Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Standing Committee on Climate Change, Environment and the Arts
Australia's biodiversity in a changing climate

HOWLETT, Ms Claire, Acting First Assistant Secretary, Land and Coasts Division, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

SULLIVAN, Mr Sean James, Acting Deputy Secretary, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the House. We have received a written submission from the department and I invite you to add to that submission if you wish, and after that the committee may ask you questions.

Mr Sullivan : We will leave the submission as it is, if that is okay. I am more than happy to answer your questions.

CHAIR: Claire was here with the last group of witnesses and she might have heard me touch on the proposed act of parliament. Can you comment on how the department is managing to deal with the various levels of government in trying to administer funding and the processes that we are trying to expand into the community, and are there any gaps, problems or barriers currently in the laws within the different levels of government that are making it difficult for policies to be rolled out?

Ms HALL: Could I also ask you to comment on how changes to the EPBC Act will impact on the issues the chair has raised?

Mr Sullivan : In terms of changes to the EPBC Act, there is a COAG process currently underway with respect to administration of the act. That is not in itself a change to the act; it is a proposed way forward in terms of better cooperation between Commonwealth and state. So, in terms of matters of NES—national environmental significance—and matters under the act, that is not proposed to be changed as I understand it. It is not my direct field of responsibility. However, that process is currently underway. It was kicked off in COAG earlier this year, and there are active negotiations happening between the Commonwealth and the states at the moment. That is with respect to the administration of the act—how do we streamline—

Ms HALL: And legislation is about to be introduced.

Mr Sullivan : At the same time, there was a review undertaken which is mandated under the act every 10 years, from memory. That review was undertaken by Allan Hawke, and the government has made a response to that. So that is really a package of reforms of the legislation and, at the same time, looking at how the administration of the act with respect to approvals processes can be streamlined. In terms of my commenting on that, given that that is still a matter for the government as to how that is progressed, that is obviously in our thoughts and it is also in the comments and views of stakeholders as we are rolling out the programmatic response—what is our programmatic arm. My basic response to stakeholders who say, 'Aren't you changing the act? What does this mean for your programmatic response?' is, 'No, we're not changing the fundamental core of the act in terms of matters of national environment—'

Ms HALL: Aspects.

Mr Sullivan : Yes. It is the operation of the act in terms of improving the bilateral arrangements with the states on administration of the act. At the same time, the fundamental matters of national environmental significance will still continue to guide our investment streams under some of our key programs, Caring for our Country being one of the flagships of it in terms of our programmatic response.

Coming back to your more difficult question, Chair, working in a federation with our Constitution is always difficult in this space. I do not think that at the time of drafting the Constitution the current issues surrounding biodiversity were even thought of, let alone left off. We are not unique in working in a federation but, in terms of our programmatic response, it is about cooperation and how we cooperate with state governments, at regional levels with regional organisations and with local government as well. For example, in the review of Caring for our Country which is coming to a close in terms of future directions, we have undertaken significant consultation that has ranged from every capital city in Australia to many regional centres, and those consultations have involved state governments, local governments, the natural resource management organisations, water authorities, NGOs, private companies and private citizens as well.

We work in a complex jurisdictional environment. Our challenge at the Commonwealth level is to look at what the national issues are—what is the national driver for our involvement in this space—and then to look at what the Commonwealth priorities are as well. We have a national commitment in our programmatic responses through Caring for our Country and the Biodiversity Fund, but we also have some targeted investments. There are key areas within Australia where we will no doubt continue to invest funds: the Great Barrier Reef and other key places, including World Heritage areas, Ramsar and wetlands of national significance, all the way through to weeds of national significance. So there is a process of identifying and being clear with respect to roles and responsibilities and working in partnership with those various levels of government.

In terms of legislative barriers to that, I think it is not so much the legislative barriers; for us, in a programmatic response environment, it is trying to make sure that we work knowing our legislative frameworks and knowing those that operate across other jurisdictions—but, as well as the legislative framework, having a policy armoury that is complete so it is supported not just by our fundamental pieces of legislation but also by fundamental national policy settings. You have just talked to Bob about our approach to corridors, and that is one of the emerging polices. We also have other fundamental policies in place like the national strategy for biodiversity conservation, so we have a policy armoury that supports those cooperative arrangements with the states. Claire, can you think of anything other than changing the world and us taking over completely or any key legislative barriers?

Ms Howlett : No, I do not think so; that covers the field.

CHAIR: Can I prompt another question based on that response. You mentioned Mr Debus's submission just a moment ago. You may not have been in the room but Claire was when there was a great deal of emphasis placed on the importance of NRM bodies. My recollection is that there was a court case—and I think it is referred to as Pope v the Commonwealth—with respect to direct funding of local government. Is it possible that it could be a problem if the Commonwealth, using the NRM bodies as a vehicle to carry out projects, begins to direct funding in the same way that it might with local government?

Mr Sullivan : It is definitely an issue for us that we take seriously in terms of where the High Court has landed both in Pope and, more recently, the Williams case. That being said, the head of power for the Commonwealth to be involved in environment activities is quite strong under external affairs because of world heritage convention, the biodiversity conservation convention, the climate change convention and the Ramsar convention—I can list a fair few. We have a significant international agreement basis which identifies and gives the Commonwealth a clear role with respect to intervention at the environment level. It is something that I am not going to say is not a problem for us but we, obviously, keep abreast of it with respect to where the High Court is and I do not think it is for me to pre-empt where the High Court would be.

CHAIR: I appreciate it is very much a legal opinion; I am effectively asking: are you factoring those kinds of concerns into what you might do.

Mr Sullivan : Yes.

CHAIR: I am going to hand over to my colleagues but I will have other questions if time permits. I know that Nola has to get away, so I might go straight to her.

Ms MARINO: We heard from the WA government—a WA state department—about a disconnect through the changes under Caring for our Country. In your experience is this perception of disengagement justified or widespread? We have heard that the grants process under Caring for our Country was more competitive and less cooperative between the NRM groups compared to previous funding arrangements. Have you had any feedback along those lines?

Mr Sullivan : Under the review process of Caring for our Country, which kicked off—correct me if I am wrong here, Claire—around March or April last year, there has been significant discussion with all stakeholders on how Caring for our Country has been delivered and helping to set the parameters for where the next tranche of funding for Caring for our Country, which begins in July next year, will go. One of the issues that has been raised—not just by WA regional groups; it was raised by regional groups across Australia—was this notion of, because elements of Caring for our Country were competitive, that that did not promote cooperation between regions. In essence, you were forcing regions who were next to each other to compete for a limited bucket of funds rather than promoting the idea of how do they work together.

Ms MARINO: Yes, the collective best project.

Mr Sullivan : Yes. So, that advice has been taken; it has been heard. In terms of the advice we are giving to the government on the directions for the future, the next five-year tranche of Caring for our Country investment, as I said, begins next financial year. We are looking at other ways that government may wish to consider in terms of how we address that problem. I am not going to pre-empt what that decision of government will be. But, for example, you can envisage some programmatic funding being put out to more expression-of-interest processes, where we are saying, 'Look, we're interested in your ideas', and then fostering the cooperation and also promoting the fact that we are looking for cooperation between regions, particularly where those issues are shared. For example, south-east Queensland and the Northern Rivers NRM groups are split by a state boundary and are under different statutory arrangements in terms of how they are set up from a governance perspective. However, they share many cross-border issues. How do we try to facilitate a more cooperative action between those two groups, for example, which rest in different states? How do we look at promoting cooperation and not hindering cooperation?

So yes, we have heard that advice, and we have heard that criticism of the competitive nature. That being said, most of this funding is oversubscribed by 10- to 50-fold. It is not as though we are searching for projects and thinking, 'I wonder when the next good project idea is going to come in.' There is an oversubscription of good projects at the local, regional and national level, for what is a defined amount of money.

Ms MARINO: Perhaps I could ask just one more question: are you aware of a gap in funding for the NRM groups on the ground? And where will that leave them in a practical sense?

Mr Sullivan : I am not aware of funding gaps. I think the major concern of NRM organisations is what is going to happen in July of next year, when the current contractual arrangements finish for NRM groups. How does the government give some certainty to what the future allocation will be to regional groups? What is the time frame for that? How do those staff members who are in those regional groups get certainty for their own positions? And there are a whole range of other questions.

Ms MARINO: And also the projects underway.

Mr Sullivan : It is not so much the projects underway, because the projects that are underway are contractually tied, and they are tied to the end of this financial year. But some of those will have designs that will go beyond next financial year in terms of the good work that has already been done. How do you make sure we do not throw away that good work, and how do we continue the good work, particularly where that has been demonstrated? That, as I said, is a matter for ministers to decide—the allocation for the next tranche of Caring for our Country.

Dr WASHER: I missed a lot of your presentation, I am sorry; there was some interference by Telstra.

Mr Sullivan : That is all right; you did not miss anything!

Dr WASHER: I think you will probably impinge on the states in taking a bigger role in this EPBC Act and the credibility and accountability that you are going to have. I guess that has already been answered?

CHAIR: Not fully, but Jill asked some questions about it. If you had something specific—

Dr WASHER: Well, we are dependent on the states, I gather, more and more now to feed the information in so it can be more rapidly processed—and I can understand that. But how are you going to monitor the credibility of that? I love my state, and local government authorities can sometimes be manipulated by developmental pressures et cetera, and costing factors that might be of a different nature to what we perceive as being best for the environment.

Mr Sullivan : Part of this is that it is not in my respective area. But the overall future pathway for the EPBC Act is twofold. One, there is still a reform agenda inside the EPBC Act that flows from the review that was undertaken under the act, and implementing the government's response. At the same time the COAG process is looking at how we streamline both. That is under active negotiation with the states now and part of that will be what are the quality assurance measures, so it is not just 'there is the act, you do it, thanks, and we will see you in 10 years.' Part of that active negotiation is setting standards, understanding how those standards will be met, understanding how those standards will be monitored and working out the detail of that assurance for the environment minister, whose act it is. It is a delicately poised negotiation that is currently underway that is operating bilaterally between the Commonwealth and every jurisdiction. That is a critical component of those negotiations, how you make that a win-win in terms of reform of the act and at the same time streamline and give more certainty for industry in terms of dealing with one level of government.

Dr WASHER: One more thing. I notice you have got 'population and communities' so I cannot resist the question to ask. Obviously population has been debated in this house a little bit but more at a level where people will have a shot at 36 million or 27-28 million people for Australia and what is ideal. What would your proposition in terms of population advice to the government be? Probably it is very hard to have environmental sustainability and good biodiversity if we do not have population sustainability as well. I guess your department would have a look at what you imagine for Australia is population sustainability.

Mr Sullivan : The population strategy that was released by the government in—I should remember this; I was on the task force.

Dr WASHER: I have these moments too.

Ms Howlett : May.

Mr Sullivan : May last year. Thanks to someone who was not on the task force reminding me. That was a comprehensive process that took into account three major working groups. It was a pretty innovative policy process. Bob Carr as a member of the other place led a roundtable that was looking at the environmental constraints of population. Heather Ridout led a roundtable that was saying that population is a driver for economic growth and we will need population. The third roundtable was the academics, who are saying it is a really complex process and is multifaceted. The population strategy that came out of that and the subsequent consultation process that was released by Minister Burke in May of last year really sets out a couple of fundamental principles but does not ascribe to a target. It does not ascribe to a notion of a carrying capacity for Australia but it recognises that our population growth and our trendlines mean that we need to take into account what sustainable population means both now and planning into the future. Part of this is within the Commonwealth remit but a lot of it is not. A lot of it comes down to local levels and planning levels. So it is one of those really complex and difficult policy areas where there is no simple answer to it.

The strategy itself also takes into account a fundamental issue in Australia, which is regional difference. It is really analogous to what we are doing in the environment department and from the environment side of business, that there is complete regional difference within Australia in terms of our responses. While we have national policy drivers, our response at a programmatic level, for instance in the Pilbara or the Kimberley is very different to what our response will be at the Great Barrier Reef and how we do that and what we are doing. In terms of population, those issues are very different as well in terms of what is our population growth outlook in the Pilbara versus what are our population policy pressures that are affecting the eastern seaboard of Australia. In terms of moving forward it is an issue that was also raised in the State of the Environment report which was released by an independent committee late last year. Tom Hatton was the chair of that independent committee. It also has a focus on one of its key pressures, population. In terms of that policy response—and it is our fundamental cornerstone for how we approach population inside the portfolio—there is not a single answer. We need to keep taking into account population in that broad prism of sustainability moving forward.

Ms HALL: I would like to start by saying that I think that is a really important aspect and that maybe we as a committee have not looked at the impact of population on biodiversity enough. It may be something that we should focus on a little bit in a future hearing. I have a couple of questions. Earlier today when the research people were here I asked them about the fact that funding is for set periods and the implications that has on research grants and continuity of research. That is part 1 in relation to the Caring for our Country grants.

Part 2 of that is: if you did not have grants that were short term in nature and you had longer term grants where you could do more planning and look at a long-term vision for an area, how would you monitor it and ensure that it was actually meeting certain benchmarks and not leading to an abuse of the process?

Mr Sullivan : Before I answer, part of that is the definition of 'long term' as well.

Ms HALL: Yes, that is right.

Mr Sullivan : At the moment—and I hope I do not get this wrong—under our National Environmental Research Program, we offer multi-year funding which I think goes up to five years.

Ms HALL: Looking at the possibility that at the end of that five-year period, rather than having to go through writing a grant proposal looking at key indicators and saying that you will roll that program over for another five years and going through the whole process with very strong accountabilities and transparency built into it, can it work?

Mr Sullivan : It is really difficult. When we look at the transition—and using the National Environmental Research Program as an example under its predecessor the Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities Program—it funded a series of hub of public good investment in the environment space. One of those was in tropical North Queensland associated with the reef and rainforests and Torres Strait. That built on previous work of the CRC that had been funded a couple of times and that has now been re-funded again. It was a marine hub created under the original CERF and an adaptation of that marine hub has continued to be funded under the National Environmental Research Program. Ted Lefroy's Landscape Logic hub, which operated with local groups and NRM groups in Victoria and Tasmania, operates now out of UTAS, I think, and again was funded under the first round of NERP. A build on that research output has now been subsequently re-funded—and I can go on with that.

There is a difference between giving ongoing funding forever versus putting it back into a competitive environment. But what we find is that those organisations, particularly under the environmental research public good orientated programs, and those groups of researchers who do well tend to move across multidisciplinary research. They are bringing social scientists and economists into the environment field and they are connecting with the Australian government and other governments in terms of policy directions and are remaining relevant, and making sure that their research remains relevant in terms of uptake, both by practitioners who are the managers of the reef through to managers of Kakadu and policy people who are trying to implement policy. So I think that it is striking that balance between building on successful research as well as making sure that there is competitiveness for emerging science inside universities and other publicly funded research organisations.

Ms HALL: But I am generalising this to—

Mr Sullivan : Yes. We do not have the same hard barrier of the CRC program, where it is: 'First go, you get a go at funding and, if you are really good, you might get a second but don't think about getting a third.' We think that, fundamentally, research into the Great Barrier Reef and into tropical marine systems is fundamental to—

Ms HALL: No, I am not talking about the research funding; I want to talk about your area.

Mr Sullivan : To talk about Caring for our Country?

Ms HALL: Yes, and I was just trying to draw a parallel.

Mr Sullivan : In terms of Caring for our Country, we have, basically, a balance—and, again, in terms of the future tranche of funding, I cannot tell you exactly what it is going to look like because that will be a matter for ministers in the government to decide. The intention has been, in the previous tranche of funding, to provide a mix of short-term funding grants to small organisations for specific projects through to long-term, multiyear funding. I am not sure what that mix would be but, in terms of the regional organisations, there has been multiyear funding for those NRM bodies. There has been multiyear funding announced for a series of large projects. That has also been coupled with the ability to respond to emerging priorities and issues that arise at local level, so retaining that balance of giving certainty of long-term investment under the program for key organisations and key critical issues as well as keeping some capacity to look at emerging issues, whether that be, 'We've now got an outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish, so how do we have a capacity to provide additional funding with respect to the research capabilities for that?' or, 'Have we got a capability to look at protecting key sites on the reef?' with respect to partnerships with other organisations, including my colleagues. So it is really that balance between having the capacity to respond to issues that the government would want to be able to respond to—emerging threats; key crises—and a long-term investment in natural resource management organisations and other organisations.

Ms HALL: One thing that really concerns me is that quite often the people who secure the Caring for our Country grants are the people who are very good at doing grant applications as opposed to being very good at doing projects. One of the things I do as a member is to link them into groups that teach them how to write those very good applications. It is trying to get the balance. I am so supportive of accountability and making sure that the right groups get the funding. But also it is making sure that the duration of the grant is such that, if they finish in 12 months and it is identified as a project that will take 20 years to complete, then, rather than having to go through the full grant process, there is a process in place where it can be evaluated in such a way that if they have met all the key performance indicators then it is possible to provide further funding without them having to go back and go through the competitive round all over again, because to me that seems a bit counterproductive.

Mr Sullivan : It is a key issue: how good your grant application capabilities are versus how good your project is. We are trying to continually improve the grant application process in a way that tries to simplify it so that it is not just the best writers who receive applications. With larger funding, I think there is a chance to look at more expression-of-interest processes as well, where the idea and the partnerships are more important, and facilitating those. It means you are not judging the grant application by itself. You are looking at it and saying 'That really works but, if we had joined that up with this grant application, you would actually get a lot better bang for your buck, so is there a chance to actually bring these two groups together to work.' It is setting probably more transaction costs towards us, but I think there is some value in looking at that as a potential way forward to get over that problem.

Ms HALL: You mentioned the crown-of-thorns starfish, and earlier we heard a couple of reasons or causes for the increased infestation. That would probably cut across a couple of different program areas but, once again, within your department. There are ways that you could form partnership that could go over a long period of time and could lead to solving a very long-term problem on the Great Barrier Reef.

Mr Sullivan : One of those—and Claire can talk more about it—is the Reef Rescue program in terms of the first five years of that as a long-term investment. There were known areas of what we were trying to achieve in terms of water quality and working with farmers and having targets set to say that this is really what we want to achieve. It is held up by other regions around Australia as being a model for going forward where there was cooperation not only across paddock lines between farmers of looking over the paddock and saying, 'What are you doing?' but also between regions along the Great Barrier Reef saying, 'Lessons and how can we actually improve water quality?'

Ms HALL: Your department and your area has to have flexibility because issues emerge all the time and your emphasis can change. At the same time there needs to be some security. It is a balancing act.

Mr Sullivan : It is a balancing act and I was going to come back to your point of how can you give someone 20 years funding. Certainly that would be great for me to do that, but it is probably beyond the bounds of committing future governments beyond forward estimates and the bounds of accountability and budget processes that we work with.

Dr WASHER: You have 'water', I notice, so of course the greatest loss of biodiversity in Australia is salinity. As you know in WA there is a disaster in the rivers because they are so salty; you cannot drink out of any of them. How much cooperation or how much do you influence state management of this and deforestation for the salinity issue and water extraction principles. As Nola would love to tell you, our south-west forests are in rapid decline—I mean in rapid decline—and this started before the 2010 drought. If you come up my way 50 per cent of all the trees are dead. That is what the 2010 drought did, but they were in the process of dying anyway. They have borers and every other thing to stitch them up. It is just a transparent disaster which knocks on, of course, to other animal and bird species and everything else. There are other threatened species that would come under this EPBC Act by water extraction and they dropped areas under the Gnangara Mound—I am an irrigator and this I know—by 4½ metres. That is pretty serious. They had to dig new bores. That continues however. That supplied 80 per cent of the city's water. As Nola will tell you, the Yarragadee Aquifer comes more to the surface in the south-west than it does in my area where it is about 800 metres down. It actually comes to the surface at the Blackwood River and Margaret River and other major rivers. The cities of Bunbury and Busselton are supplied by the Yarragadee, of course, but the water extraction is now becoming a problem. WA has built two desal plants and have a third one being planned at the moment.

How do we as a federal government interact with the states knowing full well there is this knocking-off biodiversity, much of which comes under threatened species and under our act, and the water extraction and water principles are playing a big part of this?

Mr Sullivan : I do not have, in my immediate knowledge, the legislative issues surrounding the south-west. We do know that the south-west of WA and extending into the wheat belt is a biodiversity hot spot for Australia. I think that was recognised in the deliberations of Mr Debus's committee as being a key area. Really, our interactions from my programmatic responses is that we work with the WA government in the NRM organisations. We have also had a key investment in salinity going back some years with respect to the WA government. Again, this comes back to that regional difference. Whereas salinity was a crying issue in Wagga in 2006 and 2008, it is less of an issue now, but salinity is more of an issue in Western Australia. So it is how we get that balance between what are our national priorities versus what are the regional priorities.

This comes back to that sense of regional difference within Australia. We can have the national legislative platform and the national policy platform that says, 'We want to look after biodiversity.' Our responses are tailored to issues that come forward at that regional level rather than: 'Here is the response. Take it or leave it.' So we work with regions. Regions have committed to us in the review process to say, 'We actually need more flexibility around our regional priorities so that those responses can be tailored.'

At the same time, with the advent of the Biodiversity Fund as well, we are now looking at, really, the opportunity to become more place based in terms of our responses. So it is not whether you pick from the regional body fund of the Caring for our Country allocation or whether it is a stewardship proposal or whether it is a Biodiversity Fund proposal. This comes back to the point around writing the grant application. It is really tailoring our responses to the critical needs of particular areas of Australia—and the south-west is one of those that has been identified. That happens not just at the officials level; that happens at the ministerial level in terms of discussion about where the key priority areas are where we can work together. Again, the south-west is one of those ones that comes up in those discussions, clearly.

CHAIR: Just to wrap up, I might go back to almost where we started from. One of the key messages that this committee has been given in the course of its work is that we need to have biodiversity corridors and, in doing that, there needs to be—and I think you also alluded to it—cooperation and goodwill between the states and the Commonwealth and even local government. Has the issue of cooperation for that purpose been put onto the COAG agenda so that discussions can start to get underway with respect to creating biodiversity corridors throughout Australia both on land and even in the waters? We hear about cooperation or at least discussions about the EPBC Act, but I have not heard specifically whether this theme has formed part of the discussions.

Mr Sullivan : I am not sure it is necessarily part of COAG yet. In terms of the pathway to COAG, one of the COAG subcommittees is the Standing Council on Environment and Water. It involves state environment and water ministers. There is a subcommittee of that—this is sounding very bureaucratic—at the officials level, which is the biodiversity thematic oversight group. It is one of these key issues that will help drive our cooperative work of what we do about corridors, particularly those corridors—if you look at the Gondwana Link and if you look at the Trans-Australia Eco-Link—that are multijurisdictional as well. So it is really not just a partnership arrangement between the Commonwealth and a particular jurisdiction; it is multijurisdictional. So I think corridors at the scale where we are starting to contemplate corridors now is a new and vibrant emerging policy direction. It is one that will no doubt take up more time inside the COAG subcommittees process. But to my knowledge is not an issue in COAG.

Ms Howlett : It is not formally on the COAG agenda but certainly at the last meeting of environment ministers they listened to very much the sorts of issues that ministers are talking about.

CHAIR: Again, I go back to Mr Debus's presentation. I refer to the fact that there is possibly a recommendation to the effect that we have a corridors act of some sort implemented by the Commonwealth. Given that we are starting to get to know those kinds of levels in response to this issue, I would have thought it might be a matter that should start appearing on COAG agendas; that is why I asked the question.

My last question is this: given that the long-term environmental tracking and monitoring has also been a recurring theme in terms of the issues brought to this committee, can I ask what priority the department is placing on ensuring that there is ongoing environmental monitoring of areas that have already come under observation?

Mr Sullivan : Monitoring and evaluation have been key components of the Caring for our Country investment process to date, and we aim to continue that. Part of the consultation process for Caring for our Country is to simplify it a little bit and take away some of the transaction costs at a regional level. The key issue is getting good information about how we are tracking.

At the same time, we are looking at how we can get more public involvement in monitoring. This goes back many years, from private individuals all the way through to smaller community groups undertaking monitoring, and sometimes those results are not as well thought of as a monitoring regime by a university. There is more scope to take into account the input of data that comes from private citizens as well as that from community groups and land-holders.

We are also embarking on a national plan for environmental information. This is a difficult process; when you think about it, the first environment department was in the early 1970s, either in Whitlam's term or just prior to it—

Mr ZAPPIA: It was Whitlam.

Mr Sullivan : in Moss Cass, I think. Environment as a government department, let alone as a fundamental data source, has only existed since the seventies, whereas economic data has been collected systematically in Australia since Federation. Social data has been collected systematically since the post-war period—that was the real social policy impetus for collection of data. The environment field is tracking well behind those two sectors. We are trying to crawl properly in the right direction before we run.

We are also trying to push the agenda, and part of this is what we are doing at our program level, from the smaller project in Busselton all the way through to the larger Reef Rescue program, to make sure that monitoring good data is a fundamental component of that. At the same time we are looking at national data standards, where data is collected by the states, for example, or by local government. We are trying to compare apples with apples wherever possible, and the standards are uniform.

We also have real legacy problems with data. In the late nineties there was a push on data where suddenly public good data was potentially of commercial use. Cost recovery regimes all the way through to not releasing data because of potential intellectual property rationale have hindered us, whereas other governments around the world, and more recently the UK, have moved to open data, particularly in the environment and sustainability field. There is a real opportunity for Australia to have a much more concerted direction here. For some data, if it has commercial benefits, there are issues around commercialisation, and privacy data has privacy issues, so it is not just a blanket 'everything must be in the public domain'. Some of our fundamental data sets are not shared at the moment, and I think we can do a lot better with that.

Ours is a multipronged approach trying to build the credibility of environment data, to get access to the data that is collected and to make it more transparent and open, from people at the project level—comparing their projects in Caring for our Country—all the way through to those looking at national trend data. I think last year's state-of-the-environment report was a real step forward in terms of starting to put trends in, so this is where we think we are heading. Economists do not have a problem with saying, 'I think we're headed for this.' Environment practitioners have, I think, been much more reluctant to do that and I think that that was a great step forward. But this is a space where I think we can do a lot more around building on the monitoring regimes that we have in place but also building that capability so it is long term. Then we are not having to reinvent that wheel continually.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for appearing before the committee. We may have other questions before the conclusion of our inquiry and, if we do, we will forward them to you in writing.

Mr Sullivan : I am more than happy to respond.

Resolved (on motion by Dr Washer):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 15:36