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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Department of the Environment and Energy

Department of the Environment and Energy


CHAIR: We'll go back to our program as it was, and we'll call officers from the department relating to program 1.1, sustainable management of natural resources and the environment. Welcome, everyone. We'll start with questions from Senator Urquhart.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you very much. I've got some that I had before around land care. Is this where I ask them? In 1.1?

Mr Knudson : In this evening's session? Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Are the parrots in this one or 1.4?

Mr Knudson : They are in 1.4.

Senator URQUHART: I will come back to the parrots in 1.4. How many listings of threatened species need to be completed or are underway?

Ms Jonasson : Those questions are better directed to outcome 1.4. I will still be here at the table.

Senator URQUHART: I will now go to the Landcare Program. Can you tell me what is committed and what is uncommitted over the forward estimates?

Ms Jonasson : I just want to clarify your question relating to the National Landcare Program, the $1.1 billion, that started in 2017-18. Is that—yes.

Senator URQUHART: I can actually outline some other programs that I'm interested in. Do you want me to go through them as well now?

Ms Jonasson : Perhaps if you can give me the detail. What I can give you is the amount of money that we have in contract with the under-components of it, but I might not have all the detail here, in terms of the fully committed and funded, because it is a very large program and very complicated.

Senator URQUHART: I'm particularly interested in the Landcare Program, what's committed and uncommitted over the forward estimates, but also these programs that are on the department's websites—that is, the Target Area Grants. Are they committed or uncommitted?

Ms Stevens : In response to your question about the Target Area Grants, that is a previous program underneath the National Landcare Program. It has been fully committed and isn't currently active.

Senator URQUHART: World Heritage Grants?

Mr Knudson : Is this about the southern coast huts?

Senator URQUHART: Just Word Heritage Grants—no particular.

Mr Knudson : If it's heritage grants, that would be under 1.4.

Senator URQUHART: Indigenous Protected Areas?

Ms Stevens : Are you referring to the ongoing program or the recent—

Senator URQUHART: Whether it's committed or uncommitted.

Ms Stevens : In relation to Indigenous Protected Areas, let me check.

Ms Jonasson : While Ms Stevens is getting some detail for you, there are a couple of things to confirm there for you. The previous Indigenous Protected Areas program is now administered by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. So, questions on the previous program and the administration are probably best answered by them. But there is some additional funding that was provided under National Landcare Program 2, for which Ms Stevens can refer you to about the progress and where we are at there.

Ms Stevens : In relation to the $15 million under the National Landcare Program Phase 2, currently we have committed five discretionary grants with an annual consultation funding of $695,000 for this year, and out until 2021: $2,485,000. As of today, Minister Price announced the opening of the competitive grant round, which will look to secure up to 20 new IPAs for the remainder of that $15 million.

Senator URQUHART: That was $695,000. How much is the total amount for the Environmental Stewardship Program, and is that committed or uncommitted? Do you want me to go through the list now, or do you just want to pull them off one by one?

Ms Jonasson : If we pull them off one by one it is probably easier for us to find the relevant briefs as we go. The Environmental Stewardship Program is fully committed and has been running for some time.

Senator URQUHART: Do you have the mount for that?

Ms Jonasson : I have the total amount from 2016-17 through to 2022-23. That is $57.5 million over those years. But the program is much longer than that. I'm not sure if we have the details, but I'll check. We might take that on notice. That program has been running for a number of years. It is a multi-decade program.

Senator URQUHART: The innovation grants?

Ms Jonasson : I'm not sure which program you're referring to with that one.

Senator URQUHART: The ones that are on your website.

Ms Stevens : We might have to take that one on notice. I think that might be a previous program, similar to the targeted area grants.

Senator URQUHART: I haven't got the website up at the moment. Threatened Species Recovery Fund?

Dr Box : The Threatened Species Recovery Fund, which is $5 million, is fully committed. Forty-two projects have been announced under that fund.

Senator URQUHART: Australian Heritage Grants?

Ms Jonasson : That is outcome 1.4. I think we mentioned heritage a bit earlier.

Senator URQUHART: You did. Community Heritage and Icon Grants would again be 1.4, or not? One should never assume.

Mr Knudson : If it was heritage related it would be 1.4.

Ms Jonasson : We might take that one on notice. It might be another legacy program. Just to explain for you: on our website we mention current as well as previous programs, because there's often useful information on a program that people might want to refer to or use for further programs. That's why we keep that information up there.

Senator URQUHART: Protecting national historic sites?

Mr Knudson : That's 1.4 as well. Anything that sounds old.

Senator URQUHART: I'll try and remember that. Can I go back to the threatened species listings. How many listings need to be completed or are under way?

Ms Jonasson : That is outcome 1.4, regulation.

Senator URQUHART: You told me that, sorry. I'm trying to get my paperwork in order.

Senator Birmingham: Next estimates we're going to have a five minute session where—

Senator URQUHART: It changes every estimates.

Senator Birmingham: I have been in your seat and I have been through the same experience.

Senator URQUHART: We get the sheet and follow it and when we come back it's changed.

Senator Birmingham: It's like a memory game.

Senator URQUHART: Can I ask about the dewatering investigation—the sinking of the dewatering bores. Is that this section?

Mr Knudson : Dewatering of which bores?

Senator URQUHART: Adani's.

Mr Knudson : That sounds very much like a compliance matter, so that would be outcome 1.5.

Senator URQUHART: Can I ask the question and you can tell me whether it is compliance and whether it doesn't fit here. Did the department gather evidence about the casing material, diameter and depth of the bores?

Mr Knudson : I suspect that would be a compliance matter.

Senator URQUHART: Where does that fit?

Mr Knudson : Outcome 1.5.

Senator URQUHART: That might change what I was going to do with 1.5. It may do now because these are what I thought was 1.4. All of those matters about that would be 1.5? Environmental law?

Mr Knudson : That's 1.5 as well.

CHAIR: I told you we wouldn't stick to that colourful sheet, Mr Pratt. The colourful sheet didn't come in handy at all.

Senator URQUHART: That means all my questions for this are now in 1.4 and 1.5.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Is now a time to ask questions about the Great Barrier Reef Foundation?

CHAIR: That's correct.

Senator RICE: I have questions about the review and extension of the New South Wales and Tasmanian RFAs. Before agreeing to extend the New South Wales and Tasmanian RFAs, did the environment department undertake any analysis to determine the impact of native forest logging on listed threatened species?

Ms Stevens : The department has worked with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, and the assessment is outlined in the assessment of matters report. That's available on the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources website.

Senator RICE: But was there a specific assessment of the impact of RFAs on listed threatened species?

Ms Stevens : The assessment is outlined within the assessment of matters report.

Ms Jonasson : We would be happy to provide that. It's a report that belongs to the agriculture department, but we'd be happy to give them a heads up.

Senator RICE: Would the environment department have done that work, or was it the agriculture department that would have undertaken that work, if it took place?

Ms Stevens : The assessment was undertaken with both portfolios working together,

Senator RICE: So there was an assessment that was done, which you are saying is outlined in the report?

Ms Stevens : In the assessment of matters report.

Senator RICE: Can you give me details of that?

Ms Jonasson : That is really a question for the agriculture department. They have responsibility for that, but we would be happy to give them a heads up and let them know.

Senator RICE: Specifically, did the department identify the subset of listed threatened fauna species which are dependent on native forests covered by the RFAs?

Ms Jonasson : I don't have that level of detail here with me, I'm afraid. Again, I can have a look at it and take that question on notice. I'll also talk to my colleagues in the agriculture department that have led this process.

Senator RICE: Could you take on notice specifically what species have been added to the list of threatened species since the RFAs came into force; which, if any, have been removed from this list because they're no longer threatened; which species have been uplifted to a more threatened category; and which remain listed at the same level.

Ms Jonasson : In RFA regions?

Senator RICE: Yes.

Ms Jonasson : We're happy to take that on notice.

Senator RICE: Does the department agree that doing the analysis would be an important way of assessing the impact of RFA exemption on threatened species?

Ms Jonasson : That's a matter of opinion that I struggle to answer. What I can say is that the assessment did recognise the comprehensive regional assessments undertaken when the RFAs were established. It did consider the likely impact of the extensions, and it drew on a vast amount of information, including the state of the forest reports which the agriculture department and ABARES produced, various five-yearly reviews, and state government information. But to get the details of that I think it is best directed to the agriculture department.

Senator RICE: I will direct it to the agriculture department tomorrow. Can you give me an update on where we're at with the RFA reviews for Victoria and WA? I think they are the two that are current?

Ms Stevens : Correct. The Victorian modernisation process has commenced and there is significant consultation under way, which can be found through the Engage Victoria website. It is quite a lengthy consultation process which will be conducted shortly and which will involve online surveys, drop in centres, a youth symposium, on-country meetings with traditional owners, targeted face-to-face meetings with key stakeholders and also an opportunity to provide written submissions. That has recently commenced, and we expect that consultation process to be completed towards the end of this year. In terms of the WA new process—

Senator RICE: A consultation process to be finished by the end of this year—what is the expectation of the completion of the process in terms of the timing of that?

Ms Stevens : The Victorian processes have been extended until March next year. We expect that the process will be concluded before the end of the—

Senator RICE: We've got consultation occurring until the end of the year. So then it is going to be a fairly swift turnaround to digest all of that then to conclude it by March.

Ms Jonasson : Yes, it will. But, as I said, we work very closely with our agriculture colleagues and support them in the process, and we'll do our best to turn the information around as quickly as we can to help them.

Senator RICE: With regard to WA?

Ms Stevens : In the WA process we expect the outcomes to be concluded shortly. But again, that would be a question for our agriculture colleagues.

Senator RICE: What has been the input from the department into the WA review?

Ms Stevens : We've worked closely with them, as we have on all the review processes.

Senator URQUHART: In relation to the question about the Landcare Program, I think you said it was $1.1 billion over the forward estimates. Can you tell me how much of that is uncommitted?

Ms Jonasson : I would have to take that question on notice because, as I said before, there are a lot of different elements to the program and I don't have all the breakdown of that. It's quite a job to go through and identify the uncommitted funding. We did give you some information on the individual programs that you identified, all of which are part of the program. But I can take that on notice and we can provide you with further information.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Can I ask a couple of questions about Great Barrier Reef Foundation, just seeking an update? Are we able to find out whether the foundation has already raised any money in co-financing to this point? I can't find any announcement, but is it possible to get an update?

Ms Callister : Was your question whether they have raised any co-financing to date?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes, specifically in regard to the $444 million they were allocated and they had benchmarks to achieve. I know they were setting out a plan and they had to provide that, but had they managed to raise any money through co-financing?

Ms Callister : My understanding at this time is there have been some co-contributions in some of the early investments that they've made, including a project where they've provided some funding to a survey program in the northern Great Barrier Reef, where there was some co-contributions from some of the research and science agencies that were contributing to that.


Ms Callister : Yes, and I believe James Cook University. I also am aware that they are coming very close to announcing their first range of investments on water quality programs, and there is an expectation that there will be quite a significant co-contribution to that tranche of program funding.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I've got some questions specifically on the water quality program in just a second. Just to be clear, the projects that they've raised co-financing for so far are with government institutions, not with private philanthropists or corporate donors?

Ms Callister : I'm telling you about the ones I'm aware of. I don't have the full details across the water quality programs. They haven't provided us as yet with any information about whether they've managed to raise additional funds through philanthropists or private donations. We would need to seek that information from the foundation themselves.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So they wouldn't tell you that automatically? That would be under some kind of set reporting process that they would let you know?

Ms Callister : That would be our expectation.

Mr Knudson : I suspect you are aware there are collaborative investment strategies and a target out there of $300 million to $400 million over the course of the six years of the grant?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes.

Mr Knudson : That's their aspiration that they want to work towards.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I just couldn't find any announcement that they have received any additional money from potential co-financiers. In terms of the water quality, has the foundation funded any of the grant programs in the reef catchment area yet, or is that what you're referring to as about to be announced?

Ms Callister : That's what I'm referring to. There was a call for up to $20 million worth of water quality projects. The call for projects has closed, those projects have been assessed, and I understand that they've been moving through the internal approval process. We expect them to be announced quite soon.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Are you aware of whether the foundation is likely to sustain the existing networks of 50 to 60 extension officers along the Great Barrier Reef coastline, whose work is aimed at reducing land based pollution on the reef, as part of their first-round grants program?

Ms Callister : Certainly the focus of that first round of water quality projects was maintaining existing programs and ensuring the continuity of existing programs, existing investment and existing people who were working on ground, such as extension officers.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The Reef Alliance, as I understand it, is made up of NRM bodies, Landcare organisations et cetera. They've also requested that their on-ground water quality extension officers, who work with farmers to reduce water pollution, be funded. You're confident that that will be funded through the foundation?

Ms Callister : It's not my place to say what's going to be funded through that process. There was a separate process with its own probity arrangements, but it is a program that we're also currently funding out of the Reef Trust directly from the department, and there's still some time to go for that program and still some funding that will be provided from the department to continue that program—I think probably till the end of the year.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. My understanding—correct me if I'm wrong—is that the costs that they would be seeking for that would be $12 million to $15 million. The committee had some correspondence around the Senate inquiry which we didn't publish because we couldn't substantiate it. There is concern amongst the network that the funding is not going to be forthcoming and there are going to be significant job losses because the money has instead been given to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Are you aware of those kinds of concerns?

Ms Callister : I think the intent of those funds was to try to avoid exactly that sort of thing happening. If there are situations where there are people working on the ground and we think they're doing good work, the foundation, of course, isn't the only option that they have to go to for funding. They could also approach the department through the appropriate processes for the awarding of funding to see whether we could continue our existing funding program.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Just to be clear, then, the federal government did commit to funding these NRM water quality extension officers, but that funding has been given to the foundation and it's up to them to make the decision?

Ms Callister : No, not exactly. We have an existing contract with the Reef Alliance for $45 million. That is due to finish in June this year, but we expect that that will be extended through to the end of the year, at their request. There are still funds to be allocated from the department under that. We're also aware that the Reef Alliance has put in a request through this current funding round. It will be a matter for the foundation to determine what the outcome of that is, but obviously there is opportunity if there are concerns about whether or not that can maintain the surety of people's employment. There are multiple avenues that the Reef Alliance can have, including further discussions with both the foundation and the department.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Did you want to add something, Mr Moore?

Mr Moore : No.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Are you able to tell the Senate how much of the partnership grant so far has been spent on administration? Is that something you've been updated on to this point?

Mr Moore : We have received the foundation's first progress report, at the end of January. That report is currently being reviewed, so at this stage I wouldn't be able to give you that figure, but I'm sure that we can take that on notice and come back to you.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. I have an amount here that I've been told about second-hand. Is it worth me putting that to you and having you say yes or no, or are you adamant you won't be able to tell me?

Mr Moore : I don't think it would be appropriate to conjecture.

Mr Knudson : Senator, you could always ask the question on notice, and we can get back to you when we have the exact document.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: With the amount that you know has been spent on administration, how does that compare to money spent on external projects to date? Are you able to make a comparison?

Mr Knudson : We've talked about this a few times in the past, in the sense that, when we've looked at things under the Reef Trust or other large grants administration projects of the department, it's often been around an order of magnitude of 15 per cent and an additional 15 per cent for subcontracting. So that was a significant part of the basis on which the department concluded that the foundation represented value for money, because we were capping the administration costs at 10 per cent for the foundation and then 10 per cent for subcontractors. I would just add that the foundation has advised the Audit Office that the majority of its delivery partners will receive no administration funds for their projects under that grant.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. I have just a couple of quick questions. How many Brisbane based staff do the foundation now employ, in your understanding? They originally had six.

Mr Moore : My understanding at the moment is that it's in the order of 28, but I would want to take that on notice and come back to you, Senator.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: If you could do that. And in terms of upgrading the Brisbane office or expanding that considerably to accommodate those six to 28, the extra 22 staff, what kinds of costs have been incurred—if you could take that on notice.

Mr Moore : Certainly. I would just clarify: of the 28, I would have to take on notice whether they're all based in Brisbane as well.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Actually, my very last question on this matter is: is there going to be a Great Barrier Reef Foundation regional office in the reef catchment? I understand at the moment they've only got one employee in the reef catchment area.

Mr Moore : I'll take that on notice.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: If you can take that on notice as well. I have a few quick questions about the Australian Institute of Marine Science's long-term monitoring program. Can you tell us if the contract has been signed between AIMS and the foundation for the long-term monitoring program for the far northern sector of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park that occurred on 4 to 29 January this year?

Ms Callister : Senator, I'm not aware exactly of whether the contract has been signed, but I do know that there was an agreement to provide a co-contribution to the funding for that particular voyage and that that work has happened, yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Are you able to tell us who owns the IP for this part of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation funded program, whether it was AIMS or the foundation themselves?

Ms Callister : Because I haven't actually seen the details of the contract, Senator, I would have to take that question on notice and consult with both the foundation and AIMS.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: If you could, because I understand there is a dispute over who owns the IP on that program at the moment, which is holding it up. Obviously it's a very important program. But could I ask you directly then, do you think it's appropriate, in going forward on this example or others, for the foundation to have the IP over what has been core business for a previous stakeholder in reef management and reef science?

Ms Callister : Our preference, of course, is that information that's provided through Australian government funding, whether it's provided to AIMS or to university sectors, is made publicly available and available for others to use. That's a general comment about the particular approach, and that tends to be what we encapsulate in our standard contractual arrangements.

Mr Knudson : Exactly the point that I was going to pick up on, Senator. We'll come back to you on notice to confirm this, but my recollection is that's actually an explicit part of the grant agreement.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Right. It's obviously a very important one, given this is the first time we are dealing with a private foundation managing such projects. Are you able to tell us what level of funding has been provided to AIMS and whether the money has actually been paid by the foundation or has left the foundation's account?

Mr Moore : The contribution under that particular project was $574,000.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. Am I allowed to keep going? You can come back to me if you want.

CHAIR: Do any Labor senators have any further questions in this area?

Senator Urquhart interjecting

CHAIR: No. If you want to—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: If this is my last chance to ask questions on the Great Barrier Reef Foundation—I'm still on my crusade to find out whose idea this was in the first place. You may have heard, I asked some questions of the earlier witnesses from the Audit Office. The ANAO said that on 21 March 2018 advice provided to the government by the Department of the Environment and Energy identified the foundation as the 'obvious partner' and that Mr Stephen Oxley, First Assistant Secretary, was the one who provided that advice. Mr Pratt, is that settled now, that it was Mr Oxley's idea, or do I have to dig deeper still?

Mr Pratt : It's not clear to me that it was Mr Oxley who was the absolute inspiration for this. My understanding is that there was a brainstorming session that looked at a range of possible options, and I'm aware of at least five that were considered. The Audit Office identified that only two of those were recorded, so clearly that was a shortcoming in our record keeping. However, in the context of the speed at which everything was happening, I am certainly finding it within myself to forgive the team, who, frankly, did a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances. Out of that brainstorming event, there were about five organisations—and I think the Audit Office report identifies a number of those—of which it was apparent to the team that the foundation was the best option, and that was then proposed to the government.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. You mentioned, Mr Pratt, the two words 'difficult circumstances'. Things were happening very quickly. According to this time line, on 6 March the government decided—presumably the ministers decided—that the proposal would be brought forward for a tied reef fund with a partner outside the federal government. That decision was made at a ministerial level, and then you essentially had 2½ weeks to find one. Is that your understanding?

Mr Pratt : I am empowered to go beyond my normal discomfort in talking about cabinet processes, because the former Prime Minister's letter to you actually makes it quite explicitly clear that it was the Expenditure Review Committee of cabinet.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Which is what we've discussed.

Mr Pratt : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So it was the entire cabinet that made the decision?

Mr Pratt : It was the Expenditure Review Committee of cabinet. Cabinet itself would have taken decisions at a later stage.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thank you. I will put some questions on notice. I'm still crusading. I'm not there yet.

Mr Pratt : You're nearly out of your agony, I think!

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You can put me out of my misery any time you like, Mr Pratt, privately or publicly. Thank you.


CHAIR: That brings us to the conclusion of program 1.1. We'll now go to program 1.4. We'll go straight to questions.

Senator URQUHART: I might start where I left off in terms of the listings of threatened species. How many need to be completed or are underway?

Mr G Richardson : Each year there's a call for public nominations, and there's a process under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to prioritise species for investment. On what's termed the finalised priority assessment list—so these have been formally under assessment by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee—there are currently 118 species.

Senator URQUHART: And what are they?

Mr G Richardson : They're a variety of species: birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and plants. They're all publicly available on our website. I'm happy to provide you with a link on notice.

Senator URQUHART: It's on the website, is it?

Mr G Richardson : Yes, it is.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Are there any being delayed in being listed?

Mr G Richardson : At the time when the species are added to the finalised priority assessment list—which is an annual process, as I said—there is a deadline set for the outcome of that assessment—so the time by which the Threatened Species Scientific Committee must complete the assessment and provide it to the minister for a decision. There is also a process under the act for the TSSC, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, to seek a delay if they haven't completed the assessment within the time frame, and there are a number in that category.

Senator URQUHART: How many are in that category?

Mr G Richardson : I'd have to take that on notice.

Senator URQUHART: Are there any with the minister for consideration?

Mr G Richardson : There are. There is a series of eight species with the minister for consideration.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. My understanding is that there are three woodlands that are being delayed. Is that correct?

Mr G Richardson : There are three ecological communities on which the minister last week made a decision to extend the time frame for a decision to be made.

Senator URQUHART: On all of them?

Mr G Richardson : On those three ecological communities.

Ms Jonasson : The reason for that is that the minister wanted further information to assist her in making the decision of listing.

Senator URQUHART: Obviously the minister has been contacted about these listings—specifically the Perth woodland?

Ms Jonasson : Sorry, I don't understand the question.

Senator URQUHART: If there are species that the minister has under consideration—I understand three of them at least are woodlands—has the minister been contacted about those listings? Is the normal process for the department to inform the minister what the listings are?

Ms Jonasson : Mr Richardson can go into the detail on this, but the normal process is for us to provide advice to the minister to consider, yes.

Senator URQUHART: Specifically in relation to the Perth woodland, has the minister been contacted in relation to that listing? Have you advised the minister?

Mr G Richardson : We have provided a brief to the minister with the TSSC's advice on that listing assessment.

Senator URQUHART: Has the minister responded?

Ms Jonasson : The minister, as Mr Richardson advised earlier, asked for more information on that, just last week.

Senator URQUHART: How many management plans are outstanding?

Mr G Richardson : Are you referring to recovery plans?

Senator URQUHART: No, management plans. Also, how many recovery plans are outstanding?

Mr G Richardson : We don't construct management plans per se for listed threatened species. We do construct recovery plans.

Senator URQUHART: How many are outstanding?

Mr G Richardson : There are currently 176 species and ecological communities for which there is a recovery plan required.

Senator URQUHART: Sorry, I'm having trouble hearing. It was 176?

Mr G Richardson : Correct—those are species and threatened ecological communities for which a decision has been made to have a recovery plan but for which there isn't currently a recovery plan in force.

Senator URQUHART: For those 176? Okay. Are there any delays in relation to the recovery plans for those 176?

Mr G Richardson : They are being worked on, so I guess, yes, there are delays, if you like. They haven't been finished.

Ms Jonasson : What I would like to add to that is that 99.8 per cent of the threatened species and ecological communities that are listed have a conservation advice and/or a recovery plan in place to guide their recovery efforts.

Senator URQUHART: So there is a forward plan to reduce the number of delays?

Ms Jonasson : We prioritise. With the recovery planning, under the Threatened Species Strategy there's a prioritisation process to get those recovery plans up to date and we've made some really good progress on that. The Threatened Species Commissioner can provide further advice on that, if you'd like. But, yes, we're doing quite a bit of work on that—but, as I said, at the moment, 99.8 per cent of all threatened species and ecological communities that are listed are covered by either a conservation advice or a recovery plan.

Senator URQUHART: Can I jump back to the grants that I asked about before. In relation to World Heritage, Australian heritage and the Protecting National Historic Sites program, which ones are committed and uncommitted and what is the amount?

Ms Callister : I might ask Mr Williams if he can respond to that and give you an update on the Australian Heritage Grants program and some of the other ancillary programs as well.

Mr Williams : To begin with, we don't have a grants program relating to the funding of World Heritage properties. The method in which the Commonwealth funds the management of World Heritage properties is through a national partnership program where we fund the states. So that's not a grant program; that's a national partnership program. The Protecting National Historic Sites program is a terminated program. It was announced in the 2017-18 budget. Both the Protecting National Historic Sites program and the National Trusts Partnership Program would be terminated and the funds from those rolled into a new program—that is, the Australian Heritage Grants program.

Senator URQUHART: How much of that is committed or uncommitted?

Mr Williams : In the current financial year—I'm going off memory now, and I'll come back on notice if there's a different figure to this—I understand that $4.7 million is unallocated at this time in that grant program. We have recently closed applications for that program, and applications are going through a grants assessment process at the moment. That's the situation as of today.

Senator URQUHART: I've just got a few questions around the heritage, and then I'll go back to the parrots that I touched on earlier. What heritage items are on the assessment list for the Heritage Council?

Mr Williams : Do you mean the entire program?

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Mr Williams : There are 11 places remaining under assessment at the moment. I'll just go through those one by one: the Coral Sea, Point Lonsdale Lighthouse Reserve and environs, Parkes Observatory, Watarrka (Kings Canyon) National Park, Christmas Island natural areas, the Greater Blue Mountains Area additional values, West MacDonnell National Park—otherwise known as the MacDonnell National Park— Djulirri Rock Shelter, Moore River Native Settlement, Finniss Springs Mission and Pastoral Station, and Yalangbara.

Senator URQUHART: How long will each assessment take, and when can we expect them to be completed?

Mr Williams : Assessments take differing amounts of time, depending on the complexity of those—the consultation with stakeholders. Some of those that I mentioned are for Indigenous cultural heritage values, and quite often the consultation that is required for those assessments to be done properly takes quite some time. That assessment period can be affected, for instance, by sorry business or by the wet season in northern Australia—so, differing amounts of time and depending on how many stakeholders are involved.

Senator URQUHART: Do you have an expectation of the time for each of those to be completed?—putting aside some of those things that might occur.

Mr Williams : I can go through those one by one again—

Senator URQUHART: That'd be great.

Mr Williams : or I can give those to you on notice.

Senator URQUHART: If you've got them and you can provide them during the course of this evening, that would be fine.

Mr Williams : Sure.

Senator URQUHART: Has the department looked at the Parramatta Female Factory?

Mr Williams : The Parramatta Female Factory has undergone assessment and was listed by the minister during 2018, so it's a listed place.

Senator URQUHART: It's an addition to the existing list?

Mr Williams : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: So, it's the convict sites listing. Is that correct?

Mr Williams : No. The convict sites is a World Heritage site. Convict sites include Old Government House in Parramatta, which is close to but not the same as the Parramatta women's factory.

Senator URQUHART: How long would a nomination take for the Parramatta Female Factory?

Mr Williams : Sorry—it has been nominated and it has been listed, on the National Heritage List.

Senator URQUHART: Would you be able to provide—I'm happy to take this on notice—a list of what's been assessed in the last three years and what is yet to be assessed?

Mr Williams : I'm happy to provide that on notice.

Senator URQUHART: I have a couple more questions about the World Heritage Committee. It has been reported that Australia, by being on the World Heritage Committee, cannot nominate areas for World Heritage. Is that correct?

Ms Callister : It's not a steadfast rule that we can't nominate sites to be on the World Heritage List while we're on the committee, but it is a general convention that that not occur. But when Australia nominated for that position we did make clear that we were going to progress an assessment for the Budj Bim area. So, we will be progressing with that nomination.

Mr Knudson : The other thing I would add to that is that at the most recent meeting of environment ministers, in December, it was also agreed that WA, with the support of the Commonwealth, would be pursuing a listing for the Burrup, but that will take quite some time and it will probably go to the committee after our candidacy on the committee is over.

Ms Callister : I probably should have clarified that that doesn't prevent new sites being added to Australia's tentative list, because that is a list we maintain domestically.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Because I did want to ask you what it impacts. Is it approving listings, nominations and those sorts of things?

Ms Callister : Yes. Effectively, you can progress things to be on the tentative list. The Burrup is one example of where that is happening. But it is a generally accepted convention that when countries are on the committee they don't put forward nominations. But we are making an exception with Budj Bim for a number of reasons.

Senator URQUHART: I'll just go back to the parrots. I had a number of questions earlier. I think I got through a reasonable number of them but I had some—I asked whether or not the department's legal team had looked at the export laws and the answer was 'Yes, informally.' Has a briefing been provided to the minister on the issue of the parrots that have gone off to the zoo in Germany?

Mr Murphy : There has been a briefing to the minister's office on the export of birds to Germany.

Senator URQUHART: Is the department looking at whether the law could actually change, or do we need a change of law in relation to what's happening?

Mr Murphy : The department isn't currently looking at amendments to the law.

Senator URQUHART: I understand there's a complexity around a treaty or international agreements? Is that accurate?

Mr Murphy : All of the birds that have gone to Germany are covered under the CITES treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Generally, the EPBC Act applies stricter requirements for these birds than the treaty does. So, I don't think it is an accurate statement.

Senator URQUHART: Do the arrangements need to be adjusted?

Mr Murphy : For export of birds?

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Mr Murphy : Ultimately, that's a matter for government, I think.

Senator URQUHART: Has the department had discussions with DFAT or the Australian embassy in Germany about this case?

Mr Murphy : We routinely work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We will supply them with background information in case they need it. I'm not aware of any direct engagement with the embassy in Germany, but it could have occurred through Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade channels.

Senator URQUHART: Do you know if any adjusting arrangements have been made?

Mr Murphy : I'm not sure I understand what you're asking.

Senator URQUHART: In terms of what's happened, you said it was a matter for government. Do you know if any adjusting arrangements have been made?

Mr Murphy : There have been no changes to the law. As we have administered permits for this purpose, there have been allegations made. We have looked into the allegations and strengthened some permit conditions and made a number of inquiries to the government CITES authorities in Germany to satisfy ourselves that the requirements under the EPBC Act are being met.

Senator URQUHART: Is the department investigating the alleged offer of Australian birds for sale in Germany by the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots?

Mr Murphy : Our Office of Compliance is reviewing allegations that have been put forward, particularly—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How long have you been reviewing the allegations? You've known about them for quite some time.

Mr Murphy : There have been a number of different allegations, but the ones just referred to were in The Guardian just before Christmas. The department's Office of Compliance is reviewing those allegations to see if there's sufficient evidence to warrant a formal investigation.

Senator URQUHART: How long would that investigation by the Office of Compliance normally take?

Mr Murphy : I'd prefer the Office of Compliance to answer that

Mr Knudson : That's exactly what I was going to say. The office will be here for the next item, 1.5, and we can answer those questions then.

Senator URQUHART: Has the department seen the messages offering Australian birds for sale for tens of thousands of euro?

Mr Murphy : We've received allegations about commercial sale, which again, the Office of Compliance is looking into.

Senator URQUHART: Yes, okay, so that's being followed up. The department's not following it up but the Office of Compliance is. Is that correct?

Mr Murphy : The Office of Compliance is part of our department, yes.

Senator URQUHART: The department would have to be concerned about those allegations, though?

Mr Murphy : Absolutely.

Senator Birmingham: The Office of Compliance is part of the department.

Senator URQUHART: Yes. Why has the department allowed the export of so many birds, including endangered species, to this one organisation?

Mr Murphy : Since 2015 there have been six permits for export of birds. In short, they meet the requirements of the EPBC Act. They are all captive bred birds, comprising 16 species. I think if you add up all the birds—we're talking about 232 captive bred birds—only 12 individuals are listed threatened species, and that's for two species of cockatoo.

Senator URQUHART: Has the department visited the facilities to satisfy itself that ACTP is in fact a zoo?

Mr Murphy : No. We have made inquiries with the equivalent authorities in Germany—the CITES management authority and the CITES scientific authority. Those authorities have inspected the zoo. They have assured us it is a registered zoo in Germany, and it's registered also as a not-for-profit organisation.

Senator URQUHART: I will take it then that the department haven't visited to check that all of the Australian birds are still there?

Mr Murphy : No. We haven't visited the zoo in Germany. We're relying on the information from the German government.

Senator URQUHART: Have you asked the German government if all the Australian birds are still there at the zoo?

Mr Murphy : We haven't asked that specific question, but certainly our inquiries with the CITES authority have satisfied us that they consider it to be a legitimate zoo that is operating within the German law.

Senator URQUHART: But you don't know if all the birds are there?

Mr Murphy : I don't know.

Senator URQUHART: Can you outline the ACTP's conservation credentials?

Mr Murphy : They are a zoo. They maintain a breeding and exhibition facility in Germany.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Or so you assume. We've just discovered you don't actually know that.

Mr Murphy : The advice we've received from the German government—

Senator URQUHART: Is that the only place that you get the advice from—the German government? You don't have—

Mr Murphy : We have an application process for each of the permits, where information is supplied. I mean, the ACTP's goal is to preserve endangered birds and their habitats worldwide by using rare parrots as flagships and ambassadors. We've learned of examples. They have three main conservation projects. One is for the Brazilian Spix's macaw, which is extinct in the wild; they're also breeding two Caribbean Amazon parrots. They work closely with those governments in trying to recover those species. In the Brazilian example, I think they have been quite successful with the Spix's macaw, and it has been reported to us that they have exported birds back to Brazil and they've done in situ conservation works to try and re-establish the Spix's macaw in the wild.

Senator URQUHART: Will an independent audit be done of ACTP to ensure all of the birds sent to its facilities are still there?

Mr Murphy : We don't have an audit planned.

Senator URQUHART: The head of ACTP, Martin Guth, did not indicate his criminal record in the forms ACTP had to fill out to be recognised by the department as a zoo eligible to receive exports from Australia. Was the department aware of his criminal record?

Mr Murphy : The department's aware it's alleged that he has a criminal record; we have not established yet whether that is true.

Senator URQUHART: So you've let him have birds before you established that.

Ms Jonasson : It's not a normal question that you ask someone who's putting in an application for a permit.

Senator URQUHART: If you were aware he had a criminal record—

Mr Murphy : Let's be clear: at the beginning of the process, in 2015, one of the requirements under the act is that the export of the birds is to a zoo, and we register or seek to register the association as a zoo. As part of that application process, in the application form the applicant for the zoo has to fill out whether it's a private zoo or not. If it's a private zoo, they indicate whether they have criminal history. This is not a private zoo. This is an association. That decision to register as a zoo was made before any permits were issued and before the recent allegations, which were made before Christmas. The allegations about his criminal record were made after the association was registered and after the permits were issued.

Senator URQUHART: We gave the zoo 200 birds, the guy that runs the zoo allegedly has put up on Facebook that the birds are selling, and you don't know how many birds are still in the zoo? Is that a fair summation? You've said you don't know how many birds are still in the zoo.

Mr Murphy : There have been six permits that total 232 birds. We know that 210 of them have been exported.

Senator URQUHART: But you don't know how many birds are in the zoo?

Mr Murphy : Do I know how many are there right at this moment? No, I don't.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you think it's concerning that the guy is bragging about selling them?

Mr Murphy : I'm aware that that's an allegation that's been made. That is—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have you seen the Facebook post?

Mr Murphy : That is being reviewed by the Office of Compliance.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: When was the last permit issued?

Mr Murphy : The last permit was issued on 12 November.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: When was the first time someone raised any concerns with the department, the compliance unit or anyone else within government?

Mr Murphy : The first time that there were allegations made was in February 2017.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: And yet permits continued to be issued?

Mr Murphy : As a result of those allegations we requested advice from the German government about the ACTP and particularly about the question of whether birds were being commercially sold or whether it was non-commercial.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: And you're still reviewing that information?

Mr Murphy : We're reviewing the information that was put forward just before Christmas in The Guardian article.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you've already made a decision that you don't think birds have been being sold, based on the allegations you had in 2017? What happened between 2017 and today?

Mr Murphy : We reacted to the allegations that were made at the time they were made, before we considered issuing further permits, and we've done that throughout the process.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: And you continued to issue permits?

Mr Murphy : There are no further permit applications at this time.

Mr Murphy : There are no further permit applications at this time.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But you continued to issue permits between having those initial first allegations.

Mr Murphy : Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: And it's only because it's been in the media. Is that correct?

Mr Murphy : Well, I think there are a number of—

Ms Jonasson : Senator, if I can just clarify the time line for you?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I wish you would. That would be helpful.

Ms Jonasson : As Mr Murphy mentioned, the first allegations that we became aware of were back in February 2017. We requested advice from the German CITES scientific authority regarding the facility—about this—and the German government. It was on the basis of that advice that we made decisions on whether a permit should be issued and whether those allegations should be further considered. The department took a decision that the permit could be issued, and it was. The second—if I just work through the time line here—we received further allegations in July and August 2017, and we've continued to seek information from the German government and from the CITES authorities. To date, we have not had information that has prevented us from issuing the permit. We've been satisfied—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: No, I can see that. You've continued to issue permits.

Ms Jonasson : We've been satisfied that the conditions as they are identified in the EPBC Act have been met and that those permits can be issued. The allegations that were raised in TheGuardian in November last year—we have also said that the Office of Compliance, which is in the next outcome, outcome 1.5, is also investigating, and you can ask some questions of them. When allegations are raised, we will continue to ask the questions of the authorities that can give us the information and will make decisions based on the requirements of the EPBC Act and what we're required to consider.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You've had consistent allegations raised since 2017 right up until now, and you've continued to issue permits. So what is it? Either you've made the wrong decision or there's something wrong with the act.

Mr Murphy : They're allegations. In each case we looked at allegations and we have considered what evidence has been put forward, and it has not been sufficient to not issue a permit.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yet the allegations continue to mount. Why aren't you taking the precautionary principle?

Mr Murphy : The precautionary principle is certainly in our act, and it applies to protecting the environment. These birds are captive bred. There's no impact on the environment.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But if someone's being issued a permit that they're not then using the birds for, isn't that the problem? He's lying to you.

Mr Murphy : That's the allegation. We don't know whether that's true or not.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yet you've continued to issue permits. This is my point. Either you're making the wrong decision over and over again or the rules that you're measuring it by are clearly insufficient.

Ms Jonasson : Or they are allegations, and they remain allegations. We seek the information, as I said earlier, and we apply the requirements of the EPBC Act, which, I think Mr Murphy identified, are stricter than the requirements under the CITES treaty, so that should give us some comfort as well. Each time the allegations are raised we do investigate. As I said, the allegations that were raised in November in TheGuardian are being investigated by the Office of Compliance, and we'll continue to do that, but they remain allegations at this stage.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What prompted you to refer it to the compliance unit?

Mr Knudson : If I may: because the issues are focused on this issue of compliance in particular, I've asked Ms Collins to come to the table—she is the head of the Office of Compliance—to walk through a bit on the historical investigations that have been done, but also what's currently underway, and I think that might help with some of your questions.

Ms Collins : As my colleagues have been outlining, there have been a number of allegations since 2017, or, in fact, since late 2016. At the Office Of Compliance we've made a number of inquiries. We work through international law enforcement agencies. We work really closely with Interpol, with the Australian Federal Police, and with other international environmental regulators. We have made inquiries. We have also done intelligence analyses in relation to the allegations that have been made. Up until the recent allegations, all of our inquiries have turned up no evidence of anything untoward or anything not in compliance with the legislation occurring.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Are you aware that the German department has confirmed to The Guardian that the birds have been offered for sale?

Ms Collins : I'm aware of media reports alleging that, and, on the back of those allegations, we are again making inquiries through international channels. We've actually put in a request to receive information from the German authorities, and, as soon as we have information that either confirms or denies those particular allegations, we can make it known.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Why has it taken this long for it to get to this point where you're now actually suggesting that you're running a proper investigation?

Ms Collins : As I say, we've made a number of inquiries and we've been quite thorough in those inquiries. We're pursuing all of our intelligence avenues and working internationally through Interpol and other CITES management agencies. It was on the back of some of our inquiries back in 2017 that the German CITES management authority undertook an inspection of the site over in Germany. We have been quite responsive to every allegation, as we are with all allegations. To date, all of our inquiries haven't turned up anything that shows that there's any noncompliance. Having said that, when we do receive new information and new allegations, we take it seriously. Again, as I mentioned, we're going through international authorities to seek information from the German management authority.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Will this person be prohibited from receiving any more permits?

Mr Knudson : If the person hasn't done anything wrong at the end of the day after the investigations there are no grounds to deny that person access to supply another permit at that point.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Despite this going for nearly 18 months, all of the evidence being presented, him bragging online that he's selling these birds and the German department saying they've confirmed that these birds are for sale—

Ms Collins : That's what the media has reported. What we're looking to do is to get the precise information—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have you seen the Facebook post yourself, Ms Collins? You're the head of compliance?

Ms Collins : I haven't seen it myself, but I have intelligence people who are working on that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I suggest you get a copy of it. It's pretty easy to find.

Ms Collins : I have people who are currently working on that, but, as I say, all our investigations will be conducted thoroughly. That's why we're also going to the German authorities to see exactly what information they have. We take all allegations seriously, and we will be conducting this—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: While these investigations are continuing, will this person be given any more permits?

Mr Murphy : The person at the centre of this allegation has not been and is not a permit holder. He's the CEO of the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots. We issue permits to the exporter.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Will you be issuing any permits to people who are exporting these rare birds into the hands of this crook?

Mr Murphy : At the moment we have no further applications for export of birds to the ACTP.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Would you approve any permits while these other investigations are ongoing?

Mr Murphy : It's a little hypothetical, because—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: No, it's not. You've issued six of them while there have been various investigations. That's my point. When does enough become enough?

Ms Jonasson : I tried to clarify earlier for you, as did Ms Collins, and I apologise if I've confused the issue. Each time concerns are raised with us and there are allegations, we investigate and we ensure that we're satisfied prior to issuing the permit. Each time, As Ms Collins has mentioned, the investigation has been thorough and we have then taken the decision to issue the permit.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: There is currently an investigation underway. We've heard that. Does that mean no further permits will be issued which allow birds or any other animals to be exported into the hands of this person?

Ms Jonasson : As Mr Murphy said, we don't have any applications at the moment, so we're not considering—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So there is no suggestion that you'd put a freeze on?

Ms Jonasson : We don't have any applications to consider at the moment.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Maybe he's got all the birds he wants. He might not put any more in now. It just seems ridiculous. It's been 18 months and you've been going one after the other and the allegations keep mounting. Something is either wrong with your system or with the rules.

Mr Knudson : But, as has been pointed out, every time we've had the allegations they've been investigated, and there's been no substantiation of the allegations.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So there's something wrong with your investigation, perhaps.

Mr Knudson : I think Ms Collins has detailed for you the extent to which we pursue this and collaborate with some of the best experts in the world on these issues to make sure that we're dealing with this in a robust manner. We will continue to do so, and the results of this investigation will absolutely be taken into account in future decisions.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But you can't tell us where the 232 birds are, can you?

Ms Collins : That's not the nature of what we're looking at. What we're looking at is the allegations that have been made most recently. In relation to our program, we do extensive work in particular in wildlife investigations. In fact, in the last just over 18 months we've had eight successful criminal prosecutions in relation to wildlife trade matters, and we are doing some quite complex investigations into large syndicates of organised crime. We work really closely with the Australian Federal Police and with the Australian Border Force. Border Force have officers who are trained and have the technology to pick up if there's wildlife being smuggled across the borders.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But these weren't smuggled. You gave these people permits.

Ms Collins : The methodology that we would use to pick up birds would be the same methodology we would use to pick up any other animal that's being illegally exported across the border.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Ms Collins, please. You're not answering the questions that I've asked. I understand that you're doing all these other things in terms of smuggling. This wasn't a smuggle. Let's be very clear. You issued the permits. You let these birds legally leave Australia, into the hands of somebody who we now know has a very dubious history, and you can't tell me where the 232 birds are.

Ms Collins : What I'm trying to outline is that we have very rigorous and thorough investigation and compliance activity around wildlife trade in general. I'm quite confident that, in the inquiries that we're making through the international channels, we will get information. Once we get the information, we'll assess it to determine if there is any illegal activity that relates to the allegations that have been made in the media.

Mr Knudson : If it gives any comfort, we will pursue the question about the status of the 232 birds as well.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That would be helpful. I look forward to hearing an update on that.

Mr Pratt, we were asking a number of questions in this committee this morning about the activity and work done by the environment minister, Melissa Price, and a number of complaints about her inability to meet with stakeholders and sign off on various different decisions. I'm interested to read that this afternoon the minister has now announced that she's appointed new experts to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee. Did you know about that this morning?

Mr Pratt : I didn't.

Mr Knudson : We most certainly knew that we had briefed the minister and that that was pending, so we're very pleased to see that announcement.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Okay. What prompted that? Was that a bit of bad press over the weekend, or was it knowing that you were going to be fronting Senate estimates today?

Mr Knudson : No.

Senator Birmingham: I think Mr Knudson's just said that the department had already, prior to today, briefed the minister.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You knew it was coming today?

Mr Knudson : We knew that we had briefed the minister and that it was a matter for the minister when she was going to be considering that brief to make a decision or not. But obviously she's made that decision today.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How long had those positions remained unfilled?

Mr G Richardson : The term of the previous chair, who's just been reappointed, finished, I think, at the end of November last year. The other members were a little earlier than that. I'd have to take on notice the exact dates.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you.

Mr Knudson : One of the key things in this is that we were also very conscious, and so was the minister, that we wanted these appointments made prior to the next Threatened Species Scientific Committee meeting, which I think is pending in the next few weeks.

Mr G Richardson : Next week.

Ms Jonasson : That's right. I can also mention there were two new appointments to the committee which the minister has made, which I think will significantly strengthen the committee's ability to engage with people about translating the scientific advice about the protection of our species into practice on the ground.

The first appointment is Ms Cissy Gore-Birch, who some of you senators may know. She's a Jaru/Kija woman from Western Australia. Cissy works with bush heritage and has worked with a number of other NGOs. She has worked with the department over the years to provide advice on a number of matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. What Cissy will be helping the committee with, we hope, is enabling us to connect traditional knowledge closely with recovery efforts, the recovery work for our species and the conservation advices and recovery plans that the species develops. We are very excited about that appointment and that Cissy has accepted that appointment.

The second is Dr Richard Harper from the school of veterinary and life sciences at Murdoch University. Dr Harper has a strong agricultural background. We're hoping that he will be able to, again, help the committee translate some of the science into the practical, on-ground advice that will assist a number of other land owners, that will help them in their business functions and how they can do things to practically support the recovery of the species, consistent with the science and the actions that are in the conservation advices. So they were two new appointments. They haven't been made before to the committee. In particular, having Cissy on the committee as a person—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes, you've laboured that point. Let's move on.

Ms Jonasson : which is the first time that that sort of appointment has been made.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you. If only the minister were able to act as quickly throughout everything else perhaps she wouldn't have got the criticism of being invisible. I will ask about some of the changes to the listings of some of those animals and species. I know there were some changes announced today transferring different species between different categories. I want to ask about the Australian sea lion, which is currently listed as vulnerable since 2005 but the IUCN has it listed as endangered since 2008. Is it the department's understanding that the Australian sea lion should be added to the endangered list?

Mr G Richardson : The Australian sea lion is under assessment by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee and they have not completed that assessment as yet, so I can't speak to whether it is eligible for endangered or not at this point.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How long has it been under consideration?

Mr G Richardson : I would have to take that on notice. It has been on there for a few years at least. I can't remember which year it was added. It was either 2016 or 2017. I'm not sure which.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Why is it taking so long?

Mr G Richardson : It is a wide-ranging species. It involves data being collected from a number of state agencies. Essentially it's the Threatened Species Scientific Committee's position that they haven't yet reached a conclusion on the assessment.

Ms Jonasson : It is the Threatened Species Scientific Committee that has requested the extension on this because they wanted to ensure that they did have all the information in order to inform their advice.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: When did they ask for the extension?

Mr G Richardson : I believe it was at their September 2018 meeting. It was a request that came out of that meeting. That's when they discussed it.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How long has the extension been given for?

Mr G Richardson : Until the end of March.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So we should know by the end of March?

Mr G Richardson : Correct.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you believe, Mr Richardson, that that will actually happen?

Mr G Richardson : We have a meeting coming up in the next week. It will be up to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee whether they're satisfied with the assessment at that point to complete it. That would be the last occasion on which they could complete the discussions around the assessment.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Will the Australian sea lion be a topic of discussion at that meeting in a week's time?

Mr G Richardson : I believe so.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Has there been any communications with the South Australian government, seeing as it is such an important species for South Australia?

Mr G Richardson : I've got officers who work on these assessments on behalf of the committee and provide the assessments. I have no direct knowledge, but I'm absolutely certain they would have contacted the West Australian and South Australian governments about the Australian sea lion assessment.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Could I ask you to take on notice the last communication that happened with the South Australian government?

Mr G Richardson : Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mr Richardson, will there be any discussion or consideration of the impact on the Australian sea lion of oil and gas drilling in the Great Australian Bight?

Mr G Richardson : I don't have enough detailed knowledge of the assessment that's underway. Essentially, the way the assessments work is they look at the threats acting on the species over periods of time under the IUCN criteria. But I don't have direct knowledge of this particular assessment to be able to answer that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Would that type of operation in their habitat be something that you would imagine would be considered?

Mr G Richardson : I could imagine. I can't really answer the question, as I said.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Would you be able to take on notice whether there have been any briefings given to the scientific committee in relation to the impact of oil and gas drilling applications in the bight?

Mr G Richardson : I can take that on notice, yes.

Mr Knudson : I'd just add that, obviously, the authority responsible for environmental assessments with respect to oil and gas exploration and development offshore is NOPSEMA and the Department of Industry and Science. Obviously, in undertaking that work, they consider all possible impacts and matters of national environmental significance. So if the Australian sea lion gets listed, then that would be considered by NOPSEMA.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Very good observation. That's why I'm very interested to see what the time frame is.

Mr G Richardson : Historically, the main threat to the Australian sea lion that is known about, itemised or monitored is fishing impacts, as you're probably aware. I'm not aware of whether oil and gas has been identified as a threat.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Well, I think it'd be extraordinary if we opened up an oil and gas field in the middle of the Australian sea lion habitat if they're classified as endangered. Wouldn't be a good look, would it?

Senator Birmingham: I think we should follow science and evidence, rather than your perceptions of what's a good look, Senator Hanson-Young.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Well, I'm asking for the science. We've been waiting for them to be moved from one list to the other for nearly 10 years now. If we can make sure we get some of those questions on notice, Mr Richardson, in terms of what's been given to the committee, that'd be good.

Mr G Richardson : I've taken that on notice.

Senator RICE: Continuing on with the announcements that were made today with changes to the EPBC Act list of threatened species, there are two in particular that I wanted to know some more details of. First, I note that sadly the Bramble Cay melomys is now listed as extinct; the IUCN had already listed them as such. Do you have any comments about the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys?

Ms Jonasson : No, we don't have any comments.

Senator RICE: Why have they gone extinct? What actions did the department take to prevent their extinction? What lessons have the department learnt from the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys?

Mr G Richardson : The recent assessment by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee was at the end of a pretty thorough collection of evidence of its absence over some time: several trips by the Queensland government to the Bramble Cay to try to find the last of those species, including a pretty rushed trip, I think in 2015, which was seeking to gather any of the remaining to essentially translocate them off the island, which was a pretty high-risk endeavour. It turned out, as it was, that they could not find or identify any of the species on the island. Queensland assisted us in this assessment, and we did conclude that, after five-plus years of no evidence of the species on the island, it did warrant listing as extinct. It's not a decision to take lightly, because of course once something is listed as extinct it essentially ceases to get any protection under the act; hence there is always a delay, if you like, while the evidence is gathered to be absolutely certain.

Senator RICE: So what lessons have the department learnt from the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys?

Mr Knudson : I think I would just go back to the fundamental architecture trying to make sure that we deliver good outcomes for species is based upon sound regulation, sound science, sound investment. That's why we have put a lot of effort into not only making sure that the act has up-to-date evaluations of species, to inform the regulation, but also to inform where we spend our money under things like regional land care et cetera, where we're focused heavily. The predominance of the money we are investing over the course of the next few years is on threatened species, because we know we need to target to have positive outcomes. It is an enormous challenge for the country. I think we've said before at the fauna species inquiry that we don't shy away from the fact that we have a large challenge ahead of us, but that's why we have put all this effort into trying to make sure we target our regulation and our spending so that we hopefully avoid this type of situation going forward.

Senator RICE: Can I ask one last question?

CHAIR: We will come back to you after a short break.

Proceedings suspended from 21:10 to 21:22

Senator RICE: Regarding the lessons the department has learnt from the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys. Do you agree with Professor John Woinarski, who, in February last year, said it could have been saved—that's the most important part? He was on the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, which approved the 2008 national recovery plan for the species.

Mr Knudson : All I can say is that I think Mr Richardson has laid out a good portion of the more recent actions that we took to try to understand what the status of the species was and what could be done. Obviously, losing a species is not something that anyone would seek to have happen, and certainly we will try to make sure that we are as effective as possible, going forward, with the types of challenges that Australia is facing.

Ms Jonasson : We have reflected, and we have reflected with the Queensland government as well, on this issue. Mr Richardson can provide a bit more information about some of those conversations. We do take these seriously. We don't want to see something like this happen again.

Senator RICE: How does that fit with the evidence we heard earlier this evening that we've currently got 176 species in ecological communities where there has been a decision made that a recovery plan is needed and there is not yet one in place? How is that learning the lessons from the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys?

Ms Jonasson : What I also reiterated this evening is that 99.8 per cent of the threatened species that are listed in the ecological communities that are listed do have a conservation advice and/or a recovery plan in place. Those documents do provide important information about what we can do to improve or do some work on the plight of those species and ecological communities. As Mr Knudson has also pointed out, over the last few years we have significantly reformed, with a major spending program for action on the ground in relation to natural resource management, and focused the majority of our spending, or all of the environment spending to matters of national environmental significance. The majority of that goes towards threatened species and ecological communities. With any spending that we approve under our programs, the actions that will be undertaken must be consistent with those conservation advices and with the recovery plans. So we do work to connect the science that we have with the regulatory approaches and with the program spending to ensure that we can get the best outcomes for our species and our ecological communities.

But we do reflect as well, as I mentioned earlier. We had conversations with the Queensland government about what could have been done, and one of the reflections was that it was too late and that we could have perhaps engaged sooner on the Bramble Cay melomys with the Queensland government or vice versa. That's a very sad reflection for us. I think one of the benefits of the common assessment methodology approach and the streamlining of the Commonwealth and state regulatory arrangements will be that we will be in much more active dialogue with the states and territories, because we'll have common listings and consistent listings with our species and our threatened ecological communities. I hope that that will also enable us to work collaboratively with our colleagues to ensure that we can take action as we see things happening.

Senator RICE: Have you formally documented those reflections?

Mr G Richardson : No, we haven't. I might add that the Bramble Cay melomys was a species that did have a recovery plan that identified the threats to that species.

Senator RICE: Yes.

Mr G Richardson : So this wasn't one that didn't have a recovery plan.

Senator RICE: There should be learnings from that too, as to why, from 2008, there was a recovery plan and yet it still went extinct.

Mr G Richardson : I think we're in agreement there.

Mr Knudson : I may ask the Threatened Species Commissioner to come to the table if that would be helpful. I don't want to belabour the point, but one of the things that we're trying to focus on with the 70 priority species is also trying to look at the effectiveness of our interventions and how that's influencing the trajectory of species. I think that, if we get our heads around that in a much more significant way, it will help us be more effective going forward in figuring out what intervention for what species is going to have the greatest positive impact. I just want to flag that, because I think that's a real point that we have to focus on.

Ms Jonasson : Indeed, under the Threatened Species Strategy, one of the priority actions is the opportunity for emergency interventions. I think the Threatened Species Commissioner can talk about that a bit more for you.

Senator RICE: I've got limited time; I'm sorry. I know you've got 70 species. We've got 477 species on our threatened species lists. We know that, even for those 70 that are on the priority list, the recommendations on their recovery plans aren't being implemented. We've already heard ample evidence of that in our faunal extinction inquiry. I want to move on, because I've got very limited time. The other species on which I was interested to know what actually happened was the Tammar wallaby. The update that was provided said that it's been removed from the extinct list entirely, so what's its status now?

Mr G Richardson : Its status now is that it's not eligible for listing in any category. This was a species of wallaby that there's been a taxonomic change made for, and I understand that the species that was originally listed as the South Australian subspecies is no longer considered a subspecies and in fact is enormously numerous, so it is no longer eligible for listing in any category.

Senator RICE: So there was something that was thought to be a species that was—

Mr G Richardson : A subspecies that was extinct.

Senator RICE: Locally extinct?

Mr G Richardson : Extinct as a subspecies, yes.

Senator RICE: So is it still not present in the area where it was previously thought to have existed?

Mr G Richardson : No, the separate subspecies is not. I might have to take this on notice, but my understanding is that there was a species that was thought to be a separately described subspecies and which was thought to be extinct. Upon re-examination of the taxonomy—presumably of fossils or species that were no longer there—they have now decided that they are actually the same as a species that is extant across South Australia. So it is longer threatened. It's arguably a good news story; it depends on how you look at it, I guess.

Senator RICE: Was it a monitoring issue? Why the change? Was it not knowing enough?

Ms Jonasson : It's a taxonomic issue.

Mr G Richardson : Yes. I can't explain taxonomists to you, Senator.

Ms Jonasson : We defer to the scientists on this one, but it's a taxonomic matter.

Senator RICE: Okay. Finally I want to ask, of course, about Leadbeater's possums, which we have been covering over many estimates. I just want to clarify where we're at. Is it the fact that we are still waiting for the outcome of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee review until March this year—next month?

Mr G Richardson : Correct. We are still waiting.

Senator RICE: And is the expectation that the review will be tabled next month?

Mr G Richardson : I can confirm that this is an item on the list of items being discussed by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee next week.

Senator RICE: What date next week?

Mr G Richardson : Tuesday and Wednesday next week. It is a two-day meeting.

Senator RICE: Presuming that we get an outcome—you are expecting to actually have an outcome, not just that it will be discussed at the meeting?

Mr G Richardson : I always expect an outcome.

Ms Jonasson : We can't presume to talk for the committee.

Senator RICE: No, but surely you would be in communication with the committee. They would presumably have indicated if they did not think they were going to have an outcome next week.

Ms Jonasson : It's for deliberation next week, so we will know then.

Senator RICE: Let's presume that we get an outcome and the scientific committee says what the status of Leadbeater's should be next week. How quickly will recovery plan be finalised?

Mr G Richardson : Once the assessment is completed the committee will also provide advice to the minister on the recovery plan. The recovery plan is also on the list of items for discussion next week at the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, but I can't confirm that they will complete those deliberations next week.

Senator WATERS: I have some questions about yellow crazy ants funding for WTMA. Where are we at with that? The funding runs out soon. What's the plan?

Ms Jonasson : Bear with me while I get the details on that one. It was a question for 1.1, and the officer that knew has probably gone, but let me see if I can find the information in my brief.

Mr Pratt : I might be able to help on this one. This is an area that is currently being considered in the budget process.

Senator WATERS: Has the department provided a briefing to the current environment minister on this funding?

Mr Pratt : Yes.

Senator WATERS: Was there anything given in MYEFO?

Mr Pratt : No.

Senator WATERS: Is there any sense of the length of time frame, given that WTMA said they need about seven more years of funding? Has the department briefed the minister on the temporal issue as well as the quantity of funding?

Mr Pratt : We've been quite comprehensive in our briefing.

Senator WATERS: And there is nothing more you can tell me? I'll have to wait for budget. I have questions on the spectacled flying foxes. I am very pleased to see the decision today. Why did it take so long? It is 3½ years since the uplift was first requested. I think it's Mr Richardson I'm asking this. What was the cause of the delay?

Mr G Richardson : The Threatened Species Scientific Committee completed its assessment within the time frame set out on the final priority assessment list, where the time frames are set out. Then the minister delayed the time frame for the decision to be made, which is available under the EPBC Act. The reasons for that are published on our website.

Senator WATERS: There were two delays, if I'm not mistaken. Were there reasons for both delays?

Mr G Richardson : I believe there were three. The reasons are on there for all of those delays.

Senator WATERS: I might look that up rather than chew up time now. Obviously, in the interim we've lost yet more of the species—about a third in that massive heatwave in North Queensland late last year. Was consideration given by the department and/or the Threatened Species Scientific Committee to a further uplift to critically endangered?

Mr G Richardson : Not as yet, but the time is coming for consideration to be given to what will be assessed in future years. There is an annual process for nominations for species to be added to the assessment list. That process is out for public nominations now until the end of March. The committee will have its first discussion about items that it thinks should be added at this February meeting. Then there will be a subsequent, final discussion in June where they will consider all those public nominations and provide advice to the minister on what the Threatened Species Scientific Committee believes should be on that list.

Senator WATERS: On the priority list, to then do the assessment at some point in the next 3½ years?

Mr G Richardson : Yes.

Senator WATERS: Hopefully not that long. I shall await that. On the recovery plan, it has obviously not been updated and it still refers to the speccy being vulnerable. What's the recovery time for updating that recovery plan now that it's considered endangered?

Mr G Richardson : That's a discussion that we have not yet had within the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, but I would add that alongside this uplisting decision that the minister has made, a new very comprehensive conservation advice will also be published, which will essentially run through the reasons why it is eligible for uplisting, what the threats are acting on it and what actions should be taken in order to ameliorate those threats. That will be published very shortly, when the decision comes into force in a few days time.

Senator WATERS: Okay, but that doesn't answer my question on when the recovery plan will be updated?

Mr G Richardson : It is not automatic that a recovery plan gets updated upon uplisting or a change in listing status. It's about the information that is available on whether the recovery plan warrants amendment or change. That's advice that the TSSC will provide.

Senator WATERS: I just had a read of it then. Not only is it not reflecting the change in listing—perhaps that's understandable, because it has only been a few hours—but it doesn't actually refer to the heat impact of climate change. It talks about roosting trees and food trees, which clearly doesn't reflect the massive one-third of the entire species being lost thanks to the heatwave. Clearly there is a need for that recovery plan to be updated on the threats to the species itself.

Mr G Richardson : Yes.

Ms Jonasson : And we hope that conservation advice that will be published in the coming days as the uplisting occurs will also provide quite a bit more information for you.

Senator WATERS: I'm trying to remember the difference between what a CA does and what a recovery plan does. Can you quickly remind me, not to nerd out too much.

Mr G Richardson : I'll be as non-nerdy and quick as possible. A statutory recovery plan has a particular set of requirements under the act for content. It has more content requirements than a CA, but a CA can cover the same content. There are also additional consultation requirements, although this CA has been consulted on because it is part of an existing assessment. It has gone out for consultation.

Senator WATERS: But in terms of the legal effect of the document, what purpose does it then serve?

Mr G Richardson : Both are statutory documents. Both are taken account of in regulatory and investment decisions. There is a different legal protection afforded in a recovery plan and conservation advice. In decisions made by the minister to approve actions the minister or the delegate must consider a conservation advice. For a recovery plan, the minister or the delegate must not act inconsistently with the plan.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. I knew there was some difference. So the conservation advice is coming real soon, and we don't know whether there will be an update to the recovery plan. That will be a matter for TSSC. Is that right?

Mr G Richardson : Correct.

Senator WATERS: I have lots of questions in 1.5. I'll sit tight until then.