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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee - 16/09/2014 - Australia’s future activities and responsibilities in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters

FLEMING, Dr Anthony, Director, Australian Antarctic Division, Department of the Environment

GALES, Dr Nick, Chief Scientist, Australian Antarctic Division, Department of the Environment

MUNDY, Mr Jason John, General Manager, Strategies Branch, Australian Antarctic Division, Department of the Environment

SCHWEIZER, Ms Christine, Assistant Secretary, Marine and International Heritage Branch, Department of the Environment

SLOCUM, Ms Gillian, Manager, Territories, Environment and Treaties, Australian Antarctic Division, Department of the Environment

[14:01]

CHAIR: I now welcome representatives of the Department of the Environment. Before we commence I would like to extend the committee's thanks to the staff of the Australian Antarctic Division here in Tasmania for facilitating our visits to AAD headquarters, the Aurora Australis and the RV Investigator yesterday. The opportunity to see these facilities firsthand is very valuable to the committee's work, and we are grateful for your welcome and your help in that regard. Do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Dr Fleming : The Department of the Environment provided a submission to this inquiry on 1 July 2014. The Australian Antarctic Division has a mandate to advance Australia's strategic, scientific and economic interest in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean by protecting, administering and researching the region. We are responsible for the effective operation of the Australian Antarctic program and we operate three Antarctic research stations—Casey, Davis and Mawson—and one sub-Antarctic station, Macquarie Island. We deliver a world-class scientific program, participating in Australia's engagement in the Antarctic Treaty System and the administration of the Australian Antarctic Territory and the territory of Heard Island and McDonald Island.

Ms Schweizer is from the Wildlife, Heritage and Marine Division and will answer any questions regarding whale conservation policy, including Australia's engagement in the International Whaling Commission. Other questions related to the portfolio more generally may have to be taken on notice. At this time I will note that the policy and operational matters relating to Southern Ocean patrols are best addressed to the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, who I understand will be appearing before this committee at a public hearing in Canberra later this month. We would be happy to answer any questions in relation to our submission.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I was interested in the final page of your submission, where you talk about the Australia-Korea Non-lethal Cetacean Research Collaboration. My understanding from previous estimates questions is that the department informally invites other countries to collaborate with non-lethal cetacean research. Has any formal or informal attempt been made to approach the Japanese about non-lethal cetacean research collaboration?

Ms Schweizer : I am informed that yesterday at the International Whaling Commission meeting itself, prior to the commencement of the opening plenary, Minister Hunt met with the Japanese commissioner, Joji Morishita, and once again extended Australia's invitation to Japan to join the Southern Ocean Research Partnership. The partnership now has 11 member countries, I believe, and we do regularly invite Japan to participate. I do not know the outcome of that discussion, but I assume that Japan agreed that they would have a look at the issue a little bit more.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You said 'once again' Minister Hunt asked the Japanese. Can you tell us when he previously asked the Japanese formally to join in that alliance? Or was it informal?

Ms Schweizer : My apologies—I probably meant to say that once again a minister from the Australian government has invited Japan to participate, because I am certainly aware that Minister Hunt's predecessors—at least two or three ministers going back since the duration of the SORP program—have routinely extended that invitation to Japan, and to others.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So, this is the first time you are aware of that Minister Hunt has formally invited the Japanese?

Ms Schweizer : That I am aware of, yes. I would need to check, because it may well be that he extended that invitation earlier. But I can take it on notice.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I would be surprised if he did not, considering that you would think he would want to head this off at the pass rather than wait for it to get to the plenary and bring it up then. This has been discussed for some time now.

Ms Schweizer : That is true. I was just showing you how hot off the press we were—that it was yesterday morning.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thank you for that. It certainly is new news, and I am very glad that he has raised this formally, considering that we heard from a witness today about the importance of non-lethal research and how well it functions. Could you tell us what the status is for funding for the whaling non-lethal research programs within AAD, including the blue whale program?

Dr Gales : Do you want to hear a little more around the Korean engagement, which was your original question, or are you happy to move on to the funding one?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I am happy with that, yes.

Dr Gales : The funding for the development of the non-lethal whaling techniques and especially the development of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership was part of initially a $26 million package that would run through to the middle of this year. It has been extended for one year with some additional funding. It has been an incredibly successful program. A large part of that money has been invested directly into pulling this collaborative group together. In essence, the International Whaling Commission would talk about priorities but it was left in a relatively ad hoc way for members to come back and provide research against those priorities. The notion of the partnership that Australia took to the IWC was to get collective groups of countries in regions together to go quite rigorously through the IWC's processes to ask: what are the actual priorities and how can they be best addressed? We went through that whole process and developed a range of priorities. You asked specifically about the blue whale one. This was one of the major flagship projects; there are five major projects. But the blue whale one is a difficult problem, because we know that blue whales were taken very close to extinction during the industrial whaling era, and they are very hard to count, because there are very few of them.

So, using standard techniques, it was really a job that was too big for any country to do on its own. Australia, with other countries, has then led new techniques where we use acoustics to find the whales. And with a whole lot of clever statisticians who understand about survey design we worked out how to actually go about using sound to locate and to develop an updated abundance estimate on blue whales, and we are now four years into the development and the actual application. We have had a number of Australian-led voyages and more countries are now coming in and applying those techniques that we have grown around Antarctica. It is probably going to take a decade before we really start getting an idea on the numbers, but we do know that blue whales have not recovered as fast as some species. That program is ongoing and it is obviously part of the government's consideration at the moment about how it will fund that work in the longer term.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Correct me if I am wrong, but was the funding being released contingent on either the ICJ decision itself or what happened this week at the IWC meeting? Have you had any updates on that?

Dr Gales : We are certainly getting daily updates on discussions happening at the commission meeting—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: But in relation to your funding for the blue whales program—

Dr Gales : Not at the funding level. I expect that following the commission meeting and decisions that will flow from the commission, that will be part of the decision processes around 'where to from here' with funding.

Senator BACK: With regard to the blue whales, can you give us any indication as to the gestation length and also the expected age range of the blue whales?

Dr Gales : They are very long-lived animals. As best as we can estimate, we believe that their life expectancy would be around 70 or 80 years. There are some other whale species that go well beyond that. In the case of some of the northern bowhead whales, whales have been caught with harpoons in them that could only have been deployed well over 100 or even 150 years ago. The blue whales are not as long-lived, we believe. Part of the work we are doing as part of that Southern Ocean Research Partnership is developing new molecular techniques for ageing, so that will help us. But probably 70 or 80 years old would be our best estimate at the moment. Their gestation would be a little over a year, but they would produce a calf only every few years, typically. We know a lot more about the whales that visit our coasts and that we are able to study more easily, such as humpback whales and right whales, and we use those to infer about other pelagic whales that do not come in close and for which it is more difficult to study their rates of reproduction. But the population went very low, and reproduction slows down when you cannot find a mate. But it is picking up now, we think

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You said in your submission, Dr Fleming—or one of you did—that Aurora has become predominantly responsible for resupply rather than research. How is that new? What is new such that Aurora is now more involved in resupply? Did we ever get anyone else to resupply?

Dr Fleming : No. The Aurora has always resupplied our stations. Before the air link was created we had a two-ship operation, and Aurora was a partner to a cargo vessel.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Was that ours? Or did we just—

Dr Fleming : We chartered it.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So, since the flights have been available, that second ship has dropped off the run.

Dr Fleming : Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: The flights: what is the division's thought on that? From some of the submissions there seems to be a bit of hesitation on whether it is still worthwhile. Have I picked that up wrongly?

Dr Fleming : It is really worthwhile. We do not schedule flights during January, because we are worried about the temperature of the ice runway. It goes above the threshold of the temperature. We schedule flights in December and late November, and we schedule flights in late January to mid-March. And we fly to McMurdo Station—the US station—in October and November.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I appreciate that you may not be able to answer this, but did I read in your submission or somewhere that the whole process of flying down there is under review?

Dr Fleming : Yes. We are constantly looking at improving our air link.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: What does 'improving' mean, in practical terms?

Dr Fleming : The current air link is using an A319 from Hobart to Wilkins aerodrome. We maintain an ice runway at Wilkins aerodrome. And we charter two planes from a Canadian company: a Basler, which is a converted DC-3, and a Twin Otter.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Once you get there?

Dr Fleming : Yes. Once we get to Wilkins we will use those planes to transfer personnel from Wilkins to Davis and Mawson. That is the current air link.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Remind me: what is the aircraft that goes from Hobart?

Dr Fleming : The Airbus A319. It is on wheels. We are looking at a plane on skis—an intercontinental plane on skis. We are always looking to improve the air link. We need to fly from Hobart to Wilkins, and that is one weather system; and, from Wilkins to Davis and Mawson, that is another weather system. So we need to line up those weather systems. If we got an intercontinental plane on skis, then they could fly to the ski ways. The ski ways are much easier to construct. We have maintained ski ways at Casey, Davis and Mawson. If we can get an intercontinental plane on skis, that can fly to those ski ways. But it is a lot of money, and there is no plane currently on skis that will fly from Hobart to the distance of Davis, Mawson and Casey.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So it is not technically possible at the moment?

Dr Fleming : No. So we will maintain the Wilkins Aerodrome indefinitely.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Okay. Do you use helicopters on the continent?

Dr Fleming : Yes. We charter four B3 Squirrel helicopters.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: And all the aircraft that you use getting there are chartered? There has never been any thought that the division should own one?

Dr Fleming : No. We charter the A319, we charter the Basler and Twin Otter and we charter the helicopters.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I notice the department's submission also indicates that, despite successful actions to combat IUU fishing in the region in the last decade, it remains a concern, particularly in the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Fishery. Who can tell me about that?

Ms Slocum : Thank you, Senator, for the question. While we have not had any known IUU, or illegal, vessels operating in the Heard Island EEZ since 2005, we are aware of the continuing, persistent problem of IUU vessels operating in adjacent parts of the CCAMLR area. Our work which we presented to the annual CCAMLR meeting last year presented that there are still seven vessels that are on the CCAMLR IUU list that are persistently operating in the CCAMLR area, mainly within the Indian Ocean sector—so, close by to the HIMI EEZ.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: We had some evidence this morning about where those seven ships are. Are any of you at the table able to update me on high-seas surveillance—well, more than surveillance; high-seas enforcement against illegal fishing?

Ms Slocum : That question would probably be best directed to AFMA and to the Customs and Border Protection Service next week.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: All right. That might do me for the moment, Chair.

CHAIR: Senator Lambie.

Senator LAMBIE: Thank you. Ms Schweizer—how do you pronounce that? Sorry.

Ms Schweizer : That sounds close enough!

Senator LAMBIE: Okay. Good one. So you are the Assistant Secretary, Marine and International Heritage Branch; Wildlife, Heritage and Marine Division. That must be a fairly big job. You have three lots there in one.

Ms Schweizer : It is. I belong in a division that has a number of other people at my level, and I just look after marine and international heritage aspects within Wildlife, Heritage and Marine.

Senator LAMBIE: Can you tell me, within your division and any others, whether they receive performance bonuses—that you are aware of?

Ms Schweizer : Not that I am aware of, no.

Senator LAMBIE: Okay. I was just wondering what your thoughts are, any of you, about having a supertrawler in our waters, especially around here, in Tasmania. Obviously, the temporary ban that was put on that, as you would know, is being lifted at the end of November. So I would be very interested to hear what your thoughts are on that, if you have any thoughts.

Dr Fleming : The supertrawler does not go into the CCAMLR waters. We are responsible for 60 degrees south. So I do not have any thoughts about that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: No public thoughts, anyhow!

Senator LAMBIE: Obviously we have heard about whaling and other bits and pieces and whether it is going to deplete fish stocks et cetera. Does that not come under your jurisdiction anywhere if it is going to deplete certain things in the sea?

Dr Fleming : No. We are responsible for the CCAMLR waters. That is 60 degrees south. The supertrawler will not be coming down to that latitude.

Senator LAMBIE: I know it will not come down to there, but what about the stuff it is depleting up around this way? Does that not feed into your stocks or do you not believe that it will do any environmental damage in the future if it is allowed in our waters?

Dr Fleming : The fishing in CCAMLR waters is mostly for toothfish and icefish. Those do not exist in the waters that the supertrawler will fish in.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Senator Lambie, maybe you should put these questions on notice to IMAS. They presented first up this morning. They will probably answer your questions.

Senator LAMBIE: Okay, thanks for that. I will do that.

Senator BACK: There has been discussion today about the EEZ and assets that Australia claims and also that these areas are not recognised, apparently, by many countries, including the United States. Is that correct?

Dr Fleming : Yes.

Senator BACK: Can you tell me two things. First of all, what, if anything, is the impact of the work that you do as a result of other countries not recognising this zone?

Dr Fleming : The EEZ off the Australian Antarctic Territory is not recognised by many countries, but the EEZ off Heard and McDonald Islands is recognised. It is a recognisable Australian territory. Jason, can you answer that?

Mr Mundy : Yes. I will leave aside the Heard Island and McDonald Island area, which is recognised as Australia's jurisdiction.

Senator BACK: By other countries?

Mr Mundy : Absolutely, yes. I will talk about the Antarctic Treaty area more broadly. As you have perhaps discussed in earlier sessions today, Antarctic governance and sovereignty comes within the jurisdiction of the Antarctic Treaty system, which is a 50-plus years old international governance regime established for the peace, maintenance of security and environmental protection of Antarctica. One of the core aspects of the international regime is article 4. This is an article which effectively freezes discussion on matters of Antarctic sovereignty and permits access to Antarctica and its associated jurisdiction 60 degrees south for all nations.

To go to your question directly, there is no direct impact on Australia's activities in that area as a result of nonrecognition of the Australian Antarctic Territory by other nations. But there are significant implications from the existence of an international collaborative governance regime for Antarctica which means that those waters and the Antarctic continent itself are subject to a very high degree of international collaboration and cooperation under the Antarctic Treaty system and its instruments.

Senator BACK: That leads to the next question. Is there a perception that Australia needs to take action to convince other countries to respect this zone that we lay claim to? If so, what action are we taking or could we be taking?

Mr Mundy : The treatment of Antarctic sovereignty is a matter that, over the 50 years of the Antarctic Treaty system, has assumed its own character. There are claimant nations, of which Australia is one. It is Australia's position that 42 per cent of the continent and the associated marine jurisdiction of the Australian Antarctic Territory are sovereign Australian territory. Other nations make similar claims over other parts of Antarctica. Active discussion of those claims does not occur under the Antarctic Treaty regime, so the questions of sovereignty and impacts on sovereignty are not ones which typically enter into most discussions.

Senator BACK: And they do not hinder the relationship between the participants. Are the areas that are not recognised by other countries in dispute? Are there areas within that EEZ that we lay claim to that others also lay claim to, or do they just simply not recognise our claim?

Mr Mundy : There are no rival claims, if you like, for the Australian Antarctic territory, though some other national claims are subject to overlapping jurisdictions.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: How many other nations have their sovereign bases in Australia's Antarctic territory?

Dr Fleming : Russia, India, China, France and Italy.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So they did not seek permission from us before they established their base, because they do not—

Dr Fleming : No, they sought permission from through Antarctic Treaty system. When we signed on to the Antarctic Treaty we set aside disputes about claims. The Antarctic Treaty governs Antarctica and any Antarctic Treaty nation can establish a scientific base in any part of Antarctica.

Senator BACK: I want to ask about mineral exploration. If one of the treaty partners or someone who is not wanted to engaged in mineral exploration, what would be the process through which they would either proceed on that basis or treaty participants could prevent others from doing that mineral exploration?

Mr Mundy : One of the key instruments of the Antarctic Treaty system is what is commonly known as the Madrid protocol—the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. That agreement unambiguously bans mining and mineral exploration. Its language is:

Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.

That is an indefinite ban. There is a review mechanism possible after 2048 but, unless a party initiates a review, the existence of that ban continues in force indefinitely.

CHAIR: I have a question that has been bugging me all day. The Antarctic Treaty and all the rest of it is very complex. But, a bit closer to home, who actually pulls it altogether and reports to the minister? Is it several departments?

Mr Mundy : Antarctica is a cross-portfolio issue. The Australian Antarctic Division is the home of three key aspects of Antarctic policy, and that is somewhat uncommon in the international system. We have operations, science and Antarctic environmental policy all housed together, which makes us quite well adapted to doing things in Antarctica. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade leads the delegation of Australia to the Antarctic Treaty meeting. They also have responsibility in their own reporting line to their minister for their aspects of it.

CHAIR: Some people say that there should be 300 days a year and there are 180 available and people have been redundant compulsorily and voluntarily. There is an enormous amount of concern here in Tasmania. Who oversights that whole area. Does the minister get different bits of information from different areas? Is there no coordinating committee, or is it a little bit like the treaty—you sort of don't go to places?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You did not finish the answer to the chair's last question. You mentioned the Department of Foreign Affairs and you were, I think, going to mention the environment department and—

Mr Mundy : The overall coordination of most of Australia's Antarctic activities occurs through the Australian Antarctic Division and answers through the director of the Australian Antarctic Division to the Minister for the Environment.

Senator LAMBIE: I have a concern about it. It is like the ship itself. I still do not have a correct answer as to who is going to organise these extra days that are sitting there where other people can use that ship. Do we actually know who is going to be the overriding decision maker on who is going to use that ship? I would have thought that the CSIRO would take that position over because the ship is docked there.

Dr Fleming : The Investigator is owned by the government and by the CSIRO. So you can direct those questions to the CSIRO.

CHAIR: I think that answers my question actually. There is a very complex treaty governing Antarctica and extremely important work going on there and it is managed disparately by different groups who have all got their own challenges.

Dr Fleming : The Australian Antarctic Division runs the Australian Antarctic Program and the Australian Antarctic Science Strategy—and Nick Gales can talk about that. We report to the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt. The Department of Foreign Affairs leads the delegation to the Antarctic Treaty annually.

Dr Gales : The RV Investigatoris run as a marine national facility. So it is available for use all around Australia in all of Australia's territorial waters—not just the Southern Ocean. There is an overriding committee, a steering committee, with representation across the whole area of marine science. I am on that committee, and one of my key roles is to provide some sort of clear linkage between the research we do on the Aurora Australisand the marine science we do in the Southern Ocean as part of Australia's Antarctic program and the role the Investigator will have in adding a capability to that Southern Ocean science.

It is early days with the Investigator coming on stream right now, but we are well into a lot of discussions around how to ensure that both ships operate the most efficient way they can in delivering Australia's overall objectives for marine science in the Southern Ocean as well as for the Investigator in the remaining oceans all around Australia.

Senator LAMBIE: Is it effective? There seems to be a lot of fingers in the pie here. With the paperwork system going round and round that slows progression a great deal. We all know this. Is it difficult having to go around to all these different groups? Could there be an easier way?

Dr Gales : There is a process in place where the science bids to use the Investigator's capability against national priorities are assessed and ranked. It is new—it is a new model—but I think it has worked very well in identifying the highest ranked priorities for the use of the vessel. Once it is moving into its operational phase it will then start being deployed against those ranked priorities. I guess the system is yet to be fully tested with the RV Investigator, because it is such a new and greater capability than Australia's had before. But there is a full process in place to ensure it is used efficiently and effectively.

Dr Fleming : In terms of the Australian Antarctic Program, as Jason has said, we have a very integrated program. We have the operations, the science and the policy in the division. People from other Antarctic nations look at us with envy. We have a very integrated Antarctic Program.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I have one further question in relation to whaling. Dr Gale, can you confirm that the International Whale and Marine Mammal Conservation Initiative is finishing up next year?

Dr Gales : That is correct. The funding runs out in the middle of next year.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You mentioned earlier that we are, for example, looking at 10 years with blue whales. The funding runs out next year but various parts of the program would still need several more years to see fruition. Is that correct?

Dr Gales : That is correct. A lot of the projects that have been started under that initiative would require that, and discussions are happening at the commission around the role other countries will play as well in that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The committee has noted that you submission notes the excellent outcomes of Australia's leadership on whale conservation through this initiative; however, the funding is uncertain after next year.

Dr Gales : Yes. It is under current consideration.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Dr Fleming, could you give me a rough metric or ratio in terms of your funding being broken down between logistics and operations versus scientific research and how that is reflected in your staffing levels?

Dr Fleming : I cannot divide the budget because it is an integrated operation, and we need logistics to run the science program, and we need carpenters, plumbers and electricians to run the stations. Those stations run science programs. So I cannot break down the budget. What is the number of staff?

Dr Gales : There are around 108 in the science branch—scientists and science support people.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: What sort of metrics would you use if someone asked you: has there been a lessening in scientific research or activity? We all know you have efficiency dividends and you are under constraints. Would you say that that has impacted the level of scientific or research endeavour that you have been able to do in recent years?

Dr Fleming : Yes. Because the budget is under pressure—the federal government is under pressure—we will do less science. The efficiency dividends over the last few years have bitten now. So we will do less science.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: On the idea of less science, the last witnesses—CSIRO—were talking about the fact that they do continue their priority programs. It is not that they actually cancel programs. Yesterday we saw presentations. The key one was about ocean acidification. How do you deal with lower funding in those sorts of programs. Do you do more with less?

Dr Gales : We do as much as we can with what we have, certainly. The way a range of projects would deal with ocean acidification is that there are scientists within the Australian Antarctic Division that help coordinate, lead and run those. But about one third of our overall science program is led by AAD staff. The remaining two-thirds is done by our colleagues around at the universities and other polar programs internationally and nationally. So we have major projects going ahead this summer, for example, on ocean acidification. We have a very ambitious one that looks like being funded out of the new gateway money.

But in the end, the largest constraining element is the operational capacity to support scientists—scalar science, particularly, in the deep field. So everything we do has to be scaled to whatever operational capacity we have. Ocean acidification remains a priority in our overall science strategic plan. We have a strategic plan we review every two years. When we call for bids for science we review the implementation of that, and work out the priorities right now for the government to have information on. Ocean acidification remains one of those high priorities.

CHAIR: Can I just ask what your budget is?

Dr Fleming : That was in the budget papers—

CHAIR: They get delivered to my office but there is usually half a metre of paperwork. I am not guaranteeing to read them.

Dr Fleming : The 2014-15 estimated expenses are $157, 563,000. That includes gross estimates of revenue.

CHAIR: Where are we in the ballpark with other nations? Is that a miniscule investment?

Dr Fleming : It is a major investment compared with other nations.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: What about on a historic basis, Dr Fleming? Can you give us some—

Dr Fleming : I should note that the current government has re-funded the CRC $25 million over five years. It has funded the ARC gateway special research fund—$24 million over three years.

CHAIR: I am sure I am not the only one who does not know what those acronyms stand for.

Dr Fleming : The Australian Research Council.

CHAIR: And CRC?

Dr Fleming : The Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. They have refunded the CRC for another five years, and they have funded, through the Australian Research Council, the gateway special research fund—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: But you would share those funds though, is that correct?

Dr Fleming : Yes, the gateway is tripartite cooperation between the University of Tasmania, the Australian Antarctic Division and the CSIRO.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You can have access to those, but certainly it has been brought to my attention that there seems to be an investment in infrastructure but not in scientists and people on the ground. Do you provide advice to the minister on what your priorities are in terms of scientific research and how many scientists you need and how much funding you need? Do you get down to that silo level when you manage the organisation or is it more that you get given your budget and then you have to sort it out from there—you work the other way?

Dr Fleming : We have an Australian Antarctic Science Strategic Plan, and I can table that if you like. We do rounds of science applications every two years.

Dr Gales : That is the open source area, so that is where we have identified what the plans are. That was a whole of government developed plan that looked at government priorities, set the science, and then we basically run the program against the priorities identified in that. We pick the best science, on science excellence, but 40 per cent of the marks go towards the way in which that science can deliver against demonstrated government need. People need to show that there is a clear pathway, but because we are a smaller space we cannot do all the science—we limit it to the stuff that has a clear pathway through to where evidence is most useful in the development of public good policy.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Is that the one that CSIRO was talking about as well—you basically share, and it is a whole of government approach?

Dr Fleming : Absolutely.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: No doubt that was given to Dr Press, with his overarching support?

Dr Fleming : Yes.

Senator BACK: The funds you are talking about, the $25 million and the $24 million, have started to flow and are now being allocated?

Dr Fleming : That $25 million for the CRC has been allocated and we are working with the university and the CSIRO to provide a research plan for the gateway special research fund.

Senator BACK: I want to ask about the nonlethal technologies associated with cetacean research, particularly whales. What, if anything, do you not learn from a nonlethal means of invasion that you do learn when animals lose their lives? What can the Japanese say that they have more information on than the rest us have through nonlethal intervention?

Dr Gales : I guess you can always ask a question that could only be answered lethally. The most important thing is whether that is an important question. If you, by way of extreme example, said that you wish to research the average weight of a humpback whale's liver, I do not think we could do that nonlethally. But whether the information would be useful or not in terms of conservation or management or would it inform some other body of science is important—in that example, no. We have certainly demonstrated in the development of the techniques we have used that all of the questions the International Whaling Commission has come up with, that it has said are important to be answered for a whole range of issues, even driven by other countries who wish to utilise whales in a different way than Australia or other countries, can be addressed using nonlethal techniques. None of them are value added with the use of lethally acquired data. We can study where the animals go. We can study how old they are. We can study what they are eating. We can study how they are interacting with their prey and their environment, which are really the major areas of information that you require using non-lethal techniques. It just grows every year—the sophistication and power of the non-lethal technique continues to grow.

Senator BACK: So you are spending more funds over time developing those techniques to a more advanced level?

Dr Gales : We are spending more money on developing them, but they then become a very powerful tool in giving us much more data than we could acquire. They help us be incredibly efficient. It is bit like some of the sensors that we send out through the ocean now. There is money spent on developing those technologies, but they actually allow us to gather data in a much more cost-effective and efficient way, so the non-lethal techniques are very much in that same area.

Senator BACK: Have the techniques you have developed for whales been converted to terrestrial animals—wild elephants et cetera?

Dr Gales : Absolutely. So, while the focus of the people we have using molecular genetic technique, for example, may be on some elements of cetaceans, they are part of the world genetics science body. They interact with their colleagues who are looking at the make-up of bacterial populations in soil as well as those looking at elephants or a wide range. So the ageing techniques that are being developed and applied at the Australian Antarctic Division build off techniques that were used for entirely different purposes and take advantages of those advances in the genetic field. So they are very much part of the broad body of science and they are just applied as the best possible technique to these areas of science.

Senator BACK: Lastly, are there any capacities that have not been examined upon which the division or CSIRO could actually earn revenue outside those areas apart from budget apportionment? Is there capacity for the development of new techniques similar to those that you have just outlined that we could commercialise?

Dr Fleming : We do cost recovery for our logistics but we have not commercialised scientific products.

Dr Gales : Most of the work we do is in the public good space, so it is driven towards public good. That is primarily where we deliver. For example, satellite tag developments have commercial interest from satellite companies who develop those tags for others. We increasingly have made data widely available. We make sure our technology is widely available. We really operate principally in the public good space.

Senator BACK: Cost recovery is the best you can achieve, but there is no commercial capacity. I think that answers my questions.

Senator DASTYARI: I just want to run some numbers past you that we were given this morning in some earlier evidence. So 49 jobs—that was the figure from the union; is that correct?

Dr Fleming : VRs—is that right?

Senator DASTYARI: Yes.

Dr Fleming : We had three VR rounds: May 2013, seven were accepted; October 2013, 20 were accepted; and April 2014, 17 were accepted.

Senator DASTYARI: What does that add up to?

Dr Fleming : To 44.

Senator DASTYARI: Is there another round planned at this stage?

Dr Fleming : I don't know.

Senator DASTYARI: So just to revise that figure, because they were of the view that there were 49 so far—you are saying 44—with a view to getting to 59. You are saying, no, you are done in terms of cutting jobs.

Dr Fleming : No. We are done in terms of the VR rounds.

Senator DASTYARI: What does that mean? What comes next?

Dr Fleming : Business as usual. We completed a capability assessment round and—

Senator DASTYARI: You are only doing VRs, because CSIRO aren't—you have stopped. You are done: no more job cuts.

Dr Fleming : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: Unless there is another efficiency dividend at this point in time.

Dr Fleming : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: So that is 44 out of how many people?

Dr Fleming : Out of 403. The ASL is 403 in the budget paper.

Senator DASTYARI: In your PBS?

Dr Fleming : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: So it is 44. Senator Lambie, feel free to cut in.

Senator LAMBIE: Has anybody asked you guys for a wish list to start? If you were to operate fully, effectively and functionally, without going overboard, has anybody sat down and asked, 'What do you need to achieve your objectives?' Has anybody taken a list from you?

Dr Fleming : No.

Senator LAMBIE: It would be great if we could have one of those just to see where you guys are coming from. Do you guys have something like that already done, just so we can have something passed in at some stage?

Dr Fleming : We put a submission to Tony Press's 20-year strategic plan and that submission is public. You can get it on the website.

Senator LAMBIE: That has it all in there—how many people you need on the ground, how much money, where you are going, that you would like your new ship going 300 days, how much it is going to cost—

Dr Fleming : This submission is focused on the next 20 years.

CHAIR: Regarding the 40-odd people that you lost, did they come from across the board or from a specific section? Were they scientists, carpenters or plumbers?

Dr Fleming : I think 18 people were from the science branch and across the board from the other branches.

CHAIR: So, 18 out of how many scientists?

Dr Gales : Just a little over 100 at that time—110 or so.

CHAIR: So 18 per cent were scientists?

Dr Gales : That is right.

CHAIR: That is a significant brain drain, is it?

Dr Gales : Absolutely. That is a lot of senior people leaving the science branch—across a range of senior and midcareer people.

Senator LAMBIE: That is a lot of knowledge.

Senator BACK: You did say you would get 108 scientists—

Dr Gales : Yes—that was the figure at the end of April this year. It will go down now because the people who took voluntary redundancies are still leaving at the moment.

Senator LAMBIE: How many scientists did you have five years ago?

Dr Fleming : About the same number.

Dr Gales : Around 125 or 130.

Senator LAMBIE: What about 10 years ago, off the top of your head? Do you have any idea how many people you had about 10 years ago?

Dr Gales : I do not, I am afraid, because the numbers do fluctuate somewhat because there are funding initiatives that come through, such as the marine mammal and whales one we heard about and some remediation ones that bring in external money that raise our numbers a bit, but they are time defined and there is some fluctuation. I am not sure about 10 years ago.

Senator LAMBIE: That is okay. I just asked the question because I know how much the number of forestry scientists has been depleted over the last 10 years. It is quite phenomenal. It is very disturbing.

Senator DASTYARI: You said to Senator Whish-Wilson that, effectively, the funding cuts over a period of time have had an impact on your research capability. That is a matter of fact; that is not in dispute. There is a huge opportunity. The specific opportunity is Chinese investment. Firstly, where are we up to with that? What kinds of discussions are happening between you and the Chinese—nothing that is obviously commercial-in-confidence? At what point are we regarding them coming here and creating their research hub here?

Dr Fleming : We are having continuing discussions with the Chinese about collaboration on logistics and also science. The Tasmanian government is having discussions with the Chinese to operate out of Hobart. I do not want to speak for the Tasmanian government—

Senator DASTYARI: They spoke for themselves. You are part of those discussions?

Dr Fleming : Yes.

Dr Gales : For example, along with one of my senior science staff, I will be going over to a large Antarctic science symposium in China in November and a lot of that is about discussing collaborative science. The Australian program took down the very first Antarctic Chinese scientists in the early to mid-80s, so they are very interested in building their science collaboration with us. We have been over before and they have visited us. Across operations and science, we have regular conversations.

Senator DASTYARI: Without putting you in an uncomfortable position—which is exactly what I am about to do!—I do not understand how we can talk about creating this scientific hub down here in Tasmania. It is a discussion that obviously has been happening for a period of time and involves looking at opportunities to create a marine science research hub in this region. At the same time, how do we attract that kind of investment from others here if we are cutting our own investment?

Dr Fleming : The Antarctic science program operates as a whole, and the government is investing $25 million over five years to keep the cooperative research centre alive.

Senator DASTYARI: But you've just lost 44 people. That is a fact, isn't it?

Dr Fleming : Yes. The government is also investing $24 million through the Australian Research Council—

Senator DASTYARI: Which you can compete for. That is not your money.

Dr Fleming : It is a tripartite cooperation between the University of Tasmania, AAD and the CSIRO.

Senator DASTYARI: That was not an answer. Is there a danger that we lose an opportunity to attract investment and to build this space as a research hub if we are cutting our own funding?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: These officers take a longer-term view rather than the exigencies of government financing in any period.

Senator DASTYARI: That's even less of an answer than Dr Fleming gave me!

Dr Fleming : The government has invested $49 million into the Hobart scientific community in the last budget. I do not accept the premise that they will be reducing scientific funds.

Senator DASTYARI: You don't accept—hang on. So $100 million getting cut from the CSIRO is not reducing scientific funds?

Dr Fleming : I do not want to speak about the CSIRO budget—

Senator DASTYARI: You're more than welcome to!

Dr Fleming : It's fine. The government has invested $49 million into the Hobart scientific community.

Senator DASTYARI: But they have also cut in other areas.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You cannot ask public servants to answer obviously political questions that would suit your line. It is just not fair to them.

CHAIR: You can do what you like, Mr Fleming. You can say it is our of your purview and just move on or you can have a go.

Senator DASTYARI: I go back to the opportunities. The government, as you have commented and as the Tasmanian government has commented, was in discussions. It seems like the real opportunity at the moment is with the Chinese investment. Are you aware of whether we are in discussions with other groups at that level, or is the Chinese proposal a bit further along than the other proposals and ideas that are out there?

Dr Fleming : We have a collaboration on logistics and science with many nations. The discussions in terms of China are more advanced than other nations.

Senator DASTYARI: Okay. The 300 days of the vessel are getting cut to 180 days—and thank you for taking us to see it yesterday. When were you informed that the cut of funding from 300 days to 180 days was coming? Was that before or at the budget?

Dr Fleming : I do not know.

Dr Gales : That was just announced in the budget papers, but that is not part of our program.

Senator DASTYARI: I know. I just wanted to get an idea of whether you guys were involved in those discussions or not.

Dr Fleming : No. That was between the CSIRO and the government.

Senator DASTYARI: Okay.

CHAIR: On that note, the allotted time has elapsed. Thank you very much for appearing today.

Proceedings suspended from 15 : 00 to 15 : 13