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STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT
17/10/2008
Natural resource management and conservation challenges

CHAIR —I welcome Dr Walker and Dr Abel. I would like to remind senators the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or the state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. Officers of the department are also reminded that any claim that it could be contrary to public interest to answer a question must be made by a minister and should be accompanied by a statement setting out the basis for the claim. I would invite you to make a brief opening statement if you want to and then we will bombard you with questions.

Dr Walker —The Sustainable Ecosystems Division works on research to inform policy and management actions in relation to ecosystems services for underpinning healthy rural, regional and urban communities and landscapes that support viable enterprises as well as maintaining biodiversity. Clearly the subject of this inquiry is of considerable interest to us. We have had a range of involvement in delivery of NHT1 and NHT2 in a research context, ranging from contributing biophysical and other research into regional processes to inform our understanding of particular issues and effective management interventions as well as contributing to and undertaking in some cases planning processes for regional bodies. That is at the local and regional scale. I have been involved in some reviews of the efficacy of NRM policies and programs at a range of scales, for example, across northern Australia. I have contributed to investment appraisals and allocation processes at state and, to some extent, national levels and have contributed to a number of environmental policies.

That is a little bit of our background beyond the intentionality of the roles CSIRO plays in a research context. I just want to take the opportunity if I could to highlight a few of the key points in our submission. As I am sure you are clear from our previous discussion, NRM issues and outcomes clearly range from national, regional, local and paddock scales. From our perception there is a real challenge in being careful not to optimise at one scale only. It is our observation that experience with NHT has shown it is often difficult to link expenditure to outcomes at and across those scales. That is partly because in our view some of the monitoring and evaluation frameworks do not recognise the different indicators that operate at different scales and the relationships between them because it may be that tight investment has been spread too thinly to produce a measurable return in some of the implementation.

One of our views is that effective frameworks for biophysical data are critical for measuring return on investment for NRM, so the management decisions can be clearly evidenced based and we commend a number of activities in that regard going on at the moment within Australian. In the submission we talk about a mixed model of investments that combine some of the strengths of the current regional model, some centrally run competitive processes and also service provision centrally and increased involvement of local government has potentially been a desirable outcome. Those are a set of comments in relation to scale and linkage between scales.

I would also particularly like to draw attention to the opportunity to bring Indigenous people more centrally into the delivery of NRM outcomes not only as a means of addressing large areas of the Australian landscape which fall in the Indigenous estate and have particularly high NRM significance but also as a means of helping to address some of the intractable issues facing Indigenous communities in terms of the Australian government’s contribution. Thank you.

Senator HURLEY —You talk about using local government but where I have been talking to a particular area of South Australia there are few local government areas. There may be other areas where local government is not that effective. Is that necessarily the best way to go rather than using the kind of regional model?

Dr Walker —I would not necessarily see it as an alternative but as a comment that in some of the earlier NHT programs there was a strong role for local government which has declined substantially in the second NHT program. Clearly the local government arrangements vary dramatically across the country and so circumstances will vary.

Dr Abel —I would agree with Dr Walker, but the big problem that most local governments face is lack of capacity. A lot of them feel that there has been a lot of cost shifting. They have picked up a lot of extra responsibilities that have stretched their resources. If they were to be effective they would have to be resourced accordingly. I think under the proposed new Caring for our Country arrangements they will now be able to bid competitively for some of that funding. But our feeling is that the catchment management authorities, although they are called authorities, do not have any statutory authority at all whereas local government does have statutory powers to effect development or to conserve. Those powers have not been given to the CMAs but they are still retained by local government, so there is a bit of a contradiction there. The two could be bought together, I think.

Senator HURLEY —Do you see the planning powers as essential for proper operation of the outcomes of the Caring for our Country program?

Dr Abel —Planning is very important for coordination, but I would not like to see the whole thing turned over to a big planning operation. I would prefer to see local competitive processes so we can find out the real costs of provision and learn from individual landholder’s experiences in actually doing the job because we do not know how to do it, whereas they can find out how to do it if they do not know already.

Senator HURLEY —I think some landholders would argue that your proposal, which virtually takes it out of their hands, does not build on their expertise?

Dr Abel —It is certainly not about disempowering the landholders. I can see a role for zoning as a way of prioritising where investments go but then having competitive bids as to who is actually going to provide the services.

Senator HURLEY —We had one group of people from Queensland tell us earlier that they felt that the competitive process would destroy what they had built up, that the landholders in the community had built up a cooperative and effective arrangement and pitting local council, that group and state government agencies against each other in a competitive process would unravel a lot of the good work that had been done.

Dr Abel —Indeed that may be a danger. There might. It is something that would have to be watched.

Dr Walker —I think there is a challenge of providing different tools at different levels of granularity. The previous witness was talking about instruments for committed tender at a gross scale and that certainly has a role to play. You would not necessarily replicate that right up through the hierarchy. Allocations and investments of different scales might require different tools for the most effective outcomes.

Senator HURLEY —Perhaps I have not understood your submission, but I still do not see how local people and local community groups could fit in very well to the kind of model that you are talking about. You say that they maybe could but it is difficult to see them surviving—

Dr Walker —I think the intention was to talk about some broadly competitive processes for some elements of resourcing to ensure that you avoid the risk of spreading the resources very thinly across the countryside as a whole and running the risk of having very low impacts across the whole of the landscapes, so you need to allow for some increased focus through those processes, but equally you need to retain the enormous investment that has been made in the regional models and the opportunity to work through those sets of regional arrangements and the relationships between landholders and those regional organisations. There is clearly an investment needed to sustain that. Equally, as a third arm, in the context where it is an appropriate player, which certainly is not across the country as a whole, bringing local government in as having a significant stake in managing local environments.

Senator HURLEY —It seems to me that between all these different levels and models you are talking about a structure that would have a lot of administrative costs?

Dr Abel —That is something that would have to be watched very carefully because the money could easily go into administration instead of on-ground works and actions. I think one of the consequences of having the catchment management authorities and their equivalents in there is that it has actually reduced the transaction costs. I believe that it is actually easier to get those funds disbursed because there is coordination at that catchment scale and there is some agreement. Of course there are administrative costs in setting up the catchment management authorities and a lot of the capacity building that is already happening. I actually think that if all that competition were centralised and run out of Canberra I suspect—and we cannot know—that the transaction costs could really blow out through having to deal with multiple farmers instead of having the farmers communicate to the federal government through a catchment management authority.

Senator HURLEY —You were talking about focusing on priority areas and saying that there are some areas we cannot prevent from becoming irretrievably degraded. I think personally that that is demonstrably true. If people want to do some work on the ground that is terrific but where there is a shortage of funds they should be located in priority areas. Who would you see as setting these priority areas? How would you do it? Do you think we have enough data, enough knowledge, about areas around the country to do that?

Dr Walker —I think the information base to inform those decisions is certainly a significant constraint. Those are policy and political decisions ultimately about priority areas, but we have sets of tools that can help to structure and inform that process but they are certainly limited by the environmental information both in terms of the special distribution of issues and the way that they have changed over time. There is no doubt in my mind that is a significant constraint going forward. Having said that, we clearly need to continue making decisions under imperfect information and there are tools and processes to try to provide support to policy makers in that process.

Senator SIEWERT —I had to step out of the room for about two minutes and I missed some of the questions that Senator Hurley asked, so if I am repeating them I apologise up front. It is useful to follow on from the issues that were raised by Mr Stoneham in terms of the competitive approach. It also seems to me to be consistent with some of the things that you are saying in your submission in terms of targeting highest priorities and whether you think that is the best method of targeting the highest priorities or whether you would suggest some other process for best using limited resources because you make comments also in your submission about targeting limited resources. What would you see as the best method of targeting limited resources?

Dr Walker —I think there is a challenge in the cascading set of scales for investments, so across the broad geography of the country around high priority issues the broad allocation might be quite a different process to then having identified a particular issue and identified a set amount of resources to be deployed to that issue, then there might be a very strong role for the type of competitive market instruments that we heard about previously to most effectively deploy those resources into a particular landscape which the landholders clearly know in intimately more precise detail than any external investor could. It is a question of the cascading set of approaches of those different scales.

Senator SIEWERT —How would you suggest that be done? That is one question. Also were you consulted as part of the process of setting the priorities and outcomes by the federal government in producing this document?

Dr Walker —I know CSIRO has been involved in some of the discussions there. I personally have not been.

Senator SIEWERT —But CSIRO was.

Dr Walker —I believe, yes. I could not say exactly what the discussions were but they have been in consultation at various stages over the last few months.

Senator SIEWERT —I am pleased to hear that CSIRO was involved but how do you think we should go about setting those priorities?

Dr Walker —I will make one comment. While there might be a cascading set of scales and decisions, it is quite important in my mind that the underpinning information that those are based on has some consistency across those scales that will let them flow back up. The process that we have been involved in developing multi-criteria assessment tools for looking at, if you like, indicative allocations across regional bodies for example which involve determining a set of priorities and determining a set of attributes of the system and making investment decisions across a set of attributes in a deliberative sense across state government and federal government and other key stakeholders in that process. That is quite a different deliberative discussion to when some of the next scale down allocations where some of the tools you were discussing with the previous witness might come into play.

Senator SIEWERT —We have had quite a lot of discussion around INFFER. It has been trialled in WA. It has been trialled in Victoria. We have had David Pannell present it. Is that the type of decision-making tool that you are talking about?

Dr Walker —Yes, potentially. I am probably not particularly well placed to comment in detail on INFFER but those are certainly analogous to some of the types of approaches we have been involved. I think it is certainly highly appropriate at that particular scale.

Senator SIEWERT —At the federal level as well?

Dr Walker —At a number of scales, yes.

Dr Abel —I think David Pannell might object to this, but I think he is operating more at a catchment scale.

Senator SIEWERT —He is. I have been quite critical of the lack of firm decision-making process as to priority setting made at a national level as well. I was asking him about the use of the tool at a national level. I hope I am not misquoting him, but he said that you could apply—it needs some work—INFFER at a national level but he has not—

Dr Abel —Conceptually, I believe so.

Senator SIEWERT —You are right. They have been applying it broadly at the moment more at a catchment level and a regional group level. I am sorry; in Victoria they are called catchment management authorities. In WA they are called regional groups. At that level they have been, but he was saying that he thinks there needs to be the same sort of rigour applied to the next level up as well.

Dr Walker —We have been involved in one analogous process, so conceptually that is absolutely right. Some years ago we were involved in indicative allocations in Queensland for resources in providing some of the underpinning analysis for decisions that are clearly policy and political decisions about indicative allocations. In the very broadest sense that approach is the same conceptual approach as the approach that is being used in INFFER. There is also lot of devil in the detail that might be different but, yes, that is a demonstration of the scale I believe those types of conceptual approaches are.

Senator SIEWERT —You say in relative terms Australia’s investment in natural resources is small and CSIRO suggests government should consider whether Australia’s level of investment is appropriate to the scale of the environmental issues we are trying to address. I would put on the table that I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. What would you suggest would be the level of investment that we should be making in order to deal with the scale of the issues that we are dealing with?

Dr Abel —It is hard for CSIRO to be put on the spot about government allocations. It might be useful to dodge the question and see if you ask a businessperson what they expect to reinvest in their capital, you might come up with a much higher number than we are now reinvesting in the natural capital.

Senator SIEWERT —Just pretend that you are a businessperson, what level of investment would you suggest you needed to make in your capital investments?

Dr Abel —A fair bit more than we are now.

Senator SIEWERT —I was not trying to trick you, by the way.

Dr Abel —No, I understand.

Senator SIEWERT —I am interested in the quantum that we should be—

Dr Abel —I do not actually know what the number is. Our landscape is a very difficult one. Europe’s landscape is much easier in many ways. A lot of the soils are much more fertile and retain their nutrients and water much more easily and more naturally. Our landscape is a tough landscape and might need a lot more care than it is getting.

Senator SIEWERT —I do want to come back to the issue of accounts but while we are here because this has just triggered a question around range land management. When you mention some of the difficult landscapes, we have not really focused in this inquiry much at all on range lands. I have noticed that in your introductory comments and also in your submission you have talked about Aboriginal involvement in land management. We had John Altman in this morning. He was obviously focused on IPAs and Caring for our Country. What would be your chief recommendations in terms of where we should go in NRM and Indigenous involvement not only in the north but also I was thinking that we had pretty powerful oral submissions last week in WA from representatives of the Noongar community? They were also talking about Aboriginal involvement in what I call intensive agriculture, which is still extensive agriculture but compared to range lands it is more intensive. What is your experience and what would you recommend that we do to improve Aboriginal involvement?

Dr Walker —That is a very challenging set of questions. We do not have, if you like, definitive answers for you but some observations. There are some observations in the submission around the extent of the Indigenous estate in the country and the extent of access by Indigenous communities to NRM resources and the disparity between the two. Most if not all regional bodies have Indigenous involvement in the regional body process but that does not experientially seem to have tracked through to the level of involvement of Indigenous communities that might have been expected. What I am saying is that there may be a strong argument for an increase in specifically targeted investments to Indigenous communities. Clearly across the country there are enormous differences, so the extent of the Indigenous estate in northern Australia is a very substantial part of the landscape and is a very different context for Indigenous communities than say to the Murray-Darling Basin where there are substantial communities—just off the top of my head I cannot give you the absolute figure—but a very low proportion of the landscape actually in a tenure sense is controlled by Indigenous communities. Again there may be a need to have some different, directly targeted means of engagement for those communities say in south-eastern Australia from northern Australia. I think my point is: if we are flowing through regional arrangements on their own that is not adequate, and that is clearly recognised in the current Caring for our Country design, but it is a point I would strongly emphasise.

Senator SIEWERT —You touched on the point there when you were talking about involvement in the Murray-Darling. The point that the representatives from the Noongar community in WA were making was that in the south-west of WA they do not own a lot of land because they have been alienated from the land, but they need to reconnect with country and it is culturally very important to them. I took the point that perhaps Caring for our Country was more focused on areas of land that are actually owned and managed by Aboriginal communities rather than specifically looking at those areas where they have been alienated.

Dr Walker —Maybe that is appropriate in terms of NRM outcomes. There are multiple benefits from this investment. Maybe the broader whole-of-government approach to closing the gap needs to moderate some of them. As I say, these are a very complex set of issues. These are recent observations rather than any prescription which may go beyond the research that we have done.

Senator SIEWERT —Again I apologise if I missed this when Senator Hurley asked it earlier, but what is your opinion of the need for a national environmental accounting system as per either the Wentworth Group’s proposal—I do not know if you have seen that—or the one that Mr Stoneham was advocating, a different national system carried out by ABS which would be part of our national account?

Dr Walker —I think it is a very strong requirement for that underpinning to make NRM investments into the future more effective and better targeted. Precisely what the right structure is is a really substantial question, but I do think it has been a significant constraint in the past and will be into the future, so it is certainly an area that requires attention and is receiving attention currently. I know that there are proposals working through to do that. Furthermore, it is very important that again there is a set of scales at which those accounts play out, so the requirements for regional bodies or at subregional scales for information to inform both investment and appraisal might be quite different to what is scaled up in national accounts. There needs to be a coherence across those scales but we should not be looking for a small set of measures that measure everything. It is quite a problematic approach.

Senator SIEWERT —When you were saying that there is some work being done on that, could you point us in the right direction as to who is doing the work that is being done?

Dr Walker —I understand that there are discussions in the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. I have not been involved directly so I have no comment beyond that. But there have been discussions on national environment information systems.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you for your submission. I note in your submission where you look at options for capitalising on the existing regional network. They are just options, as you say. You do not really recommend any of them?

Dr Walker —I guess we are really making some comments about the need to build on investment in major regional bodies rather than necessarily having a particular prescription for how to do so, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —They are alternatives though, aren’t they, except for option 4 which is a sort of combination of all, as I understand it?

Dr Walker —Yes. In essence I think we are articulating that some form of mixed model is likely to be desirable.

Dr Abel —We just used those three options in what we call pure form just to bring out the pros and cons of each option if you took it to an extreme. The idea of the fourth option was that you borrowed the good bits out of the other three and put them together.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I was particularly interested in your suggestions for strengthening the current model. In item 3, devolving resources of authority to the requisite level, I think you were telling us the lower the decision making goes the better it is and I think you say without necessarily increasing costs. Am I interpreting that correctly, that you get more bang for your buck if the decision on where money is spent is at the level closest to where it might be spent?

Dr Walker —It depends a little on the decision that is being made. As you heard from the previous witness, getting landholders to make decisions about the most cost-effective way of achieving a particular outcome is clearly much more appropriate than having that decision being made remotely. That landholder knows infinitely more about that landscape. But getting landholders to decide what environmental information should be collected to contribute to national environmental accounts would not be sensible. There is a view that there is an appropriate scale for any investment and maybe a principle that those investments should be at the lowest appropriate scale possible, but in some instances again I would have a little bit of a concern under the current regional model that a lot of data collection has been devolved to the regional body scale and that has led to a lot of duplication of effort and at the risk of reinventing the wheel across 56 regions, where some of those issues might have been better suited at the national scale. But an awful lot of the actual investment particularly as to issues you are talking about might be best devolved to a low scale.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —This idea under the proposed new arrangement of having national priorities under which I guess effectively the decision on the expenditure is being made in Canberra at a central government level; do you see some merit in that?

Dr Walker —It depends on the granularity of those national priorities, I believe.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am sorry, I do not know what ‘granularity’ means.

Dr Walker —Clearly priority decisions on a national scale in relation to the on-ground actions that might be taken is likely to be much less effective and much closer to direct management, but priorities in terms of the balance between broad landscapes is clearly something that might best be taken on a national scale rather than regionally or even on a state scale, so comparative investment between range lands and intensively managed landscapes, for example.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Have you studied what has been proposed under this Caring for our Country arrangement? I think you would probably say nobody really knows what the detail is.

Dr Walker —We have seen some material but we have not studied it in a detailed sense, no.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Does what is proposed look like it might be going towards meeting your option 4?

Dr Walker —I cannot answer that. I do not have any reason to believe it will not meet that but, as I say, I have not seen sufficient detail to really provide a comment on that.

Dr Abel —I think the roles of the regional bodies are still not clear and their relative importance under the new arrangements is still not clear. The proportion of the funding that they will expect to get in the future is still not known.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is there anything that you have seen from the Caring for our Country proposals that leads you to think that local government will be more involved than they already are?

Dr Abel —I think the constraint on local government at the moment is just the lack of capacity they already have to do what they are already required to do. Even if more money is offered for on-ground works I know that the shires that I work with would not actually have the people on the ground able to write the proposal and then implement it even if they scored with the money. I believe that if local government were to be involved in this there would have to be an investment in their capacity to do NRM before they could actually do more of the ongoing work.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —If it were determined that they should do that, they would get a lot of Commonwealth funding to do that work.

Dr Abel —I know that some shires would do it. Others I suspect would not.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I do not want you to name individual shires, but which state are you working in?

Dr Abel —New South Wales and WA.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I was interested in your comment:

In some instances the Caring for our Country program has been presented as a one-stop shop for NRM funding in Australia.

Then you go on to say:

This is not the case, nor can it be under existing frameworks.

What do you mean by that?

Dr Abel —It is because there is more than one source of money. For example, if you work in New South Wales you can go to one source for some funding; you can go to the federal government for some other funding. When regional bodies are already under capacity it is hard for them to keep a handle on these different sources of money, each one quite small an amount. There was an impression given that perhaps under Caring for our Country there would be a one-stop shop but it does not look as if that will happen. It may happen but it is not the case yet.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —My understanding of what the department told us this morning was that it was going to be a one-stop shop and a lot of the complexity in currently assessing money would disappear and it would all become much more simple. I will believe that when I see it, but you might just want to have a look at the Hansard on that to see whether that changes your mind in any way or another. Again, they are saying that is what it is planned to be but, as I say, we will wait and see what that does.

I am from Queensland, which is the same I think as Western Australia and perhaps Tasmania, in that the NRM bodies are not statutory bodies; they are community groups. But the idea of them having to compete with, as I understand it, statutory authorities like the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Queensland government authorities, departments and local government for money, is that the best way to spend a limited amount of dollars, do you think? Do you have a view on the fact that there is no clear doer of a program that the central government in Canberra thinks should be done?

Dr Walker —Getting back to these options we talked about, the proposal around a mixed model is saying that you need to protect in some sense the investment that has been made in the regional bodies, and that needs to be done carefully, but that there might be some issues and instances in those centrally run competitive processes. Exactly how you balance those to achieve a higher impact without undermining the investments that have previously been made is clearly an enormous policy challenge.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What is the discipline of the two of you? What is your expertise?

Dr Abel —I am an ecologist and an environmental economist and I work on institutions, so rules and organisations.

Dr Walker —I have a cultural systems and ecology background, but have been working in regional natural resource planning in various modes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Perhaps you are not the right people to float this with, but would you see, almost forgetting about natural resource management, that the current system does in fact create employment and very often employment in regional parts of Australia? Have you ever thought of that?

Dr Walker —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is that a legitimate goal for any of these programs or would you say that that is nothing to do with ecology and something that perhaps other programs should be associated with?

Dr Walker —Demonstrably these programs create employment and I guess it is clear that retaining people in the landscape in the broader sense is an important part of managing those landscapes. Looking at Indigenous communities for example, the comments we were making about some of the value in linking community level outcomes with delivery of NRM outcomes demonstrates that point, I suppose. That is a legitimate part of the policy process, I think.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —In communities in Queensland—I mention Georgetown, Mount Isa, Charleville and I think Longreach—these programs have brought a noticeable employment boost to those areas. Georgetown for example I think is a town of about 200 people but I think they have, or did have, five or six people employed, which I submit is an argument for having the NRM management at the local level rather than having it done centrally, which would deprive some of those fairly remote places of what is a substantial addition to the workforce. Do you have any thoughts on that at all?

Dr Walker —I think that is certainly part of the consideration, but how much priority you place on those different things is really beyond what a research agency can provide comment on.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, I guess it is.

Dr Abel —There is a sort of textbook formula for policy making which says that if you try to have too many goals in the same policy instrument you end up achieving none of them. It is always worth bearing the textbook in mind and then actually doing what you have to do on the ground. But I believe there certainly is some truth in that, but there may be more cost-effective ways of creating employment.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —This is not a question but a comment. Certainly in Queensland the delivery through natural resource management groups has really had a noticeable impact on quality employment in some of the remote parts of the state but at the same time they are doing a fabulous job for the ecology. They are doing it because they have the total support of the local community and the local community is getting an expertise and a benefit that they would not in the past have even dreamed of.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your time, Dr Abel and Dr Walker.

 [4.27 pm]