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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

FORBES, Mr Malcolm, Assistant Secretary, Office of Water Science, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

O'NEIL, Ms Bernadette, Executive Officer, Office of Water Science, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

RANKIN, Ms Alexandria, First Assistant Secretary, Office of Water Science, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

SLATYER, Mr Tony, First Assistant Secretary, Water Reform Division, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Thank you for talking to us today. As Commonwealth officers, you will not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy, although this does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policy or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. The committee has not received a written submission from the department. Does the department wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Ms Rankin : I just wanted to make a very brief statement to note that, in relation to the legislation that is before the Senate at the moment, we have already had the interim committee operating under pretty much the same conditions as the legislation outlines since January this year, and it has already provided some really good advice to the government in terms of nine specific projects that are being referred to it. It has also made some substantial inputs into designing the methodology and approach for bioregional assessments and a research program for this financial year. We have been spending the last six months getting a lot of the arrangements in place to implement this legislation so if it is passed it is ready to go. We have been sorting out some of the policy and program issues as we have been doing that, and I just wanted to have that noted for the record.

CHAIR: Thanks. There have been a number of recurring themes today during the inquiry. One that is certainly a polemic between the witnesses today has been the actual experts themselves and their capacity to be really independent. On the one hand we have some groups saying that the independent experts should have absolutely no links to the mining industry or the minerals industry—

Senator WATERS: I do not think they said that. They said the majority of the funding should not come from there.

CHAIR: Yes, the majority of the funding should not come from there. There was concern about linkages to the minerals industry. On the other hand, the Minerals Council is arguing that experts should have a knowledge of the mining industry. What is happening at the moment?

Ms Rankin : For the interim committee, we looked at identifying potential members of that that had the right scientific expertise that we were looking at. That was the first point: trying to find a group of individuals who had the scientific expertise around understanding hydrology and geology, and how mining interacts with those systems. Then we went through a process of making sure that those people were able to provide independent advice through a process of putting in place really strict probity and conflict of interest arrangements, and doing some due diligence checking before they were appointed.

In that process, we found that it is hard in this field, particularly in the coal seam gas area, to find people who actually understand the science around the potential implications of how the coal seam gas operations work and their interactions with underground aquifers and water systems, unless you found people who had some interactions with industry. The view was that it is much better to have people who do have that—both the scientific understanding, credibility and expertise and the understanding of how the industry works—and manage any risks associated with that through proper conflict of interest and governance arrangements. We could not find anybody to be honest who had no linkages at all and had the right science. If you are trying to get an expert advisory committee, you want people who are experts not people who are learners in the whole area.

CHAIR: I am not casting any aspersions on the people who are there, but what conflict of interest checks and balances are they?

Ms Rankin : When we appointed them to the committee there were detailed probity arrangements and a conflict of interest protocol that they had to sign off on. They gave us a statement about potential areas of conflict of interest that they might face. We have a conflict of interest and probity protocol that applies for the whole committee's operations. It is part of their operating procedures and arrangements that were signed by the Australian Government Solicitor and probity advisors. It attempts to provide the best leading practice in terms of how that is being managed. For every meeting, there are additional conflict of interest arrangements that have been put in place. So for every agenda item for a meeting, they have to identify whether they believe they have any potential conflict of interest and then a decision is made in relation to whether they can participate or not in any discussion in relation to that agenda item or whether they can participate in the discussions but not in the decisions in relation to the item. That is all noted and recorded in the minutes. Some of those things are handled on a case-by-case basis, but it is all handled at the beginning of every meeting and documented as part of the meeting procedures.

CHAIR: Are those minutes publicly available?

Ms Rankin : Yes, the minutes are publicly available.

CHAIR: All potential conflicts are on the public record?

Ms Rankin : Yes.

CHAIR: That is good. The other issue concerns recommendations that are brought forward by the committee to the minister. The argument is that they should be made public at the same time as the minister receives them. Are there any issues in relation to that?

Ms Rankin : This is the advice on specific proposals? Is that the question?


Ms Rankin : Because the committee has been set up as an advisory body to governments and those are the arrangements under which it is established, the general view has been that it is appropriate to give the decision maker the opportunity to consider the advice from the committee before it is made publicly available. We have been publishing the advice from the committee pretty much at the same time as or just after the decision has been made, so there is not a long delay between when the minister makes the decision, or the decision makers make the decision, and when that advice becomes available. But the general view has been that it is not appropriate to release that information that is provided at the request of governments into the public arena before the requesting minister or delegate has had the opportunity to review the advice.

CHAIR: On the issue of the chair having no scientific qualifications, the argument has been that, because of the wide range of scientific skills and knowledge required, the chair should actually be adding to that, not detracting from it by not having any scientific knowledge. Is there a view in the department on that?

Ms Rankin : There is no requirement that the chair does not have any scientific requirements. There is an opportunity for them not to in the way the legislation is drafted. I think that was put in there partly as a way of saying that one of the major roles of the chair is obviously to help the committee to function as a body and to make sure that it keeps on track in terms of its approach to good governance, to probity issues, to working through the workload in a logical and organised way and to make sure that it is engaging with the right group of stakeholders. In that context, it might be better to have as the chair of the committee somebody who has more business expertise and committee governance expertise rather than a scientific person in that role. But there have been no decisions taken yet on who the chair of the statutory committee would be and whether they should have scientific credentials or not.

Senator McKENZIE: We heard this morning about community concerns regarding political appointments to these sorts of bodies but also bureaucratic appointments. I just wondered if as public servants you had any comment to make about the community having faith in bureaucrats in these positions. I have great faith, so I just wanted to give the Public Service an opportunity to put that on the record.

Ms Rankin : You are trying to understand about us and our role and how we are managing it? Is that the question?

Senator McKENZIE: No. There was a more general comment made about community concerns about appointments to these sorts of bodies being either political or bureaucratic appointments. They were put in the one box of community concerns about impartiality.

Ms Rankin : I guess our view is that it is in our best interests, as bureaucrats ourselves, to try and get the best people on these committees. It helps the job of government, to administer the legislation and to provide the best service to our minister to have the people with the right expertise, credentials and experience to be able to do the job. I do not see any value at all in making it a process where you put less than the best person on there. I cannot really say much more than that, I don't think.

Senator McKENZIE: We heard a lot of comments around definitions of significance—'significant impact'. Do you have any comments around the use of that word, given that statistically, for instance, it has a very specific meaning?

Ms Rankin : The definition of 'significant impact' in the EPBC Act probably has a long history in itself. When we went back and reviewed the EPBC Act and how it has evolved, there is actually no definition of significant impact for other issues in relation to the EPBC Act. Over time there has been experience built up in terms of the actual specific assessments about particular projects—for example, on threatened species, wetlands and World Heritage areas—that has enabled a body of work to be developed that can provide a really sound basis for coming up with a detailed definition of 'significant impact' for those specific things, and some significant impact guidelines have subsequently been released to help make better assessments about whether something is likely to be significant or not. I guess we are expecting that in this field the same thing will happen. At the moment there have been very few decisions and assessments taken that can help inform a very robust and defensible definition of 'significant impact' in every single circumstance, so the objective here is to try to use the national partnership agreement definition of 'significant impact' as the initial filter. Then, through the body of work that is built up as individual projects come through, as advice is provided and as we get some practical experience in the actual impact of coal seam gas and coalmining operations when they are in place, you can start to have a much more informed view about that and start to produce some public information that would help clarify that in much more detail. I do not think the science is there yet to be able to definitively say one way or another in every circumstance that something is going to be significant or not, so we are probably trying to take a bit more of a cautious, risk-averse approach at the moment.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you. We heard a comment that there actually is evidence, research and data as part of the application process that is not then more widely available, and we heard how it leads to a lot of repetition in terms of applicants and some information that might assist other projects et cetera over time. I do not know if you heard the comments from, I think, the Minerals Council, but I am just wondering whether you have any comment to make on that. But it is not in the public domain.

Ms Rankin : I do not think it is unique to this industry that, when proponents put together applications, they often undertake some research themselves that helps support their claim but that they then might not make publicly available or that for commercial-in-confidence reasons is not released. We have certainly been aware that that is of particular concern in this area, and one of the discussions that the interim committee has been holding today is expressing a very strong interest in being able to work collaboratively with industry to try to find ways of making sure that that information becomes available and can be made available in the public domain. Certainly everything that the committee will be doing in terms of its research, bioregional assessments and advice would be published, and for some of the research projects that are being proposed at the moment they would rely on getting information from industry, and that would be negotiated on the understanding from industry that all that information would become publicly available as well. So it is an area that is a concern and something that we want to work on, but I guess it is something that is probably going to take a bit of negotiation and time to work through. I am not sure it is really something we can legislate for.

Senator McKENZIE: Okay. I will just leave it there for now. Thanks.

Senator WATERS: I want to touch on the 'significant impact' definition which Senator McKenzie just raised. I am wondering why there is a definition in the national partnership agreement but not in the bill itself for significant impact on water resources.

Ms Rankin : There is a cross-reference to the national partnership agreement definition.

Senator WATERS: Not in the bill. It is not defined. So I guess my question is: what is the legal status of that definition if it is not in the bill?

Ms Rankin : Obviously the national partnership agreement does not have legal status, as you know, so the definition that is in there is one that has been jointly agreed by the Commonwealth and the states on the basis, as I said, that the objective would be that over time we and the committee would be able to start to release some public information or information guidelines about how to interpret that definition and how to use it on a practical basis.

Senator WATERS: So you are intending to update the administrative guidelines on significance by adding in the definition in relation to water resources?

Ms Rankin : My intention would be to produce some guidelines under the EPBC Act that describe significant impacts in relation to water resources from these types of operations, as I said, over a period of time when we have actually had some experience in assessing them and understanding what some of those impacts are.

Senator WATERS: My concern is that the jurisdiction of the committee is enlivened if an activity has or is likely to have a significant impact on water resources, but our state of understanding of water resources, particularly in relation to coal seam gas, is quite impoverished. It might be such that the committee is not able to say whether there is going to be a significant impact, purely because of that lack of information. Obviously, you would want the committee to do the work then to find the information, but how can they if the jurisdiction is not enlivened in the first place? I do not think it is under the bill's provisions, but how will the committee be compelled to take a precautionary approach to that question, rather than having a self-fulfilling prophecy of never having enough information and therefore never triggering the committee's involvement, if you get where I am going.

Ms Rankin : It is actually up to the jurisdictions to trigger the involvement of the committee, not the committee itself.

Senator WATERS: The federal minister can ask the committee if he thinks the impacts are going to be significant; otherwise the committee has no jurisdiction at all. That is my understanding.

Ms Rankin : That is right. The states are under the obligations of the national partnership agreement. They also have to seek the advice of the committee if they consider the proposed actions likely to have a significant impact on water.

Senator WATERS: Again, the same significance threshold.

Ms Rankin : Yes. It is definitely a jurisdiction's decision about whether to refer something to the committee, whether they think it meets that test. But the objective is that the committee would produce these guidelines that would help inform an understanding or a definition about how you interpret the significant impact based on their scientific expertise and experience.

Senator WATERS: But if we lack the information about the impacts, how do we know if they are significant?

Ms Rankin : That is probably the case in a lot of proposals that come under the EPBC Act for decisions. Questions of judgments have to be made that you base on the best available science. At the moment you take a risk approach. If there is a risk of potential significant impact, then it is more likely than not that the thing would be referred for advice than the other way around.

Senator WATERS: Do you think it is reasonable to have that high threshold when there is this state of impoverishment in relation to information on water resources as they are impacted on by coal seam gas?

Ms Rankin : The alternative would be to have—

Senator WATERS: Some sort of different threshold?

Ms Rankin : Any impact on water.

Senator WATERS: That might be one option.

Ms Rankin : That was certainly discussed as part of the NPA negotiations. The question is that, when you start to unpick that, you get into all sorts of things about puddles of water on the ground following a rainstorm. Is something going to have an impact on that? Would that trigger the legislation? You can get into some very strange scenarios if you lower the threshold completely. The aim here is to try to find a terminology that is saying, 'We do not want to look at every single proposal in the country. It is really only those ones that are going to have the impacts of most concern.' That is the trigger for other things being referred under the act as well.

Senator WATERS: So is the federal minister obliged to apply the precautionary principle when he is determining whether or not there is likely to be a significant impact on water resources? I do not think there is a proposed amendment to section 391.

Ms Rankin : No, there is not an amendment to that at the moment.

Senator WATERS: The minister does not have to take a precautionary approach when deciding whether or not the committee's jurisdiction should be enlivened?

Ms Rankin : He does not legislatively, but I think the practice has been that he has been. If you look at the projects that have been referred to the committee to date, there has been a very precautionary, conservative approach taken. Certainly, it is the Commonwealth's intention that we would continue to do that, because we are trying to find the science and the evidence to support decision making on this. It is not well understood at the moment.

Senator WATERS: If the independent committee found that a coal or coal seam gas activity was likely to have a significant impact on water resources, but not on a matter of national environmental significance, what power does the federal minister have to prevent or regulate that activity?

Ms Rankin : Under this legislation he does not have any, as you are aware.

Senator WATERS: Nor under the EPBC Act?

Ms Rankin : Yes.

Senator WATERS: I am glad you clarified that, because perhaps the committee are sick of hearing me say that. It might be useful for them to have you confirm my understanding.

Ms Rankin : If it is not a matter of national environmental significance that he has the authority to make a decision on he can share the information with the states to feed it into their process and they would have to take that into account. But it is not something that he has the statutory authority to make.

Senator WATERS: I do not think I am allowed to ask for your opinion on whether that undercuts the effectiveness of this committee.

CHAIR: Correct!

Senator WATERS: That would be against the rules! We had a discussion earlier today about how much of the committee's agenda was reactive and at the direction of the minister but the committee was also charged with doing some proactive work under, I think, section 505D. Clearly, if there is an eight-member committee and they are very busy with referrals and instructions from the minister, they are not going to have a lot of capacity to do proactive work. Can you tell us what the resourcing is for the committee to enable that proactive work to actually be done?

Ms Rankin : The people we have engaged to date have been extremely committed and interested in better science in this area. They have been really proactively engaged in trying to shape the research program, identify the gaps in scientific knowledge and understanding and think through the methodology and approach to bioregional assessments and the best way of undertaking that work so that you can get better decision-making at the end without getting bogged down for years and years in a lot of data-gathering that might not help achieve anything. They have been really active in thinking through those sorts of strategic policy questions. We would expect that that would continue with the statutory committee because ultimately the reason people want to be on this committee is to be involved in shaping those sorts of things and contributing to a better body of science and knowledge on this.

Senator WATERS: What resources would be available to them to do that?

Ms Rankin : Obviously the $150 million that the government has allocated to the committee's work is available for them to commit towards the research program and the bioregional assessments. Also, where they have been asked to provide advice on a particular project and they do not consider that there is adequate science to effectively understand the cumulative impacts, particularly of ongoing developments of that nature, they have suggested that there is a need to commission a particular research project to better inform future decisions around those types of developments. So they have access to that money and they are quite proactive in setting an agenda. They obviously have access to the resources of the office here in terms of doing some of the work to take some of their ideas and turn them into practical projects and scoping out things for them to provide some oversight and leadership without doing all the work themselves.

Senator WATERS: Can you confirm for me which states have signed up under the national partnership agreement? Is it Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria?

Ms Rankin : And South Australia.

Senator WATERS: What is the plan for the states that do not sign up, if there are any? How will this committee's work be reflected in state jurisdictions if the states do not sign up? If, as you explained before, it is not going to have an impact on the federal minister's approval decisions, what impact would it have in a state that does not sign up?

Ms Rankin : For a state that does not sign up, there is no obligation to seek the committee's advice under the national partnership agreement because they have not agreed—

Senator WATERS: Okay, so there is no effect. Are there any indications that some of the states and territories will not sign up?

Ms Rankin : The ACT is not covered. They do not allow mining so it is not relevant to them. Tasmania argued that it does not have large coalmining developments and therefore the legislation is probably not relevant to them either.

Senator WATERS: I believe they have got some coal seam gas proposals though—although I am very happy to be corrected on that.

Ms Rankin : I am not sure. At the time we were discussing the national partnership agreement, they indicated that they did not. The majority of the states that have large coal basins—

Senator WATERS: What has Western Australia said?

Ms Rankin : Their argument was that they do not have coal seam gas mining or large coalmining developments. They have other types of large mining developments, but not coalmining. So they said they did not think the national partnership agreement was relevant to them either.

Senator WATERS: On that front, was the extension of this bill and the agreement of the committee to include tight and shale gas ever considered?

Ms Rankin : Yes, it was.

Senator WATERS: Can you tell me why those things did not end up being included in the bill?

Ms Rankin : The bill is effectively—

Senator WATERS: Or the national partnership agreement?

Ms Rankin : Yes, it is intended to reflect the national partnership agreement. I think that the decision at the time was taken because the key pressure at the moment is around coal seam gas development and large coal-mining development. That is where it was seen as much better to spend the resources now on trying to get some answers in relation to those things, to get better prepared for the large number of developments in that area without trying to spread the resources too thinly across a range of other potential development types that are largely not economical at the moment.

As you know, the legislation does allow, through section 505D (2) (a) and (b), for other types of projects to be referred to the committee for advice at the request of the environment minister or the state. That may include shale gas operations or tight gas operations.

Senator WATERS: I see—good. If that is your interpretation, I am really pleased that we have that on record. I am pleased to hear that.

Given that the primary function of this committee is to advise the states, which need to take account of but which do not necessarily need to adopt, apply or implement the recommendations of the committee, could you tell me what analysis, if any, that the department has done on the states' ability to take proper account of the advice and to act upon that advice so that significant impacts are actually prevented—bearing in mind the incidents in Queensland this week?

Ms Rankin : The objective there is that the states are responsible for their own regulatory functions and that they are held accountable by their own constituents—

Senator WATERS: It is Commonwealth money being used, though, so you would hope that there would be an outcome that the Commonwealth was keen to achieve and to see achieved.

Ms Rankin : Yes. We just have to rely on the states to take their regulatory processes and the arrangements they have in place. The expectation would be that through the protocols they have to produce that they articulate how they intend to take the community's advice into account; and that there would be some transparency through the committee's advice being made public that, obviously, if decisions are made by state governments that are clearly contrary to the committee's advice that communities would be asking the states to explain how they took account of the committee's advice. That would need to be made transparent and there would be appeals processes under the state legislation arrangements if they have not followed the requirement to take account of the committee's advice.

Senator WATERS: Unfortunately, there is not such a good appeals process in Queensland. Be that as it may, was there any discussion of whether or not the states would be required to do more than simply take account of this advice?

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

Senator WATERS: That is a shame. I understand that there is a description of bioregions in the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia—IBRA. Is the scientific committee going to adopt that definition of bioregion? There seems to be indications that they will not, and I am sort of confused as to why we would invent a new definition for bioregion when we have done some of that work already.

Ms Rankin : The interim committee thinks in terms of coal seam basins; they are not surface regionalisation experts. The way they consider bioregions is about the coal seam basins and the aquifers that relate to those; that is how they conceptualise things at a regional scale.

We have tried to translate those understandings of bioregions and water resources under aquifers and surface water resources in terms of understood bioregional description at the surface scale; so using at least understood boundaries of natural resource management regions that are agreed and well understood amongst the Commonwealth and states.

Senator WATERS: Sorry, forgive me, it you just lost me there. So, we will not use the IBRA definition—

Ms Rankin : When we are talking about, say, the Bowen basin, we have tried to translate that that underlies these natural resource management or catchment areas on the surface so that there is some understanding for the communities about which ones are within the boundary and which ones are outside it.

Senator WATERS: So it is sort of a blend of both, by the sound of it?

Ms Rankin : Yes.

Senator FISHER: Concerns were expressed earlier that despite the fact that there are reporting obligations and publishing obligations set out as the functions of the committee there was nothing specifying timeliness or requiring timeliness. Have you got any comments on that?

Ms Rankin : Timeliness of the committee's advice?

Senator FISHER: No, publishing or reporting—making public their findings.

Ms Rankin : Probably not something that we feel is needed to be covered by the legislation. It is just an administrative thing that we would be publishing things as soon as we can because there is a lot of interest in getting information out into the community and into the hands of decision-makers so that better decisions are being made.

Senator FISHER: Getting information into the hands of the decision-makers is not necessarily one and the same as publishing it.

Ms Rankin : I understand that. This is all projecting into the future about how the statutory committee might operate. What we are touting in terms of the methodology design for the bioregional assessments, for example, is to look at processes along the way. So rather than waiting for the end of the bioregional assessment, which might take 18 months or two years to be finalised before a final product comes out, the methodology and the specific design for that would that would be published would have numerous points along the way where certain products are produced as a cumulative improvement of the information that is available in relation to that region. So you would produce some datasets upfront that may not be the full set but provide more information than was previously available, and over time that would build up to the final bioregional assessment. That is how we are approaching it administratively at the moment.

Senator FISHER: What would be the response to witnesses saying that the bill should be amended to include time requirements for reporting and publishing beyond what is there already—within two months of a request by the minister et cetera? Yes, that is there for some specific things. For example, in item (e):

... to publish information about improving the consistency andcomparability of research ...

and item (f):

... to publish information relating to the development of standards for protecting water resources from the impacts of coal seam development ...

There are no requirements as to how often that should be done or within what period of time after the information has been collected should it be published. What is your response to those who say that there should be some time parameters?

Ms Rankin : I am not sure that you can necessarily set a definitive time for some of these things.

Senator FISHER: I think you are right, but these people might be coming from the notion of the worse-case scenario—that work might be done and then it is sat on, for some silly reason.

Ms Rankin : We have an independent committee and they are probably not going to be happy if the work that they have commissioned and overseen is then never published. There is a statutory obligation to publish. So it is not possible to just sit on it forever.

Senator FISHER: I suppose.

Ms Rankin : The thing about the timing is that some of those things you read out my take a couple of years to get produced. If you try to put in some sort of arbitrary time frame for when that might happen, it might lead to some very poor outcomes by having to rush things without having the adequate science to underpin the product. The timing for when they might need to be updated would vary as well, depending on which particular thing you are talking about. I think we have to rely on the fact that it is a statutory requirement to publish and to make it transparent, and people will be looking for it. We are expecting lots of questions about when things are going to be published and the committee will have to be transparent about those sorts of things.

Senator FISHER: In terms of consultation with industry about who is to be appointed to the committee, some of the witnesses have said that they do not disagree item 6, which specifies that there must be people appointed with expertise in geology, hydrology et cetera. But they have said 'provided that we are consulted as to who is being considered for appointment to the committee'. What is your response to those sorts of pleas?

Ms Rankin : We have been consulting with the signatory states to the MPA on potential members. There has not been any consultation outside the signatory states on potential members of the committee. I guess the objective here is to get people who have some credibility in terms of that independence so there is not seen to be some sense of bias or interference: you could not just consult with industry; you would have to consult with community as well to make sure that all potential interests were covered. Because it is intended to be a scientific committee, not a representative one, the view was that you should be able to identify scientific experts without necessarily going to those types of representative groups to get nominations.

Senator McKENZIE: We have heard that this will add an additional layer of bureaucracy to mining companies. I was just wondering if you could give us some advice on how much additional information will be sought and the potential impact, from a regulatory perspective.

Ms Rankin : The interim committee has been very aware of that. The Prime Minister's announcement was very clear that there would not be an additional layer of bureaucracy added by this process. A lot of the information the interim committee is going to rely on for its advice is either already available in some of the documents the proponents produce but scattered amongst thousands of pages and kind of impossible to find and pull together to bring the one story, or it is available by proponents but not usually put into their EIS documentation. For example, the interim committee has been particularly interested in talking about risk assessments. Often EIS documents do not actually produce the risk assessment that the company has already produced themselves for their own internal purposes.

So the interim committee has been looking to suggest that in moving forward there be a better structured approach to how terms of reference for these types of developments are set that bring together all the relevant information about potential impacts on resources into one place and that brings it together with an understanding of a risk assessment matrix. They are very keen on talking about water balances and impacts on water balance and drawing all that information together so that it can be understood as a story rather than having to find it amongst all the other pages of the documentation. The aim here is not to add new requirements for information but to set some standards for the information that is provided and to talk about restructuring and reformatting and being much more explicit about the range of things that need to be brought together to adequately consider impacts on water.

Senator McKENZIE: Finally, we heard this morning from witnesses seeking increased scope in terms of a national examination of water resources, research et cetera. I am just wondering whether the department has any comment on that and on how that might intercept with the work of the National Water Commission. You can take that on notice and have a look at Hansard, if you like.

Mr Slatyer : I am happy to have a go. Commonwealth and state governments have been working on a national water knowledge and research plan. This has been in preparation for a little while—since COAG authorised its development a couple of years ago. The objective of that plan is to set some national research priorities or research priority themes in the water domain and to ensure that, where we are resourcing research projects in these priority areas, that is being done in the best possible manner and to the best effect. The broad response to your question is that the department is working through this very question in the broadest context of water research, knowledge and understanding nationally. The results of that—we hope, if all goes well—will be available in the next few months.

Senator McKENZIE: But it is not something for this particular body? We do not need to be concerned about increasing the scope of this body?

Mr Slatyer : It is not directly linked to this body or to ground water in particular; it is a broader ambition. It is also not directly linked to the future role of the NWC, although it is quite possible that the National Water Commission, post 1 July, will be able to contribute in useful ways to that improved water knowledge base.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you.

CHAIR: That concludes today's proceedings. I thank all witnesses for their informative presentations. Thanks also to Hansard, broadcasting and the secretariat. I remind witnesses that the committee has resolved that questions on notice be returned by Thursday, 14 June 2012. I declare the hearing closed.

Committee adjourned at 15 : 36