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Economics Legislation Committee
Australian Institute of Marine Science

Australian Institute of Marine Science


CHAIR: I welcome the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Straight to questions—are you happy with that? Did you wish to make any opening remarks?

Dr Hardisty : I have an opening statement, if I might.

CHAIR: It's not too long, I hope.

Dr Hardisty : I can keep it short.

CHAIR: If you could keep it to the highlights, that would be wonderful.

Dr Hardisty : I will do that. Thanks for the opportunity to make a statement, and I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and sea country in all the places that AIMS works, and affirm that their ancient knowledge of sea country is a vital part of our understanding in a time of profound change. I'm sure you are aware of our mission, so I won't restate it, but I will say that all of the people we work with—government, industry, coastal communities and the public—use and benefit from the research and knowledge that our science provides. I'd like to just take a few moments to reaffirm that the science is underpinned by quality, independence and transparency. Many people don't know, but AIMS science is underpinned by 10 quality assurance process steps. I won't go through all 10, but I'd like to mention a couple of them.

CHAIR: Please do.

Dr Hardisty : We require all our scientists to follow the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, and we have our own internal research code of conduct. We also subject all of our reports to rigorous internal peer and supervisor review. We participate in the international peer review publication process, which is the worldwide standard used in all science publishing. Our credo of continuous improvement also means we're now using red on blue challenges internally, using internal and external experts. And every five years we go through a complete review of the organisation.

Our understanding of the marine environment and its ecologies is continually evolving and improving as we collect more data and observe long-term trends and as new technology allows us to peer more deeply into what's going on. It's not perfect, but what we can say is that what we're doing now is better than it was 10 years ago, and our understanding at that point was better than it was 10 years before that. We're not beholden to invested interests. We have no agenda. Our science is about the facts. Accordingly, we're ranked No. 2 in the world for marine science, which is not bad for a small Australian agency.

I was going to talk a little bit about our long-term monitoring report on the reef and a little bit about the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, whose feasibility study we just provided to Ministers Ley and Andrews this week, but I'll leave it at that. In conclusion, I'll just say thanks very much, and we're proud to be here.

CHAIR: I suspect it will probably come up during questioning.

Senator GALLACHER: Minister, I just want to go to an article in The Sydney Morning Herald where science minister Ms Andrews said she had invited environment minister Ms Ley and reef envoy Mr Entsch to the Australian Institute of Marine Science for a full briefing. FOI documents show the briefing was to occur on 30 August, and one of the FOI responses says the event was cancelled. Do you have any knowledge of any of that?

Senator Canavan: I don't personally, sorry.

Senator GALLACHER: Can you take on notice whether it was cancelled?

Senator Canavan: Sure. I'm happy to. Dr Hardisty?

Dr Hardisty : The original plan was for that meeting to go ahead. It was originally scheduled to occur at AIMS headquarters. But a couple of weeks before the scheduled meeting, Minister Ley was invited to go out on the GBR with—

Senator GALLACHER: Sorry, what's that?

Dr Hardisty : The Great Barrier Reef, up in Cairns.

Senator GALLACHER: Acronyms all day every day!

Dr Hardisty : Yes, sorry about that. I'll give you more acronyms before the day is over, I'm sure. They were invited to go on a reef trip out of Cairns with Warren Entsch and so on, so that original triumvirate didn't get together because that meeting happened two weeks before. But, later on, we had a follow-up meeting. I believe Senator McDonald was there and a number of others came down. It actually turned into two meetings, but the same group of people eventually all got to come and talk about the same stuff.

Senator GALLACHER: So were Ministers Wyatt, Tehan and Birmingham and Assistant Minister Duniam all present at a meeting—or is this the same meeting?

Dr Hardisty : I'll have to check on notice. If you give me precise dates, I can tell you exactly who was at each meeting on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: I'm working with a combination of FOI and newspaper reports, trying to piece together a timetable.

Dr Hardisty : We can give you on notice exactly who was present at which of those meetings.

Senator GALLACHER: I haven't been to your institute. Are you in Cairns or Townsville?

Dr Hardisty : We're in Townsville. Please do. It's fantastic.

Senator GALLACHER: I have visited the Antarctica operation in Hobart. Is 30 minutes enough for a briefing the Great Barrier Reef?

Dr Hardisty : When we have visits—for instance, when Senator McDonald came—they're usually around two to three hours.

Senator GALLACHER: Senator McDonald being this Senator McDonald?

Senator McDONALD: Indeed.

Dr Hardisty : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: I sometimes forget there used to be another Senator Macdonald up that way.

CHAIR: And both from Queensland.

Senator McDONALD: There was, but this is the new one.

Senator Canavan: Both from Townsville, to make it easy.

Dr Hardisty : That includes a tour of our National Sea Simulator facility, which is our research aquarium complex, the most advanced in the world. That alone takes 30 minutes and you can see there a lot of the stuff we are doing on the GBR; it's not so much talking, but you can see the work that we're doing and look at the various experiments.

Senator GALLACHER: Similar to the Tasmanian one.

Dr Hardisty : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: Someone is chairing an inquiry into this area, aren't they?

Senator McDONALD: Indeed, on reef regulations.

Senator GALLACHER: So we might actually come up and have a visit.

Dr Hardisty : You are most welcome. Please do.

Senator McDONALD: It's RRAT.

Senator GALLACHER: I'm not particularly familiar with this area, living at the bottom end of the country. Climate change and coral bleaching are issues that are in the media not infrequently. You mention them in your recent annual report. Does this sort of briefing encompass that sort of level of explanation and detail?

Dr Hardisty : Yes, absolutely.

Senator GALLACHER: Do you go into that?

Dr Hardisty : Yes, we go into that in some detail.

Senator GALLACHER: So this gathering would have encompassed some of those aspects—the meeting that did go ahead?

Dr Hardisty : At the two meetings that I mentioned, in both of the meetings there was extensive discussion of the risks of climate change. Most important, I guess, for us in the marine area, is the impact of warming of waters and waters becoming less alkaline or more acidic on corals and on the marine environment in general. So we go into that in quite a lot of detail, in terms of both the history and what we have seen—the observational record—and also projections for what we think will happen under various trajectories in the future.

Senator GALLACHER: Are there published materials which you present routinely to these types of meetings?

Dr Hardisty : Absolutely, yes. Part of that ranking that I talked about—No. 2 in the world—is based on publications that are available worldwide in the highest quality journals with really high impact, recognised by our peers in the scientific community worldwide. That's the core of what we do. We put out publications that are vetted by the world and recognised in the peer review literature.

Senator GALLACHER: And that is presented to the meeting?

Dr Hardisty : Yes, elements of it. We are putting together a story. You don't want to be reading too many of those papers just straight out. If you are not liking my opening statement, those would be really difficult.

Senator GALLACHER: The reef envoy, Mr Entsch, lives in Cairns, I think.

Dr Hardisty : Cairns, yes.

Senator GALLACHER: Is he a frequent visitor? Has he been briefed?

Dr Hardisty : Yes, we've had multiple engagements with Warren.

Senator GALLACHER: The names of the AIMS attendees were redacted in the FOI documentation. Why would you bother redacting who you briefed? Or was that just an FOI—

Dr Hardisty : Was this the Cairns meeting with Minister Ley? I'm pretty sure I was the only AIMS member, so if I was redacted, that was me.

Senator GALLACHER: That's just a function of FOI, is it?

Mr Ahyick : Yes, the redaction would have been just the non-SES names.

Dr Hardisty : It would have been from the second meeting, which was held at our location. That's just a routine thing for non-SES staff to have their names redacted.

Ms Kelly : You would be aware, Senator Gallacher, that that's the usual practice across government.

Senator GALLACHER: I'm just asking.

Dr Hardisty : You will see my name in there, I'm sure.

Senator GALLACHER: No.

Dr Hardisty : No?

Senator GALLACHER: Basically, under this freedom of information process, if there's a public servant's name, it's taken out?

Ms Kelly : No, the usual practice across government is that SES officer names remain unredacted and officers below the level of SES are usually redacted. That's really just protecting the identity of junior officers. For officers above SES, unless there is some other reason, the usual practice is that their names remain.

Senator GALLACHER: I'm trying to piece together newspaper articles and FOIs. It would appear that the invitations to Minister Ley and envoy Entsch were sent on 9 July. That's about nine days after the minister publicly claimed that she'd already invited them. Do you want to take that on notice, Senator Canavan?

Senator Canavan: I'm happy to take it on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: The FOI says 9 July but they were invited earlier, according to the—

Senator Canavan: It may not have been by email; I can't speculate. But I'll take it on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: All right, and we'll look forward to seeing your establishment in Cairns during our inquiry.

Dr Hardisty : In Townsville, Sir.

Senator GALLACHER: Haven't you got anything in Cairns as well? We could go—

Dr Hardisty : No, we don't. We have something in Darwin though!

Senator Canavan: Warren might be campaigning for that, perhaps.

Dr Hardisty : We do have an office in Darwin as well.

Senator GALLACHER: Townsville's fine; it's not far from Cairns.

Senator McDONALD: I really enjoyed my visit—which hopefully nobody redacted, because I'm quite pleased to tell everybody that I spent time in Townsville at some of the associated facilities but most importantly with AIMS. I was really impressed with all the work that's being done. In particular, I wonder if you would talk about the industry associated, industry-partnered, research that you are doing. I'm going to let you explain it, because it was all the different tubs with the different levels of carbon. It was related to the Great Barrier Reef drilling.

Dr Hardisty : With industry?

Senator McDONALD: I came back and looked at that after everybody else had gone. I stayed on. So if I'm asking too detailed a question—

Dr Hardisty : No, that's fine; I'm happen to talk about that. We work extensively with industry insofar as they have requirements and questions that are unanswered and need a research inquiry of the highest calibre. But only under certain circumstances. We'll only accept external revenue from industry if we can demonstrate and satisfy to ourselves that the work that needs to be done is of a nature that will advance the science.

Senator McDONALD: And a public good?

Dr Hardisty : And the public good. Therefore, we stipulate clearly that all of the work has to be made publicly available. That's the underlying premise. We're working extensively, for instance, on the west coast with people, like Woodside and Santos and other oil companies, to help them understand the marine environment in which they operate so that they can operate in a way that's less damaging. Much of that work has included work on coral reefs. We have some beautiful reefs in the west and the north. It's not just the Great Barrier Reef that we are lucky enough to be blessed with. A lot of that work in the west has looked at long-term records of the health of reefs in the west. In the east we're now embarking on a very similar type of project, where we're looking at the effects of warming waters and other stresses on the reef.

One of the things that is really key of that, and you would have seen it, is the coral cores. We have the world's largest collection of cores. We go to these really old corals—the big bombies, if you ever go snorkelling or scuba diving. They're these big lumps. They look like brains, parietes, and some of them are up to 500 years old. We core down through them and take a slice out of them. We pull it out, and you've got a full record. Some of our cores go back to the 1500s, to Magellan's time. When you put them under ultraviolet light you can see the annual banding. It's like tree rings. Corals grow every season. Through that, we can reconstruct the history of that particular spot and that particular reef because they don't move around; they just stay in one place. We use that to extract information that helps us understand the stresses that reefs have been under, over that 500-year period and to the present day, so last year, the year before and the year before that.

We're using this to help work with a particular new industry partner. I'm not at liberty to say exactly who they are yet because we're just about to announce it. It's a great collaboration and it's one that we're doing very closely with a traditional owner-partner on the Great Barrier Reef to help us understand the history and how we can help protect their reefs going forward.

Senator McDONALD: Thank you. One of the things that I really enjoyed was that it's not just about modelling for you; particularly at that site, you're looking at evidence based science. I read, though, the other day that you have a blue team and red team approach to the research. Would you talk a little bit about that?

Dr Clark : Yes. 'Blue on red' is a concept that was, I think, originally developed by the US military. It's essentially a war-gaming thing. If you think you've got a good defence, it's a way of trying to poke holes in the argument or poke holes in the defence. We're currently in the process of a 'red on blue' exercise right now using some of our best internal scientists, and we brought in some external experts as well. We are looking comprehensively at a part of our science. We have another one that is scheduled to come up next year. It's something that I've implemented since the beginning in my work as CEO, in the last 2½ years. That's how it works. As we go through that, we're going to identify the things that we think we can do better in the future. As I mentioned in my opening statement, that's what science is all about: understanding that we're not perfect; it's about getting better and learning from what we find, learning from things that we thought might have been the right answer and turn out to be not so much the right answer, and gauging, checking, moving and ending up producing better and better science. At the end of the day, it's about continuous improvement, and that's a key part of what we're after.

Senator McDONALD: I think that's particularly important with the Great Barrier Reef work. It's easy to talk about the Great Barrier Reef as though it's one thing.

Dr Clark : Absolutely.

Senator McDONALD: Unless you're close to it, you don't understand how big, how broad and how varied it is, and its different levels of health. With the research gaming, would you consider bringing Dr Peter Ridd in on one of those teams as a robust approach to your science?

Dr Clark : It's interesting because I actually met him two weeks ago and he asked me that exact question.

Senator McDONALD: Did he!

Dr Clark : I'll tell you exactly what I told him. I said, 'Yes, it's possible.' We have to discuss it.

Senator McDONALD: The last thing that we talked about was having more evidence based research available for scientists in this area. What would be, in your opinion, another avenue that would give you additional tools in your research, particularly along the Queensland coast but also other parts around the state? I'm thinking of water-monitoring spaces. Would that be something that is useful?

Dr Clark : I'll interpret the question to mean 'in general'. Is there always more that can be done? Is there more instrumentation? Is there more data collection that can be done? The answer is always yes. It's interesting. I was having a conversation with a colleague a couple of days ago and we were talking about our long-term monitoring program on the Great Barrier Reef, which is the longest continuous record that anyone has of monitoring the reef from top to bottom, north to south, inshore to outer reef. The question was something like: can you ever be sure that what you're doing every year is enough to tell you, with any certainty, what's going on in such a big, complex and varied ecosystem? The answer I gave was that we visit annually about 70 reefs—sometimes a few more; sometimes a few less—but there are hundreds on the GBR, so we're taking a small subset. If we had a bigger budget, we could visit 140 reefs. If we had another boat and more money and more time, we could reach more. But what we try to do is use our understanding of the reef, and the science and the measurements we have, to make sure that the ones we go to and the measurements we take are of the highest value and are as representative as they can be. For instance, we know that parts of the reef behave very similarly. We know Bunker and Capricorn behave in a certain way, and so on. So what we try to do is make sure that we're picking representatives of those key clusters and getting enough spatial—vertical and lateral—sampling of those features so that we can be as sure as we can be, with the resources we have, that we are getting a pretty good picture.

We'd love to go to the Far North more. It's really far away. It's expensive to get there, so in the past few years we've only been there every couple of years. We've started to try and bring new resources to bear to visit the Far North, which was hit badly by the bleaching, every year. We did it in the last go-round in early 2019 and we found some good signs of recovery on some of the reefs that have been hit pretty badly. There are new baby corals growing and stuff like that.

To make a long story short, if the resources are there to add additional streams of information, better data, more data, more places, then it can only ever be good. But the reality of the world is that you can never have enough resources or time to go everywhere all the time.

Senator McDONALD: It's everybody's challenge, isn't it?

Dr Hardisty : Yes, absolutely.

Senator McDONALD: It's terrific that you mentioned seeing regrowth and the very varied reef health. We're really struggling with tourism in Cairns and Townsville because so many people have been saying that the reef is dead or dying.

Dr Hardisty : Yes, and that's not the case at all.

Senator McDONALD: Thank you. It's not the case at all. It's meant that jobs are at threat—the very people who'd be going out and encouraging and seeing more people on the reef. Sorry, is that a statement?

CHAIR: I don't disagree with you, but it did sound a little like a statement.

Senator McDONALD: Would you agree that the reef is not dead?

Dr Hardisty : Absolutely. In fact, this last weekend I was lucky enough to be on Lady Elliot Island. I don't know if anyone has ever been there or if you've ever seen the reef in that area, but it was as good as you'll ever see anywhere. There were turtles and fish and sharks and rays everywhere. It was truly spectacular and really uplifting to be there to see that, especially given what we do. You know why you do what you do, and it's fantastic. There are a lot of places on the reef that are like that. They're spectacular. But there are also places on the reef that have been quite literally obliterated by the 2016 and 2017 bleaching events and are only now starting to come back. Some of them are coming back; some of them are not.

In our 2019 long-term monitoring program report, we gave the Great Barrier Reef a mixed bill of health. That was the headline: 'mixed bill of health'. Frankly, what does frustrate us, as scientists in our institution, is that we provide very nuanced, detailed information about what's going on in the reef. Yet, and it seems that all you ever hear is either it's all perfect, it's all fine, or it's all dead. Of course neither of those two things are true. The reef is under a lot of stress. Overall the reef has declined over the last decades. It is in decline. There are still some fantastic places. There are still amazing tourist opportunities. We actually need the tourists to keep coming, because we want their attention, we want their focus, we want their money, don't we?

Senator McDONALD: Yes.

Dr Hardisty : That means that it's still something that matters to Australians, whether or not they snorkel or not; there's something in it for them beyond the beauty and the wonder. It's a nuanced thing, and people have to treat it with that level of respect, I believe. It isn't just something so simple that you can just either go, 'It's perfect; it's fine; it's just as good as it's always been,' or 'It's all dead; don't bother.' Neither of those two extremes could be further from the truth. I've gone on a bit, sorry, but you touched a nerve.

Senator McDONALD: No, no, thank you. I hope you will extend your invitation to all the senators to go and visit you, because it's a very impressive facility.

CHAIR: It's a long way from WA. This is more of a process question from me: is your mandate GBR?

Dr Hardisty : No, it's tropical Australia. We are a northern agency. We work from the southern tip of Ningaloo Reef.

CHAIR: That's what I was going to ask.

Dr Hardisty : I'm from Perth by the way. I'm Canadian originally, but when I first moved here it was to Perth.

CHAIR: I detected a little accent.

Dr Hardisty : We have a facility in Perth and a facility in Darwin. We work all across the Top End, Gulf of Carpentaria, areas up there that are almost virtually unexplored in terms of the marine environment. Our mandate is to learn about this huge unexplored and incredibly wealthy, diverse ecosystem that is up there.

CHAIR: I might have to catch up with your Perth team at some point.

Dr Hardisty : Absolutely.

CHAIR: I think that is it for the Australian Institute of Marine Science. We will move on to Geoscience Australia.