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

JORDAN, Mr Scott, Campaign Coordinator, Tarkine National Coalition

CHAIR: I would like to welcome the representative from the Tarkine National Coalition to today's hearing. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and has the same standing as proceedings of the House. We have your written submission. Would you like to make a short opening statement?

Mr Jordan : Yes.

CHAIR: Please go ahead.

Mr Jordan : I noted in the submission that one of the cases we had taken over the past year was currently before the full bench of the Federal Court on appeal. The decision has been handed down in the matter. To elaborate further on that, the decision reinforced the decision of the initial court that while the EPA Tasmania had failed to conduct a cumulative impact assessment, in the court's view, it had misdirected itself in failing to do that and that the minister's decision remained lawful. That ruling highlighted a significant gap in the federal environment law, in the EPBC Act, where the act requires the assessment to be done. But now, as it turns out, following the court's ruling, if the assessment is not completed, it does not matter; the minister is allowed to make the decision. It certainly was not the intent of the EPBC Act for that to be the case and I would recommend that it is something that this committee might want to review on a further date in terms of trying to restore the integrity of the act by addressing that loophole.

Additional to that, in relation to a question put to former Senator Brown this morning around the return of investment from donations to environment groups, I do not have figures on what the return is across the entire sector but I can put a case on our behalf that our organisation gets roughly $100,000 a year in donations. Based on that, assuming our donors on average are possibly claiming their tax deduction against a taxable income levied at 30 per cent, about $30,000 is the tax forgone by making donations to us.

The Cradle Coast Authority conducted an assessment and a planning process around tourism in the Tarkine based on the 2004 reserves created in the Tarkine under the Howard government that our organisation was instrumental in lobbying for. Their estimation from the end of market analysis work that they had done and the development of that strategy was that the Tarkine will deliver by 2027 $54 million per year in visitor spend and support 1,100 tourism jobs off the back of that work. My back-of-the-envelope numbers on that show that for every dollar that is donated to Tarkine National Coalition, $1,800 is being spent back in the community through tourism based on those reserves that we were instrumental in creating, which gives us about 180,000 per cent return on investment. I am pretty sure a lot of companies would like to record that on a balance sheet. I think we provide very good value for money.

CHAIR: Thank you for your presentation and for your submission. I am trying to understand about your organisation, the Tarkine National Coalition. From reading your submission, yours is principally an advocacy group and that is its principal role?

Mr Jordan : Our organisation has been involved in promoting the protection of the Tarkine. That is our purpose for being. In achieving that, we have taken part in lobbying, in public education. We received grants under the program following those reserves created under the Howard government. We received $650,000 to construct bushwalk infrastructure at Mount Donaldson and Philosopher Falls under the Howard government and another $65,000 to produce 100,000 copies of a visitor guide to the area. We have engaged in a number of mechanisms but our primary purpose is to see protection of the Tarkine as a national park and World Heritage area.

CHAIR: A lot of your activity is litigation obviously because it is most of your submission.

Mr Jordan : It certainly has been over the last couple of years. It has largely been driven by the fact that in our view ministers and the EPA in Tasmania have made decisions in approving developments that have been unlawful and our track record before the court is pretty good in terms of those decisions being upheld.

CHAIR: That is all pretty straight forward. My question relates to the DGR status, which is the purpose of our inquiry. Relatively speaking—I do not think Tasmania is different to anywhere us in Australia—legal action is fairly expensive to undertake.

Mr Jordan : Yes it is.

CHAIR: Lawyers cost a lot of money.

Mr Jordan : They do.

CHAIR: We can all bash lawyers; we can all agree on that. But your DGR status, your donations are actually quite low relative to your income. Do you use any of that money for litigation purposes?

Mr Jordan : Yes we do. We are not a large environment group. We are based in north-west Tasmania. We have one staff member, myself. We do not have the income of some of the much larger groups. We work pretty hard based on a small amount of money. I think we return pretty good value for money.

CHAIR: I am not disputing any of that but these amounts are so small that I do not imagine they could fund Federal Court action. Your money must come from other sources for that sort of action?

Mr Jordan : No, all of our revenue is recorded.

CHAIR: Do you get pro bono and assistance and all of that?

Mr Jordan : We have had some pro bono assistance and we have had some discounted legal assistance.

CHAIR: So if the committee was to look at this issue of litigation as an appropriate purpose for a tax concession, would that really affect you? These are, relatively speaking, compared to most legal costs, small amounts of income that you are deriving from DGR comparatively.

Mr Jordan : I think it has a very impact on a group like ours. Being a small group, our ability to raise funds is not what you see from some of the larger national groups. We do not have the member base that they have or that capacity. So to remove DGR status from our organisation certainly would make us a less attractive option to donors.

CHAIR: Okay, that is your position. So your argument essentially is that your taxpayer concessions are appropriate and part of advocacy and education for you to litigate against different entities, the government or whatever the case may be, the minister. You defend your right to do that?

Mr Jordan : Absolutely. I think it is incredibly important whether it is in environment or in any other area if the representative of the government be it the EPA in the Tasmanian cases or the minister in the federal environment law has not lawfully conducted himself when making those approvals. I think it is instrumental that groups should be empowered to ensure that the law of the Commonwealth of Australia is actually enforced. The shame in this is that groups like us have to do that. We would like to think that ministers of the Crown would follow the law as it appears in the statute.

CHAIR: I do not have a problem about that. Except the issue is about should you get a taxpayer funded concession to litigate? You would be familiar with Sid Sidebottom, who was the local Labor federal MP and the parliamentary secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry at the time. He said:

Tarkine National Coalition are determined to oppose mining practices in the Tarkine region under any circumstances. They will stop at nothing to delay and obstruct then turn to courts to overturn legitimate developments on the slightest technicality.

That was his assessment of your organisation.

Mr Jordan : We reject Sid Sidebottom's comments there.

CHAIR: Is he not getting out that everyone has got the right to take legal action but that you are getting quite spurious on some of these technicalities?

Mr Jordan : I do not believe the record reflects that. We have won a number of cases. We have lost two cases. I could give you detail on both of those. One was in the Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal. We lost the application to seek an order to overturn the permit in its entirety. What we did achieve in that though was the RAMPAT tribunal upheld the issues that we raised around impacts on Tasmanian devils that had been inappropriately assessed. The information that had been presented was inadequate and the tribunal found that and then imposed new conditions, which were in line with the conditions that our experts had suggested should be brought forward.

Additionally in that case it was found that the company had presented an erosion control mechanism based on not having done a soil assessment, so it presented an erosion trial regime that actually did not match the soil profile that they had. The tribunal then went on to add new permits requiring appropriate erosion control mechanisms to be put in place. Even though we lost the application to have the entire permit overturned, had we not taken that case, the development would have proceeded with weaker protections for the Tasmanian devil and it would have had a completely wrong erosion control mechanism, which would have cost the state of Tasmania millions of dollars in rehabilitation expenses.

CHAIR: Yes that might be right and that might be your argument and the court case may have found in your favour, all of the above. I accept all of that. You are reporting here in financial year terms that you got $115,000 from DGR through tax-deductible donations for 2014.

Mr Jordan : Through all of our donors.

CHAIR: And $100,000 the year before. As I said, legal action is going to be much more expensive than that in the main. This $100,000 is obviously not the key determinant of whether you are able to take legal action. It is obviously going to be much more expensive than that, especially for some of these prolonged cases. My question is: why can that money not be spent on-ground work or environment work or other purposes—information, education? You have raised your own money for legal action like everybody else. How would that hinder your organisation if that was the case if you are not able to use that $100,000? You must get other money for this stuff.

Mr Jordan : No, what is there is the entirety of the funds we have raised.

CHAIR: You have no other funding?

Mr Jordan : We received government funding back in 2007-08 for construction of bushwalks.

CHAIR: For purposes, yes.

Mr Jordan : But we do not receive that money. All of our funding is from there.

CHAIR: You do on the ground works when you get other funding but not with you DGR? All of this money goes to legal action? Is that what you are telling us?

Mr Jordan : As per some of the previous witnesses today, I question the distinction between on the ground and advocacy. I prefer to look at it as rehabilitation works, which is what I think you were referring to in on the ground versus prevention works, which is very much what we do. We campaign to ensure that these areas will not be destroyed.

CHAIR: I will not make that distinction. I will ask a separate question. This money is basically for legal action that you raise through DGR for your organisation?

Mr Jordan : That is not the only thing that we do.

CHAIR: How much of a part of it is that?

Mr Jordan : It has been a very large part.

CHAIR: That is all I need to understand. I just want to get to the bottom. So there is a distinction?

Mr Jordan : Like you say, the legal action is very expensive and it has meant that we have had to—

CHAIR: But the answer to taxpayers who ask where does the money go, in this case, in your organisation's cased, it is to fund your prevention strategy through litigation. That is all I wanted to understand.

Mr ZAPPIA: Mr Jordan, thank you your submission and for being here today. Also thanks for those figures you presented earlier on when you opened your remarks. It was a question I was going to ask you. Would it be reasonable for me to conclude that as a result of oversight by TNC and other similar organisations that there is greater adherence to environmental laws and therefore greater protection of the environment?

Mr Jordan : Absolutely. I think some of the issues that we have taken on in the courts and have been successfully on over the last couple of years will now mean that future decisions of planning authorities and ministers will not make those same mistakes. I think, potentially, some of those mistakes had crept into the system and probably went unchallenged in other developments. I certainly think by us taking that stand and going before the court, we have improved the quality of assessments both at a state level and at a federal level.

Mr ZAPPIA: Separate to that, do you and the TNC group at times make submissions or representations to government in respect to the existing laws and changes that you believe would be public benefit to be made to those laws?

Mr Jordan : We have in the past, yes. We routinely make submissions to development applications and to notices of intent that go forward relating to EPBC assessments and make submissions to those. They are looking not so much at changing the law but at ensuring that issues are addressed within the existing law.

Mr ZAPPIA: Do you sit on any other community bodies that are also established committees of government for the purpose of being advisory bodies?

Mr Jordan : Not bodies of government, no, but we have sat for a number of years now on the Tarkine tourism stakeholder group. The Cradle Coast Authority, which is the regional development body for north-west Tasmania, has gathered together landholders in Forestry Tasmania and Parks and Wildlife along with tourism bodies, ourselves as representatives of the conservation movement, and local councils. We work collaboratively on developing the Tarkine Tourism Development Strategy. We worked with that body on looking at a number of improvements that could be made to ensure that tourism flourishes in the Tarkine region and provides that alternative revenue stream to some of the more damaging extractive industries that we would like to see phased out.

Mr ZAPPIA: You do not get any payment for doing that, do you?

Mr Jordan : For sitting on that board? No.

Ms MARINO: Do you have any auspicing arrangements with any other organisation?

Mr Jordan : No. Our budget hardly suffices for what we need.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: Someone who opposes mining in the Tarkine could donate to your organisation and get a tax deduction to support your court challenge against that, when that was going. Is that right?

Mr Jordan : Yes. I will put a caveat around that. We were not completely anti-mining. Personally, I started my working career in mining exploration on the west coast. I grew up in a mining town. My father worked at two of the mines on the west coast. We have opposed new mines in the Tarkine. There are existing mines in that region that we have not opposed, and we have worked collaboratively with them on improving environmental outcomes. There are also two proposals in the Tarkine that we have actively supported where the plan was to go into an area where previous mining activity had occurred and there were significant acid mine drainage legacy issues related to those. We have worked with the proponents at both Burns Peak and Luina to pursue proposals there that will potentially have the impact of reducing some of those legacy issues. They will not remove them. Once the damage is done it is there, but they will reduce the amount of acid going into the White River and into the area around Burns Peak to an extent that there may actually be a lesser environmental footprint when they leave than when they started. That is very different to a new greenfields operation such as the Venture Minerals Mt Lindsay mine, which would have created a 1½-kilometre-long open-cut pit in the rainforest.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: I suppose my question is: there are people in the community who are opposed to that Venture mine going ahead. And there possibly would have been people in the community who were for it. Was there any outlet whereby people who were for it could have donated and received a tax deduction to support the other side of the court case?

Mr Jordan : I am not sure what arrangements there were. Certainly the Minerals Council ran a campaign, and the AWU ran a campaign promoting those mines. So, I expect that as an outlet people could have donated to the union, perhaps, and received the deduction.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: We should check that out and see whether they could have. On your website there is a scorecard on a campaign to deter investment in Venture Minerals and deter mineral exploration activity in the Tarkine. Are those objectives in deterring investment and deterring the exploration activity completely consistent with what is in your objectives as the principal purpose of the organisation?

Mr Jordan : Absolutely, if companies want to come to the Tarkine and conduct mining exploration and mining activities in areas that we are advocating should be protected. And I point out that most of these proposals, whether they are exploration activities or mines, were actually going to occur in those reserves that the Howard government created. These are areas for which the Australian public has said, 'These areas are sacrosanct and should be protected.' So it is entirely appropriate for a group like ours to say that if government will not stop these then we will go to the market and suggest to investors that this is an area that should not be touched and is a high-risk venture that does not have social licence, and we would urge them not to put their money into those. We have certainly been forthright in doing that. We have been to AGMs of the companies, we have followed them around to investor forums and we have presented our case directly to investors. And regarding that scorecard, we are very proud of the impact we have had.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: You have beaten me to my next question: what other activities?

CHAIR: I just want to ask one thing before you do that, because that is an interesting point. I have not heard this point before. That is a quasi-commercial activity, in a sense. You are advocating against a company—that they should have their share price devalued or whatever. I have no issue with you doing any of that. In a free market there is no problem with any of that. But if you are getting a concession, if you are using your concession money, you are almost being publicly funded to conduct quasi-commercial activities. Is that what the taxpayer should be subsidising?

Mr Jordan : These companies are being taxpayer funded to conduct those operations. I will give you an example. Shree Minerals conducts exploration activity in the Tarkine. Between 2011 and 2015 they have paid no tax, no royalties. The mine operation they ran lasted seven months and reported a loss, yet they received $2.27 million in tax rebates as a cash payment under federal government schemes to conduct those activities that are damaging those reserves in the Tarkine. Venture Minerals between 2009 and 2015 received $5.8 million in concessions directly from the Commonwealth government. The concession we get is a pittance compared with what the federal government is providing in funding to these industry bodies to go out and conduct these activities that are counter to the protection of these areas that previous governments have said should be protected.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: But I assume you are talking about the diesel fuel rebate.

Mr Jordan : No, this is under the research and development offsets. For some reason, mining exploration is considered a research and development activity. To my view it certainly is not; it is a business planning opportunity. You know the minerals are there. You are determining whether or not it is viable for you to dig them up. It is a business planning exercise. Yet, under the current rules, companies with a turnover under $20 million—which puts most exploration companies into that bag—are able to claim 145 per cent of their expenditure as a tax deduction, and because they are not actually paying any tax there is a concession there that allows them to take it as a cash payment, which equates to about 45 per cent of their expenditure.

CHAIR: If you are talking about a Venture mining outfit, though, there would be nothing to pay tax on; they do not have a mine yet.

Mr Jordan : They do not, so the government gives them money as a cash payment—

CHAIR: You are talking about research and development grants. I understand your argument.

Mr Jordan : And in the case of Venture, they have received $5.8 million, and the CEO has walked away with a $3.4 million salary—not having actually had a mine—including a $1.4 million bonus payment. That is obscene. And the fact that we are here looking at the pittance that is granted to environment groups just makes me wonder what the focus is: why are we not addressing this issue?

CHAIR: Yes, it is your democratic right to have that view.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: I just want to clarify that. You said it was money that the government has given them. Or is that simply a tax rebate?

Mr Jordan : It is a tax rebate against tax they did not pay, so it is a cash-in-hand payment.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: So it is a business deduction that businesses would normally get when they do this kind of thing.

Mr Jordan : Well, normally businesses would have to pay tax in order to get a tax deduction. In this case they do not. I would certainly like to get 45 per cent of our expenditure back as a payment from the government. We would be thrilled if the government wants to make that—

CHAIR: You have to be contributing to economic activity to do that.

Mr Jordan : Well, Venture Minerals is not.

CHAIR: But they are producing something.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: Can you tell me some of the other activities your group has undertaken to deter resource industry activity and investment in that area? You mentioned some of them before—talking about going to AGMs, shareholder meetings and that sort of thing.

Mr Jordan : We have conducted social media campaigns. We have alerted people to that. One of the critical things here is that Venture Minerals went into an area that was already reserved. It was at the time subject to a National Heritage assessment, where the Heritage Council had already made a decision when the heritage list came in that the Tarkine should have been added to it. It was already on the National Estate. The government of the day did not choose to make that transition but chose to start a new assessment. So, Venture went into a very controversial space to start with. They then proceeded to go out and raise money and do capital-raising exercises and never once in their materials that went to investors did they disclose that this was in an area that was subject to National Estate listing, that it was being assessed for National Heritage listing or that it sat within the Meredith Range Regional and Reserve.

We went out and told the public that. We told investors that, and we pointed out to investors that this company was not telling them about the level of risk they were exposing themselves to. I think that is perfectly legitimate for a group like ours to do, and it certainly paid dividends when the investors were presented with the facts—and these were simply the facts. Then investment in that company dropped and the share price plummeted. It is a prudent lesson for companies that if you want to go into these areas that are in high conflict you might want to start with full disclosure.

CHAIR: All that is fine. I have no issue with any of that. It is just that we are talking about the taxpayer concessions here today. Looking at most of this legal action, in most cases these mines tend to get approved anyway, even though you might prolong the process. They go through pretty strident approvals and environmental processes. There are federal environmental laws and state environmental law. The mines end up going ahead anyway. So ultimately what are we achieving here? You are fighting some quasi-commercial campaign against these companies.

Mr Jordan : Absolutely not. We are seeking to stop these mines.

CHAIR: But the one you mentioned, Shree, has ultimately gone ahead.

Mr Jordan : The Federal Court overturned the decision. Unfortunately Minister Butler at the time reapproved it, 10 days later.

CHAIR: Was it Butler, or Burke?

Mr Jordan : It was Butler. Minister Burke made the initial approval. Minister Butler reapproved it in the weeks leading up to the federal election—and in fact reapproved it with a weaker permit, which was disappointing. Clearly there was a decision there. Our view was that a new assessment should have been undertaken. Minister Butler took a different view. Had we had a larger revenue than we got, we probably would have had grounds to pursue a challenge against that reapproval in that there was no new information before the minister when he made that new decision. But we were not in that position, so that did not happen.

CHAIR: Minister Burke and Minister Butler are not from my side of politics, and they are not my cup of tea, but they are not rabid pro-mining gurus; they are fairly environmental people. If they are satisfied with all of the processes that have been gone through—and the project has been through an enormous amount of processes—when does it come to a point where finally it is acceptable? You said you are not anti-mining, so when does it come to that point? Finally it is acceptable to everybody, it seems, but you and your organisation.

Mr Jordan : No, I do not think that is the case. I think the fact that large numbers of people rallied behind our campaigns and came to protest activities and supported us financially in running those court cases shows that a lot of people were concerned with those mines. We do not believe that the Shree mine could ever be acceptable. And we argued from the initial point that these mines were also not commercially viable. They were companies that were looking at the time at a high iron ore price and a high tin price and taking advantage of a very short-term window. At the end of the day the Shree mine did not fall over because of our legal challenge. It fell over because the iron ore price finally dropped, as all the economists had predicted. In fact, the court case took longer than the operation of the mine. It lasted seven months, and we are now left with a scenario that under those permits that were granted there was a condition that said, 'Don't give us your rehabilitation and mine closure plan until 12 months after you start mining.' They only made it to the seven-month mark. There is no mining rehabilitation and mine closure plan there. We have an acid mine drainage legacy sitting at Nelson Bay River and it is unlikely that the company will be around in 12 months to remediate that.

CHAIR: That is all fine. That might be your view. My final question would be this. If we had a panel of taxpayers, and we told them about the $100,000 we give you a year, in summary, what do they get for that?

Mr Jordan : They get a campaign to protect the Tarkine. They get the development of a tourism industry in the Tarkine, which provides a hell of a lot more jobs than the Nelson Bay River mine ever did and will be a lot longer term than the Nelson Bay River mine ever was. And given that none of the Venture mines are likely to progress, given current iron ore prices, they get a future that does not rely on fairy tales from mining companies that are looking at a very short-term prospect.

Mr BROAD: I am sorry I was a little late and I missed your preamble. I had a look at your website. If your photos are correct, it is a fantastic looking area. I have never been there. Sometimes we hear organisations that want to shut up places and exclude. It appears your organisation is quite keen to have people come and visit.

Mr Jordan : Absolutely.

Mr BROAD: What is your attitude to allowing people to come in and how have you played a role in that? I think we value our environmental assets more if more people see them, without damaging them.

Mr Jordan : Absolutely. Our organisation, under the Howard government and while Ian Campbell was minister, obtained two grants. One grant, about $650,000, was to do the bushwalking structure at Mount Donaldson and Philosopher Falls; and we received a separate grant of about $65,000 to produce 100,000 copies of a self-drive guide to the Tarkine region. We worked alongside the Cradle Coast Authority in producing that. They were both successful projects. Tourism now in the Tarkine is a major driver. We have gone from a logging argument around the Tarkine prior to 2004, where the state government did not want to say the word 'Tarkine', to it now being one of the flagships of the Tasmanian tourism push.

We have seen the government spend $23 million on sealing a tourist road through the Tarkine. We worked with DIER on how to mitigate impacts on that sealing project against things like road kill of Tasmanian devils and spotted-tail quoll. We were able to work with the department on measures that actually reduced road kill by 50 per cent.

We have been active in promoting tourism in the Tarkine. In fact, through those grants we were a developer in projects in the Tarkine. We worked with existing tourism operations, accommodation providers and tour guides. We very much see tourism as key to our campaign. People who see it fall in love with it. People want to protect things that they have seen and felt. We have also accepted, and always have, that if we want to say, 'These mines shouldn't go ahead' or 'Logging operations in the Tarkine shouldn't go ahead,' there needs to be an alternative economic driver.

As it turns out in the Tarkine, the facts from the Cradle Coast Authority and those projects that they have conducted in assessing the value of the area have shown that the tourism future for the Tarkine is far brighter than the logging and mining future. So we have been very pleased to be part of that agenda going forward, developing that industry. During the recent tourism downturn where the dollar went up and the GFC hit us, tourism in the Tarkine continued to grow. So at a time when tourism was experiencing trouble right around the country, tourism in the Tarkine continue to grow, and we believe we had an active role in that.

CHAIR: Mr Jordan, I am sorry but we are out of time. Thank you for your attendance. If you have been asked for additional information, the secretariat will be in touch. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and you will have the opportunity to correct any transcript errors. Thank you for your time today.

Mr Jordan : Thank you.