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STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT
24/02/2009
INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORT, REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT PORTFOLIO
Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics

CHAIR —Welcome.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Mr Chair, I do not have a lot of questions. I am not sure if any of my colleagues do. You guys act on reference from the minister or the department. Is that correct?

Mr Potterton —We have a research program which is approved by the executive and the secretary of the department. We consult the office of the minister and, on occasion, we will undertake specific references.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am not asking you at this stage what work you might be currently doing on reference directly from the minister, but what is your general research program at the moment?

Mr Potterton —Our research program covers a range of areas. We have a range of projects addressing the government’s priorities in areas of modernising Australia’s transport infrastructure and the infrastructure agenda more broadly—urban and cities issues, congestion, local governments, regional developments and developing Northern Australia. I would be happy to give you more detail against each of those areas as you might like.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, I would be very pleased if you would do that. Is it possible to do verbally? Not that we want to waste time but, in the absence of others, I might get you then to briefly go through each of those and tell me what you are doing, where you are at with them and the availability of your work. Is it public yet or what?

Ms Foster —We could make available to you the list of topics that is on BITRE’s work program, and that might be an expeditious way of answering that question.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Is that a bigger list than Mr Potterton just raised with me?

Mr Potterton —Yes, it is. There are some 50 projects altogether, both including research and statistics.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I would not want to question you on all of those but there are a couple of issues that I do want to pursue. Is a copy of that long list of projects currently readily available to the committee?

Mr Potterton —Yes, Senator. It is right here.

CHAIR —So you wish to table that, Mr Potterton?

Mr Potterton —Yes, we would like to table the research program.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You would be fairly well engaged at the moment on the nation-building infrastructure projects. Do you work in conjunction with Infrastructure Australia or do they give you references?

Mr Potterton —We consult Infrastructure Australia on our research program. They take a great deal of interest in our work. There are no specific projects that they have asked us to do at this stage.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thanks for this, and I just want to briefly run through a few of them. What is the state of research on Australian seaport activity?

Mr Potterton —That research is in progress at the moment. It is updating some forecasts of container port and other port activity that we undertook some two to three years ago. As I say, it is in progress at the moment.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Does it also look at the bottlenecks we have productivity, particularly in the coal ports?

Mr Potterton —No, Senator, it is an analysis of future throughput, if you like. It provides planning information for industry and government but it does not directly address any bottlenecks.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Governments, I am sure, would be very interested to work out how to stop the billions of dollars we use each day with ships sitting off Dalrymple Bay and I understand down Newcastle way as well and Hay Point in Queensland. It does not encompass that sort thing?

Mr Potterton —That is a sort of whole of supply chain question, Senator, so it is broader than simply looking at the port throughput and requirements. No, we are not directly engaged in that issue at this point.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But your organisation or your predecessors must have done something in that area in the last four or five years, surely?

Senator Conroy —How about in the last 12 years?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Or the last 12 years.

Senator Conroy —If they did you did not take any notice of it, Senator MacDonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —They are sort of state courts, Minister. It is a bit hard to get the states to do anything in that area.

Mr Potterton —No recent work comes to mind, Senator. I would have to check back as to exactly when we last looked at that issue in detail. There have been a number of reports on the public record over recent years but none that the bureau has undertaken.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That surprised me because we lose quite an amount with ships sitting off the coast for weeks at a time waiting to get into port.

Senator Conroy —The previous minister never gave them the reference either.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I do not know. I know the previous Treasurer made some very pertinent comments about it. I am relying information that, apparently, it has not been looked at.

Senator Conroy —That National Party, you can never rely on them, Macca. You are in the same party as them now.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —We are in a different party in Queensland; a government party actually, shortly. In relation to your report on challenges facing local government, what stage has that reached?

Mr Potterton —Senator, that is yet to commence, but it will be a study looking at challenges and pressures facing our local government councils.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are any of these that you have given me close to finalisation?

Mr Potterton —Yes, Senator.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Which ones? Perhaps if you just go to a reference.

Mr Potterton —R4, Aircraft movements at capital city airports, we expect to be released within the next three months.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That will depend on the outcome of the sensitive negotiations that were in place in air services that we heard about a little while ago.

Mr Potterton —R7, Urban public transport: recent trends, is close to completion, Senator. A number, of course, have been released already this year, Senator.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Which are they? They are not on this list. These are a work in progress, are they?

Mr Potterton —Yes. Greenhouse gas emissions for Australian transport, R21, is also complete. Going back, R11, Road and rail freight: competitors or complements? is close to completion as well.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay, there are a few of them. How are you going with R12, Australian ports in an international context?

Mr Potterton —That is proceeding well, Senator. We are benchmarking Australian ports against a number of international ports and that also should be released within the next few months. It is not as close to completion as the others I have indicated.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You work on climate change and transport. You would be urged to complete that before the legislation is introduced in a couple of months on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme that we are being told by the Minister is coming forward. I think Senator Conroy in another estimate has undertaken to get for me when exactly that was to be introduced. Is there a great urgency to get that completed?

Mr Potterton —These are all fairly broad studies, Senator, so, no. I can tell you that the first one there, R18, was released as part of the treasury modelling report in October last year. That has really been the most important one in terms of the policy linkage with the CPRS.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can I just refer you to S7, Cost of living in Australia’s regions, which contains data on costs of living and drivers of differences in costs. That would be something you would do regularly, is it?

Mr Potterton —No, Senator. It is a large one off project at this stage providing a cross-section of cost of living across the country. It is a new project and will be the first release of its kind.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —When do you anticipate that might be available?

Mr Potterton —We would expect it to be released in the early second half the year, Senator.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Of this year?

Mr Potterton —Of this year, yes, 2009.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The Northern Australian booklet attracts the attention of both myself and Senator Heffernan, amongst others, I am sure.

Mr Potterton —That is also proceeding quite quickly, Senator, and may be released in the first half of this year.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is relating to economic development opportunities and patterns. I hope your work will justify a claim I have been making in the 18 years I have been here that Northern Australia with about six per cent of Australia’s income produces something like 30 per cent of its export earnings.

Mr Potterton —We will certainly be looking at both population and exports, Senator.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I assume this has been referenced to you by Mr Gray?

Mr Potterton —Yes, Senator.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —A good guess. He is obviously wanting to check my figures and take over his own mantra. Good luck to him; good on him. We are at one on that. That research project will give an accurate indication of population in the north?

Mr Potterton —Absolutely, Senator, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Will it do things like export earnings and GDP and all those sorts of things?

Mr Potterton —Yes, Senator.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is it appropriate for me to ask you—it depends on how far along you are—what do you class as Northern Australia?

Mr Potterton —I might ask my colleague, Dr Dolman.

Dr Dolman —Essentially we have adopted a definition of above the Tropic of Capricorn. However to make that practical we have actually looked at local government areas that are around that boundary and statistical local areas around that boundary to make it possible to collect the data.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is interesting. Mr Gray sometimes uses catchments in the north, which is quite a different thing, but I am pleased to hear you using that. Local authorities that are sort of on the border of the north like Calliope, which is now the greater Gladstone council, would that be included? If you have any flexibility can I urge you to include it. It makes the statistics look a bit better.

Dr Dolman —I can take that on notice. My expectation is that it will be included if it is very close to that boundary. There are a number that have dropped down below the Tropic.

Senator IAN MACDONALD — Yes, and it is really part of the Central Queensland conglomerate, you would call it. When your material comes out, is it immediately publicly released, or does it go to the instructing minister first and then is put out publicly when he gives the okay?

Mr Potterton —Yes. We certainly brief our minister and then it is released by agreements in the minister and his office.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is a matter of course that it is released, or does it depend on the direction of the minister in each instance?

Mr Potterton —There is an expectation that all of these projects will be released, Senator.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. And similarly Mr Gray would have given you the reference on migration patterns in northern Australia?

Dr Dolman —It is not so much a direction. The way we develop the program is look at projects that we think would be useful in terms of framing policy development in that area. Essentially that project has come out of observations that we have made in looking at the population characteristics of Northern Australia. We think that migration patterns are particularly interesting. Again, that has been put back to ministers to confirm that it is something that they would be interested in and ultimately the secretary makes a decision about which projects receive—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But in the case of these two, they have already received the tick of approval; is that right?

Dr Dolman —The program has been approved by the secretary, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Excellent, okay. If I might say, they are two excellent research projects and I look forward to the results, particularly if they support my mantra. If they don’t, perhaps I won’t ever ask you anything again.

Senator McGAURAN —You spoke of the expectation of the release of your document. Has there been an occasion where a document has been sent back for changes?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Since November 2007.

Mr Tongue —I can handle that one, Senator. None that I am aware of.

Senator Conroy —That was nearly a serious own goal, Julian.

Senator McGAURAN —As Senator Heffernan often says about this committee, no fear nor favour in regard to our questioning, but I notice you did flinch, Minister.

CHAIR —Senator McGauran, do you have any other questions?

Senator McGAURAN —I do. R9, challenges facing local government: can you tell me what that involves and when that will be released? And where is it released; what is your network?

Mr Potterton —I will answer first the last part, if I may, and then pass to my colleague for the first part. We release all of our reports on our website and we have a mailing list that obviously we develop over time, including policymakers and regional development stakeholders in this regard.

Senator McGAURAN —Parliamentarians?

Mr Potterton —Including parliamentarians, yes. In terms of the content—

Dr Dolman —Senator, you are asking where that project is up to?

Senator McGAURAN —Yes, just a bit of background on it.

Dr Dolman —That project has come out of the government’s agenda, in particular looking at policy issues relating to local government. And what we are doing there is looking at some of the pressures that local government face, particularly growth pressures as population grows rapidly in some local government areas and whether there are some local government areas that are socially or economically disadvantaged relative to others. Also the opposite, I guess, to growth pressures could be lack of growth, the population moving away from the local government area and some of the challenges that puts on a local government in terms of their operations. We are actually at the stage of scoping that study, so we have not settled a final set of issues that we would be looking at. But they are a flavour of the sort issues that we would be looking at as part of that project.

Senator McGAURAN —That is going to be very valuable. So it is a way off yet?

Dr Dolman —Yes, we have just commenced that project and we are talking to our local government and regional development division within the department about the details of what they would like to see.

Senator McGAURAN —Would this just be a one-off or ongoing? The moment you release it everything can change again in regard to local governments.

Dr Dolman —Already some of the issues we have been doing looking at population pressures, with the global financial crisis that has changed quite dramatically over the last six months.

Senator McGAURAN —Yes, ongoing. Then on the back you have got S22, Waterline. That is ongoing, isn’t it?

Mr Potterton —Yes, it is.

Senator McGAURAN —How frequently is that released?

Mr Potterton —We release it twice a year.

Senator McGAURAN —Twice a year. When is the next one due?

Mr Potterton —The next one is certainly quite soon.

Dr Dolman —I think the next one would be out in March or April.

Senator McGAURAN —Now, that is a superb publication. We all look forward to that because we know that the benchmarks set are being met and surpassed, aren’t they, in regard to container lifting. What was the last container benchmark, the last containers per hour lifted average?

Dr Dolman —For the five container ports that we measure in Waterline, the last reported crane rate, which was in December 2007, the five-port average was 27.2 containers an hour.

Senator McGAURAN —And Melbourne?

Senator Conroy —I just know this information is available on the web.

Dr Dolman —The crane rate for the same time in Melbourne was 29.3.

Senator McGAURAN —See, I know the minister doesn’t want to hear this—

Senator Conroy —No, I was just offering the opportunity to look it up yourself.

Senator McGAURAN —This was an important publication and it ought to have a wide distribution.

Senator Conroy —And that is why it is up on the web.

Senator McGAURAN —It proves the point that when the waterfront reform was introduced, as far back as 1997, we had to endure a charge on Parliament House to add to how hard it was to reform the waterfront. It just proves, more than a decade on, that those reforms were worth fighting for.

CHAIR —What is your question, Senator McGauran?

Senator McGAURAN —Strength to the arm of this publication.

CHAIR —If there are no further questions of the officers, I do thank you.

[4.50 pm]

CHAIR —I welcome officers from Infrastructure and Surface Transport Policy. Ms Riggs, good to see you back again. Are we doing National Transport Strategy at the same time?

Ms Riggs —We know that sometimes the committee has not found it easy to distinguish between the work of both these divisions. So we thought it might assist if we appeared together.

CHAIR —That is very welcome, thank you. In that case, I also welcome Ms Riggs from National Transport Strategy. Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Chairman, could Mr Robertson or Ms Riggs remind us before we start what exactly the work of these branches involves as opposed to, say, Infrastructure Australia or the national infrastructure program.

Mr Robertson —You asked a fairly wide-ranging question, Senator. Perhaps if I start by just outlining the functions of the Infrastructure and Surface Transport Policy division. Essentially it covers four broad areas that are in most cases interrelated. We have one branch dealing with road safety. Another one deals with vehicle standards. Another branch looks after maritime policy and has the overview of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. And we have another branch, Transport Integration and Reform, which oversees the work of the reform agenda in managing differential regulatory arrangements between the states. There is some overlap there to the work of the National Transport Strategy, which is a specific set of requirements coming out of decisions by the Australian Transport Council and which Ms Riggs has the responsibility for managing.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Just because I did not hear, what was the first one of those four you mentioned?

Mr Robertson —Road safety.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Just in relation to the latter one, and this may be to Ms Riggs as well, during the course of the debate on the recent road transport charges legislation we were told that the states had almost agreed to uniform road transport charges and rules, if I can put them as loosely as that, and that work was being done.

Ms Riggs —I could start a response to this, Senator, and maybe Mr Jones might need to join us to add some further detail. The Commonwealth and the states and territories have agreed and implemented a consistent approach to the charging regime for heavy vehicles, most recently through a determination that all ministers committed to in early 2008, and it was the Commonwealth’s dimension of that that you are referring to the debate about. So that is uniform.

In terms of other dimensions of the regulation of heavy vehicles, there are a number of major areas where the National Transport Commission has developed and had accepted by all jurisdictions model legislation for the regulation of heavy vehicles, but each jurisdiction is responsible for implementing that model in their own jurisdiction. And, in doing so, not all of them implement the model legislation exactly as it has been developed—they make variations to it, for various reasons. So in that respect there are some differences between the rules that govern how heavy vehicles are inspected before they are registered, what the compliance and enforcement regimes are for the on-road rules that big trucks have to follow, as between the various jurisdictions.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I know Senator Heffernan has a lot of issues about this. I thought we were assured in the course of the debate on this legislation—which, as you know, I took through for the opposition—that that was almost a done deal.

CHAIR —Senator Macdonald, Senator Colbeck has questions if you want us to go to Senator Colbeck and then come back to you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, I need to go to Environment for 10 minutes, so I will leave my colleagues to pursue those issues. I know they will do that well.

CHAIR —Senator Colbeck?

Senator COLBECK —Thanks, Chair. I just want to ask some questions on the Tasmania Freight Equalisation Scheme. The revised announcements were made in, I think, November last year.

Mr Sutton —Yes, that is correct. The government announced its decisions in relation to the scheme on, I think, 6 November last year.

Senator COLBECK —Thanks. My assessment of it is that the effectively we ran up the no-change flag. Is that a reasonable assessment?

Mr Sutton —The government’s announcement indicated that in effect the substance of the scheme and, in particular, the parameters under which the scheme operates would remain unaltered until a further review in 2011-12.

Senator COLBECK —We had some discussion at the last estimates about a further round of consultation that was promised with industry and I did come into conflict with the minister at that point in time because the brief was actually before the minister. Obviously that second round of consultation never happened. What was the reasoning behind that? We did have a significant discussion about information that industry was prepared to make available that they considered would be beneficial to the government in its decision-making process, given the process that was used of a contractor through BITRE to conduct the survey work.

Mr Sutton —The government’s November announcement was informed by analysis that had been done by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics. As I think you are aware, that work was under way during the course of last year.

Senator COLBECK —Yes.

Mr Sutton —The BITRE report is actually now available on the bureau website. What the report indicates is that proceeding, if you like, with the changes to the scheme as indicated by the parameter changes would have resulted in significant reductions in expenditure under the program. The government announcement indicated that, in the interests of providing certainty to industry in Tasmania, it would maintain the scheme and the parameters at their current levels.

Senator COLBECK —Yes, but the point that I was making at the previous estimates was that industry knew what sort of information would come through the process that BITRE was using. They had some confidential information which they were prepared to share on an in-confidence basis that would have better informed the government. They were prepared to share with the agency their commercial deals, which were not effectively published market rates, which is what effectively the research was based on.

Mr Sutton —The bureau analysis, which is available on the bureau website—

Senator COLBECK —I understand that.

Mr Sutton —indicated that the key parameters based on the bureau’s work were issues like the road freight equivalent, the sea freight cost disadvantage, the scaling factors which were all part of the mechanism under which the rates are determined. The net effect was that there were overall significant reductions. The analysis was that the fundamental issue was that, over time, road freight costs have risen significantly greater than sea freight costs. And under the formula under which the TFES is determined, if that formula had been applied it would have resulted in significant reductions in assistance.

The government took the position that, if there had been consultations in relation to the report, it would have been unlikely to result in a definitive figure for what should be those changes in the parameters. Taking into account the effects on certainty for Tasmanian business, or the effects of uncertainty, I suppose, for Tasmanian business that would be created, it took the decision to leave the parameters unchanged.

Senator COLBECK —How would you know if you don’t ask, though? They were prepared to provide in-confidence commercial information, and effectively it still has not been put into the system.

Mr Sutton —The net outcome of the government’s decision was that it ensured that there are no reductions in assistance.

Senator COLBECK —I understand that. As I said at the outset, we have effectively put out the no-change flag and left it as it is for this point in time. But industry was given to understand that there was a process under way. I know that it spent a long time in the minister’s office, probably two or three months sitting there while it did some toing and froing. In terms of discussions with industry and the time that it actually appeared, we had our discussion on 21 October and it appeared on 6 November. And it had been sitting in the minister’s office for a significant period before we had our discussion at estimates. The industry was told that something was going to happen; it did not happen. I suppose we are where we are with respect to that, but it is disappointing that they did not receive the consultation.

Senator Conroy —Is there a question?

Senator COLBECK —There will be, Senator. I know you are trying to be helpful. I have been listening to you all day being so helpful!

Senator Conroy —I am happy for you to ask any question; I just hope you will get to it.

Senator COLBECK —It is disappointing that that did not occur. I know that you have made a decision not to change the parameters, but there was a lot of discussion about the density parameters. When the documentation came out, it indicated that Circular Head Dolomite had indicated that they would be happy to see a discount rate of 30 per cent for the high-density rate. They are quite concerned about that, because none of their submissions—and we have been through them fairly comprehensively—show that. Can you enlighten me as to how that might have appeared through the process?

Mr Sutton —Senator, the government’s decision, as I say, was to leave all the parameters unchanged. We are working through some administrative reforms related to the program that will not impact on the overall expenditure under the program. All the underlying parameters, including the approach to the high-density issues, were left unchanged. I think that reflected the complexities of the program and the linkages between the various elements. Yes, there was no adjustment to the high-density factors, but that is in the context of the overall assistance levels being unchanged. All Tasmanian businesses benefit from those assistance levels being left unchanged. The impact on individual businesses which had particular issues—and I recognise that dolomite and the heavy density factor was one of those—I think needed to be looked at in the context of the overall government decision.

Senator COLBECK —The government might see it in that light, but they certainly do not, because it limits their capacity to compete on the mainland with similar products, which is effectively the base reason for the scheme in the first place.

Mr Sutton —Yes, Senator.

Senator COLBECK —And the fact that the documentation that came out indicated they would be happy with the 30 per cent discount rate when their submissions do not even consider that at all. They were looking to see the discount rate removed.

Mr Sutton —Senator, can I ask the document to which you are referring?

Senator COLBECK —I have an email from them, and it refers to the Productivity Commission work that was done as well, but it came out in the final work. The BITRE TFES parameter review, page 38, is the reference that I have been given. It is under the paragraph ‘What discount should apply to high-density freight’. I have a copy of their submission.

Mr Sutton —Senator, I might have to take that question on notice and look into it in more detail.

Senator COLBECK —But, effectively, outside of that review process that is not due to occur until 2011-12, there is no capacity to look at that as an issue at this point in time?

Mr Sutton —The government has no further reforms planned for the scheme at this point in time.

Senator COLBECK —So all the other bugs that lie in the system whereby, if Circular Head Dolomite were to put a half container of dolomite and fill the rest of it up with PVC pipe so that they had a full container, they could then claim a full discount for the whole container?

Mr Sutton —I am not aware of that particular anomaly, Senator, but, as was clear through the process, there were many issues associated with the operation of the scheme.

Senator COLBECK —I understand that there are a lot of issues with it. As you are aware, we spent a lot of time working on that as an issue and we were looking to make some improvements to the scheme—that was the whole focus of it—and to maintain the support for the Tasmanian industry. In fact, we were harangued politically, particularly by the member for Denison, over the fact that we had not made any changes, and it is quite surprising that, at the end of the day, the new government, of which he is a member, is now endorsing the process that we had in place in the first place. But it is also disturbing that some of the information that has been fed into the process comes out incorrectly, and that the players did not get the opportunity to go through the consultation process that they want to. I will leave it there.

CHAIR —Thank you, Senator Colbeck. Senator Heffernan, do you have any questions for National Transport Strategy, Infrastructure and Surface Transport Policy?

Senator HEFFERNAN —Have questions been asked on coordinating the interstate arrangements on driver safety and truck stops et cetera?

Ms Riggs —Senator, the National Transport Strategy Division is coordinating the work to develop the approaches for a possible single national heavy vehicle regulation system in the country.

CHAIR —Hip, hip, hooray!

Ms Riggs —Our Infrastructure Investment Division is delivering the program related to the provision of rest areas, and the issue of driver fatigue and the fatigue laws that have been implemented, I think at the end of September last year, were developed as model laws under the National Transport Commission arrangements and implemented independently, consistent with those arrangements, by each of the jurisdictions.

CHAIR —I was actually applauding the industry.

Ms Riggs —Thank you very much, Senator.

CHAIR —It is a long time coming. I was not taking the mickey.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So where is the four-year fund for the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program up to?

Ms Riggs —That is being managed by the Infrastructure Investment Division, who were here this morning.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I have a series of questions which probably go to them as much as—

CHAIR —Do you want to put them on notice, Senator Heffernan?

Ms Riggs —We will happily take them on notice.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I suppose I might as well. Where should I direct questions about the establishment of a national scheme for setting minimum safe rates for employees and owner-drivers?

Ms Riggs —We will take them now, Senator.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I understand that, according to a joint media release by the government last year, the Transport Commission was to investigate methods of payment to heavy vehicle drivers and options to implement a payment system that encourages safe work practices.

Ms Riggs —That is right, Senator.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The National Transport Commission completed this report to the Australian Transport Council in October of last year?

Ms Riggs —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The ministers, according to a joint communiqué, agreed that there is a case for taking a whole-of-government regulatory approach to address this issue. The federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government agreed to progress this issue within the government. What progress has been made in implementing this decision at the Australian Transport Council?

Mr Jones —Senator, the progress has been that there have been a sequence of discussions that are continuing with the three ministers’ offices—the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relation, the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research and also Minister Albanese. The departments supporting that process have been preparing background papers to assist the process of discussion between those offices. Basically, that is the nature of the progress to date. There are further meetings scheduled later this week on that issue.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So the whole-of-government agencies are which agencies?

Mr Jones —Three departments are affected. At the Commonwealth level all the legislation that deals with employee issues comes under the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. The department that covers the independent contractor legislation is the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. Of course, the work was developed for ATC by the National Transport Commission, which is more closely associated with our own department, Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government.

Senator HEFFERNAN —When do you anticipate that work will be complete? I realise the minister is not here at the moment. He is probably away having a sandwich or a glass of wine if he has got any brains.

Mr Tongue —I think that is a question for the government.

Mr Jones —We could not add any particular time frame to that process.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Ms O’Connell, do not be distressed by that. Do not be distressed by my remarks. They are meant to be humorous.

CHAIR —You could join him if you stopped asking questions.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I agreed to put those others on notice. Do not complain.

CHAIR —And I have a vested interest in this too.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Do not turn sooky.

CHAIR —I have got more of an interest in this than you have.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Will the government report back to the Australian Transport Council on its investigation by May this year as proposed by the National Transport Commission on page 46 of its report?

Mr Jones —The intention would be that there would be a report to the ATC meetings. The language you use was implying it would be some form of final report. It will be too early to say how much was complete by that point, but there would be a form of reporting, as needed, to the Australian Transport Council meetings.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I notice the National Transport Commission in that report in October to the Transport Council flagged four options in implementing a so-called safe rates payment system, one option being to leave the existing system in place and simply allow the recently passed heavy driver reforms to generate better safety performance in the heavy vehicle industry. Another option is to rely on state based regulations to deal with current payment arrangements. Is that correct?

Mr Jones —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —On which state based regulations would this system be modelled?

Mr Jones —It did not propose that a state based system be modelled on any specific current individual state based system. My understanding is that three states do have and have legislated in this area. New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia have their own regulation in this area, regulations that have some variations in the models between those three. But in other states and territories there is not legislation in this space.

Senator HEFFERNAN —According to page 39 of the Transport Commission’s report to the Transport Council, South Australia, ACT, Queensland, Northern Territory and Tasmania do not have owner-driver regulations. What sort of regulations would these jurisdictions have to develop?

Mr Jones —Under that option?

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes.

Mr Jones —That would completely depend upon the nature of anything that was developed in that option. I could not really speculate. It would be driven by whether a model was proposed that was state based.

Senator HEFFERNAN —And what status would the owner-drivers have in that model?

Mr Jones —It would be entirely dependent on exactly what model was developed. The NTC did not propose a specific model, so in a sense to take forward that recommendation it would need to be constructed in exactly what were the parameters. Even in those jurisdictions that have legislation now there is a variation in scope. My understanding is the WA-Victorian legislation focuses particularly on owner-drivers, whereas in the New South Wales example there are also elements of their legislation which deal with employee issues as distinct from owner-driver issues. So there already are variations and it would be completely open to how that option was developed.

CHAIR —I just want to clarify something, because I do have a very vested interest in this.

Senator HEFFERNAN —He is a burnt-out truck driver.

CHAIR —I am not that burnt-out. The questions are of a hypothetical nature, Senator Heffernan?

Senator HEFFERNAN —That I am asking?

CHAIR —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes.

CHAIR —They are hypothetical. I am just trying to assist, because I am dying to get to the bottom of it too.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Do you think this would involve some kind of mandated system of freight rates that are imposed on state registered vehicles?

Ms O'Connell —Senator, in terms of that, I think we are talking about a range of options which were outlined in the paper which are up for consideration by a working group, who are currently looking at the range of issues. So I think that we should not necessarily speculate on what might or might not be the outcomes of that and instead allow that working group the opportunity to go through the range of options.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So you are not far enough advanced, as it were. Maybe if your side of the bargain is not to the point where these questions can be answered, Mr Chairman, should I put them on notice?

CHAIR —I think probably put them on notice.

Senator Conroy —That is an excellent idea.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Minister, in your absence I did make a—what would the word be?

CHAIR —A disparaging remark, tongue in cheek.

Senator HEFFERNAN —A disparaging remark that you were away having a cup of tea or a glass of wine or something. You are clean-living young man. I was forgetting that you, as the Minister, were here, so I completely withdraw any false implications.

CHAIR —So, Senator Heffernan, do you wish to put those on notice?

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, I will.

CHAIR —Do you have any further questions, Senator Heffernan?

Senator HEFFERNAN —I do not.

CHAIR —Thank you. In that case, thank you very much to the officers of Infrastructure and Surface Transport Policy and to Ms Riggs from National Transport Strategy.

[5.22 pm]

CHAIR —I now call the officers from Local Government and Regional Development. Senator Payne has a question.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you very much, Chair. I appreciate the committee’s assistance in enabling me to ask these questions. The first questions relate to the Regional and Local Infrastructure Program. I will start by seeking some clarification. As I understand it, when it was announced on I think 18 November last year, there was an indication that there was an imperative, if you like, for the money to be spent immediately or as soon as possible. Is that a reasonable interpretation of the announcement?

Mr Tongue —Senator, the announcement was that the councils would access funding and move promptly to implement projects, so broadly, yes.

Senator PAYNE —What does ‘promptly’ mean in the department’s view?

Mr Tongue —The program arrangements anticipated councils receiving funding very quickly and the design of the program was so that that could occur and so that works would commence this financial year.

Senator PAYNE —Commence this financial year, but not be concluded this financial year?

Mr Tongue —The bulk of them concluded this financial year too.

Senator PAYNE —Okay. I appreciate that clarification. As I understand it, the date for the complete expending of the funding is 30 September this year.

Mr Tongue —There are two elements to the initiatives. One is an element of $250 million, which goes out to all councils and another is an element of $550 million, which is a competitively based grants program.

Senator PAYNE —Yes. And so that 30 September 2009 date relates to which of those?

Mr Tongue —I will put Mr Pahlow on that.

Senator PAYNE —And I differentiate them by referring to one just as the Regional and Local Infrastructure Program and one as the Regional and Local Infrastructure Program, Strategic Projects. Is that correct?

Mr Tongue —That is right, yes.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you for making that so easy for us.

Mr Pahlow —Senator, the date for completion of the $250 million program is 30 September 2009.

Senator PAYNE —So that is different from the one which we were just talking about before?

Mr Pahlow —The strategic projects one, yes.

Senator PAYNE —In regard to the first program, the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program and its compliance requirements, as I understand it applications were to be compliant if project details were provided to the department before 30 January. Is that correct?

Ms Foster —Yes.

Senator PAYNE —Can you advise the committee of the number of local councils that were able to provide project details in that time?

Ms Foster —Five hundred and sixty-five councils and shires were able to submit their projects and, additionally, the ACT government.

Senator PAYNE —So all 565 councils in Australia have been able to take up the funding offer?

Ms Foster —That is correct.

Senator PAYNE —And then further, in terms of compliance, there are categories that are outlined in your guidelines. Can you tell us how many of the funding requests that were received from local councils comply adequately with those guidelines?

Ms Foster —One hundred applications from councils comprising more projects—so councils in some cases have submitted a number of projects within the allocation given to them—but 100 councils have been approved and announced to date.

Senator PAYNE —So does that mean the other 465 remain under consideration?

Ms Foster —They are in the process of assessment. It has been about three weeks since the closing deadline. We received a total of 3,605 projects from the 565 councils and we are working through those as quickly as we can.

Senator PAYNE —Of the 100 that have been approved and announced are they projects or councils?

Ms Foster —That is councils, so that would comprise some hundreds of projects.

Senator PAYNE —Can you tell me how many?

Ms Foster —I do not have that detail with me. We can seek that for you.

Senator PAYNE —Could you take that on notice for me?

Ms Foster —Yes.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you very much. In relation to the guidelines that you are using for the assessment process, have they remained substantially the same since they were initially issued, or have there been any changes made to them?

Ms Foster —No, they have been substantially the same.

Senator PAYNE —Going back to the question in relation to a total of 3,605 projects over 565 councils, in three weeks a hundred councils have had their projects approved. Do you think the number would be hundreds of projects?

Ms Foster —Yes.

Senator PAYNE —What is the time frame in which you expect to deal with the other 465 councils and their projects?

Ms Foster —We would hope to have those done within the next few weeks.

Senator PAYNE —So by the end of March or before Easter. What sort of time frame?

Ms Foster —It depends to some extent on the complexity of the projects and whether or not we need to go back to councils to seek more information. As I said, we are progressing through them as quickly as we can but until we have actually got through the whole 3,600 plus, we will not know the extent to which we need to seek more information.

Senator PAYNE —Does that indicate that the hundred that have been dealt with at this time are ones that were perhaps less complex and easier for the department to deal with?

Ms Foster —We certainly have been working through the projects with the goal of approving as many projects as quickly as we can.

Senator PAYNE —I do not think that really answers my question. Does that mean the ones that have been dealt with now are the ones that, on the face of it, were pretty much easy to deal with and you are going to come to the more complex ones later? How is it being prioritised within the department?

Ms Foster —The ones that we have dealt with have been less complex, more straightforward.

Mr Pahlow —We also undertook to consider those that lodged early in the first batches, so we have tried to do that as well.

Senator PAYNE —I see. So you have been considering them in the period before the close of applications as well.

Mr Pahlow —Any that came in early, we tried to include them in those first rounds.

Senator PAYNE —Okay. As I understand it, councils are also going to be required to submit progress reports. Is that what they are called? Is that for this half of the funding or the other half?

Mr Pahlow —That is correct.

Ms Foster —Yes, that is correct. There will be progress reports for both.

Senator PAYNE —Okay. And are those progress reports going to be reviewed and monitored by the department?

Mr Pahlow —Yes.

Senator PAYNE —And when are they due?

Mr Pahlow —One interim progress report is due on or before 30 May and the final progress report is due on or before 30 November. That is for the $250 million program.

Senator PAYNE —That is for the strategic projects?

Mr Pahlow —No.

Ms Foster —No. The $250 million program is the one where the direct allocations were made to councils. That is the 3,605 projects. The strategic projects are the ones we refer to typically as the $550 million.

Senator PAYNE —They did not even give us a different acronym. It makes life very hard, Minister, when you do not have a different acronym. What approach is proposed to be taken to the process of reviewing and monitoring the progress reports, particularly those that are due to be received on 30 May? Is it a matter of the department saying: ‘We do not think this is being done properly. We want the council to review how they are utilising the funding or the progress of the project.’ What is the purpose of the review and monitoring?

Mr Pahlow —It will be to ensure that they are satisfying the project milestone schedule that they set and that they look like completing by 30 September as we requested.

Senator PAYNE —And what if they do not.

Mr Pahlow —Then we will take remedial action.

Senator PAYNE —What does that mean?

Mr Pahlow —Investigate what the issue is. It might be that they are having issues getting development assessments passed, or that there is special—

Senator PAYNE —By themselves? Difficulties getting their own DAs passed?

Mr Pahlow —Yes, they have still got to comply with statutory requirements, environmental requirements et cetera. In some instances it might be that there are weather constraints—flooding, for instance, in the north of Australia and that sort of thing. If there are other difficulties we will see what actions we can put in place to assist them. Failing that, we will just have to consider the progress.

Senator PAYNE —So that is all in relation to ensuring that the 30 September expenditure deadline is met?

Mr Pahlow —That is correct.

Senator PAYNE —If a council were looking like it would not be in a position to expend the funding by 30 September—I think, Mr Pahlow, the example you use in North Queensland is broadly a good one in this regard—what action does the department take to address that?

Mr Pahlow —We would consult with the relevant council to understand what issues they were facing and see if we could provide assistance to them in meeting the deadline of 30 September.

Senator PAYNE —What sort of assistance would that include, do you think?

Mr Pahlow —Mainly understanding what issues are and discussing those with them. If it is, for example, difficulties sourcing appropriately skilled people, we will see what we could do to assist them to do that. If it is because they are not paying enough attention to the project we will point out that they have a contractual obligation to move the project along.

Senator PAYNE —So is it essentially a project-by-project management process that the department has to go through?

Mr Pahlow —We would like to try and do it on a council-by-council basis rather than project by project. Project by project would be very resource intensive.

Senator PAYNE —I am just looking at that on the numbers—yes.

Mr Pahlow —We will be able to amalgamate some of those 3,605 projects. For example, there might be a number of playgrounds across a local government area. We would not have a separate project for each council, so we would amalgamate.

Senator PAYNE —But even if we are talking about 565 councils that is still a fairly intensive process. What sort of methods will you be using to monitor their compliance?

Mr Pahlow —We would contact them.

Senator PAYNE —One by one.

Mr Pahlow —That is part of the reason why we also have the interim report. That will give us the initial heads up as to whether there are any issues or problems. We will also be monitoring media and other issues like that. Anywhere that we suspect there is a problem we will start paying closer attention to what they are doing or not doing.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But you would not extend the time; you would just try and help them through their difficulties?

Mr Pahlow —We would try and help them through their difficulties, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But you will not extend the time?

Mr Pahlow —That would be a decision for the government.

Senator PAYNE —In terms of resourcing for the department, has there been any enhancement to the department’s resourcing to perform that compliance role, let alone, might I say, the evaluation and approval process for the 3,605 projects in this program itself?

Mr Pahlow —We have been provided with additional resources for that purpose.

Senator PAYNE —Can you identify those for the committee?

Mr Pahlow —For the $250 million, we have 721,000 this financial year and 356,000 in the next financial year, and there are additional resources available under the $550 million program which would also be used for those purposes.

Senator PAYNE —What number of staff does that—

Senator Conroy —We are running a very thorough process to ensure we can assess them and monitor them.

Senator PAYNE —I appreciate that, Minister, and that has been indicated by the officers. What sort of staffing numbers do those enhancements equate to?

Mr Pahlow —That depends on when, Senator. At the moment, we have a lot of staff on board.

Senator PAYNE —Let us go with now, while you are dealing with 3,605 projects minus the 100 councils you have already finished.

Mr Pahlow —We have in the order of 12 staff. There would be fewer full-time equivalents because that is a very compressed period of time. During the assessment process, that could pick up to 15.

Ms Foster —We are also making quite extensive use of contract support and are consciously reallocating resources across the broader division as we have peaks and troughs of activity in the programs.

Senator Conroy —To get the exact correct answers, we are happy to take that on notice.

Senator PAYNE —I appreciate that, but that does give me a helpful perspective. Thanks, Ms Foster and Mr Pahlow. As we get down to crunch point, the 30 September expenditure point—between the interim progress report and the final progress report—do you think it will be necessary to provide further additional staffing resources to meet those deadlines?

Mr Pahlow —We would provide the staffing resources as required, Senator.

Senator PAYNE —Within the parameters of the money you have already outlined to us or do you think you will need more than that?

Mr Pahlow —Yes.

Ms Foster —My intention at the moment is to try and balance the resources across the division to meet the peaks and troughs of demand.

Senator Conroy —Some of this was dealt with in the secretary’s opening statements.

Senator PAYNE —I apologise for not being here.

Senator Conroy —There is a copy available; it was tabled as well.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you very much. I will grab a copy of that. Can we go on to the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program, Strategic Projects, which we are going to call the $550 million program, are we, for ease of reference?

Mr Angley —Yes.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you.

CHAIR —Sorry, Senator Payne, do you have a lot of questions?

Senator PAYNE —No.

CHAIR —That is fine. That is only because Senator Macdonald is not here, so we had better round him up.

Senator PAYNE —I have about half a dozen or so more substantive questions and then whatever flows. I will say things slowly.

CHAIR —No, you do not have to, Senator Payne. You are doing a fantastic job, and I wish you were a full member of this committee; others may learn some protocol.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you, Chair. On the $550 million project, as I understand it, an application from a council had to be made by 23 December last year, was it, to be compliant?

Ms Foster —That is correct, Senator.

Senator PAYNE —And can you indicate to us how many councils have taken up that offer?

Ms Foster —Senator, you may be aware that the government announced its decision to reopen the process of the $550 million program after the additional $500 million was allocated.

Senator PAYNE —But at the time of the further announcement, can you tell me how many had taken it up?

Ms Foster —Yes. There were 344 applications.

Senator PAYNE —Is that 344 councils?

Ms Foster —No, 344 applications. Each council was allowed only one application.

Senator PAYNE —So it really is 344 councils.

Ms Foster —Yes, Senator.

Senator PAYNE —344 projects.

Mr Angley —It is almost 344 councils. A few were invited to make joint applications. You could put in your own separate one, but you were also able to put in for joint projects as well.

Senator PAYNE —Do you know how many that would be, Mr Angley?

Mr Angley —No. We can take that on notice.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you very much.

Mr Angley —But, as Ms Foster said, the numbers are going to change with the new deadline.

Senator PAYNE —Sure. And I guess we will be pursuing that further in the next round of estimates. Can you then tell me, in terms of the applications which have already been made, whether any assessment has commenced on those?

Ms Foster —We did commence looking at the project, Senator, but that assessment has been put on hold pending us reaching the second deadline, the new deadline, of 6 March.

Senator PAYNE —If you were a council which had an application already in under the previous arrangements, what are the rules in relation to reviewing that application or revising it? Can you take it out and start again, or what do you have to do?

Ms Foster —We have offered councils three options. We have said, ‘You must do one of the following: advise us that you wish to retain your initial application; resubmit a changed application; or, if you did not submit an initial application, you may now submit one.’

Senator PAYNE —So, given the tight time frame that was attached to that, had any applications that had been received by the department been rejected as either not being compliant with the guidelines or having being received after the deadline before the extension was announced?

Ms Foster —I do not have that detail, sorry, Senator. I will have to take that on notice.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you. I would appreciate that. Given the new deadline is Friday, 6 March and you have done some assessment, when do you expect that you will be able to provide the ranked list of applications, which, I think, goes to the Australian Council of Local Government, does it, for comment after that?

Ms Foster —The government consults with the Australian Council of Local Government Steering Committee through that.

Senator PAYNE —For feedback—maybe that is a better word than ‘comment’.

Ms Foster —Clearly, there will be a significant amount of work to do to review those applications, and I imagine that it will take us—

Senator Conroy —We will aim to do it as soon as possible.

Senator PAYNE —Do you have a target date on which you hope to be able to provide the minister with a final list of successful applications?

Ms Foster —We have not discussed that yet, Senator.

Senator PAYNE —In terms of this program, the $550 million program, is the staffing allocation and the budgetary allocation reflected in the numbers Mr Pahlow gave me before?

Ms Foster —No. There is an additional allocation for the $550 million program. We have $1.8 million this financial year and $0.92 million in 2009-10.

Senator PAYNE —Do you expect that that will need to be increased now that you have extended the program and will be inevitably receiving additional applications?

Ms Foster —I think we will need to wait and see how many applications we get and what complexity there is, but my intention initially is to work within the resources I have been given.

Senator PAYNE —An admirable intention, Ms Foster. But, given the significant extension to the funding and the extension to the deadline, which is still 10 days away, what is the pace of applications like? Are you expecting to receive a very significant number?

Ms Foster —I do not know what the extension of time will mean for the councils.

Senator PAYNE —The announcement was made on 13 February; we are 10 days after that now, as it is 24 February. What sort of volume of inquiries or flow of applications have you received in those 10 days?

Ms Foster —I think we will have to take that on notice. We have a hotline, which was established for councils to call. I do not have details of how many calls we have received relating to this specific program.

Senator PAYNE —Or whether it is running hot or otherwise. If you follow that up for me, that would be helpful. Reflecting on that, are you telling me that it is too soon to indicate how it is going—that you think you will need to come to the close period and then reassess? When you said you had 344 councils, I think, at the previous deadline, was that within the ballpark you were expecting? Was it low?

Ms Foster —I am looking at Mr Tongue who was actually running that area at the time.

Mr Tongue —It was a surprise to me, Senator, let me put it like that, given the tight deadline, to find that number of councils able to submit projects. It is one of the things that probably stimulated the government to think about extending the program. We tapped unmet demand.

Senator PAYNE —I see. Thank you very much.

Senator Conroy —It is just too soon to indicate.

Senator PAYNE —I appreciate that. It gives me some perspective on that. Thank you. Can you indicate to me how the second year of the program is intended to work in terms of the application and allocation of funds? Would that operate within the existing guidelines or will the guidelines change?

Ms Foster —I am not quite sure, Senator, what you mean by ‘the second year of the program’.

Senator PAYNE — As I understand it, if projects commence in the first calendar year—as they do, obviously—there is a need for them to be commenced within six months of the signing of the funding agreement. Is there a deadline for completion, though? It sounds to me as if they can inevitably flow into a second year. How does funding in work that process?

Ms Foster —The guidelines will remain consistent. On the deadline for completion, I will ask Mr Pahlow.

Mr Pahlow —By their very nature, they are larger and more complex projects. It is accepted that they will extend over two or possibly three years to complete.

Senator PAYNE —So, in the application process, is the council required to provide you with an estimated completion deadline?

Mr Pahlow —Yes.

Senator PAYNE —Then is there the same sort of progress reporting and monitoring and review process required for the $550 million program to ensure that they are complying with the requirements for which the funding is being given?

Ms Foster —In fact, with the $550 million program, the proponents will receive an amount upfront and then there will be payments against milestones in the project.

Senator Conroy —We need to focus on the scope. Regional Partnerships was open to everyone, including community groups, and it was only $70 million a year. We are delivering over $800 million, so there is a significant scope. It was based on the fact that we knew that councils had unmet needs, and so we are very keen to get this working as fast as possible, and I think Ms Foster has indicated that the guidelines are consistent. So we are keen to complete the application process as fast as we can.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you, Minister. Finally, to tidy that last discussion up, is the arrangement between the councils and the Commonwealth essentially regarded as a contractual arrangement by you?

Ms Foster —It is.

Senator PAYNE —In the process of review and monitoring and the progress report arrangement that we have discussed, if councils are not complying in these much larger projects which the minister has just alluded to—they are significantly larger than some of the ones we were talking about earlier—what methods does the department have for ensuring compliance?

Mr Angley —A lot of our resources go into the contract management once the funding agreements are signed, and one of the staple ways of doing that is through the agreement with each proponent about what milestones we will make payments on. If there is not proof from the proponent that that milestone has been reached or if we just do not hear from them and pursue them, we will not make that payment.

Senator PAYNE —In that project—

Senator Conroy — Whatever remedial statements we need to take we will take, but we are pre-empting the circumstances at the moment. It is sort of a hypothetical that you are posing at the moment, Senator Payne, so I am not sure that we can be any more definitive than that, but whatever we need to do we will do.

Senator PAYNE —I appreciate that. What I was seeking was some outline of whether the department has appropriate measures and intends to put them into place in advance to ensure, in relation to the very large sums of money that we are talking about—which you have just reiterated the importance of—that the expenditure is as the Australian people would expect it to be.

Ms Foster —That is the purpose of our milestone payments. With the contracts that we enter into with the councils, part of that contract is a project plan which articulates what is to be achieved by when and what the milestone payments are connected to.

Senator PAYNE —This is my final question, Chair.

CHAIR —I was counting your six, Senator Payne. That is quite all right.

Senator PAYNE —We have 344 projects or councils in the first iteration of this before the extension. You talk about this almost on an individual project management basis. How many staff do you have doing that? That is a fairly extraordinary volume of work that you are expecting to be dealt with.

Ms Foster —That is right, though I would make the point that with those 344 applications, of course, there is a cap of $550 million if these projects are larger.

Senator PAYNE —I understand.

Ms Foster —So we might expect that there will be fewer than that number of projects that actually become part of this program. I do not have the exact staff numbers. I will take that on notice but, again, as we are running these programs, we will have periods of heightened activity on the various programs, which will allow us to move our staff across them.

Senator PAYNE —Ms Foster, I ask you to take one other matter on notice. If there is any more clarity that you can provide around the dates going forward when you expect to be able to move things along in terms of presentation of a final list to the minister, the consultation—I think you called it—with the Australian Council of Local Government and so on, I would be grateful if the committee received those.

Ms Foster —Certainly, and we should be in a better position to do that as we get to the close of applications.

Senator PAYNE —I am not sure what the return date is for answers to questions on notice.

CHAIR —The seventeenth of April.

Senator PAYNE —Look at all that time you have. Thank you so much.

CHAIR —The questions are written on notice. Thank you, Senator Payne. I think Senator Macdonald may have some questions, so I will think aloud. Mr Tongue—

Senator Conroy —If Senator Johnston is here—

CHAIR —No, Senator Johnston has questions for AFMA. AMSA, sorry. That is right; we did AFMA last night. Sorry.

0Senator Payne interjecting

CHAIR —Senator Payne, Senator Nash used to do this to me all the time: one minute, one question. So I will time you and count, Senator Payne.

Senator PAYNE —For both the $250 million and the $550 million sets of projects, can you tell us whether, in fact, any councils have yet received money in both categories and whether any councils have yet started projects in either category?

Ms Foster —For the $550 million the answer is a clear no, because that program has been put on hold until the new deadline of 6 March is reached, so there will be no projects approved or funded until after that date. For the $250 million program, once the projects are announced we then establish a funding agreement with the council, and I think we have had our first funding agreement signed, which allows us to release the funds to that council.

Senator PAYNE —Okay. I think that does put a rather different colour on the use of the words ‘promptly’ and ‘immediately’ in terms of the time frames. I understand these things cannot happen overnight, but at the same time—

Senator Conroy —We are actually engaged in a proper process, something we picked up from a few Auditor-General’s reports. I am happy to revisit some of the critiques of going fast and loose.

Senator PAYNE —I am using the language—

Senator Conroy —But you were not personally guilty, so I will spare you the lecture.

Senator PAYNE —It was through no fault of my own! I am using the language that has been used by your colleagues, Minister, in relation to decisive action, delivering promptly and providing immediate boosts to local and regional economies.

Senator Conroy —The applications were submitted on 30 January, and three weeks later a contract was approved and signed.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you, Minister.

CHAIR —I have just quickly spoken to my colleagues, Mr Tongue. Should there be other questions from Senator Macdonald, who has just had to shoot out of the room, could we keep the officers here? Does anyone have questions for northern Australia? If they do not, shall we call AMSA, because I know Senator Johnston has questions? If we finish with AMSA and Senator Macdonald comes back—

Mr Tongue —Yes, certainly.

CHAIR —Rather than just sit around and look at each other—

Mr Tongue —Yes, that is fine.

CHAIR —Okay. Thank you, then. I call officers from AMSA. Thank you. Mr Tongue, just while we are waiting, there will be questions for officers on Northern Australia, so they should not run away.

Mr Tongue —Okay. That same group is still around.

CHAIR —That is fantastic.

Senator Conroy —There are questions for them as well?

CHAIR —Yes, Senator Heffernan has questions for them as well. We will continue with the good work. I welcome officers from AMSA.

Senator JOHNSTON —Chair, thank you for the promptness of having an opportunity to ask the officials questions. Mr Peachey, I would like to know a little bit more about how our Dornier fleet is travelling. I think I should ask: do we have a contractual number of hours per annum that these aircraft are required to perform, obviously under the umbrella of when they are required for an emergency? And have we benchmarked their reliability? How are we going with all of that?

Mr Peachey —Senator, just on that first question about the contractual number of hours, we do have a contract with the provider as you would expect. We have formal KPIs that they are expected to meet. We monitor their performance over the period and we have regular contact with the contractor to assess progress with them. But just to give you a sense of the sorts of activities they have been involved in, during the calendar year 2008 there were some 201 search and rescue incidents involving the aircraft; there were 1,321 hours flown; there were 112 lives assisted through the activities of the Dorniers; there were 17 pollution flights during that period, and that took 60 hours; and there were 341 customs flights during the same period, taking 1,713 hours. In total there were 559 flights and over 3,100 hours flown. As a rough statistic, the whole search and rescue program administered by AMSA saves in the order of about a life a day, and the Dorniers have a significant part in that work. So, as you would expect, the Dorniers are flying over the search and rescue guys on the water doing the rescuing.

Senator JOHNSTON —I think that is very good. How many missions were declined in that period?

Mr Peachey —I would have to turn to Mr Young.

Senator JOHNSTON —Mr Young, you are the bearer of the good tidings?

Mr Young —Senator, the question is a difficult one to answer, in the sense that declined missions are in fact not recorded because we do not ask for them. We know the status of the aircraft and therefore that they in fact do not get asked in the first place.

Senator JOHNSTON —So our KPIs and our benchmarking does not include when we have an emergency rescue situation and a Dornier is not available?

Mr Young —Our KPIs track the total availability of the aircraft.

Senator JOHNSTON —So our KPIs, if I may be so bold as to suggest, appear a bit deficient, because we are only tracking and monitoring what we do.

Mr Young —That is correct.

Senator JOHNSTON —We do not track or monitor what we do not do, cannot do—could have done but cannot because of some other reason.

Mr Peachey —Senator, if I could just interrupt, I get daily reports of Dornier availability. Every morning I get a report saying where the planes are and whether they are available or not. So I think it is stretching it a bit far to say that we cannot track. We have a daily—

Senator JOHNSTON —I am glad you are haggling with me, Mr Peachey. I do not want to take you to places that are not accurately reflecting the situation. How many of the daily report sheets give you a negative as opposed to a positive in terms of the five aircraft—how many have we got?

Mr Peachey —Five. The daily reports say they are available or they are going through routine maintenance or there is some issue that they are addressing.

Senator JOHNSTON —You are aware that Coastwatch has a very detailed structured system of availability of aircraft.

Mr Peachey —Yes, Senator, we are part of that. In fact, one of the statistics I did mention was Coastwatch reliance on our aircraft as well. I cannot underestimate the need for that integrated program to work effectively, and we do work very closely with Coastwatch to ensure that it happens.

Senator JOHNSTON —But you do understand what I am looking for? I am looking for a figure that tells us how often we needed or wanted our Dornier aircraft and how often we could not have one because of some reason. The reason may well be service or maintenance—whatever reason—and we get a charter or we get someone else to do it. But also there will be reasons that are not planned, that are extraordinary and that are things that we should know about. Indeed, I think I would be failing in my responsibilities if I did not ask you: is there a system of analysis of availability; what are those figures; and what monitoring is there so that we can get a sense of the reliable availability of the aircraft against the demand?

Mr Peachey —Senator, as I said or indicated, I do not have a figure of when we have asked and it has not been available. We can no doubt go back and see if we can get that figure, but—

Senator JOHNSTON —I would very much be obliged. The date for questions on notice is 17 April, so by 17 April I am happy for you to tell me what you can about the system.

Mr Peachey —I am happy to do that, but, before we do, I just want to stress that this is not an operation that goes unmonitored or unchecked. As I said earlier, I personally get a report every day of where the planes are and whether they are available or not. As you quite rightly said, if one was not available for some reason—these are machines, after all; sometimes my car does not work—we do have access to other aircraft to assist the program.

Senator JOHNSTON —But I am looking for a figure that gives me comfort and confidence that there is a high level of availability at the times required. That is the essence of our business here.

Mr Peachey —Okay.

Senator JOHNSTON —And if we do not record that, I think we should.

Mr Peachey —Okay.

Senator Conroy —He said he would take it on notice, didn’t he?

Senator JOHNSTON —Yes. I am just making it clear, Minister, as to what we are taking on notice.

Senator Conroy —I think he has got the point.

Senator JOHNSTON —I hope he has. The radar was a problem. How are we going with that?

Mr Peachey —The radar was a problem, Senator. As I understand it now, the radar has been fixed and the aircraft are operational with their new radars installed.

Mr Young —Could I add that the radar was certified by the certifying authority late last year and is still being rolled out for a couple of the aircraft. That will be completed this quarter.

Senator JOHNSTON —Which of our cities does not have the radar? The search radar on five Dornier 328 turboprop aircraft were temporarily replaced by weather radar. We have two of the five still waiting to be fitted or repaired, or whatever the circumstances were. Which ones are they—do you know?

Mr Young —I do not know which ones they are, Senator.

Senator JOHNSTON —Okay. I also understand that we have had quite a considerable number of mid-air mechanical incidents, including four engine failures. I am sure this is not new to you. I am simply raising this to give you an opportunity to tell me that that situation has not been beyond what the media have suggested. I am looking at April last year with respect to the performance. Have we had any other incidents since that report in the Australian with respect to mid-air incidents, including four engine failures? Have we had a successful resolution of that problem or have there been others?

Mr Young —Senator, I am not aware of any incidents of that type.

Senator JOHNSTON —Could I be as casual about this and as convenient to you as I possibly can, if there are incidents could you tell me within the time frame for the questions on notice. If I do not hear from you, I will take it you have done the work and there are none.

Mr Young —Certainly, Senator.

Senator JOHNSTON —Lovely. Could I talk about the Brisbane aircraft. I am advised that the Brisbane aircraft has not been online and available for some substantial period during 2008. Is that the fact or can you correct me on that assumption, please?

Mr Young —Senator, during 2008 the Brisbane base has not been operational. The aircraft has been replacing other aircraft around the country as they do scheduled maintenance and also planned upgrades. The aircraft itself has been operational; the base has not.

Senator JOHNSTON —For the benefit of Queenslanders, what is the circumstance in Brisbane? Why haven’t we got a base and what is the hold-up?

Mr Young —Senator, the base was destaffed during a period in 2007 and 2008 when the paucity of pilots and engineers in the aviation market generally were draining on a number of operators, including air rescue. Because the aircraft was being deployed elsewhere, those staff were also deployed elsewhere. It is planned to re-establish the Brisbane base this year.

Senator JOHNSTON —So for 12 months or more we have not been able to man the Brisbane base.

Mr Young —My understanding is that it has been for a period of around 12 months.

Senator JOHNSTON —I know the difficulty. I can tell you Coastwatch has a similar problem from time to time. Can you tell me when you expect the Brisbane base to be manable and up and running again?

Mr Young —It is currently planned the Brisbane base would be re-established during quarter three of this calendar year.

Senator JOHNSTON —So after September.

Mr Young —July.

Senator JOHNSTON —After July. What do we do in Queensland if we have an emergency?

Mr Young —Senator, there is, in fact, a wide range of assets available in the Queensland area ranging from state equipped emergency service helicopters through to a range of other fixed-wing operators that we can draw on and, in fact, the search and rescue system has layers of available aircraft.

Senator JOHNSTON —These fixed-wing operators have the same capability or comparable capability to our Dornier?

Mr Young —They have the capability to get out quickly to an incident and get overhead and determine what is there. They do not have an equivalent capability to the Dornier.

Senator JOHNSTON —So no infrared, no radar?

Mr Young —That is correct. We have, during that period, quite frequently deployed the Cairns and Melbourne Dorniers in the direction of activity elsewhere in Queensland and, of course, west into the Gulf of Carpentaria from Cairns as well, for example.

Senator JOHNSTON —Do we have a Dornier in Sydney?

Mr Young —No, Senator.

Senator Conroy —These are the Dorniers that were purchased under the coalition government?

Senator JOHNSTON —Correct.

Senator Conroy —I just wanted to confirm that.

Senator JOHNSTON —Absolutely—and been run by you during 2008, if you needed to be reminded. I believe we had an incident where there was some significant damage to one aircraft at a night mission. Can you advise us what happened there and where we are at with that aircraft, which aircraft it was, and which jurisdiction was affected?

Mr Young —My recollection is that it was the aircraft deployed out of Essendon.

Senator JOHNSTON —Essendon in Victoria?

Mr Young —Essendon in Victoria. It did training operations at Cooma airport—night approaches to Cooma airport—and suffered damage from an unswept runway; that is the advice that was passed to us. I understand that aircraft is now operational.

Senator JOHNSTON —How long was it offline for?

Mr Young —I do not recall precisely. I do not think the aircraft itself was offline for very long, but the infrared turret suffered damage.

Senator JOHNSTON —Mr Ric Smith, the former secretary of the Department of Defence, conducted a review. Did he make any recommendations with respect to the operations of our Dornier fleet that you are aware of?

Mr Peachey —In my discussions with Ric Smith he talked about the longer term arrangements for the Dornier and he explored the possibility of coming to some common platform and working with BPC to set up some common platform into the future.

Senator JOHNSTON —BPC—Border Protection Command?

Mr Peachey —Border Protection Command, yes.

Senator JOHNSTON —And that is just a recommendation, should I say?

Mr Peachey —That is something that we will explore at the end of the contract and, as you would expect, when the contract is up for renewal we would look at what is the most cost-effective way of delivering these services to the community. One thing that we would explore is how our requirements fit with the ongoing requirements of BPC and whether there is some way that we can gain efficiencies through a common platform.

Senator JOHNSTON —I think that is a fair assessment of where we probably should be looking to go. Thank you, Chair, and thank you, Mr Peachey, and all of your officers. I appreciate the frankness of your answers.

Senator O’BRIEN —I have got some questions. I presume that AMSA has had a close look at the decision of the coroner in relation to the sinking of the Malu Sara?

Mr Peachey —Yes, Senator.

Senator O’BRIEN —There are a couple of areas that impact on AMSA, I believe. Firstly, in one finding, under the heading ‘Review of AMSA’s Paper-based Boat Surveys’, the coroner said:

If it has not already done so, AMSA should review the deficiencies in its procedures which allow defective vessels —

in this case the Malu Sara

to be brought into survey without any physical inspection or testing by any AMSA officer or any evidence that any independent expert had inspected and tested the vessel.

Do you accept that that needed to be done and has it been done?

Mr Peachey —Senator, as you implied from the start, we looked very carefully at the coroner’s findings and we are taking steps—and have already started steps—to implement the gist of the findings. In relation to this one, yes, we have taken steps to address it.

Senator O’BRIEN —So what are they?

Mr Peachey —We are reminding government agencies of the relevant safety standards. We are more active in monitoring compliance with those safety standards. We are looking for supporting documentation to demonstrate that the vessels meet safety standards and we are ensuring that they have been tested for seaworthiness. We have also required that more effective communication equipment be kept on board. We are ensuring that navigational aids commensurate with the area of operation are also on board. We are seeking to ensure that the people on these vessels carry 406 megahertz distress beacons and we are ensuring that the crew are qualified in accordance with the relevant standards on the uniform shipping laws.

Senator O’BRIEN —So, with regard to that finding, AMSA has accepted that its procedures were previously deficient?

Mr Peachey —AMSA is accepting the findings of the coroner saying that we should have a review of them to see whether we can strengthen them. Hindsight is wonderful, but you would expect in normal circumstances if you have got some signed declaration from an official that you would not have to go behind that signature and test the veracity of that declaration. But, having said that, and having seen the circumstance of the Malu Sara, we have taken steps to ensure that we are satisfied that people are actually complying with the requirements.

Senator O’BRIEN —I suppose the question is whether you thought AMSA was the responsible agency or the authorising officer’s agency was.

Mr Peachey —I am not sure whether discussion is helpful, Senator. We are getting some sort of speculation around areas that have been trawled over in a very detailed way by the coronial inquiry. What we are saying is, yes, we have carefully looked at it and we have taken measures to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen in the future.

Senator O’BRIEN —The coroner said, ‘review the deficiencies in its procedures’—that is, AMSA’s procedures—so the coroner found there were deficiencies in your procedures.

Mr Peachey —And the fact that we have taken measures to address what we see that the coroner found as deficiencies—we are accepting the findings.

Senator O’BRIEN —That means you accept that there were deficiencies in your procedures.

Mr Peachey —We are accepting they could be strengthened, certainly, yes.

Senator O’BRIEN —That is what the coroner found; do you disagree with him?

Mr Peachey —I think we are splitting hairs over words, Senator. I think what we are saying is—

Senator O’BRIEN —I am saying his words were, ‘There were deficiencies in your procedures.’ Do you disagree with those words?

Mr Peachey —To the extent that we have had to improve them, I support his findings.

Senator O’BRIEN —And in relation to AusSAR, which also falls under AMSA, I believe—

Mr Peachey —Yes.

Senator O’BRIEN —The finding under the heading ‘Training for AusSAR Officers’ reads:

AusSAR should review the training it provides to its operators to ensure they fully understand the provisions of the National Search and Rescue Manual and the Inter-Governmental Agreement on National Search and Rescue Response Arrangements.

It should ensure its officers interact with other agencies in a manner consistent with the framework set out in that manual and agreement. In particular AusSAR officers should be trained to ensure they recognise circumstances in which the agency should immediately assume primary responsibility for the overall coordination of a search and rescue incident.

AusSAR should review the basis on which it assesses whether a report from observers of sightings are confirmed or otherwise.

In part, that touches on a suggestion in the body of the report that it was open to AusSAR officers to come to the conclusion that they should have taken over the search for the Malu Sara early on the evening of the night it disappeared. What is AusSAR’s response to that particular finding?

Mr Peachey —We have looked at the procedures. We have looked at the manual. We have spoken to the people involved in the jurisdictions and if there is any ambiguity in the requirements, we have sought to clarify that in the manual.

Senator O’BRIEN —But there has been somewhat of a culture for AusSAR to resist the idea of taking over a search until they have really had to, hasn’t there?

Mr Peachey —Not in my experience.

Senator O’BRIEN —I can recall a vessel that went missing off the coast of Northern Tasmania where just such an event occurred, and this seems to somewhat parallel it. You are not familiar with those circumstances?

Mr Peachey —No, that is before my time, Senator, but I think you will find that, when the balloon goes up and we are called in, we do actually respond very quickly. If you continue reading on in the coroner’s report, you will find that the coroner put a lot of praise on the effort that occurred.

Senator O’BRIEN —There is a different passage. There is a passage commencing on page 73 that details the events on the evening and the interrelationship between the local policeman, Cairns police and AusSAR. Then, later, the passage I just read, which appears on page 94, is the summary of the coroner’s finding. The reason I went to that was that, although understanding what he recited as to what took place, the implication in what he is saying there is: ‘Your officers have got to be attuned to the fact that sometimes they need to pick up on the signals from what is being said without relying on the precise wording of requests to take over—that maybe it’s time that you did.’ Do you agree with that?

Mr Peachey —I agree, Senator. If our officers can pick up on the signals at the earliest opportunity, that would be great. I do not see, in this case, that our officers necessarily erred in what they did. They received a communication from the guys on the ground. There was no indication at the time. I do not want to go over the whole findings and the evidence, of course, but, as I said previously, as soon as the call for assistance went up, we were all over the area, searching and providing resources for the people affected.

Mr Young —Senator, I might add that my recollection is that the AusSAR officer on duty in fact, on more than one occasion, queried the Queensland police officer to clarify coordination arrangements on the night.

Senator O’BRIEN —Sorry, could you repeat that because you said a couple of things there I am not sure of.

Mr Young —The AusSAR officer on duty on the evening that you are describing clarified coordination arrangements with the Queensland police officer. So it was not that this subject was not discussed; it was that it was discussed and Queensland held the coordination for the incident.

Senator O’BRIEN —I know that Queensland did. The passage on page 75 of the coroner’s report talks about a conversation at 6 am—that Sergeant Flegg contacted AusSAR. In this paragraph, the coroner recites this:

… he described the course of the incident in these terms: “And it just started out, you know that they were lost… and now it is gone and turned into, ‘Oh we are sinking. Can you come and get us?’”

And the coroner then said:

The AusSAR officer failed to apprehend the significance of Sergeant Flegg’s remark, due to the manner in which the comment was made.

I think that is the basis of the later finding. So the suggestion I took from the coroner’s report was that he thought that was the cue, perhaps, for your officer to have said, ‘Well, hang on. If they’re gone, they’re sinking. What are we doing?’ But apparently that is not what happened. Is that a fair recital of the events?

Mr Young —That is a fair recital of the events, Senator.

Senator O’BRIEN —What I am asking is: does AusSAR accept that there, perhaps, needs to be some training of officers to attune them to the possibility that they need to take over in circumstances where there is not a direct request but the circumstances are unfolding to them which indicate that perhaps there should be.

Mr Young —Yes, Senator, and we have reviewed our training processes and, in fact, working with the National Search and Rescue Council, reviewed the manual to ensure that it is clear and it provides good, clear guidance for both ends of such a conversation.

Senator O’BRIEN —You are reviewing it or you have?

Mr Young —Have reviewed it, Senator.

Senator O’BRIEN —Okay. Could you supply to the committee, on notice, those passages that have been changed or added to the procedures manual, and in any other form, which are relevant to this passage of the coroner’s finding?

Mr Young —Certainly, Senator.

Senator O’BRIEN —Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you, Senator O’Brien. With the indulgence of the committee, we will take a five-minute break now. We will come back to Senator Macdonald and the officers from Local Government and Regional Development. Thank you very much.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Mr Chair, Please stop me if Senator Payne covered some of these things while I was absent. I am interested in the Major Cities Unit.

Ms Foster —The Major Cities Unit is a component of Infrastructure Australia, Michael Deegan’s outfit.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. I am really very late on that, aren’t I, having sat through Infrastructure Australia. There is an Australian Council of Local Governments Steering Committee. Can you tell me about that?

Ms Foster —Yes. Let me just go to the press release. It was a steering committee set up after the inaugural Australian Council of Local Governments meeting last year and it has a number of members, a number of lord mayors, the President of ALGA, a number of councillors from around the country and the National President of the Local Government Managers Australia.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Where would I find the list? Perhaps it is easy enough for you to give me the list of people on that steering committee?

Ms Foster —The list has been published. It went out as a media release.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can you get it for me as a question on notice?

Ms Foster —Certainly.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —How are the participants in that picked?

Ms Foster —They were picked by government with a view to pulling together a representative group of people to help steer our work with local government.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Do you have the list there?

Ms Foster —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Was Lord Mayor Campbell Newman part of that group?

Ms Foster —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And Councillor Shea from Cairns. Can you tell me what others from Queensland are on it? Are they identified by state?

Ms Foster —Some of them are.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can you briefly run through them—read them out to me and perhaps tell me where they come from?

Ms Foster —There is Councillor Geoff Lake from Monash in Victoria; Campbell Newman from Queensland; Councillor Robert Doyle from Melbourne; Clover Moore from New South Wales; Paul Bell from Queensland; Genia McCaffery from New South Wales; Ronald Lami Lami from the Northern Territory; Bruce Miller from New South Wales; Joy Baluch from South Australia; Michael Gaffney from Tasmania; Lisa Scaffidi from Western Australia; Kerry Moir from Northern Territory; Troy Pickard from Western Australia; Mary-Lou Corcoran from South Australia; Ray Pincombe, who, as I said, is the National President of Local Government Managers Australia and is from South Australia; Barry Sammels from WA; Jenny Dowell from New South Wales; Linton Reynolds from WA; Pam Macleod from Victoria; Graham Sansom from New South Wales; Lisa Price from Victoria; Paul Slape, who is the National Secretary of the Australian Services Union; Allan Sutherland from Queensland; Val Schier from Queensland; Ron Hoenig from New South Wales; and Lynne Craigie from WA.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Were they appointed on the recommendation of the department?

Ms Foster —I do not know that. Can I take that on notice?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —If they had been appointed on the recommendation of the department, you would have done it, I assume.

Ms Foster —I have been looking after this area for the whole of a week.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Then you would not have done it. All right. You had better find that out for me. What are the steering committee actually going to do?

Senator Conroy —We did have a little bit of a discussion with Senator Payne, but I am sure we can—

Mr Tongue —Perhaps I could dive in. The notion is that the 560-odd mayors will get together yearly and that this smaller group will meet perhaps three times a year or so to progress those items that are identified as being of joint interest to the federal government and local government. Asset management, for example, is one topical issue that emerged out of the first Australian Council of Local Governments meeting. We expect a whole range of issues.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Will they comment on the financial assistance grants?

Mr Tongue —I am not sure I would use the expression ‘comment on’. I think they will ‘have ‘views on’.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —They are just an advisory committee to the minister, are they?

Mr Tongue —Yes, basically an advisory committee on local government issues.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Will they have a view on the grants programs that I did hear Senator Payne talking about?

Mr Tongue —It is on the record that they will be consulted as part of the grant process. Constitutional recognition is another issue clearly of importance to local government.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes. The only way they will ever get that is if they can get all the states to agree, and I think that is unlikely. So it will meet three times a year to advise the minister on a range of issues?

Mr Tongue —Three or so. It will depend.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —On an agenda that will be prepared by the department for the minister?

Mr Tongue —Working with local government representatives and the minister, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —When you are finding out how these people were appointed, can you find out also the rationale for their appointment—whether it was geographic across the nation or based on their particular expertise.

Ms Foster —If we have that information.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Someone must know why they were appointed.

Mr Tongue —Broadly, they reflect interests across local government—for example, capital cities, state and local government associations and Indigenous councils.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —So that was the basis for their appointment?

Mr Tongue —They pick up a range of interests.

Senator Conroy —Expertise, experience and geography.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And they will have some influence on the grants programs, will they, or their advice will be sought?

Mr Tongue —Their advice will be sought, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Isn’t that going to be a fraction dangerous, with the honey jar there and lots of bees coming to it?

Senator Conroy —That is a cynical approach. We have ended the blame game; we have passed that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is not blaming anyone for anything—not yet, anyhow! I am just saying: isn’t it a fraction difficult—

Senator Conroy —We have embraced our local government representatives.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I get all the rhetoric; thank you.

Senator Conroy —You are not suggesting they are not up to the task?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —No. I am saying: doesn’t it make it difficult for them to sit in judgement of other councils, and their own? It is going to be particularly difficult for them to be recommending their own projects.

Mr Tongue —I think it depends how we manage that process. Certainly members that I have dealt with are aware of potential conflict-of-interest issues. It is about how we set up a process of consultation that takes views into account and at the same time keeps the process moving.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I have heard, again in answer to Senator Payne, some discussion about the extending of the date for applications for the increased grant for local government things. Could you briefly confirm the new amounts involved?

Ms Foster —The original amount announced at the Council of Local Governments meeting in November was $300 million—$250 million to be allocated to councils based on a formula about relative need, population and growth, and $50 million for what we call strategic projects, bigger projects. With the stimulus package of $42 billion, that $50 million was increased by $500 million to $550 million.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I think you gave Senator Payne the statistics on how many applications and this, that and the other. I will not go through those again.

Ms Foster —I did.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I will read it on Hansard. What was the upper limit for grants?

Ms Foster —We had a minimum of $2 million of Commonwealth funding for each project. We wanted to encourage larger projects and said that we would favour larger projects and those with partnership funding. I am not aware that there was an upper limit.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —So there is not an upper limit. How will this interact with the Major Cities Unit, which you reminded me is not part of this program? Will the Major Cities Unit have a say in the allocation of this $550 million?

Ms Foster —No. We work closely with the Major Cities Unit across the department in terms of the sorts of programs that we deliver that impact on major cities—the kinds of road programs, for example, that Ms O’Connell’s area delivers. We also will talk with the Major Cities Unit about broader planning issues. But the actual processing of applications and provision of advice to government will be done within the department.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And the applications contain the criteria to be used?

Ms Foster —Yes. We made the criteria, or the guidelines, publicly available.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —There is a very good and major project, coincidentally in Townsville, for the redevelopment of an awful mall—not only aesthetically awful but economically awful—which will require big funds. Is that the sort of project that could be looked at in this capacity?

Ms Foster —Yes, it is.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I forget the figures. I think they are needing upwards of $20 million. That does not frighten anyone because it is a big project?

Senator Conroy —Townsville is welcome to put in.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes. But big amounts do not frighten you? You are looking for big amounts?

Ms Foster —They would not be excluded on that basis.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —From what you were saying earlier, it would almost be encouraged. You have personally contacted every council, have you, to tell them about the new arrangements?

Ms Foster —The extension?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes.

Ms Foster —The $550 million?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes.

Ms Foster —Yes, we have.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And that is in a personal contact to every single council?

Ms Foster —I signed a letter, which was emailed out to all councils except those who had been affected by floods and fire, advising them. The minister has written separately to those councils.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Where a project covers council boundaries, like the Hann Highway, which I mentioned this morning—I am not sure if you were around—which runs through the Etheridge and Hughenden shires, will councils be able to join together in making approaches for dual application funding?

Ms Foster —Yes, they will.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Will this funding or any other part of your department’s grants programs be available for—as you may, again, have heard me talk about—the Karumba airstrip up in the Gulf of Carpentaria? Sorry—I should have said the Conroy airstrip!

Senator Conroy —The Conroy Karumba airstrip will be fine.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The Conroy Karumba airstrip.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The airport too?

Senator Conroy —Senator Macdonald kindly offered to call it after me if I could assist!

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Someone else suggested it first at yesterday’s estimates. I readily agreed. I would do anything to get the money.

Senator Conroy —And that is anything, yes!

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes. It is less painful than the other suggestion, I must say. But carry on.

Ms Foster —Yes, they would be eligible to apply for the $550 million strategic program.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —As to something like the Karumba airstrip—again, I am not sure if you heard me, and I do not want to repeat myself if you did.

Ms Foster —I did, Senator.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is out of contact for eight weeks with floods. A significant seaport; a significant tourist destination—it has got everything going for it except that nobody can get there. So that is the type of project you are looking at?

Ms Foster —Certainly it fits the guidelines for eligibility and we would welcome an application.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I get confused. Is this part of the $42 billion program or is this something that predated that?

Ms Foster —The initial $300 million was announced in November, and $50 million of that was for strategic projects.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes.

Ms Foster —$500 million came out of the $42 billion stimulus package.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is out of that? Okay. People since time immemorial have approached local members of parliament to say, ‘Look, we want the government to put in a cool $10 million for this, that and the other,’ as if money grows on trees, which it never used to, but does now. Whilst I opposed it, it is there, so let’s pluck the trees. Is there any other program that your department administers that I could direct people to, apart from this local government program, for major infrastructure works or even minor infrastructure works?

Ms Foster —Within the local government area we have the two programs that we have just been talking about.

Senator Conroy —There is a government website called GrantsLINK that I recommend you and other people have a look at.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes. That has been there for a long time, Minister. Although I was around when it was established, I have never found it terribly helpful. I have not looked at it for a while. Perhaps while Senator Heffernan is asking some questions later, I might have a look at it.

Senator Conroy —You could encourage the Carpentaria council to put in an application for the Conroy Karumba airport.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I shall indicate to them that I have the name for it so they should not get excited about favouring some local identity!

Senator Conroy —It could be a very helpful name.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, indeed. I will think about that. So, in your department, Ms Foster?

Ms Foster —Nothing else within the local government sphere.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Mr Tongue, within the—

Mr Tongue —I think we ran through this morning, in that infrastructure investment area, the range of additional funding that is flowing to local government through the Black Spot Program and various other initiatives. Within our portfolio there are the local government initiatives and then there are the additional initiatives associated with roads infrastructure particularly.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Any others?

Mr Tongue —That is it for us, but there are also initiatives in other government departments associated with the stimulus package that councils can apply for.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thanks for that. I think that is all I have for regional areas, apart from Northern Australia, which both Senator Heffernan and I have an interest in. Who deals with Northern Australia?

Ms Foster —It is within this same area. As the secretary said in his opening statement this morning, we have recently created a separate division, headed by John Angley, to deal specifically with the issues of Northern Australia.

Senator Conroy —I think Senator McGauran is indicating he has a question.

CHAIR —Sorry, Ms Foster and Senator Macdonald, but Senator McGauran does have a question for local government before we go to the Office of Northern Australia.

Senator Conroy —Can the specific local government people then go?

Senator McGAURAN —I will ask the question, and we will see if it is more on regional development. It is the same thing, right?

Senator Conroy —Not necessarily the same program.

Senator McGAURAN —In relation to the former area consultative committees, which are now called Regional Development Australia committees, can you give me a brief on where they are at? Have they all been established and appointed and are they in place?

Ms Foster —We have been working this year with state governments to set up the Regional Development Australia organisations in conjunction with the relevant state counterpart agencies and, in that process, aligning Regional Development Australia with state boundaries and with local council boundaries where we can.

Senator McGAURAN —So really they are not complete. These area consultative committees, which were actually first appointed, I think, in the Hawke-Keating government and we continued them on—enhanced them, of course—have been a great success: local leadership, local projects. They have been hung out to dry now. They still do not know their direction. They still are not working bodies at this point. As I understand what you have said, regional development committees, which is the new name that has been given to them, are not functioning, or are they? How am I to understand it?

Mr Angley —ACCs officially became the RDA network on 1 January and they were given a new role by the minister, which was announced last year, in calendar 2008. Also, what has occurred since August last year is that the regional development ministers from the states and the territories, and the Commonwealth ministers, agreed that it would be a far better service for the community if we could align a Commonwealth RDA network with similar organisations in each state and territory. Each state and territory is presently negotiating with the Commonwealth to establish those networks inside their state boundaries.

Senator McGAURAN —That is very disappointing, because they are all volunteers and they are leaders of their communities and they would have walked away by now. I wonder how many committees have just crumbled. We will have trouble getting them back, but keep working at it, because that sort of local committee—

Senator Conroy —You might be able to help start one up when you’re No. 4 on the Senate ticket. If you’d stayed in the National Party, you’d have been No. 2!

Senator IAN MACDONALD —He may well be No. 1.

Senator Conroy —No. He is being challenged for the third position.

CHAIR —I hope you are, Senator McGauran. I’ve got my fingers crossed for you.

Senator Conroy —Senator McGauran, you’ve got his vote!

Senator McGAURAN —I might get a reference off him later.

CHAIR —You could do worse, Senator McGauran!

Senator Conroy —I’d take Senator Sterle’s reference any day of the week!

Senator McGAURAN —Anyway we had better not get bogged down. Due to time constraints, I will not pursue that.

As Senators Macdonald and Heffernan know, the ACCs have just been hung out to dry. There is still no action on that front. One more point—and I have the Hansard here in case you think it is farcical, because I want to be able to quote you, Senator Conroy—you said in the last committee meeting that the Labor Party’s stump of knowledge was on holidays in Brisbane. It went to Brisbane for some resuscitation and, no doubt, some varnishing and polishing up. Where is the stump? Is the stump back in its rightful place?

Senator Conroy —We are willing to plant you there in the interim.

CHAIR —Sorry, Senator McGauran, but, as much as this committee does everything it can to work together, we do have an arrangement—

Senator Conroy —We have serious questions to pursue, Senator McGauran.

CHAIR —Senators Macdonald and Heffernan do have some pertinent questions for the Office of Northern Australia.

Senator McGAURAN —This is a $6 million project. I know it is farcical. Indeed, it is farcical. It is a farcical $6 million waste of money, and I will not pursue it more than another minute.

Senator Conroy —I am afraid the officers at the table do not have that information readily to hand. We will happily take that on notice and let you know if it has returned from its holiday.

Senator McGAURAN —Could you also take on notice whether any work has started on the project and has any consideration been given to combining the two projects of the Dinosaur Museum and the Tree of Knowledge because they are within close range of each other.

Yes, I admit, Mr Chairman, this is a farcical issue which I raise, but it is farcical to the degree that $6 million is going to be spent on this dead stump.

Senator Conroy —Thank you, Senator McGauran. We will come back to you on that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —If I could ask some quick questions following on from Senator McGauran’s comments. I refer to the Dysart Sports Centre, which I asked about at a previous estimates. I was told it was a Better Regions election commitment, which I already knew. What I actually asked, and have not yet received an answer to, is: isn’t this a project which was submitted under the Regional Solutions Program but was rejected by the department at the time and was subsequently processed because it was an election commitment? Could I put that on notice?

Ms Foster —Certainly.

Senator McGAURAN —You were talking about the GrantsLINK. I have had a few troubles with GrantsLINK too—and I am a modern man.

Senator Conroy —You are reading from a post-it note.

Senator McGAURAN —There used to be a great publication, when we were in government, from your department: it was just a bound book of not just the grants but all the projects. It was a regional publication.

Senator Conroy —We still produce it.

Senator McGAURAN —You still produce that?

Ms Foster —I am afraid I cannot identify it from that.

Senator McGAURAN —Every department came into it. It was regional projects and—

Senator Conroy —We will take that on notice, Senator McGauran, and seek that information for you.

Senator McGAURAN —A great publication! I recommend you read—

Senator HEFFERNAN —It has been a privilege to sit here and listen to parliament’s most eligible bachelor put questions on notice. It has been a great privilege.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —If I could again just follow up another one of Senator McGauran’s very good questions, where is Regional Development Australia going? Are they still being funded?

Mr Tongue —Still being funded, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —They still have work to do?

Mr Tongue —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Do they know what their work is?

Ms Foster —Very much so.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You expect a decision on their final fate when?

Ms Foster —We have asked the chairs of the area consultative committees to remain in place until the middle of this year so that there is continuity in the transition to the RDAs, so we expect that transition to take place mid-year.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The RDAs will be a combined state-federal grouping?

Ms Foster —That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —In every state?

Ms Foster —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —In Western Australia they will combine with those regional development corporations that they have there.

Ms Foster —That is right.

Mr Angley —Yes. Parliamentary Secretary Gray has made the point publicly that each state will be slightly different from the others, reflecting the local arrangements.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But every state has agreed?

Mr Angley —Yes. Every state is in negotiations to finalise MOUs.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And they will then be funded jointly by federal and state governments?

Mr Angley —That is part of the negotiations. Each state will vary. It will be about what is already in the state and what they are joining up for.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —This is my final question before we get onto Northern Australia. You may have heard me talk about the Einasleigh River bridge, which is probably a natural disaster relief thing, but it is a bridge that needs to be rebuilt completely at a higher level so that this does not happen every couple of years. Is that sort of funding available under AusLink, or would it be under natural disaster relief, or would it be under infrastructure? It involves a state main road.

Ms Foster —Arrangements for support to disaster affected councils are still being finalised. Whether it can be funded under the AusLink program, I do not know.

Ms O'Connell —My understanding is that it is part of the national network, so it could be, but not if it was not. As Ms Foster has stated, there are some specific arrangements around disaster relief that are being finalised.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is fine. My point is that disaster relief would reinstate it to what it was, so in two years time you would be back doing the same thing. It really needs disaster relief, plus a bit of extra, to fix the problem once and for all.

Ms O'Connell —Understood.

CHAIR —I thank the officers from Local Government and call the officers from the Office of Northern Australia.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is the same people, isn’t it?

Senator HEFFERNAN —It’s the same mob.

CHAIR —So no-one else is to come. I should have listened. We will go to Senator Heffernan.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Mr Angley, what is your designation in the northern task?

Mr Angley —Last week the secretary asked me to take over the Office of Northern Australia to run it as a division of the department.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Who used to do that?

Mr Angley —It used to be part of my division, which was the Regional and Local Government division, but the secretary has changed the emphasis inside the department and made it a stand-alone division.

Senator HEFFERNAN —What is the budget for the Office of Northern Australia?

Mr Tongue —That restructure has only just happened and the budgets are being finalised.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So where did the money that was taken out of the previous government’s task force disappear to?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Senator, there are two different things there. The witnesses gave us evidence at previous hearings that there was $1.5 million set aside for the office. And then there is the $20 million.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Where did that go?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It was to run the office in Townsville.

Senator HEFFERNAN —At a cost of $20 million.

Senator Conroy —I would have thought you would have sought it, Senator!

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is the same office as the departmental office that has been in Townsville for 10 years.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I know—revamped. Anyhow, forget all that. We will not complicate life with the money. Obviously, everyone is sick of hearing about it but we are going to have to reconfigure Australia if the science is right, including all the agricultural pursuits et cetera, and it is all going to rest on your shoulders, Mr Angley.

Senator Conroy —They are broad shoulders.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You don’t look fazed at all!

Senator HEFFERNAN —Do you pump steel?

Mr Angley —No.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Have you got a personal trainer?

Mr Angley —Haven’t got time.

Senator HEFFERNAN —One of the great global cartels which will come under the spotlight in the select committee as to food—which is going to start next week and which we cannot talk about—is in rock phosphate. Eighty-five per cent of the world’s rock phosphate is controlled by five entities.

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, we also have an inquiry on fertiliser going at the moment, so I urge you not to go too close.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No. As part of the solution for competition in Australia, there is a 130 million-tonne deposit at Duchess near Mount Isa, and there is a 460 million-tonne deposit 200-odd kilometres west of Tennant Creek. I was wondering if your office had had any approaches from the proposed developers of that mine, Minemakers Ltd.

Mr Angley —No.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I have spoken to the minister, Gary Gray, and this is good news for Australia. To enable this to happen—because it is the most western deposit in the Georgina Basin, where there are several phosphate deposits which will turn Australia from being at the mercy of the world into being a provider—there is a need for infrastructure. I wondered what the correct approach would be from the proponents of this deal to put their credentials and their case to the government. It is going to require about 240 kilometres of railway line, which would be about two-fifths of the line back, to join Mount Isa up from Townsville to the main line. Would that fall within your jurisdiction?

Mr Angley —No. At the moment, the project and the proposal would certainly be of interest to us and something that we may do some work on for our minister, but we do not have our own infrastructure projects.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, I appreciate that, but are you in a position to develop plans for infrastructure?

Mr Angley —No.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Whose job is that?

Mr Angley —The proponent’s—the state government or the territory government or the individual company.

Senator HEFFERNAN —What they are after is a standard gauge railway link from Wonarah to Tennant Creek and, obviously, as with some of the iron ore people, these have to be decisions of whether you do it yourself and get exclusive rights or you share it, which it took poor old Gina Rinehart and one or two others 20 years to negotiate. This would be very good for Australia. If I were to advise Minemakers how we would progress their proposition, what would I tell them?

Mr Angley —I would suggest that they write to the Prime Minister and some of the senior ministers, including our minister for infrastructure.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I will not burden you with the good news that is in this report, but certainly we will deal with it in our committee. I just wanted to flag it so that we have got it on the public record. The Australian farmers out there now have been smashed and savaged. You would be aware—or you may not be aware—that Morocco holds the world to ransom in this regard and have put the price up from $50 a tonne to nearly $500 a tonne. It is now back to $250 a tonne, just like that, because they control the world market.

Mr Angley —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —And this is three times the size of the Duchess mine at Mount Isa. I obviously am interested, as is Senator Macdonald, in seeing the north developed. Is this the right place—I would have thought it was—to ask questions about where we are up to with the soil typing work for the north?

Mr Angley —We certainly have the role of providing a secretariat and advice to the Land and Water Taskforce, but your particular question is probably directly related to the assessment, which was the other part of the project that the department of the environment is doing.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes. I am going there at eight o’clock.

Mr Angley —Yes, they are on today as well.

CHAIR —Could I help, because I know that no-one has a greater commitment to the north than Senator Heffernan, although a lot of us have as great a commitment. Would it be easier, Senator Heffernan, to quickly put your questions to where you want to go so that we can get to Senator Macdonald’s questions?

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, I will hand over to Senator Macdonald. Obviously, I am very interested in getting the soil typing done. In fact, Senator Macdonald, I have just got the Parliamentary Library to do me the soil typing for the Fitzroy catchment, which is in the lower basin, which has also got not the Margaret River wine river but the Margaret River northern river attached to it, where there are excellent soil types with an excellent dam site et cetera. I think to get governments to have the courage to put the money into it, you have to get the mob on side, you have to get electoral support, and I think the time has arrived for us to do that. So I will thank you for your patience and hand over to Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Just following along with that, the preamble to the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce now says:

The taskforce will focus on the key surface and groundwater systems and basins within the Timor Sea and Gulf of Carpentaria drainage divisions, and that part of the North East Coast drainage division …

But that has narrowed the scope of the task force to what it was when Senator Heffernan chaired it. When Senator Heffernan chaired it, it did have a broader approach to, amongst other things, the land system, which Senator Heffernan has just spoken about. Is that a mistake or is it really only focused on water now?

Ms Foster —Senator, the revised terms of reference actually direct the task force to consider opportunities for new sustainable economic development in the north that are based on water resource availability, including both consumptive and non-consumptive uses of water. It is also charged with examining the potential system-wide impact of developments on the natural environment, existing water users and the broader community.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes. The previous task force that Senator Heffernan chaired had a broader approach. I know the revised terms were supposed to take into account things that were not, but in fact the contrary is the case: they have now become narrower.  In fact the last paragraph of the foreword says:

The Taskforce first operated from June to November 2007. During this period the Taskforce was chaired by Senator the Hon. Bill Heffernan. This report—

and this is their mid-term report, and ‘mid-term’, I assume, means mid-term through this cycle of government—

draws heavily on the consultations undertaken and the issues identified by the Taskforce in 2007—

which is Senator Heffernan’s:

The report also outlines the main issues and priorities the Taskforce will focus on in 2009.

That suggests to me that the task force really has not done anything for a year. Is that correct?

Mr Angley —Some of last year was spent revising the terms of reference.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That would take you half an hour, not 365 days.

Mr Angley —And the other part was appointing a different group of members and inviting back some of the existing members.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That would have taken two hours maximum, too. That is a comment for the minister rather than you, Mr Angley. You do what you are instructed to do, obviously. But it is a disappointment to those of us who have an interest that what is labelled the ‘mid-term’ report is a rehash of work that was done before the term started. I am also a bit disappointed—and perhaps you could point to me where I am wrong in this mid-term report—that I struggled to find any comment on the economic development of Northern Australia. There is a lot about water, about conservation, about parks, about Indigenous people, but there does not seem to be any focus on economic development of the north. Have I read this wrongly?

Mr Angley —The best thing I could say is that the mid-term report is publishing a lot of the material that was gathered under Senator Heffernan’s chairmanship—the parliamentary secretary said that publicly a couple of times—and pointing the task force towards what it has got to do this year to publish its final report.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I know what Senator Heffernan’s task force did, because I was on it: it looked at economic matters. This mid-term report seems to deal with ecological, Indigenous and heritage matters, but there is precious little about economic development. Do I detect, therefore, an approach by the government to making this an ecological, Indigenous and heritage task force rather than an economic task force?

Mr Tongue —In part, through the creation of the Office of Northern Australia, the government is signalling its intent with regard to long-term economic development and, in a sense, you might be conflating the role of the task force with some of the other government initiatives to do with Northern Australia, such as the funding commitment to the north-west, for example.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I want to get onto that. Does that confirm my suspicion, then, that the task force is going to be an ecological, Indigenous and heritage task force?

Mr Tongue —No. What it says is that we are active in Northern Australia at the moment in a wide range of processes of engagement and consultation that cover a range of issues—economic development, through to those you have enunciated. The role of the task force, the remit of the task force, has been changed from when it was chaired by Senator Heffernan and it has now got a—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Obviously there was a 2011 assessment date under the old arrangement, with the task force reporting—was it the end of this year?

Mr Angley —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Then 2011 was the assessment.

Mr Angley —Yes, that is right.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I appreciate democracy is a great thing and the government has changed and the terms of reference have changed. But, as Senator Macdonald pointed out—and you obviously have to differentiate yourself from previous governments—the terms of reference we set were so broad and included downstream value adding to the mineral and mining resources, tourism, Indigenous economic benefit, agriculture and all the rest of it. I do not know where that disappeared to. That is fair enough, because there was a change of government. But is the task force being informed by the assessment? Is the task force informing the assessors? What is the role of the task force?

Mr Angley —Taking your examples there, the task force is being informed by the assessment. We have already had a fair bit of contact at official level but, with the assessment, the task force will discuss the assessment’s findings.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I was privileged to go to a northern bizzo the other day—and the CSIRO are busy.

Mr Angley —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But what Senator Macdonald alludes to there is that sometimes these organisations can lose their way, in that you fill them up with people who work out why you cannot do things rather than how you can. I am not going to be a critic of what is happening necessarily, but I see some signs of people saying why we should not do certain things. That is all right, if you can afford the luxury as a nation of not having to develop the region. But the difficulty that I have is that it is going to be the hangman’s noose at the end of the day if the science is even 50 per cent right on the changing climate prospects for Australia and the need to take advantage of where the advantages are as against where the disadvantages are coming to.

That will absolutely mean we are going to have to reconfigure the way we not only settle rural and regional Australia but the way we do business in rural and regional Australia, which is why the phosphate mine, for instance, gives an opportunity for infrastructure and a reason to get that railway line. When the previous Prime Minister said to me, ‘Bill, what does all this mean?’ some years ago, I said, ‘It means that we’ve got to figure out where we’re going to be in 80 years time.’ With all human endeavour there is failure, with all science there is a bit of vagary, so you have got to have a plan that is a bit flexible. I said, ‘It might well mean that we’re going to have a railway line that runs that way as well as north-south to a new deep-sea port somewhere in’—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I have got a couple of questions.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I do not think we should lose sight of that and I think that is what Senator Macdonald is alluding to. Thanks, Macca.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am not sure what the question was.

CHAIR —Well, Senator Macdonald is a bad typist at the best of times!

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I only feel that I can make a suggestion to my esteemed and loved colleague because we have all heard him before and we know his passion. But none of us need to be lectured because most of us are in the same boat. Mr Rudd announced—I think it was—$150 million for the Ord stage 2 just before Christmas.

Ms Foster —$195 million.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Where is that coming from?

Ms Foster —That is new money. That was part of the nation-building No. 1 statement.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —This is the December $10 billion spending package?

Ms Foster —That is right.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And $190 million came out of that?

Ms Foster —$195 million.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That will be budgeted for in this upcoming budget, will it? Has it been appropriated already or has it been handed to anyone?

Ms O’Connell —We will have to check that regarding appropriation—for the appropriation.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay.

Ms O’Connell —As the officer said, it was committed in the nation-building package.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes.

Ms O’Connell —The $4.7 billion in December of last year.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes.

Ms O’Connell —As part of that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is it going to be administered through your department?

Mr Angley —That is still to be finalised. We are supporting our parliamentary secretary, who is leading a joint assessment with Western Australia on what the Commonwealth’s $195 million might be spent on to support expansion of the Ord scheme.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —So Mr Rudd’s announcement was simply, ‘Hey, we’re going to spend $195 million, but we don’t really know what it’s on or how it’s going to go or what it’s all about’?

Ms O’Connell —I can refer you to the page in the booklet.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes.

Ms O’Connell —It was $195 million matched by the Western Australian government.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes.

Ms O’Connell —And conditional on a joint assessment by the Commonwealth and WA governments of the most effective infrastructure investments.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —So we do not know what it is going to be spent on, we do not know who is going to administer it, we do not know anything about it except that, providing one does it, the other will do it?

Ms O’Connell —No.

Mr Tongue —I would not characterise it that way. I think the government has announced a process of joint assessment with the Western Australian government.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Where do I find out about that from?

Mr Tongue —We are happy to talk to you about that process. It is being led by Parliamentary Secretary Gray and it involves looking at joint federal and state government priorities in the area towards providing that assessment to the two governments. Then, from that, within the broad funding envelope that is announced, projects will flow. The reason for how the money will be administered is that projects may not be in this portfolio, they may be in other portfolios. They may be to do with anything from social housing, to water, to ports, to roads. It depends on the joint assessment process that is under way at the moment.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —So it was not just to do the extension of the road and the extension of the main channel?

Mr Tongue —No, it is a more thorough process than that. It is looking at priorities in the region.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is anything else said about it in that document, apart from what you have read out, Ms O’Connell?

Ms O’Connell —There is a page here. I am happy to provide it to you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —There is more than what you just read out, is there?

Ms O’Connell —Yes, there is.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Give me the page number?

Ms O’Connell —Page 84.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Of the document entitled—

Ms O’Connell —Of the nation-building document released in December.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —From what you have said, Mr Tongue, it is not necessarily hard infrastructure. It could be schools, did you say, or hospitals?

Mr Tongue —Subject to the outcome of the assessment, it will depend on the joint priorities of the two governments.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I know the Northern Territory government has been disinterested and uninterested—both—in the extension of the Ord scheme across the border, although someone told me when I was in the Territory last week that there has been a slight change of heart. Are you aware of the Northern Territory government’s approach to the extension of the Ord scheme across the border, which is where it is supposed to go?

Mr Tongue —I would have to take that on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Nobody here is aware of their involvement?

Mr Tongue —I am certainly aware that, as part of our consultations, there will be discussions with the Northern Territory government, but I cannot go further than that. I am happy to take it on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —All right. Are you in contact with the Northern Territory government about the Douglas Daly? I understand they recently removed what I understood to be a removal of their tree clearing moratorium. When I publicly congratulated them on it I was told by landowners that that was premature, in that all they had done was put in a process that was even more complicated. It was more difficult to remove the moratorium or action the removal than when it was in place. Is your department in any way engaged in that?

Ms Foster —I do not believe so.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I guess I could ask Mr Gray myself, but is it something that Mr Gray might be engaged upon, do you think?

Ms Foster —I do not know.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Perhaps on notice to Mr Gray you could raise what approaches, if any, he is taking to the Northern Territory government about not only the extension of the Ord, naturally, across the border to NT but what might be happening in the Douglas Daly-Katherine area.

Is there anywhere in the $42 billion package in any of the programs you administer, or that you are aware of through the task force and your connection with environment that the environment department administers, that would provide any sort of complementary funding with the Queensland government for water harvesting or water storage along the Flinders River?

Ms O’Connell —I think that would be a question for the department of environment and water.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —My question was: do you have no involvement in that?

Ms O’Connell —No.

Mr Tongue —We would have to go chasing—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The timetable of this mid-term report suggests that the final public consultation phase will be undertaken in the second half of 2009, with a final report at the end of 2009.

Ms Foster —That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is there a timetable in place for the final public consultation?

Ms Foster —Not to my knowledge.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Will you be doing that, as the task force secretariat?

Mr Angley —We will certainly be supporting the task force, but they will lead that consultation.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Mr Angley, are you the secretariat as well as the branch head?

Mr Angley —Yes.

Ms Foster —John’s area provides secretariat support for the task force.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is Andrew Dixon still the direct task force secretary, so to speak?

Ms Foster —He is still associated with this. Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —He continues in that role?

Ms Foster —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But he answers now to Mr Angley? Okay. Can you quickly update me on the—

Senator Conroy —I have some information for you, Senator Macdonald. Mr Gray met with the Northern Territory minister on Friday, 13 February to discuss the Ord development that you were asking about, and he was with the Western Australian minister for agriculture also.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The three of them met?

Senator Conroy —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is good to hear. I assume someone from Mr Gray’s office is watching intently, since you have got such a response so quickly.

Senator Conroy —We are always happy to be as helpful as we can, Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That’s beaut! Perhaps I can ask then what the outcome of that meeting was.

Senator Conroy —I think that is—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —No, I am not asking for the details, but have they agreed to meet again or do they have some understanding? Are we likely to hear something shortly?

Senator Conroy —I am not sure I can go into that sort of detail with you, Senator Macdonald. I appreciate it is a genuine question, but I think that the parliamentary secretary will let us know. ‘Ongoing matters under discussion’ is probably the best way to describe it.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sure. Mr Angley, can you or Ms Foster tell me about the Townsville office.

Ms Foster —What would you like to know?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is now the Office of Northern Australia.

Ms Foster —It supports the Office of Northern Australia but it continues as the Townsville regional office.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is there another office now in Darwin?

Ms Foster —There always has been an office in Darwin.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —There has always been an office in Townsville, too.

Ms Foster —That is right.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are there others?

Ms Foster —We have a number of regional offices around Australia but those are the only two in Northern Australia.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Perhaps we should make this a permanent question. At every estimates I will ask the question: what is the configuration of both the Darwin and the Townsville offices in numbers of people and that sort of thing? Has it changed since last estimates?

Ms Foster —Not significantly. We have six in Townsville and two in Darwin.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are the six in Townsville the total departmental office or are they just the Northern Australia element of it?

Ms Foster —That is the departmental office.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are any dedicated, or do they support both areas of the department?

Ms Foster —They support both.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Perchance the secretary makes the decision on the internal budget within the next three weeks, could you on notice let us know what the budget is, if it happens to have been assessed by then.

Ms Foster —Certainly.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Would you expect that it might be—

Senator Conroy —I am sure that is in the hands of the minister.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —No, it is the department secretary, I think. Doesn’t he look after the internal budget?

Mr Tongue —It is a question for the secretary, but we will endeavour to get you an answer.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes. I am, again, not trying to be too smart about this, but would you expect it to be within the next couple of weeks or is it likely to be a couple of months?

Mr Tongue —I would not want to speculate.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You would know where your internal budgeting process would be.

Mr Tongue —Certainly—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I guess you are all anxiously waiting on it.

Mr Tongue —but I would need to talk to the secretary about that. Ultimately, it is his responsibility.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Because of the quite substantial additional work you will be doing across the whole range of the department as a result of the $42 billion package—and, I guess, other departments, but I will not ask you about them—will you be expecting that your departmental budget will increase?

Mr Tongue —Certainly we have received, for those elements associated with the package, additional resources, but, like all departments, we have ons and we have offs. We will wait and see the outcome of the May budget process as well. I think my answer would have to be that there will be some ons and offs and we will wait and see the outcome of the May budget.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But to date you have not been allocated an additional amount for departmental expenses to cover you?

Mr Tongue —For those elements of the package, we have been given some—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can you tell me what that is—on notice, if you do not have it with you.

Mr Tongue —Can I take it on notice, because some of it is in the final stages of negotiation.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. It would be fairly substantial, wouldn’t it?

Mr Tongue —Because we act through states and through local government, the allocations depend a bit on the design of the program, but we believe it is sufficient to manage the responsibilities we have been given.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What is your current departmental budget, in round figures?

Mr Tongue —In the order of $200 million.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Would I be right in guessing that you would be expecting something like $20 million or $30 million additional administration expenses?

Senator Conroy —I think that is asking for an opinion.

Mr Tongue —I am happy to provide that on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —All right. I think my time has just about expired. I did ask this question before, but could you remind me what Dr Stuart Blanch’s background is. I am going through the new members.

Mr Angley —We did provide that as a question on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay.

Mr Angley —I do have that material here.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You have got it? Just quickly tell me Mr Richard Ahmat’s background.

Mr Angley —In the question on notice—and I am not sure of the number now, but we provided it after the October one—Richard Ahmat is currently Chair of the Northern Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance and a non-executive director of the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And Dr Stuart Blanch?

Mr Angley —Dr Stuart Blanch is Manager of Northern Landscapes at World Wildlife Fund Australia and a non-executive director of Land and Water Australia.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And Elaine Gardiner?

Mr Angley —Ms Elaine Gardiner is Chair of the Ord Irrigation Cooperative.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Dr Hill?

Mr Angley —Dr Rosemary Hill is Vice-President of the ACF and senior scientist at CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Ms Shirley McPherson?

Mr Angley —Ms Shirley McPherson is Chair of the Indigenous Land Corporation.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And Professor Wasson?

Mr Angley —Professor Bob Wasson is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research at the Charles Darwin University.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is he related to anyone prominent?

Mr Angley —I do not know.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Did I ask about Michael Roche?

Mr Angley —Michael Roche is the CEO of the Queensland Resources Council.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is right. I am familiar with the name. And Wali Wunungmurra?

Mr Angley —I apologise: I have not got his biography with me. I can take it on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. So we have the ACF and the WWF both there. That should make for an interesting meeting. As I say, that is about my time. Thanks for that. We look forward to getting those answers.

Mr Angley —Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you, Senator Macdonald. To the Office of Northern Australia, and to the department, Mr Tongue, and your staff, thank you very much. To the Hansard and Broadcasting crew, once again, a superb effort. And to Jeanette, Peter, Jenene and Trish, thank you very much. That concludes today’s hearings.

Committee adjourned at 7.32 pm