Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download PDFDownload PDF   View Parlview VideoWatch ParlView Video

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Department of the Environment

Department of the Environment


CHAIR: I welcome Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham, Assistant Minister for Education and Training, representing the Minister for the Environment, and portfolio officers—Dr de Brouwer and other officers. Does anybody wish to make an opening statement?

Senator Birmingham: No, thank you. Good morning, all. We are ready to roll.

CHAIR: I now invite questions.

Senator URQUHART: Good morning. How many full-time staff are there within the environment department?

Dr de Brouwer : Good morning, Senator. I might just ask Mary Wiley-Smith to go through the numbers with you.

Ms Wiley-Smith : Our total headcount for the department as of 30 April is 2,497 staff, but that also includes as its headcount part-time staff.

Senator URQUHART: How many of those are part-time?

Ms Wiley-Smith : Around 17 per cent of our staff are part-time.

Senator URQUHART: Have there been any voluntary redundancies?

Ms Wiley-Smith : Since last estimates, I can give you an update on the number of staff that have left through the former voluntary redundancy round, which happened earlier this year. A further 202 employees have departed this financial year as at 30 April; that is on top of 177 who departed prior to 1 July 2014. We also have another two who are scheduled to depart before the end of this financial year. That takes the total for this year to 204.

Senator URQUHART: What proportion of all the staff are women?

Ms Wiley-Smith : We have 1,406 female staff and 1,091 male staff.

Senator URQUHART: Obviously subject to privacy rules, could you give us a breakdown of the number and percentage of women in the top ranks of the department?

Ms Wiley-Smith : I could, but we will have to take that on notice; I do not have the information with me.

Senator URQUHART: Also, what is the ethnic breakdown of all the staff in the environment department?

Ms Wiley-Smith : Certainly. I can give you a few numbers now and then what I do not have I will take on notice.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you.

Ms Wiley-Smith : As at 30 April, 3.1 per cent of the department's ongoing employees identified as Indigenous; 2.2 per cent of the department's ongoing employees identified as having a disability; and 10.8 per cent of the department's ongoing employees identified as coming from a non-English speaking background.

Senator URQUHART: You obviously collect those figures regularly.

Ms Wiley-Smith : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Have any departmental officers been seconded to the minister's office or the office of the parliamentary secretary?

Ms Wiley-Smith : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator URQUHART: Can you also take on notice to provide the details of those appointments, how they were made and whether they are temporary or permanent.

Ms Wiley-Smith : Certainly.

Senator URQUHART: The other question in relation to that is who is paying for them. Are they on the department's books or have they been engaged under the MOP(S) Act and are therefore on the minister's books?

Ms Wiley-Smith : Certainly. I will take that on notice. We do some temporary placements within the office, which is within the normal procedures. I think three months is the maximum amount of time that the department can pay for an officer who goes up to assist in the office, but I will clarify that.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Perhaps you could outline what the funding arrangements are for the minister's office and the parliamentary secretary's office, or is the latter part of that?

Ms Wiley-Smith : No, I will not be able to take that on notice, as those arrangements are managed elsewhere within the Commonwealth—

Senator URQUHART: Where are they managed?

Dr Kennedy : It is my understanding that the finance department will have the information around offices. As Ms Wiley-Smith was pointing out, we have environment employees who are now—I can think of at least one—working in a minister's office who leave the department on leave without pay, if you like, and then become covered under the MOP(S) Act. Otherwise, as departmental liaison officers, they are not ministerial staffers; they are department staff who undertake a liaison function. Then, as Ms Wiley-Smith pointed out, to cover arrangements in the short term due to various pressures, we would outpost or second for no longer than three months. If an arrangement looked as though there was a desire for it to become permanent, we would arrange for that officer to move to the ministerial staff arrangements and off the department's books.

Senator URQUHART: So, when you talk about the one example that you can think of that has left the department and moved, is that a permanent arrangement or is it seconded over and not without pay from their department?

Dr Kennedy : They are not seconded as such. They take leave from the department and then they move on to the MOPS arrangements, and then their pay and all their conditions and other aspects are met under those arrangements.

Senator URQUHART: Under the MOPS. Then they would go back, once that position was finished in the office?

Dr Kennedy : It depends on how long their leave without pay was granted, if you like, because it is like leave without pay to undertake any other activity. But they are on leave without pay from the department, so they can leave that job and return to the department.

Senator URQUHART: So the department job is basically left open for them to go back to.

Dr Kennedy : Not the specific position. We have a number of staff on leave without pay for sometimes extended periods and, when it is clear that they are due to return, we would talk to the staff member about where they would be placed when they return to the department.

Dr de Brouwer : I might just add that a couple of departmental officers have gone on leave and have taken up MOPS positions in the minister's office; that is a longstanding and very normal practice.

Senator URQUHART: If that happens, is there a specific budget for both of those officers? Do the minister's office and the parliamentary secretary's office have a particular budget, or are they separate?

Dr de Brouwer : I believe so. There are staffing and funding allocations to ministerial and parliamentary secretary offices, which is I think a matter for the Department of Finance.

Senator URQUHART: So there has not been a specific budget or funding allocation set aside from the department to meet the costs of those operating in the ministerial offices in their portfolio?

Dr de Brouwer : Not on that basis, not if they become a MOPS officer. We pay generally—if they are going over on a short-term secondment to fill in a position or a gap—up to that three-month period.

Senator URQUHART: So there may be some examples where there is a funding allocation from the department; would that be correct?

Dr de Brouwer : Not generally. That would be on an as-needs basis that we would manage within our budget. But there is no particular allocation that I am aware of.

Senator URQUHART: What sort of advice forms the basis for approving that sort of purchase of time? If someone moves from that, what is the process to go through?

Senator Birmingham: You want to know the process for the granting of leave without pay?

Senator URQUHART: No; the process of the budgeting. If someone goes over from the department to a minister's or a parliamentary secretary's office, what is the process for approving that process and where does the budgetary stuff flow from that?

Senator Birmingham: Just to be clear, are you asking if they are going over on a short-term secondment or as a DLO or as a MOPS Act staffer?

Senator URQUHART: Either; any.

Dr de Brouwer : There is no allocation in our budget. If they are going over and taking leave without pay and becoming a MOPS officer, a member of parliamentary staff, then they are under the minister's or the parliamentary secretary's budget. So we do not pay for that. As for how that is decided, typically that is an approach by an officer who says that, as part of their career development, they would like to have that experience and they go on leave without pay. As Dr Kennedy has said, we have quite a few staff who at various stages go on leave without pay. It is also very normal for officers to spend some time in a minister's office. I will have to come back on the issue of someone going up from the department to fill a temporary position and, as I am just not sure, I will come back on what the funding arrangements are for that. I think the DLOs are paid for by the department; is that right?

Ms Wiley-Smith : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: How many discretionary grants programs are managed by the portfolio?

Dr de Brouwer : I might have to take that one on notice.

Senator URQUHART: You have a smile on your face.

Dr de Brouwer : I am trying to work it out. I would like to provide an answer; I just do not have that answer in front of me.

Senator URQUHART: Are you able to get it today?

Dr de Brouwer : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: If you could also provide a list of those programs as well, that would be good.

Dr de Brouwer : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you.

Dr Kennedy : There would be streams underneath those programs. I guess you want a break-out of all the various streams of the programs.

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Dr Kennedy : All the administered programs—yes, we will be able to get that for you.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you very much. I guess the question then is: in each case how are they administered? Who is the decision maker? I guess it is the minister but I also assume that the minister's decision is based on the advice of the department. So who actually administers that and who makes those decisions around the work that is done?

Dr de Brouwer : I think that will depend on the particular grants program. We work within a series of delegations. So some decisions will be by the minister and some will be by the department.

Senator URQUHART: Is that discretionary with each of the programs or does it change?

Ms Wiley-Smith : It changes, depending on the program and the way that the program was established and its guidelines. It is very public though. So, for each program, program guidelines setting all of these issues out are available on the website.

Mr Thompson : Typically for competitive grants programs, the minister is the decision maker. That is the typical situation.

Senator URQUHART: In relation to each of those programs, is there an industry advisory body or some other form of advisory body that is involved in the assessment process for grant applications?

Mr Thompson : Again that would differ by program. I can talk about some of the programs in my part of the world which relate to biodiversity protection.

Senator URQUHART: I guess what I would like is an overall picture. If you need to take that on notice, then I am happy for you to do that. But I would also like the details of who those different advisory bodies are that are attached to each of the programs.

Mr Thompson : Certainly. Just to be clear and to give an example which might clarify the question, for the Natural Heritage Trust, we have the National Landcare Advisory Committee, which is an advisory committee. Typically they will be involved in giving advice on the design of the overall program but not be involved in the assessment of competitive grants. Typically that will be the case across most of the programs. You do not involve people who have a conflict of interest in advising on the grants themselves. For example, again under the national Landcare program, we involve community assessors, people who understand how these things work on the ground, to help shape the department's advice to the minister about what would be a suitable grant to fund.

Senator URQUHART: Perhaps you can take that on notice.

Mr Thompson : We will take it on notice.

Senator URQUHART: I do not know whether you have flow charts. They are easy to follow. Do you have something like that?

Mr Thompson : Probably not.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you very much. That is all I have.

Senator CANAVAN: I want to go to my favourite topic, the Register of Environmental Organisations. Perhaps I can start by asking whether it is possible or allowable for an organisation on the register to use its tax deductible donations to campaign during an election and do the normal things that campaigners do—just to clarify, Dr Kennedy—such as doorknocking, phone canvassing et cetera. Can they use those—

Senator SINODINOS: Push polling.

Senator CANAVAN: And push polling, thank you, Senator Sinodinos. I am sure that you are not familiar with that particular campaign technique, but it is at times used. Can they use the donations that they receive in their public fund to carry out those kinds of activities?

Dr Kennedy : I might address the question from the point of view of advocacy, which we have argued in the past, which it might be argued this is an element of. As you are aware, the arrangements for the Register of Environmental Organisations does not expressly rule out advocacy but the organisation has to act within the principal purposes of the act, which is something we have talked about in the past. So, to the extent that people were undertaking activities which were regarded as outside the principal purpose of the act—and it is their principal purpose we should note as well, not their only purpose or their only role; and I do not want to get into hypotheticals—then in that case, if it was an organisation that was undertaking some type of polling activity and clearly was not undertaking any of the activities or arrangements that are listed under the principal purpose such as the protection of the natural environment or the encouraging of information, education and research or those sorts of things, then they would be in that position. The other aspect of that, of course, is that they cannot be simply acting, as you know, as a conduit paying a polling organisation to do that as well. But to be clear, does it expressly rule out people taking part in those activities? No.

Senator CANAVAN: It does not really, does it? You might be aware that the Charities Act does rule out people explicitly canvassing for political candidates or political parties—

Dr Kennedy : It does, but—

Senator CANAVAN: But this register does not—

Dr Kennedy : And that is a difference; that is an important difference. As I understand it, the charities arrangements do allow advocacy.

Senator CANAVAN: But not direct campaigning for a particular political party; there is no express restriction on that.

Dr Kennedy : Seventy-five per cent of organisations on the register are charities as well. To that extent, that 75  per cent of organisations would be covered by the other matter. Frankly, if it was brought to our attention that an organisation had moved well beyond that principal purpose and its principal purpose was to do the sorts of activities in line with the way the charities are assessed, we would investigate and bring it to the attention of the minister. I also do not want to leave you with the impression that we would simply be blind if such an activity was brought to our attention.

Senator CANAVAN: I appreciate that. I draw your attention to an article in TheGuardian on 13 November last year titled 'Victorian government has "worst environmental record since the 60s". It quotes extensively from various environmental organisations that are on the register. It says in the article—it seems to be based on a press release from these organisations:

Environment Victoria, the Wilderness Society, Friends of the Earth and the Victorian National Parks Association are combining resources to target marginal seats before the 29 November election.

Are you familiar with that reporting or have you passed that on to the minister in terms of highlighting what could be actions outside the principal purpose of this register?

Dr Kennedy : I am familiar in general with the type of issue that you are raising; I am not familiar with this specific one. I should clarify a matter under the Charities Act that a colleague has just brought to my attention. The Charities Act makes clear the existing law on advocacy and political activity by charities. A charity can advance its charitable purpose in the following ways:

involving itself in public debate on matters of public policy and public administration through, for example, research, hosting seminars, writing opinion pieces and interviews with the media

supporting, opposing, endorsing and assisting a political party or candidate because this would advance the purposes of the charity (for example, a human rights charity can endorse a party on the basis that the charity considers that the party's policies best promote human rights), and

giving money to a political party or candidate because this would further the charity's purposes.

Senator CANAVAN: I also believe that the Charities Act says that a disqualifying purpose is:

… promoting or opposing a political party or a candidate for political office …

Do you have that in front of you?

Dr Kennedy : I am sorry, there is something—

Senator CANAVAN: A disqualifying purpose under the Charities Act 2013 can be:

… promoting or opposing a political party or a candidate for political office …

Maybe you can clarify that later for us.

Dr Kennedy : That is right, yes. While a charity—

Senator CANAVAN: Anyway, that is a little ancillary to my line of questioning.

Dr Kennedy : The reason I raised it—

Senator CANAVAN: No, I understand; you can clarify it.

Dr Kennedy : It is to cross off the 75 per cent of all organisations that—

Senator CANAVAN: Yes, but some are not, of course. I want to move on, though, to an answer to a question on notice from last additional estimates; it was question No. 99. I asked about any investigations that you may have done on organisations on the register making misleading statements.

Dr Kennedy : Yes.

Senator CANAVAN: You have said that the department is not aware of any investigations conducted into registered organisations for making false and misleading claims. I just want to ask: how does it work within this unit of government? Do you wait for complaints to come in from people or are you actively looking at some of the activities of these organisations? Are you more a complaints-based office?

Dr Kennedy : There are two dimensions to that question. One is that, as we have spoken about in the past, in establishing the eligibility to go on the register, we examine the constitution of the organisation that is coming forward and any other matters, and we do keep an eye on the extent to which an organisation's constitution or any other arrangements change over time. But it would be fair to say that the main source of investigation is matters brought to our attention by the public or matters often brought to us by parties or through the press or some other form. So it is a combination of those two things. But I do not want to mislead you; we do not have an extensive, randomly based audit program running where we are rolling it through. We do not have the resources to undertake that activity.

Senator CANAVAN: How would I make a complaint at the moment?

Dr Kennedy : You would likely write to the secretary and say, 'I have some concerns about this organisation.'

Senator CANAVAN: But there is no shopfront on the web or something which—

Dr Kennedy : I will get my colleague to clarify. There are contact details on the website for people to—

Senator CANAVAN: Right, okay.

Senator Birmingham: I suspect that you could make a complaint right here, but others do not have that benefit.

Senator CANAVAN: I was highlighting this one category. I am sure I have that ability; others may not. In terms of your talking about the press, though, that is fine, Dr Kennedy. I do not think I need any more on that, unless it is crucial for you to add something. In terms of the press, you might be familiar with the fact that this week there was an article in the Courier-Mail about a Greenpeace advertisement which showed, I think, a photo of the Great Barrier Reef, saying, 'Don't let them turn this'—a beautiful picture of coral—'into this'. The picture that they used was of a destroyed, terrible looking reef but it was actually a picture of a reef in the Philippines after a typhoon went through. There did not seem to be any indication that, in fact, the other picture related to a natural disaster event and not some act of government policy. Have you looked at that or is that something you will look at in terms of whether they are meeting their obligations under the information, education and research provision?

Dr Kennedy : We typically do not go into the details of any investigation, but I can say that we have not commenced any investigation into that arrangement at this stage.

Senator CANAVAN: Can I make a complaint today, Dr Kennedy? I will lodge a complaint through Senate estimates. You can look at that for me. It seems to me to be an egregious example of misleading advertising, presumably being at least partly funded from tax-deductible donations. It is my understanding from what you are saying here that such allegations could be investigated under the principal purpose test—

Dr Kennedy : They could be.

Senator CANAVAN: So I will just bring that to your attention. How much longer do I have, Chair?

CHAIR: You are right.

Senator CANAVAN: There is another question from the last estimates, question 100, from Senator Sinodinos. You responded by saying that there is no express limitation in the act about whether the provision of information or education or carrying on of research must be carried out to achieve the protection and enhancement of the natural environment. So it goes to the question that I just asked. Then you went on to say:

However, the Department interprets this provision … that is, the provision of information or education, or the carrying on of research, should ultimately be directed at some positive benefit relating to the protection of the natural environment.

Is this interpretation of yours just something that you have kept internally or are there guidelines or rules that you issue to registered organisations or otherwise to the public to clarify that aspect of the law?

Dr Kennedy : There are probably two aspects to this question and some of the information around this is in our recent submission to the upcoming inquiry in June.

Senator CANAVAN: I have not looked at that yet.

Dr Kennedy : The information accompanying the introduction of the register, the explanatory memorandum and the second reading speeches provide guidance in this direction. Secondly, in our own guidelines, we make clear, or we hope we make clear, the sorts of sets of activities and how they might relate to the protection of the natural environment, providing information, education and research. I have said those two things, but thirdly I would say that I would have thought it is a reasonable, common sense interpretation that that is what this act is designed—

Senator CANAVAN: When you say your own guidelines, do you mean there are internal guidelines?

Dr Kennedy : I may have them in front of me.

Senator CANAVAN: They are the ones on the website?

Dr Kennedy : Yes, that is right.

Senator CANAVAN: Do they go to this point? I have looked at them before, but—

Dr Kennedy : To be honest, I cannot recall if they expressly address that point. But certainly, in communicating with any party that wants to register and assisting them if their application comes forward, we are trying to be as clear as we can to the parties how we would go about assessing those—

Senator CANAVAN: I have seen those guidelines, but are they expressly rules from the minister issued under section 30.265(4)? I believe that the minister has the power to issue rules—

Dr Kennedy : The minister does have—

Senator CANAVAN: Or ministers, responsible ministers.

Dr Kennedy : Yes, that is right. Ministers do have the power to do rules. They are more in the nature of program guidelines.

Senator CANAVAN: So those guidelines, which look familiar to me—the ones you have in your hand—are not expressly rules issued under that section?

Dr Kennedy : They would reflect the rules, but—

Senator CANAVAN: Have there been any rules issued using that particular power under the Income Tax Assessment Act?

Dr Kennedy : I cannot recall. I will have to take that on notice. But I can come back to you in the course of this estimates, if that helps you.

Senator CANAVAN: That would be great. Referring to question 101 from the last estimates, you said that some organisations do provide audited financial statements but there does not appear to be any obligation on them to do so. You say that you reserve the right to request audited financial statements. Have you done that at any time? Have you expressly asked some organisations for those?

Dr Kennedy : I will take this one on notice, too. Certainly, until a couple of years ago, I understand—I think this is covered in our submission—audited financial statements were provided more routinely. Of course, we are back in the camp of the crossover. There is a set of reporting requirements under that 75 per cent of registered environmental organisations; the charities are also providing these statements. So there was an attempt a couple of years ago to try to streamline that or to reduce the duplication. As to your specific question whether we have issued a notice to someone and said, 'Please provide us with an audited financial statement,' I do not know that but I will follow it up for you.

Senator CANAVAN: My final question relates to the last estimates. In question 102 I was asking whether anyone has been taken off for noncompliance with a certain section of the act. You said that last year you warned an organisation that it could be breaching the relevant section and later on the organisation agreed and consented to its removal. Which organisation was that?

Dr Kennedy : I will take that on notice.

Senator CANAVAN: Okay. I want to make the point that I completely understand your not wanting to provide details of an ongoing investigation. But given that this appears to be a concluded matter—

Dr Kennedy : Yes.

Senator CANAVAN: I do not personally see the need for secrecy around it.

Dr Kennedy : Yes. I honestly do not have the—

Senator CANAVAN: I am happy for you to take it on notice.

Dr Kennedy : Yes; and, of course, because the list is public, one could infer it anyway.

Senator CANAVAN: Probably. Organisations come on and off all the time.

Dr Kennedy : I should note on this issue that, when we bring a matter to an organisation where either they are failing to provide their returns or they are being given a warning letter, some organisations do respond by, if you like, self-complying, by saying, 'We wish to be removed from the list.' That is not unusual for an organisation. Rather than for us to continue the matter, they will simply say, 'We agree that we are no longer,' and they remove themselves.

Senator CANAVAN: I have one other question from the last estimates, question 103. It related to—and we have discussed this at previous estimates—some allegations that in the last federal election GetUp! and Friends of the Earth, I believe, had an arrangement for Friends of the Earth to carry out some public polling and share that information with GetUp!, an organisation that does not receive tax deductible status. In previous estimates, you have outlined that you carried out an investigation into that matter.

Dr Kennedy : We did.

Senator CANAVAN: But in your answer to me you said that you did not have any communication with GetUp! in regard to that investigation. Given that the public reporting clearly identified that GetUp! board papers mentioned this matter, why didn't you contact them? I know that GetUp! is not on the register, but surely they would have been a relevant stakeholder organisation in such an investigation?

Dr Kennedy : The focus of our investigation was on the organisation that is registered and its actions and evidence around it not having its donations directed—if you like, the 'mere conduit' aspect. We do not have any coercive or investigative powers beyond that. We do not actually have any coercive or investigative powers.

Senator CANAVAN: So you do not but the Australian Taxation Office presumably does.

Dr Kennedy : They do—

Senator CANAVAN: I will have to ask them.

Dr Kennedy : But they would be presumably looking at them under a different matter than the Register of Environmental Organisations.

Senator CANAVAN: So they do not have coercive powers under this provision? I can ask them later next week.

Dr Kennedy : They do have those powers. We can refer a matter that is arising under the Register of Environmental Organisations where an organisation, we feel, may not be behaving in line with any number of laws, and it is up to them whether they use those powers to investigate. But they do have those powers.

Senator CANAVAN: Finally, to be clear, did you see the GetUp! board papers that were referred to in TheAustralian?

Dr Kennedy : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator CANAVAN: I think you took it on notice last time, but you have not explicitly answered that question.

Dr Kennedy : I do not know off the top of my head whether we sought through the Friends of the Earth or asked them for comment on those board papers, but we did not communicate directly with GetUp!

Senator CANAVAN: I ask you again to take on notice whether you saw those board papers. I do not think that is going to any great secrecy. It goes to the board papers themselves and whether or not you were able to examine them, as presumably TheAustralian was able to.

Dr Kennedy : As public documents, and whether we looked at them through the course of the investigation.

Senator CANAVAN: I do not think they were public documents, but certainly the journalist at TheAustralian seemed to have access to them.

Dr Kennedy : Okay. I will take that on notice.

Senator CANAVAN: You probably could get it from them, but presumably you could follow that up. Finally, going back to my first line of questioning, there is something I forgot to ask. I have seen a number of instances where the volunteers presumably or paid staff of organisations on the register have been arrested and fined for certain activities that they have engaged in. Those organisations have then made a public call asking for tax deductible donations to pay those fines for unlawful acts. Is it legitimate that, under this act, they can ask for tax deductible donations to pay for fines for people doing the wrong thing? Is that allowed? Presumably, it is permissible because it happens so often. I presume you have not actually told anyone that they are doing the wrong thing here. I think your colleague is trying to get your attention.

Ms Jensen : We would say that, if an organisation on the register engages in, funds or encourages illegal activities, this may provide a basis on which the minister and the Assistant Treasurer could direct its removal from the register. However, any removal action would depend on the specific nature of the activity in question. In other words, it could lead to—

Senator CANAVAN: My question does not precisely go to that, though; it goes to using it as a campaign tool. Clearly, they have broken a law and they have been fined. Certainly, they do not seem to be contesting that breach. Indeed they are taking pride in it and promoting it and then asking the public to donate—to get a tax deduction through paying someone's fine. So that is not prohibited; that is my question. That particular use of advertising for donations is not prohibited?

Ms Jensen : The question relates again to the question around political activity and the principles of—

Senator CANAVAN: I am sorry; I will be clear. It is not the unlawful act; it is not the nature of that act, whether it is political or otherwise. It is an unlawful act because a fine has been levied. My question goes directly to the advertising for tax deductible donations to pay for those fines. That is not prohibited at the moment?

Dr Kennedy : Perhaps I could respond. It is not expressly prohibited.

Senator CANAVAN: Thank you, Dr Kennedy.

Senator Birmingham: Chair, just on that—I know that Senator Canavan is well aware—for anybody who does not follow the issue so closely, it is important to note that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment is undertaking an inquiry into the administration and transparency of the Register of Environmental Organisations and having particular regard to definitional issues, some of the matters that Senator Canavan touched on. We look forward to seeing the evidence provided to that inquiry and its findings.

CHAIR: Thank you, Minister.

Senator WATERS: Firstly to staffing—and my apologies, as I missed the first few minutes.

Senator Birmingham: It feels like only budget week that we were last together!

Senator WATERS: Indeed. Can the department please provide an update on the total level of full-time equivalent staffing?

Ms Wiley-Smith : Certainly. In terms of our paid full-time equivalent staffing as at 30 April, we have 2,176.1, and that number includes the Director of National Parks as well.

Senator WATERS: Do you have a breakdown of the number of full-time equivalents in the compliance and enforcement division?

Ms Wiley-Smith : I have a breakdown for the division itself, but not to the level of detail of just the compliance officers. When they appear tomorrow, they will be able to give you those details. With respect to full-time equivalent for EACD, it is 171 FTE.

Senator WATERS: I have a note here that in May last year it was 236 full-time equivalents. That has now come down by some 60-odd folk. What was the cause of that reduction? Which budgetary measure can that be attributed to?

Ms Wiley-Smith : I will check in terms of the numbers. There sometimes can be a little bit of confusion with head count and full-time equivalent. I know that the head count was over 200 a little while ago. Certainly it is still at 197. I will need to look at that. It is quite possible that there has been some restructure within the division, including we had a task force that was being run from EACD and that task force has now gone back from basically a division size to a branch. That was to do with one-stop shop. But as to the details of any changes within the division, the staff would be able to answer that tomorrow when they appear.

Mr Thompson : What was that number that you had and at what date was it?

Senator WATERS: I had it that as at May 2014 it was 236 full-time equivalents for the EACD.

Mr Thompson : We will try to establish the provenance of that.

Senator WATERS: For compliance and enforcement specifically, are you saying I can check that tomorrow when they are here?

Ms Wiley-Smith : Yes.

Senator WATERS: Do you have any figures on conditions monitoring and approvals monitoring?

Ms Wiley-Smith : Separate numbers on those issues? No, I do not have the break-up further down than at the division level, as the divisions are able to manage their own budget and to move staff around as they need.

Senator WATERS: Will it be in 1.5 that I have to ask both of those?

Mr Thompson : Yes.

Senator WATERS: Can I come back to a mention that you made of the one-stop shop task force, which you say was division size and is now branch size? Can you put some figures around those descriptions? How many folk were there and how many are there now?

Ms Wiley-Smith : That is another question that I think will need to be answered by the officers tomorrow.

Mr Thompson : In rough terms, it was a regulatory reform task force which had a division head and a number of band 1 SES assistant secretaries. So there would have been at least three there. It was not a full sized division in the sense of some of the other larger divisions in the place. There would have been about 30 to 40 people. That is my recollection but we will confirm that.

Senator WATERS: What has it come down to now?

Mr Thompson : Those activities have been absorbed back into the environment assessment and compliance division and now constitute a branch within that division. There would be about 20 to 30 people but we will confirm that tomorrow.

Dr de Brouwer : The peak workload there was because of the negotiations of the bilateral approvals. There are now six draft approval bilaterals that have been completed, so the workload for that team has come down.

Senator WATERS: Those drafts have not yet finished their public consultations. Are you implying that the public consultation will not require as much staffing?

Dr de Brouwer : No, I am not. I am just saying that the initial drafting of those documents was a very intensive piece of work and there is ongoing work in responding to the comments. As I said, they are draft documents and not finalised.

Senator WATERS: So ongoing work: roughly how many people are looking through those public comments?

Dr de Brouwer : We will have to come back tomorrow on that.

Senator WATERS: I appreciate the update on those figures. It seems to me on the figures that I have that we have tracked through this process that there has been an overall staff reduction. Are you able to quantify the reduction in overall staffing?

Ms Wiley-Smith : Yes. We have actually reduced our staffing by just over 400 of our ongoing staff over the last 18 months. The reduction has been achieved through a combination of voluntary redundancies, the capability round—that was spoken about before at estimates—and also natural attrition; so that is employee initiated departures. At the moment we are tracking within our budget and we are right for going into next financial year.

Senator WATERS: So you have lost about 400-odd. I have 430 here on the budget figures; that is about 16  per cent. Are you still tracking to be a total reduction of 670 by 2016-17, which would be a 26 per cent reduction in the department's workforce?

Ms Wiley-Smith : We are already almost there because the reduction also occurred before the last 18 months. We also lost a considerable number of staff earlier in 2013. At this point we are tracking on target. There will be a further reduction in 2016-17. We think it is around 100 staff that we might need to reduce by at that stage, but it also depends on future budget decisions. It is a little bit too early to tell.

Senator WATERS: Are you saying that you have lost more than 16 per cent of your workforce currently?

Ms Wiley-Smith : Yes, we have.

Senator WATERS: Do you have a figure that more accurately reflects that?

Ms Wiley-Smith : I will have to actually come back. I only have more recent figures around the last 18  months. We can have a look at what happened before that.

Senator WATERS: Thanks very much, because it is certainly an alarming reduction. Of course, right at the time when the ANAO is scrutinising the ability of the staff to conduct appropriate compliance and enforcement work, it is alarming that there are still losses. I will pursue tomorrow whether there have been significant losses from that particular section. I want to move now to the DGR inquiry. Was it the minister who referred that inquiry to the Reps committee? That is my understanding; I am just double-checking.

Senator Birmingham: I do not recall, but others at the table may.

Dr Kennedy : My understanding is that the committee itself established and got going the inquiry that it is undertaking, but it may have discussed the matter with the minister.

Ms Jensen : Minister Hunt wrote to the committee requesting that the inquiry take place.

Dr Kennedy : I beg your pardon, Senator.

Ms Jensen : My colleague is not quite across the details that I am.

Senator Birmingham: The exact practices of House of Representatives committees are probably something that none of us are precise on. They may have needed their own motion or agreement of the chamber or otherwise to instigate it, but I am not sure.

Senator WATERS: I would hazard a guess that they would. Did the department provide any advice to the minister relating to that referral?

Ms Jensen : No, we did not.

Senator WATERS: Have you provided any advice subsequently?

Ms Jensen : On a daily basis, in terms of the normal course of business in administering the register, the department provides advice through to the minister. In relation to the inquiry, we have completed a submission and we are gearing up to make sure that we can provide whatever advice and support the committee needs in undertaking its inquiry.

Senator WATERS: Is that submission public yet?

Ms Jensen : We would have to ask the committee, actually.

Dr Kennedy : It was provided late last week.

Ms Jensen : I might call on my colleague Ms Musgrave to respond to that question.

Dr Kennedy : It should be up on the website now.

Senator WATERS: I will have a look at that; thank you. Did the department provide any advice to the minister or to the House of Reps inquiry, for that matter, on the terms of reference for that inquiry?

Ms Jensen : No, we did not.

Senator WATERS: Where has the minister got this idea from then, if it is not from you guys?

Senator Birmingham: Senator, I do not know whether you have been absent during some of the hearings of this estimates committee and have not read the press clips or otherwise. There has been some contestability around the operation of the DGR rules and we just had yet again a series of questions posed by Senator Canavan.

Senator WATERS: There was a series of assertions. There has not been any evidence of the department—

Senator Birmingham: They were a series of questions and Senator Canavan cited a number of references in his questions today, as he has on previous occasions. Ultimately, I am sure you would agree, parliamentary committees are a good means and process of allowing such concerns to be aired and for information to be provided and ultimately for recommendations of the parliament to be made to the government which the government would then consider.

Senator WATERS: Sure. I happen to think this one was a baseless attack on environment groups, but that is my view and there has also been no evidence to date—

Senator Birmingham: That is okay, Senator Waters. I happen to think that some of the proposals from the Australian Greens are quite baseless as well.

Senator WATERS: I am sure that the inquiry will find that everything has been done above board by the environment groups and, in fact, they deserve more support, not less. Can I just confirm—

Senator Birmingham: That sounds like your opinion and you are welcome to it. I trust the inquiry will move beyond opinions and establish the facts.

Senator WATERS: Let us hope so, because I do not imagine that there is actually much evidence there.

CHAIR: Senator Waters, I think it is time to move on with some questions; thank you.

Senator WATERS: Thank you, Chair. Can I ask what support role the department is actually playing in relation to this inquiry? You have done your submission. Do you anticipate any—

Senator Birmingham: I am sure the same as it does in relation to any parliamentary inquiry. The department provides submissions. It may appear to give evidence. But, of course, parliamentary inquiries stand alone and are supported, as you well know, by their own secretariats and are autonomous from the arms of government.

Senator WATERS: Yes. So what report are you providing to the minister in relation to this inquiry and the conduct of it?

Dr Kennedy : Just on the committee first, we have been asked questions from the committee about statistical information on the number, how it has changed over time and all those sorts of matters; so we have tried to incorporate all of that material into our submission. As Ms Jensen said, we talk to the minister on a range of matters, but our focus in this most recent period has been on preparing that submission and getting prepared for our appearance, which I think is on 2 June, so we are able to provide the committee with evidence around how we go about administering that law and as much statistical information as we can on how the register has changed over time and those sorts of issues. It is not our job in that submission to advise the committee about the broader policy; it is to just provide as much evidence as we can about how the policy is currently administered and any information the committee seeks for its own deliberations. We provide policy advice to the minister and normally we would not go into details about what that advice is, but I can say—I think it is reasonable for me to say—that our focus at the moment is on providing that information to the committee.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. Canvassed earlier in response to some questions were the Charities Act requirements. I understand that this is not your purview normally but I appreciate that you have some level of familiarity with the statutory structure. My understanding, from the section that you read out earlier, is that it is in fact fine for groups that are registered charities to go so far even as to endorse political parties, but my understanding of Senator Canavan's reference is that that is as long as it is not specifically a purpose of that organisation. Is that an accurate summation?

Dr Kennedy : I think that is accurate. I think there is the confusion that I have fallen into there with Senator Canavan. Yes, you are right; it is an activity that can be undertaken by the charity, but they cannot exist just to be that activity, as I understand it.

Senator WATERS: You clarified that about 75 per cent of organisations on the REO are listed as charities and therefore those rules apply to them. What about the other 25? Are there similar rules that apply in relation to political endorsements, which was the issue that Senator Canavan was so concerned about?

Dr Kennedy : I was saying to Senator Canavan that those sorts of issues are not expressly prohibited in the existing arrangements. Whether the activity is reasonable or not is always through the eyes of whether the principal purpose of that organisation is promotion of activities to restore the natural environment or education and research and those sorts of things. So it is always through that lens. There is not a set of activities which 'you must not, you must not, you must not'. It is really: is your principal purpose those other things? To the extent that undertaking some of these activities means that your principal purpose is not that, that would be the basis upon which an organisation would function. We might advise ministers in that case that the organisation's principal purpose is not that. So it is through that first lens: what is the principal purpose of that organisation?

Senator WATERS: Again, it seems to me that pretty much everything is above board, but I understand that that is what we have inquiries for. Has there been any evidence that the department has tracked where any groups on that register have in fact endorsed any political party, as opposed to criticised decisions that have a poor impact on the environment, no matter which government is in power?

Dr Kennedy : I am not aware of our routinely investigating whether organisations on the register are supporting or engaged in any way with political organisations. But, to be absolutely clear, because there is a long history of this register going back to 1992, I will take on notice whether any such activities have occurred in the past.

Senator WATERS: Thank you, because I am certainly not aware of any myself. But you are saying that that is not precluded anyway; even if there were, that would not be against the rules. Is that correct?

Dr Kennedy : It is not precluded for them to engage with or discuss with those organisations. All the avenues are the ones that I have engaged with Senator Canavan in the past. A party cannot come along and donate through this organisation as a conduit, if you like, to undertake political activities. There is a set of rules around the operation of the organisation that prevent, for example, a donating party from directing the organisation to do something political. But, as long as the organisation is acting independently according to its constitution and its constitution reflects the principal purpose, it can undertake a range of activities.

Senator WATERS: Thank you for your help.

CHAIR: Senator Ludlam, do you have any questions here?

Senator LUDLAM: I have a couple. Is this an appropriate time to ask about a couple of specific assessments that are underway?

Mr Thompson : Environmental assessments under the EPBC Act: probably 1.5 is better, which is environment regulation, which is tomorrow.

Senator LUDLAM: That is tomorrow, isn't it?

Mr Thompson : Yes.

CHAIR: You could try and seek a few details.

Mr Thompson : I have a limited briefing in front of me.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay; and not the right people in the room?

Mr Thompson : No.

Senator LUDLAM: I might ask a general question then and I will come to the specifics tomorrow. The specific project I am interested in is the Perth freight link. Assessment is not yet underway. It is my understanding that it has not been formally referred under the EPBC Act, but the decision has clearly been made and funding has been allocated at a state and federal level. In my view, quite political decisions have been made that that project is going ahead come what may. How does it affect your assessment process when quite clearly your project is being given the green light before you have even been brought in to establish whether it is environmentally and socially feasible or appropriate?

Mr Thompson : I suppose the first point would be that it is not unusual for projects to be at an advanced stage on the financing side, whether it is the private sector or government projects, or in an announcement sense around those projects with the environmental assessment still to be undertaken. That is not an unusual occurrence. To go to your question in terms of what effect that has on us, we undertake our assessment or rely on the documentation that is required as part of the assessment, do that assessment and provide advice on its merits to the minister, if the minister is the decision maker; or, if the minister delegates the decision to the department, we are obliged to provide that advice and make decisions in compliance with the act.

Senator LUDLAM: Under your act, if you form a view that a project is environmentally unacceptable, you are perfectly able to recommend as such.

Mr Thompson : Yes.

Senator LUDLAM: You do not have to approve everything.

Mr Thompson : No; that is correct. There is a provision, as you know, in the EPBC Act for us to advise and for a minister to make a decision that a project has unacceptable impacts. As you probably know as well, there are very few projects that have fallen into that category. Nevertheless, I will have to take that on notice or answer that in 1.5. I am not aware of the number.

Senator LUDLAM: Could you take that on notice for us?

Mr Thompson : Sure.

Senator LUDLAM: In the entire history of the act since when, 1999—

Mr Thompson : Yes.

Senator LUDLAM: when it was first legislated, how many projects have actually been refused? If other Commonwealth ministers, or state ministers for that matter, have already announced that the project is going ahead, does that have any bearing on your assessment process?

Mr Thompson : Again, officers tomorrow might clarify this, but my understanding is that it has no bearing on the assessment process. As you know, as part of the EPBC Act process the minister, as the decision maker, will typically make a proposed decision and consult with affected parties, including affected ministers, if ministers are involved in some way, and then will make a final decision.

Senator LUDLAM: How do your assessment processes vary or differ if the proponent is the Commonwealth or a state government as opposed to a private party?

Mr Thompson : My understanding—again, officers might elaborate on this tomorrow—is that our processes do not differ at all; there is no material difference in the process.

Senator LUDLAM: No material difference, but the impacted parties, or affected parties, would happen to involve ministers.

Mr Thompson : That is correct.

Senator LUDLAM: That is the only difference.

Mr Thompson : That is not uncommon. As you know, the EPBC Act requires us to assess whole-of-environment impacts in relation to any action on Commonwealth land, for example. That is very common. That is just part of the normal business process that we undertake.

Senator LUDLAM: I will ask you more tomorrow, although I understand the schedule is a bit more congested. Finally from me, on notice, could you identify whether under your act you have ever knocked back a proposal of which a state or federal government was the proponent, even one single time.

Mr Thompson : Sure. Just to clarify: whether we have ever found a project sponsored by a state or federal government—or where a state or federal government was the proponent—to be clearly unacceptable under the EPBC Act?

Senator LUDLAM: Yes. I appreciate that.

Senator WATERS: Or was refused approval at the end of the process.

Mr Thompson : Okay.

Senator WATERS: Either.

Senator LUDLAM: If there is a distinction—

Mr Thompson : Yes, there is.

CHAIR: Dr de Brouwer, there was a story in the Canberra Times on 10 March by Noel Towell in which he said: 'Thousands of public servants at the Department of Environment are preparing to walk off the job as they try to force their bosses to make them a pay offer.' When the protected action got under way, how many of your employees participated?

Dr de Brouwer : We have the number.

Ms Wiley-Smith : From 8 April, following approval by the Fair Work Commission, departmental staff who were members of the Community and Public Sector Union have been engaging in a range of protected industrial action measures. Industrial action has occurred on three occasions. The first was on 16 April. A total of 43 employees from four different branches took part in a range of work bans, which included for one hour not answering or making phone calls, not using the parliamentary work flow system and reading out a message about protected industrial action. Two employees took a 2½ hour work stoppage, and nine employees from the Supervising Scientist branch in Darwin took a 20-minute work stoppage. The second period of industrial action was from 30 April to 6 May, where a total of 12 employees took a number of partial work bans and limited actions. Then the final period of industrial action that has occurred so far was on 20 May: from one o'clock to two  o'clock in the afternoon, a total of 94 staff across all areas of the department took part in a work stoppage.

CHAIR: What was the impact of these three activities on the department?

Ms Wiley-Smith : Management is always notified ahead of any period of industrial action. We have time to ensure that we are able to prepare and manage for any potential impact. In this instance there have been no reports that the action taken has affected the operations of the department.

CHAIR: So the impact was negligible, if not nothing.

Dr de Brouwer : Yes, Senator.

Senator WATERS: I might just put some questions on notice that I neglected to mention earlier.

CHAIR: Sure.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. If you could just provide for me, please, a list of all of the efficiency dividends imposed on the department and on portfolio agencies since 2007-08. If you could provide a list of the total funding and the full-time equivalents allocated to the relevant departmental section responsible for assessments, approvals and compliance monitoring under the EPBC Act—obviously the names will have changed—again, since 2008-09. Thank you.

Ms Wiley-Smith : Certainly. Chair, I have a few responses to Senator Urquhart's earlier questions. I can confirm that we have in our SES—our senior executive service—41 per cent females. Also I have a list that goes into the country of birth for all our staff in the department. I can table that for the committee.

Senator SINODINOS: That would be a first. What do you want that for?

Ms Wiley-Smith : It relates to the non-English-speaking background question that was asked earlier.

CHAIR: The hearing will be suspended for 15 minutes, until 10.20 am.

Proceedings suspended from 10 : 06 to 10 : 20