015. Your response was: 'No, that is not normally how we do subordinate legislation. It is subordinate to the primary legislation, so we create the bits where there will be regulations.' And it goes on. Do you recall that?
Ms Mellor : I do, and I did deal with it with Senator Sterle this morning.
Senator LUDWIG: Can you remind me what you said this morning?
Ms Mellor : Without the benefit of the Hansard in front of me, what I said this morning was that the legislation was introduced in November 2012, that subsequently some regulations were released, I believe, in May 2013, and that, at the proroguing of the parliament, the material was withdrawn from our website.
Senator Colbeck: Draft legislation.
Ms Mellor : Draft regulations.
Senator LUDWIG: So why did you say no.
Ms Mellor : The question, as I recall, that I was asked in that other committee was: was it released at the same time?
Senator LUDWIG: No, that was not the question at all. It was: was it put up with the bill? You can have a bill and then subsequently put up regulations with that bill. They were released. There was a draft statement by you. I am sure you recall it. It is just phenomenal that you do not. So it is not really about you. What I am more concerned about more broadly is public servants thinking they can answer sharp questions with sharp answers. The question was broad enough that it could not have been within you contemplation that you did not deal with regulations and did not know about the draft regulations that were put up, yet your evidence was no. What concerns me, not specifically from your perspective but more broadly, is public servants thinking that they can listen to a question and sharply answer it. You are now reinterpreting the question in your own answer, which disturbs me again. Were the regulations put up with the bill? You could interpret it two ways—you could say: were they done contemporaneously? Your answer might be, 'No, they weren't; the bill was put up and the draft regulations were put up subsequently;' or the answer could be, 'The bill was there and the regulations were put up with the bill.' You can read it both ways, but in your case you chose 'no' and then you did not seek to clarify; whereas the statement you made at the time was:
Deputy Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Ms Rona Mellor, said the new legislation was designed to support a responsive biosecurity system that intervened where risk needed to be managed: off-shore, at the border and on-shore.
'During consultation on the primary legislation, interested parties said they wanted to better understand how it would work in practice. These regulations will help to inform the community,' Ms Mellor said.
'As draft regulations are released, we will continue to engage …'
It defies belief that you had no memory that you dealt with the draft regulations at the time.
Ms Mellor : I think you are reading a lot into the answer I gave. At the time I was asked the question in the other committee, the draft Hansard of which is with me for clearance now—and if I have a need to clarify I will consider it—I understood the question to mean: were draft regulations put out with the legislation at the same time? The answer is no.
Senator LUDWIG: But you could always clarify.
Senator STERLE: I never asked if they were put out at the same time.
Ms Mellor : No, but that is how I interpreted it. In fact, the question, I still believe, was asked by the chair—
Senator STERLE: No, it was asked by me—oh, that is right, I was the chair.
Ms Mellor : If I have a matter to clarify when I reflect on the written draft Hansard, I will consider that, but at the time I was asked the question in the hearing I believed the question being asked of me was whether they were put out at the same time, and I think it was open to me to interpret it that way.
Senator LUDWIG: So, even though you knew draft regulations were made, you chose to answer 'no'. This is the point I am making.
Ms Mellor : I understand the point.
Senator LUDWIG: It concerns me immensely if you think that you can listen to a question, try to define what the meaning is where it could have two meanings and decide to answer 'no' to the meaning you have interpreted rather than seek to clarify at the time of the hearing, when, in your own mind, you knew that the answer to the question was in fact: draft regulations were produced. There is a statement from you that said that, yet you chose to answer 'no'. That is what concerns me—and it worries me more broadly. It is not only you.
Ms Mellor : Yes, I understand.
Senator LUDWIG: It worries me from the Public Service's perspective, who take a very serious role in answering questions at estimates, that they think that they can listen to a question, interpret it themselves, answer sharply at that point and then maybe, if they get caught out, reflect on it later and correct the record at some time, where, in your own contemplation—
Senator Colbeck: Senator Ludwig, I think that—
Senator LUDWIG: let me finish. In your own contemplation, you knew there were draft regulations available.
Senator Colbeck: I think that is a bit unfair.
Senator LUDWIG: No, it is not. Clearly, you could import two meanings to the chair's question: 'In the previous 2012 crack at this, were the regulations put up with the bill?' They were, is the short answer.
Senator Colbeck: Actually, my interpretation of that question—
CHAIR: Just pausing there, thank you—
Senator Colbeck: is no, because they were not put up with the bill; they were put up subsequently.
CHAIR: Just pausing there, Minister. Senator Sterle.
Senator STERLE: At that previous time, when the question was asked, Chair, I was asking questions and you came over the top and it was your question. You were the chair and you were the one who said: 'In the previous 2012 crack at this, were the regulations put up with the bill?' So it was not me; you were right, Ms Mellor.
CHAIR: You may have unintentionally misled the committee.
Senator STERLE: You are spot on and I owe you—
Ms Mellor : May I say, Senator Sterle, that you specifically asked me that day to limit my answers to yes/no. So, in attempting to assist you, yes, I may have interpreted the question that way.
Senator STERLE: On that, Chair, I think Senator Ludwig is exactly on the ball here, which I touched on earlier as well. One could be thinking that, yes, it is all hand in hand, like it was in the last bill, and it was not.
CHAIR: As an observation, this is probably nearly as bad a play on words that we are going around in circles on as the body corporate I am involved with here Canberra—it is a shocker—including an ex-boss of the Parliamentary Library here who likes just fiddling around with where the apostrophe should be and where the comma should be. Oh, my God. Senator Ludwig, back to you.
Senator LUDWIG: I think we have clarified that sufficiently, but I would ask the secretary of the department to contemplate this issue. If, when questions are asked, it is within the ability of the officer to answer correctly, then they should. If they are unclear about the question, they should seek to clarify the question and answer it accordingly—particularly on this issue where draft regulations were prepared. Dissecting the question to the extent of saying, 'No, they weren't done contemporaneously', and using that as an excuse to use the word 'no', which might mislead the estimates committee—or might mislead a committee—into thinking there were no draft regulations, is a matter this committee takes very seriously.
Dr Grimes : Senator, in response, I am very mindful of all of the obligations of witnesses. Sometimes the flow of questions, for those on this side of the table—as Ms Mellor indicated—are such that there is the potential for misunderstandings. Ms Mellor has indicated quite clearly that she operated in good faith at all stages. I would clearly accept that explanation. I think it is appropriate that weight be given to the explanation that Ms Mellor has given that she did operate in good faith in answering the question.
CHAIR: There you go.
Senator LUDWIG: I would invite you to look at the record.
Senator Colbeck: I will put on the record at this point again, Senator, that my interpretation of the question was the same as Ms Mellor's. Were they put up with the bill? I do not think they were. Yes, they were put up subsequently, and that is a fair point to make.
Senator STERLE: Minister, with the greatest of respect, you were not there. You were not in the room, Minister.
Senator Colbeck: I think that line of questioning is an important part in the interpretation of the question, and to bring up one line, out of the line of questioning, and use that to have a crack at one of the officials is also unfair. If you want—
Senator STERLE: With the greatest respect, Minister you were not in the whole hearing.
CHAIR: I call the committee to order.
Senator Colbeck: I just believe that that last process was an unfair crack at one of our officials who both sides of politics have to deal with. My experience is—even though I might have got frustrated at times—they always do their best to assist the committee and members of the parliament.
CHAIR: Anyhow, it just goes to prove that, if you ask for a yes or no answer, it can be misleading. Could we just leave that with the appropriate apologies.
Ms Mellor : On the day, in the inquiry, I answered truthfully to what was put to me, as I understood what was put to me, and I will continue to do so in this committee.
CHAIR: God bless you.
Senator BULLOCK: In recent times there has been some concern—and the government has expressed some concern—about foreign ownership of agricultural land in Australia. I understand it was proposed that there be a stocktake of that. Presumably the department is involved in those preparations, and I was wondering how they were going.
Dr Grimes : Senator, the appropriate place—where we would have the officers involved in that matter—would be agriculture policy division later on today, so we can have officers who can respond to those questions.
Senator BULLOCK: Off the top of your head, you do not have any idea if some work has been done on that?
Dr Grimes : We have obviously been involved in providing advice to the government on this matter—there is no doubt about that. But you are going into specific questions, and I think it would be appropriate to have the officers who have responsibility here.
Senator BULLOCK: With respect, it was a very general question as to what you were doing.
Dr Grimes : I understand. Of course, we are very much in the hands of the committee—the committee makes these decisions—but the committee's practice has been to refer questions in the relevant division order. But I will be respectful of any decisions made by the committee.
Senator BULLOCK: I will ask it again later.
CHAIR: I will be in on the bandwagon. It is one thing to know what is happening, but to understand who it is happening to and how you collect the tax—It is like Sydney Airport. You have to go to their AGM. You have to go over to the Bahamas or somewhere—or you used to. Thank you very much. You will be pleased to know we are going to AFMA.
Senator STERLE: Can I just check one thing. When are we dealing with the Serana issue?
Ms Mellor : Under compliance.
Dr Grimes : Senator, it would be appropriate to raise those questions under compliance.
Senator STERLE: Thank you, Dr Grimes. Thanks, Chair.