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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
18/02/2019
Estimates
ENVIRONMENT AND ENERGY PORTFOLIO
Director of National Parks

Director of National Parks

[21:38]

CHAIR: We'll now move to the Director of National Parks. Welcome to estimates, Dr Findlay, and congratulations on your appointment. Do you have an opening statement?

Dr Findlay : No, I don't.

Senator DODSON: My question initially is to the minister. Minister, you know that the Senate passed legislation scheduling land to be returned to traditional owners in Kakadu, but I understand it is yet to pass the House of Representatives. Do you expect that to be passed this week?

Senator Birmingham: I'll do my best to ascertain where it sits on the House program. I don't know offhand. I'll have to take it on notice, but I'll see if we can get you a quick answer.

Senator DODSON: You would be familiar with the history. It is nearly 28 years since this claim was made. The land will then be leased back to the park. I would appreciate any endeavours you can make to get that land back to the people and ultimately into the park. How will the return of the lands affect the role and function of the Director of National Parks?

Dr Findlay : We've had a series of lease-backs to increase the effective area for the Kakadu National Park in the past and I would expect this one would be no different. This will bring into a broader area the land on which we are imposing management underneath the plan.

Senator DODSON: How does the Director of National Parks work with traditional owners in Kakadu National Park and how do they work with traditional owners in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park?

Dr Findlay : Underneath the management plans we have established boards of management in both Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Through those boards of management, and also through broader consultation processes, we work very closely with traditional owners in those areas. I think in both cases they have been long-term and very successful relationships. Of course, they always have their tensions—that's not unusual. But I think the success of the conservation and the economic development in those areas is testament to the fact that those relationships are actually pretty good at the moment. I have recently come back from an Uluru board of management meeting last week. It was a very successful meeting. I actually met with the Kakadu board of management once and also attended the Prime Minister's visit, where the Prime Minister, the Minister for the Environment and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs announced the $216 million investment in Kakadu over the next 10 years. I'm very pleased to see quite a number of traditional owners participate and then welcome that announcement, including the chair of the board of management.

Senator DODSON: To what degree do those traditional owners participate in the day-to-day management and execution of the plan of management?

Dr Findlay : We have large numbers of traditional owners and other Indigenous staff within Parks Australia. They are very actively involved—from ranger programs, both volunteer and paid positions. They undertake quite a wide range of works as part of that activity. There is also a series of contracts that Parks Australia enters into with Aboriginal corporations and other related businesses, and that's something we want to do more of.

Senator DODSON: In relation to Kakadu, what progress is being made in the transition of the town of Jabiru, and the surrounding areas, when the ERA mining operation is completed?

Dr Findlay : I am very pleased to say that, in anticipation of the ERA Ranger mine closure in 2020-21, ahead of the remediation works, that for the last couple of years Parks Australia and the Department of the Environment and Energy and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, including the Indigenous affairs section of the portfolio, have been very actively developing a transition plan to realise the potential for Kakadu to fulfil its obvious abilities to become a world-class destination again. I am very pleased to see the $216 million investment happen, and it was warmly welcomed by traditional owners.

Senator DODSON: When the mine is completed what will happen to the monitoring process that, as I understand it, is currently undertaken by the Office of the Supervising Scientist, and for how long will there be any monitoring process?

Dr Findlay : Certainly, for the foreseeable future of the forwards estimates that monitoring will remain in place. The remediation works are due to continue until at least 2026. ERA is certainly committed to that, post the closure in 2021 of the production phase of the mine. So, at least as far as the forward estimates are available, we would expect that monitoring to continue.

Senator DODSON: As you know, the half-life of uranium is a lot longer than the forward estimates.

Dr Findlay : Very well aware, but obviously I can't—

Senator DODSON: Are there plans to sustain this monitoring process?

Mr Cahill : The Office of the Supervising Scientist isn't here today. We can take that on notice. They actively will be working until at least 2026 and, as you would do with any program closure, you would look at the risks and issues involved and what capability we would need beyond 2026 to be able to assure the right outcome for the closure of ERA and its operations.

Senator DODSON: So we'll watch this space.

Mr Cahill : Yes. We'll take that on notice to make sure we've got the latest update, because the office is not here today.

Senator DODSON: You mentioned that the Prime Minister made an announcement of $216 million. What plans are there in place to utilise those funds?

Dr Findlay : Following the announcement, we've been working quickly to get on with that investment. We're very hopeful that an MOU between ourselves, the Northern Territory government, Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation and Energy Resources of Australia will be signed shortly. We're also briefing the full Kakadu board of management in the next couple of weeks and seeking their agreement to get on with the works around the tourism master plan and also the road strategy for Kakadu. We're quite a way down the path of recruiting the staff necessary to undertake this additional work, which is good. We're strongly committed to consultation with traditional owners throughout this process, including Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation and the broader board of management.

Senator DODSON: Will the traditional owners be better off with the closure of the mine and potentially the township than they were before these things were imposed upon them?

Dr Findlay : Parks Australia's focus is on making sure that Kakadu is everything it can be, both as an environmental cultural asset and as a place for traditional owners to pursue economic opportunity. A large part of the additional funding plus Parks existing work program is focused around that. The announcement of the $216 million, including the tourism strategy, was warmly welcomed by traditional owners. I can only go by what they're telling me. I can't comment on the positivity or otherwise of the Ranger mine, but those time lines have been in place for a long time, and this is about adjusting to the new future.

Senator DODSON: Who will be the beneficiaries of the township lease when that's executed?

Dr Findlay : I might ask Brant Smith to join me to answer any detailed questions. While he's joining us, this is obviously something that's of particular concern to Parks Australia as it's going to be within the park, but also as we're looking for housing within that area. The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation also has a very keen interest in this, but I'll hand over to Mr Smith.

Mr Smith : The current leasing arrangements are between the Director of National Parks and the Jabiru Town Development Authority, which is a statutory authority of the Northern Territory. That lease is in place until 2021. It is likely at this stage that that will move to a new leasing arrangement under the section 19A lease of the Aboriginal land rights act. That's strictly the responsibility of the department of Indigenous affairs under the Executive Director of Township Leasing. We're aware that discussions are occurring at the moment between the Indigenous affairs department and Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation and other stakeholders around transitioning to that new lease arrangement. That work is under way at the moment.

Senator DODSON: Do you see these things concluding in the same time frame as the mine's leases terminate or will they take place beforehand?

Mr Smith : The head lease for the Jabiru township finishes at roughly the same time as the Ranger mine will finish its processing of ore. It finished mining in 2012 and is now processing its remaining stockpile. We're advised by Energy Resources of Australia that they will then undertake a rehabilitation process from 2021 to 2026. Then we'll need to work through, as Mr Cahill said, what ongoing monitoring and requirements are needed thereafter.

Senator DODSON: Is there a training program for the board and for traditional owners to go beyond being just rangers and to take up management positions within the park?

Dr Findlay : That's something I'm very keen to develop further. At the moment we have a large number of rangers, and quite a number of those are certainly showing potential. We are always keen to develop people into those board positions within the leadership group, but the gap we have, I think, at the moment—and it's something I'm keen to work on—is actually moving rangers or other Indigenous staff into managerial roles. I've actually asked my human resources team to give me some advice about some training opportunities to develop those high-potential people into those sorts of roles. I think we've got a good track record at those lower level jobs and the on-the-ground operational roles, but at the moment there is a bit of a gap in our structure with regard to managerial positions. I think there's a bit of training required, yes.

Senator DODSON: And that's true of Uluru as well as Kakadu?

Dr Findlay : That's true across our network, yes.

Senator DODSON: Thank you.

Senator STORER: I want to talk about the marine parks in the Great Australian Bight. Many of the waters within the existing federal marine parks in the Great Australian Bight had no mining permits or leases on them prior to the tabling of the 2018 marine parks management plans. Given the significance of the Great Australian Bight, particularly with marine park zones, and the strong local community, fishing industry and opposition feelings towards mining operations there, firstly, I want to ask about the western and the eastern Kangaroo Island marine parks and the top of the Great Australian Bight Marine Park, which are designated as 'special purpose mining exclusion'.

Senator Birmingham: Sorry, Senator Storer. Senator Dodson, I am advised that the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2018 is listed for debate in the House tomorrow.

Senator DODSON: Thank you, Minister. There are going to be a lot of happy people.

Senator STORER: I'm interested in why those two marine parks around Kangaroo Island and the top of the Great Australian Bight Marine Park were designated 'special purpose mining exclusion'. Do you have any information to make sense of that?

Dr Findlay : I do; I'm just trying to recall the information now. We've got, as you know, a very complex network. There were a whole range of decisions made across the 44 marine protected areas about what activities could occur where, based on quite detailed scientific and other advice, including quite extensive public consultation. I'd prefer to take on notice to come back to you in particular with regard to those two because I don't have that information at hand right now.

Senator STORER: Right. I'm interested in why the other marine parks in the Great Australian Bight were not zoned 'special purpose mining exclusion'?

Dr Findlay : The process followed quite an extensive risk assessment, which looked at the types of activities and the types of impacts they would have relative to the particular values within each of those marine park zones and the likely impacts of particular activities on those features. It's a risk assessment process and trade-off. But I need to come back to you with particular details about which ones had the exclusion and which ones didn't and why.

Senator STORER: If you could. These designations were made in 2018, yet the regulators and mining companies probably knew from late 2013 that the zoning in the marine parks of the Great Australian Bight was under review. New permits were issued and taken up in some of those areas which were designated in 2018 to not have mining exclusions. I'm interested in how it came to be that the designation was made in 2018, yet from 2013 there was considerable knowledge about pending designation of many of these areas that had mining exploration permits issued.

Dr Findlay : They're not declared until they're declared, I suppose. But I'll come back to you with regard to the particular features and the risk assessments that were made in those cases.

Senator STORER: Okay. I'm very interested to know why leases were allowed to be issued over parks that were under review in that period.

Dr Findlay : The parks weren't actually in place, in terms of implementation on water, and until they're implemented, they're not law. Again, I'll come back to you about the particular decision making with regard to the plans that were declared on 1 July 2018.

Senator STORER: If you could, thank you very much.

Senator URQUHART: Can the department provide an itemised budget for the Kakadu announcement made by the government?

We know the media release has $70 million for roads and $111 million for a range of things, including $20 million to $60 million for a WH interpretive centre—that's a fairly big range. Can you give me an itemised outline of that?

Mr Smith : Yes. Of the $216 million, the breakdown is as follows: $70 million will be provided for roads upgrades; $51 million will be—we've termed it 'tourism infrastructure components' of the package; $35 million will go towards remediation efforts in the township; and up to $60 million will be a contribution to the Kakadu visitor centre in Jabiru, which makes $216 million.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you. How much funding goes to the national park?

Mr Smith : It would be fair to say that the $51 million—tourism infrastructure—would be predominantly towards the park, and the roads funding will be predominantly parks roads upgrades. The remediation efforts will primarily be around the township.

Senator URQUHART: Yes. So the $51 million and the $70 million are for the national park, and then the others are for the town?

Mr Smith : Essentially.

Senator URQUHART: Okay.

Mr Cahill : Recognising that some of that money is tagged for a Kakadu visitor centre—while located in Jabiru, it is very much about connecting people to Kakadu itself.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Will funding be provided for weed and pest management?

Dr Findlay : As part of this announcement, there is no specific funding at the moment. As part of those strategies—developments around roads or tourism—it's quite possible that those features will come up and funding will be directed towards it.

Senator URQUHART: But there is none provided at the moment?

Dr Findlay : Not at the moment, no; not in terms of the additional funding. There is nothing earmarked at the moment. But I should say that we dedicate quite a large amount of funding to those activities, and the good thing about this funding is that this is relieving pressure on the broader base, which will help us target some of those feral animal and weed programs more intensively over the next few years, which is great.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Is the department aware the IUCN has raised concerns about the impacts of weeds and pests on Kakadu?

Dr Findlay : Yes, we are aware of that, and it is certainly a strong concern of mine as director of national parks.

Senator URQUHART: Yet no money has been put in for weed and pest management at this stage?

Dr Findlay : Not as part of the additional package but, as I said, we have a significant amount of money directed towards weed and pest management across all our parks, including in Kakadu. This additional announcement is very welcome because it will relieve pressure on the budget and allow us to dedicate hopefully more resources to some of those activities—including weeds and pests.

Senator URQUHART: Mr Smith, you said, 'up to $60 million for the visitor centre'. Is that the interpretive centre that you're talking about?

Mr Smith : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Why is it such a big range—$20 million to $60 million? You said, 'up to 60'. That's a lot of money. Why is it so big?

Mr Smith : That was just based on some initial work that was done baselining that. We'll obviously have to do a full business case to determine what that will look like. Part of the thinking, when we talked to stakeholders, was that it would be a good place for the visitor centre for the Kakadu National Park staff, but also there were talks around what sorts of other business opportunities could be also part of that centre. It is also part of the masterplanning that was done by Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation to create a centre within Jabiru. That was their thinking. But we obviously have to go through full business planning, so that's why it is an estimate at this stage.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. The government's commitment is 10 years. What is in the forward estimates and what is after that?

Dr Findlay : At the moment, the funding's actually drawn from a range of sources. So the portfolio additional estimates don't capture all of the funding that's currently covered in the $216 million. In the forward estimates for parks, there is actually a relatively limited amount of money for parks itself. Most of the other money is drawn from other programs but will be directed towards Kakadu park, so we would probably have to give it to you—

Mr Cahill : Take it on notice.

Dr Findlay : Yes, I think we'll take it on notice. That's probably the easiest way.

Mr Cahill : The road infrastructure is in the infrastructure portfolio program.

Senator URQUHART: Can you provide—

Mr Cahill : We do have some elements of the Jabiru package within this portfolio and our other portfolio, so we'll take that on notice and get back to you.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. So you can provide me with what is in the forward estimates and what comes in after that.

Mr Cahill : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. That's it for Kakadu. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Finlay. As we tried to before, we'll now go to program 1.6.

Senator URQUHART: Sorry, can I just get you—in the forward estimates in the on-notice stuff—to give me how much for the national park in the forward estimates as well? Thank you.

[22:00]

CHAIR: Senator Whish-Wilson, would you like to kick off here?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes, I would love to kick off. Thank you. I've got some questions about the national waste policy and the meeting between the environment minister and her federal colleagues on 8 December.

Mr Knudson : I suspect you mean 'state and territory colleagues'. The minister met with her state and territorial colleagues.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Sorry, what did I say?

Mr Knudson : You said, 'Commonwealth colleagues'.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes. I meant state and territory colleagues. The minister made a statement that day that the MEM had 'set a new and unified direction for waste and recycling for our country by agreeing to a national waste policy'. The statement went on to say that 'a strong national action plan' would be produced in early 2019, including 'funding and robust targets', although no insight was provided on specific aspects like product stewardship schemes for different waste streams. Could you give us a quick update on where we're at with those 'robust targets' and the 'strong national action plan'?

Dr Kiessling : I head up the national waste strategy taskforce and I am acting assistant secretary. Where we are up to is, as you say, the environment ministers met in December and agreed on a national waste policy. They also agreed to the development of a national action plan to implement the policy, and that that national action plan would include robust targets, milestones and so on. We are currently working with state and territory colleagues to outline the scope of that national action plan. In fact, we're meeting on Thursday to agree on the scope and the direction that we take in the development of that national action plan, including the development of targets.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. So nothing has been agreed to yet, but you've been working on that?

Dr Kiessling : Correct.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Since 8 December?

Dr Kiessling : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: My understanding was that, following the conference, state and territory ministers declined to join the environment minister, Minister Price, at a press conference. Is that correct?

Dr Kiessling : At the conclusion of the meeting in December, there was an agreement to the national waste policy. I'm unaware of any events following the agreement—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You're not aware that the ministers normally do a joint press conference but they didn't want to do a press conference with the environment minister?

Dr Kiessling : I understand that there have been press conferences at the end of Meetings of Environment Ministers in the past. I am also aware that there was not one made this time. I'm not sure that it is a specific part of the environment ministers' meeting.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Are you aware of the statement the environment minister put out following that 8 December get-together with her state and territory colleagues?

Dr Kiessling : Are you referring to the Meeting of Environment Ministers agreed statement?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Correct. Yes. Are you aware of what the minister said in her press conference?

Dr Kiessling : I'm aware of the press release, yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Minister Price said, in her own media statement—obviously, she didn't do a press conference with her state and territory colleagues: 'State and Territory Governments have walked away from solid targets,' performed a hijack, 'in the name of political opportunism,' and refused to endorse aspects of the NWP. She said she was incredibly disappointed.What happened? Why did the states and the federal environment minister not come to an agreement in such an important meeting?

Mr Knudson : As I think was quite evident, through the process that we went through publicly, we had a discussion paper with a number of targets that we were proposing for endorsement at the meeting of environment ministers. Ministers in that discussion decided that they wanted greater specificity through a national action plan—which is what Dr Kiessling was just talking about—before they were ready to endorse those targets. The minister obviously, in her press release, is acknowledging that she wished that the other state and territorial ministers had also come on board. They chose not to. But that's what we're focused on, all being the action plan.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: But, Mr Knudson, my question is: why did they choose not to?

Mr Knudson : Well, again, I think what was said—

Mr Pratt : I think that's a question for them.

Mr Knudson : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You must have been incredibly disappointed. The minister was. I can give you some suggestions from stakeholders as to why there was no agreement. The Australian Council of Recycling, for example, said it was because there was no funding from the federal government put towards any agreement.

Mr Knudson : That's actually not even factual.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay.

Mr Knudson : The federal government has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in this space. And the main point that we're focused on is what the actions are that we need to put in place with the states and territories to deliver on the National Waste Policy. And that's what Dr Kiessling was talking about earlier on.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The Australian Council of Recycling also said that they're left in limbo, they're unclear whether there actually is a National Waste Policy and it's unclear whether substantive action, planning and implementation steps will now be taken. This is—

Mr Pratt : There is a National Waste Policy, and ministers have agreed that an action plan will be developed over the next few months. That is underway.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That's underway now?

Mr Pratt : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: They also said that there is a failure of political leaders—and this would be for you, I suppose, Minister—in recycling policy to recognise current structural and operational realities in waste management and recycling to make decisions. Why has it taken so long to get this plan underway? Considering this committee did a fantastic job in looking at the waste crisis last year and the year prior to that, with China Sword and all the issues that came out of that, why have we still got a situation where our environment minister is disagreeing with state ministers on simple things like setting targets and how they're going to be implemented and funded?

Senator Birmingham: If you're asking why there is disagreement with state ministers—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Why is there no national plan, Minister? Why have we not been able to agree?

Senator Birmingham: My understanding is that there is a National Waste Policy, but then setting further targets under that policy has not secured the agreement of the environment ministers across the country at this time.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: At that meeting, did the minister sign off on a statement from the meeting of environment ministers? Was there actually a sign-off?

Mr Pratt : Yes.

Dr Kiessling : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: There was—okay. If that's the case, why did she criticise the outcome of the meeting? Is there something missing in the public domain?

Senator Birmingham: You can agree to the communique that communicates what has been agreed by the nine jurisdictions, but still be disappointed that more wasn't agreed.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So what was signed off on was second-rate, then, from the minister's point of view?

Mr Pratt : Well, the minister was clearly disappointed that the action plan element of it was not signed off as had been expected.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Did the minister raise with the states that they raise about $1.5 billion in waste levies and don't hypothecate or spend that on their own recycling issues?

Mr Pratt : There was discussion about relative resourcing across jurisdictions.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That's a very good way to put it, Mr Pratt. I'll take that as a yes. If the states asked for funding assistance, and I understand they did, why hasn't the Commonwealth made a commitment to invest? Is that because of this issue around their own waste levies?

Mr Knudson : Again, I think we've said this before in previous estimates. I'm happy to repeat the specific investments that the government has made on waste policy, but it's hundreds of millions of dollars already invested by the Commonwealth in this space.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. In her statement, the minister is clearly frustrated with the lack of solid targets. Can you tell me what the Commonwealth targets are? Is that something you can take on notice, or tell me about today? And have you committed to solid targets yourself?

Mr Tregurtha : One of the issues with setting targets in this space is that, as you'd be aware, a lot of the infrastructure and a lot of the effort in relation to waste management happens at a state and territory and, indeed, local government level. In a sense, the setting of targets has already been discussed. Those targets were intended to be—and we are still clearly working towards making them—national targets, because that's really, in our view, the only sensible way to prosecute the waste agenda as a whole, given the relative responsibilities.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes. This is one of the key issues that the committee looked at—what the role of the Commonwealth government was. Do you believe the Commonwealth is still responsible for coordinating the National Waste Policy?

Mr Knudson : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. So you're confident that that's actually now occurring?

Mr Knudson : That continues to occur. We started heavily looking at this after the China National Sword Policy was announced, and we will continue to do so.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That was a long time ago, Mr Knudson.

Mr Knudson : Yes, that was 14 months ago, and we continue to be focused on it.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Indeed, and it may have escaped your attention that, in The Age today, there was another article: 'Kerbside recycling to be sent to landfill as waste crisis unfolds'. I wasn't happy with that title, because it's been unfolding for a long time. At least six councils are saying that within weeks they're going to be sending their plastics to landfill rather than recycling because the EPA in Victoria said they can't stockpile this anymore; it's too dangerous. So there's clearly no investment going into the reprocessing or recycling of this material. Is this the kind of thing that you're looking at now in your plan?

Mr Knudson : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Right. When will we be able to see some kind of on-the-ground investment in processes and manufacturing and research and development?

Mr Knudson : There are already investments that are being made by the states and territories—granted, it's a handful of them—on waste infrastructure, and Dr Kiessling can talk to that if that's helpful. But there is also an ongoing requirement to make sure that your facilities are up to date, using the best available technologies, to make sure that we have as clean a stream of recycled materials as possible so there's a secondary market. That is the linchpin that will eventually change this debate—that there's a product that can be used, or that they can be used for, so there's an ongoing life span for recycled waste.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes. It takes a fair bit of lead time to get to that point, to get those products up and running.

Mr Knudson : Absolutely.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Is government procurement of some waste streams part of what you're looking at now?

Dr Kiessling : The agreement of the environment ministers back in December was that the national action plan would include appropriate funding, going to your previous point, but it would also consider increasing the demand for recycled materials, including through procurement. So it is one of the priorities that need to be considered in the development of the action plan.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Such as buying glass for road base, that kind of thing?

Dr Kiessling : That's correct, that sort of thing.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Just one last question, and you may need to take it on notice. I was reading in the National waste report about the methane capture from landfill—not from incineration but from landfill. Unfortunately, the copy I printed was not very good; otherwise, I would get you a copy of it. I might get you that afterwards. There seems to have been quite a dramatic fall-off in methane capture around the country, which is odd, considering that landfill has been increasing. Actually, in Brisbane I've been out to look at various methane capture plants from landfill. Is there any explanation as to why methane capture has fallen off so radically in the last four or five years?

Dr Kiessling : We would have to come back to you with the detail on that. The figures presented in the National waste report are complex and I wouldn't want to mislead you. So we'll come back to you.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: There does appear to be a simple correlation, at least from looking at it. When the carbon price was removed, methane capture—

Mr Pratt : Intuitively, that makes sense, yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: [inaudible] with that, Mr Pratt, carbon price might have been an incentive that led to investment in methane capture?

Mr Knudson : I expect we would want to also talk with our Climate colleagues, who were at the table earlier on, because they'll undoubtedly have insights as to what's going on with methane [inaudible].

Senator WHISH-WILSON: All right. I will put something on notice.

CHAIR: Senator Keneally.

Senator KENEALLY: Yes. If I can pick up on the waste issue before I move onto something else, Mr Knudson, did you just say the government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on waste issues?

Mr Knudson : That's correct, principally in the area of waste to energy.

Senator KENEALLY: Sorry—could you just expand a little bit more on that?

Mr Knudson : I will turn to Dr Kiessling.

Dr Kiessling : Yes, Senator. I can advise—let me just turn to the correct page—that, in total, ARENA and CEFC, those two organisations, primarily, have contributed just over $500 million in waste-related projects since their inception. So, since 2012, ARENA and CEFC have provided just over $500 million on waste-related projects.

Senator KENEALLY: Since 2012, the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on waste-related projects—so they're not currently spending hundreds of millions?

Dr Kiessling : Of that $500 million, there was about $150 million that was allocated since April last year.

Senator KENEALLY: So CEFC and ARENA?

Dr Kiessling : Correct.

Senator KENEALLY: Does any of that spending have anything to do with reducing, re-using and recycling?

Dr Kiessling : The bulk of that money that is being spent is on energy recovery from waste, but it also includes waste diversion activities. So there has been expenditure on waste diversion activities—for example, diverting household and garden waste from landfill. One particular project I'm referring to is where the CEFC contributed $38 million to the South Eastern Organics Processing Facility, which is diverting household organics away from landfill, which is expected to abate more than 65,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

Senator KENEALLY: We may put some other questions on notice about this. I'm mindful of the late hour. Can I turn to the PFAS Taskforce? Do we have the correct people?

Mr Pratt : Yes.

Senator KENEALLY: Thank you. Is the PFAS Taskforce monitoring the international experience of communities that are affected by PFAS?

Mr McNee : Certainly the PFAS Taskforce monitors developments internationally. That includes the scientific work that's happening around PFAS, both monitoring and the development of remediation work, and it also looks at what particular issues countries are dealing with. So we do have an insight into how countries are dealing with particular issues and the kinds of concerns that communities in those countries are facing.

Senator KENEALLY: So, from your answer, Mr McNee, the monitoring would include what other countries are doing when it comes to responding to PFAS contamination? You mentioned remediation. Is that correct then?

Mr McNee : Yes, we certainly obviously have an interest in what other countries are doing, and, through some of the key agencies, like the Department of Defence, there are actually very close links with other activities that are happening in other countries. So those relationships are basically being developed. The taskforce doesn't have the responsibility to work externally with other groups, but we certainly have an interest in what they're doing, both in a regulatory sense but also in the kinds of investments that are being made to manage PFAS.

Senator KENEALLY: What about monitoring what other countries are doing in terms of researching and evaluating any potential health impacts for PFAS?

Mr McNee : Certainly the Department of Health, I understand, has the primary responsibility for setting the health standards in relation to Australia. Obviously it has an interest in the work that is being done internationally, and, through its specialist agencies, which are the ones that actually assess this work, I'm sure they are monitoring those developments.

Senator KENEALLY: So that would be the Department of Health, mainly, to put those questions to?

Mr McNee : That's correct.

Senator KENEALLY: What about monitoring what other countries are doing in terms of research and trials on remediation, research methodology and technology? Would that sit with your taskforce, or somewhere else?

Mr McNee : As I said, it depends a little on the focus. As I said, there are some very specific relationships that the Department of Defence has developed with its counterparts overseas. As you correctly say, there's a significant amount of work, and we keep on top of that, but the specific work will come through the research aspects that are being supported by the government.

Senator KENEALLY: Is international experience an agenda item for the PFAS Taskforce meetings?

Mr McNee : The taskforce meets regularly on a monthly basis, and one of the items is an update on key developments elsewhere. So when we're aware of developments internationally that may have a bearing on that, then the taskforce does attempt to, obviously, bring that to the IDC, but it tends, as I said, to be the responsibility of the relevant agency—for example, if it's on the health side then it'll be the Department of Health that takes that forward.

Senator URQUHART: Can you tell me what the status is of the various reviews on fuel standards, vehicle emissions and any others?

Mr Knudson : Unfortunately, unless we have those people here—

Senator URQUHART: They've gone home?

Mr Pratt : That was under outcome 2, Senator; apologies.

Senator URQUHART: Which one is it?

Mr Pratt : Outcome 2.

Mr Knudson : It is listed there.

Senator URQUHART: Then I'll leave that.

Mr Pratt : Let me just check that we don't have someone here who can help out. Does anyone want to own up to—

Senator URQUHART: At this late hour? I doubt it, Mr Pratt!

Mr Pratt : Apologies, Senator.

Mr Knudson : Senator, this is a failure on our behalf to keep the wonderful, magical, coloured sheet, which has been the subject of much ridicule today, up to date—

Senator URQUHART: That's all right. I'll put them on notice.

Mr Knudson : Thank you. That's much appreciated.

Senator URQUHART: We're going to 1.5 next, I think. I've got three questions that I'd like to knock off in place of those ones there, and then I'm done.

CHAIR: All right. That's it for program 1.6.

[22:21]

CHAIR: We will now go to program 1.5.

Mr Pratt : And we have the 1.5 people in the room.

CHAIR: Good! Let's go, Senator Urquhart.

Senator URQUHART: The same group? Fantastic! I just want to touch on environmental law. Has the department had any discussions with stakeholders about updating the law in relation to the EPBC Act review?

Mr Knudson : Before the staff get to the table, I would just say that I've now been in the department for seven years, and I don't think a month has gone by when we haven't had meetings about what's working and what isn't working under the act. So that has been an ongoing experience.

Senator URQUHART: So you have had discussions with stakeholders—

Mr Knudson : Absolutely.

Senator URQUHART: about updating the law?

Mr Knudson : With states and territories, with industry, with NGOs—yes.

Senator URQUHART: Is the department doing any policy work on environmental law?

Mr Edwards : The department obviously scans and talks to stakeholders pretty much, as Mr Knudson said, on a continuous basis. So what we are doing is collecting different thoughts and reform ideas that people have. Obviously, people are highly anticipating the next review of the act. So we're getting people coming to us pretty much on a weekly basis. We are collecting and collating those ideas at the moment.

Senator URQUHART: At the last estimates, the department said that it had begun preliminary work on the EPBC Act review. Can you tell me: what is the status of that work, and what is the expected time line?

Mr Edwards : The status of that work is one where we're stepping through what the requirements are, first of all, of a review. We're starting to pull together, I suppose, the different alternative approaches that you could make, and we're using those interactions with stakeholders to start inviting them to work with their own stakeholder groups to pull together their own views, so that, when that process starts, people aren't caught by surprise. We clearly don't have clear time frames to share with them, but we're trying to get out there and start that conversation amongst the stakeholders.

Mr Tregurtha : Could I add, in terms of time frames: I think we've given evidence to the committee before that the EPBC Act review needs to commence by October of this year. We're still working towards a time frame of that—as Mr Edwards said, at the moment, principally through gathering views of stakeholders—and I guess starting to formulate briefings, but that's where we are.

Mr Pratt : And, as I mentioned this morning, we've been working with Minister Price on those arrangements since last year.

Senator URQUHART: Yes. So that's a statutory review that you're talking about?

Mr Tregurtha : That's correct.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. I'll leave it at that, thanks.

Senator WATERS: Can I ask some questions about Adani? I'm sure that's not unexpected! Just last Friday, Adani admitted that, as a result of the very devastating floods that hit Townsville and surrounds, they had released stormwater which had more than twice the amount of sediment that their state permit authorises them to release. They have acknowledged that they've released that into the Caley Valley wetlands. I understand the Queensland department is now investigating. Is the federal department investigating whether or not there have been any impacts on the wetlands, the reef or any other protected matter under the EPBC Act?

Mr Knudson : We're obviously aware of this issue. Ms Collins can give you an update as to where we're at on this issue.

Ms Collins : The Commonwealth government regulates a stormwater return dam at that site. A lot of the Abbot Point terminal was in place before the commencement of the EPBC Act. There is only that one element, the stormwater return dam, which the Commonwealth government regulates. The Commonwealth also became aware that, because of the extreme weather events, there had been releases. Our inquiries both with Adani and with the Queensland government have revealed that none of the releases came from the stormwater return dam. Therefore it is a matter that the Queensland government is regulating, and it doesn't relate to any of the Commonwealth regulations at the site.

Senator WATERS: So if there's a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance, such as the reef or a species in the wetland, are you contending that you can't do anything about it?

Ms Collins : At the moment we only regulate in relation to the stormwater return dam. Part of our inquiry was asking about the Great Barrier Reef. We're aware both from Adani and from the Queensland Department of Environment and Science that the water wasn't released into the Great Barrier Reef.

Senator WATERS: GBRMPA said that this morning, too.

Mr Knudson : Just to be really clear, the essence of any of our authority or powers is tied to things that we have approved. The fact that there was a bunch of existing infrastructure—we have no compliance or enforcement abilities in that space. We can only limit it, as Ms Collins talked to, about that stormwater facility.

Senator WATERS: Can you remind me of the scope of the Abbot Point approval that was given to Adani?

Mr Knudson : At this point there is an existing terminal which they're operating or plan to operate out of. There have been a number of other terminals that we have considered, but those aren't necessarily related to Adani. There are other companies. We can certainly come back to you and give you the full suite of Abbot Point approvals that exist under the act.

Senator WATERS: I'm across those, but it has been a while since I've looked at them, and I know there are other people with questions. I'm just interested in whether any of the Adani Abbot Point terminal approvals, whether they be existing terminals or future terminals, are triggered by this most recent flooding event.

Mr Knudson : The short answer is no.

Senator WATERS: You genuinely have no jurisdiction but for the scope of this stormwater return dam, and you're saying that none of the pollution came from that particular dam?

Ms Collins : That's right. There are two other approvals around terminal 0 and terminal 3. Both of those actions are yet to commence.

Senator WATERS: And may they never commence—but that's my personal view. Is it your contention that it's not, therefore, a breach of any of the conditions?

Ms Collins : That's right, because none of the water was released from the stormwater return dam.

Mr Knudson : But, as you pointed out, Senator, the Queensland government is also looking at this issue. They'll look at it from their approvals and see if there are any issues that way.

Senator WATERS: Okay. Can we turn now to the other investigation into alleged breaches. I have your documents that you gave to me under the order for production of documents whereby, essentially, the department found that there was nothing to see; everything was fine. I have some questions about the detail. You didn't ask about the total volume of water that was extracted from the bores that the Queensland government is currently investigating Adani for, which many people believe are not in fact monitoring bores but are in fact dewatering bores. Can I ask why you didn't ask about the total volume of water that was extracted from those bores?

Ms Collins : Senator, in fact we did ask that question.

Senator WATERS: Why didn't you put that in the OPD? I've got quite a range of documents here and none of them pertain to you asking that question. Were there other documents that perhaps you might be able to provide?

Ms Collins : The department's routine practice, in accordance with its compliance and enforcement policy, is that there will be some documents that we don't release. That relates to the integrity of any ongoing investigation. There were documents that weren't released as part of that tabling for those legal professional privilege and compliance documents in accordance with our compliance and enforcement policy.

Senator WATERS: So you're telling me you didn't tell me the full story? You're saying you did in fact ask about the total volume of water extracted?

Ms Collins : We did, and we understand that 5.4 megalitres was extracted. What I can say—

Senator WATERS: From how many bores was that? Sorry to butt in.

Ms Collins : There were six bores. What I can say is that on 12 September 2018, the department and the minister received the allegations that Adani had drilled the six groundwater dewatering bores. They were alleging that, as a consequence, mining operations had commenced, because there were still two plans that were yet to be approved. The next day, on 13 September, our compliance staff went up to inspect the site.

Senator WATERS: Yes. And you did a half-day site inspection, as I understand it, and then did follow-up questions, which you then didn't do any follow-up after receiving the answers to. Is that right?

Ms Collins : No, that's not correct. We did do the site inspection. We requested and received information from Adani itself. We gathered and sought our own expert advice from the evidence that we collected.

Senator WATERS: Internal to the department?

Ms Collins : Internal, from the Office of Water Science. That expert advice advised us that the pump data is consistent with extraction of the water for purposes of groundwater investigation, rather than for dewatering. There's no indication that any dewatering has taken place.

Senator WATERS: Sorry, can you just confirm that it was the view of the Office of Water Science that the 5.4 megalitres was consistent with monitoring as opposed to dewatering? Is that the summary version of what you've just said?

Ms Collins : Consistent with extraction for the purpose of groundwater investigation, and there's no indication that any dewatering has taken place. That was also consistent with the observations made by the compliance staff on the ground.

Senator WATERS: Okay. Did the department gather evidence about the casing material, and the diameter and depth of the bores?

Ms Collins : I would have to take that on notice, specifically. But what we were looking at, specifically, was in relation to condition 7 of the approval, which states that mining operations must not commence until the required management plans have been approved by the minister, in writing. What we looked at was the definition of mining operations, which is defined in the approval. Specifically, exploratory surveys are not included in the definition of mining operations.

Senator WATERS: Yes, so we're going to the definition of what 'exploratory' is. That's why I'm asking, did you look at the nature of the bores. Did you look at steel casings and not plastic casings, for example?

Ms Collins : I would have to take that on notice, but we did look specifically at the nature of the bores. Specifically on the question about dewatering, Adani actually notified the department on 17 November 2017, in writing, of project activities being planned and proposed to be undertaken. That included the installation of groundwater-monitoring bores, exploratory drilling to investigate groundwater flow rates and, specifically, no dewatering to occur.

Senator WATERS: Yes, I know that's what they said, but it's your job to check whether they're being fulsome in their use of the truth.

Ms Collins : Yes, that's right. As I said, we went up, we collected information from a range of sources, we sought our own expert advice and we determined that the activity that had occurred was consistent with their explanation.

Senator WATERS: I'm sorry to belabour this, but I do have some specific questions. You're saying you can't answer me on whether you checked about the material that was used for casing the bores?

Ms Collins : I've said I'll take that on notice; I haven't got that specifically.

Senator WATERS: And the diameter of the bores? Did the department look at that?

Mr Knudson : We'll take that on notice as well.

Ms Collins : My recollection is we did, but I'll take it on notice as well.

Senator WATERS: Okay. And likewise, the depth of the bores—were they examined?

Ms Collins : I'll take that on notice.

Senator WATERS: It's a shame you can't answer those ones, because it really does go to the veracity and integrity of the analysis that you conducted.

Ms Collins : I'm quite confident in the veracity and integrity of the analysis that we conducted against the conditions and the requirements of the approval.

Senator WATERS: You won't get any argument from me that the conditions are too weak, but that's not what we're trying to get at at this minute. What consideration did you give to the fact that the labelling of the bores was 'DWB'? It was labelled to indicate that it might be a dewatering bore rather than a monitoring bore? How much weight did you give that?

Ms Collins : We were certainly aware of the labelling, but what we needed to ascertain was what had been undertaken at the site. And the information that we gleaned from those sources of information and from our own monitoring inspection satisfied us that Adani hadn't done dewatering at those bores.

Senator WATERS: How long was that onsite inspection undertaken for?

Ms Collins : We went up there; we were onsite over the course of a day—so almost a full day.

Senator WATERS: Almost a full day. What exactly did you do whilst there?

Ms Collins : The officers who went up there went and had a look at each of the bores that were the subject of the allegation, and we also went and had a look at a monitoring bore.

Senator WATERS: When you say you looked at it, did you use any equipment, or did you just look with the naked eye?

Ms Collins : I would have to take on notice what equipment, if any, we took there.

Senator WATERS: Okay. How else would you ascertain the depth and the precise diameter, for example?

Ms Collins : There were a range of things they were looking at, and, as I say, I'll take that question on notice.

Senator WATERS: How does the investigation compare with those that have previously been conducted as compliance and monitoring for other mines, particularly in how long you spent onsite?

Ms Collins : I don't have those details in front of me, but usually we would do a monitoring plan, and how long we needed to spend there would depend on the scope of what we're looking at on the site.

Senator WATERS: What's a monitoring plan?

Ms Collins : In terms of conducting our monitoring audit, we plan what we do before we go.

Senator WATERS: Did you do that this time?

Ms Collins : We certainly did planning, yes.

Senator WATERS: Did you do a monitoring plan?

Ms Collins : I'd probably use that term loosely, rather than as a formal document.

Senator WATERS: Would you normally use it loosely, or would there normally be a formal document?

Ms Collins : We normally do quite a bit of detailed planning before we go and do a site inspection, because we need to know what we're looking at to determine the points of evidence that we'll need.

Senator WATERS: Did that occur this time? Was that formal monitoring plan prepared, like you say you normally do?

Ms Collins : If you're asking in terms of a document, I'd have to take that on notice.

Senator WATERS: Well, you raised it, so please do.

Mr Knudson : The piece that I would point out is that, obviously, the allegation was made on the 12th, and officers went up on the 13th. So, the extent to which they did extensive planning, we'll have to take that on notice.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. That's useful context. Can we move on now to the black-throated finch management plan? Am I correct that that has now been approved? I did ask on notice and it wasn't then approved. Has it now been approved?

Mr Tregurtha : That's correct.

Senator WATERS: What date was that approved?

Mr Foster : That plan was approved by a delegate of the minister on 18 December 2018.

Senator WATERS: Have there been any other of those plans or strategies that were awaiting approval when you last answered me on a QON? Has there been anything else approved since that date?

Mr Foster : No, there hasn't.

Senator WATERS: Okay. Just that one. Do I understand that the offset that's being proposed under that now-approved management plan is, in fact, on a different proposed mine site? Alpha North I think it is.

Mr Foster : The black-throated finch management plan seeks to set out monitoring and management arrangements for black-throated finch on both the mine site and also the offset areas.

Senator WATERS: Where is the offset area located?

Mr Foster : The primary offset area for the Carmichael mine is the Moray Downs west property, which is owned by Adani and is adjacent to the mine site.

Senator WATERS: Are there any other sites?

Mr Foster : To date, we've received an offset area management plan required under the conditions for the Moray Downs west property. That's currently under review. Adani are still working through securing properties to meet the remainder of their offset obligations.

Senator WATERS: What proportion?

Mr Foster : Sorry, Senator?

Senator WATERS: What proportion of their offset obligations is apparently met by that Moray Downs west site?

Mr Foster : The majority of their offset requirements.

Senator WATERS: Can you be more specific?

Mr Foster : I'd need to take it on notice.

Senator WATERS: Okay. Thank you. How many hectares of offsets are located on the land that's currently the subject of that Alpha North mine application by Waratah Coal?

Mr Tregurtha : I think we'd have to take that on notice to give you an accurate figure.

Senator WATERS: Is the Moray Downs site on where Alpha North want to put a mine?

Mr Tregurtha : I'm not sure. We'd have to take that on notice to be accurate.

Senator WATERS: Okay. My understanding—but you guys are the experts—is that in fact the offset land could be turned into a coalmine itself. I know we've done a whole inquiry into offsets and how unhelpful they are to conserving nature.

Mr Tregurtha : Maybe I can give you an explanation. The obligation on Adani at the moment is to deliver offset lands. If another company or proponent were to seek to do anything in relation to that site, the imposition of the offset obligation would clearly be a consideration in terms of anything that happened further on that site.

Senator WATERS: It wouldn't be a barrier legally, though, would it?

Mr Tregurtha : There is a scenario that would say that, in order to do something that affected the capability of that land to be an offset for the black-throated finch, in this case, it would then require further remediation somewhere else.

Senator WATERS: You'd have to offset the offset, and on and on and on.

Mr Tregurtha : That has happened in the past.

Senator WATERS: Meanwhile, the black-throated finch becomes extinct. I'll put some more questions on notice about that particular facet. I'm sorry to take up some time, but I have a few other questions. I understand that you didn't apply the water trigger to the North Galilee Water Scheme, which is the pipeline that Adani want for water to wash their coal and do goodness knows what else with. I asked about this last time. I think that's because your view is to narrowly interpret the phrase 'coalmining activity'. I'm interested in whether that's been your standard interpretation of the water trigger. Have you traditionally taken a narrow view, or is this a fresh level of hell to which we're now descending, if you'll forgive my rhetoric at a quarter to 11 at night?

Mr Tregurtha : Our decision in relation to that project is entirely consistent with previous decisions the department's made.

Senator WATERS: So you've always interpreted it narrowly?

Mr Tregurtha : The imposition of the water trigger is in relation to a large coalmine or coal seam gas development.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. The proposed action consists of the construction and operation of infrastructure that is associated with the extraction of coal but does not itself extend to coalmining. Consequently, the proposed action is not a large coalmining development, nor does it involve large coalmining. So, even though it's a necessary consequence and precursor, if you like, you're still considering that it's not part of that definition?

Mr Knudson : We didn't apply it to the railway or the port, as an example.

Senator WATERS: Okay. I understand that's being challenged in the courts. Has the assessment process been paused while your interpretation of the water trigger and the scope of it is being challenged? Has the Galilee pipeline assessment been paused?

Mr Barker : The assessment process is continuing concurrently with the court challenge.

Senator WATERS: So no extension of time has been requested by the minister on the basis of the court case?

Mr Barker : The point it's at at the moment is that the department has requested further information from Adani to allow the assessment process to progress, and we are waiting for them to respond with that information.

Senator WATERS: What's the subject matter of the further information that you've sought?

Mr Barker : The information relates to things like micrositing of the pipeline, alignment surveys that relate to species, and a better quantification of the particular impacts of the pipeline.

Senator WATERS: When did you ask for that?

Mr Barker : It was last year. I could get that in a moment, but it was later in the third quarter of last year.

Senator WATERS: Have Adani given any indication of when they might supply that information?

Mr Barker : No.

Senator WATERS: So am I right that they can take as long as they need with this effectively stop-clock provision while you're waiting for them to supply the info?

Mr Barker : Yes, that's exactly how the act is framed. It is up to proponents to take as long as they consider necessary to respond.

Senator WATERS: At the point that they come back with that information—and it may or may not be adequate; just look at the history—assuming the court case is still on foot—because these things can take a reasonable amount of time—will the department at that point advise the minister to pause the assessment process while the court decision is underway? Once the clock starts again, will you recommend that it be paused again while the court action is undertaken?

Mr Barker : It was on 1 November that we asked for that further information. In relation to the question you've just asked, it's a little speculative for me to be able to say what we would do at that future point in time. I suppose I could only offer the general comment that the requirements under the act operate notwithstanding court challenges that might be lodged by third parties.

Senator WATERS: In relation to the review of the groundwater management plan that I understand CSIRO and Geoscience are looking at, I have two questions. Why was IESC, the independent expert scientific committee, not asked to do that review work? Why was that given to CSIRO and Geoscience?

Mr Knudson : I think I provided testimony on this question in the last estimates. It was a consideration that both GA and CSIRO had the expertise that we were looking for. They had provided advice previously. There is no requirement under the act to go to the IESC at the point of post approvals. It's required for the principle approvals. All of that discussion with the minister—she came to the conclusion that CSIRO and GA had the expertise that we were looking for for these questions.

Senator WATERS: Will IESC get any oversight of that groundwater management plan?

Mr Knudson : They've already seen the project in the in-principle approval—

Senator WATERS: They saw it initially at whatever it was—the referral stage or something.

Mr Knudson : but it will be up to the minister at the time of considering the advice from GA and CSIRO and the department's advice to determine whether she feels that that is adequate to inform her decision-making or she wants further information.

Senator WATERS: So there's no automatic role for IESC at this stage in the process?

Mr Knudson : No, there is not.

Senator WATERS: When is that final review of that draft plan due to be completed by CSIRO and Geoscience?

Mr Foster : We expect to see that in the coming week or so, Senator.

Senator WATERS: Okay. So the plan is not in final form then, if it's still under review; is that right?

Mr Foster : That's correct, Senator. It's still under review.

Senator WATERS: Once you get that advice back from Geoscience and CSIRO, what's the process then?

Mr Foster : From that review, we will use that information to inform the regulatory decisions that we'll recommend to the minister or their delegate. We will assess that review and from that be in discussions with Adani about any matters of those plans that require amendment before it can be put forward for approval.

Senator WATERS: Will it be ticked off by the minister or by the minister's delegate?

Mr Tregurtha : We haven't made that final decision yet.

Senator WATERS: Who makes that decision?

Mr Tregurtha : Ultimately the decision in that regard is the minister's because the minister provides delegation to the department—

Senator WATERS: Does the minister do that on a case-by-case basis?

Mr Tregurtha : but clearly we consult with the minister's office in relation to all decisions that we make under the EPBC Act. Essentially, whilst there's a general power of delegation, we keep the minister's office informed because the power rests with the minister.

Senator WATERS: Sorry, thank you for that, but now I'm confused. Will the minister tick off on that groundwater plan, or will the minister's delegate tick off on that groundwater plan—or not tick off? I live in hope!

Mr Tregurtha : What I'm saying is that that decision has not yet been made, so either scenario could arise when it becomes time. As Mr Foster pointed out, depending on what GA and CSIRO come back with in relation to the plan, the department still needs to do its work in terms of a recommendation brief in relation to the groundwater management plans, and potentially, depending on what is found, we'll need to seek further information from Adani. So there's still a little way to go before we're in a position to do a final recommendation to the decision-maker. And, in relation to decision-making under the EPBC Act, just like any other decision, the ultimate power rests with the minister, but that can be delegated to the department.

Senator WATERS: I will wrap up very soon. If we enter caretaker mode prior to that final decision being made, are there any implications for whether or not it's the minister? Could the minister make a decision if we're in caretaker mode, or are there any implications for whether it's the minister or the delegate who could make the decision? Are they able to make that decision, or is that something that would need to wait for the next government?

Mr Tregurtha : No. I understand from previous advice, Senator, that caretaker conventions are just that: conventions. The minister's power as the minister in relation to the EPBC Act would stand. On the exercising of that power, however, we would provide advice, as I expect would the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio, in relation to how to manage approval decisions of that magnitude in a caretaker period.

Senator WATERS: Can you say that in a different way?

Mr Pratt : So, essentially, the application of the caretaker convention would make it most likely that they would be considered a significant decision—

Senator WATERS: Indeed.

Mr Pratt : and that neither the delegate nor the minister would take that decision in the caretaker period, or if there was a reason to need that to happen they would seek advice from the opposition and agreement from the opposition. However, Mr Tregurtha has pointed out that it is caretaker convention; it's not the law.

Senator WATERS: Would that be the opposition environment spokesperson, assuming this scenario rolls out in the manner that you've described?

Mr Pratt : Presumably.

Senator WATERS: Thank you for your patience everybody. Can I just ask whether or not the department prepared any draft advice before the Adani coalmine was approved that concluded the mine would have had clearly unacceptable impacts?

Mr Tregurtha : Not that I'm aware of, Senator, but we would have to take that on notice.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. And likewise for the Abbot Point coal terminal approval for Adani. Was there any advice prepared that it was clearly unacceptable?

Mr Tregurtha : Similar answer. I believe the answer to your question is no, but I would like to take it on notice to be sure.

Mr Knudson : I would say that, if you've got a fairly significant mine site, you would take a look at the threshold for clearly unacceptable and see it from there. But that's different from providing a piece of advice saying, 'We think that this is clearly unacceptable.' I just wanted to clarify that. Of course, we would consider the full range of what the act requires at the front end.

Senator WATERS: Sure. But you didn't in fact provide such advice.

Mr Knudson : Exactly.

Senator WATERS: Lastly, were there any draft conditions, avoidance or mitigation measures that were proposed or considered by the department that were not then applied as conditions on either the mine or the Abbot Point approval?

Mr Knudson : I do not believe so. My recollection—and we'll come back on notice—is that the minister added conditions into the final decision.

Senator WATERS: Thank you so much for your help.

Senator RICE: I'm not going to get through everything I wanted to get through. I want to ask some questions about the role of the environment department as a regulator. The community has been watching with interest the results of the banking royal commission and how it has exposed shortcomings in the financial sector regulation. So my first question is: has the environment department been following the progress of the banking royal commission and have you formally examined some of themes that have emerged from it about the approach of regulators?

Mr Knudson : Absolutely. I think there are very few Australians who haven't been following the outcomes of the banking royal commission. Indeed, I am pleased to say that we as a department began a fairly significant review of our practices through a regulatory maturity project a couple of years ago now, where we pulled in an external regulator from another jurisdiction to help guide that work. That has led to a number of developments within the agency. That has included developing a regulatory framework that sets out our principles for regulation and our practices, which has gone all the way from how we interact with stakeholders at the front end to the back end and in Ms Collins' area about we communicate our compliance priorities for the future and the outcomes that we achieve.

Senator RICE: Do you do regulatory benchmarking against other environmental agencies—Commonwealth regulatory bodies?

Mr Knudson : That has been done a number of times over the course of the act. The Productivity Commission has looked at this; certainly, we have. There has been APS reviews in this space. With the review of the upcoming forward, that will also, I suspect, be another point—

Senator RICE: When did you last do any benchmarking?

Mr Tregurtha : In addition to what Mr Knudson said, I think probably the last time we did that was as part of the process of putting in place bilateral assessment agreements with the states and territories. We undertook that benchmarking exercise with all of those states and territories which we now have bilateral agreements with.

Senator RICE: When was that?

Mr Tregurtha : Around 2015-16, but I would have to take on notice exact dates.

Senator RICE: I note that the environment department has on its webpage a report a breach hotline and email. Can you tell me how many individual complaints or notifications of environmental breaches the department has received by this hotline or other means?

Ms Collins : We would have to take that on notice.

Mr Knudson : Is it clear from the website whether that's specific to the EPBC Act, or is it environmental breaches more broadly?

Senator RICE: I think it's environmental breaches more broadly.

Mr Knudson : Then we would have to come back, because that's going to be something that's coordinated out of the centre of the department and sent to the various regulatory parts of the agency.

Senator RICE: You don't have that information to hand?

Mr Knudson : No, I do not.

Senator RICE: If I go to the ACCC or ASIC webpages with the annual reports, that information is easily found about the number of complaints they've received. So you don't have it to hand?

Mr Knudson : No, I do not. Again, just to make what is hopefully an obvious point, what you're looking at here, for example, is part of the environmental regulation body that deals with approvals and assessments under the EPBC Act, but there is also energy regulation, climate regulation et cetera, which are different parts of the agency.

Senator RICE: The EPBC Act is what I'm particularly interested in here tonight. How many of the complaints that you are alerted to have to be investigated?

Ms Collins : Under our compliance policy, we take all allegations seriously. We apply a risk-based and intelligence-led approach to prioritising allegations, so there's not a specific number or a target. Obviously, we are limited by the resources that we have in being able to respond to allegations, but, as I say, all allegations are taken seriously, and we take a risk-based approach.

Senator RICE: Is it reported as to how many are investigated and how they're investigated?

Ms Collins : I can tell you that in the financial year 2017-18, under the EPBC Act, we monitored 181 decisions that had EPBC Act approvals. This is part of our routine monitoring program. This financial year—

Senator RICE: Is that the same as complaints reported to you?

Ms Collins : No. We have both a proactive and a reactive component to our compliance program. We receive allegations. As Mr Knudson has said, we haven't got that number here.

Senator RICE: Again, on the ACCC and ASIC websites it's clearly outlined how many complaints they receive, how many are investigated and the outcome of those. Why isn't that available here as a regulator?

Mr Knudson : What I would say is that within the last few days we've also published our compliance policy as well as our compliance annual report, so that's something that we can absolutely forward to you. It gives a full, comprehensive take on what we've achieved from an enforcement perspective and all the way to investigations.

Senator RICE: How many people do you have who are investigating potential breaches of environment law?

Ms Waters : The Office of Compliance has 53 full-time equivalent staff.

Senator RICE: Do you consult with the minister or the minister's office around a decision to escalate from a complaint to an investigation or from an investigation to a compliance action?

Ms Collins : Those powers are delegated to the agency. For the most part, we, like most areas of the department, will inform the minister's office when there are significant decisions being made, but the decisions are normally made by a delegated officer.

Senator RICE: For the most part?

Ms Collins : Yes.

Senator RICE: When is that not the case, then?

Ms Collins : I can't recall any specifically at this point in time. I can let you know that in 2017-18 we had six successful criminal prosecutions. We've already had another successful prosecution this financial year, and we have another three cases before the courts. Those decisions were made internally within the department by the department's delegated officers. Last financial year, we also issued three penalty notices, and this financial year we issued another three penalty notices. All of those decisions were made internally by delegated officers of the department. Since I've been in the role, there hasn't been a compliance decision made by a minister. They've been made by the delegated officers.

Senator RICE: I note that on your website, under the EPBC Act infringement notice register, there are no noticed issues after April 2015, and on the case judgement register there's nothing listed since July 2015. Is this because you haven't updated the register as you are required to by law?

Ms Collins : We're in the process of updating our webpages. As Mr Knudson mentioned, we've just published a new compliance policy. We've published a set of compliance procedures. We've also published a document that outlines our compliance framework. That was a result of the changes made.

Senator RICE: But it's 3½ years that you haven't updated the register or made it publicly available?

Ms Collins : I would have to take that on notice. The infringement notices this financial year were under the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Management Act. All three of them were under that act.

Senator WATERS: Yes, but they weren't on the register. Has there been a drop in the number of infringement notices and court cases mounted? That's what there appears to be from the information that's been available.

CHAIR: After this answer, we will have to conclude.

Mr Knudson : I don't believe so, but we'll have to come back with the specifics on that for you.

CHAIR: Thank you all very much. That is the end of estimates for today. I remind you that our written questions on notice must be in by Thursday, 28 February. Thank you to Mr Pratt, to all the officers, to Hansard, to the committee staff and to my colleagues. That is it for today. We'll reconvene tomorrow on the Communications and the Arts portfolio.

Committee adjourned at 23:00