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Standing Committee on Environment
18/09/2015
Register of Environmental Organisations

LYNCH, Ms Joanne, Business Manager, Australian Network for Plant Conservation Inc.

MAKINSON, Mr Robert (Bob), Management Committee Member and past President, Australian Network for Plant Conservation Inc.

[11:06]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives of the Australian Network for Plant Conservation Inc. to the hearing. We do not require an oath, but be mindful that the legal standing is as though you were part of the proceedings of the parliament. We have your written statements—just keep in mind, the longer you talk, the less time the committee has to ask you the things they want to know. But we do not seem to be under any great pressure at the moment, so if you would like to make a statement, then go on.

Ms Lynch : I have prepared an opening statement.

I would like to thank the committee for your time today, and for inviting us to discuss our submission in further detail. The ANPC is a national, not-for-profit, non-government, incorporated association of people and organisations, founded in 1991. It is dedicated to the conservation of Australia's native plant species and vegetation communities, which are part of our living national heritage and which underpin the health and productivity of our continent.

Our membership encompasses more than 350 individuals and organisations, and includes professional botanists, ecologists, foresters, horticulturalists, restoration specialists, and community conservation practitioners. Our mission is to promote and develop plant conservation in Australia. We specialise in the exchange of knowledge and practical experience between scientists, land managers and conservation practitioners by developing and delivering courses and workshops. We have held 61 since 2003, mostly in regional areas all over Australia except for the Northern Territory—for example, workshops in plant identification and in seed collection and provenance.

We publish a quarterly bulletin—Australasian Plant Conservation—which we have brought examples of with us today. We run biennial national conferences and forums. We have had 10 conferences so far, and the 11th one will be held in Melbourne next year. We produce nationally recognised best practice guidelines—for example, theguidelines for thetranslocation of threatened plants in Australia and plant germplasm conservation in Australia, and the Myrtle rust manual. Also, we undertake best-practice, on-ground works, specialising in the translocation of threatened plants pieces, and associated surveys, propagation, research and monitoring.

The ANPC is not a campaign organisation, and not even primarily an advocacy organisation—although we reserve the right to play a specific advocacy role when the need arises. For example, we attended the recent Senate biosecurity inquiry. We are a small organisation, though, consisting of only three part-time staff. We have had an annual average turnover over the last two years of $195,000. However, in-kind voluntary contributions of time from members are considerable. Many of them are experts in their fields. Our national management committee includes leading conservation scientists and practitioners who all have full-time jobs. They undertake their roles either in their own time or in their institutional time.

The majority of our income is derived from membership fees, competitive grants, course and conference fees, and sales of publications. Donations are currently a relatively small component of our income. But, for an organisation of our scale, every little bit counts. The average percentage of total income over the last seven financial years to our public fund has been 2.1 per cent. However, we are aiming to increase this in the future, with the recent production of a new prospectus document. I have brought copies of this today to give to each of you. With the new prospectus document, we will be targeting organisations, businesses and corporations in a coordinated way for the first time in an effort to increase our revenue. In 2014-15, the percentage of total income was 12.25 per cent to the public fund. This was due to a highly successful crowdfunding campaign to help refit a new orchid laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. This raised $43,000. This went through our public fund. Other public fund donations have been used to purchase equipment, such as laptops for our conferences and workshops. Currently, all of the funding we are receiving is going towards our new website establishment.

Since 2013, the ANPC has partnered with the Wimmera Catchment Management Authority and with the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria on an orchid conservation program. This program aims to save some of south-east Australia's unique and threatened orchids. This highly successful program is currently the only means by which these orchid species can be propagated in sufficient numbers to reduce the threat of them becoming extinct in the wild. Without a successful translocation program like this, many of these species will become extinct. Funding to date has mostly come from state governments, but the potential for private donations to this program is considerable.

In another project we are working on at the moment, the ANPC has joined forces with an extensive and enthusiastic network of agencies, groups and individuals concerned about the conservation of banksia marginata, also known as silver banksia, in south-western New South Wales and across Victoria. Banksia marginata has mostly disappeared from the landscape in these areas due to grazing by domestic and feral animals, rabbits and wildfire. The aim of this Bring Back the Banksias project is to bring people together to identify known sites and populations of this iconic species and to participate in developing a network of seed production areas. Three workshops have been held to date. A survey is currently being distributed to collate and document the location and distribution of known populations. This information will be used to select site populations for genetic research that will help guide seed collection for the establishment of the seed production areas, and also for future on-ground works. Following the success of the orchid crowdfunding project, we are now discussing the possibility of doing something similar for this project.

Therefore, the ANPC strongly supports the existing arrangements surrounding the Register of Environmental Organisations, including the related tax concession benefits. These are essential for our future growth and fundraising ability to fill the still very large gaps in knowledge transfer that has not been met by governments. In addition, over the last few years, available funding from governments has been declining and has become much more competitive. For example, the grants to voluntarily environment sustainability and heritage organisations were recently abolished—and we used to receive funds from that organisation—which increases the need for us to seek funds for on-ground works, information exchange and administration from elsewhere. Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Thank you. Joanne, you did mention earlier that you wanted to table something.

Ms Lynch : Yes. We have got copies of our prospectus.

CHAIR: Would you give those to Ashley, please?

Ms Lynch : Certainly. Thanks very much. I probably brought too many.

CHAIR: There are members who are not here.

Ms Lynch : We have brought a selection of our quarterly journal.

CHAIR: I am sure we are quite happy with that, aren't we?

Ms Lynch : And we have just given you a list of all the courses, workshops and conferences we have held.

Mr Makinson : The third item is by way of an addendum to our submission, whereas the first two are simply for the information of committee members.

CHAIR: Thank you. I have a question that probably does not necessarily have a lot to do with this. You would have botanists, ecologists, foresters, horticulturalists et cetera. R&D, I understand, is a big part of what farmers do as well—an essential part. I realise you are not about gene swapping or crossbreeding and the like. Do you have any contact? The issues of plant health do not differ much, whether it is crossbred or whether it is a native plant. I just wonder whether you have any contact with R&D in the commercial sense?

Mr Makinson : Some. Probably not as much as we would like. In recent years we have been heavily engaged with education and awareness activities around myrtle rust, which I you know you are conscious of. We have had quite close interactions with people in primary industries, agencies and forest health areas, plant pathologists and also people on the genetic side of studying pathogen resistance in plants. Also, RIRDC, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, very kindly funded the printing of the second edition of our myrtle rust training manual. Where opportunity provides for those sorts of interactions, we do try to follow them up.

Mr ZAPPIA: Thanks for your submission. I am not sure that there is a lot I really need to know that is not already in your submission. Does your organisation receive government or public funding for any of the projects you are involved in? You might have alluded a little bit to that just now, but perhaps you could just confirm that.

Ms Lynch : Yes, most of our funding is from state government—the New South Wales government, actually. We apply for Environmental Trust grants. We apply for a lot of grants through them and, luckily, we have been fairly successful with those in the last few years. Victoria as well.

Mr Makinson : The emphasis on New South Wales as a source of competitive grant funding at the moment reflects the diversity of the grant schemes in New South Wales rather than any particular geographical bias of ours. We try to make the activities happen elsewhere on other funding. You will see from our list of events that we have a fair international spread.

Mr ZAPPIA: The figure you quoted earlier was about $195,000 of income. I assume that includes the funds that you source from the government.

Ms Lynch : Yes, it does.

Mr Makinson : The great majority of our activity is on the basis of voluntary labour from members or in-kind support from our member organisations. We are able to operate on an essential shoestring but punch above our weight in terms of the actual outputs that we do.

CHAIR: Was it the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries that you work with on myrtle?

Mr Makinson : Yes, and Queensland.

Ms MARINO: Thank you for your submission. We have heard repeatedly from a number of groups about grants and other and also the funding that is available. One of the things we have heard a lot about is the increased competition in this space, because there are over 600 organisations on the register, all competing for funds, and a vast number of others not on the register who are also competing for funds in this environmental space. I commend you on that.

I have a couple of questions. I have, in the South-West of my state, one of the only biodiversity hotspots; so I am interested in what your engagement is in that part of the world. Secondly, one of the things we have also heard evidence about is the information that is distributed by various environmental organisations and groups. I notice the approach that you have to this. Given you have a scientific basis for your information, I wonder whether this is how you ensure the accuracy and objectivity in the information that you provide.

Mr Makinson : In most cases where we are producing substantial takeaway material, in particular, for a training event, or a publication—for example, our germplasm guidelines, which is basically seed banking, or our translocation of threatened species book—we form internal development panels of people with expertise to produce the course materials or the publications in the various cases and then we commission an external review panel.

Ms MARINO: Like a peer-review process?

Mr Makinson : It is effectively a peer-review process. It is not quite as formal as the ones that would be run by a full-on research agency, but it is certainly highly open to criticism from the professional level. One of the areas where we differ from a straight research agency in that respect is that we try to put a number of end users on the review panels for that kind of material—so not necessarily scientists or experts, except in the practice sense—so that we get a mix of people. That reflects our role of trying to tie the different ends of the process together, as an information transfer organisation.

Ms MARINO: Clearly that has been an effective process for you.

Mr Makinson : Yes it has. And it opens doors of collaboration. People are prepared to say yes, they will be part of a review panel, and then you have got your hooks into them and you can extend the collaboration from that point on.

Ms MARINO: But you are talking about a constructive process as well, which clearly is important in your organisation and the quality of the information and evidence that you produce.

Mr Makinson : Yes, very much.

Ms MARINO: My second question was about the South-West of Western Australia. Given that we have so many endemic species, I would be very interested in your comments.

Ms Lynch : We have held training workshops in the South-West of WA. Most recently, we held four workshops to do with the myrtle rust.

Mr Makinson : Two in Perth, one in Bunbury and one in Albany. Prior to that, we had a couple of woodland conservation workshops in the South-West as well.

Ms Lynch : However, we are a little bit constrained by resources and manpower. All our staff are located in New South Wales and the ACT—our three part-time staff. We only have one project manager, who coordinates the planning and implementation of all our workshops. Our ability to get to Western Australia is limited by resources and funding. We certainly are aiming to improve that in the future, and we are looking at applying for funding through the Western Australian government and other sources to do more in Western Australia. I would really like to, especially because, as you say, it is a biodiversity hotspot.

Ms MARINO: The only one.

Ms Lynch : It is really quite important that we do increase our presence in Western Australia.

Ms CLAYDON: Thanks so much for your evidence this morning. It really helps the committee, I think, to build a more comprehensive picture of the work and activities that are being undertaken by those REO listed organisations—so thanks. You have touched on this recently, but your submission suggests that there may be some perverse outcomes if the scope of the register were to be limited. You have flagged the issue of the importance of the REO listing and the DGR status as a prerequisite for grants. I am wondering if there are any other perverse outcomes that you have in mind if the scope of the register were limited that you would like to share with the committee.

Ms Lynch : Basically, we already find it a struggle to get donations. It is a lot harder in our area to find donations. I guess we are not as appealing as other environmental campaigns—for example, saving threatened animals, like the koala, or saving the Barrier Reef. Trying to seek funding for workshops and even for web based material is more challenging for us. So I think if that status were removed it would be even more difficult. As I mentioned earlier, we are planning to do a lot more in the future to increase the percentage of donations to our funding base. So, once again, I think it could affect it in that way.

Mr Makinson : I know the committee has had a great deal of discussion with people making submissions about this question of on-ground activity versus other. I would like to cite one example that we were recently involved in which may help explain to the committee why making that distinction has been so difficult for many organisations. Last year we were commissioned on contract by the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage to produce a scoping study for recovery actions for a species of plant that occurs at Hartley in the western Blue Mountains of New South Wales. This species was rediscovered in 2000 after having been thought to be extinct for about 150 years. It occurs only at one site and, after an exhaustive census in 2012, we found that there were about 550 individual plants of all age classes, from seedlings up to adults. Very little is known about this particular species. Because it is so rare, it has never been studied in detail and not a great deal is known about its relatives.

So the problem facing the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage, who had allocated some priority to this species in their Saving our Species program for investment by government, was: who the hell knows anything about this plant? Who can put together a plan of action for the recovery and stabilisation of this species? They commissioned us to do that. We conducted an intensive review of all the knowledge that was available on that species, including not just book knowledge but also book knowledge from people who had actually dealt with it to some degree in the field since its rediscovery. We reviewed what was known of the biology, ecology and breeding systems of related species, and we put that all together into what was effectively a recovery action plan for OEH.

That resulted in a seed-banking program which was launched last year. We gained 6,000 seeds for the New South Wales seed bank as part of that, and we are on track for a similar number in this coming year. It resulted in us brokering contracts between OEH Dubbo and the University of Wollongong. That in turn has led to a student being assigned to look at the seed dormancy issues for that species, which are essential to understand if we are to ensure its continued existence in the wild. It has also led to what is an on-track program for identifying potential sites for translocation of some of these species to a second insurance population.

That study enabled a whole cascade of on-ground actions which are going to continue into the future and which provide a scientifically rigorous channel for the investment being made by the New South Wales government in this species. But ANPC has not done a damn thing on the ground. I have in another capacity—a professional capacity—prior to that contract, but ANPC itself as an organisation has not been engaged in the on-ground work. But we have pulled together the scientific information and the practical horticultural and seed propagation information which will enable the on-ground work. I think that is an example of why we find it conceptually difficult to make a nice, easy distinction between on-ground and off-ground in many of these cases.

Ms CLAYDON: Thank you. That is a terrific illustration of the complexities and why that dichotomy is not a very sensible one to be working with.

Mr GILES: I agree with Ms Claydon's comments: that was a very useful exposition, so thank you. There were two things I wanted to follow up on that arose from your submission. Firstly, you comment on page 4 on the issue of the conduit provision. We have heard some evidence from groups that are concerned about the existence of the conduit—or perhaps I should say no-conduit—provision. Your submission takes a slightly different tack in recognising the importance of larger organisations being able to support smaller ones. I wonder if we could draw you out on that a bit further.

Mr Makinson : It was a general observation rather than necessarily having any particular examples in mind. Over the last 20 years or so the requirements for organisations to be able to receive funding of any sort and to maintain probity in their operations have, as you know, been codified a lot more than previously. Society used to be full of organisations that ran out of a shoebox and not much else. I do not think we should understate the fact that very small organisations can find that quite onerous. We have found difficulty in our own organisation. We at various times have tried to start regional groups. It is hard to resource those from a central level, so you require local dynamics to keep them going. But it is hard for people, particularly when it is largely volunteer based. So I guess where that observation was going was that there may be a limited degree to which conduit funding in that sense to sustain small, non-incorporated organisations that otherwise would not get a look into the process might be a legitimate exercise. I guess that, in a sense, that perhaps is what the Landcare set-up is designed to achieve. I do not know that all the local Landcare groups are incorporated—I am not sure about that—but the upper levels of the Landcare hierarchy can effectively act as a conduit for some of those very local groups. That is what we had in mind, but nothing specific.

CHAIR: Thank you both very much. Are you guys at all involved with the world seed bank in Mexico? Is there any connection?

Mr Makinson : No. We are a member organisation of the Australian Seed Bank Partnership, which is the government seed banks in Australia. They in turn have international links. You heard earlier this morning from Lucy Sutherland—or is it later today? Lucy is representing the Australian Seed Bank Partnership. We do not have direct links with the Mexican operation or with the Swedish one. We have had interactions with the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership in the UK.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. I do not think you have been asked for anything else, but, if you have, you can send it to the secretary. You will get a copy of the transcript. If you believe it is wrong, you are able to contact us and do your bit to correct it.