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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
21/05/2018
Estimates
ENVIRONMENT AND ENERGY PORTFOLIO
Director of National Parks

Director of National Parks

CHAIR: We will recommence now and we will start with the Director of National Parks. Welcome, Dr West, and team. Dr West, do you have an opening statement you wish to make?

Dr West : No.

Senator URQUHART: Previously I thought you said that you weren't here to answer questions, so I just want to clarify whether I heard you correctly or whether I didn't. I thought that part of your role was that, when we asked you a question, you would actually answer, and you have done that in the past?.

Senator Birmingham: Senator, I am absolutely here to answer questions. I am here to answer questions representing the Minister for the Environment and Energy today. What I was saying to Senator Di Natale, who was wanting to start asking questions about political donations, was that questions taken on notice here are, of course, questions for the Department of the Environment and Energy, who are not equipped to answer questions in relation to political donations and, indeed, nor am I, the responsible minister, nor am I representing the responsible minister for political donations.

Senator URQUHART: That is fine. I just wanted to clarify that because there was a little bit of confusion, and I thought that it was unlike you not to want to answer questions.

Senator Birmingham: Ask away, indeed, but I am also trying to ensure that I say as little as possible so we can be as expeditious as possible.

CHAIR: Excellent. We are satisfied. Senator Keneally, open batting.

Senator KENEALLY: I would like to thank National Parks for being here today. I would like to begin

Senator URQUHART: Sorry, I interrupted. I do not know whether there is going to be an opening statement, so I apologise.

CHAIR: No, I believe it was a no. So we are free to go. Senator Keneally, as you were.

Senator KENEALLY: If I could begin on marine parks, the government's own science panel report says:

Edgar et al. (2014) showed that larger no-take areas (over 100 km2) achieved greater biodiversity outcomes, especially when they were well enforced, old and isolated …

Considering that, why did the director recommend moving 50 per cent of the highly protected area in the Coral Sea?

Dr West : Thank you, Senator. I will pass this question to my colleague Jason Mundy.

Mr Mundy : Thanks, Senator, for the question. As you know, the process of zoning within the Australian marine parks has been a long and contentious and difficult one that has sought over many years to achieve a balance between various different imperatives, including the principal imperative of biodiversity protection and conservation but also sustainable human use.

The independent review which you quote made a number of comments on how that balance might best be achieved. One of the suggestions that they made was that they did observe the benefits of no-take zones, green zones, if you like, and they are benefits for biodiversity conservation. But the panel also made the observation:

there is a high conservation benefit from zoning areas as Habitat Protection Zones to protect benthic and demersal habitats by excluding damaging activities while allowing activities such as regulated fishing in the water column, including the take of pelagic species that do not compromise conservation values and management objectives for those areas.

The panel made a range of recommendations around how that balance could be achieved, and that included some suggestions about how zoning could occur. One of the observations that they made was that greater use of habitat protection zones which protect the sea floor but which allow commercial activities in the water column was one of the ways to achieve that balance between the various imperatives.

Senator KENEALLY: You said there that the panel was looking at the different perspectives, so the different uses, of the Coral Sea. From a conservation perspective, is it better to have a highly protected zone or the benthic protection zone as proposed by the government?

Mr Mundy : There is certainly a lot of evidence, particularly around shallow coral reef environments, that demonstrates that having no-take zones offers very high levels of protection. There is less of that level of evidence that you achieve the same conservation benefits from no-take zones in distant and deep pelagic environments. One of the features of the changes in zoning that we have seen over the years has been that the places where the green zones have been reduced in the final versions of the plans have principally been in those deep, distant pelagic areas. And that is true of the Coral Sea as it is for many other parts of the network.

Senator KENEALLY: Thank you.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Is it that the evidence does not exist because they are deeper and it is a lot harder to do observations and other work, or does the evidence suggest that they do not need to be protected?

Mr Mundy : No, I think it is just that much of the scientific effort has focused on those shallow coral reef environments, so there is

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Because it is easier to study, not necessarily because the deep water areas do not need to be protected?

Mr Mundy : No, it is because they are easier to study and there are higher concentrations of human interest there and, I guess, for that combination of reasons there is a larger body of evidence around them. I am not saying that there is no evidence that pelagic no-take areas do not have benefit; I am saying that the weight of science which has occurred to date has been focused on those areas which are shallow coral reefs and that there is somewhat less around the pelagic environment.

Senator KENEALLY: You said in your first answerand correctly, in my viewthat the history of marine park conservation has been contentious and contested for many years. Those may not have been your exact words, but it was the import of your statement. I just want to look at the actions taken by the former Labor government. Were there any legal steps that still needed to be taken by the former Labor government to complete what would have been the world's largest network of marine reserves?

Mr Mundy : No, there were no further steps that would have been required to have been taken. However, as I think I mentioned at the last estimates hearing on this subject, the management plans that were created by Labor ceased to have any practical legal effect as of 14 December 2013, when a proclamation was made under section 350 of the EPBC Act revoking the existing proclamation of reserve networks around the country and declaring reserves with the same names over the same areas and with the same zoning in their place. Effectively, the parks to which the previous management plans pertained no longer existed from that point onwards. So the plans ceased to have legal effect from that date.

Senator KENEALLY: To clarify: if that action had not been taken by the Abbott government then those plans would still be in place?

Mr Mundy : Had the re-proclamation not occurredthere are a couple of ifs hereon 14 December 2013 and had the plans survived, if you like, a disallowance vote in the Senate then they would have come into effect.

Senator KENEALLY: Would it be fair to characterise this as the actions in 2013 of the Abbott government started a process to remove that network and that the Turnbull government in its recent announcements of the zones has tried to complete it?

Mr Mundy : I would say that the 2013 action was to render the previous management plans redundant before they came into effect.

Senator KENEALLY: Thank you. I have nothing further.

Senator SIEWERT: I want to ask about Kakadu, of course, and follow up a series of questions I have been asking around the buffalo farm. First off, thank you for a copy of the letter that we received; I appreciated that. Do you see that as adequate in terms of meeting the needs for management of the national park? It was a very short letter. Firstly, do you think that letter was adequate?

Dr West : Could you just repeat what you said, Senator.

Senator SIEWERT: Do you think that the letter was adequate to meet the needs for managing an area within the Kakadu National Park?

Mr Pratt : Senator, by definition, if we signed a letter to you then

Senator SIEWERT: No, it was a letter that Mr Lindner had sent to the boardto the former director, sorryaround the continuation of the operations around bushmeat supply from the buffalo farm in Kakadu.

Dr West : Are you referring to his original letter to the director, the previous director?

Senator SIEWERT: Yes.

Dr West : That had an indication in it that he was intending to apply for a permitwhat he called a permitto operate the buffalo farm.

Senator SIEWERT: It says, 'I hereby apply for authorisation under the parks legislation to continue bush killed meat services.' You know the rest.

Dr West : Yes. I think we indicated at the last estimates that we had said that was not obviously a full application for a permit. We have since then discussed this at the Kakadu board of management and we are working towards a formal application for a licence for him.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. So he still has not applied for a formal licence?

Dr West : No, it hasn't been completed yet.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. I have some questions around the meeting and the consultation, pursuing some of the issues that I asked last time, which I will follow up shortly. What is the time frame now, in your understanding, for the application for the licence?

Dr West : We have another board meeting in two weeks time and we are anticipating that Mr Lindner will be attending that board meeting in person. So we will be able to work through with him a little bit further, with the board, on the contents of the application.

Senator SIEWERT: Just so I have got this in the right order: he has not applied yet?

Dr West : That's right.

Senator SIEWERT: He is attending the board meeting, and subsequent to that there will be a formal application?

Dr West : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: Is that a correct understanding?

Dr West : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. Are you requiring a time line for him to meet to put that application in following the board meeting?

Dr West : I anticipate we will. We have not actually talked about that yet, but, yes, I'm sure we will give him a time line, because otherwise it is going to drag on a little.

Senator SIEWERT: The letter talks about scope of service, in the second sentence. It talks about the scope of this service 'was outlined through the park manager on 21 November 2017'. Is that written down anywhere? What is that scope of service and is it written down anywhere?

Dr West : We would probably need to take that on notice since there is a different park manager since that time. And we have not seen any of those notes, if there were notes taken.

Senator SIEWERT: So you have no understanding of what the scope of service is?

Dr West : Not what Mr Lindner might have been indicating then, but we anticipate there will be conditions, as we discussed last time, in the Senate estimates last time, for the application of the licence.

Senator SIEWERT: Would the 'scope of service', therefore, be discussed at the board meeting with Mr Lindner? Is that what I

Dr West : We would anticipate that is going to happen.

Senator SIEWERT: And that will subsequently become a part of the formal application?

Dr West : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: There will be then a written understanding of what that means?

Dr West : Yes, any application is going to cover the conditions that we wish to apply.

Senator SIEWERT: We previously discussed the issue around the public liability. And in the letter it also now says he has secured that through the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia. Have you looked into the detail of what that covers and are you satisfied with that public liability insurance through the Sporting Shooters Association?

Mr Gibbs : Part of the conversations with Mr Lindner are around level of insurance and also the conditions of that insurance as well. So we are in those conversations.

Senator SIEWERT: I take it from that that you are not satisfied, then, with the level of information you have on public liability at this stage?

Mr Cahill : I work quite closely with the Director of National Parks and her team. What we do is: we go through the process of assessing any application. If there are any areas where we feel there is not enough information or we want to be able to look more closely or scrutinise that material, that is what the exercise is. So until we have been through discussions with Mr Lindner, with the board, and then be able to stand back and look at whether we are satisfied that the level of public liability insurance is of a level that we think is sufficient to be able to look after the park and the board of management's interest, then we would not be recommending or proceeding with any grant of a permit. So it is an exercise: until we have got all the information in front of us and we are comfortable that it meets the level of the standard we are operating within, we would not be going forward any further.

Senator SIEWERT: At this stage, though, Mr Lindner is operating under that current liability insurance?

Dr West : Until he takes out his own public liability insurance.

Senator SIEWERT: Sorry? Until he takes out?

Dr West : Until he takes out his own, which is what we are going to

Senator SIEWERT: You will be requiring him as part of the process to take out his own, not through the Sporting Shooters Association?

Dr West : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you for that additional information. In terms of the process we discussed last time, the board was going to be meeting, you were going to be carrying out some consultation, can you update us, please, on what consultation has been undertaken with the traditional owners since the previous board meeting?

Dr West : The consultation has partly been taken with the Northern Land Council who obviously work closely with us and with the traditional owners, which is whom we are considering here. I am not quite sure how much actual consultation has taken place since the last board meeting.

Mr Gibbs : We can take that on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: You have pre-empted my question. That would be great if you could take it on notice, because we had a bit of discussion last time around how that was going to occur beyond the meeting itself. That would be appreciated. In terms of the ongoing work, in terms of the application, does that include looking at protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage in the area?

Dr West : We have not stipulated but we would anticipate that was obviously going to be part of what we do anyway. It is sitting within the park; so obviously cultural heritage would be part of what we maintain all the time.

Senator SIEWERT: Have you done any surveys of the area to have an understanding of what cultural heritage sites currently in the area are covered?

Dr West : In the buffalo farm area?

Senator SIEWERT: Yes.

Dr West : I do not know that answer.

Mr Cahill : We will take that on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: Could you take that on notice? And I take your assurance that it is going to be covered in the application process.

Dr West : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: You obviously need a baseline then for that survey work, to be able to be assured that those cultural values are being protected?

Mr Cahill : My understanding of the approach is that they will look at an assessment of what are the risks of operating the buffalo farm and then put in place the appropriate conditions that respond to that. To what extent what level of survey work or other means enables them to make that assessment, I would have to take that on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: If you could take that on notice, that would be great, thank you. Is part of the assessment process looking at the ability for Mr Lindner and the operation to meet the costs of managing the herd and the area? Does the assessment look at whether he has the capacity to undertake the necessary management, the financial capacity?

Dr West : The financial capacity for him to undertake it?

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, to assure you that if you agree to his operation and application there are undertakings given. Do you also do a financial risk assessment to ensure that the operation can meet the agreements and commitments that are made from management?

Mr Cahill : My understanding is that the assessment is done at an outcome level. So what it is looking at is the conditions of the permit in terms of how many buffalo or take or whatever it is, whether or not the applicant has the capacity to be able to deliver or meet those conditions. That would be a key consideration.

Senator SIEWERT: I would take it that means financial capacity?

Mr Cahill : That would be whether he can operate sustainably or whether or not there is a condition, if that is the case, it is not to be that there is a trigger to revoke that permit.

Senator SIEWERT: And what are the trigger mechanisms? And then is what is the trigger?

Mr Cahill : We will take that on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: Take that on notice.

Mr Cahill : I think it is important that we are still working through the application and until we have worked out what the risks are we could not go into any detail on all the specific conditions.

Senator SIEWERT: Do you have an understanding of what the numbers are in the area at the moment?

Mr Gibbs : It is around 500 buffalo.

Senator SIEWERT: Does part of the assessment involve an environmental impact statement? This is my last question, Chair.

Mr Cahill : I will have to take that on notice. Again, the level of assessment and rigour will depend on what is the risk associated with operating the farm.

Senator SIEWERT: If you could take on notice.

CHAIR: Senator Whish-Wilson.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could I ask some questions about marine national parks and oil and gas exploration and drilling. Could you just talk me through the process for permission and approvals for both seismic exploration and potential development in the three categories of marine protected areas?

Mr Mundy : Oil and gas activities are not permitted in category 2 and category 4 reserves. They are permitted in category 6 reserves, but not all category 6 reserves. There are some which are mining exclusion subject to the government's normal approach for approving oil and gas activities, which is an assessment by NOPSEMA of an environment plan before activities commence.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: On what you have said already, can you correlate that with the colours that people are familiar with, people who may be listening, in terms of protected areas?

Mr Mundy : Sure, green zone and yellow zone, no mining; blue zone, in some blue zones oil and gas activities are permissible.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Please continue with what you were saying.

Mr Mundy : In those zones the activities are permissible subject to approval by NOPSEMA. The current plans that will come into effect on 1 July will have NOPSEMA become formally the responsible assessing authority for all the additional 2.4 million square kilometres of marine park that will come under active management from 1 July.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Just to be clear, that 2.4 million is the category 6?

Mr Mundy : No, sorry, that is the total area of new marine park that we will be actively managing from 1 July that is not currently actively managed. The breakdown of which part of that is category 6 I can try and look for, if you like.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I will ask some questions about that in a second but I just wanted to be clear then: in any cat 2 for yellow or green zones there is no oil and gas exploration seismic permitted?

Mr Mundy : Correct.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Permitted at all, regardless of any process?

Mr Mundy : Correct.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: And only in cat 6 in the blue areas there is, but they have to go through the approval process that NOPSEMA

Mr Mundy : That is right, and there are some mining exclusion category 6s, such as, for example, off southern Kangaroo Island, off western Kangaroo Island and some other parts of the national estate where oil and gas activities are excluded in those category 6s. So overall, nationally, the current plans will allow mining operations in 27 per cent of the total area of Australian marine parks.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: By mining, just to be clear, you mean also seismic and exploration?

Mr Mundy : Yes. They are categorised as

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That is correct, just for anyone who might be listening. Can you tell me in relation to the 2012 plan under the Gillard government how much extra blue zone has been added and has there been any blue zone added where there were previously green zones?

Mr Mundy : Just to follow the line of questioning, is the question one that relates to what proportion of the 2012 plans permitted oil and gas activities?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes. Too many, in my opinion, but I am interested in how it has changed.

Mr Mundy : It was 31 per cent in the 2012 plans, and it is 27 per cent in the 2018 plans.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So the overall area has decreased then, you are saying?

Mr Mundy : Correct.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: For blue.

Mr Mundy : For oil and gas activity in the blue zones as would have been the case under the 2012 plans.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: And in that decrease, or in the change per se, are there any areas that were under the 2012 plans green zones or yellow zones that now allow access to oil and gas?

Mr Mundy : There will certainly be some previously yellow zones which are now blue.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could you take it on notice to tell me what they are?

Mr Mundy : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: And where they are exactly?

Mr Mundy : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: NOPSEMA has recently issued new exploration licences and seismic activitysorry, I should not say 'seismic'from boats, not natural seismic activity, occurring in various places in offshore Victoria, New South Wales and there is talk about it off King Island in Tasmania, as examples. What is the process? Do you have any input into new areas, new issues of exploration permits?

Mr Mundy : Under the new plans, the rules that NOPSEMA has, which instruct applicants on how to consult, have now included the Director of National Parks as a relevant person for the purposes of consultation. So it will be a requirement for proponents of oil and gas activities that they consult with the Director of National Parks and provide those comments and responses to them in their environmental permit application to NOPSEMA to be considered as part of that process.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That is what you provided to me on notice, from my questions at the last estimates. In relation to your response then and on notice, have there been any new consultations occurring between NOPSEMA and the Director of National Parks?

Mr Mundy : On the specific

Senator WHISH-WILSON: On any specific, on any new

Mr Mundy : I do not have a record of any consultations that have occurred between the director and NOPSEMA, but I can take it on notice to confirm that that is the case.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. We also talked about a case study of the Ceduna Sub-basin, S18-1, as an area that overlaps a portion of the benthic protection zone of the former Great Australian Bight Marine Park, which is in Commonwealth waters. You said that, consistent with transitional arrangements that gave effect to the former management plan, an approval was required by the Director of National Parks in an area of the former benthic protection zone. Are there any other examples of this occurring?

Mr Mundy : I think there is one other example nationally of there being a requirement for the director to approve activities under transitional arrangements. From memory, that is in the cod grounds, in the temperate east. There were only two locations in the areas under transitional management arrangements where oil and gas activities were permissible; therefore where the Director of National Parks's approval would be required during the transitional period. The other is in the temperate east.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could you take on notice that location, if you do not mind?

Mr Mundy : That, of course, will change when the transition to full active management occurs on 1 July. From that point onwards, the director will no longer have a role in those approvals.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I have a quick couple of questions, as the chair wants me to finish as soon as possible. Under the plans that are before the Senate at the momentpotentially disallowable draft plans; I suppose they are potentially binding planscan you tell me if the amount of green zones has almost halvedthis is from the 2012 planfrom 36 per cent to 20 per cent of the marine park network? Would that be accurate? And the yellow zones will almost double, from 24 per cent to 43 per cent?

Mr Mundy : Those areas, obviously, are not under active management with those zonings at the moment, so we are talking about

Senator WHISH-WILSON: No, pending whether they are disallowed or not.

Mr Mundy : The comparison is between the proposed 2012 plans

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So have the green zones nearly halved, from 36 per cent to 20 per cent?

Mr Mundy : That is correct.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Based on 2012?

Mr Mundy : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: And the yellow zones have nearly doubled?

Mr Mundy : That is correct. The yellow zones have gone from 24 per cent to 49 per cent.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: To 49 per cent?

Mr Mundy : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Not 43 per cent?

Mr Mundy : No. It is from 24 per cent to 49 per cent. So the total proportion of the network that is under one of those high levels of protectionbeing 1, 2 or 4has gone from 60 to 68.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You mentioned the government's own independent review earlier. Was this a recommendation of that independent review?

Mr Mundy : The review did not make specific percentage recommendations. It did make zoning recommendations around the national network.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Did it make no recommendations for green zones on an area basis?

Mr Mundy : No, I do not

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Did it recommend green zones as being essential for conservation?

Mr Mundy : Yes, certainly. The review, as Senator Keneally mentioned earlier, did note the benefits of category 2 protection and their role as part of a national zoning framework of marine protected areas.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So fully protected marine national parksno fishing, no mining, no oil and gas drillingdeliver far more benefits to biodiversity than those that do not; would that be reasonable?

Mr Mundy : There is evidence that category 2 zoning does offer the most protective outcomes. There is evidence that other forms of zoning can also be beneficial, but the real crux of the matter is the extent to which management is applied. There have been various global meta-studies of different forms of zoning which allow some activities, but there is a wide range across those different places as to what sorts of activities can be permitted. It really comes down to how well and stringently those places are managed.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I just wanted to get on record that there was a bit of banter earlier about this being a contentious issue, and it has been. But I do not think the science or the evidence around, for example, green zones as having the best protection is contentious. Would you agree?

Mr Mundy : No, I think it is reasonably well understoodparticularly, as I said earlier, for shallow reef habitatsthat green zones are the most protective form of zoning.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: My understanding is that there are scientific estimates that suggest that betweenand this was talked about in the independent review30 and 40 per cent of the seascape should ideally be protected using green zones whereas the current proposed plans are for 20 per cent. Are you familiar with that number or the reports?

Mr Mundy : There are various different scientific and other recommendations on what an appropriate or good balance of protection is. Always, those scientific recommendations need to be looked at in the context of what is achievable in a social context and how they can be implemented.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Do you mean a political context?

Mr Mundy : I said social, Senator.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I know you did; it was a nice try. There is no doubt that this was a political decision, and I do not hold you responsible for that. Could I ask about green zones and yellow zones?

Senator Birmingham: I do not accept that. You have questioned over a number of years, as have other senators, the very thorough process underpinning it that has led to the plans that have been developed.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The very thorough process that

Mr Cahill : I am more mindful that the Director of National Parks, as a statutory officer, went through a process and put a recommended set of plans to the minister.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: In relation to yellow zones and green zones, overall, the area is rising from 60 to 63 per cent compared to the 2012

Mr Mundy : Sixty to 68, Senator.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So that is the five per cent that I had wrong, on the yellow zones. Is it true that the yellow zones have similar management costs to green zones, in the work that you have done? Are you essentially proposing to spend the same amount of money for inferior protections?

Mr Mundy : I do not think it is necessarily the case that yellow zones will have the same management costs; nor is it easy to generalise across such a large national network. There will be some locations where different zones of each colour are going to require higher degrees of compliance effort because of the risk profiles associated with them. We will be undertaking a risk-based approach to compliance effort which will identify where the resources need to be allocated to achieve the management outcome and protect the values that we are seeking to protect through the plans, and allocating accordingly.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I do have other questions, Chair, but I will put them on notice.

Mr Mundy : In response to an earlier question, the other location where an authorisation is required by the Director of National Parks during the transitional management arrangements is the Solitary Islands general use zone in the temperate east network.

CHAIR: That concludes our questions for the Director of National Parks. We will now move to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.