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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee


In Attendance

Senator Sherry, Minister Assisting on Deregulation and Public Sector Superannuation, Minister for Small Business

Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government

Ms Glenys Beauchamp, Secretary

Mr Simon Atkinson, Acting Deputy Secretary, Policy and Implementation

Mr Geoff Leeper, Deputy Secretary, National Disaster Recovery Task Force

Mr Dan O’Brien, Deputy Secretary, Program and Engagement

Outcome 1:

Mr Tony Carmichael, First Assistant Secretary, Regional Engagement Division

Ms Judy Jenkins, Acting Assistant Secretary, RDA and ONA

Ms Elizabeth Bennett, Acting Assistant Secretary, Local Engagement and Strategy

Ms Robyn Fleming, First Assistant Secretary, Program Delivery Division

Mr Gordon McCormick, Assistant Secretary, Local Government Programs

Ms Karen Lindsay, Acting Assistant Secretary, Regional Australia Development Fund

Mr Bruce Taloni, Acting First Assistant Secretary, Policy and Coordination Division

Mr Andrew Dickson, Office of Northern Australia

Ms Julia Pickworth, Acting Assistant Secretary, Policy Development and Reform

Ms Jane Heffernan, Assistant Secretary, Engagement and Reporting

Ms Megan Lees, Assistant Secretary, Policy and Cabinet Liaison

Outcome 2:

Mr Julian Yates, First Assistant Secretary, Territories Division

Ms Gillian Savage, First Assistant Secretary, Norfolk Island Reform Taskforce

Mr Stephen Clay, Acting Assistant Secretary, Territories East

Ms Belinda Moss, Assistant Secretary, Territories West

Corporate Services

Mr Jamie Clout, Chief Operating Officer

Mr Kym Partington, Chief Financial Officer

Mr Michael Nelson, Assistant Secretary, HR and Governance

CHAIR: Welcome. Officers and senators are familiar with the rules of the Senate governing estimates hearings. If you need assistance the secretariat has copies of the rules. I particularly draw the attention of witnesses to an order of the Senate of 13 May 2009 which specifies the process by which a claim of public interest immunity should be raised.

The extract read as follows—

Public interest immunity claims

That the Senate—

(a) notes that ministers and officers have continued to refuse to provide information to Senate committees without properly raising claims of public interest immunity as required by past resolutions of the Senate;

(b) reaffirms the principles of past resolutions of the Senate by this order, to provide ministers and officers with guidance as to the proper process for raising public interest immunity claims and to consolidate those past resolutions of the Senate;

(c) orders that the following operate as an order of continuing effect:

(1) If:

(a) a Senate committee, or a senator in the course of proceedings of a committee, requests information or a document from a Commonwealth department or agency; and

(b) an officer of the department or agency to whom the request is directed believes that it may not be in the public interest to disclose the information or document to the committee, the officer shall state to the committee the ground on which the officer believes that it may not be in the public interest to disclose the information or document to the committee, and specify the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document.

(2) If, after receiving the officer’s statement under paragraph (1), the committee or the senator requests the officer to refer the question of the disclosure of the information or document to a responsible minister, the officer shall refer that question to the minister.

(3) If a minister, on a reference by an officer under paragraph (2), concludes that it would not be in the public interest to disclose the information or document to the committee, the minister shall provide to the committee a statement of the ground for that conclusion, specifying the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document.

(4) A minister, in a statement under paragraph (3), shall indicate whether the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document to the committee could result only from the publication of the information or document by the committee, or could result, equally or in part, from the disclosure of the information or document to the committee as in camera evidence.

(5) If, after considering a statement by a minister provided under paragraph (3), the committee concludes that the statement does not sufficiently justify the withholding of the information or document from the committee, the committee shall report the matter to the Senate.

(6) A decision by a committee not to report a matter to the Senate under paragraph (5) does not prevent a senator from raising the matter in the Senate in accordance with other procedures of the Senate.

(7) A statement that information or a document is not published, or is confidential, or consists of advice to, or internal deliberations of, government, in the absence of specification of the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document, is not a statement that meets the requirements of paragraph (I) or (4).

(8) If a minister concludes that a statement under paragraph (3) should more appropriately be made by the head of an agency, by reason of the independence of that agency from ministerial direction or control, the minister shall inform the committee of that conclusion and the reason for that conclusion, and shall refer the matter to the head of the agency, who shall then be required to provide a statement in accordance with paragraph (3).

(Extract, Senate Standing Orders, pp 124-125)

The committee has set Friday, 3 December 2011 as the date by which answers to questions on notice are to be returned. Officers called upon for the first time to answer questions should state their name and position for the Hansard record. Minister, do you have an opening statement?

Senator Sherry: I do not; thanks, Chair.

CHAIR: Ms Beauchamp, do you have any opening comments?

Ms Beauchamp : Thank you, Chair. It is probably just worth saying that we tabled our annual report last Friday and all of our questions on notice were also submitted before the deadline.

CHAIR: Thank you. It is always impressive to have responded so quickly. Senator Joyce, you have the call.

Senator JOYCE: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I was rushing up here. I have been watching a program about organ donation which Kevin Rudd was on. He was talking about donating all manner of organs from his colleagues to all sorts of charities.

Senator Sherry: I think we should all do that. I have signed my donor card and I think it is very important we all do that, frankly.

Senator JOYCE: So do I.

Senator Sherry: The medicos can decide what should be given out to whom.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: What about Kevin's heart?

CHAIR: I do like the humour, but I will just remind all committee members that there is a lot to get through this evening. The opposition have a lot of people wanting to ask questions, so I do not think we ought to dillydally with impromptu interjections. Senator Joyce.

Senator JOYCE: Did the department acknowledge all applications under round one as they were received for the Regional Development Australia Fund?

Ms Beauchamp : Yes.

Senator JOYCE: Were you aware of any applications that were lost?

Ms Beauchamp : I am not personally aware of any applications that were lost but I will ask Ms Fleming to answer that question.

Ms Fleming : Not to my knowledge.

Senator JOYCE: If it did come to your knowledge—because it has come to our knowledge—that certain people had sent in applications and never heard back from you, would you want those applications to be resubmitted?

Ms Beauchamp : They could possibly be eligible for submitting at the next round.

Senator JOYCE: Can you provide us with the details of which submissions the government has, so that we can match them up with others who have sent in submissions who have never heard back from you?

Ms Beauchamp : There were 553 applications?

Senator JOYCE: Did you contact all those people to say you acknowledged receipt of their application?

Ms Beauchamp : Yes, we did.

Senator JOYCE: Did people ever contact you and say, 'Have you got our submission?'

Ms Fleming : The way that the system works is that if people lodged a submission they got an automatic email return from the system, but some applications were sent in by email, so not everybody got an automatic email response.

Senator JOYCE: So basically what you are saying is: no submissions were lost, and for all submissions that were received you acknowledged their receipt?

Ms Fleming : To my knowledge, there were no submissions lost.

Ms Beauchamp : I could confirm that, too—that no proponent or applicant has brought to our attention that they have submitted an application and it has not been acknowledged.

Senator JOYCE: I might bring that issue up again in a second. Are any members of the independent advisory panel paid?

Ms Beauchamp : Yes, they are.

Senator JOYCE: How much?

Ms Beauchamp : The pay rates are determined by the Remuneration Tribunal and they are paid on a per diem basis, which is published.

Senator JOYCE: And roughly how much is that—about $2,000 a day or something?

Ms Beauchamp : For the chair it is probably $1,027 and for members it is $884 per diem.

Senator JOYCE: Just going back to submissions: were any parts of a submission lost?

Ms Beauchamp : I will have to ask Ms Fleming.

Mr O'Brien : If applications were lodged properly then all components of the application would have been lodged; otherwise, they would have been deemed ineligible.

Senator JOYCE: And when they were deemed ineligible, did you contact them and say they were deemed ineligible?

Mr O'Brien : No, we did not.

Senator JOYCE: Why not?

Ms Fleming : It is best practice under the ANAO guidelines that people are informed at the end of the process around whether they are ineligible or they are successful or unsuccessful, so all contact is done at the end of the process.

Mr O'Brien : It is important to remember that this is a competitive tender process, in effect, and so those competitive tender rules apply.

Senator JOYCE: This is very important: so no parts of any submissions were lost?

Ms Beauchamp : We acknowledged and assessed all of the applications and the attachments as they came in. It is the obligation on the proponent to make sure all requirements, in terms of the mandatory documents required, as per the guidelines, were actually submitted.

Senator JOYCE: So no-one from your office ever contacted any of these applicants saying, 'I think we might have lost some of your application'?

Ms Beauchamp : No.

Senator JOYCE: Are you sure?

Ms Fleming : We have what was lodged with us. If you could define 'lost'—

Senator JOYCE: You put your foot in the rabbit trap, not me.

Senator Sherry: It might help, if you have got a specific case in mind—

Senator JOYCE: When did the advisory panel first provide advice to the minister?

Ms Beauchamp : The panel provided advice to the minister on 1 September.

Senator JOYCE: On what date did the advisory panel provide the minister with a short list of projects?

Ms Beauchamp : The letter from the advisory panel to the minister included that information on 1 September.

Senator JOYCE: Did the minister return the list of recommended projects to the advisory panel for further review?

Ms Beauchamp : No.

Senator JOYCE: He did not?

Ms Beauchamp : No.

Senator JOYCE: On what date did the minister receive the final list of recommended projects from the advisory panel?

Ms Beauchamp : On 1 September.

Senator JOYCE: Can you provide us with the final list of projects which were recommended to the minister by the independent advisory panel?

Ms Beauchamp : I can provide that, though I do not have that here in front of me. We are in the process of providing feedback to unsuccessful applicants and the like. As soon as we have finished that process we may be in a position to provide that.

Senator JOYCE: So you will take it on notice and provide us with the list?

Ms Beauchamp : I can take that on notice.

Senator JOYCE: And you will be able to provide us with the list in due course?

Ms Beauchamp : As you are aware, Senator, we have a substantial FOI request from you and your office requesting a series of documents from the department about applications and the like.

Senator JOYCE: Did anyone from the department as for a proposal or part of a proposal to be resubmitted?

Ms Beauchamp : I am not aware, Senator—

Mr O'Brien : Not that I am aware of.

Senator JOYCE: Is the department aware of any conflicts of interest or claims of rorting on particular projects under the RDA fund?

Mr O'Brien : No.

Senator JOYCE: I have here attachment C, 'Conflict of interest investigation over the Clunes museum decision'. Are you aware of that?

Mr O'Brien : Aware of the conflict of interest?

Senator JOYCE: The Hepburn Shire Council $2.7 million grant for the redevelopment of Clunes museum is being investigated by the local government investigations and compliance inspectorate. Were you aware of that?

Mr O'Brien : It has not been brought to our attention, no.

Senator JOYCE: It has now. I picked it up in the media; why didn't you?

Ms Beauchamp : Senator, it would be useful to have a copy of that to see whether it is actually relevant to the Regional Development Australia Fund and whether it is an issue that has been brought to our attention.

Senator JOYCE: Do you want me to table it for you?

Senator Sherry: Yes, that would be good.

Ms Beauchamp : I think that would be very helpful.

Senator JOYCE: I will table that. It seems that a Labor Party councillor has a shop two doors down from it and he was one of the main contributors to the application.

Senator Sherry: And the point is?

Senator JOYCE: The point is—

Senator Sherry: I think we had better get the document first.

Senator JOYCE: The point is that it has raised enough suspicions to get itself investigated and it is something that you are not aware of—$2.7 million.

CHAIR: Can I just remind senators, as I did from the outset, that if you have documents that you want to have tabled it is very helpful if you have either additional copies or at least a second copy—which would not then hold up proceedings. So if I can just remind senators of that for the remainder of this session. As there are no objections, it is resolved that the committee accepts the tabling of this document. You have the call, Senator Joyce.

Senator Sherry: It is a media clip.

Senator JOYCE: Are you doubting it?

Senator Sherry: We will see where you go, Senator, but it is a media report; it is not a document of—

Senator JOYCE: You are laughing, which means that you doubt the veracity of it.

Senator Sherry: Firstly, do not put words in my mouth. You referred to a document for an investigation and you give us a media report—a clip—from the Ballarat Courier. We will see where it leads us, but it is a media report.

Senator JOYCE: I understand if you think it is—

Senator Sherry: Take us through it and I am sure if the witnesses have any information—

Senator JOYCE: Is it true that the particular project is being investigated by the local government investigations and compliance inspectorate?

Senator Sherry: they will, I am sure—

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, the minister had not completed his response. You have tabled a document; he is making comments in relation to that. If you allow him to finish it helps Hansard and me. Minister, do you care to complete your answer?

Senator Sherry: It will only take us a minute or so to read it, but I am just making the point: it is a media report and I am sure if the witnesses have any information they will do their best to respond to your questions, Senator Joyce.

Senator JOYCE: You are not aware of this issue at all?

Mr O'Brien : This has not been raised with us. It is just worth noting that the applicant was the Hepburn Shire Council—a councillor from Hepburn Shire Council was objecting to it. We are happy to look into that and, obviously, if there is anything sustained we will take action.

Senator JOYCE: You see the concern people have when, for instance, they get $2.7 million and are now under investigation, yet something like the stock transit centre at Broken Hill gets nothing for a $550,000 stock transit centre.

Senator Sherry: But who is investigating what here? We have a media report that none of the witnesses are aware of. There is an application from the Hepburn Shire Council. Fact: there is a media report that one of the councillors has raised a possible conflict of interest. Fact: it has not been raised or drawn to the attention of the officers.

Senator JOYCE: It is being investigated by the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate.

Mr O'Brien : It is a complaint that has been received by—

Senator JOYCE: You either believe it is being investigated by the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate or you do not, in which case I suppose we have a spurious, slanderous piece from the Ballarat Courier. I do not think that is the case.

Mr O'Brien : It is a complaint—

Senator JOYCE: If you read the first line, Minister, you will see it is being investigated by the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate.

Senator Sherry: I can see that, but the witnesses have indicated they are not aware of the investigation.

Senator JOYCE: You were just saying it was not being investigated.

Senator Sherry: The witnesses are not aware of the investigation.

Senator JOYCE: You said that.

Senator Sherry: No, I did not say that.

Ms Beauchamp : It is certainly not being investigated, Senator, by the Commonwealth government.

Senator JOYCE: Let's go to the next one, which is being investigated by the Commonwealth. Is it true that the Auditor-General is investigating the operation of the Regional Development Australia Fund?

Ms Beauchamp : The Australian National Audit Office is undertaking an audit of the Regional Development Australia Fund process, as was indicated on the work program it published earlier in the year.

Senator JOYCE: Has the Auditor-General given the department any guidance on what particular aspects of the RDA Fund it is investigating?

Ms Beauchamp : As with other audits they have undertaken within the department, they will look at the process to ensure that we have managed the process to the utmost requirements of the Commonwealth procurement and Commonwealth grants guidelines.

Senator JOYCE: Going back to the media article, how much do you spend on media monitoring in your department?

Ms Beauchamp : Approximately $35,000 a month.

Senator JOYCE: I am looking at budget estimates. In 2011 you spent $387,000 on media monitoring. So, in your $387,000 of media monitoring, which the taxpayer pays for, you did not manage to pick up that one of your projects was under investigation.

Ms Beauchamp : If I can clarify, one of our projects is not under investigation. These are claims made in the media. We do not necessarily respond to what is in the media. There are a number of allegations in here and it includes words such as 'possible' and 'maybe'. This is a matter that is obviously before the Victorian government. It has not been raised with us as an issue and there has been no complaint lodged with us about this.

Senator JOYCE: So you spend $387,000 on media monitoring. This is being investigated. It was in the media, you did not pick it up and you did not know about it till I brought it to your attention tonight.

Ms Beauchamp : It has not been raised with us as something we needed to investigate as part of the process of the Regional Development Australia Fund.

Senator JOYCE: When is the Auditor-General due to report on investigations?

Ms Beauchamp : The Auditor-General will be reporting early next year—I think March 2012.

Senator JOYCE: When did the Auditor-General first get in touch with the department with the intention to review RDA funding?

Ms Beauchamp : As I mentioned previously, the review of the Regional Development Australia Fund was identified in the Australian National Audit Office's work program before the start of this financial year. So it was always on the agenda to look at and audit the Regional Development Australia Fund, as a matter of course and business as usual.

Mr O'Brien : This is an audit, Senator, not an investigation. It is part of the audit work program.

Senator JOYCE: Going back to Hepburn, you were saying that you do not proactively go looking for things; you only react to complaints, is that how it works?

Mr O'Brien : We act on all formal complaints, of course.

Senator JOYCE: But you do not proactively use a due diligence approach—you do not look at the information you collect from your $387,000 of media monitoring and see if there is an issue, see if there is a possible dodgy councillor out there who might have slipped something into the system?

Mr O'Brien : From my memory, this is a project that was strongly aligned to the RDA committee's plan. It was also supported by the council as the applicant. It was independently assessed through the assessment process.

Senator JOYCE: Has the Auditor-General been in touch with the department since the announcement of round 1 projects?

Ms Beauchamp : If I can clarify once again, the Australian National Audit Office is doing what they do as a matter of course, not based on any complaint or investigation. They are undertaking a performance audit of the Regional Development Australia Fund. They will be looking at the performance of the department in administering on behalf of the government the Regional Development Australia Fund. We had known for quite some time—as I said, it was published on the ANAO website as part of their work program—that they would be undertaking this performance audit as soon as decisions were made.

Senator JOYCE: Can you tell me how your due diligence process works?

Ms Beauchamp : Within the Regional Development Australia Fund?

Mr O'Brien : The assessment process?

Senator JOYCE: Yes.

Ms Fleming : The assessment process for grants—the grant applications?

Senator JOYCE: Yes.

Ms Fleming : The grant applications are lodged and the department goes through an eligibility check. There were a series of mandatory eligibility requirements placed on applicants, which are at pages 15 and 16 of the guidelines. Once a project is assessed as eligible, we undertook a departmental assessment of the business case; we commissioned an independent viability assessment that looked at the risks of the projects; we sought comment from state and territory governments and Commonwealth agencies on each of those projects; and those materials were packaged together and provided to the panel, who assessed the applications and made subsequent recommendations to the panel and—

Senator JOYCE: Do you know how we found out about Hepburn Shire Council? You might be amazed at this form of research that we do.

Senator Sherry: Clearly the officers do not, because they were not aware of it in the first place.

Senator JOYCE: We googled it. So I think you can do that for remarkably less than $387,000. If we can dig it up, why can't you?

Ms Fleming : That was after the announcement of the grants.

Senator JOYCE: It just seems peculiar that—

Ms Fleming : I am not—17 September.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Can I just say that the department has clearly answered this question, Senator.

Senator JOYCE: No, they haven't. That is the whole point.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: It is an application from the council. The matter is being investigated by a state body.

Senator JOYCE: They did not know that.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: It has nothing to do with the department.

Senator JOYCE: It is very much to do with the department.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: You are simply wasting—

Senator JOYCE: It is $2.7 million—

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Thistlethwaite and Senator Joyce.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: I think you should move on—

Senator Joyce interjecting

Senator Thistlethwaite interjecting

CHAIR: Senators, having dialogue across the chair is unhelpful to these proceedings.

Senator JOYCE: Well, pull your colleague into line. He is sitting beside you—

CHAIR: The question has been put—

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: They have answered the question four times—

CHAIR: There is no point of order. The question was put and answered. Senator Joyce and Senator Thistlethwaite, both of you are well aware of the standing orders that I cannot direct the witnesses on how to respond. You may not like the response, Senator Joyce, but it is the prerogative of the officers before us, to answer accordingly.

Senator JOYCE: Well, just keep your colleague beside you in check.

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, I do not need you to tell me how to chair.

Senator JOYCE: How many complaints has the department received so far, as a result of round 1?

Ms Beauchamp : One.

Senator JOYCE: Who was that from?

Ms Fleming : One, Senator.

Senator JOYCE: Who was that from?

Ms Fleming : It was received today. I am not quite clear who lodged the complaint, but I know was received sometime today.

Senator JOYCE: Have you received any feedback from stakeholders on applications in relation to round 1?

Ms Fleming : The minister asked the RDAF chair to undertake a review following the announcements of round 1. We conducted a series of roundtable discussions with local government, not-for-profits and RDAs across the country, and we also had an online survey form that could seek comments from stakeholders. There was a raft of comments received via that process which we are taking into account in the development of the guidelines for round 2.

Senator JOYCE: How many applications did not meet all the criteria?

Ms Fleming : Three hundred and forty-nine were ineligible.

Senator JOYCE: Does the department consider this rate of non-compliance to be acceptable?

Ms Fleming : It is considerably higher than we would like.

Senator JOYCE: Did you ever consider, by reason of the rate of non-compliance, that you should be more proactive in getting back to the people who make the applications, to guide or assist in a way, not to get them through but to at least make them deal with the criteria?

Ms Beauchamp : The mandatory selection criteria that needed to be met were very clear in the guidelines when the fund was open. In addition to that, there was also a requirement to ensure that mandatory documents were provided. I do not think we should shy from making sure we have robust, shovel-ready projects, investment-ready projects, which was a requirement as well, that could be put forward and which we could act unreasonably quickly. As Ms Fleming pointed out, there have been some learnings in the process, for us but also for the proponents to ensure they do put in more robust proposals the second time around.

Senator JOYCE: You have provided advice to the minister on how the rate of non-compliance might be reduced?

Mr O'Brien : The minister, as Ms Fleming indicated, initiated a review. That review is looking at providing guidance to the minister about how the next round could be conducted.

Senator JOYCE: Will the RDA fund guidelines be amended at all before round 2 is announced?

Ms Beauchamp : We are going through the process of assessing the feedback from round 1, both through the online survey and from what the chair of the panel has gleaned. We will be putting advice to the minister on where we might need to improve the process.

Senator JOYCE: Is the department aware of any resignations from RDA committees as result of dissatisfaction with round 1 of the RDA fund?

Ms Beauchamp : No, I am not personally aware.

Senator JOYCE: I do not even need to look this up. What about Mayor Loughnan? What about Mayor Jo Sheppard? I am thinking of names just off the top of my head.

Ms Beauchamp : Who have resigned because of the—

Senator JOYCE: Because of the fact that they feel they are completely and utterly wasting their time participating in the RDA funding process when their applications are not recognised or not received. They have reported back that some of these have been lost, and now it has been investigated by the Auditor-General, and the first issue I brought back about an investigation did not even—

Senator Sherry: Senator Joyce, I am not going to have you verballing the witnesses. The witnesses have clearly said that they have not received—

Senator JOYCE: They are not aware of any—

Senator Sherry: Can I finish, Chair? The witnesses have clearly indicated that they have not heard of these complaints. Secondly, there is not some sort of investigation, which you link, in attempting to verbal the witnesses, by the Auditor-General. The Auditor-General is conducting an audit in accordance with their normal work practices, not in respect to—what you assert or claim incorrectly—some resignations and complaints. You are just wrong, Senator.

Senator JOYCE: So you are not aware of the resignation of Councillor Loughnan from the process?

Mr O'Brien : I might ask First Assistant Secretary Tony Carmichael.

Mr Carmichael : No RDA committee members have resigned with respect to RDAF applications.

Mr O'Brien : I think it is fair to say there was concern expressed by RDAs in feedback sessions about their role and whether that role can be altered.

Senator JOYCE: You are really not getting value for money out of your $387,000 media unit, are you? It is also in the media that Mayor Rob Loughnan has resigned from the RDA process because of his dissatisfaction with the way the process was conducted. That is another thing you can pick up on your Google search.

Mr Carmichael : That has not been conveyed to the department.

Senator JOYCE: How is this due diligence of yours working?

Mr O'Brien : Due diligence on?

Senator JOYCE: On exactly what is going on with the $100 million that has been sent out—on the feedback you are getting about how councils are feeling about it.

Ms Beauchamp : We have had one complaint, as was mentioned earlier. In terms of the due diligence process, it might be worthwhile for me to reiterate what was in the guidelines. Each applicant is required to make a legal declaration as part of its application. Applicants should ensure that any conflicts of interest on the part of any member of an RDA committee is declared. The application process has a number of requirements in terms of due diligence. That includes assessment around the viability of the organisation. We do have an independent viability assessor who looks at the viability of the project and also the ongoing performance of the organisation making the application. Much of this is spelt out in the assessment process described on page 13 of the guidelines, and I can assure you that it is very robust. No complaint has been conveyed to us about dissatisfaction with our management of the process. There is obviously a lot of disappointment in a tender based process. There has been quite a bit of demand for applications. But certainly we had no complaints from mayors about the process.

Senator JOYCE: You can understand the frustration when, for instance, $10 million goes to the Geelong Football Club but an application from Bendigo or Ballarat to remove asbestos from an asbestos lined childcare facility was denied.

Ms Beauchamp : As I said earlier, we have gone through a fairly robust process. The guidelines are very clear in terms of how those applications will be assessed. The Regional Development Australia Fund is only one funding stream that is available for local governments and others to access. There is also the health fund and the education fund for regional Australia.

Senator JOYCE: What about when $7 million goes as part of a $20 million art gallery in Newcastle, yet a stock transit centre in Broken Hill gets nothing?

Senator Sherry: Senator, as the witnesses have indicated, there were 553 applications, and there were 35 successful applications—that was the number of projects for which there was money. It is very natural that people would be disappointed.

Senator JOYCE: Very disappointed.

Senator Sherry: There are approximately 500 applicants who are not going to be funded. Naturally there is disappointment, and naturally people are going to make judgments about projects that did receive funding and be concerned and disappointed that they did not.

Senator JOYCE: Have you paid the $2.7 million to the Hepburn Shire Council yet?

Mr O'Brien : No, we have not.

Ms Beauchamp : No, we are still in contract negotiations with the successful applicants.

Senator JOYCE: Are you aware that the CEO of the Hepburn Shire Council resigned on 4 October?

Ms Fleming : Not to my knowledge.

Mr O'Brien : No, I was not aware of that.

Senator JOYCE: What happens after you select a project? Do you continue to assess its merit before handing over the money?

Ms Beauchamp : In accordance with our procurement guidelines, funding agreements and the like, we do, and we also ensure that the applicant meets all the requirements under the Commonwealth procurement and grant guidelines.

Senator JOYCE: Here is another quote from Google:

While councillors have refused to comment, the position of chief executive officer Kaylene Conrick has been under increasing pressure following a critical Victorian Auditor-General’s report of council management.

The Local Government Inspectorate is investigating a $2.7m federal government grant to the shire for redevelopment of the Clunes museum.

There seems to be an abundance of material on this.

Ms Beauchamp : You have put a number of—

Senator JOYCE: You just have to Google that.

Ms Beauchamp : Sorry, Senator; you have made an application under FOI to receive what documentation we might have. We are in the process of putting all that documentation together, and we will see what we can actually sift out in terms of what was raised with the department.

Senator JOYCE: 'Hepburn Shire Council management was named and shamed in a Victorian Auditor-General's report tabled in parliament on September 14.' You were not aware of that either?

Ms Beauchamp : As you would be aware, the minister made announcements about the fund on 7 September.

Senator JOYCE: This is all the problem of the media monitor, isn't it—that you are not aware of this information?

Ms Beauchamp : I have not seen the problem. I am not sure what the problem is that you are identifying.

Senator JOYCE: Do you want me to table those for you as well—those media reports? We just got them then, from Google.

Senator Sherry: It is up to you to table what you want. The witnesses have already indicated they are not aware of the—

Senator JOYCE: I will table these additional articles for you.

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, the minister was responding. If you would just give the minister the courtesy of allowing him to finish, then you will get the call. If you then seek to table documents we will deal with that at the appropriate time.

Senator Sherry: As I was saying—I think for the fifth or sixth time—the witnesses have indicated they were not aware of these. What we have before us is a media report. Witnesses were not aware of this or the other issues that Senator Joyce is raising about the Hepburn Shire Council; they have now been drawn to the attention of the department. The department has an appropriate due diligence process in place that is being activated and followed through, prior to any one cent of money being passed over. That is where it is.

Senator JOYCE: It is just surprising you do not know anything about it.

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, did you want to table those documents?

Senator JOYCE: Yes. I am only too happy to table them. There are three media reports there from different media outlets. You can have a look at them. If in doubt, just google 'Hepburn Shire Council' and your own program; it all comes up.

Ms Beauchamp : Thank you for raising this. I just note some of the dates are actually after the minister made announcements about the fund. So, as you have requested through FOI, we will look at it.

Senator JOYCE: In round 1 there was originally only $100 million. However, $150 million worth of projects were announced. Is the extra $50 million of funding to be brought forward money?

Ms Beauchamp : I think I raised this with you at the last estimates: we have a funding profile for the budget; how that has been expended depends on the progress of the projects. So that $50 million will come from the budget that has been allocated over the forward estimates.

Senator JOYCE: From which year?

Ms Beauchamp : It will probably come out of the next couple of years.

Senator JOYCE: So the next two years?

Ms Beauchamp : It all depends what the expenditure profile is, and, as we go through the negotiations with the applicants, we will have a better idea of what the expenditure profile is and how that matches and marries with the budget profile.

Senator JOYCE: So your due diligence process basically revolves around: if I FOI something, you look into it—is that how it works?

Senator Sherry: No.

Ms Beauchamp : No, I think I went through it, and it is very clear, in terms of what the due diligence process is around the applicants and the applications and the projects lodged under the Regional Development Australia Fund. Not only that, we do have independent liability assessments that undertake the due diligence process for us.

Senator JOYCE: How much money did you actually give west of the Great Dividing Range in Queensland?

Ms Beauchamp : I would have to take that—

Senator Sherry: I do not think we have got it. We have state split and territory split, but I think—

Senator JOYCE: I thought it was because regional—I am talking a big regional area, like west of the Great Dividing Range—

Ms Beauchamp : West of the Great Dividing Range—

Senator JOYCE: In Queensland.

Ms Beauchamp : in Queensland? I will have to take that on notice, sorry.

Senator JOYCE: What about, let us say, west of Ipswich?

Ms Beauchamp : I will take that on notice.

Senator JOYCE: Are you aware that there seems to be a substantial lack of funding off the coast in Australia?

Senator Sherry: 'Off the coast', did you say?

Senator JOYCE: The continent that we live on.

Senator Sherry: 'Off the coast'?

Senator JOYCE: Off the coast. As in, not on the coast, Minister—as in inland.

Senator Sherry: I was just asking. I was not clear about what you meant. The department does have a breakdown on a state and territory basis, and, I think, on an electorate basis. That is available. As you are redefining boundaries across Australia—and that is your prerogative—we would then have to sit down at maps and look at these boundaries that you are giving us and assess how many projects fall within the boundaries that you are outlining.

Senator JOYCE: Is there anything in South-West Queensland?

Ms Fleming : Projects were selected on merit and there are fact sheets on each of the projects on the website that show the location of these projects. The projects were selected by the panel according to their fit with the selection criteria and their assessments of the projects.

Senator Sherry: For example, there were no projects in northern Tasmania—

Senator JOYCE: I know.

Senator Sherry: and I am outraged. I live in Northern Tasmania and there were no projects.

Senator JOYCE: You should have been in Denison, where they got two. I think it is very good question to your Labor Party mates.

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, allow the minister to respond. I am most interested to hear about Northern Tasmania.

Senator Sherry: It is true, there were two projects in Southern Tasmania. Tasmania is a region, Senator Joyce. We have had a long debate about what is a region. But I can assure you, Tasmania has Bass Strait between it and the mainland. It is a region. Therefore, it is perfectly valid for there to be projects in Tasmania. But, as I say, I am in Northern Tassie, and there was nothing in Northern Tassie.

Senator JOYCE: I know.

Senator Sherry: I live there and I am a touch concerned.

Senator JOYCE: Minister, we are on a unity ticket there. I think it is absurd that Northern Tasmania, Scottsdale—all those areas—got nothing. Denison, surprisingly enough, because it is held by a person that you might require, did get $6.2 million.

CHAIR: Senator Joyce! Senator Joyce, I will ask you to come to order! If you just allow the minister to complete his answer, we will get through the proceedings much faster and you will get more information.

Senator JOYCE: Truncate his answers.

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, as you well know, under the standing orders, I cannot direct any witness, including the minister, on how to respond. You put your question; allow him to finish. Then you will get the call.

Senator JOYCE: We are on a unity ticket here on how Northern Tasmania got nothing but Denison got $6.2 million.

Senator Sherry: I would just point out, Senator Joyce, you could go to many areas of Australia, dependent on your own geographic definition of 'region', and find the same. As I say, in the case of Northern Tasmania, there were no successful projects, which disappoints me.

Senator JOYCE: Do you find it surprising?

CHAIR: Senator Joyce!

Senator JOYCE: Do you find it surprising?

CHAIR: Senator Joyce! Allow him to finish.

Senator Sherry: I do not give lengthy answers, Senator Joyce. I will just conclude on this point. You could go to another area of Australia—and you are going to some and we would have to get maps out as you draw your boundaries of regional convenience around the country—to see whether there are any projects in them.

Senator JOYCE: Has he finished?

Senator Sherry: Yes, I have finished.

CHAIR: Does the committee wish to table the three documents. It is so agreed. Senator Joyce, you have the call.

Senator Sherry: And the witness, I think, did mention that—

Senator JOYCE: Do I have the call?

CHAIR: Yes, Senator Joyce has the call.

Senator JOYCE: There is also the $8 million that was given to one building in Armidale. It seems remarkable that Denison, as politically required, got $6.2 million; one building in Armidale in the electorate of the Independent member for New England got $8 million. Yet other areas where there were much smaller amounts for very worthy causes seem to have got nothing. There have been no discussions as to why certain areas—

Senator Sherry: As I have already indicated—

CHAIR: Minister! I do not think Senator Joyce has completed his question. We are not going to get very far tonight if we continue to speak over the top of one another. Senator Joyce, can you complete your question please.

Senator JOYCE: Is it possible to table the assessment criteria for the project at the Cats stadium, Geelong, which got $10 million; the $8 million for, I think, Freeman House in Armidale; the $6.2 million for Denison? Are we able to examine how you actually went through assessing those projects vis-a-vis why a project such as the stock transit centre at Broken Hill got nothing; the upgrade of the Lynn Highway got nothing; and the refurbishment to remove asbestos from a child care facility got nothing? Is it possible to have these tabled so we can have a look at how these were assessed or what they did wrong under the assessment processes?

Ms Beauchamp : In terms of the assessment criteria, it is very clear and it has been published as part of the round 1 guidelines. In relation to the details on the specific projects, I would have to take that on notice in terms of why they did not get up or why they were considered ineligible. I do not have that detail in front of me.

Mr O'Brien : It is also the case that we are providing feedback to all unsuccessful applicants; we are going through that process now. We have 260 requests for feedback and we are about halfway through them—

Senator JOYCE: I will give three on notice—

Senator Sherry: Just before we go to the next question, I have already pointed out that it is natural, given the more than 500 applicants—and just because a project was not provided with a grant does not mean it is an unworthy project, Senator Joyce; there are priorities within those projects that fit within the criteria—that people are disappointed. I am aware of projects in Northern Tasmania, and I understand that they would be disappointed. It is natural for people to be disappointed about missing out on a project that they believed was worthy and which they supported, but there is a limit. As Ms Beauchamp has mentioned, this is round 1 so it is not the end of the program, but it is natural that some people who are disappointed may look at other projects and still have the view that their project is more worthy than a project that received funding—whether it is the Geelong Football Club or otherwise.

Senator JOYCE: If I can get tabled—three would be a good example so we can understand how it works—why the Geelong Football Club got $10 million, yet the refurbishment to remove asbestos from a childcare facility at Bendigo got nothing; why an art gallery in Newcastle got $7 million to assist in a $21 million art gallery, yet the stock transit centre to assist the humane treatment of animals in Broken Hill got nothing; why Freeman House in Armidale got $8 million, yet the upgrade of the Lynne Highway to try to save people's lives got nothing. Could just work out what the special aspects and characteristics were that required those projects not only to get funded but to get funded in the quantum they got funded—which seems to be quite an incredible amount of money—when, if they had got half as much and we had spread the money around, we could have had a much better and fairer approach to what is genuinely regional Australia.

Senator Sherry: I think this is an observation that perhaps the department could not make. Let us say we cut the funding in half—let us take your argument—and we allocated the funding to 70 projects. That would still mean there are more than 400 projects that applied that would miss out. I still think we would have, understandably, some people and organisations whose projects would not be funded, unfortunately—or fortunately; there is a budget constraint on all of these programs and the money was allocated as the minister, on the recommendations, believed was appropriate. There are always going to be people in any round of contestable grants like this who will be disappointed on missing out.

Senator JOYCE: Don't you think it is somewhat strange that Independent and Labor seats got two-thirds of the funding when they only represent one-third of the regional areas?

Senator Sherry: The department can give you statistics on seats, but from what I understand I do not believe it is an unbalanced allocation on electorates. Some states, from looking at it, appear to have got a higher percentage of the moneys than other states.

Senator JOYCE: From your own statistical analysis of it, Minister, you do not think there is something a bit strange about one-third of the seats getting two-thirds of the funding—that there could not even be a sniff of political preferencing?

Senator Sherry: The departmental officers can give you the electorates—government held, Independents, Liberal, Nationals. They can give those to you.

Senator JOYCE: A suggestion by the minister to help a few mates out: 8 million bucks up to New England—

Ms Beauchamp : Can I just clarify, Senator—

Senator JOYCE: and $6.2 million—

CHAIR: Senator Joyce! You have asked the question and Ms Beauchamp was trying to respond. Will you pay the courtesy of allowing the witness to respond?

Ms Beauchamp : The assessment criteria is very clear in the guidelines. Neither the department, nor the panel, looked at the criteria to see whether they fell within one electorate or not. That was not a consideration. A number of criteria were gone though both from the panel and from the department in terms of assessing whether a project was eligible or not. As Senator Sherry was saying, in terms of those that were assessed as suitable and did not get up, it was because this was the first round of the project. The demand for the fund outstrips supply. I just want to reassure the committee that we do not look at and certainly do not provide advice to the minister on the split between electorates.

Senator JOYCE: I will clearly ask you something, because I really want to make sure we get this. To your knowledge, were any submissions or parts of submissions misplaced, lost or otherwise mislaid by the department?

Ms Fleming : I would not classify some of the applications in the way you have, but there were lodgement issues in some of the applications that were lodged and that had impacts. There were compatibility issues and there were people who modified applications and they were not meant to modify the application form, so when they went to lodge it online it did not lodge into the application process. We took external probity advice on all issues before us around whether an application could be accepted or not. You may describe something as 'lost', but I may describe it as something else. I need to understand what you what you mean by 'lost'. I would not want to mislead.

Senator JOYCE: To your knowledge, was any proponent required to sign a witnessed statutory declaration that none of the contents was changed when a proposal was resubmitted in part or in whole? It sounds awfully like you lost the first one.

Ms Lindsay : Yes, we did ask a small number of applicants to sign a statutory declaration confirming that they had lodged particular documents.

Senator JOYCE: That sounds awfully like you might have lost it.

Ms Lindsay : I think it was more an issue of lodgement, where they had lodged it via an email process and because of the size of the document it did not come through our system. We received documents that ran to hundreds of pages, which are quite difficult to upload via an email system.

Mr O'Brien : Can I just add: we had 553 applications and the total sum of the applications in terms of page numbers was almost 500,000 pages.

Senator JOYCE: But this is the question I asked you at the very start, and now when we get to the end I am getting a completely different answer, so how many of these—

Senator Sherry: Sorry, I am not going to accept that. You are not getting a completely different answer. That implies the officers have not given accurate responses. They have given accurate responses based on the questions that you have asked to date.

Senator JOYCE: How many JP signed declarations are you aware of, in resubmitting information?

Mr O'Brien : Can I take that on notice?

Senator JOYCE: More than one?

Mr O'Brien : Yes.

Ms Fleming : We would say it is a small number but more than one, but I could not tell you exactly how many at this stage.

Senator Sherry: We will take it on notice. The officer has indicated we will take it on notice. We will give you the details.

Senator JOYCE: Were you aware of that, Ms Beauchamp?

Ms Beauchamp : No, I was not aware of that. However, regarding the number of mandatory documents to be submitted and including the size of the documents, obviously, from a proponents point of view, they may not have the technology. I know that some applicants had to split their applications because of the size of it and submit it in a number of lots. So I think the department did the right thing in making sure that we had received all parts of the application which they may have split during the application process. As Mr O'Brien pointed out, we are dealing with very large computer files and pages of up to 500,000.

Senator JOYCE: So why were you not aware?

Ms Beauchamp : I was aware that some proponents had to submit their applications in more than one lot, through the lodgement process. I was not aware—I think it is a very good process—that to confirm that the department had received the relevant documentation that the officers had obviously done the right thing.

Senator JOYCE: Are you aware that the JP-signed declaration—

CHAIR: I am sorry, Senator Joyce. Ms Fleming were you going to add something to that response?

Ms Fleming : I was just going to add that we are aware that there were lodgement issues. That does not mean that a document was lost. It means that there were issues around lodgement that were a consequence of multiple factors. They were the consequence of the applicant changing the documents or of applicants not following lodgement procedures as explained; there were technology issues. All of these issues created lodgement issues. They have been discussed in the feedback process we had with round 1. We are certainly proposing to amend our systems to address this issue but a lodgement issue does not create a lost document. That is where I think we would just agree to—

Senator Sherry: Just before we move on I want to draw the committee's attention to the fact that we did discuss this issue of the difficulties around the lodgement—the technical issues and the document sizes—at the last committee.

Senator JOYCE: Did—

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Before you begin, can I just ask a follow-up question on this point?

Senator JOYCE: No, because I have the call.

CHAIR: I am sorry, Senator Joyce, but if there is a follow-up question, the way we have been conducting these estimates is that the senator is entitled to ask a follow-up question leading on from yours.

Senator JOYCE: As long as I can when someone else does.

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, if you are quite willing to sit in estimates for the two days and take that opportunity, you can.

Senator Sherry: He has been going for an hour. He has had a pretty good go.

CHAIR: I think you had a fair go.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: I think it was you that mentioned earlier that the department took advice from a probity organisation regarding the lodgement process.

Ms Fleming : Correct.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Was the process of asking applicants whose applications did not lodge properly to complete a statutory declaration on the advice of that organisation?

Ms Fleming : That is my understanding.

Senator JOYCE: I am going to ask a follow-up on his follow-up. Did you advise people that they had to get a JP-signed declaration due to a mistake of your department?

Ms Fleming : I do not understand the reference to the 'mistake of the department'.

Senator JOYCE: You told someone that they had to get a JP-signed declaration, where they could not change any of the details, not because of a mistake on their part but because of a mistake of your department.

Ms Fleming : But it may not have been a mistake. It is a lodgement issue. I am not saying it is a mistake by any of the parties.

Senator Sherry: Senator if you have a concern or complaint by someone who has given you information just pass it on to the officers. I really do not believe that there is anything here that should concern the committee. Give us the information and the claim. It can be passed on to the officers and they can provide you with a detailed response. We are more than happy—

Senator JOYCE: So basically what you are saying there, Minister, is that I do the work. We find all the mistakes and then we use estimates to help you to do your own job: tell you where you have got things wrong and that $2.7 million has been sent to some dodgy council because some dodgy councillor managed to swindle the system, and tell you about things that the Auditor-General has—

Senator Sherry: Senator Joyce, you are raising questions—

Senator JOYCE: We will do all the work for you. You do not need due diligence. We will do it for you.

Senator Sherry: No, no, Senator. You are raising questions. The departmental officers have well outlined the due diligence process—the guidelines et cetera and what occurred with the process.

Senator JOYCE: They did not actually outline the due diligence process.

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, if you would just allow the minister to complete his answer Senator Moore has a follow-up question.

Senator Sherry: They did. You have raised issues with the department and none of the officers here—we have said it on a number of occasions—were aware of Hepburn Council. That matter was based on press clippings at this point in time, anyway. They will have a look at that issue.

Senator JOYCE: No—

Senator Sherry: Just let me finish. If you have a concern from an individual or an organisation that the department is not aware of, provide us with the information and it will be followed up.

Senator JOYCE: For a vague second there I thought you were the government!

CHAIR: Senator Moore has a follow-up question, Senator Joyce.

Senator MOORE: Ms Fleming, have you had any requests or complaints from any applicant that their papers have been lost, and have you had any contact with any senators that have been raising these issues with you over the last couple of months?

Ms Fleming : If I could just walk through a bit of a process—

Senator MOORE: Sure.

Ms Fleming : At the announcement we provided advice to all applicants around their application—whether it was ineligible or unsuccessful in the round 1 funding—and we offered feedback, and 260 applicants have sought feedback from us. We are about halfway through the process of feedback, so there may be applicants we have not yet had a chance to speak to, but in that are about half our telephone conversations where we scribe down issues.

As a consequence of one of those letters, there was an issue with a particular council which was concerned that they had been advised that they had not lodged all the mandatory documents. They raised with us that they believed that they had lodged all the mandatory documents, and we undertook due diligence to check our records. In that particular circumstance we found that the applicant had lodged two different documents—they had lodged a blank application form, which made their application invalid, and they had launched a separate email with attachments but not an application form, and that made their application ineligible. Those two different documents received two different numbers in our system. They were both ineligible under probity advice.

We have spoken with that particular council. They understand the issues that occurred. We have talked this through with the council, and we are hopeful that our new process will avoid the issues that were associated with the SmartForm from round 1.

Senator MOORE: In terms of the information, in that council's application there could have been confusion around the issue. You have worked through with them on that process—

Ms Fleming : We have.

Senator MOORE: and they understand what happened.

Ms Fleming : I have spoken with them personally.

Senator MOORE: Of the 253 that you are working through in individual consultation, if there are any that could be confused with a lost document claim, could we get that information at the next estimates on notice?

Ms Fleming : Yes, I will take that on notice.

Senator MOORE: Nothing else in terms of the issues breaching privacy, but, as the issue has been raised about lost documents, it would be good to have that on record.

Ms Fleming : I just want to be clear about this terminology 'lost documents'.

Senator MOORE: I agree with you, Ms Fleming.

Ms Fleming : They are not necessarily lost documents; they are lodgement problems of documents. They are not lost in our system; they are just recorded differently or in part. But they are not lost.

Senator MOORE: The issue has been raised, and I just want to have it fully clarified whether there is anyone out there who is aggrieved. If we could have that to the committee, that would be very useful.

Ms Fleming : Certainly.

Senator JOYCE: How many staff are responsible for the upkeep of them myregion government website? How many staff tweet on the myregion government Twitter account?

Ms Beauchamp : Seven departmental officers and contractors support the operation of the myregion website.

Senator JOYCE: I was watching it for a while because these things interest me, and for a while there the only things I could see on the myregion website were three photos. One was of the Gold Coast, one was of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and one was from a photo competition that you had going there. What exactly do those seven staff do?

Ms Beauchamp : As you would be aware, the site is in development. We have made the website available to most of our stakeholders. The photos—

Senator JOYCE: So you have seven staff—

Ms Beauchamp : If I can just say that the photos that you see on the website change on a regular basis—

Senator JOYCE: For a long while they did not.

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, you have asked the question. Do I have to remind you again to allow the witness to complete her answer?

Ms Beauchamp : To familiarise people with the use of the website we ran a photographic competition open to all regions across Australia.

Senator JOYCE: Ms—Sorry.

Senator Sherry: Hang on, Senator Joyce—

Senator JOYCE: I have apologised; I am trying—

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, you asked the question; allow Ms Beauchamp to complete her answer.

Senator Sherry: Chair, I recall we discussed this issue at the last estimates, including why there were regional photos. I just hope that there is a regional photo or two of Tasmania on the website, and I will be checking.

CHAIR: Ms Beauchamp, you have the call.

Ms Beauchamp : The government provided funding over the period of the forward estimates to roll out and maintain the website. We are adding ongoing functionality to that website. You will see changes to the website on an ongoing basis as we get more information—as we develop communities of practice and improve the engagement mechanisms for regional Australia to contribute to some of the conversations and policy development processes here in Canberra. So it is in the early stages. We are getting pretty positive feedback on its use. The photographic competition did actually provide a good foundation and platform for people to familiarise themselves with the use of the website.

Senator JOYCE: We did an assessment of it ourselves and we found that, as of 5.30 pm on 17 October, which was yesterday, there were only 17 comments on forums from people other than departmental staff or RDAs. Do you think this is a proper utilisation of seven staff members?

Ms Beauchamp : The seven staff members do a range of activities. As I said, the website is in development and added functionality will be provided. The seven staff are looking at what information they need to put on the website, what sort of design components we need to add and, obviously, how we use the modern social media as a mechanism to engage more with regional Australia.

Senator JOYCE: How much are we paying these seven staff and for how long have we been paying them?

Ms Beauchamp : In the budget process the government provided $4.2 million over four years, so it is a finite bucket of money. In the development stage I would expect us as a department to spend more, and after we have it fully functional I expect the number of staff maintaining the website to be somewhat lower.

Senator JOYCE: How much have you spent to date on the myregion website and also on the Twitter account? How many staff have you got on the Twitter account?

Mr Atkinson : To date we have committed $486,693 on the myregion project, and the bulk of that has been spent on the build of the initial website.

Senator JOYCE: When do you think this thing will be complete? If it is in the development phase, when do you think development will be finished?

Mr Atkinson : It will be progressively rolled out, and it should be finished by February or March next year.

Senator JOYCE: At the start there were three photos on the website that were in the photo competition. One was of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one was of the Gold Coast—

Senator Sherry: Yes, we have heard about this already on at least three or four occasions.

Senator JOYCE: What part of regional Australia is the Sydney Harbour Bridge?

Senator Sherry: I think you know from our stunned silence, Senator, that we are well aware of where the Sydney Harbour Bridge is.

Senator JOYCE: I just want to know what part of regional Australia that is—the Sydney part of regional Australia!

Senator Sherry: We have already traversed this a number of times. As the secretary has explained, there was a change of photos in terms of the photo competition, and I am going to check to make sure there were photos of Northern Tasmania in the rotation, for example. That concerns me, just as you are concerned about a photo of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Senator JOYCE: Do you monitor the Ballarat Courier?

Ms Beauchamp : We do, as you pointed out earlier, get a range of press clips from a number of regional newspapers.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I have a couple of questions about the RDA and then I want to move onto Northern Australia. Will all those projects that missed out in round 1 have to go through the application process again or will they be automatically considered for round 2?

Ms Beauchamp : They will have to resubmit their application.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Have they been advised of that?

Mr O'Brien : They will be advised that they will have to resubmit.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: They have not been yet?

Mr O'Brien : No, they have not been yet.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: There is a bit of confusion out there. I was under the impression—and I know others are—that they did not have to reapply, but they clearly do.

Mr O'Brien : We will need applications that have the most up-to-date information.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Have all of those who applied for regional grants and missed out been advised of not only missing out but why they missed out—have they had critiques of their applications?

Ms Beauchamp : As Ms Fleming pointed out earlier, around 260 organisations have sought detailed feedback, and we are in the process of contacting those organisations and going through why their projects were not funded in this round.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Are you saying only those who asked for that are being contacted?

Mr O'Brien : There are about 260 of them.

Ms Fleming : Senator, everybody received an email advising them. That was followed up by a letter explaining the considerations of the panel, if they were eligible to be considered, or the reasons for their ineligibility. So all 553 applicants were contacted. In that letter, we offered them the opportunity to seek feedback. To date, 260 organisations have taken up the opportunity to date to seek feedback, and we are about halfway through that process. Everybody was provided written advice on their application.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So you are saying that some were knocked out because they were not eligible?

Ms Fleming : Correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: And they were advised why they were not eligible, and invited to get eligible or—

Ms Fleming : To seek comments and to discuss their applications.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Could you tell me, perhaps on notice, if the Mackay Gymnastics club and the Whitsunday Moto Sports Club were advised of why they were knocked back?

Ms Fleming : They would have received a letter, but we will take that on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: If they have not asked, could you take this as me asking for advice on why they did not receive funding on behalf of their local member, who has asked me to raise those two?

Ms Fleming : Yes, I will take that on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: In August 2011 there was an advertisement placed asking for expressions of interest for volunteers, with a closing date of 16 September 2011. Can you tell me how many people applied to become volunteers?

Mr O'Brien : Was that for RDA committee vacancies?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It is an advertisement in the Courier Mail on 31 August 2011, headed 'Regional Development Australia', and says that the 'Australian government and the Queensland government are seeking volunteers with vision, drive and community experience who are able to represent the broad interests of their region, understand local challenges and achieve results,' and so on. It is an ad put in by you so I assume you know what it is.

Mr Carmichael: Yes, that is an advertisement for expressions of interest for RDA committees in Queensland. Advertising dates in Queensland were the 31 August to 7 September.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I have told you all that. I asked: how many people applied?

Mr Carmichael : Those EOIs closed on the 16 September—it was a soft close because, if people apply—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: No, I have told you that. I just want to know how many applied.

Mr Carmichael : In Queensland, we got 150 expressions of interest.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Were they from a broad cross-section of the community?

Mr Carmichael : Do you want me to tell you by RDA?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Perhaps on notice you could do that. We are on some limited time.

Mr Carmichael : Yes. It is a good spread across the state.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: And a good cross-section of positions in the community?

Mr Carmichael : We are still assessing the applications.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: How many people are going to be chosen to represent each region?

Mr Carmichael : That is set by the number of people on those RDAs, but there are 73 vacancies, or expiring terms, coming up, so there will be 73 appointments made from those 150 expressions of interest.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: On notice, can you give me where the vacancies are and, in that way, indicate to me the number of people who will be appointed in these areas? Is it possible to do that?

Mr Carmichael : Yes. I have that information here and I can table it, if you like.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I would like it region by region. I guess there are only a couple in Queensland, but I am sure my colleagues would be interested across Australia. If you could do that on notice, that would—

Mr Carmichael : We will take that on notice, Senator.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: They are simply going to be members of the RDA and participate in the advisory role that the RDAs have? Is there any intention of the government to give the Regional Development Association some ability to deal with money and make actual decisions on grant applications?

Mr O'Brien : They did have a role in the first round of the RDAF and that was to, first of all, provide a letter of endorsement for the applicant and, secondly, to indicate whether the project aligned and how well it aligned with the regional plans that they have in each RDA area. Now, as we indicated earlier, we are looking at, through the feedback session that we have had, how we can strengthen the role of the RDAs. We are still going through the process of getting feedback from RDAs. We will take that feedback and provide the minister with some advice about how they could have a stronger role.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It is a fairly minimal role at the moment. When do you expect that that will be formalised? I am not asking for an exact date, but before Christmas, before the end of the financial year?

Mr O'Brien : The actual role the RDAs undertake will be reflected in the next set of guidelines. I would expect the next set of guidelines to come out in early November.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thank you for that. I now want to pass on to the Office of Northern Australia, if I may. I thank you for your written answers to question 16 from the May estimates. I would like to ask some questions, but, for convenience, I refer you to the attachment that you attached to your answer to question 16. You told me that the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum was meeting in Port Hedland on 28 July 2011. What came out of that forum?

Ms Fleming : The members met and looked at the progress being made under a range of initiatives being taken forward under the auspices of the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum, including the long-term Northern Beef strategy. They also looked at the scope of the minerals analysis being taken forward under the strategy, and they took issues around the Indigenous experts panel and its formation—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Were some minutes kept or was there a communique at the end of it that could be made available to the committee?

Ms Fleming : Yes, there is.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: There was a communique, a statement or minutes?

Mr O'Brien : It was a media statement.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Could we have a look at that, please? You mentioned the Northern Australia Indigenous Sustainable Development Forum. Who has been appointed to that?

Ms Fleming : There are two chairs at this stage: Pat Dodson and Peter Yu.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is all the forum consists of?

Ms Fleming : The forum will be supported by a secretariat group that will bring together a variety of leaders on the issues as they arise. We will be working with the chair and deputy chair of that group to form the agenda. We have an initial meeting scheduled for November.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: There are two chairs?

Ms Fleming : There is a chair and a deputy chair.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That presupposes they are chairing a group. But you cannot tell me who the rest of the group are.

Mr Dickson : The forum is to operate more as a series of workshops or meetings. Depending on the policy issue the ministry forum is dealing with, with the assistance of the Northern Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance, who will convene the meeting, we will bring together a large group of Indigenous experts to discuss the policy issue over a number of days. The chair and the deputy chair will facilitate the discussion.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: What constitutes an Indigenous expert?

Mr Dickson : This is why we are delivering this in collaboration with an Indigenous organisation like the Northern Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance. We seek the advice and assistance of state and territory jurisdictions and eminent leaders like Pat Dodson and Peter Yu. Through their services we will pull together a group. So it is difficult to define. But I think through collaboration with the jurisdictions and agencies like FaHCSIA and the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations we can pull together a fairly representative group of leaders who can provide advice to ministers.

Ms Fleming : I would just add that this is the same model that we are applying to the expert group that the CSIRO will chair for us. They will draw together experts from the scientific community, depending on the issues that are being addressed, for consideration by the forum. If it was carbon farming, land management or water we would draw together different experts from the scientific community to discuss those issues.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: How and on what criteria and by whom were Mr Dodson and Mr Yu selected?

Ms Fleming : It was a discussion between the four jurisdictions—Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and the Commonwealth. Ministers discussed the chair and deputy chair.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So they were selected by the ministers attending the forum.

Ms Fleming : Correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Were applications called for? Do we know if others were considered?

Ms Fleming : There were discussions at the standing committee and then ministers made a decision collectively.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Do you know if ministers were offered a list to choose from, or were there just two recommendations given by the standing committee?

Ms Fleming : Can I take that on notice?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes, that is fine. Community based planning is the next item referred to in the annexure. It says this program will examine cross-government approaches to improving participation in land and water planning and development. The project was due to commence in 2011-12, and we are almost halfway there. What has been achieved in the cross-government approach to improving community participation?

Ms Fleming : The minister has looked at some of the projects being taken forward under the Northern Australia Sustainable Futures Program. That is one of the projects that is being reconsidered at the moment. Some of the projects the minister has wanted to put additional effort into, such as the beef strategy and the minerals work—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You are telling me that nothing has happened with the community based planning project except it is being considered by ministers.

Ms Fleming : Nothing has occurred to date under that and that project is being reconsidered.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So it may not go ahead and it may go ahead?

Ms Fleming : That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is interesting. What has brought about the change of heart?

Ms Fleming : A stronger focus on some of the more substantive projects and the level of interest across the jurisdictions to put more effort into the commodity resource planning issue and the long-term beef strategy.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Good, thank you. The Northern Australian local government and household water management initiative, which involves priority water challenges and projects being coordinated by the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government, commenced in April. It has been going six or seven months now. How is that initiative going?

Ms Fleming : The initial phase of the project has been completed and included a review of available data on household water use in Northern Australia, an assessment of the role of local governments in the delivery of water services and an assessment of existing water programs in remote and regional Australia. The next phase of the project will identify options for improving water delivery in Northern Australia, focusing on the role of local governments in managing water services.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Are the review, the assessment and the assessment of existing projects done by the Australian centre of excellence public documents that could be made available to the committee?

Ms Fleming : Could I take that on notice?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes, sure.

Ms Fleming : In principle there is no issue with that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That would be good. The next one was Northern Australian data development. The project commenced in March and has been going seven or eight months. That was focusing on development of date and metrics that better inform decision making. Where is that at?

Ms Fleming : The first phase of that project was a consultancy whereby we spoke to all of the nine northern RDAs and asked each of them where they thought there was a need for more data across the north. We are considering the resources we have available to look at where we would now best apply our efforts to enhance the statistical coverage across Northern Australia. Phase 2 is still in development; in phase 1 we have an input from RDAs, in short.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Is the input from the RDAs a public document that can be made available to this committee?

Mr O'Brien : Yes.

Ms Fleming : We could take that on notice and I think it should be able to be made available.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is good, thank you. Please give us a copy. The next one is sustainable development: building markets in environmental and land management services. This project will develop a proof of concept for establishing an economic market in environmental and land management services in Northern Australia. Can you explain to me in ordinary English what that actually means?

Ms Fleming : The concept behind the project was to commission some work that would look at whether, if we changed the policy settings, we would be able to encourage more entrepreneurship in environmental services and generate new businesses rather than just jobs associated with grants. The first phase of the project will assess the size and scale of the current and potential market for natural resource management and environmental and land management. The project has commenced and is expected to be completed in December 2012. It will identify ideas and concepts at that stage. It is a long-term project.

CHAIR: Senator Macdonald, it might be a good time to suspend for our break.

Proceedings suspended from 21:14 to 21:30

CHAIR: I welcome the officers and the minister back.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Who is the project manager for this project? We were talking about sustainable development: building markets in environmental land and management services, and you were telling me that they are looking into what could be done in this area.

Ms Fleming : We are managing the project. Are you interested in who the consultants are?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You told me last time that tenders to deliver the project are currently being assessed. I just want to know who was selected.

Ms Fleming : It is Access Economics.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Can you tell me what they are being paid?

Mr Dickson : Yes, I can. Let us just—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Perhaps you could—

Ms Fleming : We will just look that up and we will be able to tell you. I think it is around $300,000, but it might be less than that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Okay. That tender was selected by the department?

Ms Fleming : Yes. The tender is for $220,000, and we undertook the tender in conjunction with the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: The next item is partnership with the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation. You told me you have made a contribution of $100,000 to that CRC.

Ms Fleming : That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You say the Office of Northern Australia is actively participating in CRC activities. Can you tell me how you are participating? Has the CRC developed any tangible strategies or action plans?

Ms Fleming : The department participates through its funding as what is termed a participating partner, and, as a result of that, we work with the CRC in the determination of their research projects and to ensure that the interests of the Office of Northern Australia are aligned with the CRC.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Because time is short, could you on notice to tell me what research activities the CRC are funding or supporting that relate to Northern Australia?

Ms Fleming : Certainly.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: The next one is a timetable for infrastructure investment in Northern Australia regional development priorities, and I am wondering about the projects to identify infrastructure priorities. Can you tell me what those priorities are, or what has been identified as a priority?

Ms Fleming : Certainly. I will just ask Mr Dickson to give you a bit of an update on that.

Mr Dickson : Through the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum we have been able to leverage the original funding that was identified through the Northern Australia Sustainable Futures program with additional funding from the jurisdictions. This work has now grown, and we are pursuing three projects which address issues around infrastructure priorities. The first project is being undertaken by ABARES and is a collaboration with the department of resources. It looks at major resource industry developments—particularly bulk commodities such as LNG, coal and iron ore—and how those resource industry developments drive regional development and infrastructure needs. That project will be substantially finished by the end of this year, and they will report in March. In consultation with Queensland, we identified that while bulk commodities drive infrastructure developments around Australia, particularly in Western Australian, other issues are also relevant in Queensland and the Northern Territory. So we are doing an additional project, which looks at base metals, precious metals, bauxite and phosphate. Phosphate is particularly important to the Northern Territory and of course base metals and precious metals are particularly important to the Townsville to Mount Isa corridor. That project we are commissioning now in collaboration with the jurisdictions.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: ABARES is doing that, did you say?

Mr Dickson : No, we have not commissioned that work yet and it is unlikely that ABARES will do that because they have resource constraints. The third project, which will follow both of these projects—one focusing on bulk commodities; one focusing on base metals/precious metals—will look at those additional infrastructure issues that surround major resource growth corridors, such as community and social infrastructure, skills, Indigenous employment and development needs. We are able to demonstrate here that, through the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum, what the Commonwealth started as a fairly modest investigation of infrastructure priorities we have been able to develop into a more substantive program of work in collaboration with the jurisdictions.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: My take on what you have told me is that for project 1 ABARES is doing some research into major industry development. Someone else is going to do some research into base metal opportunities. The third one relates to social infrastructure, if I can broadly call it that.

Mr Dickson : And skills.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I understand that the minister, Mr Crean, has been looking at the Green Hills Dam project on the Gilbert River, but the descriptive of those three infrastructure priorities does not seem to incorporate water storage projects.

Ms Fleming : The Office of Northern Australia participates in the Queensland government initiative, which is a working group on the Gilbert River. We are aware of developments and participate in that working group, but it is not a project of the Northern Australia Sustainable Futures package.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: What is it a project of?

Ms Fleming : The Queensland government is just looking at the Gilbert River.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: What is the Commonwealth's involvement?

Ms Fleming : We participate in that working group so we are kept abreast of issues that the Queensland government is looking at.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Can you tell me on notice what it is looking at? I understand the premier was up there the other day wanting an urgent brief.

Ms Fleming : Certainly, Senator.

Mr Dickson : I will just clarify that the work we are doing around infrastructure priorities is principally focusing on large-scale infrastructure and the relationship between developments in the resource industry and how that drives regional development.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I understand.

Mr Dickson : We do not have a capacity to look at all infrastructure issues and we do not have a capacity to move out beyond those growth corridors.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thank you for explaining that. The notes you gave me just said it will identify infrastructure priorities in Northern Australia. I thought perhaps the Green Hills Dam might have been No. 1. Thank you for your explanation. There is a lot I would like to ask you about the Northern Australian beef strategy. Suffice it to say that, in my view, one of the good things that came out of the neutered Northern Australia Land and Water Task Force was the beef strategy. It has all been rendered fairly irrelevant following the live cattle ban, which just about decimated the northern beef industry right across three states. Is that strategy still being pursued?

Ms Fleming : That strategy is very much front and centre of long-term development for the beef sector. Perhaps Andrew could talk you through some of the key points. I understand you are short of time.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I would love to do that, but I do have two or three other things I wanted to ask.

CHAIR: You are out of time, Senator Macdonald. Do you want to put those questions on notice or do you want to hang around and see if you get an opportunity later?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am just saying thank you for the offer to do that, but perhaps if you could explain what you would have told me. I am particularly interested in the mosaic agriculture. I would desperately have loved to have spoken to you about those.

Ms Fleming : There is a page on our website on each of these projects. It was only put up today, so you may not be familiar with the material, so I apologise for the short notice. There is actually a page on each and every project, but I am happy to also take any questions on notice that you might have around those.

CHAIR: I am going to have to go to Senator Rhiannon. If there is time, Senator Macdonald, you can deal with your colleagues and get some more time if necessary.

Senator RHIANNON: 2010 was the year of women in local government, and I understand that one of the decisions that came out of that was to increase the representation of women to elected positions in local government. I understand that it is still only about 27 per cent, so I was interested to hear what you are doing to follow up on that 2010 year.

Ms Beauchamp : I will ask the relevant officers to come forward, and I acknowledge that this issue was raised at the last estimates in terms of what was done through the area. There have been a number of projects that have been pursued in that, but I will ask the relevant officers to come forward.

Mr Atkinson : There is $250,000 for the three-year 50:50 Vision. There is $100,000 in scholarship funding to enable senior women in local government to participate—

Senator RHIANNON: Sorry, it is hard to hear. Are these projects that have already been undertaken or are they current now?

Mr Atkinson : These are currently underway. There is $100,000 in scholarship funding to enable senior women in local government to participate in the new executive leadership program being developed by the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government, and some people have already gone through that. There is $100,000 to improve the collection of data and reporting on the status of women in the local government sector, $40,000 to Local Government Managers Australia for the 2010 management challenge involving around 130 councils identifying strategies to promote gender equity in their councils.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. You spoke there about collecting data. I note that the Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, has stated that the government is committed to increasing representation of women on boards, which is obviously very relevant to local councils. Only around five per cent of chief executive officer positions in local government are actually occupied by women. So, apart from the scholarships for women to participate in the first course at the Centre of Excellence for Local Government, is there ongoing funding to ensure increased representation of women in senior local government positions?

Mr Atkinson : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I would like to move on to the issue about constitutional recognition of local government. How much money has been allocated to the process for constitutional recognition of local government?

Ms Beauchamp : In the last budget statement the government allocated $9.4 million to the department to implement a range of priorities relevant to regional Australia, including progressing the referendum on constitutional recognition.

Senator RHIANNON: Out of that $9.4 million what will end up being spent on the referendum? There is actually a rumour—which is partly why I have asked this—that it will only be about $1 million, when $15 million was spent 12 years ago when we had the republic referendum. I am just trying to pin down the real amount of money that will be spent.

Ms Beauchamp : This does not include the cost of actually running a referendum; this—

Senator RHIANNON: No, I am just talking about the lead-up. Out of that $9.4 million, what has been allocated?

Mr Atkinson : There are around eight departmental staff, four contract staff and there is currently a budget of around $3 million allocated.

Senator RHIANNON: Is that a budget for both wages and for informing the public?

Mr Atkinson : That is a supplied budget for the use of the expert panel. The expert panel process is not the advertising process that works in the lead-up to a referendum: this is the expert panel who have been commissioned to gauge the level of community support and engage on what the potential questions could be.

Senator RHIANNON: The $3 million is to cover this consultation period that is rolling out at the moment?

Ms Beauchamp : Yes, it is to support the operations of the expert panel, including the design of their website, the communications products that they are putting out and some community polling work. They are doing some quite intensive work over the next few months. Part of these costs actually do support that expert panel.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say 'the next few months', I understood that it was only over five weeks that they were doing this work. Is it months or are we talking about five weeks?

Mr Atkinson : No, the expert panel was appointed on 8 August and it is due to report in December.

Senator RHIANNON: Sorry, I meant the consultation period—that is fairly short, isn't it?

Ms Beauchamp : That is available on the website. I think that is a very short period. I think the expert panel has identified the consultation processes and where they are going on their website. I just have not got that information in front of me.

Senator RHIANNON: I did want to ask a little bit about that. The panel on its website says that it is:

... currently touring the states to meet with premiers, opposition leaders, local government representatives, other interested stakeholders and members of the public.

Does this mean that they are meeting with local government, premiers and other stakeholders outside the notified public meetings? I am trying to get a sense of the actual process of the consultation. Is it that we have public meetings and then you are also having specialised meetings as well?

Ms Beauchamp : The expert panel and the chair are running the process. Given the time line, it is a combination of both public meetings and meetings with other interested stakeholders.

Mr Atkinson : They are also seeking public submissions.

Senator RHIANNON: How does one seek a stakeholder meeting? That is what I am often asked?

Mr Atkinson : To do that you would contact the constitutional recognition panel.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you understand that there is a willingness respond, considering the shortage of time? Is it all sewn up or is their flexibility here to engage in a real way with people?

Mr Atkinson : I would just make the point that it is an independent panel and it has made the decisions on the consultation and community engagement program. The panel is led by Mr Jim Spigelman. It has determined what its approach to this will be. I cannot speak for the panel but, if somebody were to engage with them and seek a meeting, they would certainly take input.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you; that has been helpful. I want to move on to some legislation that is coming up in New South Wales which would change the legal status of local government from body politic to body corporate. Has the department considered the consequences of this change, particularly relating to federal funding of local government?

Ms Beauchamp : The minister has asked us to look at a range of issues impacting on funding for local government. During the last budget process, for example, the government announced a review of the Financial Assistance Grant Scheme, so we are and will be looking at the impacts of the New South Wales legislation on those issues. Certainly no decisions have been taken by government, but there are a range of issues we need to consider in undertaking that review.

Senator RHIANNON: What is the time line on that review? This legislation is being considered right now. You have spoken of a review that the minister has asked you to do—when will that be finalised, and will you be releasing any of that?

Ms Beauchamp : We are still scoping out the terms of reference for that review and are yet to put to the minister some advice on the process for the review. So it is still in development.

Senator RHIANNON: It sounds like it will be quite a while away.

Ms Beauchamp : It all depends—

Senator RHIANNON: Next year?

Ms Beauchamp : I am sorry; I cannot give a date until I have gone through it with the minister.

Senator RHIANNON: The Productivity Commission in 2008 confirmed:

… a significant number of councils, particularly in rural … and remote … areas would remain dependent on grants from other spheres of government to meet their current expenditure.

Does the government have concerns about the adequate funding of local government by reason of the 2009 High Court decision of Pape v the Commissioner of Taxation?

Ms Beauchamp : Obviously these are the sorts of things that the Attorney-General's Department is looking at in terms of the legal ramifications. As I mentioned, we will be looking at the review of the Financial Assistance Grant Scheme to look at the funding for local government and, in that context, also looking at a range of other funding that is going to local government through a range of discretionary programs and through the states and territories.

Senator RHIANNON: I was specifically interested in the department's response to that High Court case, which was effectively two years ago.

Ms Beauchamp : The government has not made a response as such. It is still in the court processes, as I understand it. I would have to take that on notice. I think we are still waiting for the outcomes of that process.

Senator RHIANNON: If you could take it on notice, both what the process is and if there has been any response that can be—

Ms Beauchamp : As I said earlier, I would probably have to pass those on to the Attorney-General's Department, who are looking at the court proceedings and the legal proceedings.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. What is the status of the review of federal assistance grants? does the government have plans to increase direct funding for local government, in particular for infrastructure maintenance?

Ms Beauchamp : As I said earlier, the government has announced a review of the financial assistance grants—in the order of $2 billion is provided through local governments through that fund—and is also looking at a range of other investments that are made primarily through discretionary grants going into local governments. So there are a number of funding streams that local governments access at the moment.

Senator RHIANNON: I am sure you are aware of the accusations that are often made about cost shifting by Commonwealth and state governments. It has been estimated to have a negative impact on councils of between $500 million and $1.1 billion annually. Has a review of the Inter-governmental Agreement Establishing Principles Guiding Inter-governmental Relations on Local Government Matters commenced?

Ms Beauchamp : I think the review has kicked off, primarily through senior officials. It has yet to be raised with ministers because there was a review of the Council of Australian Governments ministerial arrangements. So, as senior officials, with the other states and territories, we are looking at the requirement to undertake that review and put to a group of local government ministers later in the year.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say that it is yet to be raised with ministers, you mean the state ministers?

Ms Beauchamp : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Thanks. I have one question on climate change. National and state local government associations largely have welcomed the $320 million Low Carbon Communities Program, but it has been highlighted that much more funding would be needed for strategic energy efficiency and generation initiatives. Is there other funding and support available to councils to replace inefficient street lighting and to create water recycling projects and water-sensitive urban design initiatives?

Mr Carmichael : I think that question would be better directed to the department of climate change. We have some initiatives where we are working with local councils, particularly around issues to do with their refuse tips. That is an issue that has been raised with us and that is part of our role, to work with them around that particular issue, but most of the other matters have been directly negotiated with the department of climate change and local government.

Senator RHIANNON: No, obviously we are taking it up with them. But I was interested in if there were any projects that your department oversees. It sounds like the answer is no, apart from projects around tips?

Mr Carmichael : Yes.

Mr O'Brien : They would be able to apply to the Regional Development Australia Fund if they had a project that met the eligibility criteria.

Senator RHIANNON: Such projects that I have outlined could have come under that?

Mr O'Brien : Potentially.

Ms Beauchamp : The other thing we have been doing is—there is a range of funding through the Clean Energy Future package—working with the department of climate change—particularly through local government forums, our Regional Development Australia committees—to see how people might best access those funds, for things like renewable energy, as Mr Carmichael has said, for the work that is being done around methane extraction through landfill sites and the like. We have certainly been out there as a portfolio talking about what sorts of good ideas they might bring forward—carbon farming and a range of other things as well.

Senator RHIANNON: Good. Thank you. I have one last question: next year a number of states have local government elections—New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland—does the department have any money for local government elections? I am particularly thinking in the context of alerting people that it is on, that they should vote and participate in the democratic process, because local governments traditionally have the lowest voter turnout. Is there any level of involvement that comes from the federal department and is there any budget?

Ms Beauchamp : There is no budget. All that we do is engage through Regional Development Australia committees and the 565 local governments in terms of making available our websites and other communications. So we provide in-kind support, if that were necessary and if they sought our assistance.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

Senator RYAN: I have a couple of follow-up questions. Has any consideration yet been given to the timing of a referendum with respect to local government recognition?

Ms Beauchamp : That will depend on the outcomes of the expert panel consultation-and-review process that is underway at the moment.

Senator RYAN: Do the results of that expert panel get fed through to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet? Because there is a concurrent consultation process going on with respect to Indigenous recognition. I think some are a little closer to making recommendations or finalising a paper than this particular process is, if not by much. I think there is some consideration about whether things should be held jointly with elections or otherwise. Which departments would your paper go to for consideration by the government?

Ms Beauchamp : The expert panel is doing its work independently. We are working very closely with the families department, the Attorney-General's Department and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Proposals will be going forward probably later this year or early in the new year in terms of what options might be considered by government.

Senator RYAN: Do they get carried forward by your department? This is an independent committee—I realise that—I am just wondering who has carriage of it into the government, into the cabinet, for example?

Ms Beauchamp : The normal cabinet process is that agencies work together, and views and options will be put forward in that process.

Senator RYAN: I understand that. I am wondering literally which minister has carriage of this particular issue?

Ms Beauchamp : Minister Crean has carriage of this particular issue. Minister Macklin has carriage of the Indigenous recognition issue. Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General play a key role in that too.

Senator RYAN: Thank you.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Ms Beauchamp, I was a member of a parliamentary inquiry regarding the carbon pricing legislation. We held a hearing in Tamworth and the local chamber of commerce appeared at the inquiry and said that many of their members were not necessarily opposed to the reforms but were requiring further information about how the scheme would work, particularly small businesses. I am wondering if you could run through for us, firstly, whether you have had such inquiries to the department from small businesses in rural and regional areas and what the department has done in response to those to inform local communities in those areas about the operation of the scheme and where they can go for assistance?

Ms Beauchamp : I will start off then hand over to my colleagues. Since the announcement of the Clean Energy Future package, there have been around 20 RDA forums at the local level, to identify and provide knowledge and information around what is in the government's package, what funding streams might be available and what assistance is available to small businesses and households and the like. There has been engagement, from the minister down, with these local communities, primarily through the Regional Development Australia committees and holding local government meetings.

Mr Atkinson : Senator, I will answer the second half of your question. We have been working closely with the department of climate change on their communications strategy and how to communicate the opportunities that are presented by the Clean Energy Future plan to regional Australia.

Mr Carmichael : RDAs have played a lead role in Minister Crean engaging regional communities on the Clean Energy Future plan. I have a list of places I can provide you with if you like; they are all around Australia. He has visited every state and a range of regional centres in each of those states. They have been popularly attended. There have been follow-up requests in particular communities where the sense of the impact may have been more, so there is more intense work happening in places like La Trobe. There has certainly been a nationwide series of forums engaging local business, community groups and local councils.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: If you are going to a regional centre to conduct a forum, how do you inform the local community?

Mr Carmichael : They are generally advertised in local papers. Sometimes it is not Minister Crean but another minister. But they are given wide publicity. There is generally media around the event, so often a couple of hundred people attend these forums.

Ms Beauchamp : The RDAs themselves actually initiate a number of the forums. For example, in Tasmania and other areas, they have been doing some quite active work around carbon farming and what opportunities might come from the whole package, so the Regional Development Australia committees have been marshalling and mobilising resources and holding independently of government their own local forums as well.

Senator JOYCE: As you put so much effort into going around the country to advise them how much we can change the temperature of the globe by, did you ever think to use the same forums to inform people in those areas how they could put a submission in properly so they could get funding? You seem to be very active on one front but you seem to lack the same enthusiasm in trying to assist people in RDA funding.

Mr Carmichael : RDAs actually do conduct forums, and 55 of them did conduct consultations on the round of funding. They advertised it widely; that was part of the process and that was part of their role.

Senator JOYCE: Did you do any in western Queensland?

Mr Carrmichael : There are RDAs all through Queensland and all of them engaged in that activity.

Senator JOYCE: So why do we have such a poor success rate in the return of applications that would be accepted?

Ms Fleming : As we outlined before, people changed the forms and modified the lodgements and not for profits were for the first time given access to the fund; whereas before we had run that lodgement system with local government only. This created a range of issues, but we will be working closely to ensure that there are as clear instructions as we can provide on using the new system and road testing that system in advance of round two.

Mr Carmichael : Just to follow up, Senator Joyce, Minister Crean held a state forum in Queensland and talked to all RDAs about the RDAF funding.

Senator JOYCE: Whereabouts?

Mr Carmichael : In Brisbane. All RDAs attended.

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, you are certainly straying off local government. Senator Thistlethwaite has the call.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Just going back to that issue of informing local communities, can you tell the committee about what the department is doing to inform local communities about government service delivery in general in some of these rural and regional areas?

Mr Carmichael : It is part of RDAs' mandate to be aware of all Commonwealth and state initiatives, and they promote them. Generally, where they know where there are particular priorities—particularly where they have priorities in their own regional plans around, say, around social inclusion—they will make a much more concentrated effort on that, but it is one of their roles to inform their local communities. Where an issue comes to their attention through the broad consultation processes that they undertake and the development of their plans, they will hold particular forums around those sorts of issues.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Does the department keep a check of important economic and lifestyle indicators in some of these regional areas?

Mr Carmichael : We encourage all the RDAs in their development of their plans to provide that sort of data and we have some projects where we are helping facilitate better access to that sort of data for RDAs. Each evolution of their plans will be underpinned by better data. Part of the website is to provide data at a regional level, at both the RDA level and the local government level, so there will be increasing access to that sort of data that informs local decision making on that site as well.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: What about working with business to encourage greater investment in rural and regional areas? Are there any programs specifically devoted to that?

Mr Carmichael : We are developing some of those programs, but we are sponsoring a conference next week, the SEGRA conference to be held in Geelong, where there are particular sessions being held on how you engage particularly small and medium enterprises in economic activity in their regions. There will be a number of workshops targeted to that. We are developing a community of practice site, which Ms Beauchamp talked about earlier, and it will have some of that sort of material on it: how RDAs engage business communities and how they engage around business planning and business opportunities. We are undertaking specific work in the Illawarra right now on five strategies, which we want to then promulgate strategies nationally but are testing in the Illawarra.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Does the department keep records of indicators of business investment in particular areas? Is that something that is routinely measured?

Mr Atkinson : We do not keep—sorry, was it business activity indicators?

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Yes, general economic growth measures, unemployment levels and those sorts of issues.

Mr Carmichael : We are doing some specific work in Cairns, for example. It is not easy information to get and we are doing some work with a local economic consultaqncy company and the Queensland government. We do that where there are hotspots where we are working in particular regions—

Mr Atkinson : We have a body of work on regional indicators that is progressing. We are working across Commonwealth agencies to gather existing data—for example, employment, economic and some social data sets—to pull them together at a regional level.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Is the department doing any work on improving the coordination of functions across all tiers of government in certain areas?

Ms Beauchamp : One of our key functions, particularly since we were set up, is looking at how we better coordinate Commonwealth agencies, in the first instance, and make sure that we can provide the necessary local intelligence back to Commonwealth agencies, so we can better target and guide Commonwealth investment in regions. Also, we work with state and territory governments, and we have obviously been doing that too in the rollout of, for example, the Regional Development Australia Fund, and work with local governments. The 565 local governments and the 55 Regional Development Australia committees are a great source of advice in terms of what works and what does not work on the ground. We have been able to be a funnel or a conduit back to Commonwealth agencies here in Canberra—in terms of Regional Development Australia committees, the development of their roadmaps and plans. They engage local communities, including business leaders.

Part of our role has been to look at how we better coordinate that information across government here in Canberra but also with our state and territory colleagues and with local government. That has been one of the value-adds that we as an organisation are bringing to the way the Commonwealth government does business, basically. We have not had this lens before, in terms of looking at the delivery of Commonwealth programs through this regional lens, and being able to embed within the Commonwealth government the importance of regions, what is happening out there on the ground, and what works and what does not work. We have been fortunate enough to have quite a deal of influence through cabinet processes and others and being able to bring that local intelligence to some of the decision-making that is happening here in Canberra.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Can you outline for the committee the arrangements and the progress in developing the Regional Development Policy Centre?

Mr Atkinson : The Regional Development Policy Centre was registered under the Corporations Act as an entity on 21 September. I understand the board of the policy centre will be meeting formally later this year. They have already commenced consultations with key regional stakeholders. They propose to develop a forward policy and work agenda.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: When is that organisation due to commence?

Mr Atkinson : The organisation exists as an entity already. I understand they will be pursuing a formal public launch later this year.

Ms Beauchamp : They expect to hold their first board meeting in the next few weeks.

Senator JOYCE: What will the agenda include?

Mr Atkinson : Minister Crean stated that Australia's regions include rural, urban and remote areas, but, from a regional policy perspective, it is about supporting communities and improving social, environmental and economic outcomes for people outside Australia's major capital cities. To pursue those objectives, it is not about creating new statistical boundaries, which the ABS already has several of, and the remoteness classifications—

Senator JOYCE: I just have one question: does it include Perth?

Mr Atkinson : I would say that Perth is a region of Australia.

Senator JOYCE: What about Sydney?

Mr Atkinson : The question—

Mr O'Brien : It is certainly a region of Australia. That is a focus of our department. Metropolitan activities—no.

Senator JOYCE: Sydney is a region—good. Another regional area.

Mr Atkinson : Senator, just to clarify: when I talked about the regional policy agenda focusing on supporting the economic, environmental and social outcomes of people outside of Australia's major capital cities, that is different to what my colleague was talking about—regions as a discussion of RDA coverage, effectively, and local government.

Senator JOYCE: So Perth is in or out?

Ms Beauchamp : Senator, it is not as simple as you make out in terms of whether Perth is in or out. We are not talking about statistics and lines on a map; we are looking at the impact of programs and policies on regions as a whole. There might be something happening in Perth that actually is providing a much broader benefit for people outside of Perth. It all depends on the particular question you are after.

Senator JOYCE: What about a road in Perth? Would that be helping people in regional Australia?

Ms Beauchamp : Roads obviously connect communities together, so it depends. I am not too sure about the basis of your question.

Senator Sherry: As I recall, we have had a discussion about this on at least two previous occasions. If you want to pursue the time of the committee on this issue—

Senator JOYCE: Everywhere seems to be a part of regional Australia.

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, you have repeatedly covered this area tonight. Can you at least allow the minister to complete his answer without jumping in over the top of him. Minister, please continue.

Senator Sherry: As I recall, I do not think the conversation went anywhere. I certainly recollect Perth being raised and we have had Sydney Harbour Bridge tonight. It is your time, but we have discussed the matter and answered it on at least two previous occasions.

Senator JOYCE: Everywhere is regional.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Is it the role of the RDAs to identify for the government the economic and social priorities for their regions?

Mr Carmichael : That is one of the key priorities that we ask them to do and increasingly we are working with state governments around that. For example, Queensland just released their draft regionalisation strategy. We worked with Queensland about how you prioritise economic and social priorities in each of those regions and RDAs are at the forefront of that consultation process. When the Queensland government came to Canberra to consult on their plan—and this is part of what Ms Beauchamp was saying earlier about how we are playing a lead role across the Commonwealth—we brokered all of the appropriate Commonwealth agencies to participate in that consultation to feed into their regionalisation strategy. So there is a bottom-up process of RDAs identifying social and economic priorities for their region and then work around aligning those with state and Commonwealth priorities so that we get a line of sight from the local to the national level.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: That is not a time defined process, is it? It is an ongoing process?

Mr Carmichael : It is an ongoing process but we do seek that they upgrade and enhance their plans each year and they are just in the process now of finalising all of their plans. Each year they need to update their plans, they need to consult with local stakeholders to determine if those priorities are changing or if new ones are emerging. They must consult with their local councils and they must provide a plan to their local councils in their region as part of that process.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Does the government formally respond to those plans and those priorities?

Mr Carmichael : We analyse those plans and that informs our public policy considerations. We also feed that back at the state level through state advisory committees to work out how we might, for example in Queensland, work around Queensland's key priorities and the Commonwealth's key priorities that are also identified with the RDA and local government—to bring alignment between those four groups to better progress those sorts of issues at a strategic level.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Is Queensland the only state that has done that?

Mr Carmichael : No. Ms Beauchamp was talking about our lead role. In Victoria there are eight regional management forums; they have not had any participation from the Commonwealth until now. We have negotiated that a senior Commonwealth officer will be on each of those committees. We are coordinating the Commonwealth briefing of those officers and they will feed back into Commonwealth policy considerations. RDAs, local government and state government are all part of those committees. We are rolling that out across the country where it is appropriate and where we can work with the state governments in that way.

Senator McKENZIE: I have four questions relating to a specific program or application. They relate to the funding sought under the Regional Development of Australia Fund to facilitate the growth of the Latrobe regional airport in Gippsland Victoria as an aerospace industry centre and to expand regional employment opportunities. The application was rejected due to a failure to provide certain documentation. The project was going to give an additional 150 direct jobs to our community, already stressed in the coal industry. Can the department advise of the details around the decision to reject the application?

Mr O'Brien : I can take that on notice.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you.

Mr O'Brien : It was deemed ineligible?

Senator McKENZIE: Yes.

Ms Beauchamp : Senator, you actually mentioned the failure to provide documentation. That in itself would be a reason why it was ineligible to be considered.

Senator McKENZIE: If that is the case—and my understanding is that it was a genuine misunderstanding rather than a deliberate attempt to withhold—is there an avenue for redress or reapplication or discussion with the department to have their application looked at again?

Ms Beauchamp : If round 1 has closed, in terms of round 2 they are eligible to reapply. Also, on the basis of them reapplying, they will have probably sought further advice from the department in terms of why their application was ineligible. They have also had the opportunity to seek that feedback.

Senator McKENZIE: This is the No. 1 project put forward by the whole—

Mr O'Brien : I spent a lot of time in the Latrobe Valley in recent months so I am well aware of the projects and I would expect that they will be resubmitting at the next round.

Senator McKENZIE: Yes, that is my understanding too. Given the higher rate of non-compliance in round 1, have the application forms or the required criteria change?

Mr O'Brien : Yes. We are reconsidering reviewing the guidelines as they currently stand—and we talked about that a little earlier. That process has not been finalised yet. It will be finalised shortly. With the minister's approval, we are looking to publish a new set of guidelines in early November. So they will change. We are looking at changing the process of application in terms of lodgement. I might get Ms Fleming to talk a little bit about that. The idea is to make available a more user-friendly e-form than we had previously.

Ms Fleming : The system we used before was a smart form that we had used in the third round of the RLCIP program so we had not anticipated the issues that arose in RDAF round 1 because it was a system that had been used before. Given the issues that arose with round 1, we are now developing a web form. That means people will lodge directly onto a web form; there is no downloading of documents or modifying of documents; they can amend the document and they can do it over time; there will be tab fields; there will be explanations; there will be a how-to guide the user system; and we will provide as much support as we can to applicants who possibly have not used web forms before

Senator McKENZIE: How much money will be available under round 2?

Mr O'Brien : That is still to be determined.

Senator McKENZIE: Is there another program that will be available more quickly for access by Gippsland Aeronautics that you can advise them of?

Mr O'Brien : Not at this stage.

Senator McKENZIE: On notice, I would like to know which regional papers the $35,000 spent on Media Monitors actually covers.

Mr O'Brien : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator RYAN: I presume you would be in a capacity to provide the brief you provide to Media Monitors. That would give the wholesale cost. If it is a commercially provided service, obviously the government would provide a brief saying, 'This is what we want covered, the search terms, newspapers, regions.' Would you be able to take that on notice and provide it to Senator McKenzie?

Mr O'Brien : We will take that on notice.

Senator RYAN: Is there any reason you could not?

Mr O'Brien : I am personally not sure.

Senator McKENZIE: I think what Senator Ryan is suggesting is that you have asked them to do a monitoring service and what you have asked them to do must be somewhere.

Senator Sherry: We will take it on notice.

Senator JOYCE: I want to go to Granite Belt Support Services. They would be in the Stanthorpe area. They put in an application to fund a community therapy day services and training centre to service families and carers in the Southern Downs and Northern Tablelands regions. I have been to this project, which is to help disabled kids and their families. Are you aware of this project?

Senator Sherry: Which program are we dealing with here?

Senator JOYCE: RDA funding. They did not get funding under the RDA.

Mr O'Brien : I am not aware of that project.

Senator JOYCE: They want feedback on why they did not get funding. They were very eager to get it. It is a big issue for the people of Stanthorpe. How would they go about finding out why they did not get funding but a hall in Lismore got $3 million?

Mr O'Brien : As we mentioned earlier, the feedback process is underway and we are about halfway through that at the moment.

Senator JOYCE: What do you suggest we say to them as to why a building in Armidale got $8 million yet they got nothing?

Senator Sherry: We have explained the process. This is the second time.

Senator JOYCE: It is very important for them.

Senator Sherry: I accept it would be. There are local projects in the north of Tasmania that did not get any funding, and I am disappointed for them. I can understand why.

Senator JOYCE: We are talking about this assistance for disabled children; not Northern Tasmania.

Senator Sherry: I can understand their disappointment. There were more than 550 applications. We have had a thorough discussion about this prior to the break this evening. I can understand there were a very, very significant number of applications vis-a-vis the number of applications grant money could be provided for. It is perfectly reasonable to understand disappointment and it is perfectly reasonable for people, an organisation, a not-for-profit or a council that have missed out to look at others who have been provided with money and perhaps be concerned. That is, again, perfectly reasonable—a perfectly human disappointment.

Senator JOYCE: So do I just offer that babble as an excuse to them?

Mr O'Brien : We are happy to speak to them.

Senator Sherry: There is a process.

Ms Beauchamp : We have been through a robust process. It has been a competitive process. Not every project can get up out of the 553. There has been a process of prioritisation by the panel in accordance with the guidelines. Some projects have been presented in a much stronger way in terms of meeting the selection criteria than others.

Senator Sherry: You tonight criticised St Vincent de Paul's project, you criticised the Geelong project involving the Geelong Football Club. People have different perspectives on what is a project.

Senator JOYCE: I would stand by that assisting disabled children's families is more important than assisting the Geelong Football Club. Do you have a different view?

Senator Sherry: I do not have a view on this matter. All I said is that I understand the disappointment and the perspective of people that miss out.

Mr O'Brien : You asked the question: what can I say to them? You can say to them very clearly that we are willing to provide feedback.

Senator JOYCE: They raised $920,000 themselves. They were looking for $1.167 million. I have been there. It is vitally important to those people. I think everybody agrees—we are on a unity ticket—that respite for families is an essential element.

Clearly understand this, because this is very important: there is no area in Australia that is excluded under the term 'regional'?

Ms Beauchamp : It all depends on what information you are actually after. As you would know, there was a regional ministerial budget statement put out last year that identified $4.3 billion of new initiatives going into regional Australia. 'Regional Australia' is defined differently across different regions depending on the funding programs. For example, resource management have different boundaries than the health program, who are offering rural and remote services, as do some of the regional implications of some of the education funding. What our minister is very keen to do is look at projects and how they benefit those living outside—as Mr Atkinson said—the major capital cities. That is a sort of benchmark we use. But you cannot generalise because there are a range of programs that are provided to regional Australia and they have very different requirements in terms of some of the rules they apply, particularly for funding arrangements.

Senator JOYCE: When you said 'the major capital cities' does that include—

Senator Sherry: Senator—

Senator JOYCE: No, I am not talking to you, Minister; I am talking to—

Senator Sherry: I still have a right to respond to a question, and I will.

Senator JOYCE: Can you respond after I finish the question?

Senator Sherry: Yes, when you finish—go for it.

CHAIR: Yes. Senator Joyce had the call. Let him put the question, as I have asked him to allow you to answer. Senator Joyce.

Senator JOYCE: So when you talk about 'major capital cities', does that include or not include Perth?

Senator Sherry: Just before the officer answers, because I think this is the third time tonight you have raised this.

Senator JOYCE: Well, just give me the answer—yes or no?

Senator Sherry: We had an extensive discussion on two previous occasions. I think we are touching the fourth or fifth time we have gone to the definition of 'region' and a conversation about Perth. I am all for providing you with the response—

Senator JOYCE: Okay, give it.

Senator Sherry: I had not finished. I am all for providing you with a response, but this is the fourth or fifth time around on this matter.

Senator JOYCE: I just want some answers.

Senator Sherry: If the officers have anything additional to add to previous question-answer conversations we have had on this, as I have said before, Senator Joyce—

Senator JOYCE: But that is not an answer. That is just a—

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, I pulled the minister up just a few moments ago to allow you to complete your questioning. He is now responding. If you keep going over the same old ground you are going to get a response from the minister that is appropriate. Minister, you have the call.

Senator Sherry: I will conclude and just say that, Senator Joyce, it is your time and, if you want to ask a question four or times—we really have worked this issue in great detail—it is your prerogative. There might be other senators who have other questions. We can only do our best but we are getting quite repetitive on this one.

Senator JOYCE: You have just spent three or four minutes to give an answer to a question which was never an answer. It was completely and utterly irrelevant. The question was quite succinct: is Perth one of the major capitals that are excluded from the definition of regional? Yes or no? Either Perth is part of regional, in which case the answer is yes, or Perth is not part of regional, in which case the answer is no. You have been completely unable to give an answer to that. Why? Is this a tactic of yours to try to prevaricate, thinking that somehow if you babble on for long enough that will do for an answer?

Senator Sherry: No. I just pointed out that we have discussed the issue of Perth and definition of region—

Senator JOYCE: So Perth is or it isn't?

Senator Sherry: on three or four previous occasions.

Senator JOYCE: So you cannot answer the question?

Senator Sherry: I am not a believer in—

Senator JOYCE: So you are not capable of answering the question. Is that why you are no longer in cabinet?

CHAIR: Senator Joyce, you have put your question on a number of occasions. You might have changed the terminology a little bit. Allow the minister to complete his answer.

Senator Sherry: As I say, if the officers have anything more to add on this repetitive question, fine, but I do not have anything more to add.

Senator JOYCE: You did not have anything at all, actually—but that is who you are. Has any feedback included any suggestions to better manage round 2 of the fund?

Ms Beauchamp : Yes, Senator.

Senator JOYCE: What are they?

Mr O'Brien : We are working through a process. We are getting feedback from RDAs right around the country and we are taking that feedback on board. We have also set up an online web form to provide feedback. We are taking that all into account in the preparation of the second set of guidelines.

Senator JOYCE: The members of the independent advisory panel remain the same for round 2.

Mr O'Brien : That is a matter for the minister, but I expect that they would.

Ms Fleming : They were appointed for three years, Senator.

Senator JOYCE: Who are the members of that panel?

Ms Fleming : The chair is Christian Zahra.

Senator JOYCE: Where is he or she from?

Ms Fleming : He is from Victoria.

Senator JOYCE: What part of Victoria?

Senator Sherry: He is the former member for McMillan.

Senator JOYCE: Who else have we got?

Ms Fleming : Professor Barbara Norman.

Senator JOYCE: Where from?

Mr O'Brien : The ACT. There is Brad Orgill from New South Wales.

Senator JOYCE: What part of New South Wales.

Ms Fleming : Sydney.

Senator JOYCE: Who else have we got?

Mr O'Brien : Professor Fiona McKenzie from Western Australia.

Senator JOYCE: What part of Western Australia?

Mr O'Brien : Perth. And there is Justin Hanney from Victoria. He is from Melbourne.

Senator Sherry: And there is no-one from Tasmania. Senator Joyce, just look at the list. Going back to our earlier discussion; however, I do not want to go back to Perth—

Senator JOYCE: Do we have anyone from places like Mt Isa, Kalgoorlie or from regional Australia on the Regional Development Australia panel?

Senator Sherry: We have given you the full list and their background.

Senator JOYCE: So the answer is no.

Ms Beauchamp : Where those people are currently living is not necessarily an indication of the skills, expertise and knowledge that they bring from regional Australia.

Senator JOYCE: It is a bit of a reflection on how Regional Development Australia funds are allocated when there is not even one person from regional Australia on the panel.

Mr O'Brien : Each of them has had a very strong association with regional Australia.

Senator JOYCE: Which one?

Mr O'Brien : Each of them has.

Senator JOYCE: Give an example.

Mr O'Brien : Justin Hanney was the former chief executive of Regional Development Victoria.

Senator JOYCE: Where did he live when he did that?

Senator Ryan interjecting

CHAIR: Senator Ryan and Senator Joyce, we are coming to the conclusion of the evening. I understand you want to get as many questions on the record as possible, but if you allow the witnesses to complete their answers that would be most helpful.

Mr O'Brien : Could you put the question again, please?

Senator JOYCE: Where did he live?

Mr O'Brien : He spent a lot of time in local government in Bendigo and Wangaratta and is, as I say, the former chief executive of Regional Development Victoria. Professor Fiona McKenzie has extensive experience in regional development and currently holds the position of professorial or fellow at Curtin University doing regional development issues.

Senator JOYCE: Don't you think it would be nice to have on the Regional Development Australia panel one person who actually lived in regional Australia?

Ms Beauchamp : These people bring particularly strong expertise and skills in regional Australia. They are one source of advice on regions. Obviously we work very closely as a department with Regional Development Australia committees and the 565 local governments. So there are opportunities for Regional Development Australia committees and others to provide regional input into the process.

Senator RYAN: Mr O'Brien, did the person you said was the former head of Regional Development Victoria work with you when you were head of Regional Development Victoria?

Mr O'Brien : Yes, he did.

Senator RYAN: Who appointed him to this particular board?

Mr O'Brien : It was a ministerial decision.

Senator RYAN: Did you have a role in recommending his appointment?

Mr O'Brien : No, I did not.

Senator RYAN: When was he head of Regional Development Victoria?

Mr O'Brien : He was the head of Regional Development Victoria from 2007 to 2010.

Senator RYAN: So he was your successor as head of Regional Development Victoria?

Mr O'Brien : Yes, he was.

Senator RYAN: Who appointed him as the head of Regional Development Victoria, if you are aware of his background?

Mr O'Brien : I am assuming the departmental head at the time.

Senator RYAN: Was it a ministerial appointment or a departmental appointment at the time?

Mr O'Brien : It is a statutory appointment but it was on the basis of a recommendation of the department.

Senator RYAN: And that office is based in?

Mr O'Brien : The office of Regional Development Victoria?

Senator RYAN: Yes.

Mr O'Brien : It is based in Melbourne.

Senator JOYCE: How many staff do you employ outside the capital cities?

Mr O'Brien : Including the Indian Ocean territories staff, we employ about 160.

Senator JOYCE: Outside capital cities?

Mr O'Brien : Yes.

Senator JOYCE: The figures we have here show that you have 289 in Canberra. Is that right?

Ms Fleming : That is correct.

Senator JOYCE: Six in Bendigo?

Ms Fleming : Yes.

Senator JOYCE: Darwin is a capital city and they have got one. Hobart is a capital city and they have got two.

Senator Sherry: It is a region.

Senator JOYCE: Jervis Bay has three and Newcastle has five.

Senator Sherry: I object to this talk of Hobart.

Senator JOYCE: Orange has six and Perth has 11. It seems like the vast, vast majority—

Senator Sherry: Hobart is very different from Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne.

Senator JOYCE: are actually employed in capital cities.

Senator Ryan interjecting

Senator Sherry: I do not think it is as big as Geelong, either.

Senator JOYCE: Did you ever give any consideration to employing more people in your regional development department in regional Australia?

Ms Beauchamp : Yes, indeed. We are in the early stages of the development of the department—just over 12 months. A number of areas were transferred from other agencies in Canberra. We are in the process of developing and strengthening our regional network. That is going to take time. We will be working on that over the next few years.

Senator JOYCE: You said that you employed 100 in regional areas. Was that your first answer?

Mr O'Brien : There are 120 staff in the Indian Ocean Territories. We contract that staff.

Senator JOYCE: What exactly are they doing in the Indian Ocean Territories? Are they working with immigration?

Mr O'Brien : Delivering the core services and central services to the community, including the teaching staff, nursing staff and power workers.

Senator JOYCE: On pages 101 and 102 of your report, you have got for the Indian Ocean Territories, Christmas Island with two.

Ms Beauchamp : That table refers to employees under the Australian Public Service Act. We also administer the Indian Ocean Territories contract through other organisations employees to provide those services that Mr O'Brien was talking about.

Senator JOYCE: What about Mount Isa, Port Hedland or Kalgoorlie—any of these remote areas? Do you have anybody employed out there?

Ms Fleming : We have a part-time officer in Kununurra.

Senator JOYCE: That is good. Anyone apart from that?

Mr O'Brien : We have staff in Darwin and half a dozen staff in Townsville.

Senator JOYCE: But what about in the remote areas of regional Australia—Mount Isa, Cunnamulla, Bourke and Port Augusta? Is there any person employed in any of those?

Mr O'Brien : No.

Senator JOYCE: So the best we get is one part-time person in Kununurra. How many employees do you have altogether?

Ms Beauchamp : We have 481 employees, including the Indian Ocean Territories staff.

Senator JOYCE: Do you think if you had more employees to assist out in regional Australia you would actually get a better response to some of your funding?

Mr O'Brien : We have very strong linkages with the RDA committees. They have an important function in local communities. There are 55 of those across the country.

Senator JOYCE: Do you think you have a very strong linkage with the one of which Mayor Rob Loughnan was the chair before he resigned?

Mr O'Brien : I think we have a strong working relationship with all RDA committees.

Senator Sherry: I think that is the third time we have mentioned this mayor.

Senator JOYCE: There are others—Jo Sheppard.

Senator Sherry: This is really getting very repetitive, Chair.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Can I ask a follow-up question, Chair. Am I right in categorising it this way: rather than the department putting people in these regional centres and telling the community what is best for them, the approach of the government is to establish these regional development associations and allow the community to tell the government what is best for that area?

Mr O'Brien : That is right: it is a bottom-up approach. It is about embedding localism and allowing communities to organise for themselves rather than being organised by government.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: And the people who are on those regional development associations come from those communities, don't they?

Mr O'Brien : They do indeed.

Senator JOYCE: How many review meetings have been held since the round 1 successful projects were announced?

Senator Sherry: Of what?

Senator JOYCE: Review meetings on the first round of the RDA funding.

Mr O'Brien : Five.

Senator JOYCE: Where were those meetings held?

Ms Fleming : We held the meetings in capital cities for ease of access. We had one in Melbourne, one Adelaide, one in Perth, one in Brisbane, one in Sydney and two in Canberra.

Mr O'Brien : That was after consultation with the RDAs themselves across the country—what was easiest for them to get together.

Senator JOYCE: What was the outcome of these meetings?

Ms Fleming : To clarify, one was a teleconference to ensure that rural RDAs were able to participate in that process. The outcome was a series of conversations with local government, not-for-profit organisations and RDAs providing feedback that reflected their regions' views on the guidelines, the process and the lodgement that we could take into account in crafting the processes and design of round 2 after the minister had considered it.

Mr O'Brien : We are consolidating all those views and issues that came up through those forums, and obviously they will be reflected in the advice that we provide the minister.

Senator JOYCE: What is the process for disbursing the funds for the 35 successful projects announced under round 1?

Ms Fleming : We contacted each of the successful applicants and we are seeking further information to execute a funding agreement, and we are currently negotiating with the 35. We draft up a funding agreement, they consider that and, once they have signed it, we then sign it. The template of the funding agreement is on the website.

Senator JOYCE: In that case, how far have you got with the funding agreement with the Clunes Museum for $2.6 million?

Ms Fleming : We would have made initial contact advising them that they have been successful. I would have to provide on notice what level of information we have received to date from that particular council.

Senator JOYCE: In summary we have a body, none of whose panel lives in regional Australia, all of whose meetings has been held in a capital city, which is currently being investigated by the Auditor-General and which has provided $2.7 million to a body which has been noted in parliament as currently under investigation in regard to a dodgy councillor. Would you say you have had a successful day at the shop?

Senator Sherry: The secretary will give an answer to those incorrect assertions as we have done on, I think, three occasions.

Ms Beauchamp : We have run a competitive tender process for the Regional Development Australia Fund round 1 quite successfully. We have had demand that has exceeded supply. We have had very clear writing instructions in terms of the selection criteria in the guidelines. We have had probity advice all along the way. We have contracted independent viability assessments and, as we have gone through, due diligence arrangements.

As I indicated, there is no investigation as such by the Australian National Audit Office; what we do have is normal business-as-usual for these types of grants, and the Australian National Audit Office had indicated quite publicly in their work plan that they would be undertaking a review of the administration—that is, the department's administration of the Regional Development Australia Fund.

We have had only one complaint. We are in the process of providing feedback to unsuccessful applicants. In the process we have also sought advice on how we might improve the second round, and we are in the process of consolidating that information and putting forward improvements that we could make for round 2.

So, in terms of ANAO best practice—and we have had quite a number of the regional grants programs in the department and in the portfolio which we have inherited and which have gone through audits in the past—I am of the view, having had a look at how we have exercised our obligations under this process, that we have administered a very robust process that, hopefully, will match up and be in accordance with the better practice ANAO guidelines for the administration of a discretionary grants program.

Senator JOYCE: Until I informed you tonight you were not aware of the conflict of interest investigation in the Clunes Museum decision, and we find out tonight that, to the best of our knowledge, there is only one part-time staff member—in Kununurra—who you could say is in a genuinely remote regional area.

Senator Sherry: The secretary and other officers have given a very comprehensive, detailed outline explanation of the issues you have raised. We are not going to repeat ourselves. I think there are probably senators with other questions in the little remaining time.

CHAIR: There certainly are.

Senator JOYCE: I am finished.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Just one follow up from one that Senator Joyce was asking—what were Mr Zahra's qualifications for this job apart from the fact that he is a former Labor member of federal parliament?

Ms Beauchamp : Sorry, Senator—I do not have the CV in front of me.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: While you are looking that up, I want to ask a couple of very brief questions about the Northern Territory as a territory. I suspect I should ask them of the Assistant Secretary, Territories West. I also want to ask a couple of questions about Christmas Island, and I have to finish some of my questions about Northern Australia.

Ms Beauchamp : Senator, can I clarify? You said you were interested in the Northern Territory, did you?


Ms Beauchamp : Our Assistant Secretary, Territories West is primarily about the administration of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am very much aware of that.

Ms Beauchamp : Okay.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: What are the arrangements for Northern Territory statehood? Is anything being done about that? There is a bit of a push in the north on that.

Ms Beauchamp : It is certainly not an issue for our portfolio.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I thought it was in the Attorney-General's portfolio but I see it is listed in this estimates. Has it changed?

Ms Beauchamp : Are you talking specifically about Northern Territory statehood?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Territories generally used to be in this department—

Mr O'Brien : It is in this department. Territories is in this department.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Not in Attorney-General's?

Ms Beauchamp : No, sorry.

Mr O'Brien : The issue of statehood is certainly an issue that Attorney-General's would be dealing with. We have not handled any formal proposal from the Northern Territory government on that—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Can someone just tell me which department administers our eastern, western and northern territory?

Mr O'Brien : The department does have overarching responsibility for administering and managing the Commonwealth's interests in the territories, including the Northern Territory.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Okay. What is the Commonwealth doing about statehood—if anything?

Mr O'Brien : I think we actually have no formal proposal from the Northern Territory government. So there is nothing yet at this stage for the Commonwealth government to consider. But I might hand over to Mr Yates to see if he has any further information to add.

Mr Yates : The Commonwealth government supported in principle the granting of statehood to the Northern Territory, but it is subject to the resolution of a number of constitutional issues by the Northern Territory and agreement to this approach by the Commonwealth. As Ms Beauchamp has said, we have not had a formal proposal about that from the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory is undertaking a number of forums itself to talk about what statehood might look like, and I would expect in due course that some form of proposal will come to the Commonwealth for consideration.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Okay. Time is short, so nothing is on the table. Could we go back to Mr Zahra and his qualifications?

Mr O'Brien : He was obviously a federal member of parliament in Latrobe Valley. Prior to that he was chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Health and Housing Service in Gippsland. He has worked as a director for the Victorian Energy Networks Corporation and chair of the Victorian Sustainable Timber Industry Council.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is his CV. Can someone tell me what skill—

Senator Sherry: It was a ministerial appointment—

Mr O'Brien : It was certainly a ministerial appointment—

Senator Sherry: So I can refer it on to the minister and take it on notice, but a number of the attributes in the CV obviously relate to regional matters. Beyond that I will have to take it on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: If you would, Minister. Thank you. I cannot identify them, but there is nothing wrong with giving former members of parliament a job. It happens all the time.

Senator Sherry: There are plenty of them on both sides of politics—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I agree with you, Minister. I am not making that point. I am simply asking: what are his qualifications for this job? I could think of some things he might be good at. I struggle to see what his relevance to regional Australia is. But you will put that to the minister. Thank you.

Could I go back to Northern Australia—I am sorry I am all over the shop here—to try to get this in in the next five minutes. I was told in answer to a question that the first industry roundtable—it was chaired by David Crombie, it was convened on Monday 27 June, including representatives of AgForce, the transport sector and so it goes on. I think it is the industry roundtable on the northern Australian beef strategy. I wonder if there are any minutes from that meeting or any communiqué or anything that you can tell me was achieved? Was there a work plan set out for the working group?

Ms Fleming : There was not a communiqué from that group, but David Crombie provided the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum with a verbal report back at their meeting in Port Hedland, and we continue to progress the issues that were raised at that forum through the long-term beef strategy and the work that we are doing with the states and territories. We would be happy to take you through that or provide further information on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: In my rush at the end of my last go at this, I asked you to put on notice questions about the northern Australian beef industry strategy. I am really interested to see where the strategy for the Northern Australian beef industry is now at, following the live cattle ban, which set it back quite considerably if it did not destroy it. It is not destroyed but it has certainly been set back some time. Can you mention that in your written response?

Ms Fleming : Yes, certainly, Senator.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Last time you told me there was the CairnsPlan. Do you remember we had discussions about this at the May estimates?

Ms Fleming : Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It has been put back and put back and put back. The last reason was Cyclone Yasi. Has it now been released?

Ms Beauchamp : No, it has not.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Okay. It was due for release in January. When do we expect the CairnsPlan to be released?

Mr O'Brien : You say it was due for release in January?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is what I was told at the previous estimates—January 2011. It was already late when I asked about it at the February estimates. Subsequent to that, a cyclone came along, and at the May estimates I was told it was the cyclone that had held it up. I am just wondering when it is likely to be released.

Mr Carmichael : There is some work actively happening right now on a CairnsPlan. We are working with the local government and the local RDA. There is a local economic firm doing analysis that is fitting into a Commonwealth and state process which will be finalised over the next month, and then advice will be given to both state and Commonwealth governments about the next steps.

Mr O'Brien : Senator, it is probably worth noting that the minister launched a Cairns regional strategy today with a group called Advance Cairns, and that is a—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes, but that is not the CairnsPlan.

Mr O'Brien : No, these are all inputs into the CairnsPlan.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Sorry?

Mr O'Brien : They will all be inputs into it.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Cairns is having a difficult time, as anyone who knows that part of Australia would appreciate. The department told me that that plan was to be released in January of this year. It is now getting on to a year later. I am simply asking when it is going to be released.

Ms Beauchamp : Sorry, Senator, can I take that on notice?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Okay.

Ms Beauchamp : My apologies.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It could be important to Cairns. The Cairns strategy is something that has bobbed up in the last few months, but it is quite different, as I understand it, to the CairnsPlan. Finally, in the time left, do we—

CHAIR: This is your final question, Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes, and it relates to Christmas Island. Can someone tell me, perhaps on notice—is Ms Belinda Moss here?

Ms Beauchamp : No, but Mr Yates is.

Mr O'Brien : Mr Yates is.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Mr Yates is the man? Okay. Have the costs of operating Christmas Island—not the costs of the detention centre, of course, or of the police but the general administrative costs of the Commonwealth operation of Christmas Island—increased since the detention centre has fallen over, had riots and all those sorts of things? Do we have figures on the general running costs for the administration of the island, roads, water, sewerage and those sort of things?

Mr Yates : I cannot give you exact figures; I can say that general running costs have increased. The increased number of people consume more electricity, which consumes more fuel, to give one very simple example, but I would need to take it on notice to give you the detail, to disaggregate it. I cannot do that at this time.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: If you could, because—

CHAIR: If you could just finish up, Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes. I think you know what I am looking for, Mr Yates. I am not talking about the detention centre, but the detention brings more aircraft in and, as you say, more fuel, more water and so on. I am just interested in, perhaps over the last three financial years, what tare he actual costs of administering the island part of the island, as opposed to the detention centre. If you could give me that, I would appreciate it.

Mr Yates : We can take that on notice.

CHAIR: I would like to thank the minister, Ms Beauchamp and the officers. I would also like to note the other departments that have appeared before us. I would like to thank the committee members for their cooperation, the secretariat for all their work in preparing for the estimates and also Hansard. I declare these portfolio estimates proceedings closed.

Committee adjourned at 22:59