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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Climate Change Authority

Climate Change Authority


CHAIR: Welcome, officers. Dr Craik, is there an opening statement you would like to make?

Dr Craik : Yes, thank you very much. I'd like to draw the committee's attention to a report the authority published recently called Reaping the rewards. The report explores ways that landholders can improve their profitability, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deliver broader environmental benefits at the same time. Those objectives are known as multiple benefits. The authority's legislation allows us to pursue what we call self-generated research, and the idea for reaping the rewards emerged as part of the authority's 2016 Special review of Australia’s climate goals and policies where we suggested that further work be done on land based policy aimed at delivering these multiple benefits. For example, a farmer could establish a wind break of native trees that leads to increased on-farm productivity, emissions reductions and helps native species. Improving beef, cattle and herd management can reduce emissions while increasing productivity, and this can be achieved with feed additives, reducing the number of unproductive animals in the herd and lowering the herd's average age—in short, getting stock off the land and to market a bit sooner. These land based activities make good sense. The authority was therefore keen to understand why activities like these that deliver win-win-win outcomes are not more widespread. It turns out there is a range of barriers to landholders delivering multiple benefits. Landholders may lack information to value the benefit of taking action. Alternatively, the hassle factor or lack of direct incentives mean doing something about multiple benefits does not seem worthwhile to the farmer.

One of the key barriers to achieving multiple benefits is lack of robust data. Data is needed to develop benchmarks to assess the state of natural capital at the farm level and then estimate how it can be improved by particular management action. The lack of farm-level environmental information and its connection to farm financial performance also makes it very difficult to develop and evaluate policy. It can also be time-consuming and sometimes costly for landholders to participate in government programs aimed at improving environmental outcomes. The authority is of the view that a voluntary online reporting tool could make it easier for farmers to participate in government programs while also providing policymakers with better data to develop benchmarks and metrics in the future.

The authority found that one of the best options for encouraging the development of markets for multiple benefits would be to leverage the Emissions Reduction Fund's success on the land, and this could be done with an accreditation standard that accredits ERF projects that also involve improved environmental outcomes on the farm, like biodiversity, or provide economic benefits to Indigenous communities. Other carbon offset schemes could adopt the same approach of accrediting emissions units that also carry genuine multiple benefits. Some types of action like putting up wind breaks require upfront capital, which can be hard for landholders to get. In a key finding, the authority recommended a new targeted investment fund be established to provide the necessary finance for farmers to invest in on-farm activities that deliver genuine multiple benefits. In the report we describe the idea of a new land and environment investment fund as a clean energy finance corporation for the land. I thank the committee for the opportunity to outline the findings of our report.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you, Dr Craik. Can you step me through what projects or reviews the CCA is working on.

Dr Craik : We're currently completing a review of the Wind Farm Commissioner, and we're about to start a review of the greenhouse energy reporting system.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Is the CCA working on things like the integrational impacts of electric vehicles?

Dr Craik : No, we did a bit of work at the beginning of last year on it, but then the government asked us to do a review of the AEMC in the electricity sector. There was no way we could do both, so we stopped the electric vehicles one and we haven't pursued it since.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Anything about policies to lower emissions in the industrial sector?

Dr Craik : Well, we're looking at safeguards in the coming NGERS review and that would be it.

Senator URQUHART: What about the efficient allocation of national abatement goals to economic sectors? Anything there?

Dr Craik : No.

Senator URQUHART: Anything to do with the international carbon offset market post 2020?

Dr Craik : No. We're not doing anything on that either.

Senator URQUHART: In terms of the Wind Farm Commissioner and the greenhouse gas one, when will those reports be completed?

Dr Craik : The Wind Farm Commissioner report is on track to be completed by the end of May. And the other one is the end of the year, if I remember correctly.

Senator URQUHART: Great. So are there any additional projects or reviews in the pipeline following those?

Dr Craik : Not at the moment, no.

Senator URQUHART: Are these commissioned by the government or CCA self-commissioned work?

Dr Craik : The Wind Farm Commission review was commissioned by the government and the NGERS one is required in legislation.

Ms Thompson : To add to Dr Craik's answer, the review of the National Wind Farm Commissioner is being done as a special review, so it's guided by the authority's legislation.

Senator URQUHART: Has the minister had much interaction with the CCA?

Dr Craik : Not a great deal. When we've gone up to brief him on reports, yes, we've had a good interaction then.

Senator URQUHART: Has the minister instructed the CCA to undertake any further projects?

Dr Craik : Not at the moment, no—not beyond what we've already done or are doing.

Senator URQUHART: As far as the CCA understands, is it still the government's intention to abolish the Climate Change Authority by the end of this term of parliament?

Dr Craik : I wasn't sure of the time frame, but we understand it's still the government policy.

Senator Birmingham: Yes, Senator Urquhart, I draw your attention to page 195 of the PBS. It states clearly:

Government policy is that the Climate Change Authority will be wound up within the life of the current Parliament.

Senator URQUHART: Dr Craik, how would this impact on the current reviews the CCA are working on?

Dr Craik : With the ones that are under way, as I said, the Wind Farm Commissioner's report is due the end of May and the other one is due to be finalised by the end of the year. I don't know when the election is.

Senator URQUHART: No, we don't either. Maybe the minister might help us out there!

Senator Birmingham: As the Prime Minister said, the election will be held next year and is due towards the middle of next year.

Senator URQUHART: Okay, so the greenhouse report will be finished.

Dr Craik : We'll be able to finish these reports. That's good. Both of these reports will be finished.

Senator URQUHART: How many staff does the CCA have?

Ms Thompson : At the moment we have what we call nine average staffing levels. In fact, we have ten people on our books, but three of whom are part-time.

Senator URQUHART: So full-time equivalents?

Ms Thompson : Full-time equivalent is 8.43.

Senator URQUHART: What's the current budget of the CCA over the next four years?

Ms Thompson : We may have traversed last time in the estimates hearing that the government has taken the decision that the authority's funding will be decided on an annual basis. We only have funds for this coming financial year of the budget forward estimates period. We have $1.55 million, I believe the figure is, for the coming financial year. However, we also have access to what is, in effect, our underspend from previous years that we also can draw on.

Senator URQUHART: How much is that underspend?

Ms Thompson : It's a bit hard to say precisely at this point, because it depends a bit on how much we actually spend in the current financial year, but I believe we're expecting it to be in the order of about $360,000. And the figure for 2018-19 is $1.55 million.

Senator URQUHART: Did the CCA receive any funding cut or funding boost in the latest budget?

Ms Thompson : We got a slight increase in funding. For the previous financial year our funding was $1.45 million. As I've just said, this year it's $1.55 million, so we got a bit extra this time around.

Senator URQUHART: What about the statement from the Australian Conservation Foundation following the budget, saying that the CCA would be worse off to the tune of $550,000?

Ms Thompson : I saw that report, and I was a bit confused as to what they had in mind. I could speculate and think that maybe they were looking back through the budget papers for the previous financial year again, so the 2016 year, but I'd only be guessing.

Senator URQUHART: But certainly for this year that's not the correct?

Ms Thompson : That's correct.

Senator URQUHART: Is the funding that's allocated to the CCA sufficient to perform the current work planned?

Ms Thompson : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: You don't have the next three years. You don't know whether that's sufficient, because you're probably not going to be here. You talked about the Reaping the rewards report. Is the CCA involved in any broader cross-portfolio work on meeting the government's carbon targets, such as advising on the development of policies to lower transport, industrial, land sector or other emissions?

Dr Craik : We put out a report in 2016. That was our special review on policies which we were recommending for the government to meet its Paris targets. That included some recommendations on transport. Basically, we essentially proposed different policies for different sectors of the economy, including transport. Some of those things that we recommended have been picked up in subsequent reports. Obviously the department is aware of that report.

Senator URQUHART: But that was 2016?

Dr Craik : That was 2016.

Senator URQUHART: So nothing has come further from that.

Dr Craik : We also did the review of the Emissions Reduction Fund, and the department was clearly aware of that. We discussed it with them. Again, they'd be aware of Reaping the rewards.

Senator URQUHART: Has the uncertainty of the future of CCA's funding limited your work scope?

Dr Craik : Given the projects that we've had, I believe we've worked quite well to get the projects done on time and on budget. The authority has had full time to consider all the issues that they wish to consider in the reports. I think we've managed to fit the budget and the projects well together to come up with good products.

Senator MOORE: Dr Craik, thank you for the recent report on the improving farm profitability and linking it in to reducing emissions—the one that you gave us a synopsis of at the beginning. When you've completed a body of work like that, which I would have thought would have had real interest for a range of organisations and people across the community, what's the process after that? Do you have any role in promoting the report and engaging with the people who are working with you on developing it to see what happens next?

Dr Craik : Obviously we put the report on our website. We put out a media release. We're available to the media to answer questions about it. Wherever I go and the subject vaguely comes up, I mention it and suggest people look at it. But we don't have a formal process, other than those normal things, to go out and promote it.

Ms Thompson : If I could add, I also presented on a panel about the report at a recent Carbon Market Institute event.

Senator MOORE: I was also thinking of the rural networks in terms of the Department of Primary Industries and Energy, and this would be, I would have thought, automatically of value and of interest to people working in DPI.

Dr Craik : I couldn't agree more.

Senator MOORE: Does that happen?

Dr Craik : Well, I've spoken to people at DPI about it.

Ms Thompson : We did consult with our colleagues in the department of agriculture about the report and made it available to them when it was released, so they're aware of it.

Senator MOORE: Dr Craik, with your experience across the industry over many years, there's all kinds of organisations that operate within the agriculture industry, as you know. It seems to me that reports like this are produced but there doesn't seem to be that strategic engagement with the NFF and all the different organisations. My mind has gone to yoghurt now as soon as I ask the question, but you know what I mean.

Dr Craik : I do.

Senator MOORE: That's in terms of getting those organisations into a focus around the issue. My understanding is that this is in a series and you're looking at carbon farming as well; the whole initiative.

Dr Craik : Yes, carbon farming, the Emissions Reduction Fund and ways to get other projects into it.

Senator MOORE: We all know that the Carbon Farming Initiative was controversial anyway, and that got people talking. It's just that, when you presented, it made me think that's the kind of issue that should be being discussed. At this stage, if people contact you after you've put it out, that stimulates the engagement.

Dr Craik : Some of the things I do is go around with to the farming organisations. I was at the NFF the other week, and the environment committee suggest they might want to have a look at it, and I have to speak to the NFF council next week or the week after.

Senator MOORE: That link happens.

Dr Craik : Yes, I will raise it again there. I've been out and about talking to farmers about other things in recent times, and one thing that actually surprises me is the depth of knowledge about the Emissions Reduction Fund and the number of people who are aware of it and who know of people who have been involved in it.

Senator MOORE: Yes, and are making their own inquiries.

Dr Craik : I guess they found out that way or through some of the aggregators who pull them together. I think some of the farm organisations have been involved in trying to aggregate groups of farmers into making reasonable size projects for the Emissions Reduction Fund.

Senator MOORE: What about state governments?

Dr Craik : No. I must admit we have not promoted it to them, but it's a good point. We could easily send it to all the state governments, DPIs, without any trouble at all.

Senator MOORE: I'm not sure whether they actively go and look at websites or whether they need that stimulant to have some kind of—

Ms Thompson : Senator, if I could add, we did consult reasonably extensively with a number of the state governments.

Senator MOORE: In the development?

Ms Thompson : In the development of the Reaping the Rewards report and, in fact, the Queensland government were very interested in it, and there are follow-up conversations planned on the report with representatives from that government, but I take your general point that we could do more to draw it to the attention of some of the other jurisdictions.

Senator MOORE: I'm not sure whether that is your job. The report should be available to keep the discussion going. In relation to funding you don't have a lot of space to do anything more than just complete your reports, but it's an issue. Thank you.

Dr Craik : I was surprised that something like The Land didn't pick it up. It would have filled a few pages.

Senator MOORE: It should. Sometimes they need that.

Dr Craik : That's true.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Moore. Senator Di Natale.

Senator DI NATALE: Thank you. Dr Craik, I want to ask you, is the Climate Change Authority established under an independent act? You're independent of government, aren't you?

Dr Craik : Yes, we're independent.

Senator DI NATALE: Completely independent of government?

Dr Craik : Yes.

Senator DI NATALE: So, your policy positions are informed by expertise and research, and sometimes that might be in conflict with the government's position?

Dr Craik : It's possible that it might be.

Senator DI NATALE: Can I just ask you whether you believe the emissions reduction targets under the NEG are in any way compatible with achieving our Paris commitments?

Dr Craik : Senator, in part of the 2016 report on targets and policies the authority put out a report, in 2014 I think it was, on targets and suggested a target of, I think, 36 per cent reduction by 2025 and 45 to 65 per cent by 2030. We provide advice to the government. We provide advice to the government, and the—

Senator DI NATALE: Can you repeat those figures?

Dr Craik : It was 36 per cent by 2025, and 45 to 65 per cent by 2030. That's right, isn't it?

Ms Thompson : Yes. The 2025 target was 36 per cent below—

Dr Craik : 2005 levels.

Ms Thompson : Yes. It mattered a bit which baseline for the target you were using. And then, the 2030 target, we suggested a range of between 40 and 60 off 2000 levels and 45 to 63 per cent below 2005 levels. But we didn't actually recommend any target for any particular sector of the economy. We were quite careful to say that we thought that that was a role for government. And, of course, we didn't recommend the National Energy Guarantee in the special review.

Senator DI NATALE: I understand that.

Ms Thompson : That was an idea that emerged quite some time later.

Senator DI NATALE: So the government's adopted a 26 per cent reduction target?

Dr Craik : Yes, 26 to 28.

Ms Thompson : It's 26 for electricity.

Senator DI NATALE: That's just in the electricity sector?

Ms Thompson : Yes.

Senator DI NATALE: Do you believe we can reach our targets if we're adopting that within the electricity sector?

Dr Craik : In our special review report, we didn't suggest specific targets, as Shayleen has said, for particular sectors—

Senator DI NATALE: I'm aware of that.

Dr Craik : and we pointed out that, under the Paris Agreement, there's a proposal to review commitments and progress every five years. Depending on commitments and progress and the progress of other countries—and Australia has undertaken to be part of that and review its policies every five years—that would take account of progress at the time and enable the government to decide whether they wanted to modify their targets.

Senator DI NATALE: You're providing independent advice.

Dr Craik : That's correct, but—

Senator DI NATALE: There's a 26 to 28 per cent target for the electricity sector, which basically means that we're going to have to see industry and agriculture also reduce emissions by the same quantum; that's correct, isn't it?

Dr Craik : Not necessarily.

Ms Thompson : Not necessarily, no.

Senator DI NATALE: Explain why not.

Ms Thompson : I think the individual shares of what individual sectors of the economy—

Senator DI NATALE: I suppose industry and agriculture need to make up and other industries and sectors need to make up the reduction—transport as well.

Ms Thompson : I think the point about the 26 to 28 per cent reduction is that it's an economy-wide target, so one would expect the various shares—

Senator DI NATALE: Coming from the electricity sector.

Ms Thompson : Including electricity, yes. So one would expect the various sectors to be making different levels of contribution to the target. One of the difficulties of sorting out what the different sectors will need to contribute to the target is actually working out what the quantum of the abatement task will be. One of the things that the authority has noted with great interest over the last few years is the fact that the projections often are basically being revised downwards. I think that very much goes to the degree of difficulty in trying to forecast this sort of information and data when there are so many variables in play here. Of course, the emissions projections or, indeed, the emissions themselves depend on things like what your electricity demand is, what your demand for—

Senator DI NATALE: I'm aware of that.

Ms Thompson : Senator, I'm just—

Senator DI NATALE: We've got limited time, so I'm really keen to stick to—not for you to talk and fill up the time.

Ms Thompson : I understand that, but if I could perhaps just finish my answer. I think that sometimes these discussions can get a little bit—perhaps not being sufficiently mindful of the complexity of the task when you're working out—

Senator DI NATALE: We're very mindful of the complexity.

Ms Thompson : One of the points one could make is that the land sector is already overachieving against the 26 to 28 per cent target because of the 2005 baseline, so there are a range of variables at play.

Senator DI NATALE: Let me ask you very specifically: a 26 to 28 per cent target has been adopted within the electricity sector; is that correct?

Ms Thompson : I understand that's the target that's been given for the National Energy Guarantee—26, actually.

Senator DI NATALE: It's 26 per cent within the electricity sector?

Ms Thompson : For the National Energy Guarantee. But, I suppose—

Senator DI NATALE: I've just asked that question.

Ms Thompson : If I could just continue. One of the issues one should also have a think about there is what contribution you'd be getting from your demand side measures. As you are aware, energy efficiency is very important in this space and there's a lot of work going on.

Senator DI NATALE: And we'll be asking those questions later on in another forum.

Ms Thompson : Indeed. I guess what I'm trying to point out is the guarantee is about electricity generation, and that there are other measures that might contribute from electricity consumption as a whole.

Senator DI NATALE: Again, just to get back, to lay out some facts, there's a 26 per cent emissions reduction target in electricity, which means we're going to need to see the same proportion in terms of reductions across other sectors.

Dr Craik : Well, not necessarily, no.

Ms Thompson : We've just said that's not necessarily the case.

Dr Craik : You might have more in other sectors. It's possible, but you might have higher targets in some sectors than others.

Senator DI NATALE: Let's get to that. We've never seen a drop in a single year in agriculture, industry and transport. They're all moving up. Are you suggesting that we are going to be able to see a reduction in each of those sectors that's proportionate with what we're going to see in the electricity sector?

Dr Craik : We haven't suggested anything like that.

Senator DI NATALE: I'm asking you. I'm asking the question.

Dr Craik : I'm saying that we haven't said anything like that.

Senator DI NATALE: And I'm asking you, given that we haven't seen a reduction in any of those sectors, given that it requires a 3.7 per cent annual reduction in each of the different sectors, would you agree that the ability to achieve a 37 per cent reduction over a decade in each of those other sectors is vastly more difficult than in the electricity sector?

Senator Birmingham: Chair and Senator, the authority have answered as an independent authority. The work they undertake is presented in terms of a series of reports to government that are there to be publicly questioned. I think the nature of the questioning is moving beyond questioning the work that the authority does and is now asking for their opinion on certain matters.

Senator DI NATALE: No, it's absolutely within their mandate.

Senator Birmingham: I'm sure there are ways, within questioning the reports the authority has produced, to perhaps frame some of the questions you're seeking to address. I'm not trying to be unhelpful. That did start to very much sound like a seeking of opinion rather than a question.

Senator DI NATALE: Let me ask the question in a different way. Has the government put forward any policy in any of these sectors—and we're talking about sector by sector reductions—that would achieve the necessary reductions that we must see if we're going to meet our overall target?

Dr Craik : It's a matter of the suite of policies the government puts forward to meet the particular target that's put up. We put up a series of recommendations to the government on particular policies for particular sectors.

Senator DI NATALE: And I'm asking you: have they implemented anything in any of those other sectors that would reduce emissions at the level that's required?

Dr Craik : The government does have a number of policies in place. They have said they're going to do something about light vehicle emissions, which was one of the things.

Senator DI NATALE: My question was very direct. Has the government implemented—

Dr Craik : We don’t evaluate that precise degree of implementation of a policy. That's not the sort of work we do. We put forward policy advice, and the government accept it or reject it, and they are free to do what they like. We don't then review what they're doing—unless they ask us to—and ask, 'Is this going to achieve a particular target?'

Senator DI NATALE: So you're not prepared to even address a very basic issue around emissions and targets. We've got a 26 per cent reduction target in the electricity sector. Has the government put forward anything in any of those other sectors that gives you any degree of confidence that they're going to achieve the overall 26 to 28 per cent reduction?

Dr Craik : The Climate Change Authority has not looked at that issue. We put forward our policies in 2016. We've been reviewing other things since then.

Senator DI NATALE: What have you been reviewing? Isn't that the central question? Isn't that the central question about whether Australia can meet its emissions reductions targets? Whether Australia's policy responses in agriculture, in energy, in transport are actually up to meeting our Paris targets?

Senator Birmingham: Senator, I'm sure Dr Craik can answer your question about what they have been reviewing. In fact, her opening statement touched on some of their most recent work in relation to particular sectoral responses and applications.

Dr Craik : We've done some work, as required, on the Emissions Reduction Fund, which is contributing to reductions in the agriculture sector. We've done some work on trying to get better policy intersection between increasing the productivity of farmers, reducing emissions, and increasing things like biosecurity and other benefits. We've worked with the AEMC—the Australian Energy Market Commission—on more work in the electricity sector, and some of our recommendations there led into the Finkel review. We're currently winding up a review of the Wind Farm Commissioner, and we're about to start a review of the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting system and safeguards.

Senator DI NATALE: Given you've done work in agriculture, can you give me an indication as to what sort of reduction we're going to see in agriculture?

Dr Craik : I can't give you an indication of what sort of reduction we're going to see. What we do have now—

Senator DI NATALE: What's the trajectory?

Dr Craik : My recollection is that about 13 per cent of Australia's emissions are agriculture, and that there has been a significant reduction from where they used to be.

Ms Thompson : I feel that we've endeavoured to answer your question.

Senator DI NATALE: No, I've asked specifically about agriculture. You've mentioned you've been working in the land sector. I just want to ask a really straightforward question.

CHAIR: Allow Ms Thompson to finish.

Senator DI NATALE: What sort of reductions are we going to see in the land sector?

Dr Craik : We have not worked on that. What we have done is support policies that we believe can lead to reductions in emissions in the sector. But we have not quantified those reductions.

Ms Thompson : And of course the department produces the emissions projections every year, and the inventory every year. Some of these questions, as the minister indicated, are probably best directed to the department. But I noted that in its 2017 review document the government said it would keep the policies it has in place under review with reference to the 2030 Paris target. It also noted that in the projections document not all of the policies there—the abatement from those—are factored in. So I think it's something of a moving feast.

Senator DI NATALE: Do you agree that, when you look at emissions within agriculture, industry and transport, they've been increasing?

Ms Thompson : Certainly I think—

Senator DI NATALE: It's a simple statement of fact.

Ms Thompson : Yes. If you look at the most recently released inventory, I think the answer is actually that all sectors apart from electricity are increasing. But I guess that's the difference between what's happening at this point in time and what you might expect to be happening by 2020 or indeed for Paris—more importantly, for 2030. As Dr Craik mentioned, one of the great advantages of the Paris agreement is this review cycle every five years in which all countries are asked to look at their targets and the abatement action that underpins it. And the government have said, as I understand, that it will keep its policies under review with respect to those international commitments.

Senator DI NATALE: We've adopted a 26 to 28 per cent emissions reduction target. Emissions in transport, industry and agriculture are going up. Do you see any policy mechanisms in place that will reduce those targets and put us back on track?

Ms Thompson : I would note that the work on the emissions standards for vehicles is still underway through the ministerial council. We've done work on vehicle emissions standards in the past. My understanding is that those sorts of standards can deliver very significant emissions reductions. So I think that's one example of a policy in one of the sectors you mentioned which is a prospect that could deliver substantial abatement.

Senator DI NATALE: Good. Will that reduce transport emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent to bring us on track with those targets?

Ms Thompson : I'm still not accepting your proposition that all sectors have to contribute the same amount to the 2030 target.

Senator DI NATALE: No, but if energy is taken out—

Ms Thompson : In fact, if you asked an economist they would tell you that's often not a terribly good idea, because it doesn't capture the different abatement costs in the different sectors.

Senator DI NATALE: You're right. And they all say, 'You need to do more in the electricity sector.' You're absolutely right on that point. Absolutely right. And we've locked in electricity at 26 per cent to 28 per cent when most economists are telling us that's where the low-hanging fruit is. I agree with your proposition, and that's why I'm asking you about whether we're going to see reductions in any of those other sectors.

Dr Craik : It's up to the government to put in place those policies. We provide them with advice, and it's the government's role as elected decision-makers—

Senator DI NATALE: What advice are you providing to them on each of those sectors?

Dr Craik : We've provided our advice.

Senator Birmingham: Senator, you've just heard about important work that's being done in the agriculture sector, which comes on top of other work that the authority has done over a period of time. The government—as you and I have traversed previously—and the nation are on track to meet and exceed the 2020 targets. The government continue to ensure that we develop policies that will put Australia on track to meet the 2030 commitments that we've made. The National Energy Guarantee is a significant one of those, but other measures will continue to be worked on, not just in this year, but I imagine in each and every year right through to 2030.

Senator DI NATALE: How many meetings did the Climate Change Authority have last year?

Dr Craik : How many what, sorry?

Senator DI NATALE: How many meetings?

Dr Craik : We usually have at least one a month. If we're trying to finalise a report, sometimes we have additional meetings. We don't meet in January. Other than that we routinely have one a month. If we're trying to finalise a report we have other ones by telephone.

Senator DI NATALE: You meet in person 11 times a year?

Dr Craik : At least, yes.

Senator DI NATALE: What reports have you produced over the past year?

Dr Craik : Over the past year we've produced a report on the Emissions Reduction Fund.

Senator DI NATALE: Yes.

Dr Craik : We're finishing a report on the National Wind Farm Commissioner by the end of May. We'll be finishing a report on the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting scheme by the end of the year. We produced a special review in 2016. I think that's it. We produced a report to the Australian Energy Market Commission, in June last year, on electricity.

Senator DI NATALE: I might leaving it there. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Di Natale. Senator Leyonhjelm.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Thank you. I will be quite quick on this. The role of the National Wind Farm Commissioner was recently put up for review and at the beginning of April there were submissions available on the CCA website, most of which were positive about the role of the commissioner. But there was a critical report submitted by the Waubra Foundation which is yet to appear, and it's been a month since the review. Can you advise why it was delayed and when we can expect the submission to be made available?

Dr Craik : We received something like 66 submissions, of which 41 non-confidential ones have been put on the website. Obviously we don't publish confidential ones. With some of them it's not clear whether they're confidential or not, and we needed to check those before they went up. Some of the submissions raise legal concerns and we're seeking advice and working through those issues.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Is there a policy of not publishing negative responses?

Dr Craik : I prefer not to go into the detail of reasons we're not publishing.

Ms Thompson : No, Senator, we don't have a policy along those lines.

Dr Craik : I think there are probably some published that are negative.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Okay. Just a simple question: when can we expect the Waubra Foundation's submission to be publish?

Dr Craik : The remaining submissions will be published, depending on the advice we get, as soon as possible.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Are they subject to parliamentary privilege?

Dr Craik : I'm honestly not certain. I don't know.

Senator Birmingham: Submissions made to a review conducted by the authority would not be, Senator.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes, that's what I assumed. As far as I can tell there are no negative submissions—and I'm not necessarily endorsing the negative submissions—and I just want to know why no negative submissions have been published, which is the information I have? If you could take on notice the explanation for that. There may be a perfectly innocent one, but not everybody believes that, so, in the interest of transparency, I'd like to know what it is.

Dr Craik : We'd like to get them up as soon as possible if we could.

Senator LEYONHJELM: That's all, thank you.

CHAIR: That was fun. Thank you very much. We will now move on to program 1.1.

Mr Pratt : Chair, if I may?

CHAIR: Secretary, yes.

Mr Pratt : In response to Senator Whish-Wilson's question to the Bureau of Meteorology about the current reading at the Cape Grim monitoring station, the reading taken over the weekend is 404 parts per million. Do we have your permission to table this?

CHAIR: Table away. And Cape Grim is a beautiful place, if you don't mind me saying. It's in Tasmania in the far north-west.


CHAIR: I welcome officers from program 1.1. We will now kick off with questions. Senator Urquhart.

Senator URQUHART: I might go back to some that I asked earlier about the land clearing particularly around Olive Vale and Wombinoo. Is this the right area?

Mr Knudson : It isn't, Senator.

Senator URQUHART: Is it 1.4?

Mr Knudson : It would be 1.5, environmental regulation. If I can just clarify, if you want to ask about how we're proceeding with either the compliance actions or the regulatory decisions on those properties, then it would be 1.5. If you're interested in species listing or anything along those lines, then we would deal with that under 1.4. If your interest is either how those properties might interact with things like the Threatened Species Strategy or Green Army or anything like that, then that's here.

Senator URQUHART: It was more about whether or not the Great Barrier Reef authority had been asked to comment on the clearing proposal?

Mr Knudson : I have talked to the officers in 1.5 and raised that you had those questions regarding property, so I'm hoping they'll be able to come back with that later on tonight.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you. I'll come back to them at 1.5. Can you tell me what the current budget of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation is, which is prior to the funding that's been provided?

Mr Oxley : Senator, I think the discussion this morning was that the foundation had a budget in the order of $8 million to $10 million per year, and I think that's a reasonably accurate ball park.

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Senator KENEALLY: What is the source of that funding?

Mr Oxley : The source of that funding is donations from their various partners.

Senator URQUHART: Who are the partners?

Mr Oxley : They partner with any number of different organisations, philanthropic organisations. They receive funding support from government through programs and also from the private sector. As an example, just recently, there was a project announced, when the Prince of Wales was here, in relation to a program that involved Lend Lease as a major corporate donor.

Senator URQUHART: So the funding is around $8 million to $10 million per year?

Mr Oxley : That's the current scale of their operations, yes.

Senator KENEALLY: Does that include fees from their member organisations?

Mr Oxley : Senator, we don't have at our disposal in estimates now detailed information about the ins and outs of the foundation's budget, but we would be happy to approach the foundation and ask them the extent to which they would be prepared to publicly disclose the spectrum of their sources of revenue. I would say they do tend to announce who they're collaborating with on a project-by-project basis. For example, at the end of this month the foundation is intending to announce a new project with a private sector donor, and in collaboration with the UNESCO World Heritage Marine Programme, which is seeking to do capacity-building activity in five World Heritage marine sites, including the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo, but also including the Belize Barrier Reef and the coral reefs of Palau. It is actively and continuously generating new sources of revenue and investment to do public good.

Senator URQUHART: Can you tell me how many staff work within the GBR Foundation?

Mr Oxley : I think the numbers that were discussed broadly this morning—in the order of around 10 people—is an accurate ballpark figure.

Senator URQUHART: Has the department done an analysis of whether the organisation has the capacity to deliver the $444 million of grants?

Mr Oxley : We are in the middle of a process right at the moment. Perhaps it would be helpful if we were to outline in a little more detail the process that we are embarked upon so that some of the detail can be filled in. Firstly, the foundation was approached, by government back in early April, to test whether it was, in principle, interested in establishing a partnership with the Australian government for a range of purposes. Those purposes were clearly set out in the funding announcement recently—major areas of investment around water quality, crown of thorns starfish control, reef science for restoration and adaption and so on.

The government, and through the department and the foundation, spent a couple of weeks working out whether we thought that there was a reasonable foundation for such a collaboration. At the end of that process, the answer for the government from the foundation was, 'Yes, we think this is a partnership that's worth exploring.' From that point, the government announced its intention to enter into this partnership, and we are now going through the process of finally determining whether that partnership can be established.

We have provided draft program guidelines to the Minister for the Environment and Energy for his consideration, and we would expect approval in the reasonably close future. Once those program guidelines are approved we will complete a process of co-designing with the foundation a substantial funding proposal or grant proposal that meets all the requirements of those guidelines. Mr Knudson, earlier in the day, outlined some of the key areas of consideration that will be captured in that granting agreement, should we get to the point where the deal is done, so to speak.

Senator KENEALLY: That's an odd way to phrase it—if you don't mind me saying, Mr Oxley—to see if you can 'get the deal done', because Minister Frydenberg announced on 29 April that the government was announcing a contribution through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation of an additional $500 million for the reef. So the deal is done, isn't it?

Mr Oxley : Forgive me for my choice of words. We are in a process, at the moment, where both the government and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation have expressed their intention to enter into a partnership agreement. We are now going through quite a comprehensive due diligence process where we conclude whether it can be consummated, for want of a better word.

Senator LINES: That's a terrible choice of words.

Senator KENEALLY: Yes, I've got to say.

Mr Oxley : Very. 'Finalised', Mr Knudson suggests. I hope that we don't remove all colour from Senate estimates through these sorts of processes.

Senator KENEALLY: If I borrow that analogy, I did a lot of due diligence on my husband before we got married. You don't seem to have done any due diligence on this organisation before you announced a half-a-billion-dollar commitment to them. And, yes, you're now in the process of trying to see if you can consummate this relationship. I come back to my earlier question: what type of due diligence was done before this announcement on 29 April?

Senator Birmingham: Officials can pick up on that in relation to this year's budget processes if they wish. But, as has been emphasised time and again, the track record of the foundation over a number of years has been absolutely a core part of that, including for example the work the foundation did as a result of the 2012 budget. I quote from the media release by then environment minister Tony Burke from 8 May 2012, in which the then Gillard government was delivering millions of dollars in funding for the foundation:

The foundation protects and preserves the Reef by coordinating strategic research in such areas as reef resilience and climate change.

Senator KENEALLY: So, is part of your due diligence reading all Tony Burke media releases? Is that what you're telling us?

Senator Birmingham: No. Due diligence is—

Senator KENEALLY: Because there are plenty of Tony Burke media releases you could be reading.

Senator Birmingham: No, due diligence, Senator Keneally, is that the Commonwealth of Australia under previous Labor governments saw fit to enter into funding agreements with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation—

Senator KENEALLY: For half a billion dollars?

Senator Birmingham: And indeed the foundation has demonstrated its capability to deliver significant benefits, in terms of policy outcomes and initiatives that it's supported, for the reef over a period of time. It was good enough for the Labor government, the Gillard government, to provide funding—

Senator KENEALLY: Half a billion dollars.

Senator Birmingham: I know you seem to think, unfortunately, that this is too much funding to protect the Great Barrier Reef. The Turnbull government does not.

Senator KENEALLY: No. I think it's too much funding to give away in a non-transparent process to an organisation that has a long list of Liberal Party donors.

Senator Birmingham: The history of working with the foundation goes back many years and indeed goes back to multimillion-dollar grants from the previous Labor government.

Senator KENEALLY: Not half a billion dollars, not given out in an uncontested process—

Senator Birmingham: No. We have a much greater commitment to the Great Barrier Reef.

CHAIR: Can we stick to questions and answers—

Senator KENEALLY: Was there a cabinet process, Minister Birmingham?

Senator Birmingham: Of course there was a cabinet process for the budget. Cabinet processes for the budget started last year.

Senator KENEALLY: Was there a cabinet process for this announcement?

Senator Birmingham: It started last year and worked the whole way through—

Senator KENEALLY: Was there a cabinet minute prepared for this announcement?

Mr Pratt : Senator, I've already testified that, for my whole eight months that I've been in this department, we've been working on these sorts of measures.

Senator KENEALLY: That's very vague, Mr Pratt.

Senator URQUHART: Can I go back to my question?

Senator Birmingham: By all means.

Senator URQUHART: I'm interested to know if any analysis was done as to whether the organisation has the capacity to deliver the $444 million in grants? You indicated that there were some draft guidelines that had gone to the minister. You talked about a co-design with the foundation. I'm interested in whether there was any analysis done as to its capacity. I'm not questioning the capacity of the organisation; I'm asking if there was any analysis done on whether the organisation has the capacity to deliver that amount of money in grants? If there was, what was it, and can you provide it?

Mr Oxley : We will not be able to provide it, because it happened within the confines of the budget process, as Mr Pratt has already indicated. But we did have a look at issues around the capacity of the foundation to be able to step up and deliver at a scale that was substantially beyond their current operating level. We also looked at questions about their capacity to be able to leverage significant private and philanthropic investment into the Great Barrier Reef in an environment where, over the past 12 months, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation had already been in a collaboration with the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the CSIRO seeking to scope a major proposal for government about a big uplift in the level of investment by both government and the private and philanthropic sectors into reef restoration and adaptation. Indeed, off the back of that work, earlier this year the government announced that it would be putting $6 million in through the Australian Institute of Marine Science, supported by CSIRO, to do a reef restoration and adaptation program scoping study. The foundation is engaged in that scoping study, and that scoping study, when completed, will provide the critical guidance to the foundation around the expenditure of the $100 million that has been allocated within the $444 million envelope for that purpose.

We recognised, when we were doing that assessment, that there were and would be risks or challenges for the foundation in stepping up to that scale of activity, but, when we looked at the way it was governed, its quite complex and detailed project management, and the quality of the people who sit on the foundation board, the government took assurance that, while the scale of the investment was beyond what the foundation was managing now, it would be able to step up. The foundation simultaneously went through its own process and concluded that it did want to explore it. It is now going through its own internal process to scope out what the building of this capacity would look like.

It's also important to remember that it is not just the foundation that is going to be delivering this. It is going to be partnering with organisations throughout Queensland, primarily, in the delivery of these funds. So we expect that it will be doing partnership agreements with the regional natural resource management bodies. We expect that there will be skin in the game, so to speak, for the Australian Institute of Marine Science, because the foundation isn't going to become overnight a marine science delivery organisation. It is going to continue to fund the delivery of marine science but it's also going to bring external investment beyond what government is able to muster, because it is a philanthropic foundation. You heard from Dr Reichelt this morning as to why the foundation was established in the first place, and that was that there was room there—

Senator URQUHART: We heard Dr Reichelt, so I don't need—

Mr Oxley : Sorry for the long answer, but I just think it's important—

Senator URQUHART: It's okay. I just don't need you to go over—

Mr Oxley : to provide some of that clarity around the process.

Senator URQUHART: So the analysis was part of the budget process—that's as I understand what you said—which means that you're not able to provide that to us.

Mr Oxley : And therefore I've provided you with a high-level overview of the analysis that was undertaken.

Senator URQUHART: How then will the department make sure that the money is spent to deliver the best projects for reef help? What are the checks and balances that the department has got in place to ensure that?

Mr Oxley : The grant funding agreement will very clearly set out the key areas of investment. It will provide guidance to the foundation about the outcomes that we are expecting the foundation to achieve with the resources that are being provided to it. Those outcomes will be tied very directly to the actions and targets that are set out in the Reef 2050 Plan. All of this investment will be drawing back to the key guidance document that exists today, which is the Reef 2050 Plan, our joint plan with the Queensland government. In terms of further detail, Ms Callister may want to provide you with a little bit more information in that space.

Ms Callister : As Mr Oxley outlined, we anticipate that the grant agreement which we are currently negotiating with the foundation will outline the specific reporting requirements and also the planning requirements. We expect that there will be annual activity plans developed by the foundation which will outline in some detail what they want to focus their investment on from year to year over the six-year period. We will also be expecting six-monthly reporting on progress. These are fairly standard approaches that we use for our funding agreements. They are very similar to the reporting requirements that the foundation's been used to providing to the department under the existing funding programs that they have with us. We also will be building in a consultation and advisory role for the Reef 2050 bodies, which include the Reef 2050 Ministerial Forum, the reef advisory committee and the independent expert panel.

In addition, the GBRF have their own scientific body, and they have indicated that they will be using that scientific body to provide detailed analysis at the project level and provide them with some guidance on what they think would be appropriate projects to fund. Finally, I will just reassure you that we also will be having, in that grant agreement, clauses and requirements that go to termination clauses and so on, in what we think is the unlikely case that we need them. We will be having those in there as assurances to make sure that if we need to we can exercise those.

Senator URQUHART: What happens if things go wrong? You have a termination—can you get the funding back?

Ms Callister : Yes. We have processes for that. They will be outlined in the specific details of the funding agreement. They are fairly standard in Commonwealth funding agreements. You have clauses around ensuring the security of the funds and the ability to terminate if required.

Senator KENEALLY: Can I follow up on that question? Do you know where the foundation will be holding the funds?

Ms Callister : We have had some very initial discussions with them about that, and I understand that they're currently doing some work to determine what would be an appropriate secure place in which to hold those funds.

Senator KENEALLY: What is a usual way an organisation would hold funds if they received them from the Commonwealth for this sort of project?

Ms Callister : I'm not overly familiar with all the nuances of banking, but they usually seek to find a mechanism where it's very secure and has appropriate security around the types of investment and the levels of interest that would be gained off that. My understanding is that they're currently doing some work looking at what would be an appropriate place to invest those funds.

Mr Oxley : That of course would be something they would propose back to the government, and the government would have to agree to that proposition.

Senator KENEALLY: I note that their partners include NAB, ANZ, Commonwealth Bank, Suncorp and I believe Bank of Queensland. Would it be appropriate for any of those partners to be an institution that holds that money?

Mr Oxley : You're asking a hypothetical, and I don't think we can speculate.

Senator KENEALLY: Surely the government would have a view as to whether or not—

Mr Oxley : Until we have a proposition from the foundation, I don't think it's appropriate for the department to speculate as to what might be an appropriate body to hold the funds. What we need is assurance that, wherever those funds are held, they are held securely so that the taxpayers' interests are protected. I think you can be confident that the department will engage with the foundation on that basis with that expectation.

Senator KENEALLY: These are partners who pay money to be part of this organisation and could potentially benefit by an investment of several hundred million dollars of taxpayer money. Are you telling me that the government does not have a view about the appropriateness of a member organisation gaining access to these funds as a holding mechanism?

Senator Birmingham: It is equally possible that a foundation of that nature, in terms of the investment of its funds, is able through its partner organisations to leverage not only additional contributions but also higher rates of return than may otherwise be available, and therefore provide additional funding and resourcing to support the Great Barrier Reef.

Senator KENEALLY: So they will get a deal that others won't because they have these banks as members?

Senator Birmingham: Again, I wouldn't, as you seem to wish, drive towards conspiracy theories about these things.

Senator KENEALLY: It's not a conspiracy theory, Minister. I want to know if your government has a view.

Senator Birmingham: The government has a view that funds should be held securely and that appropriate probity arrangements, of course, will be in place as part of the contracting; but that we want the foundation to leverage the contribution of government to attract additional resourcing and provide even greater support towards Great Barrier Reef initiatives and programs.

Senator KENEALLY: I note that Westpac doesn't seem to be one of their partners. Maybe they could consider approaching them.

Mr Oxley : As you're referring to the partners, Senator, I want to point out that my understanding from a discussion with the foundation is that the way they are funded is that the organisations who have members on the board essentially collectively pay for the administrative costs of the foundation, so that every cent the foundation raises actually goes into the investment for the benefit of the Great Barrier Reef.

Senator KENEALLY: Mr Oxley, did I hear you say before that the quality of the people on the board was part of the judgement formed by the government that this was an organisation that could handle this money?

Mr Oxley : Yes. I made a statement to that effect.

Senator KENEALLY: Which people on the board did you have in mind?

Mr Oxley : We had a look at the overall composition of the board. Start with the chair, Dr Schubert, Grant King of the Business Council of Australia—there is a long list of people who have extensive experience in the corporate and philanthropic and research science sectors who collectively are, I think, very well-regarded Australians, and I think we can be reasonably confident in their capacity to oversee the operations of the foundation.

Senator KENEALLY: Do any of them have experience in delivering these sorts of programs?

Senator Birmingham: Certainly, the foundation has many years of experience in delivering these sorts of programs. That is one of the reasons why it was chosen by us. I assume the years of experience it had prior to 2012 is one of the reasons why it was chosen by the Gillard government to receive millions of dollars at that time.

Senator KENEALLY: Not half a billion, Minister. You mentioned Dr Schubert. He, of course, is from Esso. We've got Rio Tinto, Origin Energy and Qantas all represented on the board of this organisation. That's the sort of management expertise that appealed to the government.

Senator Birmingham: And we have the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science—

Senator KENEALLY: Although Dr Reichelt is not there on the basis of being the CEO of the authority.

Senator Birmingham: I am quite certain—

Senator KENEALLY: The minister cannot have it both ways.

Senator Birmingham: I am quite certain the other individuals are not there on the basis of their jobs or other occupations either.

Senator KENEALLY: Mr Oxley just said this is why these people were considered to be—

Senator Birmingham: No, it is the skill set that they bring to the board, Senator Keneally.

Senator CHISHOLM: Aren't they there because they donate the money?

Senator Birmingham: Indeed, a number of them, we've heard, are probably donors and contributors, and I give full credit to them for donating and contributing towards the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

Senator KENEALLY: If board members are there because they contribute, does the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority contribute?

Senator Birmingham: The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has been, as we've heard, a partner in working with them on different initiatives.

Senator KENEALLY: No, no, no. Mr Oxley just said the board members of the foundation are there because their companies have contributed, so I'm trying to work out if Dr Reichelt—

Senator Birmingham: Senator Keneally, you're very good verballing individuals. The board members are there, and I think we heard before from Dr Reichelt, who is a board member, bringing a mix of skills to the table, as you would expect of any board—skills across finance, philanthropy, management, marine science, reef management, the whole range of areas you would expect for a longstanding multimillion-dollar foundation in terms of their work. If you want the precise process by which the foundation appoints its board members, I'm sure we can take that on notice and get that information for you.

Senator KENEALLY: Yes, we would like that, thank you, Minister.

Senator URQUHART: Following on from that, does the Great Barrier Reef Foundation have governance arrangements in place? They've obviously got a board. Do they have subcommittees and procedures that are—

Senator Birmingham: I can say with absolute certainty, yes, given again we heard from Dr Reichelt before about the various disclosures he's made both to government and to the foundation in terms of managing conflicts, for example, in his role. Again, I'm sure that when this department, previous governments have given millions of dollars to the foundation, at those times, as well, there would have been checks to ensure that there were appropriate governance arrangements in place, and appropriate governance would form a core part of any grant funding and conditions of such funding from government to any entity.

Senator URQUHART: Can those governance arrangements change?

Senator Birmingham: Most modern governance arrangements change and are enhanced and improved.

Senator URQUHART: I'm asking particularly about the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Are the governance arrangements able to be changed?

Senator Birmingham: I'm sure they're not held static indefinitely.

Senator URQUHART: If they can, how do they change? What's the process?

Mr Oxley : That's going to be a matter for the foundation to advise on, but they do have what I would characterise as sound governance arrangements. They have a board. They have an Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee which is chaired by Phillip Strachan, who has 35 years working with the Rio Tinto Group in that sort of capacity and holds several directorships. They have the International Scientific Advisory Committee, or ISAC, if I've got the name right. The acronym is definitely right; I might have got the 'international' wrong. It provides all the scientific advice through to the board and, indeed, to the officers of the foundation who are delivering projects. When they have projects that they are delivering, they generally will stand up a project management committee which includes someone from the ISAC and someone from the board. So they put in place strong governance arrangements for all of the work that they do. It was on this understanding that we as the department had confidence in providing advice to the government that the foundation was a good partner in prospect.

Senator URQUHART: In relation to those governance arrangements, I think it's probably acknowledged that they can change. What's the process for that? How do they change?

Ms Callister : The foundation have a constitution which is publicly available on their website. My understanding is that that provides a lot of the overall governance and the legal framework. They are a corporation under the appropriate legislation that governs companies. That constitution can be changed—my understanding is—by agreement of their board at the appropriate meeting. They are currently looking, as part of the work that Mr Oxley was referring to, at their overall governance structure to see whether they need to put in place any additional committees to ensure that they've got the proper oversight of this money. That work is happening at the moment. If need be, that would then be reflected in amendments to their constitution.

Senator URQUHART: What is the time frame for that?

Ms Callister : I think that's a matter for the board. They haven't given me the specific time frame. But more generally what they have been saying is that they recognise that there will be a period where they need to undertake some quite comprehensive planning to ensure the most efficient and effective rollout of this money, and they've already commenced that work and anticipate that that will happen over the course of the next few months.

Senator McKIM: Minister, just so you can have the correct officers to support you: I've got some questions about threatened species in Tasmania, the Tasmanian RFA and a couple on Tasmanian forests. Firstly, I want to ask about the giant freshwater crayfish recovery plan that was released in April last year and whether you're able to provide an update on what elements of the plan have been completed, what elements have been commenced but not yet completed and whether there are any elements that have not yet been commenced.

Mr Richardson : I will just repeat your question quickly. You're asking about the giant freshwater crayfish recovery plan and the implementation of that plan and where we are up to with that?

Senator McKIM: That's right.

Mr Richardson : Senator, you'd be aware that the plan was finalised in August 2017. It was a cooperative endeavour between ourselves and the Tasmanian government and partners in Tasmania. It's a fairly new plan, so I'm not sure I can give you a lot of detail about the actual elements of it that are implemented, but certainly our Tasmanian partners, which include the Tasmanian government and various forestry bodies down there, are all, I guess, part of the solution, part of the implementation of that plan. But I haven't got an update on where things are up to at this point in time.

Senator McKIM: You are right: it is a relatively new plan. I make the observation that it was some time coming, but, anyway, we are where we are. In that case, would you be able to take on notice for the committee to provide a general update in terms of the implementation of that plan, with a specific breakdown, if possible, as to whether there are any elements that have been completed, whether there are any elements that have been commenced but are yet to be completed and whether there are any elements of that plan that there has been no commencement of as yet?

Mr Richardson : Of course.

Senator McKIM: I appreciate that. Part of the plan, strategy 3, was 'Increase the reservation status and improve the quality of key habitat for the giant freshwater crayfish,' as well as an on-ground action to 'Increase the total area of giant freshwater crayfish habitat that is reserved.' They are quotes out of the plan. The Tasmanian Hodgman government, which has recently been re-elected, has actively sought to reverse the reserve status of 30,000 hectares of formerly reserved giant freshwater crayfish habitat, on my advice. Are you able to confirm that there's been any land or habitat successfully allocated as protected giant freshwater crayfish habitat under the plan?

Mr Richardson : I can include that as part of the response to the previous question, but I'm not aware of any measures at this point.

Senator McKIM: I'll ask that as a specific question that you can take on notice. Thanks, Mr Richardson, I appreciate that. I'm not sure who would have responsibility for this, but it's questions about the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy initiative. And I can see Minister Birmingham—

Senator Birmingham: I would have given you a completely blank look but for the fact that when I got into the office last night I did happen to turn the ABC on and saw David Attenborough speaking about it.

Senator McKIM: There you go, well done. That's a good start for us, to have a positive engagement on that.

Senator DI NATALE: What were you doing watching the ABC? They're not dead to you, Senator!

Senator Birmingham: Indeed. Don’t tell all of my colleagues.

Senator DI NATALE: Your preselection might come under challenge!

Senator Birmingham: It's important to monitor occasionally.

Senator McKIM: I wanted to make the point that by 2016 16 Commonwealth countries had become involved in this plan, and the remainder were expected to join by this year. In April this year there was a broadcast, the Queen's Green Planet, with Sir David Attenborough and the Queen. Minister, did you catch that?

Senator Birmingham: I did see Her Majesty, and as I noticed Sir David Attenborough it did cause me to glance twice at the screen to work out what was going on.

Senator McKIM: By April this year more than 40 countries committed and took part in the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy initiative. Could you confirm there are currently no Australian conservation programs that are part of the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy initiative and that all Australia has done, although we are considered as a participating country, is commit to planting 20 million native trees by 2020, which is obviously a commitment to planting trees not about forest conservation?

Ms Costello : I can confirm, as you mentioned, that the 20 Million Trees Program was nominated by Australia and accepted for inclusion in the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy in 2016. That is because it has outcomes compatible with that initiative. It was accepted. Since then, two other Australian sites have been nominated by the Queensland government. Two Queensland national parks were nominated in early 2018, Fraser Island and the Bulburin National Park. They have also been accepted for inclusion.

Senator McKIM: What's the process by which the Australian government would solicit areas of forest for inclusion in the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy initiative? Do you write to state governments? How do you do it?

Ms Costello : We don't do it. The Royal Commonwealth Society in the UK manages the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy initiative. Coming through the Department of Foreign Affairs, I think there would have been an approach to relevant government departments to identify appropriate initiatives. We're not involved ourselves in managing that program. We nominated a project into the initiative; we're not managing it.

Senator McKIM: So that was the 20 million trees?

Ms Costello : Yes, that's right. The Queensland government nominated the other two.

Senator McKIM: Are you aware of any other areas that are under consideration for nomination?

Ms Costello : No, I'm not.

Senator McKIM: Given your department nominated the 20 Million Trees Program, is there a process underway, within your department, to consider whether there are other areas that would be worthy of nomination?

Ms Costello : There's no current process that I'm aware of.

Senator McKIM: Do you agree that some of the Tasmanian forests would be an excellent candidate for conservation programs?

Ms Costello : I don't have a view on that.

Senator McKIM: I beg your pardon?

Ms Costello : I don't have any view on that.

Senator McKIM: No worries. I wanted to ask some questions about the review of the Tasmanian RFA. I wanted to ask, firstly, whether the department is confident that the Tasmanian RFA review last year was undertaken with appropriate thoroughness and diligence?

Mr Dadswell : The Department of Environment and Energy worked with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, which led the Commonwealth's engagement on the negotiation of the extension of the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement last year. That agreement was extended and advice was provided to ministers, who took that into account and agreed to extend the RFA.

Senator McKIM: So in the department's view, was that review done with appropriate thoroughness and diligence?

Mr Dadswell : I can't really comment on that. It was done as said: we worked with our Agriculture and Water Resources colleagues and undertook the review and the extension in accordance with the RFA Act, and then the subsequent agreement.

Senator McKIM: Okay. Which was the lead agency? Was there a lead agent for the review?

Mr Dadswell : For the Commonwealth, it was the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, as they have responsibility for the Regional Forest Agreements Act.

Senator McKIM: They engaged with your department during that review?

Mr Dadswell : Yes.

Senator McKIM: Did you provide advice to that department as part of the review?

Mr Dadswell : Yes. We provided advice to the department and worked with them during the course of the review.

Senator McKIM: Was there any advice provided by your department that was not accepted as part of the review?

Mr Dadswell : I can't recall, Senator. There were many matters discussed and, as I said, we really worked together on the review.

Senator McKIM: Sorry, I just missed the last thing you said?

Mr Dadswell : There were many matters discussed, I can't recall about specific items. We worked together and it was a Commonwealth position that we arrived at.

Senator McKIM: Well, perhaps I could ask you to take on notice whether there was any advice given by your department as part of that review that was not reflected in the final position of the Commonwealth.

Mr Dadswell : Okay.

Senator McKIM: The federal assistant minister, Minister Ruston, said in September 2016 that extending Tasmania's RFA will—and I will put it among other things; she mentioned other matters—maintain the comprehensive and adequate reserve system. Now, the Liberal government in Tasmania proposes to reverse informal reserves that exist and make them available for logging. It's proposing to log inside longstanding conservation reserves in the Tarkine/Takayna, included those protected by former Prime Minister Howard in the 2005 supplementary forest agreement. Is it the case that the formal tenure for these reserves under Tasmanian legislation at the moment is future potential production forest? Do those reserves actually remain as part of Tasmania's CAR system currently, or don't they?

Mr Dadswell : Sorry, I'll have to take that on notice.

Ms Jonasson : To be honest, in terms of the national reserve we can take that on notice and double-check that. But in terms of Minister Ruston's comments and the connection to the Regional Forest Agreement, it's probably a question better directed to our colleagues in the agriculture portfolio, who have overall responsibility. We provide advice to them.

Senator McKIM: I understand that, and thank you. I'll put them to the environment department. But the CAR aspect of RFAs is surely a matter of interest to you I would assume?

Ms Jonasson : Of course—yes it is, absolutely. And we provide advice to our colleagues on that.

Senator McKIM: I would like to know whether you've advised your colleagues about the status of those forests and their environmental significance? And, specifically, as I indicated earlier, whether they currently remain part of the CAR system or not. To be frank, I don't understand how they could be considered to be part of the CAR system when the Tasmanian government is going to log them—to be blunt!

Ms Jonasson : Yes, happy to do that.

CHAIR: Thank you. So we will break now and return to continue on program 1.1.

Proceedings suspended from 15 : 54 to 16 : 10

CHAIR: We will continue with our examination of program 1.1. Senator Urquhart.

Senator URQUHART: Can you tell me how many meetings the government had with the foundation specifically about the funding?

Mr Oxley : Senator, I think we'll need to take that one on notice. There were several discussions over the course of a matter of weeks. I'll take that on notice.

Senator URQUHART: Can you tell me what their current budget is and what the nature of the committed funding is in terms of percentage? I think their current was $8 billion to $10 billion.

Mr Oxley : I really don't think that we're in a position to add to the answer that we provided earlier in terms of agreeing with the indication that their budget is in the order of $8 to $10 million per year, committed and uncommitted. That's a terminology that's peculiar to government. I haven't spent time working in organisations like the foundation to know whether that's language that they also use. So I think I need to make that observation in response to that part of the question.

Senator URQUHART: Who are the GBR Foundation responsible to legally? What's the legal recourse if something goes wrong?

Ms Callister : My understanding is that they are a company. I can't remember the exact title of it, but I think it's a limited company, so they'd be ruled under the appropriate company law that applies to that. I'm sorry; I don't have the details of their specific legal set-up in front of me.

Senator URQUHART: Are you able to get that during the course of the afternoon?

Ms Callister : I could do that, yes.

Senator URQUHART: That might be helpful; thank you. I want to talk about reef funding in general. In the Reef 2050 Plan Investment Framework, the government sets out its investment in Reef 2050 actions of $716 million over five years, 2015-20. This document was provided to the World Heritage Committee to help secure the decision not to list the reef as in danger. Budget paper No. 2, budget measures 2018-19, states:

The Government will provide $535.8 million over five years from 2017-18 to accelerate the delivery of Reef 2050 Plan activities.

Can the department confirm these numbers and clarify that there seems to be a decrease in investment in Reef 2050 actions from the level that it committed to fund to the World Heritage Committee?

Ms Callister : I think it's important that we compare apples with apples here. The investment framework outlined what the government's expectations were of the investment at the time. What I can tell you is what the actual investment has been. At this stage, from the department alone—recognising that there are other agencies that also contribute to the implementation of the Reef 2050 Plan—the investment from this portfolio from 2014-15 out to 2022-23 is $907 million. Of course this does change over time as the government makes new investment announcements.

Senator URQUHART: How will the government accelerate the delivery of the Reef 2050 Plan activities when it's providing substantially less funding, even with the new $444 million?

Senator Birmingham: I'm not sure you heard the answer to the previous question. The government is not providing substantially less funding. Additional new resourcing is being made available.

Senator URQUHART: So the $716 million over five years—is that correct?

Ms Callister : I don't have the document in front of me that you're referring to. The information I have in front of me is the actual investment that we're making, which is over $900 million.

Senator MOORE: Have you got that itemised by program?

Ms Callister : Yes. I do have an itemised program.

Senator MOORE: That would be very useful. Is it easily obtained?

Ms Callister : I can provide it to you on notice.

Senator CHISHOLM: The $716 million that Senator Urquhart refers to was outlined in the Reef 2050 Plan. That was the five years from 2015 to 2020. And then you're saying an extra two years on top of that gets it to $907 million?

Ms Callister : That's right.

Senator CHISHOLM: It's not different to the $716 million. You've just added two more years on it.

Ms Callister : As I was saying, the 2015 investment strategy outlined what was anticipated investment. The figures that I just gave you were specifically this department's investment under the range of reef programs that we have sitting with us. I don't have the full set of all the government's investments, but over that period of time, between ourselves and the Queensland government, we anticipate providing in excess of $2 billion towards the implementation of the Reef 2050 Plan.

Senator MOORE: And that's committed funding?

Ms Callister : In that $907 million that I was talking about, some of those funds have been committed to projects and some of them have been allocated but are yet to be committed to projects.

Senator MOORE: In what you can give us it's going to have it clear what it has been allocated to, so we'll be able to add it up against which program and in which year?

Ms Callister : That's right.

Senator URQUHART: Minister Frydenberg recently announced on 29 April an additional $500 million for the reef. He said that represents the single largest funding commitment ever. Can you confirm that with the additional $500 million for the reef programs the overall 10-year funding for actions in the Reef 2050 Plan is now $2.5 billion? You said $2 billion.

Ms Callister : We're currently going through a process of trying to determine what that figure is, because it's not all this particular portfolio's funding. It also includes a range of funding for other organisations, including the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Australian Institute for Marine Science. So rather than give you a one plus one equals two figure, we're going back and confirming what that total funding now is. That process is currently underway.

Senator URQUHART: Will we get that information during the course of the afternoon?

Ms Callister : We can't give you that full amount from the other agencies because we're currently in the process of giving you that. What I can give you on notice is the information that's the breakdown of funding from this particular department. What we'll seek to provide you by the end of this afternoon is information on the legal set-up of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

Senator MOORE: You said you were going through out where the money's coming from and what is being fed into the overall response to the reef. The media releases have come out under Minister Frydenberg's name. His statement was, '$500 million is the best; now we're going to get to $2.5 billion.' That's his statements to the community. Surely somewhere we've got every part of the Australian government commitment to this plan, which we've all agreed on and we all celebrate. Is that something which your department has anywhere?

Ms Callister : Yes, we have had that and we've done that work. As various parts of the government—both the Australian government and the Queensland government—make new investments, that figure continues to change. What I was saying to you was, since we've made this new investment, we're now going through a process to confirm what that series of investment is and what the overall quantum would be.

Senator MOORE: Can we get a full snapshot of what money has now been either committed or allocated across this general commitment by the government to the reef? We can get that? Great.

Mr Knudson : At the risk of leading to confusion, and I don't want to do that—

Senator MOORE: It won't be your fault!

Mr Knudson : What I would say is: when the minister was talking about that, what his predecessor had said was that the Commonwealth government and the Queensland government would commit $2 billion over 10 years. Then this money, this $500 million, which is new money in addition, is where the minister was saying that's how we get to $2.5 billion.

Senator MOORE: Absolutely. I just want to see your figures.

Mr Knudson : The real specifics are a little bit more granular than that but that's where the minister's statement would have come from, I would have assumed.

Senator CHISHOLM: Are you categorically saying it is an additional $500 million?

Mr Knudson : That is absolutely correct.

Senator CHISHOLM: So it's new money?

Mr Knudson : It is new money.

Senator KENEALLY: But the $2 billion figure represents a quantum of money that's both Commonwealth and Queensland state government?

Ms Callister : That's correct. This is where it can get quite complicated. It's important to understand the actual commitment that's been made and what's our understanding of the likely future commitments, if you're looking into the out-years. The $2 billion figure was an expectation of what the overall funding commitment would be towards the Reef 2050 Plan. The government's now invested this additional half a billion dollars, and we're now going through a process of going back to agencies, including the Queensland government and other Commonwealth agencies, to determine what that overall figure of investment in the Reef 2050 Plan now is.

Senator MOORE: Allowing for the fact that when decisions are made, that figure will change?

Ms Callister : Correct.

Senator MOORE: We understand that, but we've got to have a benchmark.

Ms Callister : Yes.

Senator MOORE: Thank you.

Senator URQUHART: How many threatened species are awaiting the development of recovery plans, and how does this number compare to the number of threatened species awaiting recovery plans five years ago?

Mr Richardson : In terms of the number now, there are 180 that have a decision to have a recovery plan that don't currently have a recovery plan in force. I'd have to take on notice how that compares with the number five years ago. Just to clarify: the vast majority of those species, if not all of them, do have current conservation devices that do guide recovery efforts for the public.

Senator URQUHART: What's the department doing to monitor the effectiveness of recovering threatened species? How do you know when a species has recovered?

Mr Richardson : I think I might have answered this question at the last estimates as well. It depends a little bit on what we're talking about when we're talking about recovery. What the Biodiversity Conservation Division does is assesses species for listing as threatened. We call for public nominations for species to be listed as threatened each year; that's a requirement under the act. Sometimes some of those species are nominated for a reassessment. That might be because they are felt to have recovered and, therefore, could be removed from the list but that's quite rare. On the majority of occasions it would be nominated for an up-listing; so a higher threatened status.

The objective of most of the recovery plans and conservation devices for species is not to recover them to the point where they're okay, they can be removed from the list and they are no longer in threat. The reason for that, as I mentioned at the last estimates hearing, is species are listed predominantly because of habitat loss or pervasive threats—feral species or whatever it might be; climate change for a number of species—that have acted over a very long period. So, simply expecting over 10 or 20 years for a species to recover to the point where it was 200 years ago is pretty unlikely. Most of the objectives for our recovery plans and for our conservation advice for species is to secure those species in the wild to prevent them from going extinct.

Ms Jonasson : I can add a bit more information to Mr Richardson's response. The first point I'd like to make is that almost 100 per cent—99.7 per cent—of our threatened species and ecological communities listed under the EPBC Act have either conservation advice or a recovery plan, or both. So, we have advice on the majority of things listed there. The intent of these documents is to set out the research and management actions to support the recovery of these species. The actions to monitor these species are identified when we develop these documents, and it's a shared responsibility. The idea of the documents is to guide all levels of government, councils, not-for-profit organisations, business, private landowners and communities on what they can do to assist in actions that will support these threatened species. The government supports these efforts through the Threatened Species Strategy, and Dr Box is here to answer any questions that you have on that. In particular, the strategy is looking at establishing best practice guidance for recovery teams and supporting the recovery teams to report annually on their progress of implementation efforts. Those teams are a mix of people, including scientists. Mr Richardson can talk in more detail around those. So, quite a lot of effort goes into this work.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you. We know that certain departmental functions, such as the issuing of wildlife trade permits, work to statutory time frames of 40 days for the minister to consider whether applications are compliant under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Can you tell me how the department is performing against those time frames? And are you aware of any occasions when the department has not met these legislated time frames?

Mr Murphy : Yes, I can confirm that there is a performance measure of 40 business days for the issuing of wildlife trade permits. It fluctuates depending on the number of applications and the resources that we give to that area that assesses and issues the permits. We monitor it fairly regularly, but we report annually via the annual report. In the last annual report, from memory—I don't have it in front of me—it would be above 95 per cent that would have been issued on time, within that 40 days.

Senator URQUHART: I think the Queen's Canopy questions have been asked, so that all I have. Thank you very much.

Senator RICE: Continuing with questions about threatened species and recovery plans—sorry, I missed it before, but what was that statistic you just quoted—the 180?

Mr Richardson : It was 180 plans for which there is a decision for a species or an ecological community to have a recovery plan but for which one is not in force at the moment.

Senator RICE: So 180 where there is a threatened species such that the aim is to have a recovery plan but there currently isn't?

Mr Richardson : To clarify, not all species are required to have a recovery plan. That's a decision made on the recommendation of the threatened species fund by the minister at the time of the listing. There are 180 that are outstanding.

Senator RICE: Outstanding—that currently don't have one?

Mr Richardson : Correct.

Senator RICE: How many recovery plans were finalised in, say—I don't know whether your time frame is financial years or calendar years—the 2016-17 financial year? And how many do you expect to finalise in the 2017-18 financial year?

Mr Richardson : To date, in the 2017-18 financial year we have finalised four recovery plans. We've covered off on 15 species. One of those plans was a multispecies recovery plan. I stress that is species, not ecological communities. In the 2016-17 financial year, three plans covering eight species were finalised.

Ms Jonasson : I would like to reiterate that, as Mr Richardson said, not every species was assigned a recovery plan. But, indeed, any species that is listed has a conservation advice. So we have some form of coverage, either through a conservation advice or a recovery plan, for 99.7 per cent of the species that are listed.

Senator RICE: But the recovery plan goes into more detail and specifies particular actions for the land manager.

Ms Jonasson : The recovery plan is developed on advice from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee. For many species that are listed, the committee doesn't think that a recovery plan is necessary. The conservation advice which informs actions and other development applications is appropriate for that circumstance.

Senator RICE: But, as Mr Richardson said, there are 180 species for which it has been determined that there should be a recovery plan developed for them, and for which there is currently not a recovery plan.

Ms Jonasson : But there is a conservation advice in place. So there is some advice that can be used now, and the action that is underway to develop the recovery plans—as you would appreciate—is very important and very detailed. We also work collaboratively with our state and territory government colleagues, where that's appropriate, and with the scientific community to ensure the recovery plans, when they are developed, are not just scientifically appropriate but also able to be implemented by the many parts of the community that implement actions that are suitable for this. I think it's quite—as you'd appreciate; I know you understand this—a detailed process and a very important process to get right. So it does take time.

Senator RICE: Yes. And it's fairly resource-intensive as well, in terms of the work the department needs to put in to thoroughly develop a recovery plan?

Ms Jonasson : Not only the department, but also the people on the recovery teams and the scientists that are providing their advice, the states and territories that are also involved in the development of those plans.

Senator RICE: So we have 180 species for which the recovery plans are yet to be developed or are currently in progress, which haven't got a finalised recovery plan? Yes?

Ms Jonasson : But they do have conservation advice.

Senator RICE: Yes.

Ms Jonasson : Reiterating there is some advice there.

Senator RICE: Recovery plans are a critical part of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. They are more detailed. They give more specific guidance to the land managers and to the ecosystem managers. So you had 15 species expected to be covered off this financial year, eight in the previous financial year—it's pretty slow progress, then, if we're going to get through those 180 species. I think you said there were four recovery plans that covered off four different species.

Mr Richardson : Yes. They are the ones that are already in place to date for this financial year.

Senator RICE: That's right. That was the progress you made—

Mr Richardson : In the last nine months.

Senator RICE: And which is expected to be made in this current financial year?

Mr Richardson : That's correct.

Senator RICE: So the 180 excludes that 15?

Mr Richardson : Correct.

Senator RICE: So if we were going to have recovery plans to cover off those 180 species in a timely manner, the department would need more resources to do that resource-intensive work? Would that be correct?

Ms Jonasson : It's not just dependent on resourcing the department. I think the point I was making earlier is that the development of recovery plans requires engagement with a number of people who are involved in these, including our state and territory colleagues and scientists. So it's quite a complex and comprehensive process that's not going to be hurried. It's not going to be done overnight. We want to make sure that we get it right.

Senator RICE: So where are the limitations? Obviously you could do more if you had more resources, whether it's at a Commonwealth level or at a state or territory level. Where is the blockage that means we still have 180 species with recovery plans outstanding? Some of them have been outstanding for quite a long time.

Mr Richardson : They have. I come to that point. The majority—and I don't have the number in front of me—of those plans are plans for which it was decided to have a recovery plan prior to it being optional. Essentially, before the late 2000s, when the act was amended, all species were required to have a plan, and less than half did. At that point, the states and territories prepared the majority of recovery plans that were then adopted by the federal government. There are two ways a plan can be put in place: it can either be made by the federal minister or it can be adopted as a state and territory plan by the federal minister once the Threatened Species Scientific Committee is comfortable with the plan. The vast majority of those 180 plans are plans for which the states and territories are informing us that they are in the process of preparing. For some of them, we don't necessarily believe that to be the case. There is an option for the Threatened Species Scientific Committee to reconsider the need for a plan for a particular species, or whether they think a comprehensive conservation advice can fulfil the same function. And that is something that the federal government can then do quite quickly. The committee is in the process of considering some of those decisions.

Senator RICE: What proportion of those 180 is the threatened species advisory committee considering as to whether a plan is required?

Mr Richardson : The majority of them—particularly for the species for which the state and territory governments undertook to prepare plans some time ago but for which we have not seen much progress made.

Senator RICE: Could you take on notice, of the 180 species, which are in that category and which ones have been recommended since it became optional?

Mr Richardson : I can.

Senator RICE: So the majority. But, that said, since that time you've still got some outstanding plans. Do you know how many of those plans aren't in that category? Presumably, for the ones that the states and territories are responsible for, it will be determined that they should still have a recovery plan.

Mr Richardson : Yes, that's correct. The Threatened Species Scientific Committee will carefully examine that question about whether it is warranted to put the effort in to encourage the states to prepare those plans. For a lot of those species we simply don't hold the information that would enable us to prepare a plan. We are reliant on the states and territories for a lot of that work for those species. I'm probably more familiar with the species that we're leading the development of the plan on. That's the reason why I know it's a small proportion, but I can't give you the exact number. There are probably 15 to 20 plans that we're actively working on right now, as a Commonwealth government, to prepare. Those are plans that we will eventually consult on and have the Threatened Species Scientific Committee consider. And once they're comfortable with it, they'll recommend it be made by the federal minister as opposed to being a state plan that's adopted.

Senator RICE: Let's go with that 15 to 20.

Mr Richardson : I did say I'd take that on notice. I will do that.

Senator RICE: Yes, but if we go with that 15.

Ms Jonasson : Senator, I think we need to take it on notice.

Senator RICE: What's the time line on the threatened species advisory committee decisions as to whether a plan is going to be required into the future?

Mr Richardson : Those are all species for which the committee has already recommended that a plan is required and for which a plan is being prepared.

Senator RICE: But for the other ones, what's the time line that we would expect as to a decision on whether those 180 species are going to require a plan?

Mr Richardson : There is a process that's underway. I can set out on notice the time frames for those processes. But it's over the next year or two.

Ms Jonasson : Forgive me, but I would like to reiterate that 99.7 per cent of species are covered by a conservation plan and/or recovery plan. Also, the threatened species committee is doing some very important work in aligning the national listing process with the state and territory process, which is going to show some real benefits for our threatened species nationally. They're working very hard with the states and territories to ensure that species that may have been listed in their state can be assessed and might be listed nationally. There are some benefits for that in terms of what we do on cross-jurisdictional issues, ensuring consistent effort is applied across state boundaries, and recognition at a national level. So the Threatened Species Scientific Committee I think are doing some very important work, not only in looking at whether some of these recovery plans are still suitable alongside any conservation advices that may exist but also in looking at ensuring that work that the states and territories have done in their listing processes are well aligned, that the Commonwealth listing is well aligned with them where appropriate, and that species will be managed in a sensible, consistent, coordinated and collaborative way across all jurisdictions. So I think there's a lot of very good work going on in this area.

Senator RICE: Returning to—and Mr Richardson is taking it on notice—how many plans are still going to be the responsibility, essentially, of the Commonwealth.

Ms Jonasson : Yes, he is.

Senator RICE: There are 15 to 20 of them.

Ms Jonasson : I think we said we'd take the number on notice.

Senator RICE: A rough judgement.

Ms Jonasson : No, I'm sorry, but I don't think we can say a rough judgement. What we need to do is go away and have a look at the numbers, and we'll come back to you with those on notice.

Senator RICE: Okay. At the rate of three in the previous financial year for this financial year, it's going to take some time, with current resources, to undertake those plans. Correct?

Ms Jonasson : Yes. But I would say, as I've said before, it's not just a matter of resources. If you look at three to four in a year, that's three months of work with the scientific community, with the states and territories, with other experts in the field, and three months is not a lot of time, as you would appreciate to ensure that—

Senator RICE: No. Indeed.

Ms Jonasson : So three to four a year is actually a reasonable time frame to be turning these recovery plans over to ensure that they are appropriate to care for our species where they're needed.

Senator RICE: But, if you had more resources, you could do more of them in the same period of time.

Ms Jonasson : I think that's also assuming that there are more people available that have the expertise and that those same people are not caught up in the various processes that are happening now outside the department—the scientists and the state and territory people. So I'm not sure it's a linear argument that we can make in that way.

Senator RICE: Are you saying then that the reason you can only do three or four a year is because of the limitations from external resources rather than internal resources?

Ms Jonasson : No. I'm guess what I'm saying is that it is a complex issue and it really doesn't just rely on the resources we can put into it; it also relies on the effort and availability of other players that know a lot more about these things sometimes than we do, and it's very important that they're involved and that the information we provide is appropriate to look after these species.

Senator RICE: The cuts to funding of staff within the department in the threatened species area: sixty staff that are—

Ms Jonasson : There are 60 people within my division that are moving. I think it was mentioned earlier today that the overall staffing of the department has not decreased—in fact, I think it has increased by a small amount.

Senator RICE: But in this particular area?

Ms Jonasson : But, in my division, yes, we're reducing by 60 people. The reason for that is that there are a number of programs that are coming to an end, like Green Army and the Biodiversity Fund, and there were resources allocated to those. There are other reallocations internally of resources.

Senator RICE: So is it going to impact upon the speed with which you can complete recovery plans?

Ms Jonasson : Not at this stage. We've been looking at what we can do within the organisation to ensure that the requirements of government are well met.

Senator RICE: Has funding from the Biodiversity Fund been spent on contributing towards the development of recovery plans?

Ms Jonasson : No. The Biodiversity Fund, as I understand it—and this was before my time—was a range of programs and it went to the management of contracts and support of staff to manage the contracts that were under that funding arrangement. But, in terms of detail, I might have to on notice, because it is quite an old program.

Senator RICE: Perhaps I will put it another way. In terms of the 60 staff that are being reallocated to other projects, were any of those working on work that was contributing towards the development of recovery plans?

Ms Jonasson : We've looked across the division to ensure that we can continue to deliver on the government's outcomes.

Senator RICE: No. Can you answer my question, please? Were any of those staff who are now being shifted to other areas in the departments working on work that was contributing towards the development of recovery plans?

Ms Jonasson : There have been reductions across the entire division.

Senator RICE: Yes. So were there—are you reducing—

Ms Jonasson : The majority of the reductions have come from the areas that have been managing those programs that I mentioned. Yes, there are reductions in other branches as well. What I've done is work with my branch heads and with my staff and asked them to come back to me and advise me and as a collective, with the executive and the executive of the department, we've worked through the best approach that can be taken to ensure that the requirements of the government can continue to be met within that area. That includes the listing of threatened species, assisting the Threatened Species Scientific Committee in their considerations and the development of conservation advices as well as recovery plans. It includes work on the next phase of the National Landcare Program and setting up the Regional Land Partnerships. It includes work on the Convention on Biological Diversity. So there's a range of things—

Senator RICE: So there will be fewer staff resources going into those areas of work then?

Ms Jonasson : There are fewer staff resources going into the work of my division. What we've been doing for the last 12 months and will continue to do for the next 12 months is work collectively and collaboratively across the division to ensure we can deliver on the government's plans.

Senator RICE: But, as a result, the community wouldn't be able to have an expectation that you're going to be able to speed up or undertake further work in the development of threatened species listings or development of recovery plans and the critical work of your department?

Ms Jonasson : No. I don't think that's a reasonable assumption, Senator.

Mr Knudson : Senator, if I may, one of the key things that Ms Jonasson referred to was that, because we have the common assessment methodology now rolling out with the states and territories, we are going to see listing processes coming and being led by the states and territories in a way that can be also—

Senator RICE: So, basically, you're devolving your responsibilities to the states and territories?

Mr Knudson : No. Actually, what I'm saying is there is an option there where states and territories that wish to pursue listing of a species to prosecute that, and indeed a number of them have been doing that in very significant ways.

Senator RICE: Yes. So you're devolving your responsibility. You are doing less work and you're putting more to the states and territories.

Ms Jonasson : Senator, if I may, I think, if your question goes to effort on threatened species, I'd like to highlight a couple of things that we've done recently. The listing of threatened species is not the only way we can care for our species. The listing is one part of that. What the department has done, from 1 July last year—for the first time, I believe, in this organisation—is bring together all areas of the department that are working on biodiversity conservation. So, in my area, I now not only have the listing process, which is just one part of the process, the regulatory element; I have the program expenditure, and I have the national and the international policy. That enables an ability to connect all of these things up, and that has really assisted, for example, in the design and development and rollout of the next phase of the National Landcare Program. In our Regional Land Partnerships, we have a clear priority for the expenditure and an expectation for our regional management areas.

Senator RICE: I want to particularly focus threatened species here—

Ms Jonasson : And I am too, Senator.

Senator RICE: and the resources of government that are going to threatened species. And what I have heard you say, Ms Jonasson is that there will be fewer resources going to the various programs that are being run from the department that contribute to the protection of threatened species.

Ms Jonasson : And I guess what I'm saying is no, that's not the case. This year, under the national—

Senator RICE: But do you acknowledge that some of those 60 staff—

CHAIR: You cut her off. Ms Jonasson, you can conclude.

Ms Jonasson : Thank you, Chair. I'm saying that what we have done under the National Landcare Program and the Regional Land Partnerships is make threatened species a specific priority under this new program that we're rolling out at the moment, and that wasn't the case before. It was an identifying thing, but it was not identified as a specific priority. We also now have the office of the Threatened Species Commissioner, and the Threatened Species Strategy, which is an initiative that has come in over the last few years and is very much focusing on threatened species, the key threatening processes and how to focus and prioritise our effort on threatened species.

I chair a working group with my state and territory colleagues called the Biodiversity Working Group, which is part of the governance under the environment minister's framework. Under that, we are having a lot of conversations about what we can collaboratively do to improve and work on our biodiversity efforts together, and that includes our threatened species efforts. So, I guess, Senator, what I'm trying to say is that our threatened species effort is not just measured in the number of species you can list and the number of documents; it also goes to the effort we are putting in through the Threatened Species Commissioner and their office, it goes into the National Landcare Program and it comes from the specific fund that the government stood up under the Threatened Species Commissioner. Now, for the first time, we have an opportunity to connect that and make sure that we're getting the best bang for our buck in our effort, as well as the funding and the legislative and policy framework that we have.

Senator RICE: But, specifically, with relation to the development of recovery plans for threatened species, there are fewer resources going into the development of those plans. What I hear you saying is that, potentially—through landcare funding or other funding—there may be resources that go into the implementation of those plans. In fact, I would like you to take on notice, in terms of the resources going through landcare towards threatened species, could you specify which parts of the landcare funding are actually contributing towards protection of threatened species?

Ms Jonasson : I'm happy to do that. What I would say in terms of landcare is that the process we're rolling out on the Regional Land Partnerships—you would have seen the tender documentation that we released. We're in the tender process, so I am limited in my ability to articulate the funding that has been allocated under that tender process, but I can say that it's in the order of $900 million that is going towards Commonwealth priorities, one of which was very specifically identified as threatened species priorities. Until we get through that process and we have projects from those areas and we've assessed that, I won't be able to give you that detail, but I'm more than happy to when we're able to.

Senator RICE: I would like to get that—

Ms Jonasson : Absolutely.

Senator RICE: because we know from previous assessment of programs that were meant to be funding towards threatened species that in fact they were being spent on protection of heritage gardens; it was being misallocated.

Ms Jonasson : I think we've addressed that at previous estimates, and I think that's not entirely correct. There was a transcription error, which the commissioner corrected, at the last estimates in the list of projects that we provided, and the rest of those projects were all identified as having benefits for threatened species.

Senator RICE: But you can understand why I want to get the details. You are claiming that there is money through Landcare that is going to threatened species.

Ms Jonasson : Absolutely.

Senator RICE: I would appreciate having that information.

Ms Jonasson : I'm happy to provide you with the tender documentation that will confirm that, as well as information on the fund that the Threatened Species Commissioner is managing.

Senator RICE: Okay. I want to now ask about the Regional Forest Agreements rollovers in Victoria, and I'm always confused as to whether that's 1.1 or 1.4. Well, it's both; it's certainly within the department of the environment. My question with regard to the Victorian RFA rollovers is: the two-year extension was given to three of the Victorian RFAs in March. Victoria said it would use that time to provide time for extensive consultation with scientific bodies, industry and the community to modernise the state's RFA framework and better manage Victoria's forests. I'm wanting to know what role the department is playing in working with Victoria on those processes.

Mr Dadswell : Again, I'll just note that the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources is the lead Commonwealth agency on this and is the lead in engaging with Victoria. But we're working with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and the Victorian government. We've been engaging with them for a number of months now. We always engage on the independent five-yearly reviews of RFAs that are undertaken. And on the Victorian extension of the RFAs we've been engaging with a working group of Victorian officials on those and the most recent extensions. We continue to engage in that through—

Senator RICE: In what role specifically are you going to be working with Victoria in terms of those processes to modernise the state's RFA framework, as they said?

Mr Dadswell : We provide part of a Commonwealth-state working group. We provide advice and discussions on matters relating to the environmental values captured within the RFA. And we look at those values and ensure that those values continue be protected through the future RFAs.

Senator RICE: Have you had specific engagement since the RFA rollover, given that the Victorian government said that they want to be working to modernise the processes?

Mr Dadswell : I can't recall—not since the extensions occurred, but we would likely have a working group coming up shortly. I just can't remember the exact date of it.

Senator RICE: So, at that working group you would then lay out what your involvement it going to be?

Mr Dadswell : Yes. Again, on this point I might defer to my Agriculture and Water Resources colleagues. They're the ones who have entered into agreements with the Victorian government on the process going forward.

CHAIR: We are going to have to—

Senator RICE: Yes. Just in terms of the New South Wales RFA rollover, what involvement is your department having in the New South Wales rollover process?

Mr Dadswell : Again, it's a similar process by which we and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources work together through a New South Wales RFA working group, where we provide advice and engage directly both with our Commonwealth colleagues and with colleagues from the various New South Wales agencies that are part of that working group.

Senator RICE: Is the department confident there are no risks in rolling that RFA over without a thorough review or scientific assessment of how the RFAs have performed over the last 20 years?

Mr Dadswell : We're still discussing those matters with the New South Wales government. It's an ongoing process.

Senator CHISHOLM: I missed the start, but I think it was Mr Oxley who was answering questions around the transparency in regard to the grant to the reef trust? I was wondering whether there's an existing government protocol that you follow-so, leaving aside the trust, any grant that the department is giving in terms of doing due diligence on who it's going to?

Senator Birmingham: There's probably a series of answers you can provide to that in the sense that the Department of Finance establishes whole-of-government grant guidelines.

Mr Oxley : Yes, and we must be compliant with the grant guidelines in developing the granting proposal for consideration by the minister, and the minister's got to comply with the guidelines in making a decision.

Senator CHISHOLM: So, there's nothing specifically within the Department of the Environment that deals with that?

Mr Oxley : In developing the grant guidelines, we are working closely with our General Counsel Branch and our Financial Services Branch around the development of the proposal, and they are providing the advice to us to make sure that the proposal as finalised is consistent with our legal obligations under those guidelines and so on.

Senator CHISHOLM: Sure. I'm not asking specifically about the money to the trust at this stage. I'm just asking about the general nature in terms of how the department works. I'm sure you have given money to other organisations.

Mr Oxley : Yes. That's correct. And in terms of advice from the department about generally how it administers such grant guidelines, I would defer to the relevant officers in other parts of the department.

Mr Pratt : Just to be very clear: you have to be consistent with the Commonwealth grant rules and guidelines and the PGPA Act. That is the starting point.

Senator CHISHOLM: Sure. But I'm just trying to establish whether you're running a similar process for this grant to the trust as you are for other grants that the department would give.

Mr Knudson : Again, back to the secretary's point, the first point that we'd start with is what our legal obligations and policy obligations are with the Department of Finance and making sure that we're consistent with that. That would absolutely be consistent, no matter what grant we're providing.

Senator CHISHOLM: Is it Mr Oxley who can provide some examples of other grants that the department has given that are of a comparable nature?

Mr Knudson : The area that traditionally administered our grants—sorry: I'm just going to bring an official to the table, if you're looking for what sort of process we go through traditionally on grants?

Senator CHISHOLM: Well, I'm just trying to establish: this one was $444 million, but the example the minister gave earlier, for instance, was around a grant given by Minister Burke, which was $12.5 million. There's obviously a big gap between them. I'm just trying to establish whether the process is the same for a grant of $10 million as it is for one that's $444 million or whether there's a range of money such that the due diligence would be of a higher threshold given the amount of money we're talking about.

Senator Birmingham: There are areas of commonality in the way the grants need to be administered by department agencies. Those areas of commonality are set by things like the PGPA Act and whole-of-government grant guidelines as managed by the Department of Finance. But then across different programs—and there are quite significantly different ways in which those grants are then administered as to who is selected and whether or not it's competitive and all those different factors—it depends on the nature of the program itself. Insofar as the department officials are able, they can probably touch on the areas of commonality and then some of the distinctions between grant programs, although if you want the full picture on that then the Department of Finance is probably the expert place to get that. I just think about my own portfolio; there are vastly different approaches in terms of grants that might go through processes of the research council versus grants that might go through processes of my department in different sections and so forth.

Ms Jonasson : To add to the minister's response: from a generic perspective, the development of the contract is where we would manage the risk, and that's where a lot of the risk framing goes in terms of the complexity. If it was a small grant of maybe $10,000—it might be a simple contract—and if the entity was of good standing and it was a small grant of $5,000 or $10,000, then you would expect it to be a small, simple contract. If it was a more complex project, such as this—and I'm talking about a very generic process, managing a lot of grant processes in the department—Mr Oxley and Ms Callister talked in great detail earlier about the process they're going through now in the development of the arrangements with the organisation. That's what we would normally do in our area. The more complex the arrangement the more work we would do to ensure that the final legal contractual arrangement that's put in place is appropriate for those circumstances. That's what we would do, from a generic perspective.

Senator CHISHOLM: Last financial year, for instance, what was the largest grant that the department gave?

Ms Jonasson : I'd have to take that on notice. I don't have that from a departmental perspective. Perhaps we could take that on notice and come back to you.

Senator CHISHOLM: Mr Costello, is that your responsibility in the department?

Ms Jonasson : Mr Costello works in my area.

Senator CHISHOLM: When he came to the table, Mr Oxley pointed him out.

Mr Costello : Within the biodiversity division I manage a number of grant programs, but I don't manage all of the grants across the whole department.

Senator CHISHOLM: Is there an example of a reasonable amount of money the department would be used to handing out as a grant? I'm just trying to get a sense of what's going to the trust compared to what the department is normally responsible for. I'm trying to get a sense of the scale.

Ms Jonasson : From the department's perspective, that's hard for us to answer because there are many things that happen across the department as well as portfolio agencies. I know that some of those entities manage much different—

Senator CHISHOLM: There's not one grant that you were involved with within the last financial year for which you can identify what quantum of money—

Ms Jonasson : No, not in my area, but my new funding has come in the form of the National Landcare Program, which we're rolling out at the moment. That's in the order of $90 million a year. That will go to many different entities. There are other agencies that manage much bigger quantum of funds than my division does and that's why we can't talk for the department in that sense.

Senator CHISHOLM: In terms of the accountability mechanisms within the department, there's no sliding scale depending on how much money there is? So this grant of $440 million will just be treated the same way as a grant for $90 million, from a departmental point of view?

Ms Jonasson : No. That's certainly not the case. I think I mentioned earlier—

Senator CHISHOLM: But you can't identify to me or tell me how it will be treated differently.

Ms Jonasson : One of the things I mentioned a little bit earlier was the arrangements that would be put into the contract, for example. If I was managing a large amount of money and it was for a complex project then that contract would be very comprehensive and worked up to ensure that there were appropriate claw-back provisions, appropriate arrangements for auditing and investigation arrangements and appropriate governance arrangements over the top of it. All of these are consistent with the PGPA Act and the Department of Finance and ANAO requirements in the administration of grants. That's the approach that we would take. So there's a risk based approach taken on whether it's a $5,000 or $10,000 grant, which would be a simple thing, or something such as the contract that Mr Oxley will be managing through his area, which would be much more complex and comprehensive, consistent with the information that was provided earlier in the hearing.

Mr Oxley : Generally, if I might add to the answer, the bigger and more complex proposal the stronger and deeper the governance arrangements that are put around it. So we are in the process, as I indicated earlier, of having grant guidelines approved by the minister and then we will work on the co-development of a proposal with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. As part of that process we will establish a comprehensive detailed grant funding agreement that sets out all of the requirements that Ms Jonasson has just referenced and more. We have, as I indicated, had our financial services branch and our general counsel branch engaged from the get-go with the development of this proposed funding agreement. We have also engaged the Australian Government Solicitor to provide us with external legal support. We have engaged an accounting company, a financial advisory company, to assist us similarly. We will continue to draw on whatever resources we need in order to give us very high-level assurance around the effective management of what is a very significant public investment in the Great Barrier Reef.

Senator CHISHOLM: Are those steps you just outlined—engaging an outside accounting firm et cetera—standard or are they unique because of the size of this investment you're talking about?

Mr Oxley : I can't give you that indication because I don't sit in the area that has day-to-day operational responsibility for the management of the grants. Again, I would refer you back to the central parts of our department that do have that responsibility. But we have engaged those external bodies on the advice of our financial services branch and our general council branch because of the complexity of the proposal and their assessment that we should be getting that additional level of assurance around our set-up of this grant proposal.

Ms Jonasson : I can confirm that it's a proportionality approach in terms of risk and appropriate handling. What Mr Oxley has provided and outlined to you, yes, it is standard. We do that for a whole range of things where it's either a large quantum of funds or it's a particularly complex arrangement or both.

Mr Costello : If I could add to that, we do a risk assessment on projects and the Commonwealth grant guidelines refer to that as the proportionality principle. For a very simple low-risk grant in the order of $10,000, it might be a very simple exchange of letters and very simple reporting requirements, proportional to the amount of money and risk. Then there are medium- and higher-risk grants, and there are increasingly proportional governance obligations that go around that. That's absolutely the standard approach within the department and the Commonwealth.

Ms Jonasson : We could probably get you a copy of the Department of Finance guidelines, if you'd like them, this afternoon.

Senator CHISHOLM: Mr Oxley, you mentioned the get-go in terms of the negotiations with the Reef Trust. Did the discussions with the Reef Trust from a departmental point of view start before the government made an announcement about the money or did they happen afterwards?

Mr Oxley : What I said earlier was that there was an approach made to the foundation after the government had formed the view that it would like to explore the possibility of establishing a partnership with the foundation. So the government had made some initial decisions around the type of investment that it wished to make in the Great Barrier Reef, off the back of, as the secretary indicated, a long process of discussion within government about the nature of the challenges facing the reef and an appropriate response to that. Having landed on the imperative of making such investments, the government then turned its mind to the question of investment partners. It formed the view that it would like to explore the establishment of a partnership with the foundation and made an initial approach to the foundation to test whether it was interested. And then, over the course of a couple of weeks, both the government and the foundation concluded that this was a partnership that they would like to establish, and that was the point at which the initial announcement was made. We are now in the process of the next steps of establishing the grant guidelines and then moving into the development of a final partnership proposal for approval by the Minister for the Environment and Energy.

Senator CHISHOLM: So they formed a view. It was basically when the government said internally that they want to try and arrange something with the Reef Trust, and that's when the department engaged with the trust and then the announcement by the government came later?

Mr Knudson : You mean the foundation, not the trust.

Senator CHISHOLM: Sorry, the foundation.

Mr Oxley : So it was to go and explore whether the foundation was interested in the proposition. It was explored. The answer was yes. The government said, 'Great, we'll now announce this.' And we have then subsequently had the funding formally confirmed through the budget process and the appropriation bills, and we are in the negotiation of the funding agreement now.

Senator CHISHOLM: Just to be clear, after they formed a view and the department engaged, some weeks went past before the actual official announcement was made?

Mr Pratt : The government took a decision in the budget process after many months of work on what the government wished to do in response to the issues facing the Great Barrier Reef.

Senator CHISHOLM: I'm just picking up on Mr Oxley's evidence where he said the government formed a view that they wanted to try and work with the reef foundation, and then there was some engagement from the department with the foundation weeks before the government actually made the formal announcement?

Mr Oxley : That's correct.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Senator Whish-Wilson.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I have just a couple of quick questions on the same subject before I get back to threatened species. I asked this question this morning but I'd like to have more information, Mr Oxley, about why the Reef Trust itself wasn't the appropriate vehicle for this investment?

Mr Oxley : The Reef Trust is the vehicle of this investment. The funding will actually go through the Reef Trust to the foundation. The Reef Trust has always and only ever existed as a source of funding for investment in the Great Barrier Reef. On this occasion the government has made the decision to provide that funding to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation in full expectation that the foundation—and on the testimony we heard from Dr Reichelt this morning—will be able to leverage philanthropic and private sector investment.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I'm aware of that. I'm confused. In 2013 you set up the Reef Trust and you committed over $700 million to provide innovative targeted investment focusing on water quality, restoring coastal ecosystem health and enhancing species protection, which is very similar to what we heard this new investment is going to do. You've put the money into the Reef Trust and then it's been redirected from the Reef Trust into the foundation as a new vehicle.

Mr Oxley : We invest through various different delivery agencies. On this occasion the money will go to the foundation and then the foundation will draw on both established relationships with any number of stakeholders and delivery agencies throughout the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, and on the land side, to make sure that that funding is delivering outcomes consistent with what we're requiring under the funding agreement.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Will the Reef Trust be, for example, administering and overseeing corporate governance, the governance arrangements of the foundation?

Mr Oxley : Ms Callister outlined, broadly, the governance arrangements that will sit around the trust. The department has received some funding through the budget process for the ongoing oversight of the funding agreement with the foundation and Ms Callister could run over those arrangements.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That's okay; I have limited time. I just wanted to know whether they would be administering and overseeing those as a body?

Mr Oxley : Yes.

Mr Knudson : The Reef Trust is an account.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That's right.

Mr Knudson : We oversight what the Reef Trust invests in.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes, that's what I was asking.

Mr Knudson : It will be the same thing for the foundation and we will be looking at how it will fit.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. I want to ask some questions about threatened species and specific questions about extinction. You've probably seen that the country's biggest environmental group has put out the report, Australia's Extinction Crisis. We have seen some reporting recently using the words 'extinction crisis'. Specifically, have you a response or are you aware that the Threatened Species Recovery Hub at the National Environmental Science Program co-authored a paper looking at the threat of extinction? Do you accept any of their conclusions or do you have any comments to make about some of the key conclusions of that report?

Ms Jonasson : I'm interested in this. The funding for the National Environmental Science Program is under another outcome but I can address it.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes, I think it's critical to what you are doing.

Ms Jonasson : Absolutely. One of the things I would say is that we are very supportive of independent science in this area because it does give us good evidence and good information so that we can focus our efforts on where they're needed. We are aware of the books and we have had conversations within my team about some of the conclusions that have been drawn from that information so that we can ensure we're targeting our efforts.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: A couple of the key conclusions were that nine species of bird and one mammal were more likely than not to become extinct within the next 20 years. Across the 40 most threatened birds and mammals they calculated 17 were likely to disappear over the next 20 years. They're claiming this is the first time Australia's threatened species have been given a precise risk of extinction. Obviously we know what the previous assessment categories have been. Do you have any comments about those numbers, or of the methodology used in the report, or the robustness of the announcements?

Ms Jonasson : I don't think we have any comments on that.

Dr Box : I'd like to add to Ms Jonassons's comments that we do really welcome new research by the National Environmental Science Program's Threatened Species Recovery Hub. The study that you're referring to did create quite a novel method, I think, to look at extinction risk where they combined a couple of assessment methods with a process of expert elicitation. We always welcome new ways of looking at the problem and we do welcome that research. It has provided us, like Ms Jonasson said, with some interesting insights. I note that of the 20 mammals and birds identified in that study, 40 in total, 20 of those are actually priority species under the Threatened Species Strategy and action is underway for all of those species.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I'll ask you about some of that in a second because I was quite shocked that the top three birds were Tasmanian. Senator Duniam and I have taken a very active interest in that. I think they called it a more fine-grain estimate of where you should be prioritising your resources. The point of the whole Threatened Species Strategy was to prevent further extinctions. Do you agree with that statement?

Dr Box : Certainly that's one of the goals of the Threatened Species Strategy, to prevent extinction.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes, a key goal. Is it true that Australia leads the world with an unenviable record of having the highest level of extinction of species on the planet?

Mr Richardson : I can't answer that, Senator.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You don't know. It's been reported.

Senator Birmingham: It depends how you want to measure it and what time you want to measure it.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay, let's say the last 200 years.

Senator Birmingham: The last 200 years would be picking one period of time.

Ms Jonasson : Senator, I think we also need to point out that we are very, very fortunate that we also have one of the highest levels of biodiversity compared to a number of other developed countries. It's always quite confronting to me and concerns me about what may have happened elsewhere before we had the EPBC Act. For example, when I talk to my colleagues from other countries and they ask me how many species we have listed under our legislation and I say, 'In the order of 1,800'. They say, 'That many?' And then I talk about the great biodiversity we have, and then they understand why we have so many species as they don't have that many to list.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You're saying on a per capita basis it doesn't look that bad? Is that what you are saying?

Ms Jonasson : No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that as a statement in itself.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. I think that's a fair statement. There was a comparison used in the report and I have read two slightly different figures. There are 29 birds and 30 mammals that we know have become extinct since we've been monitoring species in Australia. In the US they've only lost two species since they've been monitoring. Are they not as biodiverse as Australia?

Ms Jonasson : I can't comment on what our colleagues in the United States have.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That's been reported, so I was just interested.

Ms Jonasson : I can't comment on that data or on that information. I'm focused on what's happening here.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Can I come back to the three Tasmanian birds? The King Island brown thornbill, the King Island scrubtit and the orange-bellied parrot were estimated the most likely to become extinct. Could I check with you where we are up to with the implementation of their recovery plans, which, I understand, are also part of the King Island biodiversity management plans? For example, could you tell us whether the birds still exist? Last time I checked there were only 50 known individuals for the thornbill.

Mr Richardson : I don't have that information in front of me. I will take it on notice about when the latest monitoring effort was done, when it was conducted and what it found.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Given this report was very prominent, Mr Richardson, and these birds were listed as the three most likely species to become extinct in Australia, I'm surprised you don't know that.

Mr Richardson : Senator, as I understand it, the two King Island species, which were identified as the highest risk of extinction, are around both historical habitat loss and the threat that a fire might pose.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: There was big fire in that part of the island.

Mr Richardson : Indeed. I think that was what lifted it in the expert elicitation—the process that those scientists went through in that nest report. But I don't have information in front of me about the recent monitoring effort on that island and whether it's managed to locate those birds. I know it's been some time since people have seen—I can't remember which species. It is one of those species, but I don't know whether it's been seen recently.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I understand we have had situations where we haven't known species have become extinct, because we haven't been monitoring them. You'll probably have to take this on notice. I've got a copy of the recovery actions for the King Island scrubtit, the King Island thornbill and the King Island orange-bellied parrot. Just for the scrubtit alone, there are 17 different actions under your plan. I can't go through them all individually now, but I would be very interested in getting an idea from you of where we're at with each one of those.

Ms Jonasson : We're happy to take it on notice. We'd have to consult with the recovery teams, as well as our colleagues in the states and territories, and the community. As I mentioned earlier, it's a collective effort to work on ensuring that these species—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I appreciate that. In this case you are working—

Ms Jonasson : We're very happy to take it on notice and to find whatever information we can.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: as part of the King Island Biodiversity Management Plan with the state government.

Ms Jonasson : That's right, yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: But this was widely reported, and there are five mammals that were listed as the most likely to be extinct. You have noticed it. The commissioner has mentioned that you've had some discussions with these scientists. We're going to be paying very close attention to these critters from now on. So, yes, I'd be very interested in knowing where we go next with this.

Ms Jonasson : Sure.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The Guardian published a report by Lisa Cox back in February, just prior to the last estimates, following the federal environment's most recent state of the environment report, for 2016. It said:

Guardian Australia interviewed scientists, researchers, conservationists and policy analysts whose work across threatened species research and protection spans decades.

They described the situation confronting Australia’s threatened plants and animals as a 'national disgrace' and the systems that are supposed to protect them as 'broken'.

Do you agree with those statements? Have you responded to them?

Ms Jonasson : No, we haven't responded, and I'm not going to provide an opinion on that. What I outlined earlier in the hearing are the efforts that are going into ensuring our threatened species are protected. I'm happy to go through those again, but I am conscious of time for the committee. But, with the establishment of my division, there has been the collation of all the responsibilities, from the international to the national policy, through to the legislative framework, as well as the program delivery arrangements and the new, specific focus that we've put it through—the National Landcare Program—and the rollout of the regional land partnerships on threatened species. I'm very happy to go through those.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I note The Guardian do say in the report that Dr Box didn't respond, and there may be good reasons for that; you don't have to answer that now. But they spoke to an associate professor in wildlife ecology and conservation at Deakin University, Euan Ritchie, and he said—and he has said this before:

… the plight of Australia's threatened species is an 'environmental crisis', with more and more species edging closer to extinction 'despite our capacity to prevent such a tragedy from occurring'.

Have you spoken with Professor Ritchie about his comments, Dr Box, since you've taken on your role—a bit of bridge-mending there perhaps?

Dr Box : I haven't yet had a chance to meet with Euan Ritchie, but he has approached me recently about a meeting, which I've said I'd welcome. So I do intend to meet with him soon.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. Is 'crisis' the right word for us to be using when we're talking about extinction of species in Australia? Do you think that's a fair description—how the media are portraying this, or how the biggest environment group in the country, the Australian Conservation Foundation, are portraying this?

Dr Box : We absolutely know that, since European settlement, we have had a large number of species become extinct. We know that our threatened species do really face a range of threats from feral predators, changes in habitat, fire, disease and competition. There are a range of threats to the species we have. I think that's why, back in 2014, the government realised that we needed to increase our focus on these efforts, which is why the commissioner role was established, and why we developed a Threatened Species Strategy, established a prospectus and increased the ways in which we engage with community and build partnerships to address threatened species issues.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: One of the criticisms that the co-author, Hayley Geyle, from Charles Darwin University, had of the Threatened Species Strategy was that there seemed to be a prioritisation of iconic species over the species that were most at risk of extinction, when they analysed the data. Do you agree with that assessment? There seems to be some sort of sentimentality around which species are more likely to be protected because of their iconic status.

Dr Box : The species in the Threatened Species Strategy, which include 20 mammals, 20 birds and 30 priority plant species, were all identified based on the prioritisation principles which are in the Threatened Species Strategy, which cover a range of factors. They do include risk of extinction. They also include principles around umbrella benefits, for example—so if actions to protect one species would have benefits for multiple species. There are a range of principles that were taken into account in deciding on those priority species.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I think the words they use are 'the most charismatic', not necessarily the most at risk.

Ms Jonasson : I'm not aware that was part of the selection criteria.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: No. This was an observation by one of the authors. It's certainly very interesting. You could say that a turtle with punk pink hair might be charismatic—which has just recently gone into the public conversation.

Senator SIEWERT: I have some questions that I may be asking in the wrong place, so just tell me to go and ask them somewhere else. I've been looking at the latest species that have been added to the list, on 11 May, and also looking at the maps. The south-west of WA features very heavily in that list. There are some questions I want to ask around the species. Should I be asking here?

Ms Jonasson : You're in the right place, Senator.

Senator SIEWERT: I'm aware that there are a number of species that the Western Australian government has been doing some work on for a while and that then, as I was told, sat on a desk for quite a long time—not in Canberra, I will say, before I am accused of accusing you.

Ms Jonasson : Thank you.

Senator SIEWERT: It was a while ago. The number that are listed for the south-west of Western Australia—have they been in the process for quite a while and this is the culmination of that process, from quite a period of time that was being taken to get them done and from Western Australia to you?

Ms Jonasson : I defer to my colleague. There were a number of species that were listed in the most recent process that were part of the common assessment methodology across Australia, so streamlining and aligning the listings with our state and territory colleagues' arrangements as well.

Mr Richardson : Ms Jonasson is absolutely correct. The reason why so many of those species were Western Australian endemic species—only found in Western Australia—was that it was part of the common assessment method alignment of species listing for the state and Commonwealth—

Senator SIEWERT: The common assessment process?

Mr Richardson : The common assessment method, yes. Essentially that's where each of the states and territories and ourselves have agreed on the categories and the assessment criteria to be applied and the robustness of the evidentiary basis and all that. Of the 50 species that the assessments were completed for, 48 of those were essentially common assessment method species, where the assessment had been completed by one or other state or territory. It so happens that Western Australia is a fair way advanced in that process. They started it before any other state. I haven't got the number in front of me, but a proportion—20-odd—of those were Western Australian species.

Senator SIEWERT: Sorry—20?

Mr Richardson : I should take that on notice. I can get you the numbers.

Senator SIEWERT: Yes. We do have a large number of them.

Mr Richardson : You do actually, in Western Australia.

Senator SIEWERT: I want to come to that in a minute.

Mr Richardson : These decisions have aligned the EPBC Act listing category with the category that it's already in in the state. The species are all listed in Western Australia. I'm not aware of what you're suggesting, which is that some of them were taking a while to get through the process. We've been working very cooperatively with the state in order to get their documentation that we can then take through our process, and the Threatened Species Scientific Committee can then recommend the listing outcome to the minister. I can't tell you how long before they provided the assessment to us it was that those things were listed in Western Australia. It will vary over time.

Senator SIEWERT: I want to come to where some of the Western Australian ones have moved category—they've gone from endangered to critically endangered. You may need to take this on notice. Are they covered by existing recovery plans?

Mr Richardson : I'd have to take on notice which species are covered by plans. I might add that when the Threatened Species Scientific Committee make a recommendation to the minister to list a new species, or to change the category of a species through a listing assessment and new assessment, they then finalise and get approved by the minister at the time of that change in listing conservation advice. So each of those species now has very recent—a few weeks old—conservation advice in place.

Senator SIEWERT: I think it's obvious where I'm trying to go here. I want to know whether they're covered by recovery plans. If they've gone up to being critically endangered, I therefore want to look at whether the recovery plan is being effective.

Ms Jonasson : We can have a look at that.

Mr Richardson : I'll take that on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: I want to specifically go to the issues around south-west Western Australia. We're a global biosecurity hotspot and we're also, unfortunately, a hotspot for species that are threatened and for threats to those species. Given the listing that has happened now and the level of threat that we have, are you looking again at the south-west? Does it raise alarm bells that we are a hotspot? I bear in mind the discussion we've just had. The fact is, we have a lot of species that are at risk.

Ms Jonasson : The first place for that conversation is with the state government, because they are responsible for managing within their boundaries. Where it crosses into the national framework then of course we'd be interested in having conversations with them.

Senator SIEWERT: We have a new listing here where they do cross those boundaries and we have a lot of others as well that are already over that boundary that you've just raised.

Ms Jonasson : I said earlier in the hearing that I also chair a working group with my state colleagues on biodiversity in general and we talk about a range of things, including threatened species and what we are doing about them. That sits alongside another Commonwealth-state working group that is for the common assessment methodology. I don't think I'm breaching any confidences in saying that just last week when we had our last meeting we were very interested in what we can do to connect the two up and make sure we have those conversations more broadly. I can't talk in more detail because I don't have permission from my colleagues in the states and territories, but I'm encouraged to see that. It's something that I and also my colleagues in the states and territories are very interested in so that we can align both the policy and the legislative framework across threatened species and have those conversations. To take the area that you identified as a case in point, it's so we can ask, 'What do we need to do, because it's a collective responsibility in this area?'

Senator SIEWERT: I will come back with questions next estimates once you have progressed that and can release that information.

Ms Jonasson : It might take a little bit longer than the next estimates. We can continue to talk, though.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. I want to go to the Stirling Range in particular and the large number of species there that have been listed as threatened. Most of them are plant species, from what I could tell, which doesn't surprise me, given the high level of endemism and diversity there. Is dieback the threatening process there?

Mr Richardson : I would have to take that on notice. Just to clarify, are you looking for the primary threat to the Stirling Range plants that were recently listed?

Senator SIEWERT: Yes. Could you take that on notice?

Mr Richardson : Sure.

Senator SIEWERT: You've already taken on notice whether there are recovery plans.

Mr Richardson : Yes. Just to clarify, only six of the 50 assessments resulted in up-listing. So the only species that could have a recovery plan in place are one or more of those six. None else will.

Senator SIEWERT: But there's been conservation advice issued for all the other species?

Mr Richardson : Correct.

Ms Jonasson : All of the 50 species, including those six, have conservation advice. We don't list without conservation advice.

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, but I'm also then looking at—and you've already taken it on notice—the other species that are already covered by a recovery plan.

Ms Jonasson : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. I think Senator Rice is going to be asking about the western ringtail?

Senator RICE: I'm not sure whether it's here or in 1.4.

Senator SIEWERT: I know you've got a specific set of questions. I'll just note that that's gone up to critically endangered. My understanding is it's gone from endangered to critically endangered?

Mr Richardson : I think it's vulnerable.

Senator SIEWERT: Sorry, it went from vulnerable to critically endangered. Does it have a recovery plan?

Mr Richardson : Yes, it does—a relatively recent one, I believe.

Senator SIEWERT: When was the recovery plan for the western ringtail put in place?

Mr Richardson : I can find that out and get back to you quite quickly.

Senator SIEWERT: That would be appreciated, if you could. Can I ask about the two spiders that were listed? Are you able to take on notice for those two species—sorry, I've lost them. There was the tingle pygmy trapdoor spider, and there was another species from the Stirling Range. Can you take on notice to provide the threatening factors for those two species, please.

Mr Richardson : Of course.

Senator BARTLETT: Apologies if this has been covered—I've been in another committee—koalas. In amongst everything else, I'm sure you recall everything from every prior estimates committee! Mr Richardson, I think back in February you talked about the recovery plan for koalas and where that was up to and that it was about to be released, so I just wanted to check where it's up to.

Mr Richardson : It hasn't been released. I think in February—and I may have to correct myself—I believe I said it was intended to be taken to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee prior to going out for public comment. That process has not been completed as yet. Our intention is to get this plan completed by the end of this calendar year. I think that's what I said in February as well. It still does need to go out for its statutory three-calendar-month public comment process. What we're doing at the moment is working with our state colleagues, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland, to ensure that the plan that the committee agrees to release for public comment actually aligns with some recent releases of koala policies by those two state governments.

Ms Jonasson : I had a meeting with my colleague in New South Wales about this issue last week. I'm keen to ensure alignment; it's obviously important to release something that New South Wales can also implement, because there are a number of responsibilities for them. It was a good meeting. It was a constructive meeting. I think we will be working pretty collaboratively with them to ensure that we can get this moving.

Senator BARTLETT: Okay. I'm glad it was a good meeting. We'll have lots of meetings. I guess, without trying to sound offensive, it's been going on a fair while and it's a pretty serious situation. The recovery plan is still not even out there for public input at this stage. Is that correct?

Ms Jonasson : I think what Mr Richardson was saying is that it's important that we align it with the work that New South Wales and Queensland are doing, because if we put out documents that are conflicting or not aligned then it confuses the community and the people that need to do the actions on the ground to make a difference and make this work. We're working, as we do with all our recovery plans, very collaboratively with the appropriate state and territory governments to ensure that our actions are aligned on that, which is the reason I had the conversation last week. It wasn't just a meeting; there was I think quite a good conversation about ensuring we can make that happen.

Senator BARTLETT: I appreciate that. I won't press it too much further, but you were saying, Mr Richardson, it might not be till the end of the year that there's a plan released for comment?

Mr Richardson : No. I said our aim is to finalise the plan by the end of the calendar year. So that would be post the public comment period. We'd then take account of the comments, provide that to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee and then the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, assuming it's comfortable with the way the plan has been adjusted to take account of those comments, would then recommend it to the minister, for being made. So this is not a state adopted plan; this is a made plan that the Commonwealth is leading.

Senator BARTLETT: So the goal is that by the end of the year there will be a plan out there?

Mr Richardson : That's the goal.

Senator BARTLETT: I'm pleased that there's progress, obviously, but the threats continue right now. Is there anything at a federal level that you folks are doing to prevent things getting worse in the meantime, until the plan appears?

Mr Richardson : I think it's important to note that a recovery plan, if I can describe it like that, is not a panacea. We do have a comprehensive conservation advice for this species, for when the koala was listed some years back now. We also have guidance material on our website, which is referral guidelines; you'd understand that if someone is planning on taking an action that might significantly impact, then it would be referred for assessment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. So there is, if you like, protection afforded to the species through the environmental assessment process that's under outcome 1.5. We also provided that guidance in the form of both conversation advice and referral guidelines.

Senator BARTLETT: I could potentially ask this at 1.5, but perhaps just to wrap this bit up now: what is the status of the koala? I mean, is it still declining in terms of its numbers?

Senator Birmingham: Obviously, it's the nature of the listing of the koala, as well, and it's important to define the regions of Australia that everybody's speaking about in that regard. The listing of the koala is specific to jurisdictions of Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT, but officials may or may not be able to add anything in terms of the trajectory of the koala species in those parts of Australia relative to elsewhere.

Mr Richardson : The koala was originally assessed as a species throughout Australia and was found to be ineligible by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee. So it didn't meet the requirements for listing as 'vulnerable' or any higher. The committee then considered it in terms of as a sort of distinct population, and it found it could describe a population, as the minister said, for the New South Wales, Queensland and ACT population. Koalas in Victoria and South Australia are found to be stable if not increasing in numbers. And the koala, when it was assessed at that population level for New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT was found to be eligible for 'vulnerable'. There hasn't been another assessment conducted of the species since that time. So obviously there's information available. I know that New South Wales and Queensland, particularly in South East Queensland have recently released policies, looking for how they might better protect it, because of concerns around declines in some localised areas and some threats acting at a local scale. But I don't have information on whether the population that was listed as 'vulnerable' is continuing to decline, whether it's declining or whether it's stable at the level that it was at when listed.

Dr Box : There is Australian government funding being directed towards the koala. Since 2014, the Australian government has mobilised over $19 million for more than 128 projects that will benefit the koala, which include actions to rehabilitate, restore and link koala habitats. This includes projects through the Green Army, through the 20 Million Trees and national Landcare program, and also Threatened Species Recovery Fund.

Senator BARTLETT: Is it in this section or later in regard to referrals or triggered actions that you are assessing in regards to koalas?

Ms Jonasson : That's outcome 1.5.

Senator BARTLETT: We can talk about koalas some more later! Everybody loves Koalas.

Senator SIEWERT: Senator Rice has had to dash to another committee and I know that she has questions. I wanted to go back to the ringtail. Perhaps Mr Richardson now has the date for the recovery plan?

Mr Richardson : No, I was answering that question. I was happy—

Senator SIEWERT: I beg your pardon—you haven't received any urgent messages!

Ms Jonasson : We might come back after the dinner break, if you like.

Senator SIEWERT: If you could that would be good because, depending on that, I'd like to ask some more questions. Is that possible, Chair? Can we come back after the dinner break and ask about this particular area once Mr Richardson's got the response or is that going to be difficult?

CHAIR: If Mr Richardson was intending to hang around, even if we move on to program 1.2, that might be possible.

Ms Jonasson : We weren't. We were actually going to go.

Senator SIEWERT: You were hoping to go?

Ms Jonasson : Sorry to be so enthusiastic! But we're happy to look it up and provide the response on notice.

CHAIR: Does that satisfy you, Senator Siewert?

Ms Jonasson : We can write it down and give it you as a date. If it's just a date, we can look it up.

Senator SIEWERT: This is what I'm trying to work out is. It's moved to critically endangered. I'm trying to find out the time frame the recovery program has been operating and what have been the key processes that have occurred to lead it to being listed as critically endangered.

Ms Jonasson : That's probably a better question to take on notice so we can give you a comprehensive response.

Senator SIEWERT: So you can't answer that directly?

Ms Jonasson : We don't have that information with us today, no.

Mr Richardson : I couldn't answer that. I'd have to take on notice that more detailed question around what caused it to be so up-listed.

Senator SIEWERT: Take that on notice. Obviously it's a pretty iconic species for us in Western Australia. Admittedly, we do have a lot—particularly in the south-west. I'm very concerned to know—

Mr Richardson : On 16 August 2017 was when the plan came into force under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. That was a plan that was prepared by the Western Australian government and adopted on 16 August 2017 as a Commonwealth plan.

Senator SIEWERT: At that time, was it then being addressed as a critically endangered species? Does that now have to be reviewed, given it's now just been upgraded?

Mr Richardson : It would depend on the threats that were acting on it and whether they are more prominent now than when it was previously listed. That can be part of the question that I will take on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: If you could, that'd be appreciated. Can I ask a broader question, then. Once a species is upgraded, is there an automatic review of the recovery plan? I understand you get the conservation advice, but is there an automatic review of the recovery plan?

Mr Richardson : It's not automatic. The assessment leads to new conservation advice. That conservation advice itself identifies actions that should be taken that have been worked out and are current at the time of listing. So it's not automatic but, in preparing that new assessment, we look at a recovery plan. If there's one in place, we look at the actions taken and any information derived from those actions and from the recovery efforts and we look at what's succeeded and what's failed. Some get a review of a recovery plan; some don't. It depends on who's leading the assessment.

Senator SIEWERT: I appreciate that on this one, given it was only towards the end of last year, there's no point asking, 'What went wrong with it?' or 'Why isn't it working?' Is the process now sufficient to address the issue around it now being a critically endangered species?

Mr Richardson : I'll take that as part of the question on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. Thank you.

Senator RICE: I wanted to briefly go back to the New South Wales regional forest agreements and the role of the Commonwealth and the risks in rolling the RFA over. I'm sure you're aware of the report that the ABC did in March where the Commonwealth was quoted as stating in an internal document that:

The Commonwealth is concerned the science underpinning Regional Forestry Agreements (RFAs) in four states is "now quite old" and may no longer "remain valid" …

And a meeting brief prepared for the New South Wales Minister for Lands and Forestry, Paul O'Toole, for a meeting in August last year said:

The Commonwealth is concerned that significantly altering existing RFAs may invite challenges to their validity, in the absence of new—and costly—Comprehensive Regional Assessments.

Its preference is to extend the existing agreements. It is in both parties' interests to avoid the need to revisit the costly CRA process.

I want to know whether you have concerns about this rollover bringing political and legal risk to the Commonwealth?

Ms Jonasson : Firstly, we can't comment on information that's provided in a New South Wales brief.

Senator RICE: I actually tried to get the information through an order for the production of documents, but it was denied on the grounds that it's damaging to Commonwealth-state relationships or something ridiculous.

Ms Jonasson : That's not what I was stating. It's hard for me to comment on that. I don't want to deflect the question, because I would rather we were able to answer it, but I do think that it's probably a question for our colleagues in the agriculture portfolio, who are leading these conversations, as to where they sit in terms of the conversations.

Senator RICE: The political and legal risks are related to the decline among threatened species.

Ms Jonasson : I can't comment on the political risk, but, on the legal risk—our colleagues in the agriculture portfolio have responsibility for that piece of legislation, so it's appropriate for our colleagues in that portfolio to respond on their legislation.

Senator RICE: In terms of risks that are related to threatened species, which is your responsibility, you're passing all responsibility over to the agriculture department.

Ms Jonasson : No, that's not what I said. We were talking about political and legal risks. It's not appropriate for me to comment on political risk, and the legal risk is in relation to that piece of legislation which is administered through the agriculture portfolio. I thought that's what we were talking about.

Senator RICE: Yes, but the risks are related to whether the EPBC Act is being appropriately rolled out, essentially, which is legislation from your department. I mean, it's the department of agriculture that implements it, but the legislation is a responsibility of this department. Isn't that the case?

Ms Jonasson : The regional forestry legislation is the responsibility of the agriculture portfolio.

Senator RICE: The EPBC Act recognises the regional forest agreements as being compliant with the EPBC Act, but the act is a responsibility of your department.

Ms Jonasson : The EPBC Act is a responsibility of our department? Yes, it is.

Senator RICE: Yes, that's right. So I would have thought the political and legal risks actually relate to the EPBC Act and whether it's being appropriately implemented.

Ms Jonasson : I'm not a lawyer, Senator. I don't want to get into discussions around appropriate application of legislation in that respect—and intersections between two pieces of legislation. But, if the question is in relation to the RFA legislation, then I think that's for our agriculture colleagues, and it's not my place to comment on the political risk.

Senator RICE: All the responsibility is on your agriculture colleagues to determine whether there are risks. Is that what you're saying?

Ms Jonasson : No, Senator, I don't think that's what I'm saying.

Senator RICE: You're saying that there's nothing you can comment on because it's all the responsibility of the department of agriculture.

Senator Birmingham: Senator Rice, you're welcome to come to a clear question again, if you like. The official was being clear that questions about the way in which the RFA Act is administered and the way in which RFAs are developed are largely, rightly, questions for the department of agriculture as the administering authority for that act. We have answered questions already today in relation to some of the processes that this department contributes to as the department of agriculture undertakes that work. If there are questions you want to ask about the work the department does do then fire away.

Senator RICE: My question is to do, in particular, with legal risks. They're legal risks that relate to the RFA Act, but they also relate to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, because the RFA processes are accredited under the EPBC Act as protecting threatened species. That's why they don't have to be individually assessed each time under your legislation.

Senator Birmingham: It sounds like your question is to seek an opinion confirming your assessment of a legal opinion. That's not the expertise of the officials at the table. If you want a legal opinion in relation to aspects of the EPBC Act, we can take that on notice and see whether we can assist in that regard. Certainly officials won't be providing running legal opinions at the table.

Senator RICE: My question was whether they were concerned about whether there were indeed political and legal risks, given the information that had been brought out through the media article.

Mr Dadswell : The absolute focus of our involvement in the extension of the regional forest agreements is the continuing maintenance of the comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system, and the protection and conservation of threatened species values and other matters of MNES through both the CAR reserve system and the upholding of ecological, sustainable forest management principles in terms of those areas that might be harvested. That remains our sole interest in our negotiations in this process—as well as ensuring that the RFAs continue to be consistent with the objectives of the EPBC Act.

Senator RICE: That's right. There is a critical issue around whether that's the case and whether, through not doing the comprehensive reviews, those things still hold or whether there are legal risks. Because 20 years on your accreditation of the RFA processes will show whether that is legitimate, as to whether they are protecting those threatened species. In particular, carrying on from my colleague Senator Bartlett's questions about koalas, there was a report done by the New South Wales chief scientist which stated there was insufficient data to assess whether logging prescriptions to protect koalas actually worked. What steps has the Commonwealth government taken to investigate the impacts of logging on koalas to determine whether the EPBC accreditation is warranted, prior to rolling over the RFAs?

Ms Jonasson : Again, it's very difficult for us to comment on statements that are made by other bodies. A comment from the New South Wales authority to their minister is not something that we can really comment on. We did talk about the work that we're doing in relation to koalas in New South Wales and Queensland, and the work that's underway in terms of the recovery plan. Also, Dr Box outlined the Australian government's contribution that we've made to a number of koala projects over the last little while. I don't know if you were in the room at the time, but we're happy to provide that information to you. There's quite a lot of good work happening in that space. But in terms of the RFAs, to come back to the nature of your question, we will continue in the process, as Mr Dadswell said. This is our responsibility. And we will inform our colleagues in the Agriculture portfolio that have responsibility for this, and ensure that the requirements and expectations we have within the Environment portfolio are met through that negotiation.

Senator RICE: Has the Commonwealth taken any steps to investigate the impacts of logging on koalas, to determine whether accreditation of RFAs under the EPBC Act is warranted?

Ms Jonasson : I would have to take that on notice. I don't have any details with me today.

Senator RICE: And can you take on notice whether there is intention of doing that work if it hasn't been undertaken?

Ms Jonasson : Certainly.

Senator RICE: Similarly, we've got proposed new logging laws in northern New South Wales, the integrated forestry operations approvals, which would legalise clear felling across coastal forests in New South Wales. What steps is the Commonwealth taking to satisfy itself that the New South Wales approvals, the IFOAs, won't impact on EPBC listed arboreal mammals, including koalas and greater gliders?

Ms Jonasson : I would have to take that on notice and consult with my Agriculture colleagues.

Senator RICE: I'll leave it at that. Similarly, given that there is considerable evidence as to the impacts of RFA facilitated logging on species like koalas, greater gliders and large forest owls, and we've got a reduction in carbon stores and negative impacts on water supplies, what steps has the Commonwealth taken to investigate the compliance of the New South Wales logging regime, to whether it is indeed ecologically sustainable forest management?

Ms Jonasson : I think the compliance of the RFAs is the responsibility of my Agriculture colleagues. I'm happy to take it on notice anything I can provide you.

Senator RICE: Can you provide any written advice that you have received in relation to that?

Ms Jonasson : I'm happy to provide you with any advice we can, yes.

Senator RICE: Thank you.

CHAIR: That will conclude us on program 1.1. Thank you all, officers from that particular part of the department. We will now go to program 1.2, Environmental information and research.

Mr Oxley : Chair, can I confirm that I can dispatch with the Great Barrier Reef and threatened species experts?

CHAIR: I believe they are not required, so tell them to run.

Mr Oxley : Before we do, Ms Callister wanted to talk about the Great Barrier Reef Foundation's high-level governance arrangements, in relation to a question asked.

CHAIR: Fire away.

Ms Callister : Thank you, Chair. This is responding to Senator Urquhart's question for more information on the legal status of the foundation. To confirm, it's a not-for-profit public company, limited by guarantee under the Corporations Act 2001. It's also a registered charity under the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act. It has tax deductible gift recipient status for tax purposes, and it also has licences under various state statutes that relate to charities.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Ms Callister. Farewell.


CHAIR: Welcome, officers from program 1.2. We'll get straight into questions. Senator Chisholm, would you like to lead off?

Senator CHISHOLM: Sure. I have some questions about a science program that has run for a number of years. I think it's the NESP—is that correct? Who owns the research funded by the government and how is it stored for use for policy and EPBC Act assessments?

Mr Whitfort : Can you ask that again?

Senator CHISHOLM: Who owns the research? It's funded by government. Who owns the research? And how is it stored for use with regard to policy matters and EPBC Act assessments?

Mr Whitfort : As you say, the research is funded by government. It is also co-funded by the research partners, because we do have one to one matching in terms of the projects. All of the research is made publicly available. Each of the hubs publish the research papers, and they are required to publish the data which comes out of their research. At the moment, they publish that data on a range of data repositories. Through that, and also through the publications themselves, they are able to inform policy decisions, regulation, on-ground management and those sorts of things.

Senator CHISHOLM: Is there anything specific you could add about its use with regard to policy and EPBC Act assessments?

Mr Whitfort : I can give you a few examples of how research has been used. It goes broader than the EPBC Act assessments. In terms of threatened species and other things, a range of projects are being done through the program which go to identifying population trends and that sort of thing, which can then go to determining listings or that sort of thing. I don't think I have any specific examples.

Mr Cahill : An EPBC assessment officer, when a project is referred, will not only turn their mind to material put in front of them by the referrer or the applicant but also refer to different parts within the department to source whether or not there is additional information that's relevant to that assessment. So in some instances, if there is research into a particular species at a particular geographic area, the assessment officer will turn their mind to that information. The assessment officers within the department will reach out to our science areas, to our listed species areas and to a range of other areas to gather the information relevant to their considerations.

Ms Brunoro : As Mr Cahill has said, the assessment officer looks in our internal systems to inform what information we have on hand about the species distribution of matters of national environmental significance and threatened species that are relevant to a particular approval. In the division, we have a number of species modellers who update the geographic distribution of species as a result of research that we undertake through NESP but also from information we gather from other science about the prevalence of species across Australia.

Senator CHISHOLM: How many staff in the department maintain its data and information? How often is it updated?

Ms Brunoro : I'd have to take that on notice. Are you talking just about threatened species or data in the broad?

Senator CHISHOLM: In the broad sense.

Ms Brunoro : I will have to take it on notice because obviously we have a variety of different aspects—from marine data, to species, to things like energy data. And that would not just be officers in my division, but officers across the department.

Senator CHISHOLM: This might be one for Mr Cahill. I know that companies often submit hundreds if not thousands of pages in terms of EPBC Act assessments. What happens to the data on the environment collected as part of that process?

Mr Cahill : There are two parts to that. We are talking to my area of previous responsibility, so it's not my current one. That's fine, though. I can answer the question. I can't seem to shake that one off! The material that's put in when the referral comes in—all the material in the environmental impact assessment and such—is published for public comment, so it's in the public domain. There is a body of work that is being proceeded, which I'll get Ms Brunoro to expand on, where we are looking to be able to extract the data that's often in PDF or other forms that can't be translated into really good analytical capability for researchers and other community organisations, where we are working through an environmental digitisation agenda to try and make that more readily available to communities. I might ask Ms Brunoro to expand on that.

Ms Brunoro : We have had a number of conversations with states and territories around opportunities to receive that information digitally. It should be noted that Western Australia has commenced receiving that information in digital format through the Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute, who do work on behalf of the Western Australian government, and we are looking to see how we could take that approach, combined with efforts in New South Wales, who are looking to do the same thing, to unlock the data underpinning regulatory decisions across the country and nationally. We will be pursuing that in the coming months, and I will be speaking with the Western Australian government about that opportunity next week.

Senator CHISHOLM: This is a similar question but with regard to grants and funding provided. Does the department keep the data and information from the grants? Are they put in as part of this research as well?

Ms Brunoro : Our colleagues from Biodiversity Conservation Division have been working with CSIRO, through the Atlas of Living Australia, to collect data that comes from the natural resource management programs. My division works closely with that division on how we can identify those data holdings. The Atlas of Living Australia is one of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy facilities that is funded through the department of education. At the moment, they use a BioCollect tool to take the information from the natural resource management regions into that system.

Senator CHISHOLM: Is there anything specific with regard to grants or funding provided, using the evidence? For example, often there'd be an exchange of letters which, I imagine, would map out details and information. Is that collected as well and used from a departmental point of view?

Ms Brunoro : When I was talking about the Biodiversity Conservation Division, that is grants that have been provided in the past to the natural resource management network. Currently the new round of grants that are run under that program are still under assessment. I think Ms Jonasson mentioned that before. I think that covers the vast majority of grants. You'd probably note that there are a range of grants that have moved to more centralised hubs across the Commonwealth. We are engaging, particularly through Ms Jonasson's division, with that grants hub, and also through our Corporate Services Division around those grants hubs, around what information we will receive from the grants that are being transferred there.

Senator CHISHOLM: In relation to the overall department, are you confident that it has the data and information it needs to plan and develop its policies so that it's collecting the best information possible and using it in the most appropriate way?

Ms Brunoro : I think we continue to make improvements every year. With a continent the size of Australia and the matters we are trying to cover, it's a significant task. There have been some good steps forward, particularly around engagement with the states and territories. They collect quite a substantial body of data and information, so there are active steps around unlocking their datasets and adding them to ours. All environment ministers agreed to the open sharing of data, coming out of the July meeting of environment ministers, as a consequence of some of the findings of the last state of the environment report.

You'll note that the last state of the environment report was provided in a digital format. That is, to some degree, evidence of how many more datasets are being provided digitally—not just on the environment but integrated with really important datasets that are held across the Commonwealth through things like There's an initiative at the moment called the Data Integration Partnership for Australia. That looks at how we can add the data we collect in the department to the important datasets that are held across other Commonwealth agencies. A good example, obviously, is the Bureau of Meteorology, who are in our portfolio, and also CSIRO. We also work very closely with Geoscience Australia because they are the lead on a lot of the remote sensing data from satellites.

So, while there's always more to do, there have been substantial efforts in the last couple of years to unlock more datasets, and there's an enormous amount of effort and push happening to fill a lot of the gaps through both state of the environment reporting and new activities to undertake environmental accounting in Australia with the states and territories.

Mr Cahill : Just to reiterate what Mr Brunoro has mentioned, we are quite confident we've got access to information to give the best possible policy advice and to make our regulatory and other decisions. But, because technology has moved so quickly and this is a data-rich environment, at the same time we've set aside resources, as part of the Prime Minister's Digital Integration Partnership for Australia, to say there are better ways we can tap data and take it to a whole new level. That includes working with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Geoscience Australia, CSIRO and ABARES, because they have a range of data sources. A lot of the work we have to do—or applicants have to do, or community people looking for regulatory decision-makers have to do—is manual work to bring the data together, and we're looking to turn that into integrated datasets that are very user-friendly and don't require much manual intervention. That will take us to a next level of maturity in trying to tap—as, I'm sure, every other Commonwealth agency is—what technology can deliver for us today.

Senator CHISHOLM: On a similar note, what about ensuring, when it comes to grant funding, that you're getting bang for your buck? Are you confident that the data the department has access to is ensuring you're getting best value for money?

Mr Cahill : That's another area of the department, which runs the program area, but I know a lot of work is done in working out what the key measures of the impacts of grants are, and I know they work quite closely with Ms Brunoro's division, using our geospatial mapping tools and a range of other techniques, to best capture and process that information.

Ms Brunoro : As an example of that, for the last grant round for natural resource management proposals, the division identified across all of the NRM regions the matters of environmental significance that were relevant in that area to enable applicants to gear their management actions towards making improvements or protections against those matters of national environmental significance. We provided a geospatial tool about where all those matters were, based on the 56 regions.

As another example, for the National Environmental Science Program—the six research hubs—there is at least one policy officer who's on the steering committee for the hub, which means that all the research proposals that come through are looked at and assessed for direct relevance and impact towards informing some of the investments and policy decisions relating to those areas. For instance, the Threatened Species Commissioner and Mr Richardson, who was just here, both sit on the Threatened Species Recovery Hub steering committee.

CHAIR: I don't think there are any further questions for program 1.2. Thank you very much, relevant officers.