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STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT
19/02/2008
AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY PORTFOLIO
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

CHAIR —I do sincerely welcome Senator the Hon. Jan McLucas, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing, representing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Dr Conall O’Connell, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and officers of the department. Senator, do you or Dr O’Connell wish to make an opening statement?

Senator McLucas —I do not, but thank you for the welcome, Chair.

CHAIR —Dr O’Connell?

Dr O’Connell —No.

CHAIR —Senator Nash, do you have questions?

Senator NASH —Thanks, Chair. I apologise, I was not here yesterday for the beginning. Did we start rural policy yesterday?

CHAIR —We are continuing rural policy and innovation.

Senator NASH —Then I apologise if these questions have already been asked. Please pull me up if they have been and I will move on. I am interested in some of the programs where we have seen some changes recently, so that I can understand the nature of the changes and the reasons for them. One that I am aware of is the apprenticeships incentives for agriculture and horticulture program. Could somebody take me through exactly what that was going to provide and its current status.

Mr Thompson —That program is not in this portfolio, Senator. It is the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

Senator NASH —I apologise. When I saw it was agriculture and horticulture, I just assumed it would fall under the agriculture department.

Mr Thompson —It is for agricultural and horticultural apprentices, but it is part of the broader apprenticeship program.

Senator NASH —The broader mix, okay. Do the re-establishment grants that come under drought funding fall under you?

Mr Thompson —Yes, they do.

Senator NASH —I believe there have been some changes in those as well, so would you mind running me through exactly what those changes have been.

Mr Thompson —The estimates, as indicated in the statements, have been reduced. In September last year additional funding was provided for exit packages associated with the drought and the shortage of water in the Murray-Darling Basin. Our experience since then has been that there has not been the uptake that was expected at the time, and there have been a number of contributing factors. One is the rain that has fallen in some parts of Australia, which has made some people change their minds about what they might do, and the other has been the quite lengthy process that many farmers go through as they make a decision to leave the land or not. Mr Dalton has some numbers.

Senator NASH —That would be great. Can you explain to the committee exactly how those grants work.

Mr Dalton —The grants have three components to them. There is a re-establishment grant which is paid once the farm has been sold.

Senator NASH —Precisely what is that for?

Mr Dalton —People may use that money for whatever purpose they choose, whether it be to buy a residence, to put it towards further education or whatever. That is a $150,000 maximum. There are two other components for which they are eligible: $10,000 to assist with relocation expenses, if that is what they are doing, and up to $10,000 for advice and training. The relocation grant is tied to pursuing employment in another location.

Senator NASH —The second thing I think you said was for further education. Is that right?

Mr Dalton —Advice and training.

Senator NASH —No, advice and training was the last thing you said.

Mr Dalton —The $150,000?

Senator NASH —Yes.

Mr Dalton —It is up to people to choose what they wish to spend that money on. The only restriction we place on them is that they do not return to farming in an ownership capacity within five years.

Senator NASH —What are the types of things that have been taken up under that further training?

Mr Dalton —To date there have only been a small number of grants—three, I think—that have been for training. I am sorry; I do not have the information on that.

Senator NASH —You said they were up to $150,000.

Mr Dalton —Yes, that is the maximum.

Mr Thompson —The exit grant is $150,000. The training grant is up to $10,000.

Senator NASH —Sorry, that is what I was trying to clarify.

Mr Dalton —If a farmer was entitled to all of the components, it is $170,000.

Senator NASH —If a farmer is exiting—I notice you said ‘up to $150,000’—what are the criteria around accessing that grant?

Mr Dalton —There is a maximum asset cap of $350,000, beyond which they would not receive the full amount. If, after the assessment of all of the assets and the liabilities of the farmer, they have $350,000 of their own money, or their own assets, they can get a maximum of $150,000. Then it tapers down to a two for three taper.

Senator NASH —Can you run me through the exact process of the decision to cut the program or assess—or whatever you termed it before—the lack of take-up. Can you tell me what funding was available and for which time period and the reasons for the reduction or cutting of that funding, whichever it may be.

Mr Dalton —The original funding that was allocated or identified in September of last year as part of the drought package was a total of $150 million over two years. That has been reduced by reversals of $26 million and $72.8 million this year and next year.

Senator NASH —Just quickly do the maths for me. How much does that leave?

Mr Dalton —It is $13.5 million this year and $45.7 million next year.

Senator NASH —Is that the financial year?

Mr Dalton —Yes.

Senator NASH —So $13.5 million this financial year. Previously, what was it for this financial year?

Mr Dalton —$39.5 million.

Senator NASH —Then for the next financial year, which is now $45 million?

Mr Dalton —$118.5 million.

Senator NASH —When was the decision taken to reverse this?

Dr O’Connell —If we could just clarify, the program is a demand-driven one and the estimates were estimates of what the demand uptake would be. The changes to the estimates are changes as a result of the experience of actual uptake. There has been a much lower level of uptake than that initial estimate, so the new estimate is based on what would be the now expected demand-driven uptake. This is not a program that has been cut; it is simply that the demand has been lower than expected.

Senator NASH —So the forecast estimation has been changed?

Dr O’Connell —It has been changed. It is still available; the criteria have not changed; there is no cutting to the program.

Senator NASH —How long has the program been running?

Mr Dalton —Since September of last year.

Senator NASH —When did you do the first estimates?

Mr Dalton —These were done in the lead-up to the decisions of the drought package, which would have been early September of last year.

Senator NASH —When was the decision taken to change the forecast?

Mr Thompson —The final decision to change the forecast would have been taken early this calendar year. I do not have the exact date but it would have been in late January.

Senator NASH —Let us just go back to the figures. It was $150 million over four years.

Mr Dalton —Two years.

Senator NASH —Sorry, over two years. And what is the figure now in total over two years?

Mr Dalton —$59.2 million.

Senator NASH —So a little over a third. Are you seriously saying that, from an estimate in September of $150 million, in three months to January you have reduced your forecast by two-thirds, on the events that occurred between September and January?

Mr Thompson —It is on two factors, Senator. One was that, in early September when the estimates were done, there were very bleak conditions, as you will recall, in Australian agriculture. Things have changed subsequent to then.

Senator NASH —Just stop on that: ‘Things have changed subsequent to then.’ Can you detail exactly which things have changed?

Mr Thompson —We have had a lot of rain in northern New South Wales and Queensland and some people in parts of those regions also received better wheat crops than they might have expected in September. It has not changed in the southern part of Australia but in parts of Northern Australia some people are far more optimistic than they were then. That is one factor. The other one is that estimating how and when people will leave farming is extremely difficult. The conditions on this grant were different to those that have prevailed on previous exit grants and the decision to leave farming is a difficult one for farmers. It is affected by a whole lot of factors. So, in many senses, I would suggest that the estimate that was made in September was probably an optimistic one on the basis of a pessimistic outlook and optimistic uptake. Subsequent to then, when you see the actual level of expressions of interest in leaving, there was an opportunity to reassess.

Senator NASH —At the risk of sounding like Senator Heffernan, what a load of rubbish! Do you seriously think that, after six or seven years of drought in some places, one fall of rain and one change potentially to some areas of the country in harvest, in the slight increase in expectation, can reduce what was previously an estimate of $150 million to $59.2 million?

Mr Thompson —Mr Dalton will have some numbers there, but one of the factors that was taken into account is that it is a demand-driven program, as Dr O’Connell said. It takes into account the money available, but the amount of expressions of interest and the time it takes to sell a property were also taken into account and we know how many people have expressed interest in that initial period.

Senator NASH —But you had only had three months to assess that demand.

Dr Samson —The original estimate for this component of the program was made by the previous government towards the end of last year. As Mr Thomson said, on experience of the expressions of interest in this component of the program and the actual take-up, the view has been taken that the original estimate was unrealistic.

Senator NASH —Why do you think that happened? Who made that original estimate?

Dr Samson —That was a decision of the previous government, Senator.

Senator NASH —So there was no advice from the department on the estimate? That was just a ministerial decision?

Dr Samson —It was part of a cabinet deliberation and we are not at liberty to disclose the details of those discussions.

Senator NASH —I accept that.

Dr Samson —There are people who may be able to tell you how that came about, but we cannot. A decision has been taken based on actual experience of expressions of interest and take-up that that original estimate was not realistic. As part of the process that I am sure you are aware of, of continuous revision of estimates of demand-driven programs, that estimate has been revised downwards to more closely reflect what would appear the likely take-up rate. As the secretary says, it remains a demand-driven program and no doubt the estimates will be revised in the future.

Senator NASH —Two things: for normal demand-driven programs, once they are put in place, what is the average time frame that is allowed to elapse before a review of those estimations is done?

Dr Samson —That would depend on the program. There is no particular period that I am aware of.

Senator NASH —How many demand-driven programs are there within the Rural Policy section?

Mr Thompson —The demand-driven programs are our Farm Help program, which also includes an exit package, drought exceptional circumstances income support and drought exceptional circumstances interest rate subsidies.

Senator NASH —I appreciate you might have to take this on notice, but would you mind having a look at those programs and coming back to the committee with the times elapsed between reviews of estimated forecasts for those programs which are also demand driven.

Dr Samson —What you will probably find, depending when the program started, is that the time that elapsed between the original announcement and a revision may vary. What would be consistent throughout all of it, I think, is that the revision would occur at the appropriate point in a budget cycle. So the revision that has just occurred in this program really reflects that we are moving into that part of a budget cycle.

Senator NASH —So that normally happens in January? Did you do the revision for this in January?

Mr Thompson —In January, yes. It would normally happen at any opportunity where a budget estimate is revised, so it would be for additional estimates in the budget process and a period midway through the year. We can come back on notice, but for many of the drought ones it is roughly every three months.

Senator NASH —In terms of the process, if you were applying for a re-establishment grant and you were putting your property up for sale, at which point could you apply for assistance? Do you have to have sold your farm or can you do it the minute you start?

Mr Dalton —No, there is a capacity for what is called a preassessment. If you have put your property on the market—so you have indicated more than just an idea that you wish to sell; you have put steps in place to sell the property—you can apply to Centrelink to do some initial information gathering about the claim and it will also allow you to undertake some training in advance of the sale. At the moment there are approximately 156 assessments which are at various stages of completion, so that is 156 people at February who have indicated that their property is for sale, and that property may be at various parts of the sale process—listing, exchange of contract—but the grant is not paid until settlement.

Senator NASH —What is the average length of time for going to an estate agent, listing a property, advertising, agreement for sale and exchange of contracts? Do you have any of that kind of information, just on a rolling average, of roughly how long it takes to sell a property?

Mr Thompson —We would not have an average for Australia. It is quite variable. Some properties sell quite quickly, but some do take an extended period of time. Some take 12 months.

Senator NASH —Yes, indeed. So within the three-month window that you had before you needed to reassess this program because there was not enough take-up, realistically for people, even if they had wanted to list their property the minute this program came into place, you would have had to have people racing the minute that they had heard this program existed for you to get any kind of reasonable bearing on being able to lower a forecast, surely.

Mr Thompson —It does take time to go through the process, as you have said. As Mr Dalton has said, there are over 150 people who have expressed interest now, and they express interest on a daily or a weekly basis, and that is tracked. Allowing time for the process to go through, our current estimates are that we have got sufficient funds until the next budget review, which would probably take place around the middle of the year, on a demand-driven program.

Senator NASH —So from that, the next review will be at budget time. Is that correct? Am I to read that from what you have just said?

Mr Thompson —All budgets for programs are reviewed in the budget context. So we would be looking at these again in the lead-up to the full budget in May, yes.

Senator NASH —Parliamentary Secretary, I know you have a very genuine interest in this area. Are you aware if there has been any discussion around whether or not this program will be continued?

Senator McLucas —I understand, from what I have heard this evening, that the program is ongoing for two years. As you have heard, it is a demand-driven program, and 156 applicants have expressed interest in proceeding in the program. I do not think you can describe this program as being cut, because it is demand driven. The key point you need to take home, Senator Nash, is that the original estimate was too generous.

Senator NASH —According to—

Senator McLucas —According to the evidence from Dr Samson.

Senator NASH —The evidence we got. Of course. His opinion.

Senator McLucas —You and I as politicians can make a judgment about why, in the lead-up to an election, a party might want to put a large figure in the public arena. It is the responsibility of government, as I am sure you are aware, to make sure that the figures that sit in the budget papers are in fact reflective of the need of the community.

Senator NASH —I am rather surprised that the target has been rural communities—and I take on board everything you say. But I am rather surprised that, given there is a normal budget process, as you have just talked about, why not wait until the middle of year and in the normal budget process reassess this program, given that it had only been running for three months, and given, sensibly and practically, nobody would have been out there in a cropping area thinking, ‘Gee, I will put my place on the market while I have got a crop in the ground. Gee, I might just wait till January to see how the crop goes before I even think about this.’

Senator McLucas —Senator Nash, you heard the officers say that this program will be reviewed every three months.

Senator NASH —No, I did not hear that. No, I did not hear that at all.

Senator McLucas —I will get that confirmed.

Senator NASH —I heard the officers say that it was reviewed in the normal budget cycle.

Senator McLucas —That other demand-driven programs are reviewed regularly because, as you and I know, coming from rural Australia, climate changes quickly, and we need to be responsive in these sorts of programs to what is happening on the land and what is happening in different parts of Australia.

Senator NASH —Exactly. I am just about done, but you have just raised a very important point: climate changes quickly; the effects of climate change on farmers do not. So I would hope that in the reassessment of this program, which hopefully will occur in the middle of the year, all the factors I have raised might be taken into account.

Senator McLucas —Can I take that point with you, Senator Nash: in my experience on the land, a lot of farmers take hope from water coming out of the sky, and a lot of farmers would have taken a lot of hope from the water that has fallen out of the sky in the last three months.

Senator NASH —Indeed. But for the ones that have been going through it for six or seven years, one rainfall is not going to do it for them.

Mr Thompson —Senator, if I could make one point of fact about this: you mentioned, ‘Why was this not reviewed in the normal budget context?’ This program was announced in September and, as part of the normal funding cycle, no funding was provided for this program until there was an opportunity in the budget process. It had to go into the supplementary additional estimates bill that was passed last week to provide the funds for it, so there was a process put in place, in addition to the normal budget process, for this program because of the timing of the announcement in response to demand in September.

Senator NASH —Thanks, Mr Thompson.

Dr O’Connell —Senator, this is the same with all these issues that came up post the budget and between the budget and now. That is what the additional estimates and supplementary additional estimates do.

Senator NASH —Thanks, Dr O’Connell.

CHAIR —Senator Milne has been waiting patiently.

Senator MILNE —I would like to pursue this issue but in a slightly different context. I would say in relation to the questioning that has gone on, I have spoken to people on the land and they say that the reason they have not taken this up is it is way too little; that by the time they sell their farm—maximum $350,000—that gives them $500,000. There is no way they can relocate to a larger urban centre with $500,000. What I want to come to is—and this is under ‘Rural policy and innovation’—in the rationale for this program, was the thinking that we need structural adjustment in rural Australia to help people who are on land that is no longer viable to move off that land and then have some other proposal for the land, or was this a poverty relief program? In that case I do not see it as innovative It is a justice arrangement but it is not rural policy innovation. I would like to understand how this fits with this notion that some farmers are now on land that is not viable because of a change in climate. How did this fit with that, and how was the figure of $150,000 come up with in the context of the reality of real estate prices and the capacity for people to move on—say, $500,000 and $20,000 for relocation and training?

Mr Thompson —The first point I would make is that this program, while it may provide assistance to people whose land has been affected by drought long term, is primarily aimed at assisting those business operators whose business is no longer financially viable and who have got themselves into such a position that their only choice is to leave the land. It makes no question about whether the land is viable or sustainable; it merely says, ‘In the hands of the current operator a profit can no longer be made from it.’ In some cases, I am sure, when the properties go on the market, they are purchased by a neighbour who amalgamates them with their property and that parcel of land becomes part of a viable enterprise.

The amount of money for exit packages is a judgment that was made by the previous government. It does bear some relationship, I suppose, if you had the $500,000, to what a house may cost in another major rural centre or whatever, but it is not essentially determined on that basis. It was a judgment as to what is a reasonable amount of money for people who once were in farming and who are now going to go into an urban occupation.

Dr O’Connell —Senator, the quantum available was decided by the previous government, and agreed at that time, and has been held over and remains the amount.

Senator MILNE —Yes, I understand that, but what I am asking is: what was the rationale to name the $150,000? I take your point that the thinking was about getting people off their land, but it is called a re-establishment grant. They have to go somewhere to re-establish. So what I am asking is: did the department have any input into what a reasonable relocation grant would actually be in the context of the real costs of relocation or re-establishment?

Dr Samson —A couple of issues come to mind. One is that, in various guises under various programs, there have for a number of years been exit components. Some of the sugar programs that we have discussed in this forum in the past have had an exit component. It has been raised by various people at various times that the number on offer at any given time has not been enough to be of use to people who are interested in exiting. The number has, over the years, gone up by increments—and Mr Thompson will correct me—with a starting point of $50,000 that turned into $75,000 and went to $100,000 at one point, as I recall the incremental increase. Each time the hope has been that that increase would provide enough to make a difference to people who have decided that, for whatever reason, they had to go.

Coming back to Senator Nash’s questions, based on that experience, we know that whatever it has been increased to has not made that much difference. The last attempt to come up with a figure that might be more useful was the $150,000. It really was more the next stage in an evolutionary incremental process that $150,000 was arrived at by the previous government. I was aware of some discussions—I would not call it a detailed analysis—of various people’s views of what it might cost to buy a house in a rural community. I would not want to portray the $150,000 as the result of a detailed analysis; it is more a natural progression in trying to find a number.

Senator MILNE —Have you done any evaluation to look at why there has not been the uptake so that you can identify from the people affected why it is that they are not taking it up, rather than from the other perspective of giving them an incremental increase? It may be much better to offer more and tighten the criteria. You do not actually have to increase the amount but you might get a better result if you have very strict criteria and a larger grant. Has there been any kind of evaluation in that context?

Mr Thompson —There has not been an evaluation of this particular package yet but there have been evaluations of previous exit packages and, as Dr Samson says, changing the amount has an effect in terms of attractiveness but it is not the driving factor. Factors that have affected people’s willingness to leave the land have been being able to be taken through a process of recognising that their farm is in difficulty and that the projections are that it will stay in difficulty; hence this one includes that provision for receiving professional advice and training. There are cultural issues to do with ‘life outside of farming’, so there is training and relocation assistance of that sort so that farmers can go through a skills assessment and see themselves as potential truck drivers or small business operators in other fields. Those elements have been seen from the research to be probably as effective as funding. This package also included increases in those areas, so a review of this program and surveys of the participants may help us in that regard.

Senator MILNE —You said before that one person in trouble does not necessarily mean the next person who farms that piece of ground is going to be in trouble. But have you done any tracking to see about viability, because it concerns me that we have exit grant after exit grant in so many industries and the minute that there is a bit of an upturn they all go back into it and they fail again—we have had so many rescue packages in the Tasmanian forest industry you would not believe. Do you track it to see whether this land returns to sustainable production in the long term? Is there any kind of sense of that?

Dr Samson —Mr Thompson would probably have a comment. It does vary, depending on what program or package we are talking about. I am aware of some where a condition of accessing the exit grant is an undertaking that you as an individual will not return to farming. I think there are variations on the theme that put a covenant on the actual land itself—that it will not be returned to a particular form of production.

Mr Thompson —These programs do not have covenants that prescribe what the future land use will be but they do say that the individual must leave agriculture in the form of an owner for five years. We do not, in a specific sense, track what happens to the parcel of land but we do have longitudinal surveys of the clients of both the exit package and our other agricultural programs which track what happens to those people and we do track the performance of agriculture in general through the ABARE farm survey. In that population we also have some recipients of some of our farm welfare programs. We do track those. The general trend of all of that, in most regions and most industries, is towards larger aggregations of land which have high levels of capital and therefore become more profitable, intensification of the land, in some cases, or diversification, which makes the business using that land more viable. In some cases—and you only hear this by anecdote—when people leave the land, sometimes the parcel is bought by the place next door or up the road; in other cases, the parcel is bought by somebody who has substantial off-farm income and so is not dependent on that small parcel of land for all of their income, so it does not become an economic cost anymore.

Senator MILNE —That brings me to my next question, which is about the new industries development program identified as a saving. Why have we cut that program, effectively? My reason for saying that is that climate change and agriculture require a capacity for new and different and innovative ways of living on the land that may no longer be viable in the way it was previously. Why is that program cut?

Dr Samson —The short answer, which I will elaborate on, is that it was a decision of government, clearly. What we have is the announcement of a number of new programs and funding has been reallocated from previous programs to new programs.

Senator MILNE —So this funding has been reallocated to another program? If so, where is it now reallocated?

Dr Samson —Mr Thompson will want to talk about that. Largely, the government announced a new program, Australia’s Farming Future, which has three components: one is the Climate Change and Productivity Research Program, which is worth $15 million; the Climate Change and Adaptation Partnership Program, which is worth $60 million, and the Climate Change Adjustment Program, which is worth $55 million, $10 million of which is to enhance the Rural Financial Counselling Program. That is, from memory, roughly $130 million, which has come from other programs.

Senator MILNE —Effectively, what I was seeking it to do it can still do, rebadged under another program. In relation to the drought and exceptional circumstances, it has been of great concern to me that the assumption has been that the exceptional circumstances are based on the last 100 years. All the scientists are telling me that it is no longer appropriate to think about the climate in terms of the last 100 years. What action is being taken in a whole-of-government approach, together with the research agencies—the Bureau of Meteorology, the Bureau of Rural Sciences, CSIRO, the CRCs et cetera—to review this notion of exceptional circumstances and the one in 100 years and those sorts of criteria?

It seems to me we know there are going to be more extreme weather events because of climate change, and they are happening. We are seeing the insurance industry taking advantage of that, declaring that a flood is no longer a flood; it is an inundation. ‘If you are covered for a flood, that is fine, but it was an inundation and you are not covered,’ and so on and so forth. Is there any whole-of-government approach to review this notion of what constitutes drought and exceptional circumstances in a climate changing and carbon constrained world?

Mr Thompson —The current process for exceptional circumstances, as you have outlined, is based on the historical record of climate. The scientists tell us that the future is likely to be more variable.

Senator MILNE —That is right.

Mr Thompson —The minister has indicated that he would like to look at future drought policy and programs in the context of climate change, which would take into account what has happened both in the past and is projected to happen into the future. The details of that are being discussed right across government quite widely, but I cannot provide any more detail than that because it is a matter that is still under development.

Senator MILNE —Having said that, am I to assume this will come out of the climate change policy unit in Prime Minister and Cabinet, or is there at this stage no particular process to actually deal with this in any kind of time frame?

Mr Thompson —The climate change department is responsible for overall coordination of climate change policy in the Australian government, but this department is doing work on climate change and drought and how it would impact on programs affecting rural Australia. We are working in collaboration with our colleagues in a range of other departments on what the future of policies and programs should be, so we would be as involved as they would. It would not come from one place in government; it is a whole-of-government initiative.

Senator MILNE —Given that, should there not be some sort of time frame and some sort of awareness raising about rural Australia that this review is under way and that there are likely to be changed parameters in relation to this? We are getting more and more extreme weather events occurring in all kinds of areas and we need to draw a line under it somewhere, surely.

Dr Samson —The other area where a lot of work is being done is under the auspices of the primary industry ministerial council, which is a body of Australian government, state and territory primary industry ministers. For some time now there has been consideration of the relevance of existing exceptional circumstances policy in the context of the changing climate and exactly the issue that you raised, and that is now, as we move into the next round of ministerial and standing committee discussions, something that is very high on the agenda.

Senator MILNE —So you cannot give me any sense that there is a time frame in which we would expect to get that review formally out there in the community?

Dr Samson —Not at this point in time, no.

Senator McLucas —Senator Milne, it is early days. There is a lot of work happening across a number of portfolios in terms of climate change.

Senator MILNE —Yes.

Senator McLucas —There is a need, and you have identified it, that we have to be coordinated across portfolios, and I understand that the Minister for Climate Change and Water is undertaking that role. It is a matter of ‘watch this space’, but I do take your point about informing the community and I will ensure that the minister is aware of your views.

Senator MILNE —My final question goes to the issue of insurance, which I just raised a moment ago. It concerns me greatly that the insurance industry is way ahead of governments and the community in terms of protecting itself from claims by making these decisions already. Is there any kind of discussion out there, in this rural policy innovation sense, of actually talking to the insurance industry about it getting some agreed definitions? I see in insurance policies now in terms of coastal areas that if you have a flood policy it does not cover you for storm surge. Most people in the community would think, if they were insured against flooding and there was a storm surge because they lived on the coast, that they would be covered. Well, they are not. Equally, in relation to the recent floods, the industry has come out and say, ‘Yes, you are covered for flooding but you are not covered for inundation, and this downpour was declared an inundation, so sorry.’ Particularly for rural Australia, where people sit back and think they are insured, we are going to find massive dislocation. Governments are going to have to pick up the bill because the insurance industry has been allowed to get away with covering itself at the expense of the community, in my view.

CHAIR —That was more of a statement, Senator Milne.

Senator MILNE —I am just asking. This is a rural policy innovation unit. It would be innovative indeed if they were to have that kind of discussion to protect the constituency.

Mr Thompson —We do have discussions with the insurance industry from time to time about those risks that are insurable and do impact on the rural sector. We have not had a lot of discussions about flooding or inundation because those impacts are not part of this portfolio, and flood insurance has been something that farmers, except in very rare cases of high-value crops, have not been able to use. The discussions we have had with the insurance industry are more related to hail and fire and those sorts of things. So we have periodic discussions with them to try to keep up to date with where they are at.

Senator MILNE —Perhaps in this review of what constitutes an extreme weather event in terms of one in 100 years, can I ask you to take it on board at least that there should be some discussion with the insurance industry in that context.

Senator McLucas —I will pass your views on to the minister.

CHAIR —Yes. Well done, Senator Milne. Senator Nash?

Senator NASH —I apologise that I have to ask you to clarify this, Mr Thompson. A while ago you made some comments—I think it was when you were talking about further education—about moving farmers to be truck drivers. Did I hear you correctly?

Mr Thompson —When farmers leave the land, they take on a range of different occupations. A number have gone into trucking businesses; others have gone into small businesses; others have gone into employed occupations. It is just an example of the sort of thing they do.

Senator NASH —I was hoping you did realise that most farmers are already truck drivers and can drive trucks.

Mr Thompson —The point I was making was that many farmers have skills but they do not recognise they are skills that could be used off the farm. Another example I could have used is that a number of farmers in one state became caravan park operators because their skills in general—handyman, operating with lots of people and that sort of thing—suited them for that occupation. It is a process of taking them through, identifying what skills they have and saying how they can use them in alternative employment occupations.

Senator NASH —Exactly, realising of course that truck driving is a highly skilled occupation.

CHAIR —They tell me the way to make a small fortune out of transport is to start with a large fortune. Anyway, Senator Nash, thank you.

Senator NASH —Thank you for clarifying that for me, Chair.

Senator ADAMS —I was a little late coming, so I apologise for that. Having spent quite a lot of time up in the Morawa and the mid-west area of Western Australia, which has had three, four and five years of drought, I have some comments here from Chairman Warren Carslake of the Dry Season Focus Group. Their biggest problem was that, when they really had a very poor season or no crop last year, by the time they got together and tried to work out whether or not they could make the grade—a lot of them having problems because of the escalation of fertiliser and chemicals and not being able to obtain any seed grain—they were making decisions or trying to make decisions that perhaps they should try and take up the drought assistance grant and move away. But, because they were in the middle of harvest and trying to scratch out whatever they could, the deadline of 31 January was a huge problem. Why was that deadline set so early? That was the deadline for the drought assistance package, and they just did not have the time. By the time they sorted out their business plan as to whether they could or could not stay—what they could do—they felt it was absolutely unfair to force this upon them. 31 January is a very difficult time because, for any of them that wanted to have a break if they had the opportunity, that was it and the cut-off was 31 January. So why was that decision made?

Mr Thompson —Ms Cupit might have some more information on that. That area was given full exceptional circumstances assistance last year. It is an ongoing program and they can apply for income support from Centrelink on a regular basis. They can apply for an interest rate subsidy on two occasions per year. All I can think is that what they are talking about is that 31 January could well be the date for the first application set by the Western Australian department running the interest rate subsidy program over there for applying for the first interest rate subsidy. We would have to take that on notice and check the detail.

Dr Samson —If you could give us the—

Senator ADAMS —I could read the quote, yes. It is from the Farm Weekly of 14 February 2008.

CHAIR —Do you wish to table that?

Senator ADAMS —Yes, I will table it. It reports a comment from Mr Warren Carslake:

DRY Season Focus Chairman Warren Carslake said he was surprised the Government had made the decision to cut funding to drought assistance before farmers had even had the chance to apply.

“Last year they opened up qualifications for more farmers to come on board,” Mr Carslake said. “So all these applications would have barely even arrived yet with the deadline of 31 January.

“Yet the minister is saying the demand for the funding has dropped now the drought has broken.”

I can assure you that, being a farmer, no way was the drought breaking with the little amount of rain that this area has had. The drought has not broken, and these people are in dire straits. While I am speaking about this, a lot of them rely upon the FarmBis program to try to make decisions as to whether they are going to stay or go. With fertiliser going up the way it has, chemicals going up and no seed grain available, they are having a terrible time. They are very disappointed with what has happened.

Dr O’Connell —We would like to take that on notice, because that appears to be a misapprehension, as far as I am aware, of the state of play. If that is right, we are more than happy to get in touch with the person and explain the circumstances, but it is not the case that that is closed.

Senator ADAMS —That was in the Farm Weekly, which has a very large distribution across Western Australia.

Dr O’Connell —I do not see where the information would have lined up. It looks like there has been some confusion there, to be honest.

Mr Thompson —Jenny has the exact date here, but the exceptional circumstances assistance continues in that area until September 2008.

Ms Cupit —The majority of the areas in Western Australia go through until September 2008, so I am not quite sure of the date that you are referring to.

Senator ADAMS —I have not had time to check whether it definitely is 31 January. They were all of the opinion that the funding has gone—and they have gone as well, I think.

CHAIR —Ms Cupit, you could supply that information to Senator Adams through the committee, couldn’t you?

Ms Cupit —Yes.

Senator ADAMS —That would be great, thank you.

CHAIR —Are there any other questions for Mr Thompson? Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Mr Thompson, how much does your department contribute to that marvellous youth education program Heywire?

Mr Thompson —This year we contributed $50,000 for its normal operation plus an additional $30,000 to enable some alumni from the program to attend its 10th anniversary this year and participate in the program as people who had been through it and could bring back some further life experience to it.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That additional $30,000 was really organised by the previous minister but confirmed by the current minister—is that correct?

Mr Thompson —It was announced by the previous minister just prior to the election and confirmed by the current government, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you for that. Senator McLucas, my last question is to you. I spoke to the minister, and he seemed enthusiastic about that program, so I seek an assurance from you on behalf of the minister that funding will be continued for a long time into the future.

Senator McLucas —And you know I cannot give that assurance. I am sure the minister is aware of your thoughts about Heywire. I share them, as a rural Australian, as well. We will pass on your thoughts to the minister.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I congratulate the officers for continuing to support—and, Senator McLucas, you have been there in past—what has been a really marvellous program.

[8.26 pm]

CHAIR —There being no further questions, we move to natural resource management. Mr Shaw, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Shaw —No, Mr Chair, thank you very much.

CHAIR —Senator Abetz.

Senator ABETZ —Thank you, Mr Chairman. I hope to get some answers to questions which are actually recorded so I can quote them back to the department, but I am sure that will not be necessary. Can you tell us what has happened with the weeds of national significance program in general terms under this government. Is that continuing? I understand there has been a cut—was it $300,000?—that I detected somewhere.

Senator MILNE —I thought you started that.

Senator ABETZ —What?

Senator MILNE —The CRC on weeds disappeared under you.

Senator ABETZ —No, that is a different portfolio, the CRC.

Senator MILNE —It’s the same weeds!

Mr Shaw —Senator Abetz, I can answer that. In the PBS $300,000 has been moved into 2008-09 and 2009-10. That is to fund a fireweed project which was announced as part of the election commitments. The reason that we have moved the funding over to those years is that there is currently a fireweed project which is under way, which is due to finish in June this year, and we thought it would be useful to see the outcome of that project to determine how best to utilise the $300,000 on a further fireweed project. That is why there is a movement in the estimates.

Senator ABETZ —So the $300,000 movement is, what, deferring it till the following year?

Mr Shaw —No, the following two years. But that is correct, yes.

Senator ABETZ —But that begs the question whether a different government may have made money available. So it has been taken out of this year?

Mr Shaw —It has, but, as I said, it was to await the outcome of the current work on fireweed and to ascertain how that might impact on the future work on fireweed.

Senator ABETZ —But you are not suggesting other work could not have been done with that $300,000 in relation to the fireweed scourge in—where is it?—the Monaro district?

Mr Shaw —Down around Bega.

Senator ABETZ —What area is that? Eden?

Mr Shaw —Eden-Monaro, yes.

Senator ABETZ —I know it is the electorate of Eden-Monaro, but what is the area? Anyway, Bega. We know where it is. You are saying that there would not have been any use for that $300,000. That could have been gainfully employed.

Mr Shaw —I do not know enough about the project to really comment, but I would have thought it would be useful, given the same people are doing the current work and have agreed to the funding coming through later, to see the outcomes of the current work. So it will be linked to the work they are doing.

Senator ABETZ —What do we know about the fireweed? Is it continuing to spread?

Mr Shaw —I do not know the answer to that. My understanding is that it is not widespread throughout Australia; that the Bega area is an area where it is concentrated, hence the work being there. My understanding is that it is not spreading further afield at this stage, no.

Senator ABETZ —What is our tactic? Eradication or management?

Mr Shaw —I do not know. I would have to take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ —If you could, please.

Mr M. Walsh —The best control for fireweed, according to advice from state governments, is incorporating integrated management strategies, including herbicides and mechanical methods, in addition to vigorous permanent pastures that can compete strongly with fireweed seedlings.

Senator ABETZ —Thank you for that, but what is our overall hope?

Mr Quinlivan —Fireweed is not the subject of an eradication program. The activity that is being described here is control and management, so it is going to become an ongoing issue.

Senator ABETZ —Thank you. Mr Shaw, you were about to tell me about weeds of national significance.

Mr Shaw —Under the current Defeating the Weed Menace program, there is some money there which is supporting the work on the weeds of national significance.

Senator ABETZ —Is that money being maintained?

Mr Shaw —The future of NRM programs is currently under consideration, and that will be looked at as part of that process.

Senator ABETZ —This may have been asked earlier on, but is the two per cent dividend for the department as a whole being visited upon your section?

Dr O’Connell —If I might clarify: we did have an extensive discussion of the dividend issue at the start. The dividend will be handled across the portfolio in an integrated way. It will not necessarily fall in any particular area. We will work that out across the portfolio.

Senator ABETZ —It will not necessarily, but of course it might. Can we be given a guarantee that the weed section will be quarantined from that?

Dr O’Connell —I would not give a guarantee that any section would be quarantined from that at this stage. We have not got to the stage of managing that dividend, so that will be something we will be able to report on after we have worked through that.

Senator ABETZ —That is all I have, thanks.

Senator MILNE —Can I follow on from there, Mr Chair, in relation to weeds in particular. We seem to have an awful lot or programs with a lot of bits of funding all over the place. I know Land and Water are contracted to manage the R&D component of the program, complementing other research. Then you have the national weeds management facilitator, who is supposed to be coordinating national action and so on. Do we have an evaluation out of all of this of how we are actually going on weeds in Australia?

Mr Shaw —We had an evaluation of the Defeating the Weed Menace program, which is an overarching program of $44.4 million, finishing in June this year. That has not been finalised yet but it will be finalised shortly, and that is undertaking a review of the program and some of the elements underneath it. That was a national framework for looking at addressing weeds issues.

Senator MILNE —What I am asking is not whether it was administered properly and all that sort of stuff; I am asking about on-the-ground outcomes for ecosystems across Australia. Has all this money succeeded in any way in rolling back the weeds menace across the country? It seems to me the invasives are spreading everywhere you look. You have climate change now, having sleeper weeds turning into active invasives and so on. What is the analysis of this program about all this money? Has it worked? If so, where? If not, what are we going to do about it?

Mr Shaw —The program has only been going for about four years, which is a relatively short period of time in relation to addressing the sorts of issues that you have referred to. Yes, it is a major issue. Obviously, further ongoing work in a more strategic and coordinated way is required, and we would be looking to take a lead in that in the future.

Dr O’Connell —The review that Mr Shaw just mentioned would be a performance review of the program. It is not just, ‘Has the money been spent properly?’ It is a performance review, as I understand it.

Senator MILNE —The CRC for weeds was defunded and then there was an application in for invasive plants, and that did not get up. Land and Water has now got some R&D. What are we doing to replace that capacity and what is Land and Water doing?

Dr O’Connell —We might ask Michael.

Dr Robinson —Can I have you repeat the question, Senator Milne.

Senator MILNE —I am concerned that there are so many programs across Australia on weeds but there does not seem to be very much in the way of leadership and innovative R&D work. I am asking what is the role of Land and Water Australia in R&D on weeds and how is it coordinated across all these other weeds programs?

Dr Robinson —Land and Water Australia is contracted to manage the research and development component of the Defeating the Weed Menace program. That contract is to basically finish in the middle of the year. We are to deliver that R&D component, but part of that within Land and Water Australia, and as part of our commitments, is to think about what comes next. Those discussions are important to Land and Water Australia, and we are having those discussions at this time with the department as to where to next and how we can be involved in that leadership.

Senator MILNE —So basically in the middle of the year the research that you have been undertaking finishes and there is no indication of how that is going to be carried on at this point.

Mr Shaw —Senator, if I could come in at this stage, there was a $15 million election commitment of the government to fund a new national weeds and research productivity program. We are obviously working with people like Land and Water Australia and the current CRC in looking at options for having this national research centre, which could start some time in the next financial year. We are looking at ways to ensure that there is a minimisation of time lapse between the CRC and what might come under this new proposed national weeds research and productivity program. We are consulting with all of the key players in relation to that in looking at what that might result in, and that would provide a national framework.

Senator MILNE —You are worrying me already with the ‘and productivity program’ aspect of it. Is this research just for agricultural productivity or are we actually looking at sustainability in natural ecosystems and things like invasive weeds in Kakadu, for example, the spread of buffel grass, elephant grass and so on through the Territory and elsewhere? Is it related to anything other than just productivity on farm?

Mr Shaw —Absolutely. Of course, weeds are not restricted just to farms. They are an issue for urban people as well and, more broadly, are—

Senator ABETZ —In both heritage areas and national parks.

Senator MILNE —We have just mentioned those.

Mr Shaw —I would see it as more wide ranging, but this would need to be developed as part of the consultation process.

Senator MILNE —What consultation process is there? How can both the civil society community as well as businesses engage with this consultation process? My concern here relates to the fact that the CRC was not funded because they could not demonstrate a dollar value in relation to their research. Yet every farmer you spoke to said it increased their productivity, so there was a dollar value but the way it was structured meant it did not get funded. How do we get the community consultation to make sure that the broader aspects of weeds and ecosystems are taken into account in this research program?

Dr O’Connell —The nature of the program is still under development and the government decision is still yet to be made on how that will be worked through.

Senator MILNE —Well, it is the perfect time, if it is still under development, to consider how the community might be engaged in talking about what it wants from government funded weeds programs. Minister, would you be prepared to convey to the minister that there is a real concern in the community about weeds in an ecosystem context, not just in an agricultural productivity context, and that the community be given some input into helping to frame those kinds of criteria for research?

Senator McLucas —I undertake to do that, Senator.

Senator MILNE —Thank you.

CHAIR —Are there any other questions?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Dr Robinson, what is Land and Water’s involvement with weeds? I just did not catch what you said before.

Dr Robinson —Land and Water Australia is contracted to the department to manage, on behalf of the department, the research and development component of the Defeating the Weed Menace program.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —How much was that for?

Mr Shaw —It is $5 million over four years, finishing at the end of this financial year.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Five million dollars, and it is being continued.

Mr Shaw —Well, there is an election commitment for a $15 million national research program.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Over three years.

Mr Shaw —Over three years, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —So it is really a continuation of the existing program.

Mr Shaw —A similar level of funding, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What are the big projects that Land and Water Australia—not necessary with weeds, of course—have as their main focus at the moment?

Dr Robinson —We are managing a dozen different programs at Land and Water Australia, plus the development of a new national climate change research strategy for primary industries. Of that dozen programs, for example, we host the National Land and Water Resources Audit, we have a Knowledge for Regional NRM program, we manage soils, weeds, climate variability, environmental water allocation, native vegetation and the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge program. I think that covers most of them.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Just remind me: you are really an R&D corporation by a different name, but you do not have private partners—is that correct?

Dr Robinson —That is right. We are the only one of the RDCs that does not have a commodity link. All of our appropriations are direct from government.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What does your current research into climate change involve?

Dr Robinson —We have been running the Managing Climate Variability Program for some 12 or 13 years in various forms and under different names, which is a multipartner program focused on seasonal forecasting. So managing for climate variability, looking at the drivers of seasonal climate change, particularly for agricultural regions, and then developing seasonal forecasting tools. That has been a very successful partner program over that time. In the last eight or nine months we have been leading a joint initiative amongst all the RDCs, the Commonwealth and state governments, on developing a national research strategy for primary industries in response to climate change, which we hope to deliver in the next few weeks.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are you involved in what I might delicately put as cows’ ill-mannered behaviour and their contribution to climate change?

—Our Managing Climate Variability Program, no. The research strategy that we are developing is not yet investing in research; it is trying to develop up the plans to have substantial national collaboration in that space. So not yet.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are you in close contact with the farming organisations in relation to the research you are doing?

Dr Robinson —Yes. For example, the National Farmers Federation sit on our climate variability program steering committee. The Farmers Federation and other industry organisations are sitting on our reference group for the development of the national research strategy.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thanks for that.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Are you monitoring the prediction of between 3,500 and 11,000, given the variability of the sciences, in the removal of run-off in the Murray-Darling?

Dr Robinson —No, we are not making those predictions. We have funded some work in that area through the South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative, which is actually being managed through the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, but it is the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology doing that work. They are looking in the south-east Australian region of the Murray-Darling Basin, in particular, for some of the climate impacts and run-off effects.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The prediction is a decline in run-off in the southern Murray-Darling Basin and the weather moving tropically south and in an anticlockwise direction. Are you looking at that?

Dr Robinson —We are investing in some of that work through our climate variability program, yes. But most of that work is more generic climate modelling in nature rather than seasonal forecasting.

Senator HEFFERNAN —As part of that work do you have input into the NT and Western Australian government thinking on the development of weather patterns of the north? Can I give an instance so that you can touch and feel it. Macca, I do not know whether you were there. I had better not name the place. It was north of Kununurra. Did you fly out there with me?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I have no idea. Next to it.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Do not worry. I noticed these tracks across about 100,000 acres of country that is being artificially flooded, and I said, ‘What are those tracks?’ I have forgotten what they told us, but they were actually spreading seed, and you may be aware that some well-intentioned seed that gets spread eventually turns into a problem. I just wondered whether Land and Water Australia would have—because it appears to me that the NT government has no resources of notable capacity—and I guess it is not much bigger than a decent local government area in terms of the number of people et cetera. It just scared me a bit. I wondered whether what they were spreading there was going to eventually turn into a problem. Do you have input into the likes of the NT government as to what they are up to, and do they seek advice from Land and Water Australia?

Dr Robinson —The main investments in the north that we have are through our Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge program, which is primarily looking to understand the river and estuarine ecosystems to better inform decisions to be made in the future about development or otherwise.

Senator HEFFERNAN —This mob had built a dam across a valley—I am not too sure what all the licensing arrangements were—with 200,000 or 300,000 megs to artificially flood 100,000 acres out of season. You do not know about it?

Dr Robinson —I do not believe we are investing in that space, no.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It is a bit scary, I have got to say. I was a bit curious about it. They need help, by the way. The NT government needs help.

Senator NASH —One of the priorities under rural research and development is, ‘Improving competitiveness through a whole of industry approach.’ Can you just explain to the committee what that means and what is entailed in that? Would you like to take it on notice?

Dr Robinson —Can I refer that to a departmental—

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is bureaucratic jargon. Can anyone decipher it?

Senator NASH —I am sure it is a very good thing, but I just wondered exactly what it was. Would you mind taking it on notice and just coming back to the committee about what exactly that ‘improving competitiveness through a whole of industry approach’ might be. Thank you.

Dr Robinson —I will take it on notice, if I am the appropriate one.

Senator NASH —I am sure it is far too important for you to take a stab at. We would like a full and detailed briefing to the committee.

Senator MILNE —Can I just follow up with Dr Robinson on something. In relation to this research, one of the things that is emerging out of all these estimates is that several departments are now rushing to catch up on climate change in all sorts of different ways, and we now have a plethora of programs across government. But I am concerned about the lack of an overarching research strategy and then an allocation of research programs across government to make sure we are not having duplication of effort and so on. We have got the Bureau of Rural Sciences doing its thing with the NAMS site and so on; we have got the CSIRO doing its thing; we have got Land and Water having input to the rural strategy on climate change, and the Bureau of Met as well—and that is just to name a few. Is all this being coordinated in any way? Do you know what people are doing and vice versa? How are we going to make sure that we have an overall strategy to maximise the benefits of all this research rather than everybody doing similar things and no-one quite sure of how it all comes together?

Mr Quinlivan —The department of climate change is getting itself organised and beginning to influence what is happening at the Commonwealth level. Climate change has become a significant standing item on the ministerial council agenda for natural resource management ministers. There are quite a number of activities under way there and the coordination of those is a priority. You said there is a lot of activity. That is true. You said there is a lot of research. I am less sure that that is true. There are certainly a lot of people wanting to do research and most of those have limited funds. We are certainly one of those, and we recognise that what we do needs to be well organised and part of a collective effort rather than done individually. I think you will see quite a lot of collaborative and coordinated work emerge over the next year or so. Emissions trading is obviously going to be a catalyst for a lot of that.

Senator MILNE —How do CSIRO, the Bureau of Rural Sciences, Land and Water and the Bureau of Met work together now?

Mr Quinlivan —I cannot really speak for them now, other than to say that there is a good deal of informal contact. Those who are commissioning work from all of those have a good idea about where their priorities are. The Commonwealth agencies will be organising work around the imperatives of emissions trading and the government’s priorities for investment and adaptation. The funds that are available will be directed to the projects of highest priority. As I say, I expect you will see quite a lot of organised work emerging over the next year or so.

Dr O’Connell —We went through the relevant agency in our portfolio that you mentioned, Bureau of Rural Sciences, yesterday. We do not have them here today to discuss that.

Senator MILNE —I do not want to ask any additional questions of them. What I am saying is: how can the community be confident that there is an overarching body which determines research priorities and then makes it clear who is doing what and how the products that they bring out complement each other and how they are accessible to the community in whatever way that may be appropriate? It is the coordination and cooperation that I am talking about, not the actual programs.

Dr O’Connell —In terms of ensuring coordination and cooperation, that will be the function of the department of climate change. That is explicitly its objective. It will deal predominantly with the domestic and international policy agenda and set the framework under which the rest of the agencies and departments will operate and do their bit. But if you want details on how BRS feeds into that, which is our exercise, we can take that on notice and get Dr Grant of BRS to provide you with his view on how that is well coordinated.

Senator MILNE —The point I am making is that up until now there has been no coordination or overarching body. I am glad there is now a department that may oversee that. Watch this space! I will be asking every time how it fits together and how I can easily access who is doing what.

Dr Robinson —For primary industries, as opposed to the broader community, this is why this national climate change research strategy for primary industries was commenced. It came out of the primary industries standing committee research and development subcommittee meeting in the middle of last year with the research and development corporations to look at a nationally coordinated strategy to address climate change issues specifically for primary industries. We are nearing the end of that process now and over the next matter of months we will need to work out in detail exactly how we will link across state governments, across RDCs, across the federal agencies and with those outside the primary industries sector. It has commenced, but there is a way to go yet with respect to a research strategy.

Senator MILNE —Do you have the same strategy in train for the natural environment, so that we get the same integrated climate approach to ecosystem services across the country?

Dr Robinson —I would say not at this point, but there is some intent there.

Senator MILNE —Some intent by whom?

Dr Robinson —By ourselves, but it is not something that I would say that the steering committee of the climate change research strategy has exclusively discussed.

Senator MILNE —Who is the minister responsible for that strategy or that steering committee?

Dr Robinson —I guess from a federal government point of view it is the minister for agriculture, but all the state governments and all the RDCs are funding this initiative, and CSIRO for that matter, so there are many interested in having a national strategy.

Senator MILNE —Thank you.

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, I believe you have one last very quick question.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Mr Chairman, have we got a referee tonight?

CHAIR —We have: me.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Because I can see a bit of biffo coming up here shortly between Senator Brown and Senator Abetz. I wondered would it be all right if I could be elected as the referee?

CHAIR —I am sure senators will be on their best behaviour after today’s episode. The bar is not very high to get over.

Senator McLucas —Dr O’Connell has a response to a question that I understand was raised yesterday.

Dr O’Connell —Chair, the request yesterday was to table the contract with the Victorian Farmers Federation with regard to the Wheat Export Marketing Alliance. We have that now for tabling.

CHAIR —Thank you, Dr O’Connell.

Proceedings suspended from 8.58 pm to 9.12 pm