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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation

Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation


CHAIR: I now welcome the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

Senator Ruston: Chair, before we start can I just acknowledge that this will be the last time that Mr Burns attends estimates after a very long history of participating in estimates? I wish him all the best in whatever he is intending to do from here.

CHAIR: We had one bloke of 33 years leave yesterday, so we are getting rid of a few. How many years, Mr Burns?

Mr Burns : I think I have been coming to estimates for about 23 years, but longer in the service. The fun has to come to an end at some stage.

CHAIR: What age are you? I am 73.

Mr Burns : Not quite that old.

CHAIR: You still have a bit left in you.

Senator CAMERON: Thanks, Chair. I, on behalf of Labor, wish you well in your retirement. Thank you for your public service over a long period of time. Let's hope the fun continues this morning. What is the current situation, can you give us an update, on this move to Wagga?

Mr Burns : The latest is that the board has received a letter from the minister indicating that the government supports the relocation of RIRDC functions to Wagga Wagga. The board is going to meet again on 24 February and discuss exactly how that might proceed.

Senator CAMERON: When you say 'functions to Wagga Wagga', the minister, Barnaby Joyce, wanted the whole box and dice to move to Wagga, didn't he?

Mr Burns : The original request was for us to move to Albury. So the game has shifted a little bit.

Senator CAMERON: When did Wagga come into it?

Mr Burns : I think it was July last year that we wrote back to the minister saying that we did not see a business case for moving at all, but if we did have to move then we thought there was a stronger case for Wagga Wagga rather than Albury.

Senator CAMERON: Okay. So there is no business case for moving. Have you heard the business case from the minister? Has the minister proposed a business case?

Mr Burns : The minister expressed a desire for us to relocate and the board considered that and wrote back to the minister. The board made the point that they did not see that there was a business case but reflected on the fact that we are a statutory authority and that the minister is the minister and we would relocate functions to Wagga Wagga.

Senator CAMERON: What were the key issues that you found in the business case that you should not move?

Mr Burns : We have been through this before, Senator. For us, the fact that we deal with 30 different industries, that we deal with a lot of crosscutting issues that are not industry specific, then the idea of finding an ideal location for the RIRDC is pretty difficult. We deal with tropical fruits and we deal with truffles, which you will find in places like the Margaret River. Actually finding a location where there is a concentration of so-called RIRDC industries is very difficult. We have always seen Canberra as a good location in that a lot of people come to Canberra to talk to a lot of different agencies. So we actually meet a lot of people in Canberra. It was not so much an argument about whether or not we should be moving; it was a discussion about if we do have to move where is the best option.

Senator CAMERON: But the minister has not developed a business case that you are aware of?

Mr Burns : It was the minister’s desire that we relocate. We submitted numbers to the department and the department advised the minister about the business case, I guess.

Senator EDWARDS: You did offer to move?

Senator CAMERON: I think I have the call, Chair

ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Sterle ): I am actually going to instil some discipline today. The senator has the call. I do not want to get into the nonsense that we have seen in the last couple of days.

Senator CAMERON: Have you got documentation on the business case to stay as is?

Mr Burns : We provided the numbers on what it would cost to relocate.

Senator CAMERON: Could you provide that detail to the Senate?

Mr Burns : We were asked to provide them to the department, so I would suggest it is perhaps the department’s call on that. I am not trying to avoid it.

Senator CAMERON: What is your view on that, Mr Quinlivan? Is it the department or Mr Burns? The Senate would like to see these documents.

Mr Quinlivan : I would have to take that on notice and consult the minister.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Quinlivan, have you seen a business case from the minister for the move?

Mr Quinlivan : I have seen the numbers that Mr Burns refer to. I am aware of the context in which they were developed, which was that the government has a decentralisation policy and has asked these corporations to bring proposals to relocate outside of Canberra. Those boards have done that. We are currently working through the detail.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Quinlivan, the government might have a decentralisation policy but there has to be some rhyme or reason for individual organisations to be decentralised. There has to be a business case, surely.

Mr Quinlivan : The policy is based on regional economic development objectives.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Burns has indicated that there was no business case that he could identify for the move.

Senator Ruston: Senator Cameron, I think it is probably better directed to me. It was a policy decision made by the minister and, as is rightly pointed out by Mr Quinlivan, it was on the basis of decentralisation as a central platform of regional economic development.

Senator CAMERON: So decentralisation is the policy. Can we expect to see more decisions made on decentralisation without the business case because of this policy?

Senator Ruston: Senator Cameron, as you probably know from being around for a very long time, quite often the ideology that sits behind these is the driving reason. We can spend a fortune doing all sorts of analysis, reviews, reports and investigations into things but we fundamentally, as a party, believe that rural and regional Australia is extraordinarily important and there are certain things that need to go into ensuring the ongoing sustainability of regional Australia. Fundamentally, we may well disagree as parties on that, but that does not make it right or wrong.

Senator CAMERON: No, I am just trying to work out the business case. Ideology is one thing; a business case might be a different thing.

Senator Ruston: Sure, and we can have business cases for all sorts of things. I'm not sure we had a business case for banning the live exports. There are a lot of things that don't have business cases but decisions are taken.

Senator STERLE: You need to stop going down that cheap-shot path.

Senator Ruston: Okay. Well anything, Senator Sterle—

Senator Sterle interjecting

Senator Ruston: I would prefer that you did not swear at me.

Senator STERLE: Did I swear?

Senator Ruston: It sounded to me like you did.

Senator STERLE: I am sorry, I said the word ‘ban’.

Senator Ruston: No? Sorry.

Senator CAMERON: Maybe if we can get back to the issue of the business case. Minister, have you seen any business case from the minister's office that would take this organisation from Canberra to either Albury or Wagga?

Senator Ruston: No, the only area in my responsibility within fisheries where I have seen the justification for a relocation is the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation.

Senator CAMERON: We will come to that. So there is no business case. It is just ideology.

Senator Ruston: No, I did not say that. I said that I had not seen it.

Senator CAMERON: No, but you indicated that this was your ideology.

Senator Ruston: I said that that could have been the reason. I have not said that there is no business case.

Senator CAMERON: It could have been the reason. Okay. Mr Burns, how will this impact on staff? What is the situation?

Mr Burns : As I said, the board will meet later this month and there are lots of options for us which could range from 100 per cent relocation to having a presence in both Wagga and Canberra. I think you will find that GRDC and FRDC have announced that they are going down what GRDC is calling a ‘hub-and-spoke model’ where they will have a presence in Canberra and a presence in a few locations around Australia. So the board will make a decision as to which is the best outcome to ensure a smooth transition and to minimise the impact on our R&D program and on stakeholders.

Senator CAMERON: The decisions you will make will be decisions made because the minister has got an ideology on this, not because it is the best business plan?

Mr Burns : I cannot really make a call on that yet. I am not trying to avoid it, but there are two things yet to happen. One is that we actually have not seen a public announcement from the minister on the relocation issue so we have to wait and see what the minister says. We then have to, as a board, consider the implications of that. We have not done a calculation on exactly what the shape will be.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Quinlivan, have you had a look at the arguments against this move from the agency?

Mr Quinlivan : I understand the government's policy is to move these corporations.

Senator CAMERON: That is not what I am asking. I am asking a simple question.

Mr Quinlivan : And I have seen the proposals that those corporations have put to the minister to implement the policy.

Senator CAMERON: What Mr Burns indicated was that they had taken the view that there was no business plan and they have done the analysis. They said that analysis went to the department. How did the department deal with that analysis that said that there was no business case for this move?

Mr Quinlivan : The information that was provided to us I think was mainly in the form of costs around various movement proposals and we briefed the minister.

Mr Burns : I think in fairness there are probably two issues. One is where we said we had not seen a business case. The data that we provided was the costs of moving. It was not a cost benefit study. It was just the cost of moving.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Quinlivan, have you developed a business case to move?

Mr Quinlivan : No, we have not.

Senator CAMERON: Has the minister's office provided a business case for the move?

Mr Quinlivan : Not to my knowledge, although it may have been done before the policy was announced.

Senator CAMERON: So much for this nonsense. What will the impact of this be on the current R&D projects, Mr Burns?

Mr Burns : We would be making sure that we minimise the impacts to the extent that we can. There will be some costs involved with moving. My understanding is that there would be no new funds provided to pay for the move. For example, we did a calculation of what it would it would cost to move, say, two thirds of the people to Wagga and that was around $1.4 million. If we are not given new funds to fund that the only way we can fund it is to reduce the R&D spend.

Senator CAMERON: So this little peccadillo of the ministers to move your agency from Canberra has no business case, there are no benefits from it and it is going to cost $1.4 million. And that means a reduction in research and development for the industry—is that correct?

Mr Burns : We will have to look at what we are doing. It is very hard to say exactly what we would do. It might mean for a period we wouldn't initiate some new projects. Our income varies from year to year depending on the levy income because of rainfall conditions and things like that. So it is hard to say exactly what the impact is, but logically if it is going to cost us money we don't have a lot of reserves. Unlike some of the other corporations we have very low levels of reserves. Logic would suggest it would have to come from a reduction in our spend.

Senator Ruston: Can I just make a point? You made a comment in your question to Mr Burns that there were no benefits of the move. Government would contest that supporting rural and regional communities in Australia is not a benefit. The government certainly believes that there are significant benefits to rural and regional Australia by decentralisation.

Senator CAMERON: So the government believes this, do they? Can you provide the committee the details of the business case for the moves that the government is basing this analysis on?

Senator Ruston: We have had this discussion before. I am merely pointing out to you that decentralisation does not generate no benefit. The government believes very fundamentally that the support of our rural and regional communities is something that delivers great benefit not just them but to the whole of Australia. Senator Cameron made, in his lead-up, comments that there were no benefits of the move.

Senator CAMERON: No, there were no benefits to the agency. The agency has said that there is no business plan that would lead them to do this. This is a peccadillo of the minister. It is ideology, as you have indicated.

CHAIR: That is an opinion that is politically based.

Senator CAMERON: No, that is what I have been told this morning.

CHAIR: By someone who doesn't want to go from Canberra to Wagga.

Senator CAMERON: No. From the minister. The minister has said it is ideology. So, Mr Quinlivan, can you provide details of any correspondence you have had with the minister on this issue?

Mr Quinlivan : I think I would need to take that on notice and consult with the minister.

Senator CAMERON: Have you had any meetings with the minister on this issue?

Mr Quinlivan : We have certainly had meetings on the matter. There has been a regular stream of briefings.

Senator CAMERON: With the minister?

Mr Quinlivan : Yes.

Senator CAMERON: Can you provide details of when those meetings were and how many meetings you have had? You obviously keep a diary.

Mr Quinlivan : It would have been a component of a large number of meetings. We will do our best to respond to that question. As I said, I will speak with the minister about your request for correspondence.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Cameron. I will rest you for a minute.

Senator CAMERON: I will come back to it.

Senator EDWARDS: Your department requested to move, is that right?

Mr Burns : No, we received a request from the minister in early 2014 to consider relocating.

Senator EDWARDS: A request to consider relocating. Right.

Mr Burns : I think the language in the original letter was, ‘It is my preference that you relocate’. I think the word 'preference' was there. It has never been an instruction and the board, cognisant of the fact the minister is our minister and we are a statutory authority, put up an argument not to move. But then ultimately they wrote to the minister. So that we are clear, the language that they used was, ‘The board made this decision in full knowledge that RIRDC’s two representative organisations under the act have made it clear that they do not support the minister’s preference. Given the board had to take a decision of this nature, it chose the option it believed is the most enduring and in the best interests of the functioning of RIRDC.’

Senator EDWARDS: In about May, did the minister write to you or the board and ask you that by the end of June, if not sooner, if your agency was willing to relocate? If so, which location would suit you best?

Mr Burns : There have been a series of letters. The first one goes back to April 2014. Through those exchanges we get up to where you are talking about the minister writing to us in May 2015. That was where the suggestion of Albury was made. We wrote back a couple of days later indicating that we were not well disposed to doing that. Then in June the minister wrote to us asking us to provide details of what we would do, in a letter to the Secretary, Mr Quinlivan, which we did in August. Just before that, in July, the board wrote to the minister using that language that I just read out a while ago. As I said at the beginning, we received a letter from the minister dated 22 January indicating that the government agreed to—

Senator EDWARDS: What was in your August letter?

Mr Burns : That set out that we would—

Senator EDWARDS: Who was that too?

Mr Burns : That was to Mr Quinlivan.

Senator EDWARDS: And what did it outline?

Mr Burns : That indicated the case for Wagga rather than Aubrey and the costs that would be involved.

Senator EDWARDS: So you did not really mind moving. It was just that Albury did not make sense to you but Wagga did.

Mr Burns : That language that I read out before indicated that the board took a decision that because it was the minister's decision that we do it, that that is what we would do.

CHAIR: Wagga does have a long history of agricultural research at the institute there.

Senator EDWARDS: I guess we can revisit that. Was there any particular group within the Rural Industries Research Development Corporation that were very keen on Wagga, and if there was a group, why?

Mr Burns : I am not sure what you mean by a group. Are you talking about stakeholders?

Senator EDWARDS: Stakeholders, yes.

Mr Burns : Our two big levy payers are the chicken meat industry and the rice industry. Both of them indicated that they were quite comfortable for us to stay in Canberra, although the rice industry’s view, I think, was that if we did have to move then Wagga would be their preference.

Senator EDWARDS: Why?

Mr Burns : Because there is some rice research done through the Graham Centre at Wagga.

CHAIR: There certainly is. Non-paddy rice. There is no reason to grow paddy rice anymore.

Senator EDWARDS: And the chicken meat?

Mr Burns : The chicken meat were quite comfortable with us staying in Canberra.

Senator EDWARDS: But it was not affected if you went to Wagga?

Mr Burns : In a sense we have already decentralised the way we operate that chicken meat program. We operate that out of an office in Sydney, co-located with the Chicken Meat Federation. So we have an officer who manages the day-to-day affairs with the chicken meat industry. More often than not, when we discuss chicken meat we are doing it in Sydney.

Senator EDWARDS: So of your two biggest stakeholders, who pay everybody's wages with the co-contribution of the Federal government, one was ambivalent, which was chicken meat because their business goes on in Sydney, and rice wanted to be attached to that major research and development group in Wagga.

Mr Burns : I do not want to speak for them, but I have seen correspondence which indicated their preference was for us to stay in Canberra.

Senator EDWARDS: I want to move on to the question of research and development for profit. Are you able to give me an outline or explain your line of sight to levy payers?

Mr Burns : We have nine different industries that pay levies. We will soon hopefully have another come on-stream. They range from those large ones like rice and chicken meat through to small industries like buffalo and even deer, which also have a levy. The line of sight varies across those. The chicken meat, for example, all the growers have contracts with the producing companies—the processes. So we have a very good structure around how we communicate with them and how they communicate with us. Similarly with the rice growers, the communication and the line of sight, if you like, goes via rice growers. And because they are a very concentrated group that is a good relationship.

Senator EDWARDS: That was actually my next question. How do you actually engage them?

Mr Burns : Say with rice growers, we attend their annual meetings. There is a rice advisory committee which has representatives of the rice industry and they meet a couple of times a year and provide advice to us on the type of research that they want. We have a partnership with SunRice and New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. We meet with them regularly in terms of stakeholder needs. I would say that it is very good. We attend things like their field days and so on. The rice industry, which is a very cohesive and well organised industry, is pretty easy. If you get down to some of the smaller industries we have where they are not well represented by peak bodies, so to speak, it is a little bit more difficult. New levy groups will come on-stream, like the export fodder industry and the Tea Tree industry. They are very well organised. We have great line of sight with them.

Senator EDWARDS: So you go to their AGMs and they go to yours?

Mr Burns : We do not hold an AGM, because we are a statutory body.

Senator EDWARDS: What do you invite them to?

Mr Burns : For example, the board had a meeting the day after the Rural Women's Award where we had the chairs of the advisory committees for all our different groups come in and meet with the total board to talk about what a new R&D or corporate plan would look like. As I have mentioned, we have these meetings quite regularly where the industry will talk to us and we will talk to them. Normally when people like the representatives of the rice growers are in Canberra they will come and meet with us and we will catch up.

Senator EDWARDS: So you have various research and development days and those types of things. Are they annually or quarterly?

Mr Burns : The advisory committees meet twice a year at least. Things like the field day are annual.

Senator EDWARDS: What is the thing you have in Leeton—the big one with the rice growers?

Mr Burns : They have an annual conference and AGM.

Senator EDWARDS: They do or you do?

Mr Burns : They do. We do not have an AGM like Meat and Livestock Australia because of our statutory role.

Senator EDWARDS: How do you then establish your research projects and how do you monitor how they are delivered?

Mr Burns : That is the role of the advisory committees. They feed through to us what their priorities are for research. We then go out and find the appropriate researchers, feed back to the advisory committees the comments on those projects and they make recommendations technically to me about what research they want to see done.

Senator EDWARDS: Are all of the levy payers comfortable with what is going on at the moment?

Mr Burns : We have not had any concerns expressed to us except by one industry, which is a very small one. When I have attended the rice growers annual meetings, for example, so many of the presentations are about the benefits of R&D, so it is a very positive vibe.

CHAIR: Eventually in the rice industry, given the competition in the winter rainfall areas with cotton, are we getting closer to the stage where it will be a more efficient use of water to have non-paddy rice than paddy rice?

Mr Burns : We have a couple of streams of activity on that. We are actually doing some work at the moment looking at the long-term demand for water in the basin and the impact of prices on that and, in crude terms, capacity to pay. With the growth of tree crops, for example nuts, you will see a different profile up there. The rice advisory group has asked us to do a little bit more research around potential for growing rice outside the basin, particularly in the north. I guess in colloquial terms they want to hedge their bets.

CHAIR: Is that based on non-paddy rice?

Mr Burns : Yes.

CHAIR: It is as obvious as the nose on your face where it has all got to go.

Senator EDWARDS: How many projects did you apply for in the second round of Rural R&D for Profit program?

Mr Burns : Six.

Senator EDWARDS: When you are making those applications, what is your involvement with other RDCs, universities and other bodies in putting those applications together?

Mr Burns : Because we are a small agency without a lot of cash, it is absolutely essential for us to collaborate on those sorts of projects. So you will usually find that we are the small player placing those bids in terms of cash on the table. Because we have not an official function but some sort of objective of trying to broker collaborative projects across the system, we have held meetings with the other R&D corporations to look at opportunities for collaborating on projects. In the first round we had a much more exhaustive process, which probably did a bit of duplication. We invited universities to pitch ideas to us. We have been doing a lot of that. We have one proposal in there, for example, where we have an international group prepared to put up money. So every one of these project ideas we have has multiple partners in it.

Senator EDWARDS: Would you classify those as unsolicited projects or some of those? Were there any unsolicited projects that came?

Mr Burns : Unsolicited as in we had not thought about it?

Senator EDWARDS: Yes.

Mr Burns : Yes, lots of ideas.

Senator EDWARDS: That is good. Is that good?

Mr Burns : It is, and there are areas, particularly around new technologies, where universities have those international links and they are coming to us with ideas that we may not have—

Senator EDWARDS: How do you assess them?

Mr Burns : It is a little bit different in terms of not having an advisory committee for things. But, for example, there is one that we have—and I do not want to go into details about the individual proposals—that is related to animal vaccines. So we went out to a couple of the large pastoral companies, for example, and asked them what they thought and whether they thought that would be a good idea.

Senator EDWARDS: This is my last question. Are you going to take any of those forward—any of those ones that came up that were unforeseen?

Mr Burns : We do not have the results of the second round yet.

Senator EDWARDS: Thanks.

Senator RHIANNON: I just want to ask you about the Kangaroo Project meat export market analysis. I noticed that on the website it states that it was due to complete on Friday 10 July; is that correct?

Mr Burns : Correct.

Senator RHIANNON: So it is finished?

Mr Burns : Yes, all of our current Kangaroo Projects are technically finished and we do not have any live Kangaroo Projects currently.

Senator RHIANNON: I notice there is no report on the website. Will it be placed on the website?

Mr Burns : That is going to be a call, I think, for the department, Senator, because the departments were the ones that requested it. I think we are talking about the same project. The department requested that we do that. I think we provided those projects to the department, which was the agency that really requested some of that work in conjunction with industry, so we have provided the draft, I think from memory, to the department.

Senator RHIANNON: When did you provide the report to the department? Also, while you are looking at that, is this the process with all of these projects—that you only provide the report publicly if the department agrees?

Mr Burns : We provided that project in July 2015. It would depend on how the project is funded. There have been some projects, particularly in the kangaroo area, where the department has asked us to undertake those projects and has provided some funding for those. Where we have a funding deed with the department, we are required to provide the draft or the project outcome to the department and it is their—they have, if you like, a say in whether or not it gets released publicly.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Quinlivan, can I ask about the report, please, and when it will be made public.

Mr Quinlivan : I do not have that information personally, Senator. Our Exports Division, which is on later, would be able to answer that question.

Senator RHIANNON: Maybe you can help, Chair. Which section are we referring to so that I can make sure that I turn up at the right time?

CHAIR: It is much later. We cannot predict it.

Senator RHIANNON: I am not asking for the time—just the section.

Mr Quinlivan : It is outcome 2, item 17, on the current schedule.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay. So you are suggesting that all questions are directed to them with regard to releasing the report?

Mr Quinlivan : Yes, that would be sensible.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Burns, can I go back to your funding. There was a $2 million cut to your core funding as part of that disastrous 2014 budget. Is that correct?

Mr Burns : Correct.

Senator CAMERON: Then there were further cuts of $3 million annually for the following three years?

Mr Burns : It was not $3 million on top of the $2 million. The sequence was minus 2, minus 3—so one in addition to the minus 2.

Senator CAMERON: So $5 million?

Mr Burns : In total over four years it was $11 million. So it is minus 2, minus 3, minus 3, minus 3.

Senator CAMERON: Yes, that is the figure I looked at—$11 million. Has there been any estimate done as to the return to the industry for research funds expended in RIRDC?

Mr Burns : We do that for individual project programs. We have not done a macro for the whole organisation. But, for all of our programs, when they reach the end of a five-year sequence—say, the honeybee industry or the rice industry—we do a cost-benefit study of what that five-year funding has delivered for the industry.

Senator CAMERON: And does it deliver benefits?

Mr Burns : Yes, they do. They will vary from one industry program to another and, of course, from one project to another. The other thing we do is pick a random group each year of individual projects as opposed to programs and do cost-benefit studies on those. They are generally on our website and publicly available.

Senator CAMERON: So the department and the minister are aware of the benefits of the research undertaken?

Mr Burns : They are publicly available and we publish that.

Senator CAMERON: I am just trying to get this argument. I think there were nine jobs that were going to move to Albury—to Wagga.

Mr Burns : We have not made the call on that.

Senator CAMERON: You have not made the call, but potentially nine jobs to Wagga at a cost of $1.4 million. That $1.4 million, if it was invested in research and development, would provide a return to the industry, wouldn't it?

Mr Burns : Logically, yes, Senator.

Senator CAMERON: Do you have any idea how much that return would be?

Mr Burns : No, not off the top of my head, because it would depend on which programs and projects—

Senator CAMERON: What project you did?

Mr Burns : Yes.

Senator CAMERON: So you just cannot say, 'We have an ideology to move people to the country and we are going to take money out of research and development' if, by taking the money out of research and development, there are longer-term benefits to the industry denied because of the lack of investment? Is that true?

Mr Burns : That is not my call, Senator—that is—

Senator CAMERON: But isn't that logical?

CHAIR: You cannot ask him for an opinion.

Senator Ruston: Yes, and equally we could be saying that there are longer-term benefits for the short-term expenditure of this funding, so it does seem to me like a rather strange rhetorical argument.

Senator CAMERON: I do not know if it is strange—I thought you were supposed to be the innovation government, but you have taken money out of R&D to pork barrel in regional areas. Why would you do that?

Senator Ruston: You are suggesting that money to support regional communities is pork barrelling. I think that is rather an unfortunate thing. Chair, maybe you should suggest to Senator Cameron that he stick to the facts.

CHAIR: Maybe I should.

Senator CAMERON: I know what the facts are. It is clear what the facts are. I think we have demonstrated clearly that this is a nonsense and that it is an ideological position—that is what I am hearing. It is an ideological position that the minister indicates and that is fine. It is going to cost research and development funding.

CHAIR: But those bloody planes that are going to fly over your house—

Senator CAMERON: Can I move now to the issue of the establishment of cooperatives. You did a pilot, didn't you, Mr Burns, at your organisation on cooperatives collective bargaining and innovative business models. Is that correct?

Mr Burns : That is correct.

Senator CAMERON: Were you consulted by the department or the minister about Mr Kevin Hogan in the seat of Page being tasked to do work on this issue?

Mr Burns : I was aware that the minister had asked Mr Hogan to look at what the program will deliver.

Senator CAMERON: Were you consulted about it?

Mr Burns : I was not aware of it before the announcement.

Senator CAMERON: So you were not consulted. Is that the logical inference from that?

Mr Burns : To my knowledge the sequence was that there was an announcement in the agricultural competitiveness white paper that there would be a new cooperatives program—it is a longer title, but I will just call it the cooperatives program—and that RIRDC was being tasked to handle some of that. We were commissioned by the department to undertake a scoping study for what that program might look like and develop a pilot program. We received a $200,000 grant from the department to do that. That money was spent on a literature review and targeted stakeholder consultations; we had a roundtable with stakeholders and experts in the area—24 stakeholders—who came to Canberra in August 2015. On the basis of all of that consultation and the literature review, we prepared a draft pilot program, which we presented to the department and that was part of the arrangement with that grant. That was to a large extent where our involvement has ceased.

Senator CAMERON: So you are not continuing to work collaboratively with Mr Kevin Hogan?

Mr Burns : We had one meeting with Mr Hogan after we prepared our report and provided that report to him to feed into his consultations.

Senator CAMERON: One meeting. Have you seen Mr Hogan's option paper?

Mr Burns : I have not seen it.

Senator CAMERON: Are you aware if there has been duplication between what Mr Hogan is doing and the work that RIRDC has carried out?

Mr Burns : No, I have not been involved with Mr Hogan's work at all.

Senator CAMERON: So you do not know. With the work that you have done, when do you think farmers would benefit from it in these areas?

Mr Burns : We were asked to provide a draft pilot program and also to undertake these consultations that I talked about and give that to the department. The development of a program and the design of the policy et cetera is the department's responsibility. We have done what the department asked us to do.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Quinlivan, have you seen an option paper from Mr Hogan?

Mr Quinlivan : I might get Mr Morris to respond to that question.

Mr Morris : Yes, we have seen a paper.

Senator CAMERON: Is that paper public?

Mr Morris : No.

Senator CAMERON: When do you expect it to be made public?

Mr Morris : It is contained in correspondence between Mr Hogan and the minister, so it will be up to the minister to make a decision on that, Senator.

Senator CAMERON: Could I ask you formally then to table the option paper?

Mr Morris : We will put that to the minister.

Senator CAMERON: Are the tasks that are being undertaken by Mr Hogan duplicating what RIRDC has done?

Mr Morris : I would not say duplicating. They are looking at options in terms of how best to deliver the program on behalf of the government. So I would not say they were duplicating—they are just looking at ways of delivering the program.

Senator CAMERON: Minister, can you explain why, after RIRDC has done the work on this and the research, RIRDC would not have been tasked to continue this project as the pre-eminent research organisation?

Senator Ruston: Obviously, the minister decided that there was greater scope to scope this project or this particular area further. I cannot see why there is any problem with running parallel programs to deliver an outcome. I am not sure what your problem with this is.

Senator CAMERON: It is not a parallel program, Minister. I think you misunderstand. It is not a parallel program, because RIRDC is not doing anything now. Do you understand that?

Senator Ruston: Yes, but what I am saying to you, Senator, is what is the problem with having—

Senator CAMERON: Minister, I am asking the questions. The question I am asking you—

Senator Ruston: Okay. I am not sure that I understand what the answer is that you are seeking from me.

Senator CAMERON: You are the one that gives the answer. I am just asking the question.

Senator Ruston: I do not understand your question.

Senator CAMERON: You do not understand the question? Have you had any briefing as to why RIRDC would not carry the program forward and why it would be given to an individual MP?

Senator Ruston: No, but I am certainly happy to ask the minister to provide that information, which I will provide back to you.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Quinlivan, can you advise us why this decision was made?

Mr Quinlivan : As I understand it, the minister wanted to undertake some more consultation on the program, but he has not announced what the delivery arrangements for the program are going to be.

Senator CAMERON: Do you know when farmers can benefit from this program? Is there any time frame?

Mr Quinlivan : There has been quite a lot of work done, so I am anticipating that, when a decision and an announcement are made about the delivery arrangements, the program could be implemented soon afterwards and the benefits would flow.

Senator CAMERON: Who is advising Mr Hogan now—the department?

Mr Quinlivan : I think Mr Hogan has finished his work and provided his report to the minister, so—

Senator CAMERON: Let me rephrase the question. Did you provide support to Mr Hogan?

Mr Quinlivan : We provided information and advice to Mr Hogan. I do not know that I would say we supported it. I think he undertook his consultations in his own right. If you are asking whether we provided a secretariat service for him, we provided some organisational help. But we did not write a report for him or anything like that if that is what you were getting at.

Senator CAMERON: Can you provide details of the support that you provided Mr Hogan, how many officers were involved and the costs of that support program?

Mr Quinlivan : Yes, we can do that.

Senator CAMERON: Minister, can you explain why this approach is different from the announced white paper approach?

Senator Ruston: I am not sure that it necessarily is. Can I seek some clarification from you—

Senator CAMERON: The white paper says—

Senator Ruston: No, you do not know what I am asking you for clarification on.

Senator CAMERON: Okay, go for it.

Senator Ruston: I need clarification as to what particular aspects in the white paper that you see have been deviated from by this additional piece of work with stakeholders being undertaken by Mr Hogan.

Senator CAMERON: It is a pretty big one and that is that the white paper says, 'We will establish'—this is government—'a $13.8 million, two-year training program commencing in 2016. This will be delivered through the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation'. That is the difference. It has gone to one of your backbenchers and I am interested to know why you are not now following the recommendation of the white paper on that issue.

Senator Ruston: Sure. Senator Cameron, I think possibly because my level of detailed understanding of what has actually transpired in this space is quite limited, it would be better if you allowed me to consult with the minister and come back to you with some detail. Obviously, I am not satisfactorily able to answer the questions you are asking.

Senator CAMERON: So you will take that one on notice?

Senator Ruston: Yes, if you would be—

Senator CAMERON: If you are taking it on notice, could you also then—I will ask the question of the department first. Is the department aware of any cost benefits to the industry by removing the responsibility for this from RIRDC to an individual backbencher?

Mr Morris : I think the process was that RIRDC commenced some preliminary work around the delivery of the program. Around October last year, the minister decided he wanted some further advice on alternative means of delivering this program to see whether in fact the RIRDC approach was the best way or whether there might be an alternative model that might provide greater benefits to farmers. He made an announcement in October last year about that. It then took some time, obviously, for Mr Hogan to complete his work. In the meantime RIRDC continued to do some work, because it was unclear as to which direction we were going to go in at that point. We have now got the report from Mr Hogan and the minister will shortly make a decision on how he wants to proceed with this particular program.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Burns, were you advised that there might be any problems with the methodology or the conclusions that RIRDC had come to?

Mr Burns : We provided the draft framework to the department as requested. We provided a draft of that on 23 October. Then, following some feedback from the department, we updated that and provided a final version on 24 November.

Senator CAMERON: That is not what I am asking you. I am asking you if you got any feedback, as has just been indicated by Mr Morris, that there were concerns about your approach and there had to be other work done in relation to your recommendations?

Mr Burns : Not specifically, no.

Senator CAMERON: Had the minister discussed the matter with you at all?

Mr Burns : No.

Senator CAMERON: Did the department discuss the matter with you at all?

Mr Burns : All the way along we had been talking with the department about what a program might look like, so it was an iterative process. We did not just drop it on them out of the blue.

Senator CAMERON: Were you working on the basis that there would be a $13.8 million, two-year training program that you would have an involvement with?

Mr Burns : We were working on the basis that we had been asked to provide the draft of the pilot program. We did not know how that would play out. I think the original language in the white paper that you referred to talked about us working with other R&D corporations and so on. So we had not built up any expectations about what the actual program would look like in the end. We had provided, if you like, ideas and we were waiting to see what the feedback would be.

Senator CAMERON: Minister, can you just explain again to me why there was this deviation from the white paper to where we are now? Can you explain it to me again?

Senator Ruston: I did not explain it to you the first time. I took it on notice.

Senator CAMERON: Well, can you explain it to me?

Senator Ruston: I took it on notice the first time. I am probably going to take it on notice again.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Quinlivan, there is something like $13.8 million allocated to this program; is that correct?

Mr Quinlivan : That is correct.

Senator CAMERON: In the white paper process is it still the position that the money will go back to RIRDC to oversight the program?

Mr Quinlivan : That is a decision for the government, Senator.

Senator CAMERON: Are you aware of any deviation from that position?

Mr Quinlivan : As I said, there has been an alternative process established from October last year where—

Senator CAMERON: I am not asking about the process; I am asking whether you are aware of any deviation from that position—not the process.

Mr Quinlivan : As a result of that process the government has yet to make a decision, so it will be up to the government as to what the outcome will be.

Senator CAMERON: Are you aware of any views that that money would be spent in Page in the seat of Mr Hogan?

Mr Morris : It is up to the government to announce what happens. There has been no announcement yet as to what the—

Senator CAMERON: I not asking you whether there was an announcement; I am asking you whether you are aware if there are any propositions that this money would be spent in the seat of Mr Kevin Hogan—that is what I am asking. Are you aware of that or not?

Mr Morris : There are certainly propositions around that.

Senator CAMERON: So there are propositions to spend the $13.8 million in Mr Kevin Hogan's seat?

Mr Quinlivan : I think what we are talking about is the delivery arrangements, not the expenditure of the program.

Senator CAMERON: But, if you deliver, you spend, Mr Quinlivan. You know that.

Mr Quinlivan : I do not think under any of these scenarios we would see the program expended in one area. It would be a national—

Senator CAMERON: Mr Morris, what is the proposal for delivery in the seat of Page—in Mr Hogan's seat? What are the proposals?

Mr Morris : I do not think I can go to the details of the proposal just at the moment because there has been no government decision as to what is going to happen there. But, as I indicated, there is a proposal on the table at the moment that would involve delivery from an institution in that area.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Quinlivan, has the department had discussions with the minister about deviating from the white paper approach?

Mr Quinlivan : We certainly had discussions about the Kevin Hogan consultation process, as we discussed earlier. I have not personally had a discussion with him about alternative proposals. But, as Mr Morris says, we are aware that there is one.

Senator CAMERON: Have you taken on notice the details of the secretariat support—

Mr Quinlivan : Yes, we have.

Senator CAMERON: You do not know—no one can tell me—

Mr Quinlivan : I think I indicated that it was not a secretariat support but we would provide you with information about what assistance we did provide.

Senator CAMERON: Are there no officers here with that information who could tell me now?

Mr Quinlivan : I doubt it. It was not—we did not provide a lot of support, but we will have that information for you.

Senator CAMERON: If you did not provide a lot of support to Mr Hogan so that he could spend this nearly $14 million in his electorate, who is giving him advice?

Mr Quinlivan : As I understand it, he was asked to do some additional consultations and the minister announced that in October last year. He has provided advice to the minister—

Senator CAMERON: Yes, but Mr Morris has taken it further. Mr Morris has indicated that there are proposals for delivery in Mr Hogan's seat. Now this was in the white paper: the delivery agency would be RIRDC. The white paper made it quite clear how that would be done. You indicated that the minister has changed his position on that and Mr Hogan has now been established to do some further investigations. Now we know that that money is being targeted for delivery in Mr Hogan's seat. Tell me: how it is going to be delivered, Mr Morris?

Mr Quinlivan : We certainly have not said that, Senator. We have said that no announcement has been made and no decision has been made. In any case, it is a national program. There is no proposal, as I understand it, that the funds would be expended in a single location.

Senator CAMERON: I will come back to this depending on where Senator Canavan goes. But, in relation to what Mr Hogan has done, are you aware of who he has consulted with?

Mr Quinlivan : I am not personally aware, no.

Senator CAMERON: So who oversights this consultation process? Is Mr Hogan freelancing?

Mr Quinlivan : I think Mr Hogan was asked to do this task by the minister.

Senator CAMERON: And you provided some support.

Mr Quinlivan : We provided some support.

Senator CAMERON: Are you aware of who Mr Hogan has consulted with as part of that support mechanism?

Mr Quinlivan : As I said, I am not personally aware of who he consulted with.

Senator CAMERON: Not whether you are personally aware; is the department aware?

Mr Quinlivan : I would have to take that on notice. I cannot answer that question.

Senator CAMERON: You are getting some advice from behind.

Mr Quinlivan : We will consult—I will talk to people in the department at morning tea and will aim to have an answer for you after morning tea.

Senator CAMERON: I will come back to this after the break.

Senator CANAVAN: Perhaps I will just follow on from Senator Cameron before morning tea and then I will come back to other issues afterwards. Can you explain, Mr Quinlivan or Mr Morris, what the white paper is trying to achieve through the establishment of more cooperatives?

Mr Morris : The program was established as part of the agricultural white paper process and the idea was to try to diversify the range of structures that are around to support farming businesses and through the supply chain. The concept at the time was that cooperatives would provide a means to provide farmers with much better bargaining power, I suppose, through the supply chain through working together in the form of a cooperative rather than as individuals. So the concept was that cooperatives, and possibly other business models as well, would provide that opportunity to the farmers.

Senator CANAVAN: So the central objective of the government is to encourage the formation of cooperatives, not to provide extra resources to the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation—is that correct?

Mr Morris : That is correct.

Senator CANAVAN: This consultation process that is occurring at the moment is presumably designed to try to best meet that objective to establish cooperatives—is that right?

Mr Morris : That is right.

Senator CANAVAN: In that consultation process, have the government or the committee established to look at this been considering other options than just providing the funds to the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation?

Mr Morris : That was perhaps Mr Hogan's review—to have a look at other options so that we can find the best means of delivering the program.

Senator CANAVAN: And obviously if the government concludes that there is a better means of doing that then they will do that and use this money in the best way possible—is that the idea?

Mr Morris : That would be up to the government, yes.

CHAIR: Can I just say in breaking that, if you are going to do some research, you do not have to be very bright to know that in Wagga there is a very successful rural co-op which certainly puts competition in the market on chemicals and a range of outputs and inputs. It would be well worth looking at their model.

Senator CAMERON: Just before we break, Chair, can I just ask the minister to see whether she could contact the minister's office and find out whether we can be provided with some details about the expenditure of funds—government funds—by Mr Hogan on this consultation that he has undertaken and whether the minister is prepared to release the outcome of those consultations so that we can assess them at these estimates today?

Senator Ruston: Certainly.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 11.02 to 11:19

CHAIR: We will resume. Mr Secretary, where would be the right place to get some guidance on whether it is possible to import full sides of sheepmeat from Australia into Singapore?

Mr Quinlivan : The generic question—

CHAIR: Flown in, not packaged.

Mr Quinlivan : Yes. The generic question about imports of animal products is best asked of the Biosecurity Animal Division under outcome 2 at item 17.

Senator CANAVAN: I just had some questions in regard to the relocation of RIRDC. Has your board considered the relocation?

Mr Burns : It has.

Senator CANAVAN: What conclusion did you come to?

Mr Burns : I think I was saying earlier that the board originally received a request back in April 2014. It has been a topic on the board's agenda at every meeting since then. The board has had a view that their preference was to keep RIRDC in Canberra. That is their first preference. But they acknowledged that it was the minister's preference that we relocate. The minister originally indicated that he wanted us to go to Albury. We looked at the case for Albury versus alternatives. We thought that, if we were going to relocate out of Canberra, Wagga would be the best option. So the board has considered that—

Senator CANAVAN: Has the board agreed to move to Wagga?

Mr Burns : The board is yet to make a final decision because we have been waiting for an announcement from the minister on the matter.

Senator CANAVAN: Have you written to Mr Quinlivan in regard to board decisions in regard to this matter?

Mr Burns : We did that in August 2015.

Senator CANAVAN: In that letter did you mention that the board had agreed to relocate to Wagga?

Mr Burns : That was putting the case for what it would cost and the arrangements that we would need to put in place to move to Wagga.

Senator CANAVAN: Mr Quinlivan, can I ask you whether you received that letter? Is your recollection of that letter that the board had agreed to move to Wagga?

Mr Quinlivan : I would have to review the letter, which we have probably got not too far away. The letter is part of the decision-making process on relocation of RIRDC which, as we discussed, has not been announced, so I think that belongs to the class of documents that I would need to consult with the minister about.

Senator CANAVAN: Just to be clear, I am only interested in any aspect of the letter which goes to this question of whether the board had agreed to relocate. So if there are other elements of the letter that you need to—

Mr Quinlivan : Yes, they are two quite separate questions.

Senator CANAVAN: take on notice, that is perfectly fine by me. Just to get the dates here right, you mentioned that that letter was written in August last year, Mr Burns.

Mr Burns : Sorry, I was just checking that letter and I missed your question.

Senator CANAVAN: Can you tell me if, in that letter that you have in front of you, you stated that the board has agreed to relocate to—

Mr Burns : I will just read out a couple of sentences from it. It is from the chair of the board to Mr Quinlivan. It says, 'At the most recent RIRDC board meeting held 22 July the board further considered the minister's request and preference that RIRDC relocate to Albury Wodonga. The board remains concerned about the implications of a move outside Canberra both in terms of delivery of ongoing services and cost implications for stakeholder industries. After full consideration of options, the board has agreed that RIRDC relocate its core operations to Wagga Wagga whilst retaining a minor presence in Canberra' et cetera.

Senator CANAVAN: So you have made a board decision to agree to relocate to Wagga. I thought earlier you mentioned that you are still to make that decision when I first asked the question. That letter seems—

Mr Burns : The original request was for Albury. This letter is going back and saying that if we need to relocate then we prefer Wagga.

Senator CANAVAN: But the quote you just read is that you have agreed to relocate to Wagga.

Mr Burns : But the part before it said, 'further considered the minister's request and preference. The board remains concerned about the implications of the move outside Canberra'. It then goes on to say Wagga.

Senator CANAVAN: Sure, but then you go on to say that you have agreed to move to Wagga. So, just to make it clear for the committee and me, the board has agreed to move to Wagga—or the core operations?

Mr Burns : Yes.

Senator CANAVAN: Okay. In terms of the other aspects that you mentioned there—the concerns about stakeholders—do you have any particular stakeholders that are concerned about relocation?

Mr Burns : I think the NFF made a statement saying that—

Senator CANAVAN: Was that a specific reference to RIRDC?

Mr Burns : Yes.

Senator CANAVAN: What about the Ricegrowers Association?

Mr Burns : The Ricegrowers Association and the Chicken Meat Federation have both made their views—

Senator CANAVAN: And they were?

Mr Burns : That they preferred us to stay in Canberra.

Senator CANAVAN: I have a letter here from the Ricegrowers Association—it was written to their local member, Mr McCormack—which says in regard to the relocation, 'Our request is that this not be a decision taken for political reasons but on the basis of the most suitable location for the affected industries. In our case, this is most certainly Wagga Wagga. We have strong R&D linkages into the Charles Sturt University there and it is proximate both to our industry headquarters in Leeton and to Canberra, where RIRDC staff will need to continue their engagement with other agencies. As the largest RIRDC levy payer, the Ricegrowers Association would be very disappointed if the decision was taken to move the agency elsewhere'. You just mentioned to me that the Ricegrowers Association had a different view from what they have stated in that letter. Do you have—

Senator CAMERON: Chair, just on procedural—

Senator CANAVAN: Can I just finished my question, though.

CHAIR: Is it a point of order?

Senator CAMERON: No, it is not a point of order—it is a procedural issue. Can we have that tabled—

Senator CANAVAN: I only have it electronically—

Senator CAMERON: so that we know what is going on here?

Senator CANAVAN: but I can send it to the committee.

CHAIR: I think there has been a misinterpretation of Mr Burns's answer.

Senator CANAVAN: Okay—I am happy for Mr Burns to clarify his answer in regard to the position of the Ricegrowers Association.

Mr Burns : We wrote to all of our stakeholders and the support letters that we got back indicated that there was a preference for us to stay in Canberra. I have not seen that letter that—

Senator CANAVAN: Okay, including from the Ricegrowers Association.

Mr Burns : I am just talking about what I have received.

Senator CANAVAN: Just on a different topic, there is some work you are doing, I think, on food price determination in the Australian food industry.

Mr Burns : That is completed.

Senator CANAVAN: Can I ask on notice for a copy of that report?

Mr Burns : Again, that is one of those reports where the department was the major funder for that. It was $120,000 report and the department actually asked us to undertake that work and provided $70,000 of that $120,000. Under the funding deed, whilst the IP around the report remains with RIRDC, if you like, the ownership and when it gets released is the prerogative of the department—actually, the funding deed says the Commonwealth.

Senator CANAVAN: I will ask the department if they could take that on notice. If you have a public interest reason for not releasing it to the committee, I would be interested to hear that. But otherwise can we request a copy of that report on notice?

Mr Morris : Yes. We received the copy of the report from RIRDC on 3 February, so we have only just received it. We are just reviewing the report at the moment and we will get back to you on the provision of it.

Senator CANAVAN: Was that your work or was it contracted out?

Mr Burns : It was contracted to a company called Freshagenda. They had done a similar report in 2004. What the department wanted was an update of that 2004 report.

Senator CANAVAN: Thank you.

Mr Quinlivan : Can I go back to a question that Senator Cameron asked me just before the break about the assistance that we provided to Mr Hogan in his process. Mr Hogan was asked to consult on the RIRDC proposal. That was a large part of the task that he was given. We provided him with some summary material on that proposal and a possible list of people that he might consult with during his process. We do not know how many of those he approached, but we have seen seven responses or submissions that were provided in response to this request for comments and submissions on that proposal. The relevant people in the department who were working on this matter have met with Mr Hogan on a couple of occasions to guide him through the material and help him get the project underway. That is the extent of the support that we provided.

Senator CAMERON: Okay. Can you provide details of who the relevant people in the department were? Can you provide details of the timing of these couple of occasions that discussions took place—where they took place and when they took place? Can you provide copies of those seven responses?

Mr Quinlivan : We can certainly answer those first questions. The responses that we have were actually submissions to Mr Hogan, so we will talk to him about the release of the material that was provided. It is not our material.

Senator CAMERON: Are you saying it is privileged material?

Mr Quinlivan : I do not know. I am just saying—

Senator CAMERON: When a backbencher expends public funds, are you then saying that the backbencher is not accountable to the estimates process?

Mr Quinlivan : No, I am not saying that. I am just saying that they are not our documents and I think it would be a courtesy—

Senator CAMERON: But you have the documents?

Mr Quinlivan : We have seen them; I do not know if we—

Senator CAMERON: So if you have the documents then they are documents that you have in your control. I am asking for them to be tabled now.

Mr Quinlivan : I think it would be a better process for us to consult with Mr Hogan first and we will do that.

Senator CAMERON: Whether you think it is a better process or not, are you—you would then have to claim public interest immunity on this not to provide that documentation that you have.

Mr Quinlivan : I hope it will not come to that.

Senator CAMERON: It is there now. If you are not prepared, I want a public interest immunity claim and I want you to go through the whole process.

CHAIR: Mr Quinlivan, what you require is time to consider the request and come back later?

Mr Quinlivan : I think to do fair courtesy on these documents, I would need to talk to Mr Hogan and potentially the minister about your request. We will endeavour to do that over the course of the day.

Senator CAMERON: So this could be a secret consultation that is going to deliver funds to the Page electorate, is it?

Mr Quinlivan : I do not think so. I have no reason to believe that. I am simply making the point that these are not our documents. They were provided by third parties to Mr Hogan, so I think it would be a courtesy to talk to him before we provided those documents. We will endeavour to do that as soon as we can.

Senator CAMERON: Are you claiming that Mr Hogan would have a veto over the estimates process on these documents?

Mr Quinlivan : No, not at all.

Senator CAMERON: If you are not claiming that, you should table the documents.

Mr Quinlivan : I would prefer to go through the process of—

CHAIR: Can I just bring the committee to order—

Senator CAMERON: It is not out of order.

CHAIR: You have put in a request to give consideration to it. Thank you very much. That is what we will do.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Quinlivan, you understand that you would need to claim a public interest immunity on these documents, don't you?

Mr Quinlivan : As I understand it, the first stage of that process is for me to consult with the minister and see whether he wishes to claim public interest immunity.

Senator CAMERON: These are not the minister's documents, are they.

Mr Quinlivan : I am not sure how they came—

Senator CAMERON: They are a backbencher's documents.

CHAIR: Can I just bring the committee to order. I am advised by the professional advice lines to this committee that you are entitled to give consideration to the request of Senator Cameron. I think, Senator Cameron, that is where we should leave it. You can consult, if you like, the clerk of the Senate.

Senator CAMERON: Okay, if that is your ruling.

CHAIR: No, it is not my ruling. It is the clerk of the Senate's ruling.

Senator CAMERON: I might get some advice as well. That is fine. But I certainly do not think there should be a cover-up on a backbencher who could have nearly $14 million at his disposal in contravention to the decisions that were made in the white paper. This is a pretty serious issue.

CHAIR: But there is a due process—

Senator CAMERON: It is a pretty serious issue.

CHAIR: I am not denying—

Senator Ruston: Senator Cameron, you have raised an issue today which obviously has not been the subject of any change in position by the government in relation to what is written in the white paper. Obviously—

Senator CAMERON: Yes, it is.

Senator Ruston: Senator Cameron, can I finish please. Obviously, there has been some discussion about a possible change in the direction that was outlined in the white paper. Nothing has changed to date. So at the moment we are going through a process. Obviously, to change something that is in the white paper requires a very thorough and robust process, including a cabinet process. Many of the documents—or the document that you are referring to—may well be subject to that cabinet process. What Mr Quinlivan is asking and what I am asking following my discussions with the minister's office is that that process could be allowed to take place. If there is a change in decision then obviously you are entitled to ask these questions. At the moment there has been no change in decision in relation to the delivery of this particular cooperatives program as stated in the white paper.

Senator CAMERON: I do not know who is making that determination, but that is not what the white paper—you are not complying with what the white paper said.

Senator Ruston: Because we have had additional consultation undertaken by a member of parliament? I cannot see why that is deviating from the white paper.

Senator CAMERON: We all know what it is about, Minister. We know that it is about pork barrelling in the seat of Page and we know that it is about ensuring that $13.8 million that was supposed to be allocated to RIRDC to carry out this project is in the hands of a backbencher—a member of The Nationals—and I would not trust a backbencher of The Nationals with $13, never mind $13.8 million, of public money.

CHAIR: Order! Thank you very much for that character assessment. I know that you are one of—

Senator CAMERON: And I know that you agree. You have spoken to me about this before.

CHAIR: I know you are one of the few honest union officials in the system. Senator Sterle is too—and this committee. You are not CFMEU bullies. But casting aspersions like that is quite unfair.

Senator CAMERON: But accurate.

Senator Ruston: Chair, can I put something on the record here. For the benefit of those who are listening, there has been no suggestion whatsoever that Mr Hogan or anybody else has been given $13 million or $14 million. I think we need to be very careful that we do not overstep the information that is before us. As I quite clearly said to you, RIRDC undertook the consultation in relation to this particular program and was allocated $200,000 for the purposes of doing that. They have brought their report back. The minister has subsequently asked a backbencher in an electorate that obviously has an awful lot of really good examples of how cooperatives and collectives work. I think you would have to acknowledge, Senator Cameron, that the area that Page covers is a very big horticultural area.

Senator CAMERON: So he is an expert on this, is he?

Senator Ruston: Not at all, Senator Cameron. None of us are experts on anything, although some of us pretend to be so. Mr Hogan has undertaken some additional consultation with a number of industry organisations that potentially could be involved in improving this. And I might point out that this type of policy is actually a Labor Party policy as well. We do not have any dispute about the benefit that a collective or cooperatives policy would be able to deliver. All we are saying is that, if there is to be a change from what is written in the white paper, it will go through a due process. At that time, if a decision is made to change it then obviously that information will be made available. At the moment no decision has been made. Nobody has been given any money—Mr Hogan; nobody from the Liberal Party; nobody from The Nationals. Nobody has been given any money at all. This is still in the very early stages of a possible change in decision and a move away from the decision in the white paper. That decision has not been made. There is no reason for you to character assassinate Mr Hogan or anybody else in The Nationals or the coalition because nothing has changed.

Senator CAMERON: So nothing has changed except that the proposition in the white paper that says, 'We will establish a $13.8 million, two-year pilot training program commencing in early 2016. This will be delivered through the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. In addition, we are making specialist advisers available to assist farmers in establishing these new business arrangements'. It was quite unequivocal in the white paper that RIRDC were the experts in this area. They had done the work and they would deliver the project. Are you saying that that will still be the position?

Senator Ruston: No, I did not say that at all. You know I did not say that. What I said to you is that, if there is a decision to change the one element in what you have just stated—the one element being the delivery of the program by RIRDC—there is no suggestion whatsoever that the program is not going to be delivered in exactly the same way as described in the white paper within the time frames and the funding envelope. All I am saying to you is that at the moment there is a process of reconsideration about the delivery of this project. Nothing has changed to date and there has been no decision made to change it. However, if a decision is made to change it, it will have to go through a robust process which includes a cabinet process. Obviously, you know what that process involves. All information and transparency as applicable to that process will be provided to any change in decision. Governments are entitled to make changes to policy. In a situation where—

Senator CAMERON: So it is a little bit of pork barrelling for The Nationals.

Senator Ruston: Senator Cameron, I do not accept the premise of your statement. What I am saying to you is that—

Senator CAMERON: It is quite clear.

Senator Ruston: the government at the moment is going through a process to determine whether there is a better way to deliver a program. The program is not changing, the money is not changing, the time frame is not changing. All we are suggesting is that, if there is a better way to deliver it, we should investigate that before we continue down the path.

Senator CAMERON: Minister, can you provide all correspondence, all file notes—anything that has transpired between the minister and Mr Hogan in relation to this consultation process?

Senator Ruston: As I said, I will certainly seek further advice from the minister and I am sure that all documents that are appropriate to be released and are not subject to any—there is no reason why they should not be released to you will be released to you. Nobody is trying to hide anything here. But, obviously, cabinet process requires a certain level of confidentiality. Should they make a decision to change one component of this particular policy decision, which requires cabinet process, then cabinet process—

Senator CAMERON: You see, there is no confidentiality about a pork barrelling approach by the minister to a backbencher and the possibility of that backbencher having $13.8 million to conduct a program in his electorate. These are important issues of accountability.

Senator Ruston: This is all speculation. As I said to you, there has been no decision for any change to the existing policy. There possibly may be. Obviously, all transparency and justification for a change in decision will be provided to you should that decision to change be made. Right now, this is all speculation and supposition.

CHAIR: Can I say that I am starting to go dizzy, because we are doing circle work. Senator Cameron, can we just move on. You have made your point.

Senator CAMERON: No, not yet. Mr Burns, how many letters have you written in relation to this move to either Wagga or Albury? There were two that were—was it two or one? Just before you go there: you quoted from one. Given that you have quoted from that letter when The Nationals asked a question on it, can you now table that letter, because you have already put parts of it in the public arena?

Mr Burns : My chair signed that. I will ask my chair. I imagine she would.

Senator CAMERON: Okay. Could you then ask your chair before close of business today so that we can have that letter today if possible?

Mr Burns : I will do that.

Senator CAMERON: Were there other letters that went to—that was the August letter, was it, to the minister?

Mr Burns : That one I quoted I think was the July letter to the—

Senator CAMERON: So there is a July letter and an August letter, isn't there?

Mr Burns : Correct.

Senator CAMERON: Could you seek from your chair whether you can table both of those letters?

Mr Burns : I will do that.

Senator CAMERON: Thank you—and both of them today, if possible. I think that, in relation to this sorry and sad episode, I have come to a conclusion until I get these other details.

Mr Burns : Chair, can I correct one thing I said this morning in response to a question from Senator Rhiannon. She asked about a particular Kangaroo Project. There were several projects that were funded by the department, but this one, as it turns out, was not. This was a project that was undertaken to assist the industry to develop an export strategy and also to assist the department in allocating resources on trade and market access issues relating to kangaroo. Because of the narrow nature of the report, we provided the report to the peak industry organisation—the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia—and to the department. Because of that narrow nature of the work, we did not see a need to publish it on our website.

Senator CAMERON: Minister, are you aware of any other areas of the white paper where the minister's peccadillos will be over and above the white paper process—where he is looking to make changes to the white paper process?

Senator Ruston: Firstly, can I say that I do not believe that there are any areas that the minister's 'peccadillos', as you put it, have influenced. I would ask that it be on the record that I do not accept that component of your question. To the best of my knowledge there are no other matters on the table for variation from the white paper. However, if there should be, obviously due process will be undertaken to ensure that there is full transparency and appropriate process should a better option become available.

Senator CAMERON: A better option than the white paper? I thought the white paper was—the minister was lauding the white paper as the outcome of all of this consultation. There are better outcomes sitting there ready to go, are there, Minister?

Senator Ruston: Senator, I am really at a loss to understand what you are trying to achieve here. However, what I would say is that anybody who believes that something that is developed at a point in time has absolutely no possibility for any improvement whatsoever, even if it might only be a minor detail, is tremendously ignorant. We live in a world where things change rapidly. Other situations outside of the control of government change. New opportunities—

Senator CAMERON: Well, $13.8 million—

Senator Ruston: Excuse me, Senator—would it be okay if I finished—

Senator CAMERON: to a backbencher—

Senator Ruston: What I am saying is that we live in a changing world. We live in a very dynamic world. So, if an opportunity presents itself that we have not seen before that says we can actually improve what we believe is already a very good foundation and platform for the development of Australian agriculture into the future, we would be very foolish not to take advantage of that opportunity. I think that your question is mischievous and does not actually serve the interests of the benefit of Australian agriculture.

CHAIR: Can we just wind up.

Senator CAMERON: No, not yet, Chair. Minister, you are saying that this is about an opportunity we have not seen before. Surely you have seen pork barrelling in National Party seats on numerous occasions.

Senator Ruston: No, I have not, Senator.

Senator CAMERON: There we go. I am finished now. We have got to the ridiculous now.

Senator STERLE: Chair, this is a great time to be a member of the RRAT committee.

CHAIR: I thank the officers. We will move on to cotton.