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Standing Committee on Environment - 21/07/2015 - Register of Environmental Organisations

McGLONE, Mr Peter, Director, Tasmanian Conservation Trust Inc

[11:49]

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and has the same standing as proceedings of the House. We have received your written submission. Did you want to make a short opening statement?

Mr McGlone : Yes I will, thank you. First of all, the brief mission for the Tasmanian Conservation Trust is to conserve Tasmania's biodiversity and natural landscapes and to ensure that the use of natural resources is sustainable. The TCT works on pretty well the full range of conservation issues. I think it is important that we work on a whole lot of issues that are not headline grabbers; you might describe them as 'brown' issues. We use independent, science-based arguments to work towards our goals. Where possible—and we do achieve this—we cooperate with the governments, with industries, with community groups and landholders. We do that in a non-confrontationist manner with the aim of delivering environmental outcomes on the ground. We are not politically aligned. By that I mean that we do not ever support particular governments, political parties or candidates, nor do we oppose candidates or governments per se.

To very quickly summarise the key points I made in our submission: we work not just on the full range of conservation issues; we work towards our purpose in quite a wide range of different ways—and I just want to emphasise those different ways. First of all, we do run on-ground projects. We have run quite a lot throughout our history. With funding becoming harder to get for on-ground projects, we are running less. One very successful project we run in partnership with the Kingborough Council is the Kingborough cat management project, and that is both an on-ground project and an educational project. Although in its infancy, we are working with the Tyre Recyclers Association and Tyrecycle Australia, a company, to try and start an ongoing program of cleaning up unwanted and illegally dumped car tyres and have them recycled.

In the distant past, when the Heritage Commission funding existed, we did vast amounts of scientific research where we hired scientists to do that work. Nowadays our research is very much limited. We have recently done a groundbreaking social study to inform our work on cat management. I think that was the first ever study of people's opinions on cat management and cat control in Tasmania.

My God! We make submissions on so many different things that none of you probably have heard of! The media certainly are not interested in them. Some of them, the media are interested in. We make submissions on a lot of draft legislation; on management plans as diverse as reserve management plans, fisheries management plans, strategies dealing with invasive species—you name it! Some of this work involves being represented on formal government committees, both Australian government committees and state government committees. We used to get funding from the Australian government to assist with that; we do not anymore. We get a small amount of funding—a tiny amount of money—from the Tasmanian government for our work on a very long list of committees. I have listed all of those committees in an appendix to our submission. I have listed a very long list of submissions we have made as well.

One thing that has taken a lot of our time in recent times is involvement in independent industry certification processes, most particularly dealing with the salmon industry in Tasmania and Forestry Tasmania's application for certification, but also private companies who are seeking FSC certification.

Throughout our history—and I should just emphasise that we have been around since 1968—we have taken a lot of important, strategic legal actions. We, a few years ago, commenced proceedings seeking the revocation of the permit for the Tamar Valley pulp mill. That legal case was, in effect, killed off by legislation passed by the parliament. We are currently taking legal action in regard to a proposal for clearing on private land.

We also do a lot of face-to-face lobbying of ministers, opposition parties. We have meetings with those people; but also jousting in the media, with the government ministers in particular. We also do a lot of work on representing interests of community groups, supporting them in a range of ways, sometimes with advocacy. Last of all, we have recently kicked off the first ever Tasmanian environmental film festival. We are describing it as a safe place away from politics where people can view environmental films from around the world.

Just a very quick comment about what I have just said: we have heard discussions about false dichotomies between advocacy and on-ground. I think that I have just laid out a very clear example. The problem is actually a lot bigger. The TCT has done a lot of educational work, research, on-ground, hands-on work. We have done legal work. We do work inside government process. We do work advocating for change to government policy. I would find it really hard to draw a line between what part of those committee processes, for example, is advocacy or political and which of it is informing the government of the day. I think there is, as I said, a broad range of ways we operate. Some groups choose to operate in a narrow range of ways. We happen to think it is important to have a number of tools in your toolbox.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr McGlone. I might start with a few short questions. In your submission, you have raised the issue of our international terms of reference in relation to some of the different government approaches to defining rates of advocacy and to the Canadian government in particular; you point to the 10 per cent benchmark. Your view is obviously that that is not sufficient. In your organisation you obviously do a lot of on-the-ground work and then you do a lot of advocacy. Is there a better percentage? Is there some percentage that you would point to as a more meaningful acknowledgement of advocacy? If 10 per cent is not sufficient, is there a rate that you would point to?

Mr McGlone : Are you asking me to estimate how much advocacy we do?

CHAIR: Or a bit of both. Some organisations say to us, 'We do 80 per cent on-the-ground work; 20 per cent', some say, 'It is hard for us to tell', as you do. Your point in your submission is that 10 per cent is too low and it would not help your organisation. Is there a percentage that we could put in to say, 'You have to do a minimum of X amount on-the-ground work', from your point of view?

Mr McGlone : I think that it is incredibly hard to estimate exactly what percentage of our work goes into advocacy, education, research, work on committees, other work. I said in our submission that I think it is probably fair to say that more than 10 per cent of our work would be classified as advocacy. If we had our tax deductibility status removed because we could not keep below that, I think that would not just be a burden on us in terms of our potential advocacy work—for example, we are currently looking for a corporate sponsor for our tyre recycling work. If we did not have tax deductibility status, those corporate entities I am sure would be encouraged by the potential to get tax deductibility. That project would benefit a lot of community groups. Our first project involved cleaning up 600 tyres that were in a primary school. These things are incredibly flammable and toxic. The industry groups who were approached are really keen, if they can find the money to assist with cleaning up. We have thousands of tyres out there we want to clean up. Without tax deductibility, it would be hard to motivate me to try and get money.

CHAIR: But cleaning up tyres is not advocacy. That would not fall under that, I imagine.

Mr McGlone : Again I think that, like the work we do on cats and the work we do on tyres, it is impossible to separate the two. One of the things we are trying to advocate for, through cleaning up car tyres, is: first of all, we are trying to educate the community about the hazards and the presence of tyres, and we are trying to get reports of tyres. But we are also trying to drive at the difficulties that industry has at the moment without any sort of proper pool of funding from government or industry to find a viable industry to feed these tyres into. There are functions of state government, for example, where we would like to see better work done by the EPA to advise people how to properly deal with tyres. Currently they do not have any policy in that area. One of the best ways of getting the attention of slothful government agencies is to get out there and get your hands dirty. Let me tell you: the media loved our clean-up activity! It was all over the papers with pictures of little kids with gloves on—and the EPA rang me a few weeks later!

CHAIR: We might come to that a bit later. Just turning to a different issue: you raise the issue of strategic legal action. What is strategic legal action?

Mr McGlone : It is where it really drives at the core purpose of our organisation. The example I briefly mentioned earlier, regarding the proposed land clearing near Ansons Bay in the north-east, is a perfect example. We are talking about a very large-scale clearing operation of nearly 2,000 hectares that the relevant authority actually refused, but, due to details I will not explain, ended up getting a permit to clear that area, even though it contained habitat of numerous nationally listed threatened species and threatened forest communities. I call that strategic, because it is why the TCT exists—to try and keep that sort of habitat standing up.

CHAIR: Most people just say they are taking legal action. 'Strategy' implies you have got a strategy. Looking at your organisation, you have obviously been in a lot of legal action against Gunns, for example, as you pointed out, over many different things. Is your strategy to remove Gunns from Tasmania, for example?

Mr McGlone : We took one legal action in the state courts. What we were trying to do is determine whether the permit—

CHAIR: And their export permits as well? Wasn't there a separate action against export permits?

Mr McGlone : No, not at all. We took a legal action and then withdrew it. In the Federal Court, it was about the federal approval for the pulp mill. In the state case, the argument is about whether they failed to meet substantial commencement and therefore failed to adhere to their permit conditions. Because of the way the parliament created the permit—the parliament actually issued the permit—it did not provide a process for determining what would happen after the four-year term of the permit if the project had not been substantially commenced. So we stepped in. Clearly there are only two ways of dealing with that: the parliament legislates—and it chose not to because the government did not want to, and the opposition, the Liberals at the time, did not want to. So we had only one choice. It was to seek a decision from the court. It actually was not about Gunns per se, even though our perseverance in that case almost certainly was the final straw that broke the back of that company. That was not our purpose. Our purpose was not the company. It was about stopping that permit.

CHAIR: What is strategic about it? Why do you call it strategic legal action?

Mr McGlone : Our key concern about the pulp mill was the very vast amount of toxic pollution that was likely to be entering Bass Strait. That was the issue that we focused on prior to the legal case. That was the issue that most concerned us—as well as other issues to do with whether it would be fed with native forests. And there were other issues, to do with social concerns.

CHAIR: On this issue, some of your critics, in some of the criticisms around tax concessions, would say you have got a right to take legal action obviously—anybody does under properly constructed laws and our system—but I am just interested in the tax concession nature of it. Some people would advocate that getting a tax concession allows you to effectively subsidise these legal actions against properly functioning businesses. How would your organisation respond to that?

Mr McGlone : Sorry; could you explain the question?

CHAIR: You get a tax concession from the taxpayer, and that allows you, therefore, to allocate more money to legal action than you might ordinarily be able to if you did not receive a taxpayer concession.

Mr McGlone : As I understand it—we can go into the proportion of funding that we get from donors—

CHAIR: I am just asking you to respond to that claim.

Mr McGlone : I am just trying to clarify what the question is. As I understand it, when our members provide us with funding—whether they believe it is to support a court case or something else—we get their donation; they get the tax benefit.

CHAIR: I understand that completely. That is why I am referring to it as a tax concession. Your organisation is in receipt of a tax concession.

Mr McGlone : We are in receipt of a donation. The donor gets the tax concession.

CHAIR: I understand exactly the system. I really have looked into it in the course of this inquiry.

Mr McGlone : So what is the question? I am not quite sure.

CHAIR: The proposition is that, because you have DGR status—deductible gift recipient status, if you want me to spell it out—it makes your organisation more attractive to receive money from taxpayers than it might ordinarily be. And the evidence we have heard throughout this inquiry is that they would lose revenue, because, if they did not have DGR, a lot of individuals or entities might not give that money—if they were not able to recoup it from the taxpayer in the form of a concession. I am happy to go through it in great detail, but I think we can summarise. You, as a registered organisation, receive the DGR. The critics of your organisation say you are using that taxpayer benefit—which is a benefit from the taxpayers, through other taxpayers; I do understand the system well—to then fund legal action against lawful operating entities, and that would not happen if you did not have your taxpayer concessions.

Mr McGlone : It is hard to know the thinking of every donor who donates. I am pretty sure that some of the donations we have had recently were to support our current ongoing case. I do not know that for certain.

CHAIR: Sure. I have no issue with that.

Mr McGlone : But it is really important that we all know that the right of citizens and groups to seek redress from courts is a very important part of any democracy. It actually predates our modern parliament and the general franchise. It is a right that is very old. But it does have its restrictions. You cannot just go to court for any reason at any time. We have to have standing, which in this and many cases we have had. You have to have sound grounds. You also have to be financially able—courts test you. Having said all that, I think it is in the mind of a lot of our members—and I speak to them—that they would really like to support us because, when it comes to the crunch, with issues like land clearing or pollution in Bass Strait we are able to take up an interest that they share. Some of them donate money to support that shared interest and others do not. I think it is really important to recognise that all we are doing by getting those donations is representing our members' interests in seeking redress through the courts. In the current case, what we are doing is not actually going against the landholder but challenging the veracity of the decision by the regulatory authority. We believe that the regulator erred in law. Our supporters—I know them pretty well—absolutely think we should be in the space of protecting biodiversity from permanent clearance and that, where we are confident that the regulator has erred, we should take that to court and seek redress. We may lose, of course—

CHAIR: I understand that. All that stuff is fine, but this inquiry is about the DGR and the taxpayer concession. Do you separate the money you use? Do you use the DGR money you raise just for ground work? Do you not put that into your legal fund? Is that what you are saying? If that is the case, that is a totally different question. I do not have an issue with it. If you are receiving your members' money to go to court, that is your business. My question is: do you allocate money from your DGR receipts to legal action?

Mr McGlone : I think some of it would be, yes.

CHAIR: That is good to understand.

Mr ZAPPIA: Mr McGlone, thank you for your submission. With respect to the court actions that you refer to in your submission can you give me an indication of your success rate. In other words, do you believe that, in most cases, the action you have taken has been justified by the court outcome?

Mr McGlone : I have been director for about five years and we have been involved in two court actions. I can remember back to when the trust took other cases—where we won and where we lost—but I will only talk about the last five years. The current case is ongoing. With the Gunns case, sadly, the government of the day chose to legislate—in the lead-up to the state election, mind you—specifically for the purposes of killing off our ongoing court case.

Mr ZAPPIA: Where those court actions taken exclusively by the trust or were they in conjunction with other parties?

Mr McGlone : Exclusively by the trust.

Mr ZAPPIA: Since 1968 has the trust at any time been taken to court itself?

Mr McGlone : First of all, since I have become director I definitely know that we have not. From my general knowledge, I do not believe that we have been taken to court since 1968.

Ms MARINO: Mr McGlone, thank you for your submission. Do you have any auspicing arrangements with other organisations where funding that comes through your particular organisation is then passed onto other groups or entities?

Mr McGlone : We have no formal auspicing arrangements. But I noticed just in the last week for example that we used some of our funding to pay an expert who is a representative of Birdlife Australia to participate in a public forum on Bruny Island about feral cat management. He was speaking to the issue of the impact of feral and domestic cats on the birdlife of Bruny Island. So we thought it was really important for the landholders and in particular the volunteers who want to do cat trapping on the island to be educated by the best available expert. It cost us very little money. I would not have been able to do that job nearly as well.

Ms MARINO: It is a one-off and on an as-needs basis in this sense?

Mr McGlone : It is, yes.

Ms MARINO: We have heard some views this morning around illegal activity. Have any one of your members or your organisation engaged in illegal activity?

Mr McGlone : To my knowledge we have never engaged in any illegal activity, no.

Ms CLAYDON: In your evidence and in your submission you have referred to a declining funding base for this notion of on-ground environmental activities. Could you talk us through your understanding of the reasons for that change, and what impact is that having on your organisation?

Mr McGlone : Certainly we have found it harder to get funding than, for example, during the National Heritage Trust period of the Howard government. We have been fairly successful at getting a range of projects funded, mostly on-ground works, since Caring for Country and to date. In the last three or four years I do not think we have got a cent out of a grant from the Commonwealth government. That is a pity because some of the projects were about the issues I have spoken about today—weeds, ferals et cetera. I think the reason for that is that some of the funding programs are quite biased against particular management problems such as ferals. Hopefully, Minister Hunt is going to start bringing up funding for feral cats in particular, but for other ferals there does not seem to be funding. Part of the problem we have is that we do not really want to replace the work of local Landcare groups and do very localised work such as vegetation management or planting. For example, another project we did was about trying to educate beach users about the impact of dogs on wildlife. We were knocked back for that project. That is a project that I do not think Landcare ever gets much involved in. It had a state-wide perspective. We tried and tried but did not get funding for that one.

Ms CLAYDON: You have given a good overview of the suite of activities and roles of the Conservation Trust. Would it be fair to say that your roles and the kinds of activities you give priority to at any given time are changing across time? You have been around since 1968—

Mr McGlone : I personally have not been with the trust since then—sometimes it feels like it!

Ms CLAYDON: Your organisation has been around since 1968. The availability of funding, or the priorities that the funding gives for certain types of activities, does have an impact on your capacity to deliver on-ground shovel-ready activities.

Mr McGlone : Yes. Excuse me if I repeat what I just said, but I think this answers the question: we do not stand here to replicate local community groups who have expertise in that area and lots of volunteer labour in that area and do really good works. For example, in the late 1990s we employed the first ever bushcare facilitator. When the Landcare movement matured and moved into coast care, river care and bushcare we employed the first state-wide facilitator to work with landholders who were focused more on retaining native vegetation and managing it. That sort of funding we would dearly love to see available, but it is not a priority of recent governments both Labor and Liberal.

Ms CLAYDON: So rather than trying to compete in a very tight space you would be looking to add value to each other's work?

Mr McGlone : Yes. And part of your question I think I did not answer: we really do not want to just shift our mission to fit the funding that is available. We could have done that—and arguably some groups may have done that. We did not focus on Green Army, for example. It may do some great things, but it was not where we wanted to go. We could not see the conservation strategy behind it. Instead, like a lot of community groups, like a lot of conservation groups, we are now looking at the scary world of social media for gaining profile and to try and recruit members and funding. We too are having to adapt to modern times.

Mr ZAPPIA: Mr McGlone, in your submission you talk about your representation on many government committees. Is it the case that you are invited by the various government departments to be a member of those committees, or is it the reverse—you seek to be nominated as a member of the committees?

Mr McGlone : It basically happens in two similar ways. One is that the government writes to us. The government recently wrote to me inviting me onto a committee to develop a cat management strategy, and I said yes. They wrote to me and asked me if I wanted to be on a committee which is overviewing all of our state biosecurity legislation, including weeds, ferals and quarantine. There are other areas, such as the many fisheries committees, where you have to renominate and justify your nomination.

Mr ZAPPIA: But you are already on them?

Mr McGlone : Normally, yes. Sometimes they do not accept the renomination, such as with what has been tagged the supertrawler resource assessment committee.

Mr ZAPPIA: Do you have a view as to why the nomination was not accepted?

Mr McGlone : I am not quite sure whether I believe Senator Colbeck's vague statement that the committee had run its course and there was no longer a need for it; he was surmising.

Mr ZAPPIA: This is the whole committee?

Mr McGlone : Yes.

Mr ZAPPIA: So the whole committee was disbanded?

Mr McGlone : Yes.

Mr ZAPPIA: It was not just your nomination being rejected. Thank you.

CHAIR: You gave a good submission, and I have read all of it. Your organisation is quite interesting. You do a lot of on-the-ground work, and you state in your submission that everything that you do is geared at on-the-ground work. You raised in your opening statement, and we had some questions about it, that you used some of your concessions for legal action. You say here, and it is on your website, that you want to consult with government, industry and the wider community in a non-confrontational manner. But legal action, essentially, is the highest form of confrontation that you can have between parties. Whether it is proper or improper, it is very confrontational; it is the most confrontational. Obviously, part of your purpose is to have legal confrontation with industry about this. My question is: is it part of your mission to be confrontational with industry and shut it down?

Mr McGlone : If you were the landholder in question, I could quite imagine that that would be your view. But let me tell you that the legal case—and you can go to the Supreme Court, which is only across the road, and all the documentation is there—is questioning a decision of the regulator, the Forest Practices Authority. I think that the landholder has been greatly frustrated. Can I say, 'pissed off'?

CHAIR: You can say that.

Mr McGlone : He is probably really pissed off, because he sought a forest practices plan in 2009, he lost in the tribunal later that year because of all these threatened species and he waited for six years for a decision of the current environment minister, who apparently—we have not seen the letter—has refused compensation. On those grounds, the regulator has then stepped forward and said: 'We cannot restrict your destruction of the threatened species habitat. We authorise the permit that we previously refused you.' For various reasons, some of which I do not want to go into, we think that they erred in law. Our case is against the regulator. If that landholder is being frustrated in his plans to develop that land, let's point the finger at the Forest Practices Authority.

CHAIR: When your legal action is to revoke Gunns' actual permit for the Tamar Valley pulp mill, for example, and that is what the legal case is about, isn't that very confrontational? You have really broken down relations; you are not really trying to work out a compromise or negotiate an outcome; it has broken down completely.

Mr McGlone : I am guessing that you did not live in Tasmania over the last 10 to 12 years.

CHAIR: I did not, no. But we are all familiar with the Tasmanian story over the last decade in terms of economic decline.

Mr McGlone : Prior to taking that legal case, we did not have many meetings with Gunns but we did have one meeting at their invitation. It was pretty clear from that very lengthy and very grumpy meeting that they wanted us to rubber stamp their project. For example, they did not want to give us data that we asked for, which they said they had, so that we could verify their claims about pollution. That was really the last straw. That was the first time that they had even reached out to the community, and we could see it going nowhere.

CHAIR: If you have grievances with Gunns and you want to take legal action, your position is that it is okay to use taxpayer concessions, in effect, or DGR money to fund that—partially fund it or contribute to it? That is appropriate use of taxpayer concessions, ultimately?

Mr McGlone : One of the ways we—I will not say 'fund it' because they were pledges—

CHAIR: Yes, I understand.

Mr McGlone : supported that case was by going out to the community in the Tamar Valley and saying, 'Do you want to actually pledge to support our case?' We were going up against a legal team that estimated its legal costs at $400,000. The court did not believe that total figure. We got a lot of signatures on paper—some of them were from average mums and dads and some of them were probably richer—that backed our case. They were risking that money because most of that money would have been used to pay Gunns' costs. Our costs were likely to be very low.

CHAIR: That is an interesting issue anyway. I raised it because you raised it and this is about tax concession. You said before that you could not quantify it, but how many people would donate if they were not getting that money back from the taxpayer, like in that case? You had lots of mums and dads, but, if there were no DGR for this legal action, do you believe everybody would still have donated?

Mr McGlone : Cases like the Gunns pulp mill are probably different. I am guessing, but, knowing most of the people who pledged money, they were living in that area, were likely to be affected by that area and dearly loved that area. My guess is that the vast majority would have pledged that money. I know that some of them donate to social groups, for example, and Aboriginal groups perhaps. If we did not have tax deductibility and those other groups did, they would probably choose to give their money to those other groups. It would make it increasingly harder to mount legal cases. I go back to the point I made before: it is a very old and important principle of our democracy to, within the bounds, have the community and individuals able to seek redress from the courts. That is all we have been doing. With the Gunns case, we were seeking to find out whether the permit was valid, because there was no mechanism put in place at the time by the parliament to work out what happened in that case where the permit came to the end of its four years. We were the ones who stepped in to try to do that.

CHAIR: Thank you for that answer. There are no further questions from committee members. Thank you for your time today, Mr McGlone.

Mr McGlone : Thank you. I have a couple of copies of our recent newsletter.

CHAIR: Yes, we will take that. It has to go through the secretariat.

Mr McGlone : I apologise that I did not come with enough copies, but all the newsletters are on our website, all our annual reports are on our website, and you can join our Facebook page, if you like, and follow our commentary.

CHAIR: And Twitter?

Mr McGlone : Donations are tax deductible to—

CHAIR: We are aware of that. Thank you for your attendance here today. If you have been asked for any additional information, we will get it from you. You will be sent a copy of your transcript and you will have the opportunity to request corrections and transcription errors.

Proceedings suspended from 12:23 to 13:25