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Environment and Communications References Committee
23/08/2019
Australia's faunal extinction crisis

CAMPBELL, Ms Emma, Acting First Assistant Secretary, Biodiversity Conservation Division, Department of the Environment and Energy

COLLINS, Ms Monica, Assistant Secretary, Office of Compliance, Department of the Environment and Energy

KNUDSON, Mr Dean, Deputy Secretary, Environment Protection Group, Department of the Environment and Energy

OXLEY, Mr Stephen, First Assistant Secretary, Heritage, Reef and Marine Division, Department of the Environment and Energy

RICHARDSON, Mr Geoff, Assistant Secretary, Protected Species and Communities Branch, Department of the Environment and Energy

TREGURTHA, Ms Margaret, Acting First Assistant Secretary, General Counsel Branch, Department of the Environment and Energy

CHAIR: Welcome. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I remind senators that the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. Officers of the department are also reminded that any claim that it would be contrary to the public interest to answer a question must be made by a minister and should be accompanied by a statement setting out the basis for the claim. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Oxley : I'm appearing here today because I had responsibility for the division in which the grasslands sat a couple of years ago. That was at the time the Wildlife, Heritage and Marine Division. And the Senate invited me to attend, and one always accepts such invitations.

CHAIR: And how could you refuse? That's right. So, we have, during the morning, had Senators Urquhart and Smith on the line—I don't think they are at the moment—and they may join us at some stage this afternoon. Do you wish to make a short opening statement?

Mr Knudson : No, thank you, Senator.

CHAIR: Okay, I suspected that might have been the case. This hearing, as you know, is primarily focused on grasslands. We've also got a particular focus on the issue of the temperate grasslands of the Monaro tableland as a bit of a case study. I know that Senator Fawcett has been a bit concerned about how much focus we've had on that, but I see it very much as a case study of the pressures that our grasslands and the threatened fauna that rely upon those grasslands have to endure. I want to start off talking about the agriculture sector review in terms of its interactions with grasslands and agriculture. What prompted the decision to initiate an agriculture sector-specific review of the EPBC Act, noting that that the 10-yearly review of the EPBC Act was going to take place this year?

Mr Knudson : That was a decision by the government. I've been involved with the act now for, gosh, almost eight years, and there are basically three very large sectors which interact with the act a lot—firstly, the housing sector and urban development; secondly, the mining sector and resource extraction; but the third one where there's a fair amount of concern has always been in the space of agricultural development. That's always been an area where the challenges are a bit different too.

We know that if I'm talking to a BHP or Rio Tinto they have a team of environmental assessment officers et cetera who can more than readily go through the act and understand what the provisions of the act are and how to comply with it et cetera. That is a different dynamic for the farming sector, and I think we have been hearing for a while—and we've had a consultation engagement with the National Farmers Federation, for example, going back several years—that there's been an underlying set of issues with respect to understanding how to comply with the act, making it as easy and as clear as possible for farmers, and how to do that in an effective way. What I think we've seen is that, as bureaucrats who are trying our best to communicate as clearly as possible, often enough we're still missing the mark, and I think that becomes very clear with the farming sector. So I can't give you an answer as to why the government chose to focus in on the agricultural sector and its interaction with the act prior to the formal review, but I would say—and that was the point of my answer—that there's just been a lot of engagement with the agricultural sector for a number of years, and it hasn't been working as well as it should.

CHAIR: So what you're saying is that it was a government decision but it wasn't prompted by a suggestion or a proposal from the department?

Mr Knudson : Not to my recollection.

CHAIR: Can you then take us through the time line, as far as you're aware, from when you were first aware of this proposal to do a review.

Mr Knudson : I'm just going turn to one of my colleagues—Geoff, I think you had a list of the time frames—but I think March 2018 was the actual launching of Dr Craik's review. And I'm just reading through some time lines to see if there's any mention of—and there isn't in here—any earlier consideration. That being said, Senator, I'm happy to come back on notice, if that's helpful, about whether there were any sort of specific public statements by the government that it wanted to take a look at the agricultural sector and its interaction with the act prior to the announcement in March.

CHAIR: So how about prior to the formal announcement—the process of engagement with the department prior to the announcement? Presumably there were discussions with you. You weren't taken completely unawares.

Mr Knudson : No, that's right, and that's why I'm suggesting perhaps it makes best sense for me to come back on notice with any of the specific steps that were taken leading up to that March 2018 announcement. But it's a fairly typical process. There would have been a discussion about a proposed terms of reference. There would have been discussion about the selection of Dr Craik to head the review. All of those would have been elements that would have happened prior to the announcement.

CHAIR: Can I take you to the documents that were released under freedom of information, which I presume you're aware of—the department emails. There is a document sent from you, Mr Richardson, to Ms Collins and other people who we are unaware of. It says, 'Hi, Monica,' and then there is a blanked out section, 'in conversation with—

Mr Richardson : Can I just clarify which document you're referring to?

CHAIR: It's an email sent on Thursday, 9 March.

Mr Richardson : Okay, I've got that.

CHAIR: It says, 'In conversation with'—it is blanked out—'MO,' which I suppose is 'ministerial office'?

Mr Richardson : Minister's office.

CHAIR: 'He raised the recent email traffic on the natural temperate grassland of the South Eastern Highlands ecological community. He started quizzing me on the change definition, and I gave him some basic information. He made the point that for farmers in the Monaro this is the No. 1 issue of concern to them. When I tried to draw him on how the issue is manifesting—i.e. stopping them from doing stuff on their land or confusion over the definition—and, therefore, what might constitute a significant impact, he really couldn't explain it.' It then goes on to setting up the meeting with Angus Taylor, which we will come back to. But I wanted to ask you about the interaction of this email correspondence and the agricultural review.

Mr Knudson : What I would say goes back to what I said earlier on: there've been a range of concerns about—and from—the agricultural sector with respect to the act that have gone on for a number of years. This is another example of that, absolutely.

CHAIR: Do you feel the two are related?

Mr Knudson : It's almost like a cumulative impact; it's another piece of the range of different issues that have played into a concern within the agricultural sector. And, indeed, this is a year before the review was announced, because it was March 2018 when the review was announced. So, indeed, it would have been one of the elements that would have gone into that.

CHAIR: In March 2017?

Mr Knudson : Yes.

CHAIR: Okay. So we had meetings with Minister Taylor in 2017. Then, come 2018, we've heard evidence from former Senator Williams this morning about a meeting of the National Party. He said he'd heard Richard Taylor on Country Hourand was concerned about it. He raised that with the National Party, and then there was a National Party meeting in early 2018, which was attended by someone from Minister Frydenberg's office and also someone from the department. Can you tell us who the department person that attended that meeting was?

Mr Knudson : I think you're referring to this: I attended a meeting where there was a member of the National Party in attendance. That would have been in October 2017, though. So I'm not sure whether that's a different meeting that was being referred to by the former senator this morning.

CHAIR: His meeting was in March in early 2018. It was after he'd heard Richard Taylor and heard about the compliance action that was taken against Richard Taylor. He couldn't recall the exact date, but he said that he heard the Country Hour report, which he felt was in January, and that he then raised it in the National Party party room, and then they organised a meeting that was attended by somebody from Minister Frydenberg's office and someone from the department.

Mr Knudson : It sounds, then, like it may be a different meeting, because, like I said, the meeting I attended, which Mr Frydenberg himself was at for a period of time—there was division so he had to leave for part of it—was initiated by then Senator Williams, and that was in October 2017. It, absolutely, was a discussion on the relationship of the act and its impost—or perceived impost—on the agricultural sector, and on grasslands as a specific case, in trying to understand the listing decision, what the rationale was et cetera. All of that was canvassed then. So I'm just having trouble reconciling the two meetings.

CHAIR: Specifically with regard to the Monaro Tablelands grasslands, that was the October 2017 meeting?

Mr Knudson : The October 2017 meeting was about the act as a whole. I tried to lay out, in effect, some of the statistics around the number of assessments that are actually required for agriculture related activities under the act. The questions, as I recall from that meeting, also went into the grasslands listing, and I remember a couple of the senators being fairly exercised about waiting, and they said, 'Well, doesn't this listing prohibit that?' and 'Isn't that something that we want to have happen?' et cetera. That's what I mean; it got into that specific level. But very much the purpose of the meeting was to talk about the overall interaction between the act and the farming sector.

CHAIR: Thank you for the information about that meeting. But I want to go to this separate meeting, for which, as we say, we haven't got a specific date. It was in early 2018. Former Senator Williams said of it this morning that there was somebody from Frydenberg's office and somebody from the department. Was it one of your colleagues?

Mr Knudson : I'll check with my colleagues, but it does strike me that you don't very often get to meet with a full party room of the National Party, so that would stand out in my mind if that had happened. What I recall is the October 2017 meeting. All I can suggest then, Senator, is that it may have been someone else from the department. But, again, I find it hard to imagine that I wouldn't have known about that. My colleague Ms Collins has just pointed out that there was an ABC news report about Richard Taylor in October 2017 as well, which lines up with what we've been talking about.

Senator GALLAGHER: We might have to go back and check with former Senator Williams on the dates.

CHAIR: It may indeed have been October that he was referring to.

Mr Knudson : That would be helpful, I think.

CHAIR: Certainly, it was a Country Hour report, as he reported it. So was that the October 2017 report?

Ms Collins : Yes. It's ABC Rural. The date on it is 9 October 2017.

CHAIR: Okay. So maybe we're out by a few months, but it's the same meeting.

Mr Knudson : Yes.

CHAIR: Regarding that meeting in October—whether it was in October; it may be the October meeting—former Senator Williams said this morning that he felt that a review of the interaction of agriculture with the EPBC Act was raised at that meeting as a potential initiative. Would that be your recollection as well?

Mr Knudson : There was absolutely a sense that there was a need to try to take a look at the interaction of the act with the farming sector. I made the point that the statutory review of the act was forthcoming. Indeed, it's due to start by October of this year. But, as I recall, there was definitely the sense of a desire to get on with that sooner rather than later. So, going back to my cumulative impact analogy, I think that was another piece that fed into the government considering to launch this review. But, ultimately, as I said, that's a decision for the government. So I'll come back to you on notice with respect to any other possible public statements, considerations et cetera that would have led to the government deciding to initiate the review.

Senator GALLAGHER: Were there any notes from this meeting? Did you take notes? Were there formal, official minutes?

Mr Knudson : No. As you can imagine, when you're in a room of senators, your attention is heavily focused on trying to respond to the questions and the dialogue that is happening there, as opposed to taking notes.

Senator GALLAGHER: So there's not an official record.

Mr Knudson : I don't have any, no.

Senator GALLAGHER: Former Senator Williams also said in evidence today that there were requests—I can't remember the exact language; we'd have to go back to the Hansard—to ease up on the compliance action in relation to the concerns that Mr Taylor had made, and he felt that that message was heard; I think that was the language he used.

CHAIR: Yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: In fairness, what would be your response to that?

Mr Knudson : I think that, first and foremost, I'm going to ask my colleague from the head of compliance to talk about this. But, in effect, there was a genuine and strong level of concern about farmers being able to understand what actions they needed to take or not take to be in compliance with the act.

Senator GALLAGHER: That's at this meeting?

Mr Knudson : Yes, and there was a key message. Earlier on I used the example of weeding and the confusion of some of the senators, who said, 'But, hold on, if we are trying to kill weeds which are important to protect the ecological community, why are you trying to do compliance against weeding?'

That isn't the intention of what we were trying to do with both the listing and any subsequent compliance action. So where that led to is that we've worked pretty extensively with a number of the farmers and the National Farmers Federation, but also the New South Wales Local Land Services, to try and develop some very plain-language guidance for farmers. I think the document has six different types of grasslands and says it's only these two that are really of significance in terms of having great ecological value, and it talks about how those can best be managed. That was born out of meetings like that one with the National Party senators and members, where it's just so evident that we have to get better at making things as clear as possible.

Senator GALLAGHER: Yes, I don't disagree. I guess my question was more about Mr Williams's understanding of that meeting, where he said that the message was, 'Ease up on the compliance action underway,' and that that message was understood. That puts you in a bit of a difficult position as the compliance arm; I accept that. But you were in a meeting with Nats, where there's no official record, and so I'm saying, 'What's your response to that?' I understand about the information, and I support that, but what's your response to that—that you left that meeting with an understanding that easing up on compliance action was being sought?

Mr Knudson : I have overseen the compliance and enforcement elements of the department for nearly eight years now. Not once has there been a direction from any minister of any government to 'ease up' on a compliance action. That being said, we meet with a range of stakeholders, whether it's NGOs or peak bodies or senators, and we'll often hear very strong views about what we should or should not do with respect to compliance or anything else. That's completely appropriate. You're absolutely entitled to your views, as are other citizens. But, in terms of a direction, that has not happened.

Senator GALLAGHER: That wasn't my question either, about a direction. But I get it.

CHAIR: As reported by Senator Williams. He also, as a result of that meeting, said that he felt that the agriculture review was proposed as a way forward to be dealing with these issues. He said that his preferred option would have been to amend the EPBC Act to remove grasslands altogether and that he was trying to lobby the crossbench for that to occur, but he knew that that wasn't going to be successful. So do you agree with his assessment that the agriculture review was put forward as a way to further the discussion on this issue?

Mr Knudson : I'm trying to recall. As I said, I do remember very clearly, as I said earlier on, that there was a strong sentiment that waiting for the statutory review of the act was going to take too long to meet the desires of a number of the senators and members of parliament. But, as to the specifics about the standalone review with respect to the agriculture sector, I don't recall.

CHAIR: But do you feel that having to review with a shorter time frame would have got more sympathy from those National Party MPs than waiting until the end of this year?

Mr Knudson : There was a strong desire to fix some of the issues. If I can just go for a quick aside, there were a number of fairly impassioned statements by some of the members from the Nationals around the impact, psychologically, that uncertainty about whether they were in compliance with the act or not was having on the farming community. So that sense of urgency was absolutely there, but I can't directly recall whether there was a specific suggestion of the review of the agricultural sector proposed as a path forward.

CHAIR: Okay. I'm just getting the time line straight, then, as to the other impetus that might have led to the review, and I'm going back to the emails of March 2017 and the meeting that was set up with Angus Taylor. So we've got a meeting. Can you talk us through that process.

Mr Knudson : Sure. And the good news is that we have Mr Richardson here, who was actually involved in that meeting. I think Geoff is actually closer to being able to walk through some of that chronology.

Mr Richardson : Senator, I just want to clarify the question. Are you asking about the events that led up to the actual meeting being held?

CHAIR: Yes.

Mr Richardson : In large part, if not completely, that's covered by the documents that we've released under the FOI. So the first I was aware that there was to be a meeting with Minister Taylor was that first email that you've referred to. Sorry, I take that back. There was a conversation that was reflected in that email of 9 March, so that would have been my email following a conversation with the ministerial office staffer. Subsequently, there was that request coming through in writing from the minister's office seeking my attendance at a meeting on the 20th.

Senator GALLAGHER: Before we get into this line of questioning, can someone at the table answer for me how or when the department became aware that Minister Taylor had an interest in Jam Land, and the compliance action being undertaken—the correlating activity happening with land owned by Jam Land? I think that would assist.

Ms Collins : I haven't got specific timing in relation to that question, but we were certainly aware at the time the request came in, that—

Senator GALLAGHER: For the meeting in March 2017—at that point you were aware?

Ms Collins : We were aware that there was a relationship between the landowner and Minister Taylor.

Senator GALLAGHER: And how did you become aware of that?

Ms Collins : I can't say exactly, but we knew there was a familial, as in family, relationship.

Senator GALLAGHER: It's pretty critical information, isn't it? So someone must have advised someone? There must have been some sort of formal information?

Ms Collins : I'm not sure exactly how it came about that we were aware of that, but we were certainly aware of the family relationship between the landowner being investigated and the minister. And so we were—and I think it's fair to say my colleague, Mr Richardson, was going out of his way to make sure that there was no action that might threaten the integrity of the investigation.

Senator GALLAGHER: Okay, we can come to that. So there's not a specific date you're aware of and you're not aware of how you came into that information, or how the department came into having that information, but you had it by March 2017? Is there any way of actually finding out that information?

Ms Collins : Sorry, could you repeat the question?

Senator GALLAGHER: Is there any way you can find out that information on what date—

Ms Collins : I can take that on notice, certainly.

Senator GALLAGHER: and how that information was relayed? I think that is critical to the committee's understanding of what's happened.

Ms Collins : Yes.

Mr Oxley : Senator, your question was about how that information was relayed. Could you just be clearer about to who?

Senator GALLAGHER: I guess I'm trying to find that out too. I'm trying to understand on what date and to whom in the department information was provided about the link between Minister Taylor and the compliance action being undertaken, and how that information was relayed. For example, if Minister Taylor provided that information, you can understand that position being put. You could also understand it coming through a search of the records of the company, for example. It's not clear to me how the department came into that information, and I think it is useful to understand what form that was. And, of course, the subsequent thing, which I think is where Senator Rice is going, is how that was managed.

Ms Collins : Okay. I will take that on notice. I'll say it's also not unusual for us to do a property search to just work out who the property owner is in terms of our investigation and who we're dealing with. But, as I say, I'll take it on notice specifically.

Senator GALLAGHER: Yes. There are questions about whether that should have been the way that you became aware. If that is how you became aware of the information, we would have other questions—perhaps not for you. But I think it is pretty critical. It does surprise me a little that that information isn't at the fingertips of officials at the moment.

CHAIR: Just to get the time line straight, I'm going to go back. On the time line I have in front of me, I just want to confirm with you that the alleged unlawful clearing of the grasslands by Jam Land occurred in October 2016.

Ms Collins : That would be about the right timing, yes.

CHAIR: The information in front of me is that it was reported to the New South Wales department in November 2016. And then, in December 2016 and January 2017, I'm told that the New South Wales department did site inspections and the federal department began investigating.

Ms Collins : That sounds about right. I don't have the exact dates in front of me.

CHAIR: And then on 7 March 2017 your department met with Jam Land regarding the unlawful clearing.

Ms Collins : That would be right, yes.

CHAIR: You met with Jam Land on 7 March. It was on 8 March, then, that Minister Frydenberg wrote to the department asking them to meet with Taylor regarding the listing of the grasslands.

Ms Collins : I think that's right in terms of the—

Mr Richardson : Senator, you might be looking at a different document than me. I am seeing a 15 March email from the office:

Geoff and Monica

I am meeting with Angus Taylor at 11am on Monday … I need you there …

CHAIR: Wednesday, 15 March—that's right. It says:

Geoff and Monica

I am meeting with Angus Taylor at 11am on Monday …

Mr Richardson : Sorry, you're right. There is that Thursday, 9 March email—my record of a conversation I'd had. It had no date for a meeting, but it was basically an inquiry asking that a meeting with Angus Taylor be established. Yes, you're right. Sorry, Senator.

CHAIR: Can you confirm that that was in response to a letter from Minister Frydenberg to the department asking to meet on 8 March?

Mr Richardson : I don't believe there was a letter from the minister. This was an email from a staffer in the minister's office—sorry, it was a conversation with a staffer in the minister's office that I've reflected in an email.

CHAIR: So that is your email of Friday, 10 March at 3.15—oh, no, it was to you. It said:

It would be good if you—

blank—

and me could also sit down and discuss the definition and condition thresholds to be on the same page before we meet with anyone else. They can be complicated but I was thinking yesterday of the easiest way to think about them and the key points to get through to MO—

the minister's office—

and Angus Taylor.

That was on 10 March.

Mr Richardson : Yes. That's an internal email on the back of my email below that, from 9 March, that reflected a conversation I'd had with the minister's office.

CHAIR: That internal email of 10 March says 'before we meet with anyone else'. Who else had you met with regarding this issue at that stage?

Mr Richardson : 'Anyone other than the people within the department' is what I think I am referring to. No, I hadn't met with anybody else.

CHAIR: So then there is the meeting with Angus Taylor and you and somebody from Minister Frydenberg's office?

Mr Richardson : Yes.

CHAIR: And that occurs on 20 March?

Mr Richardson : The meeting was on 20 March.

CHAIR: The meeting was on 20 March. That's right. Was it unusual for you to be involved in that meeting, Mr Richardson?

Mr Richardson : It was not an unprecedented request. I'm not saying it happens every month. Unusually, I'm not sure how to answer that question. Could you clarify the question?

Mr Knudson : What I would say is that I've had a number of meetings with a number of government members and non-government members on projects in their electorates that they are concerned about or have an interest in. That is not at all uncommon. That being said, this was about a listing decision. Again, fairly clearly, it relates to that concern about the implications of that listing for farmers in the Eden-Monaro area.

CHAIR: It's about a listing but it's also about a compliance action that's been undertaken.

Mr Richardson : No, Senator, that's not what the meeting was about.

CHAIR: The email of 15 March also suggests it would be good to have Monica Collins there. Why was that the case?

Ms Collins : I can't answer that question. That email came from the minister's office. But the request was about a meeting on the grasslands listing process. So, clearly, it was something for my colleague Mr Richardson to respond to.

Senator GALLAGHER: What was your job at that time, though, Ms Collins?

Ms Collins : My job was head of the compliance branch, at that time.

Senator GALLAGHER: So the minister's office asked the head of the compliance branch to come to that meeting?

Ms Collins : The request was, 'It would be good to have you there, Monica, if you can make it.' But I didn't take that up. I left it with Mr Richardson as it was about the grasslands listing process, which is under his jurisdiction.

Mr Knudson : That being said, we get questions fairly regularly about why we undertake compliance in certain ways or why we don't. I think it's important that we communicate that as clearly as possible and explain why we have the posture, with respect to compliance, that we do. I believe one of your staff members did attend. That was specifically in case there were questions that didn't go to the specific compliance matter but rather were in the generic because it wouldn't have been appropriate to discuss a specific compliance case. And, indeed, nothing of that kind came up.

Senator GALLAGHER: I understand that you do have that broader role. In the instance that we're discussing today, though, it's a minister's office asking the head of compliance to come. When that person has a business interest in land that is currently having compliance action taken, I think there is a bit of a difference. How did the department—

CHAIR: Could I just clarify, again, that you were aware, at the time of that meeting, that Angus Taylor had a business interest in the land that there was compliance action being undertaken on?

Ms Collins : We were aware that Angus Taylor was the brother of one of the directors of the land we were investigating.

Senator GALLAGHER: Is that a bit different to—

Ms Collins : When we're conducting an investigation, we need to work out who it is that needs to be answerable to whether or not the act was complied with. We don't then go into all of the business associations that extend beyond that. Once we've got who the landowner is, we know who we're working with.

Senator GALLAGHER: Going back to my question before, it was quite specific: how and when did the department know about Minister Taylor's interest in Jam Land, which was currently under investigation by the department? And I think you said to me that, in March 2017, you were aware of—

Ms Collins : The relationship.

Senator GALLAGHER: Right. That's different.

Mr Knudson : It is.

Senator GALLAGHER: So we need to clarify that. That is different to the question I asked.

Ms Collins : Yes. I'll clarify that. We were certainly aware, at the time that this request came in—

Senator GALLAGHER: Of the familial link.

Ms Collins : Of the familial link. I'll need to go back and check in terms of awareness around a business relationship, if that's what your question was.

Senator GALLAGHER: As a specific interest in that land, yes.

Ms Collins : Okay.

Senator GALLAGHER: At that March meeting, the general meeting that you didn't attend but a member of your staff attended from compliance—and Mr Richardson, you attended?

Mr Richardson : And a member of my staff as well.

Senator GALLAGHER: And a member of your staff. Did Minister Taylor declare, ahead of that meeting, his business interests in Jam Land?

Mr Richardson : No. There was no interest disclosed at the start of that meeting. But the meeting was about the listing of the grassland. That's why I took one of my staff members, who was intimately familiar and had conducted the reassessment, to answer those sorts of questions about how the listing worked in practice.

Senator GALLAGHER: You don't think it's relevant that—

Mr Richardson : I don't have a view, but it's not—

CHAIR: Minister Taylor did not declare his own personal interest?

Mr Richardson : No.

Mr Knudson : We'd point to Minister Taylor's statement in the House with respect to how he has managed any declarations of interest et cetera, which I think has been canvassed pretty extensively.

Senator GALLAGHER: We're aware of that.

Senator FAWCETT: Mr Knudson, were you aware at the time or subsequently that Minister Taylor also made clear to the minister that the compliance issue was on foot and should not be discussed during the meeting?

Mr Knudson : No, but that seems completely appropriate.

CHAIR: Was the compliance issue discussed at the meeting?

Mr Richardson : No, it was not raised. It was not discussed.

CHAIR: We've got the briefing paper, the summary document that was prepared for that meeting, which—

Mr Richardson : Are you referring to document 4A, Senator?

CHAIR: Yes. It goes through the background of the grasslands listing consideration, the implications, the consultation about the listing, the guidance, the identification of minimum condition thresholds, the recommendations for management, the mapping, how much awareness there was of the listing—I might come back to some of these issues later. But then it goes through the delisting process. Why was a delisting process included in that summary background paper?

Mr Richardson : I don't recall specifically. It was a factual piece of information that I've included. I actually can't recall why we put it in there.

Mr Knudson : I think it's fair to say that this is sometimes a pretty archaic bit of legislation, and quite prescriptive. We'd spell out the process for considering a listing, an uplisting or a delisting. All of those are relevant parts of the act. As the office had indicated, they were looking for a pretty comprehensive brief on not only the specifics on the science behind this listing but also the logistics and the requirements of the act with respect to any consideration of a listing, and this would be part of that.

CHAIR: It seems quite strange to me if this is just about the listing process. In particular, from the paragraphs written under delisting: there is a process for nominating delisting of ecological communities based on a recommendation by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee minister. Given the TSSC's revision was recently conducted, it is highly unlikely that they would recommend reviewing an ecological community again. So it wasn't as though it was a listing that was done a long time prior; it was only very recent.

Mr Knudson : That's right.

CHAIR: So I ask again: why include that about delisting, and was that delisting discussed at the meeting?

Mr Richardson : No, there was no discussion of delisting at the meeting. The discussion was about the consultation leading up to it in the form of the new listing—the revised listing in 2015—and how that could be managed by farmers who had this community on their land.

Mr Oxley : Senator, I also make the observation that, at about this time—before and after it—as you know, there were extensive discussions going on, most of them public, around the listing and protection of particular species, with flying foxes being a good example. There was a lot of public discussion around the veracity of listing and assessment processes and so on. I see the inclusion of that reference there to be for the sake of thoroughness, given that issues around listing, delisting, uplisting and downlisting were in the public discourse at the time.

CHAIR: I haven't got the document in front of me, but was it related to the alleged conversation between Minister Frydenberg, with the department, about whether he could change the listing and whether it would have to be published?

Mr Oxley : You're referring now to emails that are subsequent in that chain. It's the email from me on 22 April and also my diary note from the day prior. I think it's pretty clear from the diary note that we should not read direction into the questions. But what I will say about the adviser we're talking about is that he was incredibly thorough and always wanted to have all of the information and all of the options at his disposal, because Minister Frydenberg similarly was quite forensic in wanting to understand the issue he was dealing with and what his options were. I took that, as was clearly indicated by the adviser, as him wanting to be well equipped for the time when he might be having the discussion with the minister—hence why there was such a wide canvassing of options in the email from me.

Senator GALLAGHER: Who is the adviser you're referring to there, and does he still work—

CHAIR: Or she.

Senator GALLAGHER: It's a he, because he said 'he'.

Mr Oxley : Yes, I did say 'he'. That adviser, so far as I'm aware, is no longer working as an adviser to the minister.

Senator GALLAGHER: Why are they exempt under FOI? I notice all of your names were—

Ms Tregurtha : Our general approach for FOI is to put senior officers' names into the public domain, but, if they're more junior officers or more junior staff in the minister's offices, we redact the names.

Senator GALLAGHER: What's the level for that? In the minister's office, what's the level where you'd draw the line?

Ms Tregurtha : If it were the chief of staff, we would disclose that. Under that we wouldn't, to be clear.

Senator GALLAGHER: So you can have pretty senior advisers but they're not disclosed? It's only COS level?

Ms Tregurtha : That's right.

Mr Knudson : I think the practice within departments is proceeding with SES—

Ms Tregurtha : Yes, in the department, it's for SES officers.

Senator GALLAGHER: Whose rule is that? I don't know that ministers' staff are exempt under the FOI Act.

Ms Tregurtha : No, it's not a question of being exempt under the act; it's just the way in which we approach, I guess, managing the balance of what's in the public interest to disclose in terms of personal privacy.

Senator GALLAGHER: Is that you as in the department of the environment?

Ms Tregurtha : That's the department of the environment's method, but it's not uncommon. I've worked in other departments that take the same sort of approach.

Senator GALLAGHER: Senior advisers can earn upwards of $200,000. They're not junior officers in the Public Service sense of the word or the definition. I'd question why they would be provided with that anonymity when they are senior employees in a minister's office in a senior role which has public interest attached to it. Is it from the secretary? Is it a policy? Is it written down?

Ms Tregurtha : I'd have to check and see what's in our policy specifically, but that is our approach to this issue.

Senator GALLAGHER: It's a convention?

Ms Tregurtha : It's convention, yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: Is it determined by someone at some time?

Mr Oxley : I've been in the department for 15 years as a Senior Executive Service officer, and it has been the practice for as long as I can remember that we apply that standard around disclosure of identity.

Senator GALLAGHER: I'm sure other departments provide guidance. It's not a consistent position across the service. But perhaps this is distracting from today.

Mr Knudson : For clarity on this position: this is not a senior adviser within the minister's office.

Senator GALLAGHER: Is the blanked-out name throughout this the same one person?

Mr Richardson : To my recollection, the only office staffer I was dealing with was the same officer. That's right.

CHAIR: Okay. Can I take you to two more things in those email chains. I haven't got the number of the document, but the document that was sent on 9 March says:

Hi Monica and s22

In a conversation … yesterday, he raised the recent email traffic on the Natural Temperate Grassland of the South eastern Highlands EC.

Can you shine some light on what that recent email traffic was and whether we have been provided with that? It doesn't seem that we have, as we've got nothing before then, have we?

Mr Richardson : I don't recall. I think that was a reference to the staffer talking about email traffic. But I'm not aware of and couldn't find—obviously, if we'd found them we would have supplied them under FOI—any emails prior to that.

CHAIR: So, potentially, email traffic to the minister's office?

Mr Richardson : Correct—that's what I'm assuming, based on the fact that I didn't find any in my traffic, prior to this one, relevant to the FOI.

CHAIR: And do you have any information about who that email traffic would have been from?

Mr Richardson : I don't recall, and all I can go with is that, as I said there, I quizzed the staffer and I didn't get a lot of information. So no, I can't give any more than what's in the document.

CHAIR: So you don't know whether it was from Angus Taylor to the minister, for example—

Mr Richardson : I don't know.

CHAIR: given that you were then responding on the easiest way to think about them and the key points to get through to the minister's office and Angus Taylor?

Mr Richardson : I don't. As far as I'm aware, there wasn't mention of Angus Taylor before this set of emails; and, if there was any mention, it would've been in the scope of the FOI and we would've discovered it and we would've released it under the FOI.

CHAIR: Finally, as to the 10 March email, where or what is 'Allara'?

Senator GALLAGHER: Allara Street.

Mr Richardson : In Civic. It's on the other side of the street from our office. It's where Ms Collins is residing.

CHAIR: It's the location where you are based?

Ms Collins : Yes—Allara Street.

Mr Knudson : We have the Commonwealth water office area and the environmental assessments area; we have the compliance and enforcement area.

Senator FAWCETT: And the secret society!

Mr Knudson : And the secret society, which we cannot possibly document!

CHAIR: The secret Canberra society! Okay. I now want to go to document 2 in the email—the Wednesday, 15 March 2017 document, from you, Mr Richardson, where we read: 'Bonjour, Stephen'—

Mr Richardson : I was in Paris at the time!

CHAIR: 'As you'll see from the email below, I've agreed to meet with Angus Taylor, member for Hume, to clarify the listing, including the consultation that was conducted prior to Minister Hunt's listing decision. We will confine our discussion to the EPBC Act listing process, including the statutory and non-statutory consultation. We are going to talk the technical description of the listed entity including the thresholds that were introduced at the time of the 2015 listing decision and the guidance material the department has published to assist the landholders, post listing.' And that all correlates with what you've told us today. It continues: 'Deb has let Dean know about the meeting.' Then we have a big blank space, which is redacted under section 37(1)(a), and I am told that that is relevant to issues relating to compliance. Can you give us any more detail about what may have been in that redacted section? It goes on to say: 'I don't yet know if Monica or Matt Carr will attend the meeting with Mr Taylor. I haven't been able to speak with Monica today'—which also implies that there is a compliance issue.

Mr Richardson : I can't give you any more clarity, I don't believe, other than to say it's a piece of words relating to compliance—obviously, because that's the reason for it being redacted. But I don't think I can go into any more detail. And I don't have it in front of me either.

Mr Knudson : As we've said, Senator, we were aware there was compliance action with respect to this ecological community. We were aware that there was a familial connection with Minister Taylor. Indeed, as I said earlier on, the purpose of having the compliance officer at the meeting was to appropriately manage that potential for the issue to go into the compliance matter, which it didn't.

Senator GALLAGHER: So you had a compliance officer there to ensure that we didn't move into compliance?

Ms Collins : For a couple of reasons. We had a compliance officer there as an observer to ensure that the integrity of the investigation wasn't compromised; and if there were any general questions about how we go about compliance activities, the compliance officer could have responded to those. As it turned out, there were no questions about compliance activities—compliance wasn't discussed—and the compliance officer didn't talk at the meeting at all; that's my understanding.

CHAIR: So there was a compliance officer that did attend, but it wasn't you, Ms Collins?

Ms Collins : That's right.

Senator GALLAGHER: But was Mr Taylor advised that those were the rules of operation for the meeting: 'We have a compliance officer here, but they will not be going into any specific matter that might be before the department'?

Mr Knudson : As the issue was never raised, there was no need to provide that clarification. But I don't believe anything was discussed with respect to the compliance matter.

Mr Richardson : We had no contact with Minister Taylor before the meeting. You're asking whether those ground rules were laid out; I think those were the words you're using. As Mr Knudson said, at the meeting itself there was no issue to raise because the issue of compliance was not spoken about, raised or discussed.

Senator GALLAGHER: I'm trying to follow this along these lines: you've said you knew there was compliance action underway; you knew there was a familial link with Minister Taylor; you're going to come back to us about when you learnt there was a business interest by Minister Taylor in the land over which there was compliance action; you took a compliance officer to the meeting to ensure there were limits placed on any discussion about compliance. But, with all that knowledge, you didn't advise Minister Taylor that that would be how you would approach the matter—that is, you did not proactively say: 'We are here to discuss this. We're happy to help, but we are not going to discuss this.' That is my question.

Mr Richardson : Yes, that's correct. We went in with the information we had from the staffer about what the meeting was about. The meeting was about the listing and all the matters he raised in his email, and that was what the meeting discussion was confined to.

CHAIR: In the follow-up email on Friday, 24 March, to the person in the ministerial office, you say:

Following our meeting with Angus Taylor on Monday, we are exploring options to deal with the concerns raised related to the Natural Temperate Grasslands …

You say that you've had initial discussions with the regional local land services, and you say:

We will have further discussion with agronomists to better understand any uncertainty with interpreting and applying the minimum condition thresholds that are part of the updated listing …

Again, there is a bit that's blanked out, which has a section 37(1)(a) listing, which seems to me to be probably relevant to a compliance action.

Mr Richardson : That's correct.

CHAIR: So, even though the meeting wasn't about compliance and you didn't discuss compliance, in this follow-up email there is a section blanked out that's relevant to compliance.

Mr Richardson : Yes.

CHAIR: You are not at liberty to tell us any more about whether that was relevant to Mr Taylor's interests in compliance on the property that he had a business interest in?

Mr Richardson : I'll get Ms Collins to correct me if I get this wrong. The redactions associated with compliance are about ensuring the integrity of our compliance system generally, not necessarily about particular compliance matters. It is about disclosing approaches or methodologies that would compromise the ability to get successful compliance outcomes in the future. That is my understanding, in lay terms, of the purpose of those redactions.

CHAIR: But you were willing to share that information with the minister's office—a minister who you knew had at least a familial interest in a compliance issue.

Mr Richardson : Yes. That single line said that.

CHAIR: But, if that were the reason for redacting that, wouldn't that actually compromise the compliance actions?

Mr Richardson : I don't recall right now what was underneath that blank space, but it would have been a reference to compliance or to an approach to compliance et cetera that I felt, at the time that I made the decision to include that redaction, could potentially compromise future compliance actions. That's the reason it was redacted.

CHAIR: Were there any other relevant compliance actions regarding these grasslands underway? Are there any others underway at the moment?

Ms Collins : Not to my knowledge, no.

CHAIR: So, really, we've got one compliance action in play at this stage.

Ms Collins : In the Monaro, yes.

CHAIR: In the Monaro.

Mr Oxley : I would offer a general comment here. Over many years I've made many FOI decisions, some of which have gone to matters of compliance. Firstly, I think it's entirely appropriate that we would be talking with our minister's office about our general approach to compliance. It's important that ministers and their officers understand how we undertake our compliance activities. But over the years I have made many decisions under FOI where I have not disclosed information about how the department goes about undertaking its compliance activities, because that information is incredibly valuable in the hands of people who want to subvert the system and break the law. So I think we need to understand that context.

CHAIR: It's quite appropriate and I understand why it's been redacted. But, as far as us understanding what the engagement is between the department, the minister's office and Angus Taylor: it would be of great value to understand the level of discussion about this compliance action that occurred at that meeting.

Senator FAWCETT: Can I just put on the record again that we've established that Minister Taylor made it clear to the then environment minister that the compliance action was on foot and that it was not to be discussed during the meeting. The officials have confirmed that compliance was not discussed at all during the meeting. I know you have a political agenda to try and pursue this, Chair, but the facts that have been laid out make it clear that Mr Taylor made it clear that compliance was afoot and it should not be discussed, and it was not discussed.

CHAIR: But there is a further reference to something related to compliance and we've determined that there is only one compliance action that is underway which was referred to in this follow-up email.

Senator GALLAGHER: Mr Oxley, you've just explained the advice and briefs around compliance action to ministers over the years. In your time in the service, how many times have you been in the situation where a cabinet minister has a business interest in land under which compliance action is being undertaken? That would be my response to you saying this is just standard business procedure.

Mr Oxley : I would not draw the link between the two. I'm talking about the approach that I have taken as an FOI decision-maker in relation to the disclosure of information that would reveal the approach that the department takes to undertaking its compliance activities. That knowledge, gathered piece by piece by piece, begins to give people who want to undermine or subvert the way the law operates a capacity to do so. And it's that protective intent that I've applied in relation to FOI decision-making. In relation to questions about how many times I've had such an experience: I haven't had such an experience before.

Senator FAWCETT: Can I clarify that the email that we're discussing with the redacted line was an email to Minister Frydenberg. Is that correct?

Mr Knudsen : Minister Frydenberg's office.

Ms Collins : Yes, I said a cabinet minister

Senator FAWCETT: To his office, and not to Minister Taylor?

Mr Knudsen : That's correct.

Ms Collins : I didn't allege it was.

Senator FAWCETT: The allegation was that there was a communication to Minister Taylor with information about compliance and that it had been redacted. But the facts are that it was an email to Minister Frydenberg's office—and, as the official said, it's completely appropriate for there to be transparency there—and the redaction was so that it did not become public. Minister Taylor was not involved in that chain at all.

Mr Knudsen : Indeed. Just to add to that, Senator, there's a regular process that Ms Collins goes through, along with the environmental assessment team, to walk the minister's office's advisers through, at a relatively high level, what's happened.

Senator FAWCETT: For clarity in this discussion, could we perhaps talk about Minister Frydenberg or Minister Taylor. Otherwise, the conversation can get blurred.

Mr Knudsen : Absolutely right. And what I'm referring to is the Minister for the Environment—who has been Minister Frydenberg and is currently Minister Ley. So it's appropriate that we would give a level of visibility to the minister's office, and in turn the minister, if necessary, about what's happening at a broad level with respect to compliance matters. So this would be completely consistent with that practice.

CHAIR: Yes, absolutely, let's be clear. But it's also very clear that Minister Frydenberg's office is having discussions with Angus Taylor. It was a meeting with Angus Taylor that was organised through Minister Frydenberg's office, and then two weeks later, on 13 April, an email from Mr Richardson saying, 'as requested, to support your discussions with Angus Taylor MP'. So there was clearly ongoing communication between the minister and Mr Taylor.

Senator FAWCETT: But the inference that the minister for the environment or his office would have disclosed things about a compliance matter, knowing that Mr Taylor had declared that and said shouldn't be discussed is, I think, an unfair and inaccurate inference.

CHAIR: Yes, I don't want to propose that inference. The issue that I'm making clear is that Minister Frydenberg's office was having ongoing discussions with Mr Taylor in the context of knowing that there was a compliance action taking place against a property that Mr Taylor had a business interest in and that that was known.

Senator GALLAGHER: I have a couple of questions before we shift off. In terms of the emails from the redacted staffer in the FOI, was it at any point made clear who he was acting upon? Was it on instructions from the chief of staff? Was it instructions from the minister? Was that made clear to the department?

Mr Richardson : That wasn't made clear.

Senator GALLAGHER: So it just appeared.

Mr Richardson : Correct—but I'd had a lot of dealings with this staffer. He was basically responsible for all of the business that I transacted under the EPBC Act and he was a stand-alone staffer, from my perspective.

Mr Oxley : That is also my experience, and I think my diary note bears that out.

Senator GALLAGHER: In terms of the meeting with Minister Taylor—I just want to get this very clear—the department knew the familial link to Jam Land. You were going to come back to me on the specific business link. You are aware you entered that meeting, but there was not from any party at that meeting probity discussion about handling.

Mr Richardson : My recollection of the time is that I was aware of the familial relationship between Angus Taylor and the individual that the compliance area was dealing with and the alleged clearing. I knew they were brothers. Beyond that, I don't believe I was aware of any other details. I hadn't heard the term Jam Land at that point.

Senator GALLAGHER: Was there any probity discussion from either the minister's side or the department's side?

Mr Richardson : As I think I mentioned earlier, there was no probity discussion either at the start of or during that meeting, and the meeting was confined to an appropriate discussion of the listing and how that listing operated.

Senator GALLAGHER: Thank you.

CHAIR: Mr Oxley, that was your handwritten note?

Mr Oxley : Yes.

CHAIR: You noted not to read directions into questions. You want to understand the minister's powers and obligations. You want to know the boundaries within which the minister can operate. Did you want to know that, or did somebody you were communicating with want to know that?

Mr Oxley : That is a record of a conversation with the minister's office. It's where the office is indicating that there is a range of information that they want to understand that was related to the minister's powers and obligations, but I should not be reading any direction into that line of inquiry. It was about understanding the rules of racing, so to speak.

CHAIR: Right. The minister wants to know what he can do.

Mr Oxley : As I reflect on that note, in my mind, that's the shorthand, and it should be read at that point in time as 'the minister will want to know'. That is how I am recalling it.

CHAIR: So you don't feel that the minister's office at that stage was operating under the direction of the minister?

Mr Oxley : I don't know in absolute terms whether or not that is the case. But I've described my own interaction with that adviser over a long period of time, and it was one of thorough, deep and regular inquiry about fine detail around the application of the act and what options were in order to progress or address issues at play, particularly in the threatened species listings space.

Senator FAWCETT: Chair, can I just say, having been a member of the executive, my expectation of staff would be that they would come to a meeting with the full range of options, even if they were not exercised. But they would be in a position to advise on those, so a good staff member would do their homework.

CHAIR: But it is an unfortunate tense—'Minister wants to know what he can do'—which does tend to imply that the minister's staffer has had a discussion with the minister.

Mr Knudson : There was basically no discussion with Minister Frydenberg that you would want to go into without a full understanding of the full range of options on any issue. That's how he approaches issues. He wants to understand them completely and comprehensively, and that's what Mr Oxley is reflecting.

Mr Oxley : And I'm indulging that there's an ambiguity between the first and second points in my notes. One is where the adviser was wanting to have a thorough understanding, and then you could take a different implication from the next part of my notes. But I'm saying, in the context of the adviser we were working with, that the former interpretation is the one that—

CHAIR: That you believe is the case now.

Mr Oxley : sits most comfortably with me.

CHAIR: I now want to go to the final document, document 8, the email on Saturday, 22 April, at 5.46 pm—so working weekends. It basically outlines all of the information that you had then put to the minister's office about operations of the act, but once again there are two sections which are redacted there, relevant to compliance.

Mr Oxley : They are, in my recollection, but we can certainly go back and check on notice that they fall into the category we've already described, around revelation of approaches to compliance.

CHAIR: In the final one there, it's in the middle of a paragraph:

The approved conservation advice, including condition thresholds, was developed in close consultation with the experts from NSW agencies to ensure alignment where possible. As noted in previous briefing, this includes the groundcover assessment methodologies that Angus Taylor MP has mistakenly been advised are not aligned.

Then we go into a blanked-out section about compliance.

Mr Oxley : I really do need to take it on notice, because I don't have the full detail of that quite long email advice at hand.

Mr Richardson : Senator, the fact that that's been redacted with 37(1)(a) means it is in the same category as the previous, so it will have been talking about compliance, either in general or in specifics, and to disclose it would then disclose an approach to the compliance and it would compromise future compliance investigations.

CHAIR: Okay. I now want to move on to what happens after this. We then end up with an ag review. But there are two other questions before doing that. We've been talking about the briefings from Minister Frydenberg and the interests of Angus Taylor. Have there been any other politicians, in your recollection and your experience, who have requested briefings on threatened species or ecological community listings?

Mr Knudson : Most of the time, I've got to say, the briefings that have happened that I've been involved with have been about proposed developments as opposed to compliance actions. This is about a listing, which is even rarer than that.

Mr Oxley : I think I can say with some confidence that, over the time I was head of Wildlife Heritage and Marine Division, there were occasions when we would have had some interaction with members of parliament in relation to threatened species. Flying foxes would be one good example, I suspect—respectively in relation to white sharks and potentially also in relation to other species.

Senator GALLAGHER: On land they own? Excluding for the white sharks!

Mr Oxley : In communities in which they live, yes—

Senator GALLAGHER: In business interests?

Mr Oxley : Constituent concerns.

CHAIR: I just want to confirm the people who were at that meeting on 20 March. So there was one of the minister's staffers, the person we've been talking about but can't name, a compliance officer who you also can't name and—

Mr Knudson : A junior officer.

CHAIR: So a junior officer and yourself, Mr Richardson. Was there anybody else?

Mr Richardson : There was a junior officer from my department there to speak specifically about the ecological community list.

Senator GALLAGHER: Did you take any notes at the meeting?

Mr Richardson : No, I didn't.

Senator GALLAGHER: You didn't?

Mr Richardson : No, I didn't. We were very focused on answering the questions we were getting.

Senator GALLAGHER: That's the second time that answer has been given today. There are requirements and APSC guidelines about record keeping for meetings and official meetings, including with ministers and their staff. We've now been told that, for two fairly critical meetings to this whole issue, the department has not kept notes.

Mr Knudson : I would normally keep a note on specific action aims that would come out of a meeting. But, in this case, for the meeting that we were talking about earlier on, there were no action items that came out of that that I recall. That's why there wasn't a record kept by myself. Also, like I said, it was a pretty robust meeting.

Senator GALLAGHER: The guidance from the APSC is pretty clear. It's not discretionary as to whether or not you feel like taking notes. It's a critical function of public servants to ensure and protect the Commonwealth, if nothing else. So there are no notes of the meetings with the National Party and there are no notes of the meeting with Minister Taylor over the listing of a critically endangered species on land that he part-owned, of which there was no probity discussion at the beginning of the meeting?

CHAIR: And despite the fact that there was a very extensive briefing paper that was written for that meeting and there were follow-up emails regarding that meeting.

Mr Richardson : That's the point that I was going to make. On that first email with the follow-up actions that have been taken, we—being myself and my colleague from my branch, who is in the ecological communities listing area—agreed on what would happen, and some of those actions then took place. That was then reflected in an email on the Friday of that week which outlined the actions that have been undertaken.

Senator FAWCETT: Mr Knudson, is there a difference between a brief and a meeting if you are asked to provide a briefing as opposed to a deliberative meeting in terms of your understanding of the obligations to take notes?

Senator GALLAGHER: There are very clear guidelines in the code of conduct around record keeping in the Public Service. Yes, briefings are provided. That's excellent. That's also an important function. But it is not a discretionary activity by the Public Service to determine whether or not or when or not they provide records of meetings, particularly meetings with ministers. Did Minister Taylor ask the department to take any action following this meeting?

Mr Richardson : Not specifically. But, as the subsequent emails indicate, we did undertake to follow up some aspects of the matters that were raised during the meeting. Hence we got in touch with the local land services office, with the Office of Environment and Heritage, to follow up some of the information Minister Taylor had provided at the meeting and to see what, if anything, we needed to do to provide further clarification for landowners.

Senator GALLAGHER: And we'll just have to take everybody's word for that because there is no record of the meeting that can be provided. If anything, this would strengthen your evidence that there was no discussion about compliance action and that it was all appropriate. That's part of the reason that people ask to have records taken.

Mr Knudson : But it would be odd to record something that didn't happen.

CHAIR: But if you had recorded what had happened—

Senator GALLAGHER: A contemporaneous note of the meeting—

Mr Knudson : I was going to say that Mr Richardson's point that there was an email which had the follow-up action items—

Senator GALLAGHER: I would argue that both are necessary for proper process.

CHAIR: In amongst all of this, and your investigation as to what needs to happen here, have there been representations to the department on this matter by Stuart Burge?

Ms Collins : The name Stuart Burge is familiar to me from interactions with the Monaro community that we've had from our engagement function in the region there.

CHAIR: So you don't recall, other than through that engagement function, if there have been any other interactions?

Ms Collins : We've been doing engagements right across New South Wales in relation to agriculture and the EPBC Act, and certainly in the Monaro region Mr Burge is a familiar name, yes.

CHAIR: Were you aware, in the context of those engagements, that Mr Burge was the agronomist that gave the go-ahead to Jam Land to do the alleged poisoning?

Ms Collins : Yes.

CHAIR: Can I go on to the compliance investigation. The investigation is still ongoing?

Ms Collins : That's right, yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: When did it start?

Ms Collins : I think we said earlier that it started in late 2016 or early 2017.

Senator GALLAGHER: So it's been a while.

CHAIR: It's getting on for three years.

Mr Knudson : Yes.

CHAIR: Why hasn't it been completed yet?

Ms Collins : I can't go into the details of this investigation, but all sorts of investigations have all sorts of—it's the nature of things. We do site inspections. We might get expert reports. We might get some internal expert advice. There are a whole range of activities that might be undertaken in the course of a general compliance activity. If we establish that there's been a breach of the act then there are a whole range of things that we could do in response to that. There are a whole range of activities that we've been doing in relation to this one in particular.

Senator FAWCETT: Can I ask a follow-up question?

CHAIR: Yes. I just wanted to ask a follow-up question about other compliance actions. What's the average amount of time for a compliance action? What other grasslands compliance action have you taken in recent years?

Ms Collins : Certainly in the last three-odd years there hasn't been another grasslands compliance matter that I can recall. That's not to say that there's never been any, but there hasn't been one for quite some time.

Mr Knudson : There are a number of land-clearing issues that have come up, which we've talked about a number of times. It's broader than just a specific grass species, but clearing as a whole has come up a number of times.

CHAIR: In terms of dealing with individual landholders, rather than in terms of large-scale clearing by mining companies or other large agribusinesses, what is the usual amount of time for a compliance action to take?

Ms Collins : I haven't got a set amount of time, but it's not unusual if there are complexities and we need to get expert opinions and a range of things. Also we've got a limited number of compliance officers, and it depends on their case load as well. There are a number of factors that might influence how long an investigation might take.

CHAIR: Are you being restricted now, because of a lack of resources, in this compliance action?

Mr Knudson : We can always do more with more resources.

CHAIR: But is the lack of resources having a consequence on the time taken in this particular action?

Ms Collins : That's one element of it, but, as I said, there are a lot of complexities in relation to any particular investigation.

CHAIR: Does the department, in general, try and do things more vigorously and in a more timely manner when it's a critically endangered species or community that's involved?

Ms Collins : I think as a general principle it makes sense to do compliance activity in the most timely fashion that we can. As I say, there are a whole range of factors that influence how long an investigation might take.

Senator FAWCETT: Could I follow up on the issue of time frames. I think you'd just come into the room when Wendy Craik was giving her evidence before. There were some examples that came up of quite prolonged time frames and very high costs for landholders. I compare this with other government departments or regulatory bodies, who often set a time frame that is at least targeted, if it's not mandated, to try and bring things to a resolution so that there's procedural fairness and justice, if you like, for a landholder. Do you set any targets?

Mr Knudson : We have more than targets. It's laid out in the legislation, at various points through an assessment process, when various decisions need to be made by the department or the minister, depending on who is making the decision. That being said, our statutory performance is not great. At this point, looking at the referral decision at the beginning of an assessment to the controlled action decision and finally an approval decision, for all of those legislative decision points we're about 14 per cent on time, so 86 per cent of our decisions are late. That being said, we have dug into that to try and figure out how late. There are a few projects that really blow out the numbers, quite frankly. If a company decides not to proceed with something, if they don't withdraw the referral, it stays on the book and shows up as a really late decision. So it's not as horrible as it might seem at first blush, but, that being said, it's still not a great performance. The average is around 30 days in terms of an impact on companies, but, that being said, especially on the large resource development, the opportunity cost to a company of having to wait for an approval is dramatic. It can be hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.

Senator FAWCETT: There were two that were given to us. I accept they are only two, but if there are two there might be more, so I'm interested to understand your approach to try and limit those impacts. In the one, I think, in Queensland, somebody spent $70,000 over a period of time to have three inconclusive reviews and still no decision. In the one in Western Australia, it was $500,000—I think it was over four years—because the federal and state authorities can't agree. Why should a landholder have to wear the opportunity cost and the real cost of a lack of agreement between two levels of government? That doesn't seem to be natural justice to me.

Mr Knudson : It's certainly not an ideal situation—far from it. It's not uncommon, unfortunately, for there to be different interpretations of the same science, let alone different science, let alone between jurisdictions. One of the things that we put in place a few years ago in terms of what the Commonwealth can do—because effectively most land management and regulatory decisions are at the state level—was something called a conditions policy, and we've also put in place a number of bilateral agreements with the states, so you have one assessment for both the state and the Commonwealth, so the company is not doing two assessments. Then the conditions policy comes in and says, 'If the state's done a good job on assessing that and has put in appropriate conditions, the Commonwealth will only apply one condition that says, "Do what the state said."'

So we are very aware that this complexity that can happen between jurisdictions is real. It's having an impact, and we're trying to manage that, but I cannot sit before you and say that we've been perfectly successful. There are a number of cases where companies have had to wait. There's the very visible example of Adani where it's been a number of years as we've worked through, with the Queensland government, that approval process. But if you combine that with legal challenges against the company—I think we're up to eight—it's the most emblematic of the complexity of trying to negotiate, whether you agree with the proposal or not, the regulatory system in the country.

Senator GALLAGHER: Can I ask a few questions. I think it would be useful for the committee to have a list of the meetings that the department have had with MPs and ministers over the grasslands—the listing of the grasslands. I would include that meeting with the National Party in October of 2017 in that. If you have it here, I'm happy to take it. Otherwise, come back to the committee.

Mr Knudson : I think we'd have to come back on notice, but I believe that that was the only meeting with a minister. The other thing that might be helpful is if we include the stakeholder engagement that happened with respect to the listing decision, because that's the external facing which also raised awareness of this issue.

Senator GALLAGHER: There has been criticism about that, yes. In terms of the compliance action underway, Ms Collins, I think you said that, since the revised listing in 2016, there's only been one compliance action in relation to grasslands.

Ms Collins : In relation to this particular grassland, yes. In relation to grasslands, from my recollection.

Senator GALLAGHER: Are you fairly sure of that?

Ms Collins : I'm fairly sure of that, since I've been in this role since about October 2016.

Senator GALLAGHER: That relates to the Jam Land land at Monaro?

Ms Collins : That's right, yes.

CHAIR: Mr Oxley, I want to go back to your handwritten note written on 21 April, which was the Friday. Then you were writing your response to the person in the minister's office, as I noted before, at quarter to six on a Saturday night. Is it a usual thing for you to be writing notes to the minister's office at 6 pm on a Saturday?

Mr Knudson : If it's Mr Oxley, yes!

Mr Oxley : There you go.

CHAIR: To me it suggests it couldn't wait until Monday morning.

Mr Oxley : No, don't read into that. If you looked at my email history you would find that there is a lot of weekend email—

Mr Knudson : And evening email!

Senator FAWCETT: You need to get a life. Go to Thailand and play tennis or something!

Mr Knudson : It doesn't end well!

CHAIR: Was there an issue of urgency?

Mr Oxley : We always like to keep things moving in terms of the provision of advice. In my mind, if I hadn't dealt with it on the weekend I would have had to deal with it on Monday, and I can't tell you what my diary looked like on that following Monday or what I was anticipating having to deal with. I can tell you that I was not long recently back from my time overseas, so I was probably playing catch-up in a significant way.

CHAIR: I want to now move on to the next steps towards the ag review. Senator Gallagher, have you got some more before we do that?

Senator GALLAGHER: Yes. I notice on that final email advice from you, Mr Oxley, on the various options and advice to the minister there was no response to that email?

Mr Oxley : Yes, I believe that to be the case. I did quite a comprehensive search of my email archive, our enterprise vault, searching for all the relevant words and nothing popped up in my searching. I imagine that if there had been it would have also been copied to Geoff in some way. I'm not aware of any formal response to that.

Senator GALLAGHER: Between that date, which is in—

CHAIR: It's April 2017—

Senator GALLAGHER: April 2017, and the issue being re-agitated publicly around October, what was the department doing? Between the meeting with Minister Taylor and the compliance action underway, prior to the briefing to the National Party party room, there's a period of months there.

Mr Knudson : There are a number of elements—I'm recalling from the briefing for the meeting in October—that summarised, at a fairly high level, some of our engagement with respect to the farming sector and what efforts we were trying to do to demystify the act. I don't have that to hand but I'm happy to provide a summary of that. It's basically trying to make sure that we're providing clear information to farmers. I know, Ms Collins, that you had a number of staff engaging on ground. I think it was at that time too.

Ms Collins : I think one of the key points was that in New South Wales the legislation around native vegetation changed and that change took effect, I think, from memory, in August 2017. I think some of the heightened awareness of the EPBC Act was coming about as a result of the changes from the New South Wales regulatory approach. In my area I've got a strategic initiatives and engagement function. Because of that change in legislation we wanted to get out on the front foot and make sure that landowners had every chance to understand the requirements of the EPBC Act in the face of the changes that were happening in New South Wales. So we ran quite an extensive engagement with New South Wales through their local land services, which are the first point of contact for a lot of landowners if they're changing agriculture practices, to make sure that people were given the best chance to understand the implications of both the state and federal legislation in parallel and how it might relate to their agriculture activities.

Senator GALLAGHER: So you were doing some on-the-ground work but nothing formal. The review that Senator Rice is presumably going to go to hadn't been part of the department's thinking during that time, in the lead-up to that October meeting?

Mr Knudson : I can't remember which of the senators referred to that coming up in the meeting based upon former Senator Williams's—

Senator GALLAGHER: No, we've done that. And Senator Williams has been in touch with the committee and confirmed that that was the meeting. So it wasn't in 2018; it was October 2017.

Mr Knudson : Yes. I'm pausing on this just to say that I think we'd have to go back and take a look at our records with respect to what sort of policy development et cetera had been done with respect to an ag review as a concept.

CHAIR: Basically we've got March then April, of the response to Mr Taylor and the minister—

Mr Knudson : October.

CHAIR: and then we've got this meeting with the National Party where the idea of this ag review was floated with them—in the October meeting. So it's a matter of what happened between then.

Senator GALLAGHER: I've got a series of questions I'd like to ask, one after the other, but I can do that at the end of your question on that.

CHAIR: Okay.

Senator GALLAGHER: Just finally, in preparing for today, did the department have any discussions with Minister Ley, with former ministers, about today's meeting?

Mr Knudson : I just arrived on a plane last night, so I'll have to check with my colleagues as to whether there was anything.

Mr Richardson : My first assistant secretary did provide advice. Once we were invited to this hearing, we let our office, Minister's Ley's office, know that, and we understand that Minister Ley let Minister Taylor's office know that this hearing was happening. Beyond that, I've had no contact.

Senator GALLAGHER: There was no written brief or anything?

Mr Knudson : It was just a heads-up.

Senator GALLAGHER: It was just verbal advice that it was happening? Was there any response from the minister's office?

Mr Richardson : Not that I'm aware of.

Mr Knudson : We're just going to invite the first assistant secretary to the table. We thought she was getting off too easily!

Ms Campbell : The reason I'm not at the table is I've been in the job for two weeks, but in the last two weeks I have talked to an adviser in Minister Ley's office, said this was coming up and encouraged the office to let Minister Taylor's office know that this was happening. It's a tricky space when we work for one minister but not directly on environment issues. We had a very quick conversation that this was happening. There was no written briefing. From my recollection there were no emails, other than I might have flicked the schedule to make sure the office was aware.

Senator GALLAGHER: You say there was a quick conversation. Was it advisory in nature?

Ms Campbell : I'd call it a heads-up nature.

CHAIR: Just to try and fill in that gap leading to the ag review, I have records: we had Richard Taylor speaking to rural papers in July 2017, and then in October 2017 we had a letter from the NFF to Minister Frydenberg raising concerns about the grasslands up-listing and lack of information. The letter mentions that there has been an alleged breach. How does the timing of that letter and the NFF's involvement relate to your engagement with the Monaro farmers?

Mr Knudson : I am going to ask Mr Richardson to talk about this. There has been pretty extensive engagement with stakeholder groups, including the NFF, on this listing.

Mr Richardson : I certainly can, and we certainly have had quite a lot of interaction with the NFF, most of it I have to say earlier than the period that we're talking about here and now, although it might come back to the consultative committee NFF. Certainly at the time of the reassessment, when it was initiated and leading up to the 2015 up-listing, or listing as 'critically endangered', of the grassland, we spoke to many stakeholders who were involved. We spoke to the National Farmers Federation. We spoke to the New South Wales Farmers federation. We spoke to community groups. We spoke to NGOs. We spoke to ecologists, local land services et cetera.

CHAIR: This was prior to the up-listing?

Mr Richardson : This was while we were conducting the reassessment, if you like. We also then went out for statutory public comment. Listings go out for public comment of not less than 30 days, and we put out a draft listing assessment. The Threatened Species Scientific Committee releases the draft listing assessment for public comment. A number—I don't know how many—of submissions came back in. One of those was from the National Farmers Federation. I think that's been released recently, or provided recently. The National Farmers Federation raised concerns with the way the definitions worked and the lack of clarity, from their perspective. Then we had several subsequent conversations, and actually responded in writing to their submission as well, trying to clarify what was intended, and we sought the National Farmers Federation's support to assist us in the preparation of an information guide that was for all people potentially affected by the listing but, in particular, the agriculture sector. They then did that, and that information guide was subsequently published, within a couple of months of the listing taking effect. So that was, I guess, an engagement with the National Farmers Federation leading up to that point. Beyond, in that sort of March to October period, we had established an agriculture and environment consultative committee—I believe it's called—which was senior officers—

CHAIR: When was that established?

Mr Knudson : I don't have that on the top of my head. Unfortunately that was more the assessments area, along with your area, Monica. But I'm happy to come back and say, 'This is when it met and these are the issues that were discussed et cetera.'

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mr Oxley : I will just add to that, or help contextualise that. It was called the agriculture and environment consultative committee. For many years, as a department, we had a liaison officer out-posted to the National Farmers Federation, and that was a key means of engagement with the NFF around issues of interest to the farm sector. That arrangement lapsed, and we did find ourselves in circumstances where we didn't have a decent vehicle for dialogue with the National Farmers Federation, and with farmers through the NFF. We agreed with the NFF that there would be value in setting up this consultative committee. It met initially on probably a monthly or two-monthly basis, but with a reasonably high degree of frequency. We agreed a set of issues where there would be value in having further dialogue.

I think grasslands were certainly within the frame, and that's indicated by Mr Richardson's email of 24 March. There were a number of us sat at the table. It was jointly chaired by one of our deputy secretaries and a senior representative of the National Farmers Federation. We talked around a range of issues associated with the relationship between the Environment portfolio and the farm sector. Another example would be the operation of the Emissions Reduction Fund and the farmers' interests in opportunities under the ERF. So it was quite a broad-ranging set of issues which we talked through. Generally the way it worked was we had an agreed agenda up-front, we had a good discussion around the issues and we kept a record of the action items, the things that we agreed that we would follow up and work through. One of the things that came out of that, from my recollection, was the body of work done around outreach and actually getting out on the ground and talking to farmers around the operation of the EPBC Act.

CHAIR: That was mid-2017?

Mr Oxley : That was happening around that time. That was where further dialogue around grasslands would have been channelled. The focus was on better communication with the farm sector, from my recollection.

CHAIR: Given that level of communication—it's a regular dialogue with the NFF—were you surprised then that there was a letter to Minister Frydenberg on 3 October raising concerns about the grasslands up-listing and the lack of information provided to farmers?

Mr Oxley : Not surprised at the time. I was sort of stepping out of this role. But, certainly, the sense we had was that they felt that they had gone through a process of consultation and engagement and that the outcome that had resulted was one that hadn't been well received by farmers and that really left them in a situation where they felt that the listing of ecological communities in the future was a very difficult thing for them to support. So, in that context, it is certainly not surprising to me to see that translated into the letter that came subsequently.

CHAIR: They had been involved with the guide that went to farmers, as you just said. Was it a situation where the NFF had worked with you and felt they'd done a reasonably good job and then found that, actually, on the ground, it wasn't as well received as they had been hoping it was going to be?

Mr Oxley : I think that's probably a reasonable inference to draw from what I've said. Mr Richardson may be able to add to it, but that's probably a question best asked of the National Farmers' Federation.

CHAIR: We did invite them to appear today. I hope that they may yet appear, but they weren't able to appear today. The time line that I've got here is that, essentially, you then began your more on-the-ground outreach, including the field day. The Monaro farm day was a site visit initiated by the NFF on 9 March. Was that the only site visit? Were there other site visits?

Ms Collins : In terms of engagement, we've had staff from compliance, assessments and biodiversity conservation go to the local land service regions—to the north-west, the Hunter, the north-east, the central west and the south-east, which is the area that encapsulates the Monaro. Through those fields trips, we've engaged with nine out of the 11 local land services regions, because we found neighbouring regions came along as well. The intent of those field days was to be able to provide training to the local land services regions but also to get a sense from them as to how the EPBC Act is being applied in the regions. We prepared regionally specific information about matters of national environmental significance and how they might be assessed in those areas. So we've had coverage right across New South Wales in the areas that are most likely to intersect with the EPBC Act.

CHAIR: Can you tell me when they occurred?

Ms Collins : The central-west one was the most recent one, which would have occurred in the last couple of months. Before then, I think there was one field trip that went to the north-west, the Hunter and the north-east over a period of a couple of weeks. That would have been—I'll have to get back to you on dates—probably 2017 or 2018. I'll just need to get back to you on dates for those.

CHAIR: Was the Monaro one the first?

Ms Collins : I don't think so. My recollection is that Monaro was in the mix, around a similar time, but I'll come back to you on the time frames.

CHAIR: The Monaro one had nine Department of the Environment staff, including Mr Knudson, the deputy secretary; the first assistant secretary; you, Mr Richardson; and Ms Collins. Is that the level of staffing that has gone to all these other ones as well?

Ms Collins : Probably not, but the intent for us as a department is to get a better understanding of how the act applies practically in the regions, as well as to be able to explain the outcomes that we're after. So it was really important that we had representation from our assessments branch, our biodiversity conservation branch and our compliance branch. So it did involve a cross-section of areas within the department.

Senator GALLAGHER: Where else have all three of you been?

Ms Collins : What we're recognising is that, where the issues are being raised, the solution doesn't lie in one area in particular.

Senator GALLAGHER: No, but in terms of a visit—

Mr Knudson : Nowhere else.

Senator GALLAGHER: So you only went to the Monaro.

CHAIR: Only the Monaro.

Mr Knudson : The only reason I went there was that it was drivable. I managed to get lost anyway, but I showed up a bit later.

CHAIR: It was close to Canberra.

Mr Knudson : Yes; exactly right. All these areas that are engaging with the sector reported regularly to me, so I thought it was a really neat opportunity to see what was happening on the ground. It was the first time I had ever seen a woolshed—things like that.

Mr Richardson : Sad but true.

Mr Knudson : It's what happens when a Canadian ends up working for the Australian government.

Mr Richardson : Similarly, that's the only one I went on. I had staff go on some of those other trips, but it was opportunistic. That's the way I look at it.

Ms Collins : Yes. I suppose the key intent was the understanding of a technical nature—so what the species or communities and those sorts of things look like and how things apply. So it made sense that the practitioners were the main people who were going, but, as we said, the proximity to Canberra made it quite easy.

Senator GALLAGHER: A very senior delegation.

CHAIR: Can you tell us what sites on the Monaro one were visited?

Ms Collins : There was a large property that we visited, and we went around to particular areas on the property to have a look at different grasslands or different conditions of grasslands. You will see tabled in parliament the pasture types of the Monaro region. We were just trying to get an understanding of different types of pastures that might technically fit in the definition of the endangered ecological community, but for us it's not the full community that we're interested in; we're only interested in where activities might have a significant impact. So that was what we were trying to get out of that particular field day.

CHAIR: Did you visit the site that was under compliance action?

Ms Collins : No.

CHAIR: Was it the Monaro Farming Systems property?

Ms Collins : I believe it was.

CHAIR: Were any of the local participants or the NFF representatives that were there involved with your investigation into the illegal clearing—the unlawful clearing?

Ms Collins : Not to my knowledge, no.

CHAIR: But there were Monaro Farming Systems representatives there?

Ms Collins : That's right.

CHAIR: Was Mr Richard Taylor in attendance?

Ms Collins : No, he wasn't.

CHAIR: And any of the other directors of Jam Land?

Ms Collins : No, they weren't.

Senator GALLAGHER: I've got a few questions, and I'm conscious of people's time. Are we trying to get out at 2.30 for everybody's sake?

Mr Knudson : Thank you, Senator.

CHAIR: Yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: Sorry to go back a bit again, but I'll work through it quickly. We know the department met with Minister Taylor in March 2017. Has the department discussed the listing with Minister Taylor on any other occasion?

Mr Richardson : No.

Senator GALLAGHER: So just that meeting?

Mr Richardson : Sorry, I should say: not to my knowledge.

Senator GALLAGHER: Okay. Has the department had any other contact with Minister Taylor in relation to the listing? Any correspondence?

Mr Richardson : Not to my knowledge.

Senator GALLAGHER: Has the department had contact with representatives of Jam Land other than Minister Angus Taylor?

Ms Collins : We've certainly had engagement with representatives of Jam Land through the compliance investigation.

Senator GALLAGHER: So only through that?

Ms Collins : That's right, yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: Throughout the investigation?

Ms Collins : That's right, yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: As a matter of that conduct?

Ms Collins : Yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: Okay. We may have just touched on this before, but have officers of the department attended the Jam Land property in the Monaro, and, if so, how many times?

Ms Collins : It's been at least two and possibly three.

Senator GALLAGHER: That is in relation to?

Ms Collins : The compliance investigation.

Senator GALLAGHER: Has Jam Land sought to have the grasslands listing varied to accommodate its commercial interests?

Ms Collins : Not with me.

Mr Richardson : No, there's been no proposal or suggestion that we change the listing.

Senator GALLAGHER: Have Ministers Price or Ley or their offices sought advice from the department on the grasslands listing or the compliance action relating to the land part owned by Minister Taylor?

Mr Richardson : Sorry, can you repeat the question? Who are you asking about?

Senator GALLAGHER: Has the previous minister, Minister Price, or Minister Ley or their offices sought advice from the department on the grasslands listing or the compliance action relating to Jam Land?

Mr Richardson : I don't recall. I'd probably have to take that on notice to be certain, but I don't believe so.

Senator GALLAGHER: Thank you.

Mr Richardson : On the listing, I should say, not the compliance.

Ms Collins : From a compliance perspective, no, they haven't sought advice. But, as I said previously, we've provided high-level information so that they're aware of the compliance activity.

Senator GALLAGHER: What's the form of that high-level advice? Is it a brief?

Ms Collins : There are weekly briefs that go to the minister's office about those sorts of things.

Senator GALLAGHER: Question time briefs?

Ms Collins : I would have to check. I don't think so, but I would have to check.

Senator GALLAGHER: Nodding head?

Mr Knudson : Senator, the other thing I would say is that we would have done a briefing for Minister Ley as the incoming minister in terms of the incoming government brief.

Senator GALLAGHER: So the incoming government brief, the weekly brief and a question time brief. In relation to the previous evidence given by you, Ms Campbell, you said that you advised Minister Ley that this hearing was going to be held and asked that they advise Minister Taylor. Why would the department ask that that occur?

Ms Campbell : When we're giving evidence, we sometimes ensure that the minister protects her own relationships. I think, in this instance, the department is sensitive about its relationship with Minister Taylor, who, as you know, is one of our portfolio ministers.

Senator GALLAGHER: That's right.

Ms Campbell : Again, it was in the heads-up sort of space.

Senator GALLAGHER: But not formally within any ministerial responsibility?

Ms Campbell : More in a 'minister engaged with her colleagues' responsibility.

Senator GALLAGHER: Has Minister Taylor or his office received any briefing from the department related to the operation of the EPBC Act since his appointment as a portfolio minister?

Mr Knudson : I don't believe so. We absolutely have briefed Minister Ley on the act, but I don't recall Minister Taylor.

Ms Campbell : The only thing I would add is: except for at a high level in the incoming government brief which went to both ministers.

Senator GALLAGHER: Has Minister Taylor acted for Minister Ley since 29 May 2019?

Mr Knudson : I'm not sure, but we could easily come back to you on that.

Mr Oxley : We will check because Minister Ley had a week's leave just recently, and I can't now recall who was the acting minister.

Ms Tregurtha : I believe Minister Cormann acted for Minister Ley during that period.

Senator GALLAGHER: Can you check that?

Mr Knudson : We're happy to provide that.

Senator GALLAGHER: I'm aware there are times, when there is more than one minister in a portfolio, you can copy ministers in or provide them with copies of briefs that are going to either minister. Are you aware of any times this has happened since 29 May, where briefs to Minister Ley would have been routinely copied to Minister Taylor?

Ms Campbell : There are definitely cases that have been copied to Minister Taylor, but my recollection is that it was not in the environment space; it was more in the areas where they have a common interest—the climate adaptation space, for example.

Senator GALLAGHER: Could you check that for us on notice, please.

Ms Campbell : Can I just confirm: specifically about the EPBC and Monaro grasslands?

Senator GALLAGHER: No, just in general when they were routinely copied in and the number of occasions this has occurred—briefs and departmental advice where both ministers have been asked to note or provide comment on a brief as well.

Ms Campbell : We can look that up.

Senator FAWCETT: If there is nothing on EPBC, it's probably worth noting that there were no briefs copied in on that.

CHAIR: So after the Monaro field days, after meeting with the Nationals party room, we end up with an ag review, with Wendy Craik being appointed to do that agricultural review at a cost of $547,000—I think that was revealed in some documentation. As part of that review, as we've just discussed with Wendy Craik, there is a proposal to do regional planning in two areas: the Monaro tablelands grasslands and Walgett. Was there any communication from the department with regard to the work that you'd been doing on the Monaro with the Craik review that led to the Monaro being selected as the place for the pilot plan?

Mr Knudson : I don't recall the specifics, but we did have discussions with Dr Craik and her team when they were kicking off their review to provide context on basic stats on the interaction, how many farmers have had to refer under the act—all that sort of basic detail. We also would have walked through the listing process in general and our compliance engagement work. But, if there's a specific element you're looking for, Senator, I'm happy to try to answer that.

CHAIR: Through this review and at the end of it, we've got the Monaro grasslands and the Monaro tablelands being selected as a place to undertake a regional plan. Does the department have a view on the concept of doing these regional plans?

Mr Knudson : I do, personally. I fundamentally support them. Anything that tries to take a regional perspective is better than doing it individually, project by project, because you can deal with cumulative impacts.

CHAIR: Have you got any ballpark assessment of what the cost of doing those regional plans would be?

Mr Knudson : I do not, personally.

Ms Collins : I think it would depend on what you are trying to achieve in the regional approach, but I would tend to say that even just the outline of the pasture types of the Monaro region, and the guidance that goes with it, helps in the context of the Monaro region, with the grassland activity there. Whilst it probably doesn't fit the definition of a Monaro strategic plan, it's the type of thing that would feed really neatly into that sort of thing.

CHAIR: That's the guidance that's already been prepared by the department in association with the local land services—the guidelines for farmers?

Ms Collins : That's right. When the Craik review was being undertaken, we were already working on that sort of work.

Mr Knudson : The piece that Monica's team has developed basically says, 'Here's what matters most and what it looks like,' but what you would ideally want is to be able to take the map that went with the listing and say, 'This is where it exists, and it doesn't exist here,' so you'd have a lot of clarity for landowners about what matters and what doesn't from the act's perspective. That's the piece that I think Dr Craik was trying to get at in terms of a regional plan.

Mr Richardson : I was just going to add that there's quite a positively framed case study within the report itself about the work that's been done by Ms Collins and other areas of the department on the Monaro, and I think that's probably what led to the recommendations that you're referring to. We clearly were having those discussions with the review team during the review that was being conducted.

CHAIR: So you were having discussions within your team and with the review team?

Mr Richardson : Correct, and that's what's reflected in the Craik review report. They actually have the case study that refers to the work that's been done—the outreach and the potential benefits of that.

Senator GALLAGHER: When did you three visit Monaro Farming systems, or do the visit to Monaro?

Ms Collins : I think from memory it was March 2018, but I will need to confirm that for you.

CHAIR: That date, 9 March, is what I have documented, and the review was officially announced on 29 March. Was the concept of the review discussed as a possibility with the people who were taking part in that field day?

Ms Collins : Not with me.

Mr Richardson : I don't recall that.

Ms Collins : It was very much about the grasslands, going and having a look at grasslands with different conditions, the variety of different species of Australian native grasslands, what the improved pasture types were and those sorts of things, as well as the agricultural practices and the response of the grasslands themselves to the agriculture practices.

Mr Knudson : Generally you would want to leave something like that to a minister or the government more broadly to announce, not a set of officials.

CHAIR: Yes; although it was raised at a National Party meeting—

Mr Knudson : Who are members of the government.

CHAIR: some months before that.

Senator GALLAGHER: Where is the investigation up to? Are you going to finish it soon? It's three years.

Ms Collins : Yes, we would like to finish it soon. To the extent that it's completely in our control, we would like to finish it soon, yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: But it's not in your control?

Mr Knudson : As Ms Collins was talking about, there's often a fair amount of additional information that needs to be brought to bear to inform a decision.

Senator GALLAGHER: But three years, surely!

Mr Knudson : Understood. Obviously we're going to pursue and conclude this as quickly as possible.

Senator GALLAGHER: Do you have outstanding pieces of work due?

Mr Knudson : Yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: External consultants?

Mr Knudson : Yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: Outside work.

Mr Knudson : Again, we don't want to talk about the specifics, as is always the case when we're talking about a compliance case, but, yes, there are external pieces that need to be done.

Senator GALLAGHER: That does seem an extraordinarily long time for all parties involved.

Mr Knudson : I think that's a fair observation.

CHAIR: Okay, I think we're done. Thank you. You have taken some questions on notice. Could you get those answers to the committee by 6 September. Thank you very much, all of you, for your two hours with us this afternoon. Thank you for your evidence. I declare this hearing closed.

Committee adjourned at 14:35