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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
Department of Agriculture

Department of Agriculture

CHAIR: Secretary, would you like to make an opening statement?

Dr Grimes : No, thank you, Chair.

Senator STERLE: I just want to clarify a couple of things. Dr Grimes, we will have questions in the area of the COAG process. We know that has been to the Standing Council on Primary Industries. SCOPI has been abolished, so could you direct us to where we could ask questions relating to that process.

Dr Grimes : It may be appropriate to pick it up in the first session this morning.

Senator STERLE: That is tremendous. Where could we ask questions relating to the Community Food Grants programs that applied under the previous government?

Dr Grimes : The consensus is that the best place to handle it is in the next session: Agriculture Productivity.

Senator STERLE: That is fantastic. Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Senator Farrell, welcome.

Senator FARRELL: Welcome to you too, Senator Heffernan, and welcome to the Minister and Dr Grimes. I have some questions about the Farm Household Allowance legislation. Who should I direct them to, Dr Grimes?

Dr Grimes : The relevant area is under Agriculture Adaptation and Forestry. That is listed for this evening when we will have the officers involved for that session.

Senator FARRELL: So there is nobody here who can talk about the legislation.

Dr Grimes : Not at the moment on the Farm Household Allowance. Those officers will be appearing a little later today.

Senator FARRELL: All right. I wanted to ask some questions about farm financing, and I refer to a recent article in TheAustralian by journalist Sue Neales. She referred to some comments that Minister Joyce had made offering an extra $280 million of cheap loans. Can you give us some indication as to how the minister has determined that an extra $280 million is needed on top of the $420 million that is already available?

Dr Grimes : We will have the officers involved in that program and the Farm Household Allowance under that adaptation session later this evening.

Senator FARRELL: Senator Sterle asked a question regarding the COAG processes. With the abolition of the scoping program, what mechanisms are being used to consult and work with states and territories particularly to do with the drought response and ongoing drought reform?

Dr Grimes : There are a number of areas in which we cooperate and work closely with our state colleagues. We are currently in discussions with our state colleagues on the arrangements we will put in place to ensure we continue to have mechanisms to be able to resolve matters between departments. That should be a straightforward process. Those discussions are proceeding quite cooperatively with the states. We work together well. We will ensure that there are a good processes in place.

Senator FARRELL: Why did the government abolish the Standing Council on Primary Industries?

Dr Grimes : Essentially the government's position was to ensure that COAG had a well-focused agenda. We can continue the work that we need to do outside the COAG process.

Senator Abetz: There were 22 COAG councils that were getting nowhere. They have been collapsed into eight COAG councils to concentrate on issues. If I might briefly divert, in my own portfolio area the COAG council has been done away with, but that does not stop us meeting together as ministers on the side but out of the COAG process.

Senator FARRELL: But why was Primary Industries selected as one? Why was that not part of one of the eight that continued rather than being one of the 14 that were removed?

Senator Abetz: You could ask that about employment as well and a whole host of other areas. As I understand it, the first ministers determined which should be the eight.

Senator FARRELL: And the government did not insist on Primary Industries being one of those eight?

Senator Abetz: We insisted on a streamlined process so things actually get through COAG. So many things just got stuck in COAG and never went anywhere that we thought it might be better to concentrate on a few issues and actually see them go through. As the officials said, it does not stop the work from going on; it just allows it to go on without the strictures that are around the COAG process.

Senator FARRELL: The government thought Primary Industries was not sufficiently important to be one of the eight?

Senator Abetz: That is a good attempt, but no. That is rejected. Removed from the strictures of COAG then—who knows?—they might be able to perform even better. But we will wait and see.

Senator FARRELL: There is no evidence of that so far, is there?

Senator Abetz: Because the decision was only taken in December, so it has been operating two months. It is a bit early to tell.

CHAIR: Is that the strain that is allegedly coming through the week? Is that as a result of this?

Senator STERLE: Time is of the essence today, Chair. So can we just get back onto the questions, because we know that everyone is on a tight timetable. I will ask you, Dr Grimes: how often did SCoPI meet over the past three years?

Dr Grimes : I may have to defer to one of my colleagues on the precise timing. I imagine it was typically once or twice a year.

Mr Glyde : SCoPI met usually twice a year, and has done for many years.

Senator STERLE: Around the table would be all the agricultural ministers from each state jurisdiction?

Mr Glyde : Correct.

Senator STERLE: That is not going to happen. In the minister's words, it is going to be streamlined. How does the agriculture minister intend to meet with his counterparts in the state jurisdictions?

Dr Grimes : Under the arrangements, there is nothing to preclude ministers meeting as required. So, when there is a need for the ministers to meet and to resolve issues, they will be able to do that. They can convene that. Indeed, we envisage that that is exactly what will happen.

Senator STERLE: Could they do that before, even though there was SCoPI? And I know the answer.

Dr Grimes : They would have done it through a SCoPI process, but they could have met outside SCoPI as well.

Senator STERLE: We know for a fact that they did. I am trying not to be facetious, but this does open up a door. If there is a by-election or something is a little bit prickly for the government, two mates can meet in a coffee shop, do a deal—

CHAIR: That's the way. Sounds like a good idea.

Senator STERLE: and bugger the other states. Anyhow, that is the perception. So it is a case of whenever Minister Joyce or the state ministers have a little prickly problem they will go off and meet sideways.

Dr Grimes : Certainly the way we see it working is having a good structure of officials. I think, as I indicated before, we are already having good discussions with our state counterparts.

Senator STERLE: Chair, I will not ask a question, but I will make the comment that when you have the ministers stripping money out of other states to prop up states where there were a few marginal seats, like in the last election, that could be very frightening.

Senator Abetz: That is rejected.

Senator STERLE: That is the truth, Minister. It was ten million dollars from the state of Western Australia.

CHAIR: Order!

Senator STERLE: Minister Joyce stripped from Western Australian farmers because it suited him in Queensland.

Senator EDWARDS: Dr Grimes, how long have you been in your current role?

Senator ABETZ: That is just nonsense!

CHAIR: Order!

Senator Abetz: It is just nonsense and you know it. I think there is a Western Australian Senate election coming up, and Senator Sterle is trying to—

CHAIR: Calm down, everybody.

Senator EDWARDS: How long have you been there, Dr Grimes?

Dr Grimes : Shortly after the election, when the ministry was sworn in, there was a transfer of secretaries, and I transferred at that time.

Senator EDWARDS: How long have you been in the department?

Dr Grimes : For that same period.

Senator EDWARDS: For that same period, you have come across the department—

CHAIR: What he is really wondering is if you are enjoying the portfolio more than the environment.

Dr Grimes : I am enjoying the portfolio a great deal. I transferred as secretary of Environment across to secretary of Agriculture.

Senator EDWARDS: How many different roles have you had in the last five years?

Dr Grimes : In the last five years? That would have included a period as deputy secretary, probably just the very end of my tenure as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Finance. I was associate secretary in PM&C for a year and had three years as Secretary of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, as it was then known.

CHAIR: You would qualify for a diplomatic posting, wouldn't you?

Senator EDWARDS: Can we go back to the election in 2013? Do you know what type of work the portfolio engaged in during the campaign?

Dr Grimes : Not in my personal knowledge, Senator, because I was not in the department at that time. We have officers here that were obviously in the department at that time.

Senator EDWARDS: Would you care to answer that, Mr Glyde?

Mr Glyde : Certainly, Senator. I am not quite sure what the intent of the question is. Are you talking about all of 2013 or in the lead-up to the election?

Senator EDWARDS: No, during the campaign will be fine.

Mr Glyde : We would have been in caretaker mode and following the caretaker convention, Senator—normal business during that period.

Senator EDWARDS: Did you receive any requests from the government or the portfolio minister at the time, or from any other ministers of your department, during the caretaker period?

Mr Glyde : In that period, in the lead-up to the election, we would have received requests for briefing in the normal way that we would do, and we would handle them as we have normally done under the caretaker conventions.

Senator EDWARDS: So businesses as usual? There were no other meetings that took place that you saw as unusual?

Mr Glyde : No, not that I am aware of.

Senator EDWARDS: Did the department prepare electorate-level reports for government ministers for the 2013 election?

Mr Glyde : There were the usual activities where we produce information for particular visits and things like that, but I am not quite sure whether or not that material was prepared or when it was provided. I will have to take that on notice.

Senator EDWARDS: Would those reports have been prepared at the electorate level?

Mr Glyde : Generally speaking, we do not tend to have information at that level.

Senator EDWARDS: Okay, but what data would have been included in the reports that you speak of?

Mr Glyde : The sort of information that we would have provided to ministers when they have visited is usually: information about the region; a bit of climatic information bit; a bit of information from ABARES in relation to the major agricultural industries in the region and the other industries in the region; information about the population; and that sort of factual material. We would also provide information about the sorts of programs that we might have in those regions under, for example, Landcare or Caring for our Country and the sorts of programs have been funded in that particular region.

Senator EDWARDS: How often would those reports be updated?

Mr Glyde : The information is usually updated at the time the minister or the parliamentary secretary is visiting the region. A lot of that information would be updated on a regular basis. So, for example, the ABARES information is something that would be updated possibly quarterly or annually as well.

Senator EDWARDS: Are those reports publicly available?

Mr Glyde : I am not sure. I would have to take that on notice. I do not think they contain any information that would not be on the public record.

Senator EDWARDS: Would you mind providing us with a copy of the latest reports?

Mr Glyde : Yes, but I will say that we do not have a standing set of regional reports. I know ABARES produces regional summaries and puts its data out at a regional level.

Senator EDWARDS: But you have prepared reports for the previous minister?

Mr Glyde : Yes. As a matter of course, we have done it for years.

Senator EDWARDS: So getting your hands on them for us to have a look at would not be any problem?

Mr Glyde : No, I was more referring to the fact that I am not sure that we have complete coverage for the whole country at any one time. We can give you an example of the sort of report.

Senator EDWARDS: Yes. We would get an idea then, wouldn't we?

Mr Glyde : We would.

Senator EDWARDS: How much did the department and portfolio agencies spend on advertising and marketing in the six months prior to the election?

Mr Glyde : I might have to ask Ms Evans to answer that question.

Ms Evans : I would have to take that one on notice because it is a specific question.

Senator EDWARDS: When you get that, can you put some commentary around the justification of that spending so that I get an understanding?

Ms Evans : Yes, we can.

Senator EDWARDS: On the same answer, could the department provide a list of relevant contracts that led to that expenditure and indicate the rationale for each service provided and its intended use?

Ms Evans : Yes, we can do that.

Senator EDWARDS: This question is about the community cabinet. What was the cost of the Labor minister's travel and expenses for the community cabinet meetings held since budget estimates in 2010?

Mr Glyde : We would have to take that on notice. I am afraid we do not have that information to hand.

Senator EDWARDS: When you are doing that, could you include how many ministerial staff and department officers travelled with the minister for the community cabinet meetings?

Mr Glyde : Sure.

Senator EDWARDS: Obviously, you will total that to give the total cost of travel and include the total cost to the department and the minister's office.

Mr Glyde : Yes.

Senator EDWARDS: I will go to a question on spending, Ms Evans, and then I will move on. What was the department's hospitality spend in the six months leading up to the election?

Dr Grimes : I suspect that will have to be taken on notice.

Ms Evans : Yes, I think it will as well.

Senator EDWARDS: Please detail the date, the location, the purpose and the cost of all events. That would be for each minister's parliamentary secretary's office and the detail of the spend prior to that date as well. Also include the date, location and cost of each.

Ms Evans : We can provide that information.

Senator SIEWERT: I have a question about jobs, on two fronts in particular. In natural resource management, with the restructuring of the programs, are there going to be any job losses from the NRM/Landcare programs?

Dr Grimes : We are currently in the process of working through our budget for 2014-15, and part of that will be looking at resourcing that can be applied to NRM programs through the National Landcare Program. There is no doubt that we are going to have to make staffing reductions across the department. We have a voluntary redundancy process underway at the moment. We are not in a position to give you any finalised numbers at this stage, because we are very much in the process of aligning our staffing with our budget for next year.

Senator SIEWERT: Presumably in budget estimates you will have that clear?

Dr Grimes : Yes, we should have that clear or close to finalised by the budget estimates. The issue, of course, is that we finalise our budget immediately after the government has published its budget. There may be some details that we need to still work through in those couple of weeks after the budget. We will be well-advanced on our planning.

Senator SIEWERT: Have there been losses from those programs already?

Dr Grimes : I would probably have to either take that on notice or answer the question when we have the officers from that program here later today. There may have been some minor adjustments in staffing levels over recent times, but in terms of our budgeting arrangements we are currently working through that process at the moment.

Senator SIEWERT: I am never clear about where to ask about—

Dr Grimes : I appreciate that. We are very happy to cover it off there; otherwise, we will make sure that that material is provided to you on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: In terms of biosecurity front-line staff: we had a discussion about that last time and the impact that the changes to Customs will have. This morning there is more talk of job losses from Customs and Border Security. What impact is that going to have on your ability to deliver commitments on biosecurity?

Dr Grimes : We work very closely with Customs in our operations and liaise closely with them. The process of our allocation of resources and final staffing levels for next year is currently under discussion between us and Customs, so I am not in a position to give you any update on that at the moment.

Senator SIEWERT: Let us just explore that for a couple more minutes. I hear what you say about not being able to tell me much more, but are you looking at the fact that that is going to put more pressure on you, given the reduction in staff from Customs and Border Security staff?

Dr Grimes : No. I know that there is a press article that you are referring to, but our processes are going on behind the scenes in the appropriate way with Customs. We will make sure that we have worked through our planning for 2014-15 with Customs, but it is far too premature for me to be making any statements about any implications for our operations. Our focus at the moment is very much on our own operations and making sure that we plan effectively for those in 2014-15.

Senator SIEWERT: I appreciate what you are saying—you are obviously responsible for your functions—but surely you need to take into account the fact that this is the second lot of job cuts that have been foreshadowed. That must play out on the way you are planning your operations.

Dr Grimes : I am sure Customs is in the same position as us at the moment: working through its budget for 2014-15. It will be doing its work there; we are doing our work. What I am indicating to you is that we do talk to each other quite closely and that we will make sure that we plan effectively and well to deliver our services in 2014-15.

Senator SIEWERT: Have there been any job losses or reduction in staff in your biosecurity staff?

Dr Grimes : Yes, there have been some reductions over recent times. As I alluded to earlier, we are currently in the process of a voluntary redundancy program. That was announced before the end of last year. We are making adjustments in both the biosecurity staff and staff within the central office in Canberra.

Senator SIEWERT: How many staff have gone from the biosecurity area?

Dr Grimes : Lynne O'Brien may be able to answer the question now; otherwise, we can pick it up under the relevant function later on.

Ms O'Brien : The division that employs the vast majority of our biosecurity staff is our Border Compliance division. That division has reduced its FTE by 53.6 over the course of this financial year.

Senator SIEWERT: That is 53.6 out of a total of—

Ms O'Brien : We started the year at 2,062 staff.

Senator RHIANNON: In recent years there have been partnerships between workers and trainees for East Timor and north-western Australian communities. We have received some representation about this. I am interested to know about any efforts to extend these partnerships to grow the domestic abattoirs in the north-west and to meet the need for Labor in that industry. Have there been any discussions to advance these proposals? Are you aware of them?

Dr Grimes : I am personally not aware of any. That does not mean that there have not been discussions. We may have to take that on notice unless there is an officer here who can provide further assistance to you now.

Mr Glyde : I am not familiar with those partnerships. You are saying that they were between East Timor and northern Australian beef interests?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes—around the abattoirs and finding Labor for the industry in north-west Australia.

Mr Glyde : I will confirm this, but as far as I am aware we have not been involved in those partnership discussions.

Senator RHIANNON: I find it a bit of a challenge to know where to ask my questions, so I will try these here. Please let me know if they should come up later. The first one is with regard to the developments on trade with Bahrain. I understand that since the live export trade to Bahrain was suspended in 2012 Bahrain has completely replaced live Australian sheep exports with Australian chilled and frozen meat. This, interestingly, goes against the messaging by some here and by the live export trade that boxed meat cannot be a replacement for live exports, particularly in Muslim countries. Could you let us know what the value to the Australian industry has been of this replacement and how it compares with the average yearly value of live exported sheep in the previous years, leading up to the ban?

Mr Glyde : That question is probably best asked under item 11, the Live Animal Export Division. But, since you have asked that question, we will do our best to have the information ready for you at 11:35 to 12:00 tomorrow.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay, I will come back to it.

Senator EDWARDS: I want to take you to some budget questions which Senator Colbeck asked in May of last year. They are with regard to the $24.815 million worth of deficit in your industry equalisation reserves. Where are we going with that? How does it look on the last re-forecast?

Dr Grimes : I will hand over to Acting Chief Finance Officer Jo Evans, who has carriage of this matter.

Ms Evans : We continue to forecast deficits in a number of the cost recovery programs this year. By the end of this year most of those industry reserves will be in deficit. I will get Matt Ryan to walk you through the specifics.

Mr Ryan : What was the number you quoted there, Senator?

Senator EDWARDS: It was a table provided by yourselves; $24.815 million was the annual deficit for your accounting period. Is that a calendar accounting period?

Mr Ryan : I can give you an update as at the end of the 2012-13 financial year.

Senator EDWARDS: I think you call it 'the Table', do you recognise it?

Mr Ryan : I am familiar with that table.

Senator EDWARDS: These industry reserves are supposed to run between two and 10 per cent in surplus?

Mr Ryan : Yes. At the moment the department's policy is to have reserves fall between two and 10 per cent.

Senator EDWARDS: But we are not, are we?

Mr Ryan : Some of them are in that range, but—

Senator EDWARDS: But collectively? Is there a pea and thimble trick going on here? Are we robbing Peter to pay Paul? There are lots of different surpluses and deficits and things like that, so I will just cut to the chase: how are we travelling?

Mr Ryan : As at the end of the last financial year—and we have reserves for all the different cost recovery arrangements, of which there are many for the import and export sector—the reserves in total were $20.2 million in surplus. That was made up of a combination of surpluses of $33.4 million for some arrangements and deficits of some others to the total of $13.1 million.

Senator EDWARDS: In all of the various ones, like imports, seaports, horses, plants, international mail, passengers, are they tracking now at between two and 10 per cent?

Dr Grimes : We have a number of accounts that are in deficit, or moving towards deficit, so you are right on that point. That is not the case, I think, for all. As a result we are currently in discussions, and early consultations, around what are the adjustments and fees that may be required to address that situation. Clearly those matters will be matters for the government to consider.

Senator EDWARDS: That is why I am raising it. I just want to understand what the problem is. We have got to try and fix it, obviously.

Dr Grimes : You are correct in noting that there are deficits in those accounts. That is correct.

Senator EDWARDS: BICON: how is that tracking—the IT system which has cost quite a lot of money?

Dr Grimes : Ms O'Brien should be able to provide you with information on the BICON project.

Senator EDWARDS: Is it finished?

Ms O'Brien : No, it is not finished yet.

Senator EDWARDS: How much were you planning to spend on it initially, and how much have we spent on it now?

Ms O'Brien : The work started on the system in 2010. The initial budget was set at $35.7 million. In 2010 it was increased to $43.8 million. That is a composition of the work in developing the system as well as the work that was required to rewrite something in the order of 22,000 import conditions, to load into the new system. The increase back in 2010—$4 million of that was to do with the additional work required in rewriting all of those import conditions.

Senator EDWARDS: I have never met a computer program that does not need constant adjustment, but how are we going with the budget?

Ms O'Brien : As at the end of January we had spent $25.3 million on the system development and $23.1 million on the content, re-engineering, program management, business reform, et cetera. We are currently testing the latest release of the system.

Senator EDWARDS: So you have nearly spent $50 million?

Ms O'Brien : $48.4 million, of which $25 million is on the system development.

Senator EDWARDS: So we are beyond our forecast. Have we stopped bleeding?

Ms O'Brien : We are very close to finalising the work. As I said, we are testing the latest release. There is some minor work to be completed, but our sense is that the amount of work is very minor. We are not expecting significant issues to arise from the testing, and we are looking to make recommendations—

Dr Grimes : It may be appropriate for me to make a comment at this point. My understanding is that we will have to consider what additional funding is required for BICON as part of our current internal budget processes that are ongoing at the moment.

Senator EDWARDS: Are you happy with it, Secretary?

Dr Grimes : It is a large project. All the advice to me is that we are travelling well in implementing that project. My experience has been that with large projects like this you have always got to be very focused on the risks and manage them closely. As Ms O'Brien has indicated, this is a project that is being watched very closely. As she has also indicated, it is getting towards final stages of the current development, but I understand that there will be additional expenses for us to have to consider through our internal budget processes.

Senator EDWARDS: The current government has inherited this. Where have you been funding all these cost overruns from up to date? Where has the money come from? This is where the pea and thimble comes in. Have we been ratting one area to fund another?

Dr Grimes : Correct. As I understand, it has been managed through the overall balance sheet of the department to date. Clearly we need to ensure that there is appropriate allocation of cost between the contribution that is made out of the department's funding and the costs that are attributed out of industry funding. There is a contribution from both sources.

Senator EDWARDS: There is not a coincidence between the industry equalisation reserves being in deficit and this program having cost overruns?

Dr Grimes : I will have to defer to some of the other officers here to answer that question in detail, but I assume some element has been funded out of the industry accounts and some element funded from the department. As to the specifics, I would have to defer to the relevant officers.

Senator EDWARDS: Would the minister have directed you to do that at the time?

Dr Grimes : I am unable to answer that question, Senator, but I can refer to the relevant officers.

Ms O'Brien : To my understanding, the project has always been funded to 75 per cent out of the cost recovered programs and 25 per cent out of appropriation.

Senator EDWARDS: I am only interested in whether there was a disproportionate amount taken from the cost recovery programs, and who told you to do it.

Ms O'Brien : That 75 per cent has remained throughout the course of the program.

Senator EDWARDS: It has not gone to 84 per cent or 94 per cent or 115 per cent?

Ms O'Brien : No, and we have agreed with industry that we will look at the appropriateness of that allocation.

Senator EDWARDS: Industry has got a big stake in this program, has it not?

Ms O'Brien : Correct.

Senator EDWARDS: Have they been asked for their input as to whether they actually believe it is delivering value for money?

Ms O'Brien : Industry has been participating on our program board throughout the course of the program. We have recently demonstrated the system to industry groups in Sydney and Melbourne, and we have invited industry to assist in our system testing. So industry has been involved and, as we go to implementation, we are working very closely with industry.

Senator EDWARDS: So is industry happy with their 75 per cent of nearly $50 million?

Ms O'Brien : We have agreed to revalidate that allocation with industry, and we will do that taking into account the relative benefits of the system between industry, who are key users of the system and beneficiaries of the system, and appropriation funded programs.

Senator EDWARDS: So they do get legitimate input? They are not just delivered with 'this is what we are doing'?

Ms O'Brien : No, industry has participated in program management throughout the course of the program.

Senator EDWARDS: I will watch with interest.

CHAIR: Can I just go to BICON. As I understand it—and I cannot read or write; you would understand that—it shows up import conditions and import permits.

Ms O'Brien : Correct.

CHAIR: Can you explain to someone like me what that means? It is $25 million over budget, isn't it?

Ms O'Brien : As I said, the original budget in 2010 was set at—

CHAIR: A rough guess.

Ms O'Brien : It was $43.8 million. We have currently spent $48 million on the entire project, so it is running over budget.

CHAIR: And who develops it? Have you got tech heads who come in from outside the department?

Ms O’Brien : We do. The actual system development is under the direction of our IT division, who have—

CHAIR: But it is an internal development, not contracted out to someone?

Ms O’Brien : No, it is contracted out to—

CHAIR: The difficulty with contracting out is that it is like taking your car to the insurers and saying that it is an insurance job—it will cost you more than if you say, 'I am going to pay for it myself.' So you have contracted it out to the government so they can play around with the government?

Ms O’Brien : My understanding is that it is a fixed price contract.

CHAIR: So it is better than the ASIO building. Demonstrate what we will be able to do with this program that we could not do before. Obviously there is a lot of room for improvement.

Ms O’Brien : If you went on to our existing import conditions database icon and you were looking to import a product into Australia, you would do a very rudimentary search and you might be presented with a Word document which might have 10 or 20 pages of information about how you might import peas into Australia or something. You would need to read those 10 or 20 pages and work out the actual requirements and conditions that you need to meet. The BICON system will lead you through a series of questions as to what you want to import, where you want to import it from and what you want to use it for. As a result of that it will provide you with very concise information on what your import requirements are, and it will tell you whether you need to apply for a permit to import those goods into Australia. It is much better quality and more succinct advice to importers.

CHAIR: That is only for importation?

Ms O’Brien : It is for imports.


CHAIR: We will now move to agricultural productivity.

Senator FARRELL: Mr Koval, can you tell me something about the Community Food Grants program?

Mr Koval : The Community Food Grants were part of what was the National Food Plan, which was released last year. In January this year we wrote to the applicants and told them that the grants were not going to continue.

Senator FARRELL: What was the purpose of the grants in the first place? What did you understand to be the purpose of the grants?

Mr Koval : The grants were established to improve community food initiatives such as farmers markets, food co-ops, food hubs, community gardens, city farms, food vans—those types of things.

Senator FARRELL: How much was allocated to this particular program?

Mr Koval : The grants part of it was $1.254 million.

Senator FARRELL: And how much for individual grants?

Mr Koval : There was a range. It was either $10,000 or $25,000, depending under which part of the program they applied.

Senator FARRELL: The program was set up last year?

Mr Koval : That is correct.

Senator FARRELL: When was the decision made to abolish this particular program?

Mr Koval : We advised the applicants on 31 January this year, 2014.

Senator FARRELL: So these were people who had seen the advertisement, responded, and put in applications, and you then wrote to them advising that the program had been closed, did you?

Mr Koval : Essentially that is correct, yes.

Senator FARRELL: What advice did you provide the minister on the closure of this program?

Dr Grimes : That goes to a policy question. The officer would not be in a position to provide any assistance on that this morning.

Senator FARRELL: I am simply asking, Dr Grimes, what advice the department provided to the minister.

Dr Grimes : The department would advise the minister but, as to the details, that is a policy question.

Senator FARRELL: So the minister sought the advice of the department in respect of this matter?

Dr Grimes : Departmental advice was provided in relation to this matter.

Senator FARRELL: When was that advice sought, Dr Grimes?

Dr Grimes : I would have to take those details on notice.

Senator FARRELL: Mr Koval, you do not know when that advice was sought?

Mr Koval : Off the top of my head, I do not; I will have to take it on notice.

Senator FARRELL: Can we work back a little bit? You advised the potential applicants on 31 January. Do you think it was this year or last year that—

Dr Grimes : Senator, these were matters considered as part of the proper budget process, so they would have been considered as part of the budget processes at the end of last year. As to precise timing, we would have to take that on notice.

Senator FARRELL: So some time before the end of last year, the minister sought advice in respect of this matter and the department provided that advice.

Dr Grimes : We provided advice in the normal way.

Senator FARRELL: Mr Koval, can you give us an idea of how far people had got in the development of their projects? What sort of work had the people you wrote to done in respect of making this application?

Mr Koval : They had completed an application form and submitted it to us, so they had gone down as far as that, as in developing a proposal. In terms of had individual applicants gone further than that, I do not know the answer to that; we have never asked them that question.

Senator FARRELL: So you made no contact with any of the applicants in terms of once they had put in their form?

Mr Koval : As a normal part of a grants program you go through an assessment phase, and applicants would wait to see the outcome of that process before they actually commenced work.

Senator FARRELL: So you had started assessing the applications before you wrote this letter?

Mr Koval : We had gone through an internal process to look at the submissions in every case.

Senator FARRELL: How many people had applied under the program?

Mr Koval : There were 364 applicants—actually, 366, but two had withdrawn. So 364 was the final number.

Senator FARRELL: Do people have to determine whether they went for the $10,000 grant or the $20,000 grant?

Mr Koval : They did.

Senator FARRELL: Had you got to the stage of prioritising these 364 applications?

Mr Koval : We had not completed the final assessment of the applicants so we did not have a priority list.

Senator FARRELL: So you looked at the applications to assess whether they fitted the criteria and those sorts of things?

Mr Koval : That is correct.

Senator FARRELL: But you had not got to the stage of prioritising.

Mr Koval : We had not got to the stage where we actually say that these are the ones that we would fund and these are the ones that we would not.

Senator FARRELL: So you sent out a letter on the 31st of January to all of these 364 people?

Mr Koval : That is correct.

Senator FARRELL: Has there been any response from any of those applicants?

Mr Koval : I am not aware of anyone responding to that, but I will take that on notice and check that for you.

Senator FARRELL: I would also like to talk to you now on a different topic—that is, the agricultural policy division. Can you tell me something about the work of that section of the department?

Mr Koval : We look after much of the domestic policy around the commodity groups, except for fisheries and forestry. We also look after things like the policy around agriculture and veterinary chemicals, research and development, innovation, and some of the domestic food—where it intersects with agriculture, for example.

Senator FARRELL: The food and fibre value chain—from paddock to plate—is that one of the things you do?

Mr Koval : We certainly look at the issue of the competitiveness of the food industry from our perspective. The industry department has the main policy carriage for the food processing sector and for manufacturing. We certainly look at it from the point of view of the farmers and along with the value chain.

Senator FARRELL: You look at sectors such as crops, wine, horticulture, wool, meat, dairy?

Mr Koval : Correct. Any of the traditional horticulture products plus many of the new ones; fruit and vegetables, those sorts of things.

Senator FARRELL: What are the aims of that particular department? What do you aim to do in that section?

Mr Koval : The main focus is looking at the competitive nature of the industry and looking for opportunities to reduce some of the barriers for them to continue to grow, as well as looking at long-term productivity gains that we can help work with our states and territories around. Research and development, for example, is a very big part of what we do for the medium and longer term productivity gains of the industry. We look at those types of things. Some of the key inputs into agriculture: agvet chemicals is one; there is labour and energy; and how some of these other portfolio interests actually intersect with ours.

Senator FARRELL: Let us take one of the ones you have just mentioned there: labour. What sort of things would this department do with respect to labour?

Mr Koval : We would talk to the department of employment and workplace relations and talk about some of the labour needs. We have worked with AgriFood Skills Australia; looking at some of the long-term issues around attracting people to agriculture, either from a production point of view or more broadly in the agriculture system as a whole. We talk to research and development corporations about how we make sure that we have researchers coming through the system who operate in agriculture so that we have the key researchers in the future and not just rely on the ones that are in there doing the research today. We look along those types of issues.

Senator FARRELL: You are trying to match the needs of the industry with ensuring that you have got the correct labour?

Mr Koval : We are looking at long-term labour policy and whether or not it helps or hinders our industry to access labour and we try to work with the industry to start to look at some of their own workforce planning issues. As an industry they need to start to think about what are their long-term needs.

Senator FARRELL: Is one of the areas that you are looking at sustainability?

Mr Koval : Sustainability from an agricultural perspective is mainly dealt with in our SRM division—sustainable resource management division. We are certainly getting involved with sustainability a bit more generally in terms of, for example, how it intersects with the food system as a whole and those types of things.

Senator FARRELL: Sustainability is part of your—

Mr Koval : We do look at it but—from an agricultural perspective, when you look at sustainability which many people traditionally look at and consider—it is done through our SRM lines.

Senator FARRELL: Are you familiar with a white paper that is now being developed in this area?

Mr Koval : I am.

Senator FARRELL: Can you tell us what the white paper is designed to achieve?

Mr Koval : The white paper on agricultural competitiveness is being run through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It is looking at the agricultural sector as a whole and looking at where we can drive some competitiveness and profitability angles and grow the industry for the short, medium and long term to make sure agriculture continues to be a strong contributor to the economy and trade of the country and regional communities. It is very broad.

Senator FARRELL: Why aren't you doing that in your department already?

Dr Grimes : The agricultural white paper is being undertaken as a whole of government exercise. The core of the team in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet are seconded officers from our department. The bulk of the team is from the agriculture department. The reporting arrangements are to work very closely with the minister as well as with the Prime Minister, and so there is close engagement and involvement with the department and more particularly very close involvement with the minister throughout the process.

Senator FARRELL: How many officers have been seconded to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet?

Dr Grimes : I have not got the exact number on the top of my head but it is around about—

Mr Koval : We have seven.

Senator FARRELL: How many people currently work in this area of the department?

Mr Koval : In the division that I look after? The last FTE count—

Senator FARRELL: No, I am talking about the Agricultural Productivity Division.

Mr Koval : Yes. It was 103.

Senator FARRELL: And seven of those people have now been seconded?

Mr Koval : The seven people seconded come from different parts of the department, not just from my division. They come from different parts of the agency and at different levels.

Senator FARRELL: I beg your pardon.

Mr Koval : There are different levels.

Senator FARRELL: Different levels of what?

Dr Grimes : We have two SES officers who have been seconded. An SES band 2 officer and an SES band 1 officer have been seconded and a number of other senior officers have been seconded across to PM&C.

Senator FARRELL: Of those seven, how many have come out of your department?

Mr Koval : Directly out of the division that I look after, there is one.

Senator FARRELL: What is he?

Mr Koval : She. She is a very good policy officer. She is very good at thinking laterally when it comes to policy development.

Dr Grimes : It would be wrong to characterise the staff working on the white paper as being solely the team in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. They are tapping in right across the department for any expertise and information that they require.

CHAIR: In producing a white paper on agriculture, did they look at solvency of the US, the problems of the value of the US currency, the $17 trillion of debt, the impact on our terms of trade and what our dollar is going to do? As much as the weather, the value of the dollar is what is buggering up agriculture.

Dr Grimes : They are probably not going to be trying to forecast exchange rates and so forth, but they do have a very wide remit in the issues to be considered. The government has issued an issues paper. That was released just in the last week or so. That is now being followed by a quite detailed engagement process with stakeholders right across the agricultural sector to try to get as much input in as possible to the development of a green paper—as much input on where the key issues are.

CHAIR: My point is: the expertise of these people. Do they understand the enormous issue that we have with the currency? You can have as many free trade agreements as you like and get rid of as many tariffs as you like, but if you have some currencies not on the market—China—and technically the US is insolvent, as they have borrowed $5 trillion from their own pension fund, which is double debt, that impact on our terms of trade and the future of agriculture is as much as the impact of the weather.

Dr Grimes : As I said, the white paper does have a quite broad focus in its development and in fact that is one of the reasons why it is run as a task force out of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

CHAIR: Is it based on solid data or a dream?

Dr Grimes : Oh no, this will be based on solid data and with engagement of all relevant departments, not just the agriculture department.

Mr Tucker : If I can also help you with your question. In relation to your specific questions about the impact of the Australian dollar on profitability and the Australian agriculture sector, ABARES has done some work around that and there are officers from ABARES who have been seconded who are involved in that work.

CHAIR: Yes, the US would have balanced its budget had it picked up the derivative swap leakage and the transfer pricing leakage last year, about $900 billion.

Senator FARRELL: Just so I am clear about this. The white paper is dealing with the issue of competitiveness. That is the essential issue in the primary industry sector.

Mr Tucker : It has a central focus on competitiveness; that is correct. But it has a wide focus.

Senator FARRELL: A wider focus, yes. Why couldn't this work have been done in your department? Why was it necessary for it to be taken out of your hands and put into—

Mr Tucker : It was specific in the election commitment of the government that it would be conducted by the Prime Minister's department.

Dr Grimes : As I indicated before, it is a whole-of-government focus on the work that is being done.

Senator FARRELL: So this was an undertaking that the now government made in the lead-up to the election?

Dr Grimes : Correct.

Senator FARRELL: What is your department doing while this other investigation is going on? I did ask that question of Mr Koval.

Dr Grimes : I apologise; given that the broad scope of the white paper goes well beyond Mr Koval's area of responsibility, it really is involving pretty much all aspects of our department. So we are very closely involved in the process of producing the white paper.

Senator FARRELL: But this area of the department is looking at productivity. Productivity is obviously a component of competitiveness. That is what the white paper is looking at.

Dr Grimes : Correct.

Senator FARRELL: What is this section of the department doing while the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is looking at competitiveness?

Dr Grimes : We can perhaps handle that in two parts: maybe the department overall, and then go to Mr Koval, who can talk about—

Senator FARRELL: I am happy for you to handle it any way you think best.

Dr Grimes : Overall, we are very closely involved in the process. Because we have staff over in PM&C they are actually liaising very closely with the department for any information they require. Many parts of our department are having input into the development of the agriculture white paper. We see it as a high priority for us as a department, as, indeed, it is a very high priority for the minister. I will defer to Mr Koval on the specific issues of agricultural productivity.

Mr Koval : From the division's point of view, we work on the white paper and we have continued to provide further input into the process—

Senator FARRELL: Just to be clear on that point. You have one person over in the Prime Minister's office dealing with this, but you are providing additional information, as well as that individual, to the input into the white paper.

Mr Koval : That is correct, as many other departments are. There is a whole-of-government process. There are secretaries from all departments in on committees to ensure it is whole-of-government, and we support that process. On the subject of other things we are doing, we still manage the research and development agenda for the government, which is far broader. There are 15 research and development bodies. We still have that responsibility, which we manage on a day to day basis. There are still lots of other issues that are more immediate, and not for the medium to longer term, for the white paper. So there are lots of those other issues, and there is a range of election commitments we continue to work on.

Senator FARRELL: Is it fair to say that all of the issues of competitiveness in the agricultural sector are issues that relate to the work of primary industries? So, when you say it is a whole-of-government process, in fact all of the issues that are being discussed are issues in agriculture and primary industry, are they not? That is what is being looked at here.

Dr Grimes : There is a whole range of issues that might be relevant, including skills, training and so forth. There is a number of issues across government that are potentially relevant to the—

Senator FARRELL: Mr Koval already said that they are looking at labour in this particular department. That is already one of the significant features of this department?

Dr Grimes : It would not be exclusively us, by all means. There are other departments that are closely involved in these matters. In fact, the government's broad settings on budgetary policy, deregulation and so forth can all have direct impacts on how competitive our agricultural sector is.

Senator FARRELL: Do you know why the Prime Minister decided to deal with this in his department rather than simply do it internally within primary industries?

Dr Grimes : Mr Tucker indicated earlier that it was a specific election commitment of the government, and as I have—

Senator FARRELL: I understand it was an election commitment.

Senator Abetz: And from the policy point of view, being a government election commitment, there was the importance the Prime Minister undoubtedly placed on it.

Senator FARRELL: It was not lack of confidence in the minister, was it, Secretary?

Senator Abetz: You cannot ask the secretary that question. You can ask that of me.

Senator FARRELL: I can ask you?

Senator Abetz: You can. And my answer is absolutely not. It is one of those cheap shots that you do not do very well, Senator Farrell. But you are basically a nice bloke.

CHAIR: I bring the committee to order and advise you Senator Farrell that your time for your first round of questions has expired.

Senator BACK: I have a number of questions on agricultural productivity, staring with the live animal export ban. I will put on the record that it will go down as one of the most disastrous and ill-judged decisions on any animal industry sector. I foreshadowed at the time what the economic and animal welfare impacts of this would be into the longer term, with or without drought, and we now see them.

Firstly, did the previous government instruct the department to look into any other means, besides the establishment of the farm finance package, to attempt to address the economic impacts on the domestic beef industry resulting from the ban?

Dr Grimes : That question actually goes to the provision of policy advice to a previous government. As you would appreciate we are even constrained in our capacity to comment on policy advice to the current government. We could take the matter on notice and see if there is anything we can provide for you, but we are not in a position to be able to talk about our policy advice to a previous government.

Senator BACK: Can you tell me Secretary, or officers who were in the department at the time, whether the department explored any other options and solutions to the ongoing surplus of cattle in the domestic market, which we knew would inevitably flow from the cessation of exports from the north?

Dr Grimes : Again, I think we are going into the same territory. We will take it on notice and see if there is anything we can provide.

Senator BACK: I am not asking you what advice you might have given to the minster at the time. I am asking if the department addressed its mind to that issue.

Dr Grant : I am unable to answer that question at the moment. We could take the matter on notice and provide you with information.

Senator BACK: Are there officers who could attempt to answer that?

Dr Grimes : They would not be in a position to be able to talk about advice to a previous government. They would be able to indicate the general work the department had been doing. But they would not be able to address the question of the advice that was provided to a previous government.

Senator BACK: Did the department address itself to, and did the department publish, any studies to try to quantify the economic impact on the live animal industries, particularly the beef cattle industry, of the live animal export ban?

Dr Grimes : We will see if there is an officer here who can address that question.

Senator BACK: It was the most critical issue confronting northern Australia at that time, and, as we know, it continues today with disastrous impacts on animal—

Dr Grimes : We have the live animal export section coming up on the program in a short while, and we may have officers there who might be able to provide some more information for you on that question.

Senator BACK: There was from the previous minister a $100 million assistance package that was enacted to help affected producers in the wake of the ban. Is that correct?

Dr Grimes : It may be appropriate to pick that up in the live animal exports section.

Senator BACK: It is an agricultural productivity issue, isn't it?

Dr Grimes : The relevant officers will be in the next section. I think, as we covered in evidence earlier today, it pre-dates my personal period in the department.

Senator BACK: If I can then foreshadow what I will be asking so that they can prepare it and have the answer. If there was $100 million allocated, how much of it was delivered, into what areas was it delivered, how much was not expended and what was the fate of what was not expended?

I will go briefly now to the Tasmanian Fruit and Vegetable Industry Taskforce and refer to the ABARES report released in February of this year, only three weeks ago, relating to the economic woes of that industry. Given the poor performance of the Tasmanian vegetable farming industry in the last financial year, with ABARES estimating the average farm cash income was negative—$35,000 per farming property—what is happening now to assist Tasmanian vegetable producers?

Dr Grimes : Mr Koval might be able to provide an update on that.

Mr Koval : In terms of direct assistance to Tasmanian fruit and vegetable growers, I am not aware of anything bar what we have more generally available to assist producers. Regarding the Tassie taskforce—horticulture taskforce—we are in the process of finalising the members of that, the terms of reference and everything else, with government. That will commence shortly. But in terms of assistance provided specifically to Tasmanian fruit and vegetable growers, I am not aware of anything. I would have to take that on notice—

Senator BACK: Could you do that, because I am obviously anxious to know just what assistance the government is offering to fruit and vegetable growers—

Mr Tucker : Vegetable growers can access the farm finance arrangements that have been in place in Tasmania. The part of the department that can provide those details is coming on later this evening. We will be able to give you a breakdown at that stage of where access to the farm finance arrangements for Tasmanian producers is in terms of productivity enhancement loans.

Senator BACK: I will be most interested to learn that. Going now to the Agricultural Industry Advisory Council, which was established at the end of January this year, so it is obviously very new. The council advises and recommends on proposed legislation affecting agriculture, fisheries and forestry. What is the aim of the advisory council itself? What is its objective?

Dr Grimes : The advisory council has quite wide terms of reference to assist the minister and provide advice to the minister on a range of matters, including deregulation as well. The minister has already had an initial teleconference meeting with the members of the committee. They have commenced work to have their first meeting in just a few weeks time.

Senator BACK: Can you tell us who the chair of the committee is?

Dr Grimes : The chair is the minister, and there will be a co-chair.

Senator BACK: The minister will be chairing the meetings.

Dr Grimes : The minister will be chairing the meetings. There will be a co-chair appointed from the committee as well.

Senator BACK: Is it part of the remit that the council will be providing input on the deregulation agenda and on the agriculture white paper? Is that part of their brief?

Dr Grimes : Yes, it will provide advice to the minister in those areas.

Senator BACK: Has there been any concern raised by industry representatives of areas of agriculture which do not appear to be represented on the council? Has that been raised with the department or the minister?

Dr Grimes : I have not had a specific concern raised with me. The background of the members is fairly broad. Clearly, you are not going to be able to have every single subsector represented in a group like that. That would not be sensible. You would have a large committee as a result. I have no doubt that various subsectors may have wished that they had a particular representative on the body, but it is intended to be a broadly based advisory body to the minister. There are a range of skills and backgrounds represented on the committee to ensure the minister has good information to assist him.

Senator BACK: Thank you. I am aware that other senators probably have questions, so I want to keep moving to research and development. It is my understanding that the coalition has committed $100 million of additional funding for rural research and development from 2014-15. Is that correct?

Dr Grimes : The government has an election commitment for the implementation of another $100 million in additional funding for research and development yes.

Senator BACK: So what will that bring it up to?

Dr Grimes : I have not got the precise figures with me. Mr Koval might have them.

Mr Koval : In general terms we divide matching funds to research and development corporations and RIRDC worth about $250 million a year.

Senator BACK: And how much does industry provide?

Mr Koval : I would have to look at the exact numbers, but they provide probably another 300-odd million. I would have to get the exact numbers for you. They provide additional money because of the caps and marketing. So the $100 million is in addition to that $250 million.

Senator BACK: I wonder if, in providing that advice on notice, you could give us a 10-year perspective?

Mr Koval : As in backward looking?

Senator BACK: That is correct. I want to see what the trend has been in both government and industry support over that period of time.

Mr Koval : Certainly we can provide a breakdown for you.

Senator BACK: I wonder if you could also tell me either now or on notice how expenditure in the agricultural R&D sector compares with other industries and the rest of the Australian economy. Are we at the same level? Are we declining over time? Where does agricultural R&D fit?

Mr Koval : In long-term trends I think research and development is probably declining across the economy full stop, but I would have to go have a look and see what numbers we have. I think the Productivity Commission might have put something in their report. I will go pull it out for you and provide it on notice.

Senator BACK: It is early days, but can you point yet to any improvements, changes or increased funding in the agricultural R&D sector as a result of the government's commitment and industry's investment?

Mr Koval : You mean besides the $100 million?

Dr Grimes : These matters will be finalised through the budget process, and following that will be the appropriate time to make evaluations.

Senator BACK: So we are likely to see a sort of spike beyond this financial year?

Dr Grimes : The provision of this funding is a matter being considered through the budget process, so the precise details of how the funding will be allocated will be announced in the budget.

Senator FARRELL: To be clear on that: the extra $100 million the government has promised has not yet actually gone into the system. Is that what you are saying?

Dr Grimes : It is a firm election commitment, as has been indicated by the government. The normal process with lager election commitments and election commitments with financial implications is to actually work through the precise details of how they will be delivered and incorporate them in the budget, and that is the process that we are going through at the moment.

Senator BACK: I understand Land and Water Australia has been abolished. When did that take place?

Dr Grimes : That was abolished some years ago.

Senator BACK: Okay. What was its focus?

Dr Grimes : It had broad focus on land and water matters, as the title indicated. It predates me. I do not know whether Mr Koval or Mr Tucker might be better placed to give you detailed background on that item.

Mr Koval : Land and Water Australia was set up a number of years ago. I cannot remember when it was set up. The idea was to go across industry sectors and look at many land and water natural resource issues because many of those things impact upon more than just one commodity group. Land and Water was that cross-sectorial look at many of those research and development issues.

Senator BACK: If you cannot advise me now, can you take on notice the funding that was freed up as a result of Land and Water Australia being abolished? Did it remain in the R&D sphere for agriculture; and, if so, where did it go? Or did it actually go back into consolidated revenue?

Mr Koval : I would have to take that one on notice. I do not recall where the funding went and whether it was reallocated or absorbed into the system at the time.

Senator BACK: Sure. I just want to establish the accuracy of the figures I have been given. I was told it was abolished in 2009-10, with a saving of $46 million over four years. I wanted to establish whether that was accurate and what the fate of those dollars was.

Mr Koval : The numbers do sound about right, but I will have to take it on notice.

Senator BACK: Sure. Others have questions and I do too, so I will stop here.

CHAIR: Thank you for your cooperation. Senator Siewert.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. I want to pursue the $100 million as well.

CHAIR: Do you want a piece of it?

Senator SIEWERT: I can make some recommendations about where it should be spent, but anyway. Do you expect it to be new money, or are you being asked to find that from your existing budget?

Dr Grimes : This is a funding allocation hat was announced as part of the government's election commitments.

Senator SIEWERT: I am aware.

Dr Grimes : I do not have anything further to add to that.

Senator SIEWERT: You have already told me that the number of staff has been reduced in border compliance. How much in savings are you being asked to find in your portfolio in the budget process?

Dr Grimes : I am not in a position to answer questions about the current budget process. I am simply not able to.

Senator SIEWERT: You are not able to tell me if this is in fact new money and not money that has been found in your portfolio?

Dr Grimes : The government's election commitment was that it was an allocation of $100 million. The government as the then opposition had a full table setting out the financial implications of its commitments.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. I go back to the food community grants. You said that there were 364 applications. What was the total value of those applications?

Mr Koval : I would have to take that on notice. I do not have that number with me, but I can get it for you.

Senator SIEWERT: If you could, that would be appreciated. That was part of the allocation when the Food Plan was announced?

Mr Koval : That is correct.

Senator SIEWERT: We talked about the Food Plan in previous estimates, but it was a bit unclear. Does that mean any work now related to the Food Plan has been completely abandoned?

Mr Koval : No, there are some initiatives which are continuing.

Senator SIEWERT: Which are they?

Mr Koval : The global food strategy for the Australian food brand, for example, is continuing. Food in the curriculum is continuing. Some strategic market research to help small commodities gain market access is continuing.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. If the food grants have been discontinued, how much money is now being allocated to those particular elements of the Food Plan?

Mr Koval : In terms of the particular projects that I just mentioned?

Senator SIEWERT: In terms of those projects and anything else that is still being continued as part of the Food Plan.

Mr Koval : The previous government announced an allocation of $37 million. In the portfolio additional estimates statements we talk about just over $4.4 million being returned.

CHAIR: Could I ask a dumb question? Can you summarise the Food Plan?

Mr Koval : Summarise the Food Plan?

CHAIR: What are we talking about here?

Mr Koval : The National Food Plan looked at the food system and developed a number of initiatives to look at how the food system may grow in coming years.

CHAIR: You are talking bureaucratic. Is there something I can touch and feel?

Mr Koval : The idea was to say, 'If Australia wants to continue to export food, how do we have to do it, who are our consumers likely to be and how do we put that product in front of them?'

CHAIR: Give me an example of what you have discovered.

Mr Koval : For example, one of the things we are looking at is: if there is a growing demand for food in our neighbours in Asia, what do Asian consumers actually want? What we produce may not necessarily be what they want in the future. So we need to marry our production systems with growing demand.

Senator SIEWERT: Chair, can you get a briefing on this later so that I can ask some more questions?

CHAIR: Yeah, righto. I have just been told to shut up.

Senator SIEWERT: So those are the programs that are continuing. What is the status of the actual plan? Is it something the government is still implementing or is it just those programs that the government is implementing?

Mr Koval : It is those programs that the government is implementing. In terms of the broader Food Plan, the government is in the process of the agriculture white paper, and that is setting the long term policy parameters for the government.

Senator SIEWERT: So we ignore the Food Plan and just look at those particular programs? Is that a correct interpretation?

Mr Koval : That is correct.

Dr Grimes : Effectively, the Food Plan will be considered as part of the white paper process. As I indicated earlier, the government has quite a comprehensive white paper process, and that will be setting out the government's agenda for the future.

Senator SIEWERT: I understand that, but the point I am trying to get to is whether the Food Plan has any status anymore, and it does not if I understand what I was just told correctly.

Mr Tucker : That is correct, but the secretary is correct. The research, analysis and input that went into the Food Plan will be fed into the agriculture white paper process.

CHAIR: So it is not a plan to be seen to be doing something when you are doing nothing.

Senator SIEWERT: Well, it is not a plan anymore. In terms of the programs that were continued, what was the decision making process to keep those particular components and get rid of the food community grants?

Dr Grimes : Again, I think that is sort of traversing into the territory of policy advice. We addressed this earlier and provided advice in relation to these matters, but we are not really in a position to go any further today.

Senator SIEWERT: I am not asking for policy advice; I am asking for the process that was undertaken. Why were these projects chosen? Were they already underway? Were they seen to be more important to have priority given to them?

Dr Grimes : I appreciate that the question you are asking is around process, and we can answer questions around process. We have taken on notice the precise dates on which advice was provided. I gave an indication of the general process that was undertaken at the end of last year. We are probably not in a position to provide you with much more information at the moment, but we can certainly take details on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you.

CHAIR: I advise the committee that, in not giving information on advice from the department to the government, there is a thin line to demonstrate that it is not in the public interest.

Senator RHIANNON: Dr Grimes, these questions were submitted on notice in November last year, but I have not received an answer so I will ask them again. With regard to the funding of projects that promote kangaroo meat to consumers, what responsibility does the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation have to ensure its funded projects do not present a health risk to consumers?

Dr Grimes : We have the chief executive of the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation here. He will be able to respond to the elements that they are managing.

Mr Burns : I did not quite get all of that question, so would you mind repeating it, please?

Senator RHIANNON: On the funding of projects that promote kangaroo meat to consumers: what responsibility does RIRDC have to ensure its funded projects do not present a health risk to consumers?

Mr Burns : We have been funded in the past to undertake a series of projects related to the kangaroo industry. Those projects mostly date back to 2000 and were completed by 2010, so they are not recent projects and are not fresh in my mind. They are projects that go out, as all our projects do, and that are done by the appropriate people. When we have the results of that report, if we think it is a report that is worthy of being presented to the public, we make it available. Where it is relevant we might get some peer review done of that work to see whether it has health implications and things like that, but generally speaking what we try to do in the process of allocating the funds and finding the appropriate researcher is make sure that they are people who will cover off on those issues for us.

Senator RHIANNON: Did the RIRDC approve the recommendation, in the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia's kangaroo recipe book called Roocepies, that kangaroo is best served undercooked or rare?

Mr Burns : I am aware of that book which was published, but again that goes back some time and I do not have the details of the project. I can take that on notice though.

Senator RHIANNON: It has been taken on notice before, and we did not get an answer. So will we get an answer—

Mr Burns : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: in the required time?

Mr Burns : As far as I know, we did answer that.

Dr Grimes : We will do some checking, because my understanding is that all of your questions on notice were answered. We are a little concerned that you have not received it, so we will do some checking at our end and see what has happened.

Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to be corrected on that. Were food safety checks provided by either the Department of Health's food standards area or by the Department of Agriculture's food division before publication, considering the controversy around undercooked meat?

Dr Grimes : We will have to pick that up in the appropriate section of the agenda. Item 20, food export certification, may be the most appropriate place for it. We will certainly have the officers who would have the background at that section.

Senator RHIANNON: I will come back to it; thank you. Is the RIRDC aware that the Department of Health in Australia warn about the health risks of eating rare or undercooked kangaroo meat?

Mr Burns : I have no direct knowledge of that.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you think that that is relevant when RIRDC is funding publications that promote kangaroo meat as best served undercooked or rare?

Mr Burns : I would say that researchers should certainly be aware of it.

Senator RHIANNON: In previous Senate estimates I was advised by the Department of Agriculture's food division that raw kangaroo meat is not tested for foodborne pathogens such as toxoplasma gondii or salmonella species—and both are zoonitic agents which, as you would know, are widely present in kangaroos—because this is not a requirement of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. In relation to government funded advice to undercook the meat: which agency is legally liable for any health risks or fatalities that arise from the ingestion of undercooked meat thus contaminated?

Dr Grimes : I think we would need to pick this in the relevant section.

Senator RHIANNON: It would that go under the same one—food exports?

Dr Grimes : We will handle it there or advise you when we will have the officers available. We do not have those officers with this at the moment.

Senator RHIANNON: Is the RIRDC aware of predictions in the scientific literature that the next outbreak of toxoplasma gondii in Europe would most likely be linked to the consumption of kangaroo meat?

Mr Burns : I am not aware of that, but I make the point that we currently only have one kangaroo project that is still active. Largely, our kangaroo work was done during the 2000s.

CHAIR: It is mostly pet food, anyhow.

Mr Burns : It is not an issue that is currently on our agenda.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take it on notice and provide details of that project that you currently have, please.

Mr Burns : I can do that.

Dr Grimes : Just to assist the senator, according to our records we answered that question on notice. It was question 49 from supplementary budget estimates.

Senator RHIANNON: I put in a whole lot of questions so could I get—

Mr Burns : We will do any further checking.

Senator RHIANNON: Chair, can I just check what section the questions come into.

CHAIR: Sorry.