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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS
ENVIRONMENT, WATER, HERITAGE AND THE ARTS PORTFOLIO
Sydney Harbour Federation Trust
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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS
Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts
Sydney Harbour Federation Trust
Senator BOB BROWN
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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS
(Senate-Tuesday, 24 February 2009)
ENVIRONMENT, WATER, HERITAGE AND THE ARTS PORTFOLIO
Bureau of Meteorology
Senator IAN MACDONALD
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
Senator IAN MACDONALD
Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts
Sydney Harbour Federation Trust
Senator BOB BROWN
Australian Antarctic Division
Senator IAN MACDONALD
Output 1.3 Conservation of the coasts and oceans
Senator IAN MACDONALD
Murray Darling Basin Authority
National Water Commission
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Content WindowSTANDING COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS
ENVIRONMENT, WATER, HERITAGE AND THE ARTS PORTFOLIO
Sydney Harbour Federation Trust
CHAIR —I welcome Mr Bailey and officers of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thank you, Chair. Mr Bailey, nice to see you again. You will not be surprised that I would like to pursue the status of the MOU with the Department of Defence. Back in estimates hearings in May of last year I think you indicated that the matter should be resolved by June 30, 2008. At the October hearings Mr Borthwick I think then indicated that the MOU would hopefully be signed as soon as we could muster it. Where are we at now in February 2009?
Mr Bailey —The MOU did prove to be more difficult than any of us would have liked in the discussions. However, I am confident that we have now in fact resolved all of the issues. The trust is in a position now where it can forward its advice and its recommendations to the minister. I am only waiting on confirmation from my colleagues in Defence that they are similarly ready to do so and I would expect to have that in a matter of days. As far as we are concerned, all of the matters are now resolved and we are ready to proceed.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —You would expect that certainly by the next time we appear, both yourselves and Defence will have provided your relevant advice to your ministers and presumably your ministers will have signed the MOU or it will have been signed at chief executive level or wherever it has to be signed at?
Mr Bailey —Certainly.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That is good news. Some of those blockages and issues that you were facing as I recall related to liability issues; how have they been resolved?
Mr Bailey —Concerns about third party liability and the liability of the trust itself indefinitely into the future.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That is right. My recollection is they were the outstanding issues when last we met.
Mr Bailey —They were.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —In what way have they been resolved?
Mr Bailey —I guess by concessions on both sides and sufficient levels of comfort being written into the document now to satisfy both sides that everyone’s interests are protected.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Compromise on both sides sounds like it means the trust will be picking up a level of liability or risk into the future?
Mr Bailey —I think inevitably there is always some level of liability and risk in engaging in these things. We feel we have kept that to an acceptable minimum.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Does that mean that Defence will be maintaining some level of interest in the site or ongoing responsibility themselves for its clean-up et cetera?
Mr Bailey —They will be maintaining a level of responsibility until the clean-up is complete and independent auditors have signed off that it is complete and that the site is safe.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —What is the time line expected for that clean-up process?
Mr Bailey —We are expecting that the clean-up will take approximately two years.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —The independent audit is a requirement of that and those auditors will be paid for by the trust or by Defence?
Mr Bailey —They will be paid for by Defence.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So they have to provide all of the evidence to the trust under the MOU at the end that the site has been cleaned to the satisfaction of independent auditors?
Mr Bailey —Correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Excellent. In terms of the process for resolution, was it all resolved at officer level or did it require ministerial intervention?
Mr Bailey —No, it has been resolved at officer level.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —What liaison have you had with the community during this time to resolve the issue and to ensure that community frustrations that may have been developing about the delays that had been occurring did not reach too great a level?
Mr Bailey —We have not detected significant community disquiet on the topic. I think those that have an interest have always readily contacted the trust directly and we discuss those issues. But I would have to say, there has been very little inquiry on that level. I think people are satisfied that things are moving forward, albeit not as quickly as they would have liked but they can also appreciate the difficulty involved.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —If I can jump of the MOU into the draft plan for HMAS Platypus. At the October hearing I think you indicated that the minister was awaiting comments from the New South Wales government before signing off on the draft plan?
Mr Bailey —Correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Have those comments been received?
Mr Bailey —They were received I think last week.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Are they broadly supportive of the draft plan?
Mr Bailey —They are.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —They are, and have they proposed any changes?
Mr Bailey —None that I can recall.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —What time line would you expect? Are there further processes that need to be followed for the finalisation of the plan or is this the completion of that consultation period?
Mr Bailey —It is the completion of the consultation period and it now falls to the minister to determine the matter.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Under what time line would you expect that to be determined?
Mr Bailey —That is a matter entirely for the minister, I am afraid.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Has the trust got a time line that it needs the plan to be approved by to facilitate your works?
Mr Bailey —No; I guess the primary issue confronting the trust is the clean-up of the site. As I say, we expect that will take around two years but we expect it could be delayed; it will depend on what happens when we open up the site. There are very large tar pits on the site and we are expecting that it is not going to be a pleasant job cleaning it up.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —All of the costs for the clean-up are met by Defence?
Mr Bailey —Correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Do you have an estimate as to what those costs are?
Mr Bailey —Approximately $45 million.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So it is $45 million of works over two years for the site clean-up?
Mr Bailey —Correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —In terms of consultation with the community about the works that will have to be undertaken for the site clean-up, is there a plan in place to advise the community of the nature of those works and so on?
Mr Bailey —There is. There will be extensive community consultation once we commence the process of cleaning up. The initial process will be to go out to tender and at that point we will engage the community and begin to discuss the detail of what is involved in that clean-up and how we will manage it.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —How quickly would you hope works to commence?
Mr Bailey —That will depend on the signing of the MOU but from the time of that signing I would hope between six and nine months.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I am assuming, given that they are paying for it and they are responsible for it, that Defence are obviously the project managers for the works as well?
Mr Bailey —No, the trust will be the project managers but there are detailed provisions for the oversight of that by Defence officers as well. I should say there is a regular reporting mechanism in place to Defence for every element of the clean-up and the expenditure of funds et cetera.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I am following up on rumours. Are there any plans to hand control of the trust over to New South Wales?
Mr Bailey —At the moment, no. The trust’s life was extended in September 2007 from nominally 2011 to 2033 and that was really a product of community pressure, community interest and support. The original intention was to transfer it to New South Wales. Broadly, the community were very happy with the outcomes that the trust was producing and the government saw fit to extend its life for another 25 years.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —There have been no government-to-government discussions about the possible transfer of the trust?
Mr Bailey —Not since the period of the amendment to the act which extended the life of the trust.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Does the New South Wales government commit any funding to the trust?
Mr Bailey —No; the New South Wales government nominates two trustees, two board members, being directors, to the trust and that is its commitment.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thank you, Mr Bailey. That is all from me. It is nice to have positive progress.
Mr Bailey —Thank you.
CHAIR —As there are no more questions for the trust, we thank you very much, Mr Bailey, for appearing before the committee today.
Proceedings suspended from 10.42 am to 11.01 am
CHAIR —I now welcome the Director of National Parks, Mr Cochrane, thank you for joining us today. Senator Scullion has questions.
Senator SCULLION —I have some questions principally in relation to part of my electorate in Cocos Keeling, Pulu Keeling, the park and the management plan and issues associated with that. As you would be well aware, there is a degree of community concern about the exact position of the reference. I am not sure—I have to use the right terminology—but the Environment, Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 has a whole range of steps, so whether it is referred or a public inquiry, where are we up to with it? Could you provide a report on where we are up to now, what is the next stage and perhaps provide some indications of the timing about when decisions associated with that process will in fact be made? I think that is the EPBC Act reference 2002/844 proposal. I am not sure whether that is absolutely correct, but that is the indication of the actual application.
Mr Early —I could provide more detail on notice if what I am about to say is not quite correct, but my understanding is that the referral required some consideration by the community, and they were to come back with some advice to the department. I do not think that has actually happened. I think the action is with the community to determine precisely what it is they want and how they want to achieve it. If that is not the case, I will clarify that on notice.
Senator SCULLION —Perhaps you would take on notice, because I am sure the information is at hand or behind you, the exact information that is required of the community to provide? I find that a little surprising. I am sure there is no mischief; this is a long and onerous process. Every time I have visited the community, including my most recent visit, I thought the community had made it very clear that in a number of agreements there will be the development of surveying of birds, both on Keeling and on Horsburgh Island. Then it will move to a management plan for the sustainable harvest of Sula sula. That seemed to be a recurrent theme through all the agreements prior to the Environment, Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act being imposed. The difficulty seems to be now to put into effect the previous agreements that were made with congress as part of the leasing of the island to the director.
So, what you are putting to me in terms of the detail I will take on notice, but it does surprise me, and perhaps you can help me with this, that it was back to the community to see what they thought about something. If that area is seeking their advice on numbers, times or specifics of the management, I would understand that. But given the general theme has not changed—and I note there is a fair bit of action behind there, Mr Early—perhaps you could provide me with the nature of the overall framework of the sorts of issues that the community now has to provide?
Mr Burnett —The general position is that we have sought some information and we are just attempting to get some details specifically as to what information we have requested.
Senator SCULLION —Perhaps I will ask some general questions. This issue came up around August 2007, and I note a number of pieces of what I consider significant correspondence about the views of the people who have leased the island back to the Commonwealth. I will cite a letter to Vicki Middleton, the Assistant Secretary, Environmental Assessment Branch—and I understand because of the response that that is the correct place to go. I am happy to table the letter, but it states in part, ‘As the Cocos Congress,’ who own the island and lease it to the director ‘has expressed its concern that the matter of community management plan for the harvesting of red-footed boobies, Sula sula, in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands has dragged on for some time, at the Cocos Congress meeting held on 31 July 2007, it was decided not to proceed with either the community restoration of habitat on the southern atoll on Cocos (Keeling) Islands or the hand-raising of seabird chicks at this stage.’ It goes on to say, ‘The Cocos Congress therefore wishes to withdraw this proposal, but we may consider these projects in the future.’ The administrator obviously was contacted at the same time, and in a letter to Haji Adam of the Cocos Congress, he notes in three dot points, and the third dot point, which is appropriate to the discussion—the other parts of the letter have no bearing on the content of this matter—is booby harvesting. It states, ‘I note our discussions this week and confirm that I have spoken to the department in Canberra explaining my understanding of the situation—that is, Congress have withdrawn its proposal relating to the revegetation and the rearing of sea chicks at the present time, and wishes the minister to make a decision on the harvesting proposal as soon as possible.’ I am happy to table that letter.
The reason I am providing that piece of correspondence is that it frames the views of the people on the island, in that they are very, very frustrated that there has been, for over a decade, a clear understanding that they believe went back to the understanding about the leasing of the island. We will lease the island; it will become a national park. That was their side of things, and they have done that. So it has been a national park. But what national parks were to do was to formulate a management plan for the sustainable take of Sula sula so that principally people can carry on their traditional and cultural ceremonies, particularly of marriages on Home Island. So, for a decade now—and I am just sharing with you the frustration of the people on the island—that side of the agreement has not been reached.
They are at the point now where they are saying with respect to Horsburgh Island, which was devegetated during the war—and I will not go into details of that—that there was a prospect, with high levels of unemployment on the island, that the revegetation of Horsburgh Island would provide extra habitat for sea birds, obviously in the interest of the environment, as well as the raising of injured chicks, and that they would take on all of those sorts of things. They have actually said, ‘We are not doing this simply because you are not picking up your side of the bargain.’ There is no question about that. My question is: where are we up to with this process? What I need to be convinced of is not only that you are not dragging your feet, but I want to know that you have not made a fundamental decision that Environment Australia has simply decided that that is not going to happen. I think the people on Cocos deserve to have that answer rather than the frustration of continual meetings. I understand that you are still trying to get some detail, but I thought I would provide the background, and perhaps for the benefit of others on the committee, the reasons and the motive for my line of questioning.
Mr Early —I am afraid we will need to take some of that on notice, but in answer to the second part of your question, I can assure you that there has been no decision from the department or the minister that says that this proposal cannot go ahead. Having said that, I am not quite sure what stage we are at, so I will have to take that on notice.
Senator SCULLION —From the islander perspective, that is actually a decision. When the minister does not make a decision, there is no burning. There is no aspect to go and have their continued traditional and cultural activities, which is a problem. If the minister has not made a decision, the circumstances remain the same. They do not have access.
Mr Early —I thought you were asking whether the minister had made a decision not to—
Senator SCULLION —No. I understand that you are saying the minister has not made a decision. Let us say for the next 30 years, if the minister does not make a decision, the outcomes for the islanders will be the same.
Mr Early —Yes, I understand.
Senator SCULLION —I had assumed that your officers would have had something to hand. I am not pressing you on this, but perhaps you can give me an understanding in terms of timing. On notice, I would not have thought it would have been too difficult, that the information would be available today. I think it is important.
Mr Early —We will try to get it today.
Senator SCULLION —That would be great. Given that whatever decision is made by the minister it would obviously be based on good science, I understand that part of the agreement was that a number of surveys would be conducted, and the basis of those surveys would be some benchmarking to understand the spatial dynamics of the population of Sula sula and to establish from that a sustainable take. There are some formulaic things around the world for different sorts of wildlife species. Would you be able to provide me with the numbers of surveys that have been conducted, say, in the last five years, in addition to those things on notice, and provide me also on notice—I expect that you do not have it here, in view of the fact that more substantive answers are not available—with the results of those surveys? Would you be able to provide me with the sort of formulaic structure of a sustainable use plan? I assume that you are getting this baseline data, and from that baseline data you will then use some sort of a formula to establish whether you have ‘some take’ or ‘no take’ based on whatever the numbers are. Can you take those questions on notice?
Mr Early —Yes.
Senator SCULLION —Perhaps you would be able to tell me directly what sort of a framework, in terms of access, has been planned by the department when you have finalised the results of the surveys?
Mr Early —I can provide all of that information on notice.
Senator SCULLION —We have actually had a look, for a number of years, at how many birds are on the islands; is that correct?
Mr Cochrane —That is correct, Senator.
Senator SCULLION —I would make the assumption—and you can correct me if I am wrong—that because of the vagaries of any wild population, you would have to do a survey every year, and make a decision on sustainable use or sustainable take in that particular year, because there may be other events—such as a cyclone, a disease or something that affects the population. You would not just say, over five years: ‘That’s it. Here’s a five-year plan. Every year, go out.’ I make the assumption that you would have to do a survey each year, and then the plan would be adjusted on the numbers provided in the survey. Would that be right?
Mr Cochrane —It would be desirable to do a survey every year. I cannot tell you at the moment whether that is what we have been doing, but we have been doing regular surveys of the red-footed booby population since 1985. We do know over that time that the numbers have fluctuated quite dramatically. I recall that they went very low after a major cyclone went through there some time ago. The last data that I have, which was from a few years ago, suggested that their numbers had recovered, but dramatic fluctuations like that are a matter of concern for any proposals to sustainably harvest a species like that. However, I should add that, as you know, since the introduction of the EPBC Act, the red-footed booby became a protected species under the act, and therefore any proposals to kill it need to be referred and considered under processes under the act. That is the matter you are referring to, and we are checking as to whether there is a formal referral in the works. There has been a lot of discussion about it.
Senator SCULLION —We love discussion. They do not like it very much at all. They prefer action.
Mr Cochrane —We have provided some considerable assistance to the community in terms of information and assistance with the process.
Senator SCULLION —Yes, and I acknowledge that. It is very useful that you are providing some of the answers, Mr Cochrane. I know that you actually have a great deal of experience in north Australia with the management of Kakadu and those sorts of areas. It would seem to me that the Indigenous take of dugong within the areas that are controlled by Kakadu National Park would be a very similar sort of issue in that both species are protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Now that you have some experience in managing a species that is listed and is critically endangered or whatever it is—and my research certainly indicates that the dugong is in far greater trouble than Sula sula at Keeling—in terms of consistency, do you think that the department would have the same approach in terms of traditional access to those species?
Mr Cochrane —It would have the same approach. However, there are some differences. First, I am not aware of any dugong take within Kakadu National Park.
Senator SCULLION —Obviously, dugongs do not walk, and the coastline that abuts the park and the rivers that come under the control of the park are the areas I was referring to.
Mr Cochrane —Sure. As I said, I am not aware of any dugong take within the park.
Senator SCULLION —But are not all dugong on the Northern Territory coast protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act?
Mr Cochrane —Yes, they would be.
Senator SCULLION —So it is similar. Let’s not get picky about it; I think there are some quite clear similarities between the species and our approach, and I think it is a very important matter that we do have some consistency. I am not sure how we have managed that in terms of the dugongs. Certainly, all the information indicates that they are far less populous and more threatened than Sula sula. I would have thought that, given it has been possible somehow through some arrangement to ensure a sustainable take of one species under the EPBC, we should be able to do that with the other species. Do you think there are some similarities in terms of the approach?
Mr Cochrane —In some respects, but there are some significant differences, and in coming to that, the EPBC Act—in, I think, section 2(11)—provides for a relationship with the Native Title Act, and certain activities undertaken by Indigenous people have an exemption of some sort. I might have to defer to my colleagues who are more expert in the act than I, but Indigenous people and their subsistence harvesting are treated differently under the act, whereas the Cocos Islanders are not regarded as Indigenous peoples under the definition of Indigenous peoples under the act.
Senator SCULLION —Whilst that is true, perhaps you could provide me with some advice on this. I understand under section 8.1.6 in the Pulu Keeling National Park Management Plan it states:
During the life of the Plan, the Director may develop, review or update existing operational plans and management strategies for carrying out prescriptions in the Plan dealing with conservation and Park management issues for both the marine and terrestrial areas. These conservation and management issues include but are not limited to:
(a) management of individual species (animal or plant), including native and introduced species;
(b) management of a number of species and/or communities;
And most importantly:
(c) the collecting, taking or harvesting of a species;
I would have thought that was pretty clear. Given that it is Pulu Keeling, I am sure outside of section 4.3 that deals with fisheries, that would be the only sustainable take issue. Given the long discussions we have had about it, I am quite sure that is exactly what it is referring to. Doesn’t this actual part of the management plan give you, as the director mentioned in here, the capacity to manage the collecting, taking or harvesting of a species?
Mr Cochrane —It is there to provide us with the capacity, yes.
Senator SCULLION —Do you think that would be the way, given your experience in these matters, to declare a specific plan of management for a species, or would you simply make it part of the plan? I am not sure about the actual mechanics of how you would achieve that.
Mr Cochrane —There is a provision under the EPBC Act for conservation and management plans—I think that is what they are called—for threatened species. That particular provision was in the Pulu Keeling plan of management was inserted in there so that that would be possible. We are not saying it will happen. It just says that the director may do that, so that means we are not prohibited from doing it.
Senator SCULLION —No. Again, I am not asking for a comment on this, but perhaps there are pieces of correspondence or meetings I am not aware of—in fact, I am sure there have been. With respect to all of the people I spoke to on Cocos (Keeling)—and perhaps I spoke to the wrong ones—every time I have gone there, it was their view that you were going out there and measuring numbers of birds, and any minute you will come up with that management plan for a sustainable take. That is their view. It is their view clearly through all of the correspondence, from all the meetings and all their interactions, that that is your intent. If it was your intent to say you would not look at that, I would have thought that would have emerged over the many years we have been doing this. A plan of management can have zero take, and that would be most appropriate in many of the circumstances you are talking about where there has been a natural disaster or there is something affecting the population. We have plenty of experience of that in Australia on the mainland with a whole range of species. Are there other meetings or some other particular position that has been taken, that I am not aware of, that would change that situation—that situation being that everybody at the moment understands what you are doing is moving towards a plan of management that will have a level of sustainable take, from zero to whatever?
Mr Cochrane —I believe there is probably a communication issue then, because my understanding of the position was that, under the act, if someone wants to harvest a protected species it needs to be referred under the act and there needs to be a proponent, and the Director of National Parks is not the proponent under this. My understanding from community meetings was that the community itself intended to be the proponent. We have tried to play a supporting role in providing information and assisting them with the process, but at the end of the day it is the community that is seeking to undertake these actions. We have made provision in plans of management, if this referral is successful, that it can be put in place. But I am certainly not of the impression that it is actually our responsibility to develop this on our own initiative.
Senator SCULLION —The congress leased you the island. When they leased you the island they said the fundamental part of making this a national park, which would never have happened without congress agreeing to it—and there is no doubt that the nature of the iconic biodiversity represented in that park is important—was that the deal was that you developed a management plan. But with everything I am hearing from you now, I know we can pick up the body language, and I know you well and I have a great deal of respect for you. The deal was that you developed a plan of management. We are 10 years later. I know how capable you are. I know how capable Environment Australia is. I know the surveys have been done for the last five years. It just seems completely incongruous to me and to anyone else who has had a look at the situation that you are now telling me that that is their responsibility to do all of that, that the community will have to come up as a proponent. Who else in the Australian government would be there, if you think it is perhaps inappropriate for Environment Australia to be playing that role, to assist a community to ensure that the Commonwealth meets its obligations? They have met their obligations. They have been a community who have said, ‘Okay, we have now placed a moratorium on the taking of seabirds,’ and it has gone on and on and on. Who do you think that they should then look to if Environment Australia are perhaps not the ones? You have just said it is not appropriate that you are the proponent, and I can understand that, but where would they seek assistance from, given that this is a fundamental part of an agreement that apparently we are trying to meet?
Mr Early —I am not sure that that is actually accurate. My memory may be a little behind, but my understanding is that the deal, if you would like to categorise it that way, was that the national park was declared, and the main obligation that the Commonwealth met was the buying and handing over of the Clunies-Ross house, Oceania House, to the community. I know that there was some discussion at the time about possible booby harvest, but my understanding is that it was on the side, it was not actually part of the agreement.
As Mr Cochrane said, part of this may well be a communication issue in terms of people knowing that those things were discussed at the time and thinking that there was some sort of agreement by the Commonwealth. As I said, my memory may be faulty, but I do not think so. I do not think that was actually part of the deal. Essentially it was about Oceania House and North Keeling Island.
Senator SCULLION —I do not have the information to hand. There was an agreement in 1986. I have sourced a copy. If you have a copy of the 1986 agreement that deals in that matter, I would really appreciate it. I cannot find one here or anywhere across the country. I understand that probably the most likely people to have that is you. I understand that that is absolutely black and white in that agreement. There is no question of that at all. It just seems odd that the administrator from the Indian Ocean islands would write in August 2007 and say: ‘I note our discussions and confirm I have spoken to the department in Canberra explaining our understanding of the situation. Congress have withdrawn the proposal regarding vegetation and rearing seabirds. What you are putting to me is that the congress has just simply come up and put an application to go and eat boobies, that this has sort of come out of the blue, and any arrangement, notional or clear understanding with the community may be because of a miscommunication, that maybe someone does not understand or there has been a misunderstanding. So correct me; tell me exactly what the understanding of the Commonwealth is with regard to any agreement to proceed to a sustainable take of Sula sula on Keeling Island.
Mr Early —I cannot tell you precisely because I do not have the documentation in front of me. I was trying to clarify the situation for you. I would not at any stage suggest that the application came out of the blue. We have known since the very beginning that the community wanted to harvest the booby. That has been on the table. All I am saying is that I do not think at any stage the Commonwealth or any minister has actually agreed to that. It has always been: ‘We’ll discuss it and we’ll see what can be done.’
Senator SCULLION —That is not entirely true. I understand the provision in the park plan for permits to be issued for the take of booby birds on Horsburgh Island for periods of time, with that capacity to remain with the director, was a function of the original discussions. Otherwise, why would that have all appeared in your own plans?
Mr Early —I really cannot add anything. I am happy to go back and give you the information on notice.
Senator SCULLION —I acknowledge that there is no mischief, and perhaps I should have given you a little bit more notice. I certainly did not intend to come here to have some sort of confrontation and so you were not able to have the material. If I can put you on notice, at the next set of estimates I would like to be able to comprehensively examine all of the written agreements and the correspondence. That would be very useful. In fact, on notice, could you provide me with that? I am interested only in the correspondence with respect to the agreements about the original lease arrangements and any of the correspondence there has been with regard to this. I acknowledge that there was a whole range of agreements and then suddenly the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act came down. We have had a whole range of other international documents that we are signatory to that now apply because of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. But as far as I and the community are concerned, we had an agreement before all of those things, and when those instruments come down we need to have the capacity to be able to move forward on that.
I do not see any reason at all why we cannot move to a sustainable take in a practical sense, given that we have had a number of surveys take place and it is permissible under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Part 8 of your own plan permits it and obviously would countenance it, because they have given the director approval to do so. I know you have taken that particular part on notice, but I am not sure why we simply do not proceed with it unless that is a policy issue—and I am sure you can take that on notice and you will not answer on a policy matter. I do not think the minister is in a position to provide any extra information on that, and I acknowledge that. If you can provide on notice those things for me and be prepared at the next estimates, we can air this issue in a way that can give some confidence about exactly where we are up to and where we are going with this matter, because it has been a great deal of time. I will just cite these words from Environment Australia:
At the time of the Self Government Determination in 1984 the Commonwealth gave a commitment to the Cocos-Malay people to respect their religious beliefs, traditions and culture. In all interactions and consultations with the Cocos-Malay community, this respect is of great importance.
Of course it is. They see this as a breach of faith. Once of the other reasons I am bringing this up is that they have now said, ‘This has been a breach of faith; I am not entering into negotiations with Environment Australia on Horsburgh Island revegetation or chick rearing.’ That has been since 2007, and still nothing has happened. They tell me now: ‘When people come and see us about managing the gong gong, we are not talking to them. Why would we possibly enter into an agreement with people where we are the only people with skin in the game? We are the only people who say, “We won’t do this, we won’t do that.” We’ve done our side of the deal and they have done nothing.’ This may only be a perception, Mr Early, but my motive for exploring this particular issue is to give some clarity to a community that clearly needs it.
So could you take those questions on notice. Given the lack of clarity on this matter or availability of information, there are another couple of issues for which you can provide answers to questions on notice. If you have them here, please provide it. I refer to the numbers of prosecutions for poaching birds on the island. People go out there to have a wedding so they will go out and poach birds, and I understand there have been some prosecutions.
It may not be a matter for you, but I do know that you have been apprised of the issues associated with the ownership of firearms on Home Island and the incidences of poaching. I understand that this would not normally be a matter for you, but given that the whole islands are in fact a national park, it is very different circumstances, so if you could provide answers to those questions on notice, that would be appreciated.
Mr Cochrane, just on some general questions in regard to North Keeling, I know that you are very interested in ensuring that we maximise opportunities for employment on Home Island. As you know, we have very, very high levels of unemployment, and I suspect, as we have shared the view, that certainly Parks believe there is a high level of opportunity. Perhaps again on notice if you do not have the information here you can provide the numbers of permits for people to actually visit Keeling Island. You may be able to tell me the numbers of Cocos Malays under the act where you train Cocos Malays as guides, because without that they cannot get access to the island. How many Cocos Malays have actually been trained as guides? You might be able to provide that information now.
Mr Cochrane —I was unaware that we had a commitment to train guides specifically. I know that we have been supporting the community in terms of developing some guiding capacity, but I was not aware of any obligation that we had to do that.
Senator SCULLION —It is something that I took out of the management plan. I cannot put my finger on it right now. It was not so much an undertaking but the legislation provided that you cannot become a tour guide unless you receive training from Parks. Is that correct?
Mr Cochrane —I think you are correct.
Senator SCULLION —I think that is the case. Please provide me with the numbers if that has happened at all. I will certainly provide you on notice with the reference in your plan.
Given the unemployment directly adjacent to this park, I notice under section 4.3 there are some restrictions on fishing around the island. Recreational fishing is permitted, and I think it is restricted to trawling. I do not want to get into the details. Any sort of commercial fishing is not permitted, and on the face of it I understand why that would be the case. Commercial fishing extends to somebody as a guide from the local island taking someone out trawling with them and taking the same bag limit as is permissible on the island by a recreational fisher. It would seem that it is an impediment to employment, given that it does not matter if Senator Wong and the officers at the table are all fish, they are four fish, and they are taken out of the ocean onto a boat; the environment is only less four fish. It does not matter at all whether or not one is sold.
I just cannot understand how this is really an environmental control. I understand that in terms of sustainable use, they already have a take. You are only allowed to take so many. There is a differential between, let us say, a fishing tour operator, one of the local island Malays who wishes to take a tourist out to the island to catch fish and put it on the boat exactly the same as he would—there is a bag limit—and he can then have an employment. I know that that is not permitted under the act. Could you take that into consideration? I know that from time to time you review the act, because it does seem like a clear impediment to employment that would have no impact on the environment whatsoever, given that there are existing bag limits and there are controls in terms of the definition of ‘recreational fisher’. If the definition of ‘commercial’, simply because he makes money out of taking you out rather than being an industrial fisher, was somehow dealt with, I think that would make a great deal of difference. Could you talk to me just briefly about your capacity to be able to interact? What is the timing? What are your views on that?
Mr Cochrane —I would like to take the question on notice as to how we treat recreational fishers and/or charters. Just coming back to the first part of your question, in terms of permits, we have permitted three commercial tour operators to Pulu Keeling, and in the last financial year we granted 46 entry permits to the island. Secondly, in terms of how we would treat what I assume would be a charter operation taking recreational fishers out to the island, I would need to take that on notice. It does happen in some places, but I would be very surprised if there was a substantial income to be generated by a small operation travelling out 24 kilometres over the open ocean to Pulu Keeling to take recreational bag limits, if they did apply. Nonetheless, you might be right, so let me take it on notice.
Senator SCULLION —With respect, you know my background. I have a great deal more experience in that matter than you, Mr Cochrane, and in terms of commerciality or opportunities to make money, I can tell you that Pulu Keeling is an amazing place. To go there as a tour operator, there are a number of experiences to be had. One of them maybe the taking of a fish, to take home for the barbeque as part of a complete package. As you know, in tourism it is the diversity of the package that often makes the quality of the package. That is my view. I would appreciate it if you could perhaps take that on notice. I have read the plan and I do know that that is currently prohibited, as I understand it.
Senator SIEWERT —I have a general question about funding and then I will go to Christmas Island issues. How much of the new NRS and IPA funding that has been committed has already been spent and what it has been spent on in the categories of what is going into the state reserve system, IPAs and private protected areas?
Mr Cochrane —I can give you some information. I might have to take some of that on notice. With respect to the National Reserve System, the allocation for the National Reserve System this year is $25.7 million out of Caring for our Country. The minister has approved the expenditure of all of that for applications that have come in. In terms of money out the door, however, 18 properties have been approved for purchase out of those funds. Contracts for the majority of those are still under negotiation. Most of that money is not out the door yet. I do know that one property has been concluded and I am sure I will get questions on it, and I refer to Toorale Station.
Senator SIEWERT —I will leave that to others to ask questions on.
Mr Cochrane —That expenditure has been made. In terms of Indigenous protected areas, 24 out of the 25 declared IPAs were funded this financial year, or sought funding and have had that approved. There are 33 consultation projects that have been approved, and two other projects for co-management consultations have been approved—so 24 declared IPAs, 33 consultation projects and two co-management projects. Of all of those, we have signed 38 contracts, which actually cover 45 projects, and we still have 14 contracts under negotiation.
Senator SIEWERT —I do not expect you to provide this now, but would you provide on notice a list of the projects for both the NRS—and I appreciate there may be some commercial-in-confidence.
Mr Cochrane —I can provide the IPA projects but not the NRS projects because they are only released if there is a successful purchase. As I have answered many times, they are commercial-in-confidence until the deals are done.
Senator SIEWERT —Okay; I will follow that up in May. What I am also keen to know is how the properties match against priority bio-regions, for example. I appreciate that you cannot answer that until they are actually purchased.
Mr Cochrane —That is correct.
Senator SIEWERT —I will continue to follow that up. If the contracts are not signed, sealed and delivered by the end of June, does that money stay in the bank for those properties, or do we run into problems with next year’s budget?
Mr Cochrane —No; we put a provisional list of projects up to the minister as well, which he has also approved. So if some fall over, for whatever reason, we have if you like a B list. I have told you that we had 18 properties approved. Another six are subject to funding, but that is out of a total of over 100 applications for funding, so we had a lot of choice.
Senator SIEWERT —It is not just if they fall over. If, due to circumstances beyond your control—you still want them and the seller is still willing—it cannot get signed off by June, we do not lose the funding?
Mr Cochrane —No, but it is also why we ask the minister to approve more projects than there is available funds for.
Senator SIEWERT —So you take one from one year and put it in there?
Mr Cochrane —Yes, correct.
Senator SIEWERT —I am just trying to make sure that we do not have the same thing that happened when $6 million worth of hotspot money got handed back. I never want to see money for biodiversity handed back. I now turn to Christmas Island. I may need to ask the department, and it may need to come under the EPBC section, but I am keen to follow up on what has happened with the court case. Last time we had estimates, as I understand it, advice was going to go back to the minister from the department on the mining issue. I am keen to know where that is at. Shall I ask it now?
Mr Early —Yes, senator, we might as well deal with it now. Essentially, because of the time lapse since the original application and the court case decision, which was quite a long time, on the basis of legal advice we have asked PRL if there is any new information that they need to provide because the decision has to be made at the time it is made rather than on the basis of it being a couple of years old. They have until 31 March to get back to us. Then the process will continue. Depending on what they say, we may need to go out for public comment again to get comment on what the company has said. Then it will go through the process of the minister making a new decision.
Senator SIEWERT —What criteria would you use to make a decision about whether you would go out for public consultation again?
Mr Early —Mr Burnett may have another view, but I guess it just depends on whether we consider it to be significant new information that will be a key issue in the minister’s decision making. If that is the case, I think it would be appropriate for it to be released for public comment.
Senator SIEWERT —PRL has until when to report back any significant change?
Mr Burnett —By 31 March.
Senator SIEWERT —What is the time frame then for the department to decide whether it is new information?
Mr Burnett —I am not sure that there is a time frame. The court set aside the previous minister’s final decision, but not all the preliminary stages, so it goes back into that end stage. I am not sure as a matter of legal interpretation whether the standard decision making time frame applies or not.
Senator SIEWERT —Could you maybe take that on notice? I am obviously keen to find out what the process is from here, how you decide what a significant change is, how the community finds out what is going on and how the minister makes a decision. It seems to me that there is a potential that the community can get cut out of making any comment here on what could potentially be a significant decision by the minister, if the minister overturns the previous minister’s advice.
Mr Burnett —We will take it on notice, but as Mr Early said, we are talking about if there is any significant new information. We are talking about factual information. We would have to take into account how significant it was, and if there is any doubt about it. It may be absolutely incontestable factual information; just developments that have occurred since the original decision. It is not a matter of going out for comment in terms of opinion. The minister is required to make a fresh decision, and it is just a question of whether there is any significant new information that he should take into account in making that decision.
Senator SIEWERT —If the minister makes a decision different from the decision made previously, it seems to me that any new advice the minister receives would be significant and that should be out there before the community.
Mr Burnett —I just want to emphasise that it is not new advice; it is new information.
Senator SIEWERT —Okay, new information. I would have thought that anything that would be of such significance that the minister changes his decision should go out for public discussion.
Mr Burnett —I think that is a call the minister will have to make once the information has come in, and the department has advised him on whether it is significant.
Senator SIEWERT —With all due respect, it seems to me that we are on new ground here. If you cannot tell me what the legal process is from here, or what the process is under the act, how can we be confident that we will not end up in the same place that we ended up before, which is in court?
Mr Early —We cannot be confident in any way, because it will be a new decision which will be appealable under the act.
Senator SIEWERT —But at the moment you cannot even tell me what the process is that you will use.
Mr Early —I think we have. The process is as Mr Burnett said: the court has intervened and said that the final part of the process was flawed and therefore has to be made again, so everything still stands. It is essentially a matter of giving the company natural justice in terms of being able to put forward new information. We agree with you; if the new information is significant then we will go out and seek public comment on that if the minister decides that that is significant enough. Otherwise the minister will simply make another decision. It is only the very last step that has to be made again. Everything else stands.
Senator SIEWERT —It is not the very last step, with all due respect, because you have gone out for new information from the company. If you have gone out for new information from the company—and I appreciate why you have to do that—surely you need to go out for new information from the community?
Mr Early —We are not saying we will not, but that is a decision that the minister has to make. For example, if the company comes back with nothing new, why delay the process? If there is nothing contestable, it is just a waste of time. We will go down that path.
Senator SIEWERT —Could you take on notice the actual steps and the time line, because I understand from your answers that you cannot tell me at the moment. I would appreciate it sooner rather than later, because obviously that decision could be made in the relatively near future.
Mr Early —Yes.
Senator SIEWERT —I have other broader questions which I direct to Mr Cochrane in terms of Christmas Island specifically. I have some funding issues, and it will not surprise you to learn that I have questions about pipistrelle bats, which may be in fact questions that the department needs to take a bit later. In terms of funding for Christmas Island, could you tell me how many FTEs are currently in place for the administration of Christmas Island?
Mr Cochrane —Not for the administration of Christmas Island, but in terms of park staff—
Senator SIEWERT —Sorry—management.
Mr Cochrane —I hasten to add that our park staff on Christmas Island are funded from a number of sources as well. Some come directly out of my budget; some are funded out of the rehabilitation money that we received via the Attorney-General’s Department from the conservation levy on the island. We also have some new policy proposal funds which are employing staff at the moment to control crazy ants or to provide additional effort on crazy ants.
Senator SIEWERT —I have questions on crazy ants also.
Mr Cochrane —Current staffing at the moment on the island is 28. Some of those are involved in the management of Cocos as well, because we transferred a position over to Christmas Island to harvest some efficiencies of operations.
Senator SIEWERT —Some are project staff?
Mr Cochrane —Yes. I would have to take on notice exactly what the break-up would be of project staff.
Senator SIEWERT —That would be appreciated. I am also keen to know how the staff numbers have fluctuated over the last, say, 10 years?
Mr Cochrane —I can tell you that it has grown. In 2003-04 we had 12 staff on the island, and that has grown steadily over the subsequent years to its current level.
Senator SIEWERT —Thank you for that. Can I now move to bats? I do not know if you are the person whom I should be asking.
Mr Cochrane —You can try me; I am not a bat expert.
Senator SIEWERT —I understand that a number of reports have been done around the biodiversity on Christmas Island, and a report was concluded in March 2007, is that correct?
Mr Cochrane —Christmas Island is a very popular place for researchers, partly because of its uniqueness. We have had a large number of scientists visit the island, both to do work that we have commissioned and also who have come voluntarily to do their own work. A number of papers have been published from work on the island, so I am not sure to which one you are referring.
Senator SIEWERT —I am told there is a summary and seven specific reports into the biodiversity and monitoring program that was done for the Department of Finance and Deregulation and the environment department.
Mr Cochrane —There is a final report that we provided to the Department of Finance and Deregulation from the project that they funded on island over three years.
Senator SIEWERT —Has that been given to the department?
Mr Cochrane —It has been provided to the department of finance, yes.
Senator SIEWERT —How long ago was that?
Mr Cochrane —The second half of last year. I am happy to provide it and I am happy to tell you when we gave it to them.
Senator SIEWERT —That would be appreciated. Have they ever been publicly released?
Mr Cochrane —No, because essentially it was a consultancy that the department of finance funded us to do, and we provided them with the final report.
Senator SIEWERT —So the ownership of the report is with the Department of Finance and Deregulation?
Mr Cochrane —Yes. I would be surprised if they had any difficulty with our making it available to you, but we had better check.
Senator SIEWERT —If you could, that would be appreciated. It will actually save me going into that estimates and asking them for it. If you could ask them, and if you could make it publicly available, that would be very much appreciated.
Mr Cochrane —Certainly.
Senator SIEWERT —Did part of that report—and I will obviously be able to read this for myself if you provide it—deal with the pipistrelle bat?
Mr Cochrane —Yes.
Senator SIEWERT —Did it talk about its conservation status?
Mr Cochrane —It did. We have had a number of reports on the pipistrelle bat, not just those ones, and I have one in front of me that is a draft report from 21 January this year as well.
Senator SIEWERT —Is that the one that has been highlighted in the media?
Mr Cochrane —Yes. In fact, we have a report from 1999, done by the same researcher, into the pipistrelle bat, so it has been a very well studied animal.
Senator SIEWERT —I think that is the point I am getting to. It sounds like there have been a number of reports. Estimates of how many bats we have left vary, but we are down to the last few and I am keen to know why we are at this point. We are now debating whether we should catch the last remaining few and use them for a captive breeding program or go with the alternative, which I believe the minister is going with, of setting up a program with—I have forgotten the particular name—
Mr Cochrane —The Pipistrellus westralis.
Senator SIEWERT —That is it, the micro-bat, and going with that alternative program. I am wondering why it has been so long before we reached this point where it is literally at the tip of becoming extinct?
Mr Cochrane —As I said, it has been studied quite intensively for a long period of time. As a result of those studies, in 2004 a recovery plan was made for the species, and we have been progressively implementing the actions in that ever since. Its numbers continue to decline, and in 2006 it was listed as critically endangered. We have put a lot of work into implementing the recovery plan actions, but the overall situation is quite well summarised in the report we received in January this year, and that is we are still no clearer on the causes of its decline. There are still a number of hypotheses around as to what might be causing it, but none of the evidence so far is conclusive either way. We have not been able to rule anything in or out, which is making management of it in the field very difficult for us. The major actions that have been recommended by our consultants and scientists involved in this have been to protect the remaining known roost trees, and we have done that. We have created artificial roosts, and protected them from what were thought to be the current predators. The bats did not use those, and their numbers continue to decline. It is a very vexed issue for us when no-one can point to clear management actions for us to take, other than the ones we have taken. Now we are at the point where there appear to be a very small number left.
Senator SIEWERT —Could you outline very briefly the reasons for the decision that was taken in terms of going for the particular breeding program that you have gone for? I have two sets of advice: one set says that is the best, and another set from the people involved in the research suggesting it would be better to capture the remaining population. I am just wondering what advice you received, and why you went for one particular approach over the other?
Mr Cochrane —I should say the minister has been very concerned about this, and when this issue came to our attention in the current state that it was, he immediately asked the Threatened Species Scientific Committee for advice on this, which is his statutory committee on these sorts of matters. They looked at the material that has been amassed on the bat—the history of it—and they expressed some concerns about going straight into a captive breeding program when there seemed to be so few left. I have to say I share those concerns quite strongly. From reading the January draft report, they could not trap the last animals they saw, and they observed them actively avoiding the traps, which is fairly unusual behaviour because in the past they have been quite easy to capture. They were actively avoiding the nets that the researchers had put up. That was unusual. Secondly, there were a couple of individuals that actively avoided them repeatedly. The first point is that they are clearly difficult to catch. Secondly, she at least inferred from their behaviour that the four animals she saw in her most recent survey were probably lactating females, so looking after young. Again, that raises some real questions as to whether you would try to capture them, in addition to the fact that they seemed to be difficult to capture.
Then there is quite a bit of literature about how they can be quite difficult to raise in captivity for long periods. There is some experience with different species, but generally the commentary in the literature that I have found suggests that they can be difficult to rear and sustain for a long period of time, and that is what we would have to do. So, the dilemma we face is that we re-double our efforts to find out what is going on in the wild, or there is a risk of our watching them die in front of us in cages. It is an invidious position to be in; hence the Threatened Species Scientific Committee’s advice to pull together an expert group to review all the evidence and look at what has been done. This question of the decline of the pipistrelles is not an isolated issue on Christmas, as you would know. There are two other mammal species that went extinct on the island shortly after Europeans arrived. Another one has not been seen since 1985, and some of our reptile species are in serious decline as well. So there is a long history of the biodiversity on this island being under sustained pressure. The Threatened Species Scientific Committee said that they really need to look at this on a whole-of-island basis rather than on a single species basis.
Senator SIEWERT —When is the expert committee due to report?
Mr Cochrane —They have had a teleconference already. We are still assembling the committee to meet on island within a few weeks. Associate Professor Bob Beeton, who chairs the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, has taken a very strong interest in this and has offered to chair the expert working group. It is a question now just of the logistics of getting the right people on the island. I will provide you on notice the list of names.
Senator SIEWERT —That would be appreciated.
Mr Cochrane —They are amongst Australia’s leading conservation biologists.
Senator SIEWERT —My understanding is that the panel will be doing its review but there is a commitment of funding for captive breeding.
Mr Cochrane —Sorry, you did ask that question. The other actions that the minister has signalled in his press release are as follows. As you pointed out, we are undertaking a trial captive breeding program on a related species: another small pipistrelle, which is abundant in the Darwin area. The Territory Wildlife Park in the Northern Territory has agreed to do this work, to capture them and raise them. We need to understand more about the diet of these animals. Very little is known about the Christmas Island pipistrelle’s diet. Nothing is known about breeding it or the husbandry techniques—what sort of cages we would need and what sort of hygiene measures we would need to undertake. One hypothesis for its decline is disease. That is another thing that we have to be very mindful of—we may make the situation worse by bringing the remaining ones together in a cage, for example. So the Territory Wildlife Park will undertake a trial program for us. They are currently assessing whether one of their current fauna-holding facilities is suitable. We need to make sure that they are rat-and snake-proof, because snakes have been implicated, possibly, in the decline of the bat.
At the same time, we are also identifying where we can do an on-island captive-breeding program ourselves. We are doing that in parallel. We are identifying what food we would need to bring. I would hope we would just use native species but we are going to have to provide an adequate food supply for the bats. Elsewhere in the world they have been raised on mealworms, but we would have to bring mealworms onto the island. All of those are just logistics things, but we are working our way through them carefully to make sure that we do not make the existing situation worse.
Senator SIEWERT —I have some more questions on ants but I will put them on notice.
CHAIR —Ant questions will be on notice; that is good.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thank you for your time today, Mr Cochrane. I would like to quickly follow up on some issues around Kakadu and the introduction of fees there, which I understand will take place from 1 April 2010.
Mr Cochrane —That is correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Information provided, possibly to the House, suggests the income you have budgeted to be derived from those fees. If you have those figures, perhaps you could take us through them just to check that what I have is accurate.
Mr Cochrane —Yes. The question was asked as to what total revenue was expected from the reintroduced fees for this current financial year. That is nil because it is being introduced on 1 April 2010. We anticipate that it will bring in $1.169 million in the next financial year and $3.897 million in subsequent years.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —In regards to the use of those fees and the government funds going into Kakadu, is it the intention that the money generated by the charging of those fees will be additional to the recurrent government funding for Kakadu?
Mr Cochrane —It will, and it will be retained by the park.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So it will be retained by the park and totally isolated, and there will be no offsetting cut to government recurrent funding?
Mr Cochrane —No cut to the forward estimates that are provided for my budget.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —What is the expectation, then, as to the usage of those fees and the revenue generated?
Mr Cochrane —They will be applied to the management of the park. Entry fees in a full year will make up nearly a quarter of our park budget, so they will be applied to visitor management and weed and feral animal control across the board. Were we not to get those fees, we would obviously have a consequent reduction in effort across the board.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —It is not that you would have a consequent reduction in effort, because you do not have the fees at present and the government is not cutting your funding. Presumably you will be able to actually have an increase in activity and output as a result of getting the fees from 2010.
Mr Cochrane —The fees are replacing the supplementation that we receive at the moment. When the former Prime Minister abolished the fees in 2004, he replaced the income we lost with supplementation.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Okay. So the fees are in fact replacing some government funding.
Mr Cochrane —They are—specific time-limited funding that was provided.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —How much is the park receiving and how much is Kakadu in particular receiving from that special funding?
Mr Cochrane —Currently, this year, we receive $4.432 million from the supplementation.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That means there will actually be a cut in funding, a reduced funding availability, going on from 2010-11. Is that correct?
Mr Cochrane —That is a hypothetical question because we have not come to this year’s budget for next year.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —The $4.432 million is a special allocation. It is specifically to make up for not having the fees?
Mr Cochrane —It was continued on from the former government’s supplementation, yes; that is correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So it is your hope that the shortfall between that $4.432 million and the revenue that you will generate from the charging of entrance fees will be made up in the budgetary process?
Mr Cochrane —It is my hope.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Otherwise there will have to be a reduction of a touch over $1 million, approximately, in operations in Kakadu?
Mr Cochrane —That is the hypothetical question.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —It is, although at present you do not have the funding going forward, so we can only budget on what you have at present. So it is hypothetical, yes, but perhaps it is less hypothetical than actually having the funding made up at this point in time.
There has been some commentary recently, during January in particular, about the management of Kakadu and the state of infrastructure there from a visitor perspective. It was quite critical about the state of infrastructure. Is there an urgent need for more significant capital injection to Kakadu?
Mr Cochrane —If you will indulge me, I will make a comment on that media article, because it was not a particularly good example of the work of a journalist who otherwise researches his articles very well. His sources were very limited for his views, I would have to say, and he did not appear interested in obtaining information from the park. His article was unfortunate in a number of ways, not the least being the information that it had. He had some incorrect visitor numbers in it, for example. It was a little misleading. Having said that, his article provoked some quite strong responses from a number of senior tourism industry representatives, who pointed out in letters to editors that were published and others I am aware of that newspapers chose not to publish that the park has been very serious about addressing visitor concerns for the last five or six years. There have been some substantial investments in replacing and upgrading visitor infrastructure and in completely refocusing our approach to visitors. The article that you are referring to failed to make any comment on or acknowledgement of some very substantial efforts over the last four years to address visitor issues.
Having said that, it is a very large park. It has a lot of infrastructure in it. It gets a fair punishing from the wet season, roads in particular, so there is a very high recurrent expenditure in the park on replacing, upgrading and just repairing some basic infrastructure like tracks and roads. When we have bad or particularly severe wet seasons, the damage can be a lot worse. Some of that in recent years we have reclaimed on insurance for damage where it can be attributed to a specific event. I have probably answered your question, I hope, in large part.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —You have, at least in part, certainly recognising that, yes, there are annual pressures on Kakadu. I guess my question was going more particularly to at least some of the suggestions in the article that overall the state of infrastructure in the park is tired, to put it that way, and it needs refreshing perhaps more than annual maintenance budgets can achieve.
Mr Cochrane —That is probably a fair comment in some respects. There are significant parts of our infrastructure which do need refreshing. We have an annual maintenance program in which we schedule progressive refreshing of our infrastructure, but we cannot do all of that in any one year, so at any one time we will have infrastructure which probably does not look its best.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —A quote within the article was attributed to a Parks Australia spokesman in Canberra:
The main reason it hasn’t been upgraded is that there hasn’t been traditional owner acceptance that this is the right thing to do,” said a Parks Australia spokesman in Canberra.
The main reason it hasn’t been upgraded is that there hasn’t been traditional owner acceptance that this is the right thing to do.
I think that was talking about one of the access roads. You suggested that the journalist had not been eager to speak to parks spokespeople or speak to parks authorities. Is that an accurate quote from a Parks Australia spokesperson?
Mr Cochrane —It is fairly vague. You are correct—there was a quote from a Parks Australia spokesperson in reference to the Jim Jim Road, which is a long gravel road, and there are occasional calls for it to be upgraded and sealed. There is resistance from at least some traditional owners to that. There is also resistance in some quarters of the tourism industry to doing that because there is an argument that the gravel road and approach to Twin Falls and Jim Jim Falls is part of the experience and that sealing it would detract from that experience. So there are varying views as to what we should do with that road, but we certainly need to at the very least regrade it and occasionally repair it from year to year. It is an ongoing cost for us.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Whilst the cost of sealing it would be significant, that would reduce the ongoing maintenance cost?
Mr Cochrane —That is correct, yes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Is it an option that is still on the table or under discussion?
Mr Cochrane —It would be an option on the table, absolutely, but it would need traditional owner agreement to do it. The board would need to agree, as it is a very significant investment in the park.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Is it likely to be considered by the board again in the next 12 months? Does it feature in your immediate plans?
Mr Cochrane —It has come up probably each year for the last few years in terms of what we do and what is the right approach to it. If you take a long lifetime approach to it—say, over 15 years—it would probably make economic sense to seal it, but we do need to deal with the different views of both traditional owners and the tourism sector about what the best approach would be.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —How long is the road, out of curiosity?
Mr Cochrane —I am sorry, I do not have that in my head.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Take that on notice.
Mr Cochrane —I will take that on notice.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —If it is coming up for discussion at the board every year and over a medium- to long-term period it makes economic sense, it sounds like there is a particular stumbling block in terms of the ability to take it through the board, partly due to the board’s composition or structure and the need to be mindful of those cultural issues. Are there particular steps being taken to address those cultural concerns by the Indigenous owners?
Mr Cochrane —It is not just traditional owners; it is also some of the tourism sector who would prefer to keep the experience as it is. In terms of addressing the issue, the cost of repairing it will come up in the next year’s budget discussions. I cannot give you an answer as to whether we will finally come to grips with that question this year, next or the year after, but we are getting closer to a point where we are going to have to make that decision.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thanks, Mr Cochrane. I am sure we will follow it up as you get through those budget discussions in the next couple of years.
CHAIR —Are there any further questions for national parks? If not, thank you very much, Mr Cochrane and Mr Burnett. That concludes questioning of that agency.
CHAIR —We will now move to departmental questions in relation to output 1.1—Energy efficiency and climate change action.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I might just take this opportunity to pursue one or two general departmental issues before we go into the specifics. Firstly, in relation to Ms Kruk’s appointment, what was the process followed for her appointment?
Senator Wong —Departmental secretaries are appointed by the Prime Minister, and I believe it is generally on the advice of the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, as was the case under your government.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —When did Mr Borthwick provide his notice of resignation?
Senator Wong —We will help you as far as we can, but these are probably matters that should be addressed to the Prime Minister’s portfolio. Neither Mr Garrett nor I make this appointment; this is an appointment made by the Prime Minister.
Mr Early —I do not know the exact dates—we could give them to you on notice—but my recollection is that Mr Borthwick announced he was retiring some time in early to mid-December, and 2 January was his last day.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I note the minister’s point that these may be best pursued with PM&C, and we will put some of those on notice if need be. I just note that Ms Kruk was most recently, I think, Director General of the Department of Premier and Cabinet. In leaving that post the New South Wales Premier, Mr Rees, said that she had advised him that she did not feel she had the level of energy required to lead the New South Wales Public Service for the next 2½ years and beyond, which struck me as a strange comment. I note it is attributed to Premier Rees rather than to Ms Kruk, but, Minister, I am taking from your earlier comment that it is not something you will be commenting on and you would prefer us to put those questions through finance and public administration.
Senator Wong —First, I do not think I need to comment on something the Premier of New South Wales said about someone. Second, I am not sure what your point is in relation to a member of the Public Service. I am not sure what point you are trying to make or what implication you are trying to draw, Senator.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —No, I am trying to at least explore the issue. Mr Rees has obviously had a conversation about issues, and it did not seem to be a commitment to New South Wales that he cited as being the problem. If she had wanted to leave the New South Wales Public Service, that would have been understandable, but, as I indicated, that is fine. We will put a few questions on notice, Minister.
Senator Wong —What implication are you seeking to make, Senator?
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I am just, as I said, trying to ascertain the process.
Senator Wong —Well, I think you should be—
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I am trying to ascertain the process—
Senator Wong —No, that is not a question—
Senator BIRMINGHAM —that occurred—
Senator Wong —About?
Senator BIRMINGHAM —The discussions that may have occurred between the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Ms Kruk—whether Mr Rees’s comments were explored with Ms Kruk in relation to her appointment.
Senator Wong —One of the things that occurred under your government was extraordinary political commentary, discussion and, frankly, at times disrespect to the Public Service, Senator Birmingham. I would hope that you would be a senator who would not go down that path. Ms Kruk has been appointed by the Prime Minister on merit. If you want to make political commentary about a person who will be a secretary of a Commonwealth department and who has as yet not started, that is a matter for you.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Minister, I am not attempting to make political commentary and I am not attempting to make any allegations about or cast slurs on Ms Kruk. I am simply attempting to pursue something that was put on the public record by the Premier of New South Wales and ascertain any corrections to the statements that he may have made in that regard.
Senator Wong —I think everybody knows what you are trying to do, Senator Birmingham.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thanks, Minister.
Senator Wong —Everybody knows.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thank you.
Senator Wong —And generally I would have thought better of you.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Well, we are off to a good start.
Senator Wong —Yes, we are.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Could I go to some staffing matters identified in the additional estimates statements. Page 31 indicates that the average staffing level of the department under outcome 1 will increase by 146 in 2008-09 from the originally budgeted amount. This followed, of course, earlier announcements. Is there a revision to that expected figure following the UEFO announcements?
Mr Thompson —We do expect some revision to that.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That revision, I assume, given the additional expenditure, will be upwards?
Mr Thompson —It depends on reorganising priorities within the department as well, but we have not reached a final position on that.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So you cannot give us updated estimates of the expected staffing numbers at this stage?
Mr Thompson —Not at this point, sir, sorry.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —You may need to take this on notice, but, in terms of the 146 that are stated, are you able to provide a breakdown of the level of positions that are being filled?
Mr Thompson —Yes. I will take that on notice.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thanks, Mr Thompson. If you cannot give us an update for this year at this stage, following UEFO, presumably you are not in a position to give us an update for future year forecasts either at this point?
Mr Thompson —That is right.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Perhaps you could take those on notice. If you are able to provide them for the period, excellent; if not, I am sure we will see them in the budget papers when they come out soon enough. Thank you. Could I turn to the Green Loans program, firstly. Is the assessor program completed yet?
Mr Carter —Senator, as we have mentioned a number of times in estimates, the Green Loans program is a complex program and has quite a number of elements to it, which certainly progressed well on the development of training of assessors and of the support that goes into both the accreditation and the online tools that those assessors need to use. My most recent numbers on assessors show that we have completed the training of some 589 assessors and we are on schedule at the moment, I think, to complete by the end of March the training of some 830 assessors. So the assessment components of the program are certainly well on track.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —With the completion of 589 assessors, are people now able to seek assessment under the program?
Mr Carter —Senator, the launch of those elements of the program has not occurred yet.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Are the guidelines for the program finalised?
Mr Carter —The program guidelines are not yet finalised, Senator.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Why is that the case?
Mr Carter —Senator, as I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of components to the program. The minister has been intimately involved in the elements of the program but they need to be packaged into the final guidelines prior to launch of the program.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —When do we expect those guidelines to be finalised?
Mr Carter —Senator, our work on the guidelines is proceeding on schedule, but finalisation is the minister’s decision to make.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Your work on finalising the guidelines is proceeding on schedule, Mr Carter. How is it proceeding on schedule when I thought the green loans were meant to be available at the beginning of this year?
Mr Carter —Senator, the green loans were meant to be available in 2009 and were scheduled to be available this financial year, in 2009.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Are they still going to be available this financial year, 2008-09?
Mr Carter —That is certainly the schedule we are working to, Senator.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —When do you expect those guidelines to be publicly released?
Mr Carter —Senator, I do not have a time frame. The minister would determine the release date.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —By the end of March we will have 830 qualified assessors ready to go out and assess people’s homes, but there are no guidelines to use for assessment?
Mr Carter —Senator, I would be getting outside of the level of information I can provide, because the final decision is one for the minister.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Is the drafting of the guidelines finished? Are they simply with the minister for approval now or you are still finalising issues at a departmental level in the drafting of the guidelines?
Mr Carter —We are still finalising some elements of the program. As I mentioned and as we have discussed before in estimates, the program has quite a number of elements to it, and we are still finalising some of those elements, including some of the negotiations with third parties around that.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —What seems to be holding them up? What are those elements?
Mr Carter —I would not say that there is anything holding up those elements, Senator. They are progressing. There is a level of complexity in the program. We are currently engaging in quite detailed discussion with financial institutions.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That pre-empts another question. That suggests that the matter of the financial institutions, from where the loans will be provided, has not been resolved?
Mr Carter —Not completely, Senator. We have certainly worked in some detail with financial institutions over their preferred mode of delivery of the loan. We have also undertaken research with a number of universities on what the barriers might be to the uptake of those loans, which has informed the characteristics of the discussion with the financial institutions, but we are still going through that negotiation with them.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —It is expected that you will source financing through multiple financial institutions?
Mr Carter —Yes, Senator.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Have contracts been entered into with any financial institutions at this stage?
Mr Carter —No, Senator, not as yet.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So the guidelines are not ready and the contracts have not been entered into with any financial institutions, but we will have 830 assessors ready to roll by the end of March. How many assessments do you expect to be undertaken this financial year? Have you revised any of your estimates at this stage?
Mr Keeffe —We anticipated 9,000 green loans to be issued this year. That would be based on a number of assessments larger than that, but I have to take on notice the exact number of assessments that would lead to that.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Nine thousand is the current plan for this year. In answer to questions on notice from our supplementary budget estimates in October, question on notice No. 54, for the benefit of anyone who wants to look it up, indicated that you were planning to undertake 52,000 assessments in the calendar year of 2009. Is that still the target?
Mr Keeffe —That is still the target, Senator.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I think elsewhere overall figures indicate that throughout the life of the program you estimate that you will need to undertake 300,000 assessments to get about 200,000 takers of the loans?
Mr Keeffe —That is the general equation that the advice has given us.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So we are looking at a two-in-three sort of take-up?
Mr Keeffe —Roughly, yes.
Mr Carter —If I might just add to that: as we have discussed previously, the department’s view is that the assessment process is an incredibly important part of the program and that the energy efficiency gains that come from that assessment in their own right would be quite extensive. The further we explore and research this issue, and in further consultation with industry, the more that point is emphasised to us—the importance of behavioural change. Understanding how to operate within a house that may have energy-efficient appliances and fittings can make a critical difference to the outcome for the householder.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I appreciate that, Mr Carter, and that is a point that you have made very clear previously. So to achieve your target of about 9,000 loans this year, you would expect around 13,000 or 14,000 assessments to be required if that overall two-out-of-three take-up rate is to be applied in this financial year?
Mr Keeffe —That is the calculation.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —How long do you expect the process, of assessment and then application for a loan and so on, to take?
Mr Keeffe —Each assessment would take an hour and a half in-house, and we would expect a full, detailed, sustainability report to be provided to the household within a matter of weeks after that.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So weeks after the assessment somebody gets their report. Then what is the process for applying for a loan from there if they decide to go down that path, as the department is hoping two out of three of them will?
Mr Keeffe —That is one of the areas on which we are working with financial institutions and the Australian Banking Association to have a defined process for. It will be defined in the guidelines, but that is not necessarily finalised yet.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —But, again, one would reasonably expect that to be a matter of weeks as well?
Mr Keeffe —That is correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —At a minimum?
Mr Keeffe —Yes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So we are talking of potentially up to a couple of months between assessment occurring and loan going out the door?
Mr Keeffe —That is correct—well, that is an outer limit.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —An outer limit? Say, six to eight weeks, then. We are talking of a matter of weeks for the written assessment report to be completed—assuming that somebody gets an assessor on their doorstep the day after they have made the phone call—and then a matter of weeks for the loan to be reported: so, six to eight weeks, which means that for anybody to get a loan this year they will need to have an assessment undertaken by the middle of May at the latest, one would have thought?
Mr Keeffe —That is a reasonable calculation.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —It does not leave an awful lot of time if you do not currently have guidelines/financiers in place, and you are looking to have 13,000 or 14,000 assessments undertaken by the middle of May.
Mr Keeffe —When we say that we do not have the finalised guidelines and finalised arrangements in place, that is not to assume that we have not started those processes and that they are not ready for a quick closure once those negotiations occur and decisions are taken.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —In terms of the securing of finance, what impact has the financial crisis had on your ability to secure finance?
Mr Carter —We have certainly had some advice from the Australian Banking Association that the global financial crisis is not expected to have a significant impact on offering loans to low-income households and that the risk factors for household loans in Australia would remain the same. However, as we have indicated earlier, we are not experts in that particular area, and that is a rapidly moving field. We would expect financial institutions to be raising those concerns with us in our current negotiations.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Nonetheless, you think you are on track to get the financial institutions signed up to provide the necessary finance at some stage in the next couple of months, we assume, if we are to meet the 13,000 or 14,000 assessment target this year. Can I turn to the impact on the Green Loans program of some of the other recent policy announcements from the government?
Senator MILNE —Senator, would you mind if I asked a supplementary question just on green loans and we can come back to you?
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I am sticking broadly with green loans, but certainly.
Senator MILNE —I just wanted to ask specifically on the arrangements with the financial institutions: what is the range of the loan subsidy you are going to get? I understand this is actually a loan subsidy scheme where you organise a personal loan and get a subsidy on the interest rate. What is the subsidy the government is proposing to provide?
Mr Carter —Senator, the basis for discussion is for the initial years of the loan to be subsidised fully.
Senator MILNE —Fully subsidised for how long?
Mr Carter —This does depend on the detail of negotiations in terms of the administrative costs as well, but at the moment we are looking at a period of up to four years.
Senator MILNE —Up to four years of full subsidy and then phasing out, or the loan has to be paid out in four years?
Mr Carter —Depending on the nature of the loan, the subsidy would apply for that initial period. Then, if the individual who entered that loan had a longer period, it would return to the normal arrangements with the financial institution for those extended periods.
Senator MILNE —So it is an interest rate subsidy for four years. Thank you.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —And it is a full subsidy of the interest rates? So it is an interest free loan for up to the four-year period?
Mr Carter —Yes, that is the current basis of discussion.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —And the figure remains capped at $10,000?
Mr Carter —Yes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —In regard to the estimates of the environmental benefits as well as, indeed, the take-up of this program—and I think we asked some questions about statements on your website last time about the potential savings of 600,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per annum as a result of the program, and you kindly provided some breakdowns to that in Question on Notice No. 55 from our last time together—and that the range of actions considered in your abatement calculations are some 120,000 homes for ceiling insulation, some 40,000 homes for wall insulation and some 100,000 homes for solar and other high-performance hot-water systems, given the sudden surge of money for nothing for insulation and hot-water service installation and so on, do we still expect people to be taking out green loans to undertake those actions?
Mr Carter —Clearly, for the actions that are now covered in the Energy Efficient Homes package we would expect them not to be taken up via the loan mechanism, and we would need to recast some of the estimates around green loans on what may be taken up in them.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —It is a significant component, I suspect, of the estimates you have provided here and a significant component of the potential greenhouse savings that have been taken out of the Green Loans program by virtue of it being provided free in other programs. You have not made any re-estimates either as to the take-up rate of the Green Loans program or the environmental benefits it is likely to deliver?
Mr Carter —We have not recast those calculations yet. We are happy to take that on notice and to undertake that work. I might add, though, that we had identified insulation and solar hot water as being areas of great interest in energy efficiency because they can achieve great gains at a household level. They are not the exhaustive list of actions an individual householder may take, so there are still significant actions that householders can take that would be available under a green loan. I might also add that, in examining the rollout of the other packages that you have mentioned, we have been having a very detailed consideration of how the green loan and the assessment process might dovetail into that process so that households taking advantage of getting ceiling insulation or solar hot water through those programs would also be made aware of the availability of assessments and of green loans to maximise the benefit of taking up those other offerings of government. We are working through the detail of how that might work at the moment.
To go back to your original question: yes, the Energy Efficient Homes package that has been announced has an implication for the sorts of actions that we thought would be the initial ones that households would look at under Green Loans but, as I mentioned, there are quite a number of other actions that households can take.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I certainly acknowledge that there are other actions householders can take and that it may cause a need for a significant reformatting of your expectations. It strikes me that if an assessor goes out now and walks through somebody’s house and says, ‘Here are the things you could do in your house,’ and the first two or three of them are things that are essentially being provided free under a government program and that they can get done simply without having to go through the hassle of a green loan, then perhaps the two-in-three take-up rate may be a little ambitious as people see easier and potentially cheaper ways for them to achieve the types of benefits and contributions to reducing emissions that they would hope to achieve. Do you think you will need to look further at that two-in-three take-up rate and that, in fact, your assessors may end up driving people more to the insulation programs and other things than to Green Loans?
Mr Carter —I would be cautious about speculating on which direction it may go. The reverse may actually be true: that we might see an increase in interest in Green Loans because people would have taken up the increased offerings on ceiling insulation and solar hot water. That is why I mentioned that we were looking at the detail of being able to provide additional information to households on how they may be able to make the best of those offerings. For example, ceiling insulation will make a large difference to the efficiency of a house that is currently uninsulated, but there are a range of other things that households can do that relate to the way in which, for example, they heat the home and to some of the other appliances that they might be operating in the home. As we were formulating the details of Green Loans, we always anticipated that there would be a prioritised menu or suite of things that a household could choose from that would improve the energy efficiency of their home. Yes, we had assumed that ceiling insulation and solar hot water would feature high up that priority list; however, there would still be quite a range of other options available for householders.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Does the accreditation process for assessors contain details on how people will or can apply for a green loan?
Mr Keeffe —In the basic outlines of it as it has been developed so far, that is part of the training that is being delivered, but further information will be supplied to the trained assessors as we roll out the details.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Obviously. I guess there are limits to what can be given to the assessors at present without having guidelines to give to them. Have assessors, including those currently undergoing their assessment, been provided with information on the other new programs that the government has announced recently?
Mr Keeffe —We are making sure that all of the assessors are aware of all options available to households from Commonwealth, state and territory governments that will improve both the energy effectiveness and the water efficiency of their households.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So all of those details will be provided?
Mr Keeffe —They will be provided, yes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —As a complete kit?
Mr Keeffe —Yes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Was there any consideration of the impact—it does not sound as if there was—of the Green Loans program during the development of the spending package in which the government introduced its new measures for insulation and hot water and otherwise?
Mr Carter —I am unaware of any advice that we provided in that vein.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —As the officers responsible for this program, presumably you would be aware of advice in relation at least to the impact on this particular program.
Senator Wong —That is a hypothetical position, Senator. I just make the point that the Commonwealth and the Rudd Government, in the Nation Building and Jobs Plan, provided the largest investment in energy efficiency in the nation’s history. Yes, as a result, there will be a consequence for a range of other aspects of Commonwealth programs, but our judgement and the judgement of the government is that these are important investments not only for climate change outcomes but also as a stimulus to economic activity.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I acknowledge aspects of that. A lot of the questioning goes, I guess, to the coordination and strategy within government. I think the first time we questioned officers here on the Green Loans program we saw that there was very little knowledge about the detail of the program, despite it being a Labor party election commitment that is now more than 18 months old. We have now gone through, of course, the process of delays in its implementation and, it seems, concerns about whether it will meet its targets, and we are looking now at whether, indeed, you have squeezed the balloon in the sense of public policy on insulation and other things by shifting from one program to another.
Senator Wong —Senator, I think you were in government for 12 years, and you might correct me, but I do not recall you having a green loans program. We delivered in our first budget, and I can certainly speak for my portfolio, part of which is included in this department. The election commitments of the government were funded in our first budget. Of course, a range of programs take some time to roll out. When you are dealing with multimillion-dollar programs which have a range of implementation processes which you have to go through, you do not start them overnight. We funded our election commitments such as those we are discussing in our first budget, and we are implementing a range of, I think, very progressive and important election commitments in this space.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thank you, Minister, for that little speech. We will, I am sure, examine a number of the other issues—
Senator Wong —Well, Senator—
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Minister, each time we front up we get to hear about the 12 years prior, and that is fine.
Senator Wong —Senator Birmingham, I will not give speeches if you stop making gratuitous political commentary, but you will not refrain from doing that, so if you serve it up then you will get it back.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That is fine. As long as we all know where we stand, Minister, that is okay. I am sure it will be a colourful exchange as the day goes on. How much do assessors get paid? It is per assessment, I assume.
Mr Keeffe —I will have to take that on notice, I am sorry, Senator.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I would appreciate it if you could do that and if you could, perhaps, also take on notice this question: in terms of the breakdown of the costs that are budgeted for this program, how much is spent in administration, how much is spent on the assessors and what sorts of fees in addition to the subsidisation of interest are paid to the financial institutions? Those types of details—not all of which, obviously, are currently available—would be appreciated. Thank you. Senator Milne is champing at the bit.
Senator MILNE —I just wanted to follow up on the issue of capacity. Of course, I welcome the retrofit of homes across Australia with ceiling insulation and solar hot water. However, my concern goes particularly to solar hot water and the capacity in certain parts of Australia for trained people—plumbers—with the skills to install. I take that from my own experience in Tasmania, where I had a solar hot water system sitting in my driveway for some months because (a) I just could not get a plumber to come and do a relatively small job in the scheme of things for them and (b) there are not that many with the skills or ability to do it. When I asked Treasury about whether they had modelled capacity across the country to do this, they said that their view was that there is aggregate capacity, but regional differences are very significant in terms of access to skilled tradespeople and training for skilled tradespeople to, maybe, do a short course for special expertise in some of these areas. So I just wondered what analysis you had done or what you are doing to make sure that there is the capacity to have this program delivered in as timely a manner as possible.
Mr Carter —We have certainly been also concerned about capacity issues with the program and have been having discussions with industry. Indeed, in his roundtables last year, the minister was talking to a range of industry stakeholders, including solar hot water rebate. We have had discussion with industry that has given anecdotal examples of where they have been looking at taking on new tradespeople who have been coming out of, for example, downturn mining areas and putting those people through short courses. We have been engaging with the coordinator general process to look at the capacity and training issues and how that might link to some of the government’s funding programs. At this point, industry is indicating to us that they can increase to meet the capacity of it, but we are yet to get all the detailed analysis that would support that and there may need to be other things that we do to try to progress that in DEEWR. We have been talking to DEEWR about the funding that might be available in some of the green job streams.
Senator Wong —Actually, it is quite a valid point, Senator. I do not know where Mr Keeffe and Mr Carter have got to with the Deputy Prime Minister’s department, but certainly that aspect of trying to ensure that some of the skills programs support the programs which have been announced in other aspects of government in this space has been something that has been discussed. I do not have details, obviously. That department is not here today. However, we will see if we can provide any further information on that.
Senator MILNE —I would just follow that up by saying that now that we have managed to secure an increased commitment to reaching a six-star rating on residential buildings as soon as possible across the country, and no later than May next year, and also a commitment to energy-efficient design and energy-efficient features in the infrastructure package for schools, there is a huge, I would suspect, skills gap there and even a capacity gap in providing that kind of expertise quickly to the design of those schools to state governments and also housing authorities and so on. Is there any discussion going on with DEEWR about making the courses for energy auditors and courses in environmental design and implementation of six-star rating and so on permanent parts of TAFE training across the country rather than just auditor training for this particular package?
Mr Oxley —The framework under which training is currently developed and undertaken is quite complex in relation to a broad range of areas of energy efficiency training activities. The National Framework for Energy Efficiency, which is auspiced by the Ministerial Council on Energy, has a particular stream which is all about professional and trades training and accreditation, and under that stream work is being undertaken continuously on a whole range of identified areas where we need to improve the availability of skills in the workforce. I would have to take on notice the sort of activity being undertaken and would be happy to provide you with further information.
Separately to that, the questioning started around solar hot water installations. As part of the national hot water strategy, which was signed off by the Ministerial Council on Energy last year, under which electric-resistance hot water systems are being phased out progressively—the policy of this government and agreed by all governments—there is actually a training component being developed, and our department is in discussions at the moment with an independent service provider to provide training to get more plumbers skilled in the area of installing hot water systems. The department previously has invested under the broad banner of the Low Emissions Technology and Abatement program and the Solar Hot Water Rebate Program in the development of training materials for the plumbing sector in relation to solar hot water. All these things are done in some way in connection with the existing system of providing trades training for the industry skills councils and then delivered by TAFEs and by registered training organisations. So there is connectivity across that system. What we are seeing in response to the emerging uptake of these technologies is increasing focus by government on providing training in these areas.
Senator MILNE —The problem I have is that, whilst I welcome that trend that is going on, there is a disconnect in terms of speed. The government wants $20 billion or more worth of infrastructure with tenders let no later than the end of the year, and most of these major projects will be going up next year. That is a new building in every primary school or in a lot of primary schools, and 20,000 new affordable homes around the country. The training is not going to meet the need if we are to make sure that those buildings are designed for efficiency and have as many of the energy-efficiency components as possible. Is there any mechanism to transfer skills with training, given we have the financial crisis and a lot of people losing their jobs and also given the urgency because of the delivery of the infrastructure package? Are we capable of delivering to maximise the benefits of energy efficiency in the time frame and what can we do to accelerate that focus on training and getting people losing their jobs into this kind of employment?
Senator Wong —Senator, the officers at the table may be able to give you more detailed information on these programs. I think you made some comments somewhat critical of the coordination. I have to just say that these are very substantial and wide-ranging reforms and implementation does not just happen because you say it. You always have to work through in government.
Senator MILNE —No, I understand.
Senator Wong —But sometimes it seems, to be honest, that the view from there is that you would just say it and it happens. Implementation requires an enormous amount of work and an enormous amount of detail. We are seeking to progress an ambitious reform agenda in this space. The officers may be able to give you some further information. I can say to you, and I have just seen, that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have announced another just under $300,000 million investment in employment services for retrenched workers which include the implementation of additional places for training. We are very conscious of the need to provide services as an aspect of economic stimulus responding to the global financial crisis. We are aware of the need to try and integrate those training programs and to try and recognise the training that is required, bearing in mind the other aspects of the government’s stimulus package. I do not have all the detail of what the Deputy Prime Minister is doing. As I said, to you, I am happy to try to provide further information or to arrange for them to have a discussion with you, if you wish. All I can say is that these are matters that we are aware of, and in a range of the areas in which investment is being made we are seeking to take account of them.
CHAIR —Thank you, Minister. It is one o’clock. I think we will now break for lunch. If the officers could come back with an answer after lunch, we will continue examination of this portfolio area then. Thank you.
Proceedings suspended from 1.02 pm to 2.02 pm
CHAIR —We will resume proceedings. There are two things. Senator Milne was expecting an answer to her question. She is not here at the moment, but we will go back to Senator Milne with the answer if she comes. Senator Birmingham has some questions. The other thing is that, with regard to the Australian Antarctic Division, in an attempt to facilitate the officers of the division being able to get back to Hobart tonight, the committee has agreed that we will attempt to deal with the Australian Antarctic Division immediately after we have completed output 1.1 After the Australian Antarctic division we will go back to output 1.2.
Senator TROETH —I would like to ask some questions about insulation. The government announced in its budget in May 2008 a $500 rebate for landlords to install insulation in houses. It also effectively reannounced the program as part of its wider stimulus insulation package last month but also increased the rebate to $1,000. The government is talking up this announcement that 2.7 million homes will get insulation, but from various articles that I have read and some newspaper corroboration it seems that there is not one single pink batt installed between these two programs. Certainly, the Age Melbourne newspaper revealed this on 11 February 2009, and not a single pink batt was funded and installed under the Low Emissions Plan for Renters, which was the first program announced in May last year. I would like to ask: under that plan how many pink batts were actually funded and installed?
Mr Carter —The Low Emission Plan for Renters was in the May budget announcement. We were at the point of submitting guidelines to the minister for approval and for launch of that program when the Energy Efficient Homes stimulus package was formulated, and so we have rolled it into that existing program design with the increase in funding and the number of houses. It is correct to say that not a single piece of insulation has been installed under that program, because the program is yet to be launched.
Senator TROETH —Has there been any explanation to consumers over the fact that they have waited so long for either program to take up? I am not talking about the stimulus package, but the Low Emissions Plan for Renters.
Mr Carter —I will be corrected by my colleague if I am wrong, but I think information on our website would have indicated that the program was yet to be launched but that for it funding had been announced. There would have been that level of communication.
Senator TROETH —That was a program announced as part of the government’s election campaign in 2007, allegedly funded in May 2008, and here we are in 2009 and still nothing is happening.
Mr Carter —It was funded in the May budget last year and was scheduled for launch in early this year. This was on schedule for the launch to occur.
Senator TROETH —At what stage this year?
Mr Carter —We were to submit the draft guidelines to the minister imminently. However, we have revised those guidelines and in fact have provided draft guidelines to the minister for the launch of the program.
Senator TROETH —Will it be the combination of the two packages?
Mr Carter —It will be the combination of the original announced package, which was the $500 for 200,000 homes, the increase to $1,000 and the addition of 500,000 homes to that program.
Senator TROETH —If there has been nothing delivered in all of this time how can there be any reasonable expectation that you will be able to install insulation in 2.7 million homes as a result of the expanded program?
Mr Carter —There has not been any delay in that program’s development. It was announced in the May budget. We have been working on developing the systems and the guidelines to support the rollout of that. We have been meeting the minister’s requirements in that regard and we are at the point of submitting guidelines to him for launch of the program. It was anticipated that it would occur at this point.
Senator TROETH —I understand that the Treasurer in question time yesterday admitted that insulation would have to be imported to fill the orders, but he cannot say how much. Can you give me any idea of your estimation of how much insulation will need to be imported, given that we cannot possibly fill that amount here in Australia?
Mr Keeffe —I am not aware of what the Treasurer has said and would not want to contradict the Treasurer. Our indications from consultations with business are that they can scale up to meet the demand of the numbers that are prefigured in the Low Emissions Plan for Renters.
Senator TROETH —So, there would not be any need to import insulation?
Mr Keeffe —I cannot guarantee that there will be no need to import, but their comments were quite clear that they can meet the demand. Most manufacturing of insulation occurs locally. There is not much import-export trade in it because of its very nature, its size and lack of weight, so most of it is produced in key areas of Australian cities. Where there is an existing downturn in new housing insulation going on because of the financial crisis, the existing manufacturing plants will be shifting their effort into producing insulation for retrofitting houses. They are quite confident.
Senator TROETH —When you say ‘they’, from whom did you seek that statement?
Mr Keeffe —We held a consultation workshop just last week with industry stakeholders from all of the major manufacturers, insulation companies and the Insulation Council of Australia and New Zealand. They were quite consistent in giving us that message at the time.
Senator TROETH —I understand that analysis carried out by Citigroup, quoted in the Australian Financial Review on 6 February, said that to implement the Rudd plan vast imports may have to be ordered, and the spokesman from Citigroup also warned that CSR, who is one of the major insulation manufacturers, said it would see its insulation market permanently depleted within three years because imports would crowd out potential longer term sales.
Mr Keeffe —I am not across the basis of Citigroup’s argument. The range of industry stakeholders at very senior levels was quite confident in their expressions to us. That included CSR.
Senator TROETH —Was CSR at that roundtable?
Mr Keeffe —Yes.
Senator TROETH —Did they make any mention of their worries about supply at that roundtable?
Mr Keeffe —We asked the question about guaranteeing supply and they came back with that response.
Senator TROETH —Were they confident that there was a lot of supply available in the country?
Mr Keeffe —Yes, and a capacity to gear up, which is part of the job stimulus element.
Senator TROETH —Was any modelling or research done prior to the announcement of the stimulus package to ensure that Australian manufacturers could meet this need?
Mr Keeffe —I am not aware of any information, but I will check for you and get back to you on notice.
Senator TROETH —Yes, if you could. It would be helpful if you could advise whether that was done in the department or elsewhere. This is more of a statement than a question, but if it is needed to import insulation then it would help the jobs of only overseas manufacturers rather than Australian jobs. I am interested that everyone was confident that they would be able to supply the amount that was needed. If the insulation industry has the capacity to produce the material, has the department taken any steps to cope with the spike that will be there in demand for insulation?
Mr Keeffe —We are working through the demand management issues as we develop guidelines for the program. We are consulting with industry on the best way of managing that demand to ensure a steady, even rollout of capacity to meet demand. Those issues are under discussion at present.
Senator TROETH —Can you give me any idea how you are proposing to work through the demand?
Mr Keeffe —Some of the ideas that we are discussing at present are to prioritise low-income groups as an initial rollout, and communities in special need. Also, from commencement of the formal program mid-year we hope to have a better understanding and analysis done of capacity and future demand in the rollout. At this stage we are not totally sure how the demand will process through time, so we are trying to make sure there is no spike coming in July.
Senator TROETH —I am interested in why the measure covers only houses without insulation, because surely in most capital cities there would be suburbs with older houses where there is a minimum amount of practically useless insulation. Under the guidelines I gather that houses with existing insulation are barred from taking advantage of this offer.
Mr Keeffe —Our initial data showed that there are some 40 per cent of Australian homes that are not presently insulated and that there is a demand that can be met. The verification of processes to ensure that people are not taking out old insulation and putting in new insulation or putting new insulation on top of old insulation is very hard to monitor and audit. The blanket rule of only ceiling insulation is the first step. There are other programs from states and territories or other investments that people can choose to make. It is not that they are barred from doing so, but that they are paid for by the householder themselves rather than being paid through the program.
Senator TROETH —Will you be able to monitor any existing or any proven cases where people have taken out insulation and then proceeded to claim the proposal?
Mr Keeffe —One of the very pleasing elements of the discussions with industry was their great willingness to cooperate and be engaged in monitoring and audit processes. We will be able to do that. We are still in the process of finalising the details of the guidelines, but the installer will be required to verify that there is no insulation installed.
Senator TROETH —And never has been?
Mr Keeffe —Just that there is no insulation and that it is an uninsulated house that it is being put into. ‘Never’ is a hard word for a program manager to live with.
Senator TROETH —What if people did proceed to take out insulation now, going into the cooler months, and then when this proposal gets running, say, in nine or 12 months time, proceed to claim this, but they have already had insulation in? It is fine to ask the installers, but they have a vested interest in it because they are getting the job, anyway. You are using them as the—I will not say ‘police force’—monitors of this system to see whether there has ever been any insulation?
Mr Carter —It is certainly an area that we have considered as being a difficult one to provide a compliance or audit regime around. We have factored into the calculations on the number of houses that will be treated under the program an allowance for circumstances where currently insulated houses may have insulation shifted. We would hope that the inconvenience of moving old insulation for new is a fairly low proportion of activity that occurs, given that the whole program is one that provides a service from the government in insulating homes. It is an area of risk that is very difficult to manage.
The area that we are more able to provide quality assurance around is where insulation is inadequate. We are working with industry now on the sorts of guidance and how we would draw the line on what is inadequate insulation that would still be eligible under the program. But, as I said, it is very difficult to provide a compliance or audit regime around what may have been in the ceiling prior to the program.
Senator TROETH —Are you proposing any penalties for such misdemeanours?
Mr Carter —In any program of this nature a household that takes up the offer for eligibility makes declarations within that about the status of their house and insulation, as does the installer. If there are any discrepancies found in that we would certainly be building in make-good provisions and we would refer to our legal area for recovery if someone was found not to be compliant with those requirements.
Senator TROETH —With the development of the guidelines and the rolling of the two schemes into one, what is the earliest that you would be expecting the actual installation of batts in domestic houses?
Mr Carter —I might just indicate that the program was available from date of announcement. We are anticipating guidelines being available on 26 February, being Thursday this week, for households that have installed insulation or landlords that have installed insulation from 3 February. We are putting in place a reimbursement process for people who have already undertaken that work. We would imagine that there are households that have already undertaken insulation and would be eligible under the program as at 3 February.
To draw a slight parallel under the solar hot water program, since 3 February we have already received something in the order of 250 applications for the increased rebate of $1,600, and we will be moving into processing those applications as soon as we have completed the applications made prior to 3 February.
Senator TROETH —Thank you.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I would like to follow up on some of the issues that Senator Troeth touched on. How many grants under the original Low Emissions Plan for Renters program were you expecting to hand out this financial year?
Mr Keeffe —We will have to take that on notice.
Mr Carter —The original program in total was for 200,000 homes. I do not have the breakdown with me.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Do you have the breakdown of the budget allocation for this year?
Mr Thompson —I might be able to help my colleagues there. The aggregate number for the Low Emission Plan for Renters in 2008-09 in the budget papers is $10.5 million.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —For comparison, what will it be in 2009-10?
Mr Thompson —In 2009-10 it is $37.5 million and in 2010-11 and 2011-12 it is $50 million.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —With 200,000 homes you would have been looking at least 10,000 or so this year if we are looking at those figures of grants that would have gone out?
Mr Carter —It would have been a ramping out proportional allocation.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Just to confirm the information that Senator Troeth obtained, are the guidelines for that program with the minister for approval?
Mr Carter —No. We were about to submit the guidelines to the minister, so they had been completed within the department and then the Energy Efficient Homes stimulus package decisions came through prior to our being able to do that.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Was the department aware in working on the Energy Efficient Homes package prior to its announcement or did your knowledge of this only occur at the time of its public announcement?
Senator Wong —You are actually asking a question that goes to cabinet processes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I am trying to ascertain when the department realised that it had to put its guidelines for the existing program on ice.
Mr Carter —We provided answers to the Senate inquiry in relation to the bills that gave the time lines when we were first involved in it. I think we first met with central agencies on 8 January in relation to the stimulus package in a general sense of receiving advice. We were advised of the general nature of the outcome of government’s considerations on 28 January.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —We will call it mid-January, for want of anything better, as to what we are looking at as to when the department became aware that the nearly completed or just completed draft guidelines for the Low Emission Plan for Renters needed to be filed, revised and started again for a new and revised program. Is that a fair assessment?
Mr Carter —We were certainly aware that government was actively considering that, but we were also aware that such a proposal still had to be run through due parliamentary and Senate processes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —How quickly do you think you will get the new guidelines prepared?
Mr Carter —The new guidelines have been submitted to the minister for consideration and the minister has indicated they will be available from Thursday this week.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —From Thursday this week they will be publicly available?
Mr Carter —Yes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —What are the targets now for this financial year under the revised program?
Mr Carter —The initial guidelines and rollout were to make sure that the information was available to landlords and tenants and to home owners under both elements of the insulation package in relation to the reimbursement of people who would undertake those activities before the launch of the more formal program mid this year. The guidelines relate to that reimbursement so that people who are engaging or have engaged insulation installers from 3 February understand the requirements of how they need to seek reimbursement, so it will be demand driven between now and the launch of the program. We can take on notice any estimates that we might have made of uptake of that between now and that launch.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Presumably the whole program is demand driven. It will become a grants program whereby people will not be seeking reimbursement but payments will be going direct to the installer; is that correct?
Mr Carter —Certainly for the ceiling insulation element payment will be going to the installer.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —With the guidelines being released this week why are you unable to commence the program in a fully fledged fashion from now? Why does it have to start off as a reimbursement based program?
Mr Keeffe —Because we have to go through a procurement process to ensure that we have the call centre available and the booking service available. We have to have complete agreement on the standards that would apply. There is a range of issues to work through in detail to deliver the process whereby anyone anywhere in Australia can just phone and, after getting the quotes, have an installer deliver the insulation and install it.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Presumably you would have to accredit a whole lot of installers across the country as well to be able to undertake that work?
Mr Keeffe —We have to ensure that they are suitably qualified.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —They have to be suitably qualified and then you have to arrange the appropriate contract with them as to what terms of payment are made and so on?
Mr Keeffe —They are the issues we are working through in detail. To ensure that the installation of insulation happens speedily and there is no delay to people we designed this first-stage process. The program in the announcement of the stimulus package was not due to commence until 1 July. We have got this interim step to ensure that, as the senator was talking about before, there is no spike in demand and that there is a steady build-up of insulation.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —And, more significantly between now and 1 July, no sudden crash in demand?
Mr Keeffe —That is correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —What steps have been taken to initiate the process you are undertaking for accreditation and the contractual arrangements with installers?
Mr Keeffe —We are in discussions with industry NGOs and other government bodies to tap into various networks to design the best approach for doing that, whether to do it on a regional brokerage basis or on a national, single call centre basis. Those are the sorts of issues we are working through.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —At this stage there is no fixed model as to how you see it being delivered?
Mr Keeffe —No fixed model, no.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Do you have an estimate as to how many installers will be required?
Mr Keeffe —I could take that on notice. That is the sort of thing we are talking to industry about.
Senator FIELDING —I want to check whether anyone has seen the recent publication as to the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US which says that relationship breakdown or divorce is having an impact on climate change.
Mr Carter —I was unaware of that publication.
Senator FIELDING —It is a serious question, by the way. There is a report out in the US on it.
Senator Wong —Is this because essentially people are running two homes and there is the additional carbon footprint as a result of that?
Senator FIELDING —Yes. Have you seen the report? It is from the reputable proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US. The study found that the number of rooms per person in divorced households was 33 per cent to 95 per cent greater than that in married households. Divorced households spent 46 per cent to 56 per cent more on electricity and water per person than married households. Divorced households in the US could have saved more than 38 million rooms, 73 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water in 2005 alone if their resource use efficiency had been comparable to that of married households. Also, the US households that experienced divorce used 42 per cent to 61 per cent more resources per person than before the dissolution. It also claims that mitigating the impacts of resource inefficient lifestyles such as divorce helps to achieve global and environmental sustainability and saves money for households. If divorced households were combined to have the same average household size as marriage households there could have been 7.4 million fewer households around. I assume there would be similar effects in Australia that would make relationship breakdown or divorce an important issue for energy efficiency in cutting back on carbon emissions; wouldn’t there be?
Mr Carter —I would assume so. I am not aware of that particular report. It does go to a broader issue around the size of housing that we have seen as a general trend in Australia where we have seen, from the mid-1980s, I think, an average house size of around 120 square metres and we are now seeing constructed houses of an average size of 230 square metres. We are also seeing a significant drop in the number of people within each household. I would imagine that the sort of information that you are quoting from that study would be another factor that would have increased the usage of housing space and decreased the efficiency of that usage.
Senator FIELDING —Has the department measured the impact of relationship breakdown and divorce on Australia’s efforts to cut back on carbon emissions?
Mr Carter —Not that I am aware of.
Senator FIELDING —Has the department considered the impact of relationship breakdown and divorce on climate change?
Mr Carter —Not that I am aware of.
Senator FIELDING —Last year I talked to the Australian Institute of Family Studies about the five key drivers of relationship breakdown which they identified as ‘communication, family conflict and violence, financial management, differences in values and differences in expectations of and satisfaction with relationships’. Obviously marriage and relationship breakdown is an important issue for our community because of its terrible impact on people’s lives and the cohesion of communities in itself. But have you considered those five drivers as important issues when looking at reducing the impact of climate change as well? Given that there is a link between the two, will the department look at it and consider it?
Mr Carter —Not that we are aware of, but we will discuss that with other agencies in the Commonwealth. It is not something that we have specifically looked at though.
Senator FIELDING —I am certainly not suggesting that there should be zero relationship breakdown. What I am saying is that I think there is an impact on the climate from that issue. If we do not actually measure it or understand it then we will not have the same emphasis on it. We understand that there is a social problem but now we are seeing there is also an environmental impact on the footprint, so I would appreciate it if you would have a look at it and maybe come back and let us know what you find.
Mr Carter —I might also add to that that we have found in quite a lot of our work—and I have mentioned this earlier in the context of green loans—a significant link between general household behaviour and energy efficiency and the way in which people operate and live in their houses. Some of our consultations, particularly with welfare and non-government organisations that are very much involved in delivery of programs to low-income households in particular, have found that the gains just from the behavioural, educational and outreach aspects of their programs have been very significant. That is certainly a factor in the consideration that we give to designing programs, how to target household behaviours and the way that people operate in houses.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —How many schools have had solar panels installed under the National Solar Schools Program?
Mr Carter —I will just turn to my notes but I think it is in the order of 20 schools that have currently got photovoltaics fitted under the program. Yes, it is a total of 20 photovoltaics installed currently under the National Solar Schools Program.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —When did that program become operational?
Mr Carter —That commenced on 1 July 2008.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That happened quite swiftly. It was also a project announced in last year’s budget, was it?
Mr Carter —Yes, it was.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Obviously the guidelines for that one were easy to do.
Mr Carter —Perhaps so.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Or they were at least prepared quickly. What is the target for this year?
Mr Young —Within the funding envelope available we are expecting somewhere in the order of 700 to 800 schools to have payments made this financial year. We already have somewhat over 400 claims from schools which we are assessing. Once those payments are made, schools would generally have a period of six months in which to proceed to installation.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —From the advice Mr Carter gave before, 20 schools have had installation. How many schools have lodged applications?
Mr Young —We have received somewhat over 400 claims from schools.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That puts you effectively at about the half-way mark at least in terms of claims or applications. Are they claims or applications in terms of these being paid in advance of the installation?
Mr Young —Yes. This is a grants program so the claims are paid before installation goes ahead.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Are you hoping to achieve 700 or 800 grants this year or 700 to 800 installations?
Mr Young —The funding envelope we have allows for about 700 to 800 grants.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So the article from the Age that I think Senator Troeth quoted in regard to one of the other programs is incorrect in its assertion that no solar panels have been installed under this program?
Mr Young —That is correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Can you explain to me why some of the state government education departments might be recommending that schools not proceed with claims at this point?
Mr Young —That is obviously a matter for individual state jurisdictions to address. The advice we have received from a number of those states is that they are looking for the opportunity to achieve improved efficiency outcomes for the program, for instance through cooperative purchasing arrangements. There will also be opportunities for linkages with some other state programs. For instance, there is a Victorian Solar in Schools Program underway and a similar program in Queensland state schools.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —What proportion of the cost does the government program cover?
Mr Young —The government program does not provide a strict percentage for costs; it provides a capped dollar amount.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —What is the capped dollar amount per school?
Mr Young —For single campus schools it is $50,000.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That would support a four- or five-kilowatt system, would it?
Mr Young —Of that order, yes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I am advised that on 23 February the South Australian education department website stated that the department had advised that individual schools should not proceed with individual claims for funding. The New South Wales education department says that it has contacted government schools and encouraged them to defer preparing or submitting any individual claims. If you have state education departments holding up the process there is a concern about schools being able to proceed.
Mr Young —We are working very closely with the relevant jurisdictions. I know the minister is taking a keen interest in ensuring that any arrangements that states undertake do not impede the effective rollout of the program.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —You are aware of these concerns and representations have been made at a departmental level to try to overcome them?
Mr Young —Yes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Have representations been made at a ministerial level in this regard?
Mr Young —I would need to take that on notice. I am not aware of any.
Mr Carter —From our perspective in managing the program, working in collaboration with jurisdictions gives us the opportunity to ensure that we get a packaged rollout that is more cost effective within a jurisdiction. More importantly, I think that if we can get the program very much embedded in the education activities that are occurring at the state level that will be a distinct advantage—something that we have been trying to ensure through the program. I think that, yes, there is potential for jurisdictions to slow down the rate of individual applications but we would hope that, in working through with jurisdictions on a bulked up approach to it, we would get a better, more consistent rollout and that we would also increase the chance of getting a good educational outcome and potentially good linkages across schools through the program.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Do you have a breakdown, of the approximately 400 claims that you have had to date, between government and non-government schools?
Mr Young —No, I do not, I am afraid. I would have to take that on notice.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That would be appreciated, just to see whether or not there is a particular problem in the government sector that the comments of the education departments highlight. In regard to the ongoing operation of this program, are schools encouraged to access other grants simultaneous to this one, such as rainwater capture and the other types of school based grants that the government is offering? Or is it up to individual schools?
Mr Young —This program actually provides funding for a whole range of incentives beyond simply photovoltaic systems, so there is a potential for schools to access a program for a range of energy efficiency initiatives. Also we are very keen to ensure that schools access all other relevant programs as well to maximise the value that we can achieve through this program.
Mr Carter —I can provide a little more detail on that. We have done some assessment over some 100 of the claims that have been approved or paid and the indication from those schools is that 89 per cent of them included solar power systems, 13 per cent included hot water systems, 26 per cent included energy efficiency items, 25 per cent included rainwater tanks and four per cent included other renewable power—for example, wind and hydro. So there is a real mix of energy-efficiency measures that schools are uptaking through the program.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I assume solar panels have to be grid connected.
Mr Young —No, that is not correct. Schools in off-grid areas are eligible as well.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That is understandable for schools in off-grid areas but, should a school be—as most schools are—in a grid area, do they have to be grid connected?
Mr Young —Yes, that is correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —With regard to the RECs, is there an expectation that those RECs be kept by the school or is it up to state governments to work that out?
Mr Young —That is usually a matter for individual schools to determine but we are very keen to ensure that, where practical, schools maximise the value of the RECs that they have.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Again, it has been put to me that the New South Wales government has indicated that if schools purchase under the government’s program the department will keep the Renewable Energy Certificates—which, obviously, is a nice little income earner for state education departments in that sense.
Mr Young —That is one of the issues that we are addressing as we negotiate with the New South Wales government.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Is that an issue with other state governments as well?
Mr Young —I will take that one on notice if I may.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —This is potentially one of those factors as to why state governments appear to be instructing their schools not to proceed at this time.
Mr Young —I do not want to speculate on why a state government is taking a particular approach beyond reasons that Mr Carter and I outlined earlier.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Mr Carter, of the 100 schools that you did analyse, did you have any breakdown between government and non-government?
Mr Carter —No, I do not have that number. We would have to take that on notice.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Can you give us any indication today as to whether there is an endemic problem in take-up in the government school sector that seems to be being held up by state education departments?
Mr Carter —We will take on notice what that split is. I would just go back to saying that we see discussions with jurisdictions about the roll-out of this in state schools as an opportunity to make sure that we get better outcomes from the program in terms of embedding it in the educational process as well as in getting better purchasing power and more from the program than otherwise. Certainly, you have raised the issue of RECs, and that is one factor. We would be keen to see that RECs generated under this are in fact part of the subsidisation of the works that are occurring in schools.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Minister, are you aware of any discussions at ministerial level that have occurred in relation to this program and delays and reticence of state education departments for their schools to proceed in it at present? I am mindful of the Prime Minister’s recent language about bashing heads together and so on in relation to the spending package and wonder if he has done so in relation to this.
Senator Wong —Is the question, ‘Am I aware as to whether Mr Garrett has had any ministerial level discussions about whether or not schools can keep the value of the RECs they generate?’ Is that the question?
Senator BIRMINGHAM —No. It is, perhaps, a little broader than that, and that is: has Mr Garrett or the Prime Minister had ministerial level discussions about this program in state education departments at present recommending their schools not proceed with it?
Senator Wong —I do not know.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That will do on this issue, for now. Senator Troeth, you were about to jump in.
CHAIR —Any further questions on the National Solar Schools Program?
Senator TROETH —I have questions on a similar project: rainwater tanks for surf clubs.
Senator Wong —That is in water, which is my program.
Senator TROETH —I will discuss it when we get to that, then.
CHAIR —Are there any further questions under output 1.1?
Senator BOB BROWN —The government told the Senate last week or the week before that it had no figures on the greenhouse gas emissions from logging and land clearance in Australia. Can you confirm that is the case, Minister, and, if so, whether the government intends to continue to not have information about the impact on climate change of native vegetation clearance in Australia?
Senator Wong —I am sorry but those matters are handled by the Department of Climate Change and those officers appeared last night before the Finance and Public Administration Committee. I do not have officers here in relation to the carbon accounting. My recollection is that I remember signing off on that answer to you and I think the point that was made was that it was consistent with the Kyoto accounting rules that are applicable to Australia subsequent to our ratification. I am sorry, but those matters are dealt with by the Department of Climate Change.
Senator BOB BROWN —Are you satisfied as minister that the government does not know what the output is from native vegetation clearance and is not endeavouring to find out?
Senator Wong —These are questions that really did need to be asked last night. I do not have officers at the table who can assist you with this information.
Senator BOB BROWN —No, but I am asking you for your degree of satisfaction about that, Minister.
Senator Wong —Senator Brown, can I finish my answer or are you going to just interrupt me?
Senator BOB BROWN —If you answer me, I will be happy to do that.
Senator Wong —With respect, Senator Brown, you do not have the right to tell me how to answer a question. What I have said to you is that I do not have the officers here who have the information about Australia’s carbon accounting system. I would have been very happy to have answered those questions last night, but that is the responsibility of a different department. I am sitting here today representing Minister Garrett in the Environment, Heritage and the Arts portfolio, so I am not able to assist you on that point. I have provided you with a detailed answer in the Senate. I know that your argument, which you have put quite eloquently, is that you have a view about the logging of forests in Tasmania from a number of perspectives, including the carbon store. You are entitled to that view but I am not able to assist you with the sort of detailed information you want because that department is not the department at the table.
Senator BOB BROWN —Can you tell me, on behalf of Minister Garrett, why the minister for the environment does not know what the impact of native vegetation clearance is on climate change in Australia?
Senator Wong —I am not sure that I would agree with your assertion that he does not know.
Senator BOB BROWN —Well, he does not because the government said in the Senate that it does not know.
Senator Wong —I have explained to you that you are asking questions in the wrong portfolio. I would have been happy to answer these last night.
Senator BOB BROWN —And you have no opinion on that matter?
Senator Wong —What I am saying is that these questions properly belong to the portfolio of climate change, which appeared last night.
Senator BOB BROWN —No. You misunderstand me, Minister; they belong to the minister. I am asking you as Minister.
Senator Wong —Senator Brown, I am trying to be polite here and not make the point that you are late and you should have turned up last night when the rest of us were here.
Senator BOB BROWN —I think I was busy listening to you on the 7.30 Report. My priorities may have been correct—
CHAIR —Senator Brown, let the minister answer.
Senator Wong —I am very happy to have this discussion with you. I do not have the officers who are responsible for Australia’s carbon accounting system who could give you the information about what information we do have on the clearance of native vegetation and what information we are developing in terms of the National Carbon Accounting System. I provided, I thought, quite a detailed answer—a written answer—to you on notice in the Senate, which I think is the one you are responding to. I do not have a copy of that here. If you want to have a further discussion about this, I am happy to, but this is not the portfolio and these are not the officers who have responsibility for that.
Senator BOB BROWN —Chair, the question is to do with climate change action and the minister for the environment’s ability to act on the basis of information. I will not pursue it.
Senator Wong —I can take it on notice. That is reasonable.
Senator BOB BROWN —Are you going to let me finish, Minister? If you would not mind, give me the same courtesy you demanded for yourself. The question is: why is it that the government does not do the work to establish the impact of native vegetation clearance in Australia on climate change?
Senator Wong —I think you will need to put that on notice to the Department of Climate Change. If you want me to take on notice your previous question, which was in relation to Minister Garrett’s knowledge, I can take that on notice reasonably because I am representing him, but the second question is for the portfolio of climate change.
Senator BOB BROWN —I will put both those questions on notice.
Senator Wong —One will need to be referred to the other committee.
Senator BOB BROWN —I will thank you for referring it, Minister.
CHAIR —Are there any further questions for this output?
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Yes.
CHAIR —Okay. I am just mindful that we are trying to move on to the Australian Antarctic Division.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I will attempt to move through as quickly as we can. This is probably still for you, Mr Carter, or Mr Oxley. You would be disappointed if we did not at least touch on the solar panel rebates and the new RECs based offsetting method. How much will a person living in Melbourne who installs, on average, a one kilowatt system receive?
Senator Wong —Those questions should have been asked of the Department of Climate Change, which has responsibility for the renewable energy target. Your colleague, Senator Ryan, did come along and ask some questions about that. He also asked questions about the current Solar Homes and Communities Plan, which is the old solar rebate. I indicated to him that those officers would be here today if he wanted to ask those questions. In relation to the new solar credits, that is under the renewable energy target, and we did have a brief discussion about that last night.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thank you for that clarification. As you know, I was in estimates last night, as were you, and I did not have a chance to be at Climate Change. That is not your fault. Equally, of course, I had not realised that the revised version of this program shifted from the department of environment to the Department of Climate Change.
Senator Wong —It is in the admin orders that the Department of Climate Change is responsible for the renewable energy target. I can assist you to some extent. Regarding the question you asked—and there has been some media about that—I do not have the officers who are responsible for the calculation of the solar credits under the proposed renewable energy legislation as they are in the Department of Climate Change.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Okay. What credits are available to help households who wish to get solar panels installed today?
Senator Wong —Currently?
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Currently.
Senator Wong —The current program?
Senator BIRMINGHAM —What credits, or offsets, or rebates?
Senator Wong —Mr Carter can deal with that.
Mr Carter —It is currently 1,000 renewable energy certificates per kilowatt installed.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —So, the initial part of the change that Minister Garrett announced in December last year is to it now being 1,000 RECs per kilowatt installed.
Senator Wong —No. In December last year the Treasurer, Minister Garrett and I announced the government’s draft legislation for the renewable energy target delivering a fourfold increase in renewable energy. As part of that there was a multiplier proposed for solar panels which were described as solar credits and which from memory allow a five-times multiplier for the RECs to be created under the scheme for microgeneration, which would assist solar panels but would also assist other microgeneration capacity. The consultation period on that draft legislation finished last Friday and the government is considering the feedback from industry and the community. It also needs to be discussed with state governments. So, that was government policy but it is not yet implemented because it is not yet put into legislation.
Mr Carter can assist you in terms of the current, existing program, in relation to which you have asked quite a number of questions previously. As I said, the renewable energy target is the responsibility of the Department of Climate Change.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —To go back to the question: if a household today wants to install solar panels, what government assistance, incentives, rebates et cetera, do they receive?
Senator Wong —Currently?
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Currently. Today.
Mr Carter —There is the current Solar Homes and Communities Plan, which provides the up-to $8,000 rebate, and there is the existing renewable energy certificates that are generated that they are able to claim under the existing renewable energy target scheme.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —At this stage nothing under the program has changed from how it was operating last time we met?
Mr Carter —That is correct.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Except for the fact that there is a plan in place for a new system of incentives that Minister Wong outlined, and that new system of incentives will be administered by the Department of Climate Change.
Senator Wong —Firstly, the set of incentives depend on government determining what its position is; secondly, the legislation being agreed with the states; and thirdly, the Commonwealth parliament passing the legislation. With all those three things, what I can tell you is the current proposal is for the multiplier that I described.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Given the number of hurdles that you outlined and that you have to jump, will the Solar Homes and Communities Plan $8,000 rebate continue until the new incentives are in place?
Mr Carter —The minister has continued to indicate that demand from the program would continue to be met until transitional arrangements to a new scheme are put in place.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Has the means test on the $8,000 rebate been adjusted at all?
Mr Carter —No. It remains in place.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —But the new incentive is not means tested. Is that the correct assumption, Minister?
Senator Wong —No, it is not—and I do not know how you would, because it is a market based incentive.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —It is a market based incentive, yes.
Senator Wong —You set an increased renewable energy target and you give an additional multiplier on the renewable energy certificates. It would be rather administratively complex to means test it but, in any event, the government’s indication is that it would not be means tested.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That was simply a clear statement that I was looking for that there is—no matter how complicated they may be—no means testing to the new program, unlike the existing program. Mr Carter, perhaps you could fill us in on how applications have continued under the existing program.
Mr Carter —Certainly, we can fill that in. We have had some minor changes over the Christmas period in terms of the rates of applications versus the rates of installation. We are not sure of the factors that contribute to that—whether it is the Christmas break that changes the nature of people who are taking up the system—but we have certainly continued at a high level of applications. Do we have the recent numbers?
Mr Young —This financial year the program has received somewhat over 27,000 applications to date compared to 11,000 in the previous financial year.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —I am to take it from Mr Carter’s statements that after the early surge in program applications there has been some reduction in the last couple of months?
Mr Young —There has been a little bit of volatility in the numbers. Weekly numbers have ranged from 1,200 one week in December down to the mid-500s in one week in January. For the week ending 13 February we received 980 applications.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Applications continue to be strong and the government’s intention, at least as you understand it, Mr Carter, is that they will continue to meet demand under the existing program not indefinitely but until the alternative arrangements are put in place?
Mr Carter —The minister has indicated that will be until transitional arrangements can be put in place for the new program. That was a commitment to be in consultation with industry. We have been consulting with industry over the last several months around the program and we are scheduled to meet later this week with the Clean Energy Council following the closure of the submission period to the renewable energy target to commence some of the discussions with them.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —My understanding is that the solar hot water rebate means test has been lifted or is to be lifted.
Mr Carter —It has been lifted from date of announcement of the Energy Efficient Homes package on 3 February.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —What was the policy rationale for lifting that means test?
Mr Carter —This was primarily because of the stimulus nature of the increase in both the rebate and the removal of the means test to make it more broadly available for the economic activity it would generate.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thank you.
CHAIR —If there are no further questions for 1.1, I thank the officers.