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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
Department of Agriculture and Water Resources

Department of Agriculture and Water Resources


ACTING CHAIR: How did we end up with corporate at the end of the day?

Mr Quinlivan : We have finished agencies now. The rest of the evening will be the department. I guess one question at the outset would be: do you require all the areas that are currently listed?

ACTING CHAIR: I suppose so. This is all new to me. We have never done it this way before. Let us just chuck the balls in the air and see how many we catch on the way down.

Mr Quinlivan : We have got everybody here.

ACTING CHAIR: Mr Quinlivan, as long as someone can address my questions about the export of live cattle to Huizhou.

Mr Quinlivan : Our export group have had fair warning since you mentioned it this morning. I also will be disappointed if they cannot.

Senator BULLOCK: It probably will do me no good to ask Hansard to delete the following comments, but Doug Cameron has been pressing for this structure of estimates for as long as I have been here and now, at his moment of glory, when he has achieved his objective, he is not here.

We will deal with freedom of information. I think I should probably address all these to you, Mr Quinlivan, and you can farm them out as appropriate. The first is about updates on the implementation of the recommendations of the freedom of information review. There was a freedom of information review. It had a whole range of recommendations. What have you done with them?

Mr Quinlivan : From memory, Mr Glyde gave a full description of what we had done last time. Jo Evans can add to that.

Ms Evans : There was the Ernst & Young review, which is the one that you are referring to, which had a number of recommendations which we have implemented. I can go through each one, if you like.

Senator BULLOCK: Go for your life.

Ms Evans : The first recommendation was around re-establishing our commitment to a pro-disclosure culture. That is in progress. We have encouraged buy-in to the freedom of information processes and encouraged a decentralised decision-making model already. We have plans for a message to all staff that enforces the pro-disclosure culture once we have finished doing some revamping of our freedom of information web pages.

The second recommendation was about reviewing our policies and procedures to ensure that they are consistent with the posture articulated by the secretary and to achieve some efficiencies. We have done that as well. We have reviewed all of our guidance material and updated that. As I said, we are in the process of updating web pages for staff to access that. We are engaging a little more with applicants and so on to make sure we define the scope of FOIs as accurately as we can.

The third recommendation in the report was that the FOI section be moved into the corporate strategy and governance area of the department. But since both the legal area of the department and that division report in to me we did not feel we needed to make a change to that recommendation. So we noted the recommendation, but we have left the structure as it is.

Senator BULLOCK: Would it be better if they reported separately?

Ms Evans : I think the point was that they needed to have an oversight of someone in my position where I can see the broader implications of what is being asked for under the freedom of information processes. I think the structure we have already deals with that perspective. That was the third one.

The fourth recommendation was around some procedures to identify and manage complex and sensitive cases. So again we have done that. We have got some very clear guidance material and made that available to all staff. In particular, we have said that where there is a sensitive matter the decision maker should be the first assistant secretary in the area that had dealt with the substance of the matter in the first place.

Senator BULLOCK: Just pause there and talk to me about the procedures that have been developed to identify complex and sensitive matters.

Ms Evans : In essence, the change that we have made is that previously that was centralised in the FOI team—so the decision making was within that central team about what should be sensitive or what should not be sensitive—and now we are taking the approach that, based on the subject matter of the FOI, we should go out to the line areas that carried a responsibility for that matter and seek their advice on whether it is a sensitive issue or not.

Senator BULLOCK: Then once you have identified it how do you manage it from there?

Ms Evans : If it is not a sensitive matter we could still deal with the decision making centrally. If it is a sensitive matter then we are leaving that decision making with the line area that has the complete knowledge of the matter.

Senator BULLOCK: Can you give me an example—not a real one but a hypothetical—of what you consider is a complex and sensitive matter and how you might address it?

Ms Evans : I am not sure that I could make an example. Perhaps historically the issue that triggered the review and is therefore—

Senator BULLOCK: I remember the issue.

Ms Evans : sensitive and complex was the one regarding—

Senator BULLOCK: We do not want to go there again. I think we have been there plenty of times.

Ms Evans : I guess that is the example.

Senator BULLOCK: You have not thought outside the box?

Ms Evans : In every case there are always going to be some issues that appear on the surface to be straightforward, but if you are a deep subject knowledge expert on it you will know if it has got some more sensitive aspects to it. I am not really prepared to speculate on which things might fall into the sensitive category and which ones will not.

Senator BULLOCK: It was more just to test whether you had thought through how you might deal with something when it arose. If everybody is going to look at complex and sensitive matters against the first example and say, 'Well, it's not one of those, therefore, it's not a'—

Ms Evans : We are relying still on the judgment of our people. Some things we can very quickly identify as not being sensitive, if it is pretty much a procedural matter or specific information. If an individual is asking for information about their own files or whatever then that is straightforward and it can be dealt with simply. But beyond that we are in all cases going and asking the subject matter experts whether or not it is a sensitive matter and they can use their judgment at that point to let us know.

Senator BULLOCK: Okay; I have got that. Rely on their judgment. Keep going.

Ms Evans : Do you want me to cover off on the final recommendations?

Senator BULLOCK: You are motoring along. Keep going.

Ms Evans : The fifth one was again around this issue of complex or sensitive cases. The recommendation was that the decision maker should be a member of the department's SES. Again, we have made that change and it is now clear in our guidance material that that should be the case. That is working very effectively already.

The sixth recommendation was around working with the minister's office to establish our processes for consistent transparent handling of FOI processes for them. So we have again done that. We have had discussions both with the assistant minister's office and with the minister's office to provide our revised guidance material. We have provided that material to them. We have responded to that recommendation and feel we now have—

Senator BULLOCK: So you have had some discussions?

Ms Evans : Yes.

Senator BULLOCK: Are there any standard practices that you have put into place to say, 'This is how we're going to deal with the minister's office when these issues arise'?

Ms Evans : Again, we have written down some guidance material on how to help that. But, in essence, we are there to support the minister's office if they request us to assist them. They are a separate legal entity from us for FOI purposes so they handle their requests on their own.

Senator BULLOCK: I remember them well. As you know, there were some problems there and—

Ms Evans : Yes, there were. We have now clarified that, particularly in relation to FOI requests that are directed to the wrong entity—so things that came to the department that should have gone to the minister's office and so on. We now have very clear guidance on how to handle those which involve informing the applicant that they have incorrectly directed—

Senator BULLOCK: Yes, rather than just 'not at this address' and filing it?

Ms Evans : That is correct. The final recommendation was that we establish procedures to provide an induction at the commencement of a new minister on FOI. Again, we have established that. The assistant minister was the first—

Senator BULLOCK: Guinea pig?

Ms Evans : recipient of that induction.

Senator BULLOCK: How did you find it?

Senator Ruston: Actually, surprisingly, they provided me with a whole heap more information than I expected they would.

Senator BULLOCK: So it seemed good to you?

Senator Ruston: Yes, it was very worthwhile. I think you take things for granted and you expect you know something and often you do not.

Senator BULLOCK: Hear, hear! Thank you for that. That was really good in terms of filling me in on those things. I wonder if there is anything beyond the answers that you have given arising from your responses to those recommendations where you have varied your policies or procedures in the freedom of information area. In other words, this is an opportunity to fill in anything you may have left out.

Ms Evans : No. I am confident that the guidance that we have now written down is good practice. We are very satisfied with the way the FOI processes are working both within the department and with the two ministers' offices.

Senator BULLOCK: I am not sure who is best placed to answer this question so anybody feel free to have a go. Senator Ruston, you might have a go or alternatively the department might have a go. How can we be confident that the minister's office is capable of handling FOI requests when it appears that procedures in the minister's office were excluded from the review of FOI policies and procedures?

Senator Ruston: I suppose the confidence comes from, obviously, the issue that transpired before this review was undertaken. I was not privy to what happened that sparked this particular review, Senator Bullock. The only comment I can probably make is that, having now had the opportunity to have the briefings and the induction—not just to myself but to my staff—we now understand very clearly what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and who needs to be spoken to. I have got a level of confidence that my office will know what to do. If you wish me to get some information in relation to how Minister Joyce feels now, I am happy to do so.

Senator BULLOCK: It might add a little because you were obviously impressed with the induction process. We are really pinning our hopes there that the training that you have been through, taken in the spirit in which you have taken it and applied it as it should be applied, should provide the confidence that people need. I think that is what you are saying in answer to the question.

Senator Ruston: Yes, absolutely.

Senator BULLOCK: Let us see if the minister shares that confidence with you and your enthusiasm for the induction.

Senator Ruston: It gave me confidence. I know it certainly gave my staff confidence. It is an area that sometimes you get a bit scared about, particularly when you have got staff that perhaps have not come from within the public sector. It gives them some confidence to understand that this is actually a process that is there to protect them and not a process that they should be scared of. I am absolutely happy to take that on notice and ask the minister to provide his comments as well.

Senator BULLOCK: In the red tape reduction the National Rural Advisory Council bit the dust. There is a reasonable argument to say that if separate requests for advice were made of the National Rural Advisory Council and the AIAC then they could both have been providing good support to government. Can someone provide an explanation as to how the department is able to claim that the NRAC was merged with the minister's new advisory council, AIAC, when it really was just one being killed?

Mr Morris : As part of the election commitment that came out of the last election the minister established the Agricultural Industry Advisory Council. In large part the Agricultural Industry Advisory Council provides many of the roles that NRAC would have provided in the past, including providing advice around policy and so forth. So in many ways that role has been taken on by the AIAC. NRAC did have some specific roles in the past, I understand, around things like exceptional circumstances declarations and things like that, which are no longer in existence. That role had already disappeared from NRAC. It became more of a policy advisory body and AIAC is now the body to perform that role.

Senator BULLOCK: It just seems odd to establish a new body to provide similar advice to the old body and say, 'Now we've got duplication so we're going to abolish the old body.' What was going on there? Why wouldn't they just say, 'Okay, we need a new body because we need new advice'—fair enough—or, 'We've got this body to provide advice. We'll listen to their advice.' Why was it necessary to 'merge' the two bodies when in fact all you did was, as far as I can see, kill the first one?

Mr Morris : I think the minister took the opportunity as part of the election commitment to establish these advisory councils to establish his own council for advising him. The minister has selected the members of the Ag Industry Advisory Council and people he wanted to advise him and they formed the new committee.

Senator BULLOCK: That just sounded to me very much like—and you may not have meant it—he handpicked a group of mates to give him advice and he threw out the pre-existing advisory body.

Mr Morris : I would not say they were 'mates'; rather a group of people he believed had the expertise in the portfolio industries. They cover agriculture, fisheries and forestry. Some biosecurity expertise as well was added to the committee. Those people were people he felt he trusted to provide him advice in terms of helping to develop policy. They are purely advisory bodies. He can accept or not accept their advice.

Senator BULLOCK: As was NRAC, wasn't it?

Ms Freeman : I would have to take it on notice, but I think the abolition of NRAC was part of the broader effort to cut the number of bodies.

Senator BULLOCK: What a strange effort, when you create a new body and say, 'Oh, no, we're going to cut'—

Ms Freeman : I am just going through it. There were a range of functions that they actually had, some of which were in legislation. I would have to take that on notice as to the nature of that arrangement. We can advise you on that.

Mr Quinlivan : I think it was the case that the core function of NRAC was related to drought advice in the exceptional circumstances model. When drought policy had moved beyond that, the core function really had ceased to exist. I think that is a large part of the logic here.

Senator BULLOCK: When NRAC was set up, wasn't the idea that it would provide independent advice and information to the minister, and the nature of that advice would depend on what advice they were after? If drought was the issue of the day, you would ask about drought. If other issues were more pressing, you would ask about those.

Ms Freeman : Referring to what Mr Quinlivan said, the role of NRAC for much of its time was actually about conducting exceptional circumstance assessments. They had a formal role in that process of advising government. That was explicitly part of their function. When we moved away from exceptional circumstance arrangements, obviously a major part of what they did was no longer required.

Senator BULLOCK: Why?

Mr Quinlivan : Because the policy model completely changed and we did not have exceptional circumstances—

ACTING CHAIR: Were they not capable of talking about other issues in agriculture? They were wholly and solely just water people, were they, or drought people; is that what it was? I do not even know who they were.

Mr Morris : I think it is fair to say that people selected for a committee who were making decisions on drought-related policies would have particular expertise to assist them in that role, and if that role was no longer required—

ACTING CHAIR: Ms Freeman is saying these people were just there for drought; is that what you said?

Ms Freeman : No.

ACTING CHAIR: We went through the largest drought in years for about eight years.

Ms Freeman : I was saying that a primary function over the lifetime of NRAC that they carried out was doing the exceptional circumstance function. After the exceptional circumstances arrangement ceased, they did do, at the request of the minister of the day, a number of different inquiries. For example, on multi-peril crop insurance, farm management deposits, they provided a range of advice to government over that period. I should say I was the Commonwealth representative on that council for a number of years. So we provided a range of advice.

ACTING CHAIR: It was not just drought; it was just that drought happened to be the main issue at the time?

Ms Freeman : It was the major function that they performed, yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Because of the circumstances at the time, not because that is the only skills that they had?

Ms Freeman : I would have to take it on notice and go back and look at the skill set of the individuals.

ACTING CHAIR: For how long were you the Commonwealth representative?

Ms Freeman : I would have to check, but it was probably for a period of 18 months.

ACTING CHAIR: The impression you put to us, Ms Freeman—and I may have this wrong—was that they were really only there to talk about drought and that is all they did. I could not accept that. I could not accept that a minister would—

Ms Freeman : I do not think I said that, Senator.

ACTING CHAIR: surround themselves with people that have absolutely no skills in agriculture, but they can talk about drought; therefore you have to get rid of them when the drought is over.

Ms Freeman : I said they also provided a number of pieces of separate advice to the minister.

ACTING CHAIR: You did not, to start with.

Mr Morris : We did say it was their primary role.

ACTING CHAIR: Because of circumstances at the time. You make it sound like the previous minister only had them because they could talk about drought.

Senator BULLOCK: In regard to the current advisory council, how do they determine what issues they should be providing advice to the minister on? I have just done something that was annoying me all morning. All morning I was listening to people who ended sentences with prepositions. I got annoyed about it, and I just did it. How do they determine—

Mr Quinlivan : I hope you will take this in the spirit in which it is offered, but we are having a little bit of difficulty hearing you. I do not know if it is possible to turn the volume up on your mike or—

Senator BULLOCK: No, it is all my fault. I have had plenty of practice in addressing meetings of hundreds. I am sure I can get my voice over to you.

Mr Quinlivan : Okay, thank you.

Senator BULLOCK: I had adopted a more conversational tone, which perhaps was ill advised. My question was: how does the current advisory committee determine what issues they should be providing advice on?

Mr Morris : The agendas earlier on were framed around some of the key government priorities of the day. In its early meetings the two key priorities I can recall them discussing were around the policy development of the agricultural competitiveness white paper—of course, that was pretty broad ranging; it covered just about anything to do with agricultural policy—and the government's deregulation agenda and what suggestions they might have for the government's deregulation options.

Senator BULLOCK: Did they advise on the winding up of NRAC, in terms of the deregulation agenda?

Mr Morris : I do not recall them discussing that. As I recall, the early meetings were focused around those two agenda items and they were pretty well set by the minister as being very important in terms of key priorities for the government. Subsequent to that, there has been a bit more flexibility around the issues of the day. Certainly, the minister has a role in determining what he wants to talk to the council about, and they also have an opportunity to raise other issues that they would be concerned about.

Senator BULLOCK: Is that two-way street functioning well?

Mr Morris : I have not been to every meeting, but at the meetings I have been to there has been plenty of opportunity for interaction by the members and for them to raise their ideas. In fact, the minister spends his time encouraging them to bring forward ideas.

Senator BULLOCK: What are the reporting mechanisms to allow for transparency and accountability regarding the advice that the advisory council is providing to the minister?

Mr Morris : There are minutes of the meeting, if that is what you mean. But the meetings are—

Senator BULLOCK: How are they handled? What happens to the minutes?

Mr Morris : The minutes are prepared after each meeting. I did not quite catch the last bit.

Senator BULLOCK: Are they just put in a file thereafter?

Mr Morris : The discussion and the minutes are used as a record of the meeting to inform development of policies and ideas.

Senator BULLOCK: They are not public documents?

Mr Morris : I do not believe they are public documents. I will have to check that with the team.

Senator BULLOCK: This question of transparency and accountability is really a question of: how do we know what they are up to? That is at the heart of transparency and accountability. My question really is: how do we know what they are up to? What issues are they addressing? What advice are they providing? How do we know that?

Mr Morris : We will take on notice what we can provide to you and see whether we can provide you with information like agendas and so forth. We will take that on notice and see what we can provide.

Senator BULLOCK: Similarly, with regard to the costs associated with the advisory committee, how are we to know what they are?

Mr Morris : There were a number of questions taken on notice at the last hearing, Senator. If you refer to the relevant questions taken on notice, there was quite a detailed outline of the costs of each of the meetings that have been undertaken for the committee meetings.

Senator BULLOCK: Is the answer to the question that the only way we will ever find out is by putting questions on notice at estimates?

Mr Quinlivan : At present you have itemised costs for all the meetings to date.

ACTING CHAIR: I reckon you would have that info there.

Mr Quinlivan : No, you have already got it.

Senator BULLOCK: But that is because we have asked for it?

Mr Quinlivan : You did ask for it and we provided it.

Senator BULLOCK: That is great. It is good to be provided with what we have asked for. How can there be a level of transparency that is automatic rather than having to have senators sit around a table and put questions on notice in order to get those answers? How can we introduce that element of transparency; that is the question?


Mr Quinlivan : You could continue to ask. We are happy to provide it.

Senator BULLOCK: Really? Is that the best we can do? We have to come here at estimates and ask the question?

Mr Quinlivan : It is not the sort of thing we would normally publish without there being some demand for it. If you wish to see it then I am sure we would be happy to continue to provide it. We have not had any other requests for the information.

ACTING CHAIR: Mr Quinlivan, with the greatest respect, and not under your leadership, but, when we do not take no for an answer, the figures are always available. They are there. It just takes a bit to milk it out sometimes. But you always have them when you come here.

Mr Quinlivan : We have provided everything that we have.

ACTING CHAIR: So there is no need to take them on notice.

Senator BULLOCK: It certainly seems to me that there is a need to put these things on notice because, if we did not, we would never get told.

ACTING CHAIR: No, because the officer at the table—it depends on who is at the table—does not want to answer it and they are let off. If we continue to keep asking, they provide it. It has been proven.

Senator Ruston: Senator, I am assuming you are acknowledging that whenever the questions have been put on notice they have always been answered.

ACTING CHAIR: Yes, and it should not have to be taken on notice. I agree. I am sharing Senator Bullock's frustration because I know they have tried to stonewall me. But you always have the figures in front of you; don't say you don't.

Mr Quinlivan : No, I am not saying that—

ACTING CHAIR: I know you are not. The officers have sat around here for long enough to know that, if someone up at the front gets the crankies, you get the answer.

Senator BULLOCK: It is good that we have answers to questions on notice. It is not, however, transparent. To me, it is an unsatisfactory means of finding out the truth when it has to be subject to questions on notice in estimates rather than a transparent process. It is not secret. You are prepared to share that information in answers to questions on notice. I just do not know why the operations of this advisory committee cannot be more transparent. Is there an answer to that?

Mr Quinlivan : I do not see how they could be any more transparent. We have given you itemised costings of every meeting.

Senator BULLOCK: But only when we ask.

Mr Quinlivan : We are going to see whether it is possible to provide you with copies of agendas and minutes of the meetings. That would be the full set of available information.

Senator BULLOCK: Can't you see the difference between providing it only when asked and providing it without being asked?

Mr Quinlivan : Yes, of course I can. But I am saying that, other than the information we have agreed now to look at releasing, there would be nothing further to release. If the committee has a continuing request to see the information, we would be happy to provide it. If you want to make that a continuing arrangement, we would be happy to—

Senator BULLOCK: We do not have to do it retrospectively, estimates by estimates; we can just put that as a standing request?

Mr Quinlivan : We are happy to do that. I am accepting that because I know that if we do not do it you are going to request it, so we are happy to provide it.

Senator BULLOCK: Thank you very much, Mr Quinlivan, for accepting that. Senator Sterle, we can leave that on the table as a standing request and look forward to seeing that information because then the arrangements will be, at least in my view—and maybe I misunderstand the concept—more transparent.

I want to turn to the relationship between the department and the advisory council. Do the department seek the advisory council's advice, or do you provide briefings to the advisory council for their benefit?

Mr Quinlivan : Both, depending on the issue.

Senator BULLOCK: The government is claiming that, by abolishing NRAC, it reduces work duplication. However, work agendas are set by the minister in consultation with NRAC, and, we assume, his hand-picked advisory council. So how can the government justify its position? The minister presumably sets the work. How does it avoid duplication? The only way there would be duplication is if he asked the two bodies to do the same thing. Presumably, he does not do that. What is the justification for the argument about duplication?

Mr Quinlivan : There is no duplication now because there is only one body. I am not sure that I understand the question. There may have been duplication in the past. There is only one body now.

Senator BULLOCK: There is only one body now. I am getting back to this question of why the other body was abolished. Both bodies, when they existed, were answerable to the minister. They would have provided advice as requested by the minister. Surely, duplication could only have arisen if the minister asked both bodies to advise on the same matter. If, for example, to take Ms Freeman's suggestion that the speciality—not the exclusive speciality—of NRAC was advice on drought, you might call them for advice on drought, and for advice on floods you might call for advice from the advisory body. The duplication only arises if the two bodies are charged with the same responsibilities, surely. Given that that is the case, doesn't that mean that the argument that one body needed to be abolished because of duplication is nonsense?

Mr Morris : Not at all, because you have two bodies established and then you have double the costs of running those bodies. If you can get the same level of advice from a single body, it is surely saving costs to have that one body providing the advice rather than having two bodies.

Senator BULLOCK: It depends on how much you are spending.

Mr Morris : The main function of the previous body had ended. It was doing a few other tasks. Those tasks could now be undertaken by the new body, so why maintain the old body and continue to pay for the costs associated with that body? Pure efficiency would dictate that having a single body would be more efficient.

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Bullock, would you like to finish the questions in this area before we break for dinner?

Senator BULLOCK: All right. Did the department provide advice to the minister regarding the abolition of NRAC?

Mr Morris : I will have to check that; I was not in the area at the time. We will check that for you.

Senator BULLOCK: Probably in a similar vein, I will ask: did the minister or his staff seek information regarding the abolition of NRAC?

Mr Morris : We will take that on notice as well.

Senator BULLOCK: I was impressed by your concern for costs. It seems to me that running two bodies does not necessarily cost more than running one, depending on how you arrange to fund it. The advisory council dinner, apparently, cost $9,634—for three dinners. The department claimed there are a number of networking events and dinners; however, it cannot break down clearly where the costs should be allocated. The department should be able to provide a clear breakdown of costs for networking functions as opposed to dinner costs. This goes to the issue, Mr Quinlivan, of having been provided with everything we have asked for.

Mr Quinlivan : From memory, we have provided everything we have, but there were one or two functions where we did not receive a bill that distinguished between the dinner and the networking function. So we didn't have an itemised account that we could use for providing those numbers. We have had them for all the other meetings—

Senator BULLOCK: With respect to our standing request for future information, perhaps you could make it clear that the providers of the bill—

Mr Quinlivan : We will continue to give you whatever we get, and we would seek that distinction—

Senator BULLOCK: Yes, if you seek the distinction that could be helpful.

CHAIR: Thank you, very much.

Mr Quinlivan : Can we just check where we are up to in the agenda?

CHAIR: Water resources.

Mr Quinlivan : Is everyone required? We have not finished on corporate?

Senator STERLE: We are up to water.

CHAIR: Water is last.

Senator STERLE: Water resources. We want to talk about the On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program. Who is that?

Mr Quinlivan : That is water. So we have all those biosecurity issues that you said you wish to discuss. They come before water. The question is whether we finish with corporate and ABARES, in which case we are moving on to outcome 1.

Senator STERLE: We have not done ABARES yet. We are still going.

CHAIR: Did Senator Edwards ask the question about whether we can send sides of lamb to Singapore and other places?

Mr Morris : He passed that question to me; we are going to handle the sides of lamb and beef. We will answer that question and give you a written response on it.

CHAIR: Junee Gold Lamb—we send that over there. Thank you. So we will leave everyone here.

Proceedings suspended from 18:34 to 19 : 35

CHAIR: Are we moving to, or we are still at, corporate?

Senator BULLOCK: Just very quickly, as we broke for dinner I was speaking to Mr Quinlivan and I got the impression that there were some things he might like to say in clarification of his remarks on the establishment of the additional advisory body in Agriculture. If you want to take advantage of that opportunity I would happily offer it to you.

Mr Quinlivan : No, I think we have dealt with it satisfactorily.

Senator BULLOCK: I thought you might want to get it down, Mr Quinlivan. I did not want to deny you the chance.

Mr Quinlivan : Thank you.

Senator STERLE: Let's talk about the review of the On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program, and I want to raise that because I did ask that earlier before we left.

Mr Quinlivan : I am sorry, that might be one of the few areas, because they are expected to be very last—

Senator STERLE: It is on notice. They are not here?

Mr Quinlivan : They are expected to be the very last item at 10 o'clock tonight. I think we were expecting to everything else and then water.

Senator STERLE: Okay, let us just see how we go and if I forget to come back to water you will remind me, won't you?

Mr Quinlivan : I do not think you will forget.

Senator Ruston: I do not think we will remind you either.

Senator STERLE: Well, I will not do water. Let us talk quickly about the Rural Research and Development Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 that was before us. I want to have a quick chat about that, for those people here.

Ms Evans : Have we moved off corporate into—

Senator STERLE: I have got it down as corporate. You will have to forgive me, Ms Evans, because you see, you and I have been around nearly about the same time. This whole new process that has been devised is new to me. Senate estimates are not new to me, I think I am up to number 31 now, but I am trying to work my way through this one as opposed to the way we used to do it. It that fair, chair? Are you just as confused as me? Because you have done about 80 of them.

CHAIR: I have done about 70.

Mr Quinlivan : You might need to repeat the question.

CHAIR: I do not know. I cannot remember where we were up to.

Mr Quinlivan : Rural research and development—

Senator STERLE: Rural Research and Development Legislation Amendment Bill 2014, which is hanging around at the moment, I am led to believe. Is that right? I do not think it has gone through. I think it is just sitting there somewhere.

Ms Freeman : It has not gone through.

Senator STERLE: Let me throw just a couple of quick ones at you. You were not in the room—I would like to just get straight through it if we can, Ms Freeman. Has the department provided any advice to the ministry on the impact of reduced RDC funding on the bodies affected by the proposed legislation?

Ms Freeman : I take on notice the specifics, but at the time it was done the costings for 2014-15 were actually, as I understand it, provided, which was $1.62 million in 2014-15. I would take on notice the specifics of when advice was provided to the minister.

Senator STERLE: If you could please. That was the 2014 budget, you said?

Ms Freeman : For 2014-15, yes. That was the total cost of membership fees in that year.

Senator STERLE: Because it was a 2014 budget measure, and the committee report was tabled on 3 December 2014—that was my mum and dad's 65th anniversary, what do you reckon about that?—has the minister sought any advice as to the ongoing financial uncertainty impacting the work undertaken by the RDCs affected by the proposed legislation?

Ms Freeman : When this was done I was not actually in this positon. So just to confirm, nothing has happened since I have been in this position, but I will confirm it over the time the bill was introduced.

Senator STERLE: Has the department undertaken any analysis of how this budget measure reduces R&D dollars in real investment terms over the longer period?

Ms Freeman : Again I will take it on notice, but I think it is probably safe to say as a percentage of the total R&D spend it would be a relatively small amount.

Senator STERLE: You can take it on notice. We will be able to come back to it.

Mr Quinlivan : The substance of the question was really dealt with with the R&D corporations earlier today. I think we have really covered this ground.

Senator STERLE: Sure. I just wanted to tick off on that final one. If that can be taken on notice, that is fine. I want to talk about the white paper initiatives. Can you provide an update on the implementation of the white paper?

Mr Morris : Implementation is generally going well. There are quite a number of measures—quite a number have been implemented, and then there are a number of others that are in the process of being implemented. Are there specific measures that you are interested in? I could go through the whole lot of them, which will take quite a bit of time, or we could just focus on some specific ones that you might be interested in.

Senator STERLE: Focus on the big ticket items, because we have all been sitting around and waiting for it for quite a while and we may have missed something.

Mr Morris : There were a number of measures announced as part of last year's budget which went to drought. There were things like the transitional loan program, which has been rolled out in most states. There are still one or two to be ticked off, but drought concessional loans are available in quite a number of states now, particularly in those that are affected by drought. And then the long-term drought program for loans kicks off from 1 July this year. We are still negotiating with the states about the arrangements for that one, but certainly the loans are being rolled out this year.

Other elements of that program include the pests and weeds initiatives. There have been a number of payments made under that program. About $9.5 million in projects under the Drought Communities Program have been approved, and they are being rolled out in a number of shires. In terms of drought initiatives there is quite a bit that is underway.

In terms of other initiatives, on the trade front we have got the five new agricultural counsellor positions that have been established in Vietnam, Malaysia and the Middle East with additional high level counsellors in Bangkok and China. They are on the ground and at work in those countries. Of course, the accelerated depreciation arrangements for fencing, for water facilities and for fodder on farms have been made available to farmers, as of the middle of last year, so farmers can claim under those and invest in those initiatives.

Senator STERLE: Is there a checklist? Not a ministerial statement that also mentions the duty senator and every other little junior minister—is there something categorical like 'Here is the table and this is what we have achieved.

Mr Morris : We would be happy to provide that to you on notice.

Senator STERLE: It might be a lot easier if we can sit down and have a look at it.

Mr Morris : That is why I mentioned at the start that if I go through all of these it is going to take a lot of time and it would be far easier to just tell you where each of them is at.

Senator STERLE: If you could flick us that information, that would be very helpful. As I said, this is one of the better departments.

Senator Ruston: Senator Sterle, I know this is probably a bit of a political response but certainly some of the programs are worth noting, like the water infrastructure fund: on 21 January, I think, we received the first round of submissions for the feasibility study. So that is moving on really well. One of the real priorities of government was to try and get water security, particularly in rural and regional Australia. Also some of the programs around drought funding have been accelerated. So there are some quite big things that certainly are worth noting. We are happy to give those details.

Senator STERLE: Sorry, Minister, what was that all about?

Senator Ruston: You were asking about the programs in relation to the white paper—

Senator STERLE: No, Minister, thank you. That is fine. We do not have to have that. Mr Morris is going to give us—

Senator Ruston: I understand—

Senator STERLE: I do not need an advertisement.

Senator Ruston: It is just that—and I acknowledged that.

Senator STERLE: I am running out of puff. I am on the edge again.

Senator Ruston: I acknowledged that Senator Sterle, but it was an opportunity that I could not let go.

Senator STERLE: I am still smiling at the moment. That is fine. Mr Morris, if you do that for us, that would be greatly appreciated. As I was going to say, this is one of the few departments that actually do pull their finger out and get the answers back. So we look forward to that. Thank you. Now, Chair—


Senator STERLE: I can't remember what I was going to say. There are a few questions I want to put to ABARES and then I am pretty sure this section—what is the new wording we use? 'Outcomes' or something? Whatever. ABARES. Thanks, Mr Morris.