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RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
27/05/2010
Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government

CHAIR —I now welcome Senator the Hon. Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, representing the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government; Mr Mike Mrdak, Secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government; and officers of the department. I am sure, Mr Mrdak, you or the minister do not wish to make an opening statement. I shall go straight to questions.

Senator NASH —I have some questions around the Better Regions Program—and do not say ‘again’, Minister. It is a bit like groundhog day, isn’t it? It is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle—the pieces of the puzzle are finally starting to fit together. Some of the questions might be a bit repetitive, but I just want to get a very clear picture of where we are at at the moment. Could I just go back to the beginning. You did take on notice for me last time to provide a list of the completed projects. I did get the answer, which did tell me that the projects were listed on the department’s website. I went and had a look. Thank you very much for giving me that very detailed answer, but I did manage to find them on the website. Now, I note, there are 92 projects that are listed on the website. Is that correct? I just want to be clear that nothing has changed since I last had a look.

Senator Conroy —I assume you could not access them from home because of the lack of broadband in your hometown and that you have done it now because you are in Canberra and Parliament House, where we have got better broadband.

Senator NASH —Good morning, Minister. Ninety-two?

Ms Foster —Yes, there are 92 on the website.

Senator NASH —I just wanted to make sure I had not missed any. At the time of committing to those projects, there were no guidelines in place, were there? The guidelines came after the commitment to the funding for the projects?

Ms Foster —Yes. The projects were election commitments and, following the election, the department developed the guidelines to allow them to assess the risks of the projects and to recommend funding for the projects.

Senator NASH —Okay. With some of these I might actually need the minister’s assistance as well, because I know that some of them the department, certainly, will not be responsible for. Minister, could you just give us a bit of an idea about the process that was used—

Senator Conroy —They are election commitments.

Senator NASH —I understand that completely. I understand that very, very clearly. I am just trying to get an understanding of the process of what led to those particular projects being election commitments.

Senator Conroy —That would be internal, ALP deliberations prior to the election and not subject to the processes of the Senate. They were all projects that were needed by the various communities they were committed to.

Senator NASH —Okay.

Senator Conroy —Seriously, asking me to tell you how we decided election commitments when we were not in government is not part of the Senate estimates process.

Senator NASH —It is in relation to other comments that some of your Labor colleagues—

Senator Conroy —To be fair to Anthony Albanese, he was not even the shadow minister. He was not even the shadow minister who made the commitments. Albo would not know.

Senator NASH —I am sorry, Chair: did I mention the word ‘Albanese’? I am sure I did not.

CHAIR —No, you did not.

Senator NASH —As you much as you would like to think you can, trust me, you cannot possibly guess what I am thinking. I wanted to refer to something Mr Crean said on 16 November 2007. He said that Labor would not scrap the Regional Partnerships Program, which obviously you ended up doing. I refer to something that relates to the comment you have just made that internal ALP deliberations were not going to be disclosed. Mr Crean said, at this point, regarding the regional program, ‘…but we will introduce the transparency that the parliament has already recommended and which the Auditor-General has confirmed.’ Mr Crean said: ‘The process has to be established—go through the area consultative committee, get the departmental tick-off, don’t just leave it to ministers to dispense the pork.’

What I am trying to understand is this: on one hand you are saying to me you are not going to tell us how these projects were arrived at as being worthy projects to be in the program, but then you have, in November of the same year, Mr Crean saying that there should be transparency, when obviously there was no transparency whatsoever in determining which of those projects should go into the program.

Senator Conroy —As I said, I am not sure that the current minister could answer your question because he was not the shadow minister. I certainly was not party to the discussions at the time around the choices. There are two reasons it is not possible to answer: (1) because it is outside of the scope of estimates and (2) because I actually genuinely believe Minister Albanese and I do not know the answer to your question.

Senator NASH —That is very interesting. As an overall commitment to transparency, that obviously was not there.

Senator Conroy —We have introduced the Commonwealth Grant Guidelines, and Mr Mrdak will now take you through them at considerable length.

Senator NASH —I will get to the guidelines in just a moment, if that is okay. Obviously, at that point, there was no transparency whatsoever available for the taxpayers about which projects were decided—and I am certainly not casting aspersions on the department at all—before the guidelines were in place. At what point were the guidelines finalised?

Mr Carmichael —The normal process for election commitments—and this is the recommendation of the ANAO officers—is that they should be put together in their own program, which is what we did. We drafted the guidelines soon after the government came to power, and they then needed to go through an approval process. This was before the Commonwealth Grant Guidelines were in place. There was a process already in place about how guidelines would be agreed. Once the guidelines were agreed, the department then undertook an assessment of each of those projects. Then, as they were approved by the minister, they were put up on the website. That is the normal process for election commitments.

Senator NASH —Thank you very much for that, but at what date were the guidelines finalised?

Mr Carmichael —That was probably about August.

Senator NASH —August of?

Mr Carmichael —Of 2008.

Senator Conroy —Let me just make a couple of points because, normally, Senator Nash, you are very good about asking factual questions and seeking factual information. Unlike other senators, you very, very occasional step into political areas. I would have to say to you, though, you are across the line at the moment. You have quoted Mr Crean completely out of context. His quote related to the ANAO report on Regional Partnerships had come out that day, and we realised that the Regional Partnerships could not be fixed once we got in and saw the mess you had left us.

Senator NASH —Thank you, but I am not using it—

Senator Conroy —So you are actually—

Senator NASH —No, Minister, please. I understand—

Senator Conroy —straying into an area that you normally are very good at avoiding.

Senator NASH —You know, even I have to step out of the box every now and again.

Senator Conroy —I wish that was true.

Senator NASH —It is not out of context at all.

Senator Conroy —It is absolutely out of context.

Senator NASH —It goes directly to the issue of transparency. There was a government commitment at the time to be open and transparent. I do accept that obviously the Regional Partnerships Program  did not go ahead. That is fine. That is not the issue. I am merely pointing to the transparency that Mr Crean was saying would be provided, but within the process of how those projects were determined, that transparency is not there for the Australian taxpayers. That is merely the context in which I was discussing that. You said the end of—

Ms Foster —It was the end of August.

Senator NASH —End of August ’08. I suppose there is nothing normal, but what is the average timeline to develop guidelines for a program of that nature?

Senator Conroy —We were so transparent, we sent the guidelines—

Senator NASH —Just shut the laptop and give it a whirl without the laptop.

Senator Conroy —No, this is a fact. We sent the guidelines to the Auditor for his comment before approving them. We actually sent them to the Auditor.

Senator NASH —That is very good. I am just asking, in general, the timeline.

Mr Carmichael —It is very different with the sort of program. The more complex the program, obviously the longer the guidelines take to develop. There is no average time. It is dependent on the complexity of the program, so it can take a number of months.

Senator NASH —This is a very obvious statement but, obviously, of the 92 projects that have been approved so far, they all met the guidelines?

Mr Carmichael —The guidelines are as much about ensuring that we have got a good business plan in place, that we have done an independent viability assessment on the project. Sometimes these projects, because they were election commitments, needed some further development. Once the government is publicly committed to them, some require some further development so that the risks are managed, that we have got a clear scope for the project, and so that sometimes takes a little bit of work. That is why some of the projects were able to be approved and announced fairly quickly; some have taken a little bit longer.

Senator NASH —And doing them against that. In October estimates last year—we have been doing this for a long time, have we not, and we will keep doing it—Mr Wood, we were talking about the process that the department would go through that applied to all of the projects, and you also said at that time:

We will also take an assessment to see if an independent viability assessment is required for projects.

Out of the 92 projects, was an independent viability assessment needed for any of them?

Mr Wood —For a small number, yes. An independent viability assessment was undertaken for a small number of projects. As the vast majority of projects in this program were being undertaken by state or local government entities, a decision was taken early on in the program that many of those projects would not require an IVA. However, as I say, for a small number an independent viability assessment was undertaken.

Senator NASH —When you say ‘a small number’, how many do you think?

Mr Wood —I think I would like to just check that number and come back to you.

Senator NASH —If you could, that would be great. What triggers it? For all the ones that you said would not need it, there are a small number that do. What triggers the need for that independent—

Mr Wood —It is done on a risk assessment.

Senator NASH —What does that mean?

Mr Wood —We essentially examine the project and take an initial assessment of the viability of a project going forward to ensure that the project, once funded, will remain viable into the future and that the organisation has the capacity to deliver that project. If those risks, on our assessment, come back as requiring further work, we would then seek independent advice on that.

Senator NASH —Who does the independent advice?

Mr Wood —It is an external contractor. It has been a while since we have had one of those, so I would like to double-check that name.

Mr Carmichael —It is just one of the big accounting firms. KPMG or someone like that often does the IVAs for us. Why we particularly need sometimes to go to an independent viability assessment is that sometimes the projects have some commercial aspect to them, and we do not necessarily have the expertise to determine whether it is a viable business case, so they are some of the things that we might take to an independent viability assessor to bring the business expertise to ensure that the project is viable over the long term.

Senator NASH —In terms of the 92 projects that are listed, and where we have got ‘approval date’, obviously, and ‘grant term’, do I assume that for any of those grant terms that have completed since the approval date, those projects are all finished?

Mr Wood —It will vary because in any infrastructure project, or any project, there may be a change to the delivery time frames, due to a variety of circumstances. For example, I am aware of one project where, due to a change in state legislation, a koala habitat was identified. The location of that project needed to be changed, and that led to delays. You have delays for weather and that sort of thing. I can tell you, however, that of those 92 projects 17 have completed.

Senator NASH —Can you just run through those for me?

Mr Wood —Certainly.

Senator NASH —Just while you are looking that up, if it is a grant term of, say, four months and the approval date was 25 March 2009, as, say, the City of Playford was, is there a variation to their grant term, or what does ‘grant term’ actually mean, and how does it work?

Mr Wood —Typically, the grant term would be the last day of activity under that grant, by which time you would expect the activity to have completed.

Senator NASH —So that grant term means you would have expected the activity to have completed by that time, but then there are instances where it may not have completed. Does the proponent then have to come to you for a variation to extend their grant term, or what happens then?

Mr Wood —Yes. Typically, the project managers would come to the department to seek our agreement to a variation. We would then consider that, and we have a series of delegations as to whether it is something that would require a decision by a departmental officer, or if it is a more significant change we may need to go back to the parliamentary secretary to agree.

Senator NASH —Can we just quickly run through the 17, because I am interested to know which ones are actually finished.

Mr Wood —Certainly. The Grafton regional saleyard, which is Clarence Valley Council.

Senator NASH —They are not going to be in the same order, are they?

Mr Wood —No, they are not.

Senator NASH —Can I get somebody this morning just to put that list of 17 together for me just so we can table it? I am sure you might have an officer next door that could just quickly run through and do that. If somebody could do that, that would be really useful.

Mr Mrdak —We will take that on notice.

Senator NASH —Thank you. Some of these projects on the list have taken a really long time to complete. We have had some 16 that did not even get completed until 2010. This is a 2007 commitment from the government. If these were projects that were ticked off for funding so long ago, why are they taking so long?

Mr Carmichael —Some projects are very complex and their design was over a number of years, so it is not a surprise that some would take a number of years to complete.

Senator NASH —One of the ones I did have some questions about was the Tree of Knowledge, the stump. Is that one completed?

Mr Wood —Yes, it is. It has been completed for some time. The official opening was on 2 May 2009.

Senator NASH —The initial contribution, I noted from the October 2008 estimates, was $2,600,000, but, according to the project list, it was $2,860,000. That was obviously an increase of $260,000. What was that for?

Mr Wood —That would have been the GST amount.

Senator NASH —Okay. Ms Foster, when we were talking about this in October 2009 you said that there were 105 projects in the program, which included two that I think had been brought over from Regional Partnerships. So, by all intents, it was 103. We have now got 92 listed. Where are the other 11 projects, and what are they?

Mr Wood —There are nine projects which we are currently in funding agreement negotiations for. Three of those funding agreements are with the proponent for signature at the moment, or, indeed, they may have been signed and may be in the process of coming back to us for execution. We would expect to have the funding agreements for a further two projects finalised very quickly—literally, in the next couple of days. I am expecting a draft to hit my desk for approval this week, following which you would then need to go to the funding applicant for execution. We have been in negotiations with them for some time. Finally, there are four projects that are still subject to further negotiation. That is often where one of the risk treatments that we have in our agreements is taking some time to be addressed; for example, where a rezoning of land is required prior to the funding agreement being executed. Those are still ongoing. In addition, there is one project which is under assessment at the moment and the assessment will be finalised shortly.

Senator NASH —Just one other particular project which I seem to remember: the Dysart sports facility. Is that one being completed?

Mr Wood —No, it is ongoing. I will just find my notes on that.

Senator NASH —Still going?

Mr Wood —The project is being undertaken in two stages by the proponent, which is the Isaac Regional Council. The project is a $1.5 million grant, GST exclusive, for a project of just over $5 million in value and total. It is being undertaken in two stages. Stage one is a prefabricated building. That has commenced construction, and completion is expected in approximately September this year. The second stage, which is a gym, toilet and kitchen, will follow on from that.

Senator Conroy —What about the Whyalla regional partnership project which was approved in May 2004 to build a wharf—

Senator NASH —Don’t go there!

Senator Conroy —and still has not been completed due to ongoing—

Senator NASH —He started it, Chair.

CHAIR —I am aware of that.

Senator Conroy —Six years later and it is not done.

Senator NASH —It is a bit of a shame that you do that, Minister.

Obviously, the Dysart sports facility was one that was considered under the previous government. It was not recommended by the department and was, indeed, knocked back by the minister. What has changed within that project for the department now to have recommended it to the minister?

Mr Carmichael —First of all, it was an election commitment so that changed the status of the project.

Senator NASH —What? So something that the department can say of that, ‘This is not worthy of taxpayers’ dollars,’ and, ‘This is potentially a risk,’ changes just because a government says they want to spend money on it?

Mr Carmichael —It is a different program with different guidelines.

Senator Conroy —If I can take this? Let me be very clear about this. We have had this discussion probably twice before at estimates, and I will give you exactly the same answers as I gave you then. We are delivering on all of our election commitments.

Senator NASH —Actually, no, that is not quite correct, because we have got the Commonwealth takeover of public hospitals, we have got GROCERYchoice, we have got delaying the ETS, we have got no budget deficits, we have got delivering GP superclinics, we have got private health insurance rebates, we have got computers in schools, we have got 260 childcare centres to end the double drop off and Fuelwatch. No, you are not honouring all your election commitments. That is simply a furphy.

Senator Conroy —The thing I find so incredible about that list you have just read out is that when we seek to pass legislation through parliament, you block it and stop it happening, and then go, ‘They have not delivered their election commitment.’

Senator NASH —That is a furphy. You promised private health insurance rebates. You promised you would not make any changes—‘No, let’s have a look. Now, let’s see. We will put downward pressure on grocery prices. We are going to fix fuel.’

Senator Conroy —You are normally very good at not descending into this sort of behaviour.

CHAIR —Minister and Senator Nash!

Senator NASH —But the big one is the attack on private hospitals. Do not give me, ‘We are honouring all our election commitments.’ It is rubbish!

CHAIR —I fully understand that, but it is not helpful when you are trying to talk and shout over each other. Please carry on.

Senator NASH —Well, ask the minister to be quiet.

CHAIR —Senator Nash, I have no problem with you two exchanging your thoughts in a loud tone, but I would encourage you that, if a question is asked that the answer is heard. Likewise, Minister, I would encourage you to let Senator Nash finish her question.

Senator NASH —Thank you. If I can go back to my question? Obviously, something must have changed within this project.

Senator Conroy —It was an election commitment, and we are going to keep it.

Senator NASH —It is an election commitment and you are going to keep it, regardless of whether or not it is value for money for the taxpayers, or value for the Australian people?

Senator Conroy —Tumbi Creek was value for the Australian people?

Senator NASH —The hypocrisy is absolutely breathtaking! I just want to get an understanding of what changed in that project which let the department change their view that it should be recommended instead of not recommended?

Senator Conroy —They were election commitments that we promised the Australian public.

Senator NASH —It does not matter then if the department does not recommend them? If they land on the minister’s desk not recommended, we will just overturn that! I seem to remember that your Prime Minister said at one point that, actually ministers should not overturn recommendations from the department. It is very clearly on the record. We can only assume—

Senator Conroy —I can sit here for as long as you like.

Senator NASH —Good, because we will sit here for a bit longer.

Senator Conroy —I am perfectly happy to sit here while you—

Senator NASH —We can only assume that the minister has overturned the department’s recommendation of a ‘not recommended’ if nothing has changed in that project.

Mr Mrdak —As the minister has outlined, we are talking about two quite different processes. The previous consideration was under a program that was a biddable process, which involved an evaluative process across a range of projects on certain criteria.

Senator NASH —This one is just a bucket of money for election promises.

Mr Mrdak —No, this is a situation where the government has made a commitment and the department’s role, under the guidelines, is to do a risk evaluation.

Senator Conroy —Andrew Robb discontinued the National Party’s promises in the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line—

Senator NASH —Nice try. You know he has not.

Senator Conroy —the Princes Highway and the Midlands Highway—all discontinued.

Senator NASH —That is just a distraction. Don’t go there—they are not.

Senator Conroy —All discontinued.

Senator NASH —They are not, and you know it. You are just being misleading.

Senator Conroy —Yes, they are.

Senator NASH —You are being so misleading—

Senator CONROY —Yes, they are.

Senator NASH —You are being so misleading, it is not funny. What we need to do, because we do not have a lot of time, is focus on the Better Regions Program.

Senator Conroy —What a good idea. You should try asking some questions rather than—unusually for you, I have to say—giving a political tirade, which is what you are engaged in.

Senator NASH —The funny thing is, I do not particularly care about your opinion of how I approach this.

Senator Conroy —I am hurt.

Senator NASH —I doubt it very much. We can only assume that Dysart has come up ‘not recommended’ because you cannot give any changes in the project that would have necessitated a change in view from the department. And—I am just doing this for clarification—the only answer we can get is that it was an election commitment, therefore, that sort of transparency and that sort of scrutiny does not apply because it is simply a bucket of money.

Mr Mrdak —No. In no way is there a diminution of the department’s role, in terms of its risk assessment of the process.

Senator NASH —I am sorry. I actually did not mean to infer that at all.

Mr Mrdak —As Mr Carmichael has outlined, in accordance with the guidelines, we do undertake an assessment including, as necessary, viability assessments on projects and provide advice to the government in relation to the risk mitigation treatments required. As Mr Wood has outlined at length, that has resulted in projects taking some time longer than they might otherwise have done because we have been very firm in relation to some mitigation actions. The government has been very clear on its requirements in that regard.

Senator NASH —Thank you very much. I do understand that, but I am not being given any information for the change in the program that would have necessitated a recommendation going from ‘not recommended’ to ‘recommended’. I find it very difficult to find that anything has changed in the project, and all that has happened is the government has decided to spend a bucket of money on it in an election commitment. But I understand it is not the department’s place to have a view or an opinion on that.

Can I just turn to the issue of the fact that it was a funding bucket just for election commitments which has left no option for many of our regional communities to have access to funding given that the RLCIP is actually through local councils. For Better Regions, which was touted as the new regional program, unfortunately the funding was all allocated before anybody else out there in the regions even got a whiff at it. I just want to give you a bit of a human impact of this election commitment bucket of money going to Labor seats and marginal seats has had on people. And we have got a woman—

Senator Conroy —What would be the human impact of cutting the funding to Dysart?

Senator NASH —No, this is really important. A woman called Fiona Marsden wrote to me just a few weeks ago, and she is a disability support worker, and they are trying to get their building replaced up in the granite belt. She is saying that in the beginning she tried to submit a project under the Regional Partnerships Program—unfortunately this government decided to disband that and replace it with Better Regions, which is completely full—so they could not go there. There was no funding available there. The RLCIP was only through local councils and so they have absolutely no option. This government is not providing them any option—

Senator Conroy —We appreciate that—

Senator NASH —Just hang on, let me finish.

Senator Conroy —Putting in place new transparency accountability measures—

Senator NASH —You have not put any transparency or accountability into this whatsoever and I think we could give this woman the respect of allowing me to quote into the Hansard. She said:

One point I particularly brought to the attention of those present was the importance of maintaining direct access to funding rounds for community organisations. The reason for this is that council priorities may mean important projects are put aside in favour of other projects. In the report from the inquiry that was done a while ago a recommendation was made that community organisations should be able to apply for funding directly. This is not so in the current funding situation.

She goes on:

Now, there are no more options to apply for funding. I have approached relevant government departments and ministers’ officers and they have had no more success than I have in locating upcoming grant programs that we would be eligible for.

Well, no surprises there, because Better Regions is completely full. This is about a building for providing assistance for people with disabilities and their carers and we have seen such a bucket of funding go off to election commitments with absolutely no guidelines in place and no transparency whatsoever. Interestingly, of the 92 projects—I am just having a look at this—71 are in Labor seats;—no surprises there; 18 are in Liberal seats; two in National Party seats and one in an Independent. So, what have we got: 77 in ALP seats. About half of those, I think, were marginal ALP seats. And, guess what? Most of those coalition ones were in marginal coalition seats. So we have got 90-something per cent of the projects within this bucket of money going to Labor-held seats, coalition marginal seats with absolutely no guidelines whatsoever and a bucket of money with no transparency for the taxpayer whatsoever. Minister, isn’t that appalling?

Senator Conroy —It is a stream of consciousness.

Senator NASH —No, there is a question at the end there.

Senator Conroy —She is making Senator Fisher look coherent at the moment.

Senator NASH —There is a question at the end there. There was a question at the end there. Isn’t that appalling?

CHAIR —Minister, you may wish to apologise to the Senate. That was a wild statement.

Senator Conroy —Even Senator Nash is not as bad as Senator Fisher. I withdraw that accusation, but I do not think Senator Nash drew breath then for five minutes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Minister, could I just follow up that last point in the predicament that Ms Marsden raised with the number of it. Is there anywhere you could suggest where she might go to try and get some help in that particular project she is involved in? She was looking forward to the Regional Partnerships and would have been eligible for that. Is there anywhere else you could suggest she might go?

Senator Conroy —We will take that on notice and see what is possible, but the government has made a focus on funding rounds through councils. There may be others that I am not aware of, so I am happy to take that on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Perhaps your officers in this department might be able to tell me if there is anything in this department.

Senator Conroy —As I said, I will take that on notice and we will come back to the committee.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am sure Mr Mrdak would know if his department has any projects that might be accessible. Your offer of taking it on notice would be good for other departments.

Senator Conroy —As I have said, we will take that question on notice and come back to you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I know Mr Mrdak would have the answers to his department because he is a very good officer.

Senator Conroy —We have indicated—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Why are you gagging him? Are you embarrassed by the lack of any help given by your government to people like Ms Marsden?

Senator Conroy —I think you are completely misrepresenting what I said. We said that the government has a focus on grants through council organisations and we would take it on notice to see if there were any others that may be of assistance. There could be something, as you say, in the disabilities portfolio from the description that you made earlier.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I appreciate that, but—

Senator Conroy —As I said, we will give you a whole-of-government answer after we take it on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It was a two-part question. One, this department with the officers in front of us—and I know that they would all be able to answer it very easily—and then the second part is other departments. I appreciate your offer to look around for us. This is an issue of very great importance to this particular person. I might say it is similar to the aged care facility in Hughenden, just to name one that springs to mind, which is in the same boat. Community projects, very sensible, very good for rural and regional Australia particularly trying to bring them up to the same sort of services as city people take for granted.

Senator Conroy —Then you should support the National Broadband Network and not vote against it. Because the sort of services that are going to be available through that are far superior and will be available no matter where you live.

0Senator Back interjecting

CHAIR —Senator Back, your comment did have cause.

Senator BACK —I am sorry, I apologise.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you. I know that was very interesting, but as I mentioned, Ms Marsden and the Hughenden aged persons group are two that come to mind, are desperately trying to get services that give them not a comparable, but something near what city people like yourself, Minister, take for granted. They were looking forward to the OPEL broadband contract, which would have been delivered by now, not a promise of a $43 billion spend in the never-never. That would have been useful. They will now have to wait for 10 years. Under OPEL they would have already been using it, so there are three things where country people have missed out.

Senator Conroy —OPEL was a dog. It was such a bad dog that it failed its own contractual obligations.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is there something that this department may be able to suggest to me that I could refer to Ms Marsden, to the Hughenden aged people group and, indeed, to the literally dozens of other people who write with the same query? Can we just have that now so, if there is something, these people can start applying.

Senator Conroy —We will take it on notice, as I said.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Obviously, there is nothing and you are trying to hide it. I just go to Regional Development Australia, about which we have had some conversations before. I am wondering if you could supply for us a list of chairs of Regional Development Australia who are known to be associated with a political party and if you could indicate—

Senator Conroy —Sorry, could you just ask that again?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I ask you to give the Senate, on notice, a list of the chairs of those Regional Development Australia groups around the country who are known to have—

Senator Conroy —I am sorry.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Let me finish.

Senator Conroy —It is completely outrageous to suggest that the department should go and look up the political affiliations of individuals. It is just an outrageous assertion.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Chair, can I just, at least, finish the question so we will not get that puerile comment from the minister? I said those known publicly to have a political affiliation.

Senator Conroy —You go and look it up. It is called Google.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —For instance, I give you the head of the Townsville and North-West Regional Development Association, Mr Ron McCullough: lovely guy, good friend of mine but clearly the Labor mayor of Mount Isa for 10 years.

Senator Conroy —I will give you a quick and simple answer: no.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Here is another one: the Hon. David Hamill. He is a good fellow. He was very much on our aside in opposing the ETS but is clearly a Labor associate.

Senator Conroy —You can go and look up people’s political affiliations yourself.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am just asking.

Senator Conroy —It is inappropriate, and the department will not be looking them up.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I have looked them up and even in those two cases they do not indicate it. I am not asking you to ask people their political affiliation.

Senator Conroy —If you want to do some research, get the library or your office to do it.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am saying that those that are commonly known to have a political affiliation, that is one part of the question.

Senator Conroy —No.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The second part is: which part is it that they have an affiliation with?

Senator Conroy —No, I am not sending the department off on a political witch hunt on your behalf. Get your office to do it itself.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Would you deny that these RDA appointments have been made—

Senator Conroy —My recollection is that a number of people from both sides of politics were appointed both to the boards and as chairs.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —How outrageous that you know that!

Senator Conroy —That is my recollection from what has been published. Unlike you, I am not going to ask the department to go and check that for me.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I see. Do Regional Development Australia chairmen get paid?

Ms Foster —The chairs can be paid sitting fees and expenses.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay.

Ms Foster —The arrangements vary between states.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Why would that be? It is a federal program, is it not?

Ms Foster —It is a joint program between federal and state governments.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But all of the cash for it comes from the Commonwealth. In response to questions I asked previously, you indicated, I think, that Victoria was putting in some cash, but every other state—I have already got this information, Minister, so you do not need to put it on notice.

Senator Conroy —Why are you asking if you have already got the information?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Because you are answering a question I am not asking. We have the information that Victoria is putting in cash and other states are putting in in-kind—hence my question. In those states where state governments are not contributing cash money, payment of salaries or allowances would be a matter for the federal government.

Senator Conroy —We will give you any information available on what is paid to people. If we have got any handy, I am happy to give it to you now, but I suspect we would probably need to take it on notice.

Ms Foster —We would need to take it on notice to give you the detail of that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you. You took it on notice last time and I have these answers.

Senator Conroy —You actually already have the answer to the questions from us?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —No, the answer to that question. New South Wales put in $2.1 million for administrative assistance; Victoria is in-kind; Queensland is in-kind; South Australia is providing something ‘still to be finalised’. Incidentally, just following that up, has the South Australian commitment been finalised by now? This answer was 9 February, I think. No, that was Hansard.

Mr Carmichael —All the arrangements are in place. Some of the states do not want their funding to be disclosed. It is because of the partnership with each of the states.

Senator Conroy —We can tell you what we can tell you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Here is a Commonwealth program that the states are invited into—

Senator Conroy —It is a joint program.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Tell me, how much is the Commonwealth committing for Regional Development Australia?

Senator Conroy —We can tell you that happily.

Ms Foster —In this current financial year the Commonwealth commitment across the nation is around $15 million.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Next financial year?

Ms Foster —Over the forward estimates it is about $62 million.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —When you said ‘this financial year’, do you mean 2009-10 or 2010-11?

Ms Foster —2009-10.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. What is in the budget for 2010-11?

Ms Foster —We have $62 million in the four years to 2013-14. We will just look for the figures for 2010-11.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Do you have a figure for what the states are contributing? This is a partnership, so I would be interested to know how equal the partnership is.

Mr Carmichael —I can just go to the figures for the allocation. It is $15 million in 2009-10 and then it is $14.996 million in 2010-11.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The other years, while you are at it?

Mr Carmichael —I do not have those figures.

Ms Foster —We do not have them broken down, but, over those four years, it is $62 million in the forward estimates.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —$62 million divided by three or four? What do you class the out years as, three years or four?

Ms Foster —That is over four years.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —If we divide $62 million by four we get about $15 million average next year.

Ms Foster —Roughly $15 million.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —How much are the states putting in? I do not want individual amounts, just the global total, so that those who do not want to be identified will not be identified.

Mr Carmichael —In the state of Queensland they provide office accommodation and some support, but they do not disclose what the value of that is. Because it is a partnership with the state government, we are putting in a component. A range of the states have their own organisations that we have to amalgamated with ours. There has been a long-term commitment in some of the states to these activities. They have had their funding. In a range of states, some have given financial assistance and some have got a range of infrastructure, including state government employees, who actively are involved in regional development activities.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Do you have contracts with each state?

Mr Carmichael —We have an MOU with each state.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Could you table those MOUs with each state or provide them to the committee rather than table them? Could you make them available?

Mr Mrdak —We will take that on notice and come back to you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sorry, you will give them or you will take on notice whether you can give them?

Mr Mrdak —I will take on notice whether I can provide them.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Why would you not be able to provide to the Australian parliament contracts in which they are engaged that cost them money? What is the rationale for that?

Mr Mrdak —The presumption is they would be available to the committee. I just want to check that and come back to you—which I will do very quickly.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That takes me back to my original question then. Who administers the Commonwealth cash funds? Is it given to the states to administer?

Ms Foster —The Commonwealth funds are administered by our department. They are allocated, depending on the arrangements we have within each state, either to the state or to the individual RDA committees.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. So when my mate Mr McCullough puts in a claim for sitting fees and travelling expenses, who does he actually put that in to? I do not want to get into the Kerry O’Brien saga again, but who does someone like that put the bill in to, and who writes the cheque for him?

Mr Carmichael —That is different, state by state. Because we negotiated with every state, because it is a partnership approach with every state, every arrangement is slightly different, so there is not one answer to that question.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can you do that constitutionally, have, sort of—

Mr Carmichael —We have done it through the MOU, so we have got an MOU with each of the states and we set up the arrangements, negotiated those, and then we are complying with those arrangements we have negotiated with each state.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. I do not want to waste the complete time of the committee, but as a Queensland senator I would be interested in what the arrangement is in Queensland and go back to my example. Who would a chair of a Queensland organisation put the bill in to, and who would sign the cheque for him? Which area of government?

Ms Foster —Can we take that on notice and come back to you with an answer?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —If you are asking me, the answer is no, you cannot take it on notice, but I guess that was a polite way of saying you do not have the information in front of you at the moment.

Ms Foster —I do not, not state by state.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. I guess, when we get the MOUs, we will be able to see a lot of that ourselves. I guess, along the same line, you would not be able to tell me, for those states contributing in kind, what exactly the value of their in-kind support is?

Ms Foster —No, I do not have that detail.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Could you tell me what RDAs actually do? I only say this because I was at a development conference recently, with mayors and others, and the chair of a local RDA, who will remain nameless, when he got up, his first words were, ‘Who in the room understands what RDAs are and what they do?’ and not a hand went up. And he said, ‘Good. That makes it unanimous.’ Clearly, chairs do not understand what they are supposed to be doing. Can you tell me so perhaps I can pass this on to chairs?

Mr Carmichael —There are five key roles for the RDA committees: engaging with the local committee; regional planning, so we have asked each of the RDAs to develop a regional plan and we are providing support for them through a professional planning organisation to help them with that planning process. They help coordinate whole of government activities, and a range of those things are happening right now. We are working with, say, the Department of FaHCSIA around some of the remote Indigenous communities. Our RDAs are active in those areas. The 29 remote communities need to develop plans, as are RDAs, so we are getting them to work together to help share expertise and bring a whole of RDA area context to those plans.

It is promotion of government programs, and so when the chairs and deputy chairs were in Canberra a number of months ago, we briefed them on all of the various programs that were available to them, and provided them with a range of website links to find where they could access funding dollars or information. Then the fifth key role is community and economic development, and that depends very much on what area we are looking at. Some of the RDAs are dealing with, say, in the South-East Queensland corner, population growth, where some of the others, say, in wheat belt areas, are trying to deal with decreasing population and what sort of economic activity they may be able to enhance there in the future. Because of the wide diversity of geographical areas they represent, each of them will have a unique agenda, and it needs to be informed by them and their communities. And part of the role of picking leaders from each of those communities is that they are in touch with the aspirations of their local communities and they need to express those through their regional plans and the business plans that they are currently developing.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —When do you expect the business plans will be available?

Mr Carmichael —Because we negotiated the MOUs at different times with each of the states, New South Wales was, say, far advanced to some of the other states because they had some systems in place, and we are getting those in now. Some of the later states we have only just recently negotiated the MOUs, and they are still settling membership of their committees. They will obviously be later in the year, but we are bringing all the chief executives to Canberra next week to help them in that process. We are spending two days with them, working through how they might construct a business plan; if they have already got one that they have got a draft of, helping them enhance that. Similarly, with their regional plans, giving them a lot of advice, a lot of professional support around how they might develop it; if it is already developed, how they might look at how they could implement it; providing additional data for them to inform their plans.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Could you give me, on notice, a list of all the professional help that you mentioned would be given to the various RDAs to prepare their business plans?

Mr Carmichael —Some of it is that they have got some funding of their own, so they may be seeking their own support. We would have to ask every committee, and that is a matter for them to disclose. But they have got—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You said you would be providing assistance.

Mr Mrdak —We will provide you with details of the consultancy assistance we are providing.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Thank you for that. Do you have details of how many local MPs or senators have been either briefed by, or attended meetings of, their local Regional Development Australia groups?

Mr Carmichael —It is a requirement of each of the RDAs to meet with their local members and senators—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, you have sent me that in answer to a question last time, and that is what I am referring to. I am just wondering, do you have details of the take-up rate?

Ms Foster —We do not manage the RDAs to that level of detail. We give them the broad guidance. But, as Mr Carmichael said, each RDA needs to operate within a context that is appropriate for its community.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Who makes them accountable? You know, there are a lot of wild and inaccurate allegations made about regional development groups and regional development funding in the past, and I understood because of that, the department would be keeping a very close eye on these things. In what way do you ensure that these RDAs are actually doing what their MOUs or their arrangements have to say?

Mr Carmichael —We have specific requirements of what they need to report to us, in terms of their business activity, but we are not monitoring their day-to-day activities at the sort of level of who they might talk to or who they consult with. What we would be expecting is that they have done broad consultation, that as they developed their business plans, they have engaged their local community, and we would expect reporting on that. Similarly, with their regional plans, they must consult local governments and the state government, but how they do that is really up to them. We do not want to micromanage what they do. It is about regional leadership, and we want to give them the ability to develop their plans in the way they see fit, within the requirements of our funding.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But their plans are simply advice, then, to federal and state governments. They have no money to spend.

Mr Carmichael —The key role of the plans is to bring together what resources and opportunities are in their communities and give advice to us. Then we will take and analyse their plans and edit and form our own policy development, but that is the status of the plan.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sounds like another ‘all talk and no action’ proposal, but anyhow, I appreciate it is not the department—

Senator Conroy —If only you had been in Mount Isa with me that day.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I appreciate it is not the department that has devised this ‘program’. Could you also—if you have it now, but if not on notice—tell me how the $14 million allocated this current financial year was spent?

Mr Carmichael —Can I give a flavour of some of the things that they are doing? It might help your understanding of—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —No, I am really interested in where the $14 million has been spent. Is it mainly on allowances and wages? It is not rentals, because most of them have got provided premises by the state governments.

Ms Foster —The $14 million is essentially to enable the committees to establish small support secretariats which assist the committee to run. It will be on things like the wages for their executive officer, to support community meetings and consultations—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. That is on small secretariat staff and on allowances for members?

Senator Conroy —Just a little bit of extra information for you. I understand that the MOUs are on the RDA website, www.rda.gov.au, and all committee membership is finalised.

Ms Foster —That is correct, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, you have given me that before, or someone has. Perhaps I have got it off the website myself. No, it was an answer to a question last time. Yes, we did get it off the website. Thank you, Minister. That is very helpful and the MOUs, we will be able to have a look at. That is great.

Senator Conroy —Here to help.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Perhaps I will not waste more time on this, but could you just give me details of how the $14 million for the current financial year was spent: how much went to each state and where it went in each state, and what it was for?

Ms Foster —We can do that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The government’s Better Regions Program has a spend of $176 million allocated to encourage economic and community development. How much of that 176 has currently been spent and how much is committed, if not spent, to date?

Mr Carmichael —The year-to-date spend in the Better Regions Program is $28,516,000.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And commitments made for how much? Am I right that $176 million is the correct figure, is it, the total allocation?

Ms Foster —That is correct. We can get that for you quickly. Can we just come back to you on that?

Mr Carmichael —I gave you the 2009-10 spend there.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is fine. That is what I did ask for, the 2009-10 and what has been committed in the future. In relation to the government’s population policies, can you tell me what specific policies does the government have in place to foster regional development and create opportunities for people and businesses to relocate to regional Australia?

Senator Conroy —I suspect that is Mr Burke’s portfolio responsibility now and he would assume all those responsibilities.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am talking about regional development, which is this department.

Senator Conroy —I understand that.

Mr Mrdak —As the minister has outlined, the government has announced the appointment of Minister Burke as the first Minister for Population. Part of his role now, which is being supported by a group in the Treasury, is to develop policies in relation to Australia’s population and the implications of handling the forecast growth of Australia’s population. That work is now underway and Mr Burke, I think, has publicly spoken about his desire to look at that in the context of regional Australia: what are the opportunities, what are the issues and the like. The policy lead work on that is now being undertaken by Minister Burke.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What part has your department, the Department of Regional Development, amongst other things, played in that?

Mr Mrdak —As I indicated, the secretariat and the support staff for Minister Burke for this function are located in the Treasury. We are currently in the process of providing staff support, seconding staff, to the Treasury to support this role. Additionally, our Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport and Regional Economics, as you are aware, contains a great deal of data and analysis in relation to regional Australia. We are providing the resources of the bureau and their analytical capability to support that work as well.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The bureau does provide a lot of data. Unfortunately, the data I just requested from them they do not seem to have, about remote Australia. Perhaps I will come onto that later in the day. Mr Chairman, that is all I have on regional development, although I do have a series of questions on local government. Is this the same officers?

Mr Mrdak —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Unless anyone else wants to pursue regional development while we are here?

CHAIR —Still yours, Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you. The Australian Council of Local Government, when is its next meeting scheduled?

Mr Mrdak —It is scheduled to meet on 18 June.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What is going to be the focus of that meeting?

Ms Foster —The focus of this year’s meeting is about resilience.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What does ‘resilience’ mean?

Ms Foster —It is how governments can best respond to the economic and environmental challenges that face them.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —In the centres like Mount Isa City Council or Cloncurry City Council, and I assume a number of councils in Western Australia, will the focus be on the mining tax, which is set to destroy the communities in those mining localities?

Mr Mrdak —I think the discussions around those matters are something the government is holding at the moment. They are not issues that are going to be the focus of the agenda for this meeting.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can I warn you, Mr Mrdak, so that you are prepared—do not say you were not prepared—that the mayors coming from Mount Isa, Cloncurry, Central Highlands, Mackay, Gladstone and Karratha, they will not want to talk about anything else because that mining tax will destroy their communities and, because they are elected representatives and know the feeling of their community very well, there is no other issue that will be front of house to their mind. There is a bit of gratuitous advice for you. Be prepared. Of course, by 18 June, the government could have done another one of its very famous backflips and scrapped the whole thing, so perhaps it will not be such an issue. What have been the actual outcomes of previous meetings?

Ms Foster —There have been a range of initiatives announced through the ACLG. That includes the funding initiatives, more than $1 billion for community infrastructure. It also includes $25 million towards a local government reform fund and the establishment of the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government, which is now up and running and working really well.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Who is the chair of that Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government?

Ms Foster —The chair of the board is Margaret Reynolds.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is former Labor senator from Tasmania Margaret Reynolds?

Senator Conroy —Queensland, actually. I thought you were actually about to get on to something, but you blew it at the last minute.

CHAIR —We are staying on the low road.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —A Queensland Labor senator, based in Townsville, now living in Tasmania. That is the Margaret Reynolds we are talking about?

Ms Foster —That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is interesting. Keep going, I interrupted you.

Ms Foster —No, I had finished, thanks.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Perhaps I might just jump to the Australian Centre for Local Government that we were just talking about. What have been the outcomes of the centre so far? I understand it was established on 1 July 2009.

Ms Foster —That is right. It released its work plan in December 2009. It has a range of programs for 2010. Its work includes delivering a range of local government leadership programs and courses, supporting councils to improve infrastructure, asset and financial management, and building capacity to meet challenges like climate change.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And is that totally funded by the Australian government?

Ms Foster —The Australian government provided $8 million to establish the centre.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes.

Ms Foster —The centre operates with a number of partners—academic institutions. It was, in fact, a consortium bid, and so it includes the University of Canberra, ANSOG, the Local Government Managers Association of Australia, and the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia. They have program partners from the Australian National University, Charles Darwin and Edith Cowan University, and those program partners also bring financial support or make contributions to the programs that are delivered by the centre.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Do we have details of the financial support that those apart from the Australian government provide?

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

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you very much. That is useful. And do they publish an annual report? They are not a Commonwealth agency, are they, that we could reasonably ask to come along and give evidence at an estimates committee?

Ms Foster —They are not a Commonwealth agency, and I do not know whether or not we have the capacity to ask for them to come to estimates. Obviously, we can follow that through with the secretariat.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you for that. And do they publish an annual report?

Ms Foster —Yes, they do.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And they have published one since their inception, I assume?

Ms Foster —That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And that is publicly available, obviously.

Mr Carmichael —They publish almost everything they do on their own website. They are pretty active about doing that, and it is part of connecting with local government around Australia. But they certainly put almost all their material up on their website.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is great. Thank you. I just want to go to the Local Government Reform Fund. What was the process for identifying the projects to be funded?

Ms Foster —We sought applications for funding.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The submissions were to be prepared jointly by state governments and state local government associations? Was that the arrangement?

Ms Foster —That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And how many submissions did you receive? One from each state?

Ms Foster —No, we received more than one from each state. We had projects totalling about $37 million submitted to us.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And how many of them were funded?

Mr Carmichael —There are $1 million worth of projects that have been announced. There are a range of projects that we are still in the process of assessing and negotiating with state governments, and they will be announced as they are approved by the minister.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Perhaps the Jubilee Bridge might be in that.

Mr Carmichael —It does not go to those sorts of projects. This is really about capacity building. It is taking on the COAG agenda about building capacity and local governments strongly, and particularly around asset management.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —How many states have actually received money to date and in what amounts? Have they been publicly announced, I guess is the first question?

Mr Carmichael —The Northern Territory has received $1.35 million to the capacity building of council staff, elected members, and related partners on an asset management and financial planning framework. South Australia has received $350,000 for an asset and financial management council audit, and $1.34 million for technical support and building regional collaboration between councils. They have also received $960,000 for a national model pilot program for an integrated design strategy for the broader Adelaide city. Victoria has got a local government sustainability project valued at $964,000. They have also got $1.404 million for a local government regional asset management services project. Western Australia has got $2.351 million for an integrated planning asset management improvement program, and then there are some projects that were funded with the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government, which I think Ms Foster has already talked to. But some of the specifics about that are were a scholarship program for senior women valued at $100,000, and a data collection reporting on the status of women, valued also at $100,000.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you for that, but is it possible to table the information you are reading from, rather than going through it word by word?

Ms Foster —Yes, we can if it is not on the web. If it is on the web, we will advise you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, that would perhaps speed the process. Were all of those projects supported by the state governments and state associations?

Ms Foster —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Were there any others that were funded that were not supported by the state associations and the state governments?

Ms Foster —No, though the funding allocation to the centre of excellence, for example, for the scholarship program for senior women, was done by the Commonwealth.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. So you did take advice from others, including the centre of excellence?

Ms Foster —We worked very closely with the centre of excellence on this. As you know, we required the state governments to consult with the local government associations in preparing their bids. We then worked with the centre of excellence to assess the bids and provide advice to government. We also worked with them to develop proposals such as some funding for scholarships and some data collection that was funded out of that fund.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Where is the centre of excellence actually based?

Ms Foster —In Sydney at UTS.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you for that. I just have another couple of questions. Where are we at with the referendum for constitutional recognition of local government?

Ms Foster —That has been progressed by the Australian Local Government Association. So they are going through a process of consultation, but that is not something that the Commonwealth is managing.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Does it require a referendum?

Ms Foster —Does what require a referendum?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Does constitutional recognition require a Commonwealth referendum?

Ms Foster —It is my understanding that it does, but as I said, we are not taking that proposal forward. That is something that ALGA—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —So the department has done no work on preparing the question for the next general election?

Ms Foster —No.

Mr Mrdak —As Ms Foster has indicated, the first stage is that the government has asked ALGA as a body to come back to government with some more definite proposals about what they are seeking, and then the government will review that in the light of that work. We do not at the moment have a timeline and are not undertaking any detailed work at this stage, pending the advice back from ALGA.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is this something the Department of Local Government will be involved in, or is it more a COAG, government to government, Prime Minister—

Mr Mrdak —As you are aware, the head of ALGA is on COAG, and has the opportunity through that process. So that, at this stage, it is coming back through that process with some more definite proposals. I think some of the issues have been that there is a disparate range of views amongst local government about what constitutional recognition should involve and how best that is done, and the Australian Local Government Association is currently sorting that out or trying to get a perspective on that before returning to governments, both federal and state, with more detailed thinking.

Ms Foster —ALGA has provided briefing to, for example, the ministerial council—that includes the local government ministers across Commonwealth and states—on its consultation and its survey work to start establishing a case for constitutional recognition.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —We are breaking for morning tea, I understand. I have some FAGs questions which I will ask after morning tea. What area of your department would be dealing with ALGA and would lead any discussions or any government proposals on constitutional recognition?

Mr Mrdak —This area of the department.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The local government branch, is it?

Mr Mrdak —Yes.

Proceedings suspended from 10.31 am to 10.44 am

CHAIR —Welcome back, officers from Local Government and Regional Development. We will continue from where we left off.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can you tell me the value of the bring-forward of 25 per cent of next years FAGs into this financial year?

Ms Foster —Yes, it is $511.6 million.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —This is the second year this has been done, isn’t it?

Ms Foster —That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —If you keep bringing forward 25 per cent, won’t there be, at some time, a day of reckoning when councils will receive 25 per cent less in a year? For example, if it is not brought forward again next year, councils next year will only have 75 per cent of their annual FAGs grants. Is that right?

Ms Foster —That is correct. As we did this current financial year and plan to do next financial year, we would spread that in four equal payments, so the councils would continue to receive payments across the year.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The 75 per cent will be done in four equal payments?

Ms Foster —That is right.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What is the reason for bringing forward the 25 per cent? Perhaps I should start here: when was it brought forward?

Mr Mrdak —It was brought forward in the budget.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —When will the cheques be going out?

Mr Mrdak —They will be done before 30 June.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Before 30 June? What is the reason—perhaps I could come back to that, Chair, because I am really conscious of the fact that the minister is not here, and I do not want to put the officers in a situation. Can you explain in detail how the indexation adjustment included in Budget Paper No. 3—and I can helpfully tell you, at page 110, table 2.11.1, footnote (b), which indicates that the escalation factor is 0.7710. Can you just indicate to me how that indexation factor is arrived at?

Mr Mrdak —It is calculated by the Treasury. I can get you some details of how that is done, but it is based on Treasury analysis, which happens each year to enable the Treasurer to set the indexation figure for the year ahead.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The indexation figure is the amount by which the FAGs increase every year?

Mr Mrdak —That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is that entirely done by Treasury? Your department has no input into that?

Mr Mrdak —We are consulted as part of our normal administration, but it is done by the Treasury.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Does your department administer the FAGs?

Mr Mrdak —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You do? You will get back to me on how that—

Mr Mrdak —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is the indexation adjustment figure akin to CPI increases?

Mr Mrdak —No. It is a lesser amount, generally.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What is its purpose? Is it to try and keep the value of FAGs, which are done over, what, a rolling four- or five-year program, are they?

Mr Mrdak —There is an annual adjustment to the FAGs under the legislation, based on this indexation factor. The indexation factor varies. It is generally around CPI, but not exactly at CPI. It would be best if I can get you some detail, I think, of how Treasury calculates it. It is a formula which has been in place for many years, under the operational legislation.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Would the recipients say that each year they are getting less value, as the value of money decreases each year? Clearly, this escalation adjustment is meant to keep it at around the same level, but does everyone accept that it does?

Mr Mrdak —Yes, generally. There has been debate in the past over whether that has kept pace with CPI at times, but my understanding is there is a general acceptance of the indexation factor now and how it operates.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Could you hazard a guess at what that may equate to, in percentage terms? If I was good a mathematics, I would be able to work that out myself. What is the CPI running at, something like three, four, or five per cent, is it?

Mr Mrdak —I would have to check. Can I just check with the officer at the desk and see if we have got any figures on indexation with us, otherwise I will come back to you in relation to that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What I am really curious about is what the CPI increases are each year and how 0.7710 relates to that in the value of money. Now, Senator Nash has some questions. I do want to ask another question germane to this area, but I am hesitant to—

CHAIR —I will see if I can assist you, Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —We can come back later, I guess. Perhaps I could ask it and then invite the officers not to answer until the minister is here, if they so choose? What is the difference between bringing forward the 25 per cent to 30 June, as opposed to paying it on 1 July? What is the impact to councils? Perhaps we had all better stop now, because not only do we not have a minister, but we do not have a—

Senator NASH —But we have Senator O’Brien. Of course we do.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sorry, I beg your pardon.

Senator NASH —Sorry. I just corrected that straight away, Senator O’Brien.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am trying to be scrupulously fair here.

ACTING CHAIR (Senator O’Brien) —Yes, I know. The minister is temporarily absent and the chair has obviously gone to obtain him. If can we postpone and questions that may necessarily involve the minister’s consideration.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is that question I should ask while the minister is here?

Mr Mrdak —I can certainly advise you that the normal payment schedule for the FAGs payments would be mid-August and they are being brought forward to June. That is a decision that government has taken in the budget and we had a lengthy discussion yesterday in relation to this with Senator Joyce.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —In relation to this particular aspect?

Mr Mrdak —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —In relation to FAGs grants?

Mr Mrdak —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Why is it not paid on 1 July rather than mid-August?

Mr Mrdak —That is the general payment schedule that has been traditionally done, in terms of the quarterly payments. By the time the advice goes from the states grants commissions, in terms of allocations per council, around mid-August is generally the payment schedule.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, but if you are bringing forward 25 per cent to the earlier financial year, clearly, the explanation would be that it gives councils the use of that money two months earlier.

Mr Mrdak —That is right.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Why not do it on 1 July and you would still do it two months earlier? That is probably a question for the minister.

ACTING CHAIR —How longstanding is it?

Ms Foster —Very longstanding. We have made quarterly payments in the middle of each quarter—

ACTING CHAIR —Going back years?

Ms Foster —Yes, I believe so.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, but it is not a longstanding commitment to bring forward 25 per cent into the previous financial year. I will leave it there, if I can reserve the right to come back when the minister is here, Chair.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Here is the minister. Just while the minister is sitting down, the Red Centre Way—this is going back to the better regions projects and this is one of the ones we went through last night, but I did not get around to asking that one—has that been done?

Ms Foster —It is not a better regions project. It is under a program administered by the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What is it about? Do you know anything about it?

Mr Carmichael —You would have to refer to the department.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But I understand it is a road.

Ms Foster —We just established that it was not ours and which department it was, so we could advise you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. My question was why has it disappeared from the radar, but it has disappeared from your department and never was there. Minister, I was just completing my questions about the financial assistance grants to local government and for the last year and, again, this year, 25 per cent of the FAGs grants has been brought forward.

Senator Conroy —Barnaby did have an hour-long discussion about this.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am sorry I was not here. It does not need a long answer.

Senator Conroy —He even put out a press release, if that helps.

Senator NASH —I am sure we can accommodate Senator Macdonald to ask some questions this morning.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is really only one question, and I was asking officials, but did not really want to put them in the position where they had to answer. What it is the difference between paying 25 per cent to advantage local governments on 30 June, as opposed to 1 July?

Senator Conroy —I think, vaguely remembering what I discussed with Senator Joyce yesterday, that when we did it 12 months ago, because we have done it twice, it was very warmly welcomed. I read out quotes from the ALGA, warmly welcoming it again. It was to help with continuity and planning for local governments on an ongoing basis. It gave them certainty and continuity.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Not certainty, because they are going to get it next year. It is just bringing forward the payment to this year. I can well understand, as you say, that local government would be pleased because they are getting money, instead of in August at the end of June. My question is: why not on 1 July, which is a difference of two days? They would be equally pleased to get it on 1 July?

Senator Conroy —We felt that, in the same way that it was very warmly welcomed and allowed continuity and certainty the 12 months before, we would do it again for the same reasons—continuity and certainty. Barnaby has already put the press release out.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is not continuity and certainty, because they were going to get it anyhow. That is a rubbish argument.

Senator Conroy —For their planning.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —My question is: what difference would it make on 30 June as opposed to 1 July? Would it be, perhaps, something about making next year’s budget deficit look smaller?

Senator Conroy —Barnaby has already put out a press release on it. You are a day behind. He has made that claim already.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Unfortunately, Senator Joyce is not here and not in your position to answer the questions, and I am asking you.

Senator Conroy —I am just saying that you might want to Google his press release from yesterday.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Whatever he says is what you would have responded to me?

Senator Conroy —No, what I am saying is that the point you are trying to get to Barnaby put out a press release on yesterday. No-one took any notice of it then and no-one will take any notice of this line of questioning. We gave it to councils, so that we could give them the certainty—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Minister, why won’t you answer the question?

Senator Conroy —I already have. I said for certainty and continuity, so that they could plan into the coming 12 months.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you. Absolutely nobody in local government will believe that because there is no certainty. That is your answer and thank you for it, for what it was worth.

Senator NASH —The East Kimberley Development Package, is that within your department?

Senator Conroy —It is in Northern Australia.

Senator NASH —All right. How much money was originally allocated to the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program?

Ms Foster —There were two rounds of it. The first round was $800 million and that was divided into two programs, one of $250 million, which was directly allocated to all 565 councils and the ACT, and $550 million, which was done through a competitive bidding round. The second round of RLCIP again had two components. In total, it was $220 million, $100 million in direct allocations to all councils and $120 million that was a competitive bidding process.

Senator NASH —Has that all been expended? Is there anything left or is that all?

Ms Foster —The two direct allocation rounds, so the first 250 and the second 100, have been allocated to councils. The first competitive round was allocated last year. The second round, the applications closed earlier this year and that is in the process of being announced at the moment.

Senator NASH —The jobs fund, the Bike Path Projects and Infrastructure Employment Projects?

Ms Foster —The bike paths was a competitive program for which applications closed last year. Those projects have been announced.

Senator NASH —How much money was originally allocated to that?

Ms Foster —About $40 million.

Senator NASH —All of it has been, obviously, allocated. Has it all been spent, or have projects been finalised?

Ms Foster —There was a small amount that was departmental expenses, but the money allocated for the bike paths themselves has all been contracted with proponents.

Senator NASH —Finally, the Remote Aviation Infrastructure Fund, that is—

Mr Mrdak —That would be in aviation and airports.

CHAIR —As there no further questions of Local Government and Regional Development. I thank the officers. I now call the Office of Northern Australia. I would like to welcome Ms Fleming for your first round of Senate estimates. Welcome to the building.

Ms Fleming —Thank you.

CHAIR —I believe you have just recently joined the Office of Northern Australia?

Ms Fleming —10 May.

CHAIR —Fantastic. Welcome. Questions, Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Tell us about yourself, Ms Fleming. Where are you from? What is your expertise in this area?

Ms Fleming —I am a longstanding public servant. Most recently, I have been in the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Prior to that, I had extensive experience in the department of industry and, prior to that, in the department of trade.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Perhaps I could ask Mr Mrdak: does this represent any new arrangements with the Office of Northern Australia, or is just the normal shuffle of officers through various departments for various reasons?

Mr Mrdak —We have had some acting arrangements in place for some time since the departure of the former head of the office. Ms Fleming’s arrival has enabled me to settle permanent arrangements for the office.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Who was the previous head. I should know this.

Mr Mrdak —Mr John Angley and, for an interim period, Mr Stuart Sargent.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is right. Have they left the department or moved on to other areas?

Mr Mrdak —Mr Angley has left the department. Mr Sargent is now working in a different area of the department.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Ms Fleming, so that I can assess if things have changed, what is the strength of—what do you call it? It is not a branch, is it? It is an office—you tell me what it is—within a branch or something, is it?

Mr Mrdak —Perhaps if I do, initially? The office is headed by Ms Fleming. It is effectively at SES band 1 level and comprises a range of staff, both here in Canberra and in our offices in Townsville and Darwin.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is part of which branch?

Mr Mrdak —It sits as a separate unit within my department.

Ms Foster —It is a branch in itself, and Robyn reports directly to me.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Ms Foster, that is very helpful, but I cannot hear you.

Ms Foster —It is a separate branch and Robyn reports directly to me in our organisational structure.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Can you just tell me how many are in the separate branch?

Ms Fleming —It is approximately 21 staff.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Divided up between here, Townsville and Darwin?

Ms Fleming —My understanding is there are five staff in Townsville, one in Darwin and a part-time officer in Kununurra, and the remaining staff are here in Canberra.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —How many is that in Canberra?

Ms Fleming —I think it is about 14.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Fourteen in Canberra?

Ms Fleming —Fourteen to 13 staff, approximately. I can give you an actual breakdown on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I thought you said the total was 14?

Ms Fleming —No, the total is about 21; five in Townsville, one in Darwin and half an FTE in Kununurra, with the remainder in Canberra.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can you tell me the arrangements in Kununurra? Who is the half a person—not by name?

Ms Fleming —The officer is working for us to provide local intelligence to us around the East Kimberley Development Package and its implementation and working closely with the shire and the WA government on the implementation of those projects.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Does that person have another Commonwealth job for the other part of his or her time?

Ms Foster —No. We have her on contract. We contract a certain number of her hours per week. She was a local in Kununurra.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —A local with a Public Service background, I assume, is it?

Ms Foster —No, I do not believe so.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Should I ask you for a name?

Ms Foster —It is Elise Anning.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you.

Senator BACK —Could I ask you: the West Kimberley, Broome?

Ms Fleming —She is located in Kununurra.

Senator BACK —Yes, I know, but do you have anybody in the West Kimberley?

Ms Fleming —No, we do not.

Senator BACK —Is it your intention to position somebody in the West Kimberley?

Ms Foster —We specifically have Elise in the East Kimberley because she supports us in the delivery of the East Kimberley Development Package. It is centred around Kununurra because that is where our activities are taking place.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The package is not administered by your department, though, is it? It is schools and buildings, as I recall, and a lot of social enhancements?

Ms Foster —It is a mix. There are 29 projects in the package. Twenty-one of them are actually being delivered by the Western Australian government and the remaining eight are divided, six being managed by SWEK, the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley, and two which we are managing directly from the Commonwealth.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —From your department?

Ms Foster —From my department.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Which two are they?

Ms Foster —There is a refurbishment of the Waringarri Arts Centre and the Warmun Early Learning Centre.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sorry?

Ms Foster —The Warmun Early Learning Centre.

Senator BACK —Turkey Creek, as it was.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —No other Commonwealth department is involved in that?

Ms Foster —Then we have an arrangement, both within WA and within the Commonwealth, where we work very closely with the line agencies who are responsible. The programs fall broadly into four areas. The main three of those are education, health and housing.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You said four areas, didn’t you?

Ms Foster —Yes, then there is a community services one.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sorry, keep going.

Ms Foster —For the three main ones, both within the WA system and within the Commonwealth, those line agencies have been very closely involved in both the selection and the development of the projects and then in the arrangements that are put in place to manage them. For example, in the housing field, FaHCSIA is in direct contact with the WA housing folks and ensuring that that housing is delivered in a way that is consistent with the broader Commonwealth government house initiatives across WA.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is the funding through FaHCSIA in that instance?

Ms Foster —No, all $195 million was allocated to the department of infrastructure.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay.

Ms Foster —When we have approved projects—for example, the housing ones are being delivered, as I said, by the WA government—Infrastructure transfer money via Treasury to the WA Treasury, which allocates it within the WA system to deliver the housing, but in approving the project we actually send that project to FaHCSIA for their comment and endorsement before we sign off on it. Similarly, we ensure that that has happened at the WA end.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The buck stops with you, so to speak—

Ms Foster —That is right.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —and the cheques are written out by you, even though they get there in a roundabout way?

Ms Foster —That is right. We are accountable.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The same applies with the education and health areas?

Ms Foster —That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Is the actual infrastructure related to irrigation works all being done by the Western Australian government?

Ms Foster —That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Do you have any input into that at all?

Ms Foster —Not formally, no.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —No Commonwealth agency as such?

Ms Foster —We certainly do not. I could not answer for others.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —There is no-one else. You are in the Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government portfolio.

Ms Foster —I think DEWHA has some engagement with the Western Australian government, particularly around the application of the EBPC Act.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, of course. Okay. Of the $195 million allocated, how much was spent this year?

Ms Fleming —Page 72 and page 75 will show you the East Kimberley Development Package, line 2.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. So it is $13 million spent in this current year and $4 million projected for next year. Is that right?

Ms Fleming —That is of the community project.

Ms Foster —Because all of the payments made to WA are actually made through the Treasury, that appropriation appears in Treasury’s budget statement. The figures that you are seeing in front of you in this PBS actually relate to the programs that we are directly administering.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Those are the two programs, the early learning and the arts centre?

Mr Mrdak —And the payments to the local government.

Ms Foster —And local government and the SWEK payments.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What was the local government?

Ms Foster —SWEK, Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sorry. Okay. The money is going to them for what?

Mr Mrdak —There are a range of projects.

Ms Foster —For six projects.

Mr Mrdak —I will take you through those. The Kununurra Airport terminal upgrade, Kununurra Airport new Patient Transfer Facility, the community sporting facilities in Kununurra, the Wyndham Swimming Pool project, the Wyndham Picture Gardens project, and the Wyndham Community Jetty project are being delivered by the shire council.

Senator Conroy —Is that the list of promises that the Liberals discontinued last week? No, they are real programs that are happening? Just making sure!

Ms Foster —The Wyndham Swimming Pool upgrade was completed—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Minister, just for your education, if you want to know, the coalition promised this package prior to the last election.

Senator Conroy —You never know. It could have been discontinued.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is one of the few packages that, I have to say, your government has continued on from what the coalition—

Senator Conroy —You never know. It could have been discontinued by you guys by now.

Senator BACK —We are not talking about Aboriginal housing.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Anyhow, can we get on with it?

CHAIR —That is wonderful input from Senator Heffernan. I never thought I would hear myself say that! Well done, Senator Heffernan, because I have some questions too and I have a very vested interest in, particularly, the Kimberley.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Let me just continue. Are you saying that, to find out what has been spent this year, next year and in the out years, I have got to go to the Department of Treasury, or can you tell me that?

Ms Foster —We can tell you; it is just not in the PBS.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Tell me.

Ms Fleming —$16.4 million was spent in 2008-09; $87.13 million is estimated to be spent in 2009-10; $78.32 million is planned to be spent in 2010-11; and $13.35 million is allocated to 2011-12.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Thanks for that. So the person you employ half-time is your intelligence to make sure things are going according to your department’s plan?

Ms Fleming —Correct. She keeps us abreast of developments in the Kununurra area.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I know my colleagues, including the chair, have indicated they want to come back to Kununurra, but before we do that can I just ask: you have one person in Darwin?

Ms Fleming —Correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sorry; is the Kununurra half-allocation person based anywhere?

Ms Fleming —It is my understanding that she works out of the ICC offices in Kununurra.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Do we contribute to the cost of that?

Ms Fleming —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. The one person in Darwin—where is that officer based?

Ms Foster —That is our regional office in Darwin.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. How big is the regional office in Darwin?

Mr Mrdak —It is predominantly our Office of Transport Security staff. It is of the order of about half a dozen staff.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is your entire Transport Security—

Mr Mrdak —It is Transport Security and also Office of Northern Australia staff.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. All together? And there is one person in the Office of Northern Australia there. In Townsville, where there are five officers at the office, are they located with the regional office of the department?

Mr Mrdak —That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —How many in the regional office, total, including the five in the Office of Northern Development?

Ms Foster —That is the regional office. The department has five officers in Townsville.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —They are all attached to the Office of Northern Australia?

Mr Mrdak —That is right.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Where were they before? They have been rebadged from where?

Ms Foster —They provide support both to the Office of Northern Australia and to our Local Government and Regional Development Division.

Senator HEFFERNAN —They originally were rebadged what?

Ms Foster —They have always been badged our regional office in Townsville.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —They have always been part of the department of regional development, under whatever name it might have had?

Ms Foster —That is right, yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So they have just—

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, Senator Macdonald has the call.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I will pass over the call shortly. As I recall, in the first year of the current government, there were eight or nine people in that office. Is that correct?

Ms Foster —I do not have that figure with me, sorry, and I was not in the department then.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Perhaps you could give me the details of the numbers in that office in 2006-07 and every year since up to the present. But you are not conscious, either you or Mr Mrdak, of the fact that the staff in that Townsville office has been reduced over the last couple of years?

Ms Foster —Not in any significant way.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Mr Mrdak, could I just ask you the broader question: in Regional Development and the Office of Northern Australia, what has the staffing been in recent years?

Mr Mrdak —In the Local Government and Regional Development area?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes. Does that include the Office of Northern Australia?

Mr Mrdak —No, the Office of Northern Australia is a separate entity within the department.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay.

Mr Mrdak —The Office of Northern Australia’s staffing numbers have been stable since the establishment of the office under the government, but, in relation to Local Government And Regional Development, we have been reducing staff numbers in that part of the department as programs have lapsed.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Do you have some detail of that, or can you get it on notice?

Mr Mrdak —I can get you some details of that, but it is an approximate reduction of around 70 staff over the last year or so.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Seventy?

Mr Mrdak —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Out of how many?

Ms Foster —Around 200.

Mr Mrdak —Originally, I think, it was around 200 to a reduction of, today, around 130 or 140 staff.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Did they disappear completely out of the system or just get rebadged?

Mr Mrdak —In some situations, people have transferred to other positions within the department or to other departments.

Ms Foster —In some cases, they are non-ongoing staff and so we do not renew their contracts or we terminate their contracts when they are no longer required.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can I just clarify that. It used to be about 200—and you will get me the exact details—and it is now about 130?

Ms Foster —140, I think.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —140.

Ms Foster —But we use both non-ongoing staff, so not permanent APS staff, and contract staff, to cope with project flows. So it is not like a stable number where they are all ongoing and the changes are slower. The workforce can change quite dramatically month to month.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sure. Anyhow, you will give me those figures on notice. Just getting back to the Office of Northern Australia, we will get the numbers which I think I asked for before, but it would be my recollection that, whilst you are saying the total numbers in the office are remaining about the same, the numbers in Townsville and Darwin would have reduced and the numbers in Canberra would have increased. Would you agree with that?

Ms Foster —No, the allocation for the Office of Northern Australia from the time that it was established was around $2 million. That has been used primarily to fund the officers in Canberra. The staff in Darwin and Townsville are an addition to that. We have not reduced staff in Darwin and Townsville to pay for staff in Canberra.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am not saying you have reduced them to pay for anything; I am just saying the actual numbers have reduced. I can go back through old estimates, but I think in the first year of the current government there were about eight, or it might have even been 12, in Townsville and there are now five.

Ms Foster —We will get those for you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You will get me those particular details. The $200 million you just mentioned was for what?

Ms Foster —$2 million.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. I was wondering how I had missed the $200 million. Apart from the East Kimberley projects, what other projects is the Office of Northern Australia involved in?

Ms Foster —It has had two primary focuses for the last couple of years. They have been the East Kimberley program and the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce, providing secretariat and support for that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I will not go into that at this stage. I might come back, but Senator Heffernan might have some questions about that. Apart from East Kimberley and the land and water task force, what else do the 21 officers do?

Ms Fleming —We support Parliamentary Secretary Gary Gray in his role in coordinating responses on Northern Australia. We are also engaged in the Cairns development plan recently announced in December.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Cairns development plan?

Ms Fleming —Yes. The Prime Minister announced it in December.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That I will have to find out something about. Of the 21 staff, some of which help support Mr Gray, is one a departmental liaison officer in Mr Gray’s office?

Ms Foster —No, they are accounted in our corporate figures. We have an area, which is Ministerial and Parliamentary Services, and that includes our DLOs.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What level is the DLO in Mr Gray’s office?

Ms Foster —I think he is an EL1, if that is meaningful.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —If that is wrong, could you come back to me? EL1 is fairly junior, is it not?

Ms Foster —No, it is not junior.

Mr Mrdak —It is executive level 1.

Ms Foster —It is just two levels below a senior executive service officer.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Tell me about the Cairns plan, which has slipped my radar, which is interesting.

Ms Foster —The PM in Cairns on 9 December committed to bring together expertise from all levels of government on a long-term economic plan for the region and committed the Office of Northern Australia to assist in that process. ONA has been talking with key parties, including the new Far North Queensland and Torres Strait RDA, the Cairns Regional Council, and Advance Cairns. Advance Cairns is actually the author of the plan and is getting assistance from Cairns Regional Council, the RDA and ONA. They are preparing a report, which we anticipate will be ready in October or November.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is any money being spent on the Cairns plan by your office?

Ms Foster —Not by us. We are simply providing support.

Ms Fleming —Support through existing resources.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Out of Canberra, or out of Townsville?

Ms Fleming —Out of Townsville.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Don’t tell the Cairns people that, will you? It is just an economic plan that you are providing some support for?

Ms Foster —That is right.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Do you know if it is looking at shipbuilding in Cairns, which has just about collapsed following the actions of the state Labor government and the federal Labor government in denying them the contract to build some military ships?

Ms Foster —I do not have any detail of what the plan is actually looking at this stage.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I don’t think anyone does.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is the Office of Northern Australia conscious of the fact that a once vibrant shipbuilding industry in Northern Australia has all but collapsed because a contract, instead of being awarded to the shipbuilding company in Cairns, was awarded to a shipbuilding company I think in one of the senior minister’s electorates in the south? Are you aware if the office is looking into that at all?

Mr Mrdak —I think the Prime Minister’s announcement of assistance with the Cairns plan is recognition of what has been a very difficult economic time for that region. I am not familiar with that particular firm, but certainly I think the government has recognised the circumstances facing Far North Queensland, particularly the Cairns district.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You said the ‘Prime Minister’s offer of assistance’, but the offer of assistance is a bit of Townsville based administrative support, no other money.

Mr Mrdak —At this time. The Cairns economic development agency, as Ms Foster has outlined, has got this underway. We are working with them and, at this stage, they have not sought any additional assistance beyond that at this point.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is the Office of Northern Australia in any way engaged in looking at the unemployment rate in Cairns, which is one of the highest in Australia and almost double the national average of unemployment? Is that something that the office or the department would be looking at?

Ms Foster —We would expect that those sorts of issues would be considered by the RDA when it meets with regional stakeholders.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is there anything else apart from East Kimberley, the land and water task force and the Cairns plan? Is the office engaged in any other activities?

Ms Foster —The office will sponsor relevant conferences. There are a couple of ABARE conferences that the department has been involved with and obviously we support the parliamentary secretary in the extensive range of consultations and visits he makes across Northern Australia.

CHAIR —Ms Foster, you told us about the process of the funding of the East Kimberley Development Package, the $195 million. I was in the Kimberley not long ago. I am regular visitor to the Kimberley and have been since 1979, so I do have a real interest in that fantastic part of the world. I met with the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley CEO, Gary Gaffney, and the president, Mr Fred Mills, who are very excited about what is going on up there, even to the point that the fantastic Western Australian newspaper, the West Australian, last Saturday ran a two-full-page article on the East Kimberley and the East Kimberley Development Package. Would you like to give us an update on the progress? You have just touched on it, Ms Fleming, but I would like you to go in a bit further, if you could, please.

Ms Fleming —Would you like me to take these project by project?

CHAIR —Yes. Absolutely. For all those out there in Senate estimate land who are listening intently, I think it would be great value if you could, Ms Fleming.

Ms Fleming —The Wyndham Memorial Swimming Pool upgrade has been completed and is operational. There is a project for the hostel oval in Kununurra. There is the Wyndham Picture Gardens.

CHAIR —I cannot write that fast, sorry, Ms Fleming.

Ms Fleming —No, that is okay.

CHAIR —The swimming pool, the picture gardens. How many will that seat at the picture gardens?

Ms Fleming —I cannot tell you exactly how many it will seat. I would have to take that on notice.

CHAIR —Take it on notice, Ms Fleming. Thank you. It is great to see Wyndham getting its fair share after years of being the poor cousin.

Ms Fleming —There is an upgrade to the public accessible all-tides jetty, which will ensure small craft for recreational fishing and potential barge operators who use that particular area—

CHAIR —That has started?

Ms Fleming —The planning tender documentation was approved by the shire on 10 May, and a jetty licence is to be obtained from WA Department of Transport. We expect that to occur at the end of this month—May.

CHAIR —Very good.

Ms Fleming —The next project is the Kununurra Airport Terminal upgrade.

CHAIR —When will that start?

Ms Fleming —Pre-tender activity of engineering and mechanical site investigation works commenced in March.

Ms Foster —The tender and contractor are awarded for that project, so that is actually underway.

CHAIR —Very good.

Ms Fleming —The Kununurra Airport Patient Transfer Facility—

CHAIR —I am aware of that.

Ms Fleming —Construction is underway of the slab down and the frame erected.

CHAIR —I can say that it was good to see the volunteer ambulance drivers were there, I think, three weeks ago. I met them at the airport.

Ms Fleming —Great.

CHAIR —They were very proud of that.

Ms Fleming —The next project I have is the Warmun Early Learning Centre.

CHAIR —How far are into that are we?

Ms Fleming —The contract is awarded and preliminary site works have commenced.

CHAIR —Great. Can you tell us how many children that will advantage? If you cannot, take it on notice.

Ms Fleming —No, I will have to take that on notice, I am sorry.

CHAIR —Thanks, Ms Fleming, because it is very important. It is a large community.

Ms Fleming —Excuse me if my pronunciation is not correct here.

CHAIR —No, ‘Warmun’ is spot on.

Ms Fleming —The Waringarri Arts Centre project in Kununurra, the development application was submitted to the shire and stage 2 project plan is still in development.

Ms Foster —That will actually see a significant upgrade and refurbishment to that arts centre, which we understand is going to provide really significant opportunities for Indigenous employment in the region. It is a real focal point within that region.

CHAIR —You are starting to frighten me, Ms Foster. You might be channelling my thoughts. That was my next question. You just stole my thunder.

Ms Fleming —The Wyndham health facilities refurbishment.

CHAIR —Tell us a bit more about that one if you could, Ms Fleming.

Ms Fleming —The package contributed $1 million to the major hospital refurbishment project, which was undertaken by WA. They invested $5.1 million into that. The hospital refurbishment was completed and launched on 3 November 2009.

CHAIR —Great.

Ms Fleming —There is also an additional $2.4 million to increase the supply of occupiable housing stock for health staff.

CHAIR —How many are we talking about? How many houses?

Ms Fleming —At this stage, I can advise you that in the first-stage housing, there are three three-bedroom houses with construction well underway. Roofs are on and internal fit-out is underway for those houses.

CHAIR —Good.

Ms Fleming —There is a further plan to come from us, from the WA government, around what other housing they will look to provide as part of that package. It could be that they purchase housing; it could be that they still construct some new housing; it could be that they refit existing housing. They are looking at what they will do in the context of the general development in the East Kimberley.

CHAIR —Any idea, Ms Fleming, when we will expect that announcement?

Ms Fleming —I understand the second stage housing plan is due to us in June.

CHAIR —Next month.

Ms Foster —Overall, there are two things about that. The first is that the actual redevelopment will allow us to do integrated primary health services in the region. The Commonwealth funding has actually expanded the scope of the refurb works, so that, doing the sort of thing like construction of new staff accommodation, we will actually be able to attract and retain quality healthcare professionals to actually make the service effective. It is a pretty well-coordinated approach to getting better primary health care.

CHAIR —Very important up in that part of the world.

Senator BACK —What is the relevant funding between the Commonwealth and the state government for these programs?

Ms Fleming —They vary, project by project. For the one I just read out the Commonwealth contributed $1 million to the major hospital refurbishment project—and I correct myself here—worth $5.1 million. We provided $1 million of $5.1 million. The remaining $4.1 million was provided by the WA government.

Ms Foster —That was just for one component of that. The total Commonwealth funding for the health facilities refurbishment was actually $3.4 million.

Senator BACK —Yes.

Ms Foster —For the Kimberley program itself, the $195 million is all Commonwealth funding, but when we actually went down to individual projects, in some cases, what we were doing was contributing to an existing WA project. There will be WA money going in, potentially local money going in. The Commonwealth funding has enabled a specific, identifiable, extra thing to be built. In fact, the whole premise of the East Kimberley program was to make sure that we were building and supporting things for which there was as need already, rather than run the risk of building a facility where there were no children, or whatever. We have tried to take known programs and make them more effective.

Senator BACK —With the chairman’s concurrence, I wonder could you take on notice for us the expenditure of the $195 million. It sounds as though it has added enormous value. Could you give us an understanding—I imagine the $195 million has been spent across Queensland, the Territory and Western Australia?

Ms Foster —No, in this case, it is a program in the East Kimberley.

Senator BACK —That is entirely in the East Kimberley?

Ms Foster —Yes.

Senator BACK —That makes it easier. Would it possible to find out what the relative expenditure of the Commonwealth, $195 million, and what Western Australia’s contribution was matching that. Was it dollar for dollar across that whole project, or was it more than that?

Ms Foster —The East Kimberley development package was actually announced as, if you like, a Commonwealth government contribution to the overall Ord 2 redevelopment program.

Senator BACK —That is correct, yes.

Ms Foster —The WA government had committed, I think, $210 million to the Ord 2 redevelopment and the Commonwealth government said, ‘We will support and supplement that with $195 million in community and social infrastructure.’ It is not a question so much of, ‘We put in $2 million to the hospital and they put in $2 million.’ It is at a broader level, they putting in $210 million to Ord 2 redevelopment. We are putting in $195 million in community and social infrastructure, which will support the increased population that that redevelopment will bring and to make a community with greater amenity and support to support that WA government push.

CHAIR —Thanks, Senator Back. Please carry on, Ms Fleming.

Ms Fleming —The Kununurra Hospital expansion project, the WA government has advertised and gone to tender for that and that construction of a new facility is for a comprehensive, integrated, primary healthcare centre for Kununurra and the surrounding community. There is also the construction of short-stay accommodation for up to 16 patients and caretaker facilities. That tender was also advertised and it just recently closed on 19 May.

Ms Foster —That is looking to support patients who are receiving things like renal dialysis, oncology, cardiology, obstetrics, gynaecology, paediatrics. The design allows for future expansion. There is currently no short-stay patient accommodation for Indigenous people from the remote outlying communities who come to Kununurra and obviously a lot of those treatments are not things that you can come in and out quickly for.

CHAIR —Broome is closest.

Ms Foster —There is a mix of facilities that cater for live-in caretakers with culturally appropriate designs. There has been a lot of thought put into actually making this work for the community.

CHAIR —That is great.

Ms Fleming —There is a residential rehabilitation facility in Wyndham, which is again providing clients and families with culturally appropriate drug and alcohol rehabilitation services.

CHAIR —How much is that?

Ms Fleming —$3.2 million.

CHAIR —All up, or is that the Commonwealth’s contribution?

Ms Fleming —That is the Commonwealth’s contribution. There are also remote aged-care services in Warmun and Kalumburu. The tender was advertised for that and this project ensures continued access to aged-care services.

CHAIR —So you said Warmun and Kalumburu?

Ms Fleming —That is correct. There are remote clinics in Kalumburu and Warmun. The tender again has been advertised and closed on 19 May.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But tendered to do what?

CHAIR —Just carry on, Ms Fleming. Thank you. If you were listening, Senator Heffernan, you would have heard.

Ms Fleming —There is also environmental and health.

Ms Foster —We actually had some particular challenges with the remote clinics with asbestos, and so we did a little bit of reallocating of the money to make sure that we could continue to deliver those remote clinics. WA has been having some ongoing consultations as we develop these projects with the local communities, and that has resulted in some design changes, again to make sure that they are culturally sensitive.

Ms Fleming —There are environmental health measures for Kalumburu, Warmun and Oombulgurri. That is still in the planning stages and the funds will be utilised for delivery of environmental health related infrastructure.

CHAIR —Could you tell us what these are? Is it a tip clean-up, nutting of dogs? What is it?

Ms Fleming —It is to provide plant and equipment to regional environmental health teams, purchase and install incinerators, repair and replace fencing around waste water evaporation ponds, provide waste water pumps and water chlorination units and construct rubbish tips. The are the sobering up centres in Kununurra and Wyndham. Again, design work has been completed and procurement documentation is being prepared. The project will repair and upgrade the sobering up centres located in Wyndham and Kununurra, with internal and external works on driveways and bathrooms. There is health service provider housing in Kununurra. Again, we are at the planning stage. The project will construct accommodation for health professionals servicing Kununurra on eight blocks of land identified for this particular purpose.

Ms Foster —In fact, we have construction starting this month.

CHAIR —Eight blocks of land?

Ms Fleming —Yes.

CHAIR —Great, and starting this month—very good.

Ms Foster —At full capacity, our renal dialysis unit there will be able to cater for 16 patients a day. One of the things that we did not make clear at the outset was that one of the conditions around this program was that we would provide the infrastructure but that WA had to meet all the operational and recurrent costs, and that was partly why we went with existing programs. We have a very high level of confidence that, having built the facility, we will actually have the 16 patients a day. We have been working really closely; it is a great relationship actually between the WACHS, the WA Community Health Service, the Commonwealth health officer who is present in Perth and the two departments that are running it. This is a terrific example of having a facility which will meet an existing need.

CHAIR —That it is. If I can just ask you about that renal centre, when you talk about 16 patients per day, is that bedding for 16 or it can handle up to 16 in lots?

Ms Foster —It can handle up to 16 a day, yes. So it can provide a dialysis service for the 16 a day.

CHAIR —Considering the good work of Broome Regional Aboriginal Medical Service and the pressure they are under, that is a good outcome for the East Kimberley.

Senator BACK —Which agency of the Western Australian government is handling the construction phase of this?

Ms Fleming —The Department of Housing, in my understanding.

Ms Foster —It is actually BMW. The Treasury folks have been really heavily engaged in bringing together the programs so that we are maximising the use of labour. As you know much better than we do, getting actual sources of labour to do this sort of work in these remote communities is really hard. The WA government has a mechanism of bringing together the line agencies so that if we are doing, for example, a health project and an education project in the same community, they are scheduling it so that the same workforce can do both together.

Senator BACK —So they are fast-tracking this program, by the sound of it.

Ms Foster —There are a couple of really useful characteristics about it. One is bringing together the agencies. There is a coordinating agency like us in WA. They are using the Department of State Development to pull it together, but they have, in this case, the health department actually managing it and BMW sitting over the top of it saying, ‘Okay, Health, Education: you two need to work together.’ They are actually doing the scheduling.

Ms Fleming —There is the Wyndham Early Learning Activities Centre. We will construct, fit out and landscape a new building for the Wyndham Early Learning Activities Centre. We are at the planning stages of that, with the tender expected to be advertised in August or September.

CHAIR —It is going to be busy in Wyndham in the next few months, isn’t it?

Ms Fleming —I think so. The Kununurra Education Precinct consists of four projects. We will construct, upgrade and refurbish the secondary school facilities; construct, upgrade and refurbish the primary school facilities; construct and fit out the Kununurra school community library of approximately 400 square metres; and construct and fit out state of the art technologies to be attached to the school community library for upgrading the educational precinct.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Have you got a price for that?

Ms Fleming —That is $48.5 million.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But per square metre?

Ms Foster —No, we do not have that with us.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can you provide that?

Ms Fleming —The tender has been advertised.

Senator HEFFERNAN —When it comes in, can you provide it?

CHAIR —You can take it on notice.

Ms Fleming —We will take it on notice.

Ms Foster —That is actually a program—if I can jump in very quickly—that we are particularly proud of. It started off as four individual projects and as part of the negotiation, part of the consultation, WA came back to us and said, ‘We think we can get a better outcome if we pool these four projects and look at it as whole of life education.’

Senator HEFFERNAN —It is a public tender? It is not a government—

Ms Foster —It is an open tender.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The builder down the road can have a crack at it.

Ms Foster —Absolutely.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I will be interested to see.

Ms Foster —We have tried to maximise the capacity for locals to tender for this work.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It is $25,500 a square metre for a toilet block down the coast.

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, I am actually interested. I think your colleagues, Dr Eggleston and Senator Back, are too. Keep going, Ms Fleming, please.

Ms Fleming —There is the Kimberley TAFE upgrade in Wyndham and Kununurra. That is a $10 million project. The Wyndham campus will receive two new general purpose classrooms, and the Kununurra campus will have construction of a new trade facility, a double-size classroom and four additional classrooms, offices and ablutions. The tender has been advertised for that. There are community meeting rooms in Kununurra, Kalumburu, Oombulgurri and Darwal, and again, construction of culturally appropriate community meeting rooms in those communities, and the tender has been advertised.

Ms Foster —One of the things that we are hoping this will facilitate is adult learning in areas like health, cooking and IT. So we are providing safe facilities where those kinds of activities can take place.

CHAIR —I would be interested to hear how that progresses over the years.

Ms Fleming —There is early childhood building for the Jangdranung community. That is a $1 million project and it will construct and cater for early childhood activities and community activities, and that is at the planning stages as well. There is social housing in Kununurra and Wyndham and transition housing in Kununurra. This is a $50 million project. Contracts have been awarded and there are 23 dwellings under construction at present.

CHAIR —That is Kununurra and Wyndham?

Ms Fleming —That is correct.

Ms Foster —Again, that is another one where we had two programs, one for social housing and one for transition housing, and it became apparent in the process of developing the project plans in consultation with the communities that the distinction that we might make in Canberra between social housing and transition housing actually did not make sense. By transition, we mean the transition from social to own housing as we get people into work as part of this program. We were putting up barriers to people by distinguishing, and so we have combined those two programs into one so that we can make it as seamless as possible to transition people through the training work and into their own housing.

CHAIR —This is very good because, as I am sure Dr Eggleston would know, you can bang your head against a brick wall but it starts to hurt, doesn’t it, Senator Eggleston?

Senator EGGLESTON —Yes.

CHAIR —That is good.

Ms Foster —One of the other really exciting things about this particular project is that we have the WA Department of Housing working collaboratively with FaHCSIA, so with the Commonwealth government, and others to build a conceptual model and an operational framework for how we actually manage the housing so that we can maximise the local ownership, management and maintenance of this housing. As you all know, that has been one of the biggest problems we have faced—building this kind of housing and then finding after a number of years it is no longer usable or tenable, and so there is an operation like this happening in Wunan, as you know. It is much smaller scale than this, and so FaHCSIA has engaged some consultants who have quite a bit of experience in this area to help us put in place a policy or a framework that will maximise local participation, and then we will be able to monitor the outcomes and see if we actually get longer life and better quality out of this housing.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Do you mean homeownership or rental?

Ms Foster —At this stage, this program is about social housing, so government owned housing, and transition housing. So it has not actually gone to the next phase of ownership, as in actually owning the house, but it is trying to get ownership of the maintenance support.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But if it is in a community like Yuendumu, where half the adult population drinks all night and sleeps all day and does not own their own home and have no pride in it, isn’t it a waste of time?

Ms Foster —What we are trying to do is identify community organisations that will and are able to take responsibility for the overall maintenance—

Senator HEFFERNAN —I appreciate that.

Ms Foster —and there are organisations like that that we—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Are they intending to not only get the population educated but also get them to a stage where they look forward to leaving something in their will to their kids?

Ms Foster —Not in this context, but I have gone, for example, to the town camps in Alice Springs and have seen some really innovative work being done where the communities themselves—and, as you know, they are tiny communities in many cases—have chosen to come to arrangements with the Commonwealth government about the ownership of the land so that they can actually have homeownership. I think over the next few years, as we see those programs develop, we will be able to transition them from areas like Alice into the East Kimberley so that the Indigenous community can actually aspire to own their home and leave it to their kids, and I think this is a really significant, important step along that route.

Senator BACK —Can I ask, given the success of the program that is being rolled out in the East Kimberley, where is the learning for this Aboriginal housing program in the Northern Territory that has not yet delivered? Are there parallels that can be drawn from the cooperation and coordination between you and the WA Department of Housing to translate those behaviours into the Northern Territory Aboriginal housing project so that we can actually see an acceleration of that? Where are the common threads? Are you a common thread between the two, or is FaHCSIA a common thread?

Ms Foster —I think FaHCSIA is the common thread, but FaHCSIA is absolutely working with us on this. They have made quite a lot of changes to the way that they do business to accommodate this space based approach and comprehensive approach, and I know that they are thinking about what this means in terms of what they are doing elsewhere.

Senator BACK —Sure. If I can just continue on and perhaps pick up a point that the chairman and Senator Heffernan have made, we have all spent a lot of time in these communities and looked at the regrettable deterioration of housing, and obviously everyone is very concerned because housing is one of the key pillars in trying to alter behaviours and the wellbeing of the Aboriginal communities. In the tenders that are going out, are there requirements for builders to actually employ local people, particularly young people in the communities, to be part of the construction process, so that they do in fact have some pride in the construction and possibly a role in future maintenance?

Ms Foster —Absolutely.

Senator BACK —Can you just give us an idea how those requirements might play out?

Ms Foster —Sure.

Ms Fleming —It is my understanding that encouraging Indigenous employment as part of the construction is a core element of the tender, and I know that on the Wyndham swimming pool there were 12 Indigenous employees engaged in that particular tender. The tenders have not been set yet, so I cannot advise you how many Indigenous people will be employed on contracts not yet set, but we can report back to you as those contracts develop.

CHAIR —Could you take on notice, with the collaboration of our state colleagues and counterparts, not only the number of Indigenous employees but the number of Indigenous corporations that are utilised or successful over both streams of funding, Commonwealth and state?

Ms Fleming —We also have some money allocated to work with the shire on an Indigenous employment plan and strategy to ensure that we maximise the employment opportunities, short term and long term, being generated from the East Kimberley plan.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Is that an actual skill base in employment?

Ms Fleming —I am sorry?

Senator HEFFERNAN —Is there a requirement for a skill base, or is the requirement for employment without a skill base?

Ms Foster —In the contract we require the contractor to demonstrate to us what they are doing to encourage, support and actually deliver Indigenous employment as part of their contract. As we said before, Elise Anning, our officer in Kununurra, is co-located with the ICC, and so within that we have a joining up of the jobs people and the skills people—I cannot remember the names of all the organisations—so that we can match up what the contractors are telling us they think they can do and their job requirements.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But should it be the job of the contractor or the government? If you go to Wadeye, where half the kids do not go to school, or go to Yuendumu, where half the adult population drink all night and sleep all day, is it fair for a contractor to go in there to build some houses and have some sort of a quota for Indigenous jobs if they are not job ready?

Ms Foster —Our challenge is to try and make sure that we are marrying up the skills programs that the government is delivering and the requirements that we are putting on the contractors to utilise that skilled labour force where it exists. It is not in the Kimberley, but I saw a great example of this—again, I think it was in Alice Springs—where they were building houses in one of the town camps. The local company took me out to one of the houses that was being built and they had about a dozen Indigenous lads putting up the concrete forming for the house. It was going to take them something like six weeks longer to get that structure up than it would have if they had just brought in a subbie and built it, but both they and the government—in this case FaHCSIA, who was funding it—accepted that this would be a cost of getting there.

CHAIR —Ms Foster, this is very important. I am talking about Western Australia. It is very important—and I know that the state government works closely with the Miriuwung Gajerrong people up there, too, so it not just all hit and miss. We all share your concerns there, Senator Heffernan, but the comeback is that we need to be fair to other committee members. I do appreciate the feedback. Is there anything else that you wish to tell us, Ms Fleming? If there is not, I have probably got two more questions, then that is it.

Ms Fleming —There are only two more projects, so I might as well complete the list, with your indulgence.

CHAIR —Yes, please finish the list.

Ms Fleming —One is the Wyndham Port facility upgrade, which is the wharf structure, fender system, container park, electronic or substation services and buildings. That is $10 million. Design and approvals to progress and construction is expected to start in June and July.

CHAIR —That is to assist in live export trade, or fruit and vegetables, or commodities?

Ms Fleming —It is an upgrade of the port.

Ms Foster —It was actually degrading to the point that ships could not berth.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Could not get in there.

Ms Foster —It is actually for commodity exports like nickel concentrate, but also molasses, live cattle, associated ag products.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is a new way for the barge—

Ms Foster —It is actually making sure that the ships continue to berth in Wyndham.

CHAIR —That is great.

Senator BACK —Did you say there was dredging activity?

Ms Foster —No, this is actually just upgrading the facilities.

CHAIR —And the last one, Ms Fleming?

Ms Fleming —Is the construction of shared office facilities for up to 30 staff of the Gelganyem Trust and MG Corporation in Kununurra. That is at the planning stages.

CHAIR —That is the local Indigenous group?

Ms Fleming —That is a $4.5 million project.

CHAIR —Thank you, Ms Fleming. Can I just say—I do not think I will get a blue here, but who knows—this is a classic example of the three tiers of government working collaboratively for the benefit of the people of a region. I would like to congratulate not only the Commonwealth but the state government and the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley on their efforts.

Senator EGGLESTON —I wanted to ask a similar question about how this program began and who it was initiated by, and Senator Sterle has provided some of the answer. I see it is East Kimberley only, not the West Kimberley, for example, or East or West Pilbara. Was this initiated through the Kimberley Development Commission or the area consultative committees? How did the program come about?

Ms Foster —It was actually initiated by the two governments, so by the Commonwealth government the Western Australian government, and announced in the context of the December 2008 stimulus funding. It was a joint announcement by the—

Senator EGGLESTON —It is really related to the stimulus funding, and the West Kimberley is an area of special need; is that the case?

Ms Foster —As we were explaining before—

Senator EGGLESTON —I am sorry I was late.

Ms Foster —It was tied to Ord 2 expansion. That is what drove us to the East Kimberley, because the Western Australian government had announced that they were going to do this Ord 2 expansion and the federal government, in consultation with the WA government, said, ‘We will support that by this provision of community and social infrastructure.’

Senator EGGLESTON —Very good. I understand that now. It really was related to federal funding for Ord stage 2 and the Western Australian government wishing to have some attention paid to these various social and infrastructure issues. Are there any plans to duplicate this sort of program in the West Kimberley—in Derby, for example, or Fitzroy Crossing?

Ms Foster —At this stage, we are not aware of any plans.

Senator EGGLESTON —There is a need for the same sort of thing there, I think. What about in the Pilbara, East and West? Nothing similar?

Ms Foster —I know there is a lot of discussion going on about the needs of the Pilbara at the moment, but we do not have a specific program that has been decided in that region.

Senator EGGLESTON —When you say there is a lot of discussion going on, is it between the WA government and the federal government in relation to community infrastructure in the Pilbara? Is that what we are talking about?

Ms Foster —Yes, just to the general needs of the Pilbara region and how the governments might move forward in addressing those.

Senator EGGLESTON —When you say there is discussion, is there some sort of working party specifically considering Pilbara issues?

Ms Foster —I do not know of a working party. I know that, for example, from our portfolio’s perspective, there is a Regional Development Australia committee in the Pilbara, which has been meeting and discussing the needs of the Pilbara.

Senator EGGLESTON —Did you say Regional Development Australia?

Ms Foster —Yes. There is a Regional Development Australia network of 55 committees around the country. One of those is in the Pilbara and that is a joint initiative with the state government.

Senator EGGLESTON —Who would be represented on those management committees?

Ms Foster —Those committees are local people from either the business community or local government, or the local NGO communities. There are also two members of local council on every committee.

Senator EGGLESTON —Local government. Are there regional development commissions—the Pilbara Development Commission, for example, in the Pilbara?

Ms Foster —There are different arrangements across the states and I do not have all the details of WA to hand, but where there are existing development corporations, for example, in a region, in some cases the committees have cross-membership. In other cases, they just work very closely together.

Senator EGGLESTON —Where could I get further detail on this from—from you or from the state government?

Ms Foster —We can provide you with some more detail on RDA on notice.

Senator EGGLESTON —Could you do that on notice, please?

Ms Foster —Certainly.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Who is the agricultural driver in the office of northern development? Who is the guru?

Mr Mrdak —Sorry, how do you mean?

Senator HEFFERNAN —I have a got a thing here, right: ‘Selling the farm to China’. This is Tasmania, the dairy industry down there, the global food task doubling, 400 million live on the northern aquifer in China, running out of water. Who has got the grand plan for the reconfiguration of Australia, with a view to the north in agriculture? Who is the driver in the bureaucracy of that, or is it all too hard?

Mr Mrdak —No, far from it. Parliamentary Secretary Gray has overall responsibility for—

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am not interested in the minister. Who is the brains that is putting the bit of paper before the parliamentary secretary about, for instance, the soil type of the land at the convergence of the Margaret and the Fitzroy rivers? It is all very nice to hear about the bureaucratic blather. The development of the Gilbert River: who is actually doing that?

Ms Foster —I think that the questions you are asking go more to the heart of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, this is northern development. This was at the heart of the taskforce. Bear in mind that the wisdom at the time—fair enough; there was a change of government—said that we are not going to give it consideration. When the new Murray-Darling Basin Plan comes into action, which includes the science vagary of losing between 3,500 and 11,000 gigalitres of 23,000 gigalitres, mainly in the south of the Murray-Darling Basin, in most years, if the science is 40 per cent right, there will be a zero allocation in most river systems, which says to me we are going to have to develop other bits. If we do not do it, the Chinese will come and do it for us. There is nothing surer than that. We need to get the Foreign Investment Review Board to include agricultural land.

CHAIR —I would urge you to ask the question, Senator Heffernan.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I think this is urgent, but I have not heard a peep out of whatever you call yourselves now about agriculture, except to say that the burden of the task given to CSIRO—

Senator Conroy —Are you approaching a question?

Senator HEFFERNAN —the question is coming—had to exclude storage and damming water. Has there been no progress since the last time we were here about agriculture, what the opportunities are and why we do not go and have a look at the conjunction of some of the systems and the land soil types? There is actually more land soil type suitable on the Fitzroy than there is on the Ord.

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, you have asked the question. Give them a chance to answer it.

Senator HEFFERNAN —What progress have you made with the Northern Territory on the sovereign problem of the Keep River and its drainage—that sort of stuff? Who is doing that?

Mr Mrdak —Within the Office of Northern Australia, we are currently working on—

Senator HEFFERNAN —But who is the person?

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, you have asked the question. Let Mr Mrdak answer it because I want to hear it as well.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Who is the guy?

Mr Mrdak —The three people at this table are the people who are responsible for the Office of Northern Australia within the department.

Senator HEFFERNAN —All right. Can you tell me where you are up to with a look at a change to the proposition that you cannot actually have a water plant for Northern Australia that includes storage of water or damming of water? Have you had a look at the ridiculous proposition that that is?

Mr Mrdak —We are currently having a look at the Land and Water Taskforce report and doing some work for the government in response to that report. A number of things you have raised there are things which are being considered across the Commonwealth portfolios and advice back to the government on the land and water taskforce report.

Ms Foster —And, Senator, in the same way as we described for the East Kimberley package, one of the roles that we have been able play effectively is to bring together the Health and Education—

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, I appreciate the good work you are doing.

Ms Foster —We will work with people like Agriculture and the resources sector—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can I tell you why this is urgent? We do not want some of the young generation of farmers in the south to slit their wrists when they discover, if the science is right, what is going to happen to what has been the normal way of farming—which is why Wakool, lock, stock and barrel, the whole district has said, ‘Buy us out. We have had it.’ We do not want people slitting their wrists. We want to say, ‘There is a great opportunity somewhere else.’ If we do not get off our collective backsides and start to soil type—

CHAIR —Senator, you have made your point. I would urge you, now is not the time for lectures. If you do have a question you want—otherwise I am sure there will be another committee where your talents can be used.

Senator HEFFERNAN —In the consideration and planning of the northern—whatever it is—are you looking at the sovereign issues against the global food task?

Mr Mrdak —Sorry, in terms of sovereign issues, do you mean in terms of issues that are raised by the land and water taskforce on land title and—

Senator HEFFERNAN —The global food task is going to double by 2050. I am not a scientist, but 30 per cent of the productive land is going to go out of production. The sovereign issue is do we allow—and the Northern Development Taskforce, or whatever you call it now, ought to be giving considering to this.

CHAIR —The taskforce is no longer. It has been disbanded.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Do we allow a proposition where future development of the north can be under the guise of sovereign funds of China or India, or somewhere else and where do we protect our sovereignty?

Senator Conroy —Foreign investment decisions are for the treasury portfolio.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I understand that.

Senator Conroy —Then ask them.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The thinking and the foundation stone of the development of Northern Australia has got to not only be, ‘It is too hot’ or ‘It is too humid’. It has got to be which—it is a reasonable argument. They said—

Senator Conroy —It is Treasury.

CHAIR —It is a bit like the report of the taskforce. So why don’t you take it somewhere else.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It has got to be seen against the background of the reconfiguration of Australia, if the science is right on the weather.

Ms Foster —Absolutely. That is why we are working with a real sense of urgency across government to say, ‘The taskforce has raised a bunch of important issues.’ They have provided a framework for us to respond to that and we are looking at how we do that in a coordinated way.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Thanks very much for that. Ord stage 3: there is about 80,000 hectares if you fixed up that lead mine problem. A third of that is in the Northern Territory. Have the Northern Territory government changed their mind from when Clare Martin was there, that they were not interested in the development of Ord stage 3, which included the Northern Territory?

Senator Conroy —Why don’t you ask the Northern Territory government?

Senator HEFFERNAN —No. If a job—

Senator Conroy —That was the appropriate way.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Certainly it was the job of the taskforce in my time.

Mr Mrdak —Certainly Parliamentary Secretary Gray has initiated discussions with the Northern Territory government and coordinated with WA about looking at those issues about how the Northern Territory fits into the work we are doing at East Kimberley and are starting to take a broader—saying, ‘Let’s not just look at what falls within the boundary of Western Australia, and went to the Northern Territory.’ Particularly around those land and water issues, Parliamentary Secretary Gray is doing a lot of work on that.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can you report to this committee on where that is up to?

Mr Mrdak —Certainly. I will take that on notice.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can you also give consideration to other development opportunities? Everyone wants to seem to talk endlessly about the Ord, but there are other great developments—

Senator Conroy —There is a lead mine, we understand from Kimberley Metals, under consideration.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Obviously part of the infrastructure is combining tourism and mining opportunities and agriculture with common infrastructure, if a road is going to service the three, or a bridge or something. Can you report to us where you are up to with that, where you are up to with the proposition that because the three governments that were incumbent at the time of the CSIRO being endorsed to do that water study, they said, ‘Sorry, you can’t include in your foundation stone, storage of water.’ You are shaking your head at the back there.

CHAIR —They are probably rattled because they are trying to work out what you are on about.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No. My understanding, just to be clear—and I am sure Senator Macdonald would back this up—is that the CSIRO report said you cannot give consideration—

Senator Conroy —There is a joint ministerial committee of Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland that is looking at tropical agriculture with the support of the Commonwealth.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes. The foundation stone of what was in the northern taskforce report said it excluded storage and damming of water; true?

Ms Fleming —It is my understanding that the report did not exclude storage and distribution of water. What the report said was that this was highly problematic because of the climatic conditions—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Duh!

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, just have some respect for Ms Fleming.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is patently obvious.

Ms Fleming —It provides a framework for saying we need an evidence based scientific approach to looking at the developments that we have to have.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Where are we up to with that?

Ms Fleming —There is an MOU between us on the Keep, or more broadly?

Senator HEFFERNAN —No. As I understand it, the land and water taskforce reported, as you say, the storage and damming of water because of the bottom of the catchment: all that stuff that we all know. It is difficult. Where are we in trying to overcome that difficulty?

Ms Fleming —At this stage, we are consulting with relevant portfolios in drawing together a proposed response for the government. We are consulting with DEWHA, DAFF, Resources Energy and Tourism, and drawing together our draft.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Is if possible for people like us to be included in that consultative process?

Mr Mrdak —We will take that up with the parliamentary secretary.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Fair enough. Obviously there are sites—it is difficult. It is all difficult, but it is all imperative against the background of what is happening. It is urgent and there are umpteen sites up there that can be developed, as we all know, mosaicly, but I have not heard anything about it.

Ms Foster —We are working as expeditiously as we can to pull that response together. I understand also that Parliamentary Secretary Gray pulled together a Friends of Northern Australia meeting so that you could discuss with the taskforce, the issues that came.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, I know. We are very grateful to Mr Gray for that, but my urgency is that I am seeing this against the background of what is happening down here.

Ms Foster —Yes, I understand.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I apologise for my grumpiness.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You might help me with some of these. What is the Office of Northern Australia’s involvement with the Wild Rivers legislation in Queensland and the allegations by many Indigenous groups that it prevents them from using their land for any productive pursuits?

Ms Fleming —We are aware of the Wild Rivers issue. At this stage, that is a matter for the Queensland government. We are respectful of the views of Indigenous people, but we do understand from our discussions that some 113 developments have been put forward under that legislation and that those have been approved. So the Wild Rivers legislation provides a framework for development, it is not a no development option. That is a matter for the Queensland government and Indigenous.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It sure is, and you have repeated the propaganda—and I do not blame you for that—that the Queensland government puts out, but Indigenous people tell us that it has taken away any opportunity they had for productive use of their lands around those so-called wild rivers. I was just curious as to whether the federal government—and I am not asking you about the private members bill before the Parliament to overturn the Queensland legislation. I am simply asking you as the relevant department, whether you have looked at the difficulties Indigenous people have in, for example, farming that land, in your role as a promoter of northern development?

Ms Foster —We are aware of the issues. We are conscious of them. The Office of Northern Australia does not have a specific role in addressing that at the moment, as Ms Fleming has said.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I note today in the paper reference to Michael Ross handing over another big lump of Cape York Peninsula into a national park, which was a—

Senator Conroy —It was a state jurisdiction issue.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, but can I say, Minister, with a view to the national interest and to sovereign issues, it is difficult for us as a committee and for you as a task force or the office of whatever, to have to sit blindly by and watch half the Indigenous people up there wanting or having the aspiration of owning their own home to leave to their kids, to have some sort of commercial or agricultural development from which they are excluded. Some of them, of course, are happy to live the alternative lifestyle and just do the tourism thing, or knock around with boomerangs or something, but there are many people who want to be educated and get a quid and leave something to their kids and improve their lot in life, and it seems to me that it is siloed, and we need for you and the wisdom of the Commonwealth to be brought to bear on the wisdom of the state, with a view to further development.

And to that end, what would be the position regarding sovereign funds—as they have done in New Zealand, where they are trying to buy 17,000 cows in one hit from the diary farmers there—if they had said, ‘If you don’t want to develop Fitzroy and Margaret Rivers, we want to come in and do it with China’s sovereign funds, but we want to actually export the potential of that back to China. We will provide all the infrastructure et cetera’? Do we just let that happen?

Senator Conroy —I think that is a rhetorical question rather than a substantive—

Senator HEFFERNAN —No it is not. It is a serious question about where agriculture is going.

Senator Conroy —We will take it on notice. If there is anything we can add—

Senator HEFFERNAN —The northern development office is a serious player in the future of Australia.

CHAIR —Senator Macdonald.

Senator Conroy —We will take on notice your question and if there is anything we can add, we will.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you, Mr Chairman. I do not want to verbal the chairman while he is out here but, in response to Senator Heffernan, he said the task force is now no more; it has been disbanded. Is that correct?

Ms Foster —That is correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is the chairman of that former task force, the most recent chairman, still on the payroll?

Ms Foster —Not of the Office of Northern Australia.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —On the department’s payroll at all?

Ms Foster —No.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I have noticed some letters being written by the chairman recently. Is the department assisting in the drafting of those letters?

Ms Foster —Not to my knowledge.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I think you are getting some updated advice there. I will find out about that.

Ms Foster —Sorry, I was just clarifying. Mr Ross was not paid in his role as the chair of the task force.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Still, though?

Ms Foster —He was not paid in his role as the chair of the task force, and we are not paying him anything now.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. But is he getting assistance from the department in things like writing letters to the editor in various newspapers, as recently—I think I saw one last week somewhere.

Ms Foster —Senator, my office has worked quite closely with Mr Ross over the past several years of the task force, and I think there is ongoing discussion between them, but I do not have any detail of what the nature of that is.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Does Mr Dickson write the letters for him?

Ms Foster —Mr Dickson certainly has worked very closely with Mr Ross over many years, but I would need to take on notice what work is actually happening, if any.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Take that on notice, by all means, although I suspect the answer is sitting right behind you, but I think I saw a letter, as I say, sometime in the last week from Mr Ross, and I just wonder if the department had any role in drafting or distributing that letter.

Ms Foster —Sorry, I am at a loss, because I do not have the letter and I do not know it, so I will take it on notice and get back to you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Perhaps you could inquire through the minister’s office. The members of the task force, for those who chose to accept it, were offered an honorarium—not an honorarium. What do they call it? A per diem payment—

Senator Conroy —Sitting fee.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sitting fee. Yes, that is correct.

Ms Foster —And expenses, I think.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, and I am aware that some of the task force members refused to accept that. Is it possible to give the committee—no names—on notice, some details of the payments that have been made in the way of sitting fees, accommodation, travel, over the last financial year? Would that be—

Ms Foster —We can certainly take that on notice.

Senator HEFFERNAN —How much a day do they pay?

Ms Foster —I do not know, sorry.

Mr Mrdak —We will find out what the daily rate was for those who accepted the per diem.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The task force made a number of recommendations, and I heard Mr Mrdak say that the department was working on the report. When do we expect a government response to this particular report and the recommendations contained in it?

Mr Mrdak —The government has not set a time frame as yet. I think that will be somewhat driven by our analysis and by, as Ms Foster has indicated, the work of the other agencies and when we can get that back to them.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am not trying to pin you down to a date, but is that work advanced in your department?

Mr Mrdak —Our department’s work is relatively well advanced but, I think as Senator Heffernan has highlighted, there are a range of complex issues. I cannot give you a definitive time frame as yet as to when we will be completing our analysis.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Most of the recommendations related to—I have been quoted as saying motherhood type statements—things like recommending that the government should significantly increase investment in climate, water, land and environmental data collection and so on—and who could disagree with that. It seems to me that the only two substantive recommendations, apart from, ‘Government should get more data and should investigate this and think about that’—and as I say, who can argue with that—are 14 and 15:

The Commonwealth Government should, in conjunction with the governments of Western Australia, Queensland and Northern Territory, establish a Northern Australia Land and Water Authority … headquartered in northern Australia, to build institutional capacity …

Is the department doing any work on that recommendation or has the government made any announcements in relation to it?

Ms Foster —We are looking at all of the recommendations, but until we actually provide advice to government and government chooses what it wishes to announce, we are really not in a position to discuss our response to specific recommendations.

Senator HEFFERNAN —We would like to give you a hand with that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Recommendation 15 states:

A Council of Northern Australia … should be established. Chaired by the Prime Minister—

that would be good—

… comprising first Ministers of … should develop an integrated vision …

Would our Prime Minister have time to do that? He is so busy around the world and around Australia.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am sure he would delegate.

Ms Foster —That is obviously what the task force recommended and, as with the previous answer, we are really not in a position to discuss what the government’s response will be until we have provided advice and the government has made a decision.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Would it be the responsibility of your department and perhaps the office which is leading the analysis of these recommendations and the report generally?

Ms Foster —That is right, but in very close collaboration with the other agencies which would contribute to any response.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But you are bringing it together?

Ms Foster —We are bringing it together.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —And is that work being done in the Office of Northern Australia or in the wider department?

Ms Foster —In the Office of Northern Australia, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Some of the 15 officers based in Canberra would be doing that entirely. Would they be getting help from the rest of the department as well?

Ms Foster —As necessary. If there are issues that cross into the rest of the department, then they will call on that expertise, but the work is being led by Robyn’s branch.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Following Senator Heffernan’s question, is there any definitive work being done at the instigation of the Office of Northern Australia, or the department, on the storage of water in the north?

Ms Foster —No work of substance, and I think it goes back to the earlier point of where the Office of Northern Australia can best contribute. That is, I think, not by doing the work of other portfolios where the weight of the issue lies. For example, in response to the task force report, we will be working closely with agencies like DEWHA and RET—Resources, Energy and Tourism—to formulate responses to all of those issues.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I think both Senator Heffernan and I, at last estimates, raised the issue of the release of this report and what seemed to be a selective leak, and a very negative one, I may say. As I recall, the department was going to make some inquiries as to how the report was leaked to the Australian the day before the minister actually formally released it.

Ms Foster —You asked on notice if we had any knowledge of that leak and we responded in writing, saying that we did not.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Did you? Thank you. I must have missed that, although I am sure my staff have not. You have no information on—

Ms Foster —On how the story came to be in the Australian, no.

Senator HEFFERNAN —What was his name, the guy?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The guy from WWF?

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, the plaited armpit fellow. Wasn’t he the author in the Australian? Wasn’t he the source? You would not have to be a genius to work out who gave it to the Australian because he was mentioned in the story. He was quoted as saying, ‘It’s all off; it’s over.’ It did a lot of damage, I have to say, to the good work of the task force.

CHAIR —Ms Foster, you have answered Senator Macdonald’s question, plainly. Senator Macdonald, do you have any more questions?

Senator HEFFERNAN —You did not work out it was him when he was quoted in the paper? What was his name? Stuart Blanch.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You did say, in answer to a question on notice, that the Australian government does not have a ‘no dams’ policy. Does that mean it does have a ‘yes dams’ policy?

Ms Foster —We were responding to that question in the context of, ‘Did the Australian government have a no dams policy and, therefore, instruct the land and water task force not to consider dams.’ The answer is, no, the land and water task force came to their own conclusion about the cost effectiveness of damming and the relative merits of damming and use of groundwater.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You will be aware of the report in the Australian, I think we referred it to you before, quoting Dr Creswell, who said:

We weren’t asked not to investigate them, but we were told it wasn’t necessary to investigate them.

Mr Mrdak —We cannot comment on that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I now want to move on from the task force, unless anyone wants to ask anything?

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can I just ask a question?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Why would it not be a proposition for the Office of Northern Australia to actually go and have a look at something? I mean, you talk about damming water. Do you know how many ways you can dam water besides a wall?

Mr Mrdak —We do work with the agencies that have the expertise in these areas. My officers will visit areas and look at these things as we need them.

CHAIR —Why do you not just listen to the answer, Senator Heffernan?

Senator HEFFERNAN —I heard the answer.

CHAIR —No, you heard the little bit you wanted to hear. Do you want to listen to the whole answer? Mr Mrdak, have you finished answering Senator Heffernan’s way-out question?

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, he has. In some of those rivers, like, you can have weir sand storage—that is, damming. Was that excluded or included in the instruction from Dr Creswell? What was a ‘dam’ that he was referring to? Is it a wall?

Mr Mrdak —The answer we would provide is the Australian government did not provide any instruction not to consider any of these—

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am not saying it did, but I just wondered what describes a ‘dam’?

Mr Mrdak —I think, as you have pointed out, there are a multitude of ways in which you can store groundwater.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Obviously, storing it underground is better than storing it on top of the ground.

Mr Mrdak —There are a multitude of ways.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I do have a question. If I were to invite the northern task force to give evidence at the select committee on agriculture, which is looking at how we provide food that is affordable for a sustainable environment and a viable farmer, who would be the person that I should invite?

Mr Mrdak —The task force has been wound up.

Senator HEFFERNAN —From the northern development office?

Mr Mrdak —It would be open to you to invite the people who participated in the task force.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, the people who are up to it currently?

Mr Mrdak —If you wished, you could invite this portfolio, my department, or the people who participated in the task force’s report.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Thank you.

CHAIR —Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you. Is your department, in its role looking after rural, regional, northern, remote and Western Australia, for which I see the parliamentary secretary also has responsibility, able to access information on the zone tax rebates for rural and regional Australia?

Mr Mrdak —We do not hold that information.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are you able to access it?

Mr Mrdak —I would have to take that on notice. I do not know if we can. I think that material is held by the tax office. I do not know whether we as a department would be able to access that information.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —As the department for regional Australia, Northern Australia and Western Australia, which I am always curious about—I am wondering where the minister for Queensland is, but anyhow—

CHAIR —You have got a Prime Minister, a Treasurer, the President of the Senate—I reckon you are well and truly represented up there.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You are quite right. How about a minister for Tasmania, or South Australia?

Senator Conroy —Don’t you make fun of Tasmania, Senator Macdonald. It is very, very important.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Minister, it may be a good point to ask you. Why is there a minister for Western Australia, but not a minister for South Australia or for New South Wales which, heaven forbid, certainly needs a bit of help.

Senator Conroy —I do not want to make the obvious point, but I think you have run these lines before.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —What was your answer?

Senator Conroy —I think I ignored them, as I did this time.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is pretty typical.

Senator Conroy —They are not questions; they are rhetorical flourishes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Could we find out what the minister for Western Australia does then?

Senator Conroy —We have had that discussion at length, too, Senator Macdonald.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Could I just ask a question. Has the Office of Northern Australia given consideration to doing a feasibility study on joining up the Mount Isa railway line to the north-south line?

Mr Mrdak —No.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Would it be possible to request a feasibility on that?

Mr Mrdak —We can take that on notice.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You are aware of the mining it would open up?

Mr Mrdak —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Could you take that on notice?

Mr Mrdak —I am happy to take it on notice.

Senator Conroy —I have even been lobbied about it.

Senator HEFFERNAN —There you go. We ought to do it. We ought to actually do some things.

CHAIR —Okay. Senator Macdonald.

Senator Conroy —We are actually laying 6,000 kilometres of—

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, but I mean about planning the north, with great respect.

Senator Conroy —With great respect, Senator Heffernan, it runs from Darwin through Tennant Creek, through to Mount Isa, Emerald, Longreach, down to Toowoomba and it will open up the mining regions in Central and Northern Queensland because it now finally gets access to decent broadband. We are actually laying and digging that as you speak, as you sit there.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am talking about a railway line, which carts stuff, gives a bit of competitive tension to the fertiliser market, for instance.

Senator Conroy —As you sit there right now, they are digging a trench along the route I have just described.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, but you cannot actually eat what they are putting in the ground.

CHAIR —All right. Order! We do not need banter between Senator Heffernan and the minister. Senator Macdonald, we have 20 minutes left before the lunch break.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I have just about finished, Mr Chairman. In answer to a question taken on notice last time, the answer was the $195 million East Kimberley development package is currently the only administered funding program falling within the responsibilities of Parliamentary Secretary Gary Gray. Has that changed at all?

Ms Foster —No.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is still the only package. We have been through what has been done with that package. Is there any thought of replicating that sort of package in the Northern Territory or Queensland?

Ms Foster —Senator Eggleston was asking a similar question before in regards to the West Kimberley, and there is currently no specific program under consideration or being proposed.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I recall Senator Eggleston did have some very penetrating questions on the West Kimberley, but does the office have any involvement whatsoever in a promotional role of the new mineral projects, support projects, and infrastructure projects in the West Kimberley or anywhere else in Northern Australia, might I say?

Ms Foster —In that sense, the office works to support Parliamentary Secretary Gray in his role, and so the office’s efforts are focused on supporting Parliamentary Secretary Gray in his—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Has the office done any modelling, or is it undertaking any modelling on the impact that a mining super tax would have on the economy of Northern Australia as opposed to the rest of Australia?

Mr Mrdak —Those matters are being handled by Treasury, in terms of the taxation proposals, not by our portfolio.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. I appreciate that Mr Henry got Senator Conroy into this and he will have to try and wheedle their way out of it. But the Office of Northern Australia I am particularly interested in, because quite clearly the facts from your compendium on Northern Australia show that almost 40 per cent of Australia’s export earnings come from Northern Australia, the area for which the office has prime government responsibility. I just thought, perhaps, the office might then have a very major concern about what would happen to the economy of Northern Australia, were the mining tax introduced, and those companies which have threatened to withdraw actually action those threats. Is that something that the—

Mr Mrdak —They are not matters on which we can comment. The government has got a process in train to deal with those issues, and that is being handled in another portfolio.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I understand that, and that is appropriate, Mr Mrdak. I am just again saying: in Secretary Gray’s portfolio area, Western Australia, which is very important, but the balance of Northern Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, is heavily reliant upon the activity, the infrastructure, the jobs creation, and the wealth generated by mines in the north of Australia, where, frankly, most of them are. And I just thought Parliamentary Secretary Gray, not because of his own electorate where all the fly-in fly-out people live but as a minister in the Australian government, might have a particular interest in the impact on Northern Australia.

Mr Mrdak —Certainly, the parliamentary secretary has been engaged in meetings with the mining industry and, I think, has made statements to the parliament in relation to these matters. He is certainly very heavily engaged as the government’s representative representing WA and Northern Australia.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is he engaged in the consultations ex post facto, I might say, with the mining industry over whether the rates should be six per cent or 12 per cent and whether it should be retrospective or prospective?

Mr Mrdak —My understanding is he is engaged. I am not too sure whether that is in those formal consultations that are being led by the consultative committee or in other forums, but my understanding is he has been engaged in discussions, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. Perhaps you could take on notice—or the minister might take on notice for reference to Mr Gray’s office—on just what part Mr Gray is playing in his role as parliamentary secretary for Northern and Western Australia.

Senator Conroy —Happy to take that on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That was my question. Thank you, Minister. Just finally—and I do not think I have got anything els—I am very appreciative to the officers for their answers and their assistance.

CHAIR —Hear, hear.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —When are we—

CHAIR —One o’clock, Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —No, I am—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can I just ask a question?

CHAIR —No, no. Hang on. Sorry.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I was just going to say when have we set, or haven’t we yet set the time, for responses to—

CHAIR —21 July, questions on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can I just finalise that with a question to Mr Mrdak. The 21 July date for responses to questions on notice: on the questions we have asked on notice in this particular area—forget about what has happened yesterday and other than today, but in this area—do you see any difficulties in getting the answers back by 21 July?

Mr Mrdak —The department has its processes to have the answers developed. We make every effort to get them done as speedily as possible.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Given that—

Senator Conroy —We have had this conversation already with Senator Nash.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Given there is going to be an election on 28 August, we would like to get them in July.

CHAIR —Okay. Hang on, Senator Heffernan. Senator Macdonald, have you—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is—

CHAIR —Okay. Minister, just before I go to Senator Eggleston, I just want to stress Senator Macdonald’s point about the importance of these northern mining projects being built in the north, and I am not sure if committee members are aware that on 27 April, Australia’s richest woman, Ms Gina Reinhart, took out a full page in the West Australian calling for all northern economic zones of all these projects to be built with cheap foreign labour, not Australians, and not Australian wages, but I am sure that will generate some conversation. Senator Eggleston.

Senator EGGLESTON —I want to ask a question about the North Australia council and how that might be progressed and set up. Yesterday I went to a lunch with the scientific advisers to the task force, and obviously they have a very broad concept of how this North Australia council could work, which ranged from dealing with agricultural and Indigenous issues to health issues and so on. What role will your office play in formulating the structure and the mission statement, if you like, of that North Australia council, if you are able to say anything?

Ms Foster —I am afraid at this stage, because the response is under development, we are not in a position to comment on the nature of the advice we might give to government or, indeed, speculate on what they might choose to do.

Senator EGGLESTON —But if government decides to proceed, you would obviously be used as a resource.

Ms Foster —Indeed, and at that stage we would be very happy to discuss those issues.

Senator EGGLESTON —Okay. Thank you. That is all.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Does the Office of Northern Australia have anything to do with that particular conference that Senator Eggleston attended yesterday?

Ms Foster —Yes, it was there, I understand.

Ms Fleming —I understand Senator Eggleston—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Did you have anything to do with the organisation of that conference?

Ms Fleming —No, I am just wanting to clarify whether Senator Eggleston is referring to the three science offices from Northern Territory, WA and Queensland, who were in town yesterday and whom the Office of Northern Australia met with separately. Is that the—

Senator EGGLESTON —That was it. I went to a lunch with them yesterday at the Kurrajong Hotel.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Did you have anything to do with this lunch that Senator Eggleston went to?

Ms Fleming —No, but we met with them separately.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sorry?

Senator EGGLESTON —You were expected, I understood.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Oh, was I? I was going to say do you have any idea why Senator Eggleston was invited, which was very, very appropriate, and that I was not, but—

Senator EGGLESTON —No, I think you were.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Senator Eggleston tells me that I was expected.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can I ask where we are up to with the lead mine at Kununurra?

Mr Mrdak —I would have to take that on notice. I am not aware of where that one is up to.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You are aware of the lead mine, though?

Senator Conroy —I actually mentioned it just before.

Mr Mrdak —I will find some details for you, Senator.

Ms Foster —What is your specific interest?

Senator HEFFERNAN —If we are going to do the full development of Ord 2 and 3, including Carlton Hills, and sort out the sovereign issue with the drainage down the Keep River et cetera, you are going to have to do something about the lead mine. I just wondered whether the global food task might be more important than the lead mine.

Ms Foster —We will take that on notice and come back to you.

Senator HEFFERNAN —In the considerations with Mr Dickson and others—this was raised three years ago—has there been any further talks about the lead mine within what was the task force and is now the Office of Northern Australia?

Ms Fleming —We are aware of the lead mine issue, but we would have to take the details on notice.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Have there been any discussions? Surely you would know if there have been discussions with the Western Australian government or the owners of the lead mine or—

Ms Foster —Sorry, I do not have any information. We will have to come back to you on that.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So there have not been, by the sound of it, because Mr Dickson would know.

Ms Foster —Not to my knowledge, but I just do not want to—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Could you update us as to the various options being considered, and if there are not being any options considered, could we put on notice that we would like some options considered for the complete development of that.

Ms Foster —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The minister has been very helpful about that railway line which is a vital bit of Australia’s infrastructure for the future, from Mount Isa to join up to the north/south line. There has been serious consideration, I understand, given to that now by the government. Could we also give consideration to some sort of a preliminary investigation of a couple sites, just to get the thing seeded and started with a feasibility study—maybe the Gilbert River? Otherwise we will be sitting here in 50 years saying, ‘We’re going to look into it.’ If it turns out to be a stupid idea, it turns out to be a stupid idea, But let us find out.

Mr Mrdak —Those are the sorts of options we may wish to consider in responding to the task force report.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Thanks very much.

CHAIR —There are no further questions for the Office of Northern Australia. Ms Fleming, we thank you very much.

Proceedings suspended from 12.53 pm to 2.00 pm

CHAIR —I welcome everybody back. I welcome Mr Doherty from Aviation and Airports. I call on Senator Back.

Senator BACK —I want to ask some questions regarding compulsory passenger and baggage screening. Is it appropriate to direct those questions to you?

Mr Wilson —That would be in the session with the Office of Transport Security, which will follow Aviation and Airports, Airservices and CASA, so later this afternoon.

—Good. In that case, I will defer those questions until then and move on to another area. I refer to the management of airports leased from the Commonwealth to corporate or private operators. Would that come under your perspective?

Mr Wilson —Yes.

—The chairman and I have been participating, in this case under Senator Nash’s chairmanship, in a number of meetings regarding airport noise, and from those meetings I would like to ask you in particular about two airports that come to mind—that is, Jandakot Airport in Perth and Moorabbin Airport in Melbourne. As a committee we have been somewhat concerned at the relationship between the airport operators and the community and the local government in which they are positioned. Is this an area that has some interest to yourselves or responsibility by yourselves?

Mr Wilson —Very much so.

Senator BACK —Specifically, without wanting to break confidentiality of sums of money charged, could you give us some guidance in the contracts between the Commonwealth and these operators? Could you point us to the responsibility the operators have in communicating with the communities in which the airports are located?

Mr Mrdak —I will start, and then I will ask my officers to go into a little bit more detail. There is no commercial contract as such. The regulatory regime for the leased federal airports, since they have been privatised, is set out clearly in the legislation. That legislation does create obligations on the airport operators in how they consult in terms of their strategic planning documents—the master plan and major development plan documents. Also, the aviation white paper—and Mr Doherty may wish to comment on this in more detail—that the government released in December last year contains some significant amendments. The government proposes that legislation in relation to improving the planning and consultation processes with local government, state governments and the community and also sets some key expectations the government has for improving the relationship between the airport operators and the community. It is fair to say that the legislation sets the framework for that relationship and the expectations of the government. Mr Doherty or Ms Gosling may wish to comment some more.

Mr Doherty —In terms of the legislative framework, the master plan is probably the key document which sets out the intentions for the next 20 years for the operation of the airport. That is reviewed on a five-year cycle. As part of that process, the airport comes forward with the ANEF, which is the document which sets out the assessment of the noise impact of operations at the airport. If then there is going to be a major development, particularly something which relates to runways or the operation of the airport, that requires a further consultation process, including public consultation, which would look at the impacts of that proposed development. If you take Jandakot, which is the one of the examples you raised, the master plan includes the proposal for an additional runway. That proposal would need to go through the MDP process and have the implications of that proposed construction dealt with.

In terms of policy development and the issue that Mr Mrdak pointed to—the community consultation groups—one of the key themes in the white paper was to try to improve the alignment between what goes on at the airport and the surrounding areas, both for planning and for development. There were a couple of key proposals there. One was to establish a high-level group between governments, including representatives of local councils, to look at the planning but also to improve the relations with the community. The community consultation groups as envisaged in the white paper would have an independent chair and would bring together representatives from the community in an ongoing meeting format which would be able to address all the issues which impact on the community from the operation of the airport and make sure that there is an effective voice.

Senator BACK —So this is something proposed into the future, is it?

Mr Doherty —That is something that will build on arrangements that some of the airports already have, but we are looking for those to be rolled out more widely and to be improved. To support that, there have recently been some guidelines issued as a discussion document to try to establish the key requirements for that sort of group.

Senator BACK —Could you take us through what might be the impositions or penalties on the operators in the event that they do not participate in that local government and state government community consultation process or what the dispute resolution mechanisms might be in the event that the parties just simply cannot reach agreement?

Mr Doherty —I will hand over to Ms Gosling in a moment to add to that. The structure of the groups as they are proposed would not be prescribed in detail in legislation. So there is not at the moment a proposal for a legislative sanction. The expectation is that the groups will work better, that we will, from our side, participate in those groups and try to gauge how well they are going. There is always the possibility that the government may see a need to go further and give the requirement legislative backing in the future.

Ms Gosling —It is also important to note that under the Airports Act 1996 there are processes in place for statutory periods of public consultation on the master plans for a 60-day period. The airport lessee company has to have due regard to those comments before submitting its master plan to the minister. So everything that Mr Doherty has mentioned is in addition to the statutory framework that currently exists.

Senator BACK —You mentioned a 60-day period. Is that the case? One of the complaints put to us—

Senator Conroy —These are the airports that you privatised. We are talking about the airports that your government privatised.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are you going to renationalise them, Minister?

Senator Conroy —No. I just wanted to make sure that we knew what we were talking about the airports you nationalised—privatised, sorry. I have nationalised on the mind there, Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Which you disagree with, do you?

Senator BACK —The reason I ask that is that a complaint raised with us in regard to Moorabbin was that the master plan is in a draft form, it has been sent back to the operators and there has been no response from the operators. There was a degree of frustration. It might have been the Kingston City Council that said that the whole thing had come to a halt, that nothing was progressing and that they just felt powerless in this process. You mentioned a 60-day period.

Ms Gosling —The way it works with the master plan is that there is a 60-day consultation period under the act where the airport has to release what is called a preliminary draft master plan for public consultation. There are also, in addition, specific provisions in the act that require the airport lessee company to forward the master plan to local stakeholders such as state government and local government authorities. At the end of that 60-day period, the airport receives back submissions, has to have due regard to them and has to do a schedule that accompanies what is then called a draft master plan—it goes from being a preliminary to a draft—to the minister with a sort of schedule of how they have addressed public comments. At that stage the minister then has a 50-business-day period to assess the master plan.

In relation to Moorabbin, that master plan has been lodged with our minister for assessment. We are probably not at liberty to discuss the details in terms of the content of it, because that assessment process is still underway and the minister is yet to make his decision. But it is correct to say that at the moment we have a provision in the act to stop the clock to seek additional information from the airport lessee company, and that is where that master plan currently stands.

Senator BACK —Can I ask you to respond to a couple of concerns that they raised that seem to me to be very real. One of them was the possibility—perhaps it is in the draft master plan—that Moorabbin could move to half a million air movements per annum. They would see that intrusion over their communities as being very severe.

Mr Doherty —We do not have the actual projections here, but we understand the general nature of that concern. Yes, there is the potential for movement numbers at these airports to grow, with the noise impact potentially increasing.

Senator BACK —Is there any capacity for the community to influence that? I follow that by saying that a significant number of these movements are take-off and landing training activities. Some of this I will probably raise with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. The community’s points were, firstly, training over built-up areas per se; secondly, the air route taken, their plea being it go down the river and over less residential areas, but they have been ignored; thirdly, the dramatic increase in helicopter traffic, with its attendant noise; and, fourthly, the risk attendant upon take-offs and landings. They have already had one death of a student pilot. They fear for others. I would have thought these were real concerns. None of them, incidentally, want to see Moorabbin Airport moved. There is no suggestion of that, but there is just this frustration, both from residents’ groups and the council, that they simply cannot get any satisfaction.

Mr Doherty —I think those are the sorts of concerns that we would see coming up in two ways. At the master plan stage where there is the public consultation on the proposed operations and the opportunity for them to come back; the airport is then required to summarise those, to make those submissions available to the minister; and the minister’s process of considering the master plan would, I think, be partly about making sure that those sorts of issues have been properly canvassed. The community consultation group, when it is working effectively, would be a powerful tool, too, to then deal with those issues during the five years until the next master plan round, but also to help prepare for how those issues might be addressed. We would see that there are a range of possibilities to help address those issues, including fly-neighbourly policies, helping track and move aircraft operations to where they are going to cause less damage, particularly in relation to issues like helicopters and others that can be fast growing in some areas, and looking for ways to try to achieve the best outcome that meets both the community’s needs and the airport’s.

Senator BACK —Are you suggesting that that is a five-year delayed process? Did I understand you correctly?

Mr Doherty —No. I think the five-year cycle for master plans means that once every five years the minister has the chance to influence the direction. But once these community consultation groups are operating effectively, that will be fed into operations on a day-to-day basis and they can be used to address issues as they arise.

Senator BACK —So if the draft master plan is in with the minister at the moment, would the minister then, as part of his consideration of that draft master plan, be seeking public input at this stage?

Mr Doherty —The way that the provisions work, the public input stage to that master plan has essentially passed. That happens at the stage when the draft is being prepared for submission to the minister.

Ms Gosling —So that is the 60-day consultation period.

Senator BACK —So that has expired, has it, for this particular site?

Ms Gosling —Yes. But under the act they are all issues that the minister would have regard to in a final decision on a draft master plan and, in particular, the act actually specifies the consultations and the outcomes of consultations are a factor that the minister has to have regard to.

Senator BACK —Thank you. Regarding the Sydney Airport Community Forum, could you tell us what the budget for 2010-11 is for the secretariat?

Mr Stone —The secretariat is funded from within departmental resources. However, there is a contract with the chair for sitting fees, that is, Mr Barry Cotter. Those fees are in the order of $40,000 per year.

Senator BACK —That would be a relatively consistent figure over the last two or three years?

Mr Stone —That has been the figure, as I understand it, since Mr Cotter has been in the chair.

Senator BACK —And going into the future years, is there an intention that the secretariat—is secretariat the correct term?

Mr Stone —The secretariat is provided by the department and that is funded from within departmental resources.

Senator BACK —So there is a gentleman who is paid separately to the secretariat?

Mr Stone —That is right.

Senator BACK —And is it the intention that that position continues, if it can be so-called a position?

Mr Doherty —Obviously that is a matter for the government minister, but that has been the practice—that there has been an independent chair appointed.

Senator BACK —Can you just tell me—I am not familiar specifically with the airport community forum—how far into the past has that arrangement been in place?

Mr Mrdak —The current independent chair was put in place by this government in 2008. From recollection, previous to that the committee has been chaired by a member of parliament.

Senator BACK ——So there was no actual additional cost?

Mr Mrdak —That is correct. It had been chaired previously since its inception by a member of parliament.

Senator BACK —And the secretariat, as you say, is simply supplied out of the department. Therefore, there has not been specifically an allocation to that secretariat support?

Mr Mrdak —No. We funded that within the general resourcing for Mr Stone’s branch of the department.

Senator BACK —Are there other airports similar to Sydney that the department offers that level of support to in addition to the one we are discussing?

Mr Mrdak —We do participate in a number of consultative committees around the country, but not to the same level of secretariat support that we do for Sydney airport.

Senator BACK —I just have one other series of questions, if I may. Again, they go back to this inquiry that the deputy chair, Senator O’Brien, and I have been on. It relates to a specific example. The airport I am speaking of is the Tyabb Airport on the Mornington Peninsula. A number of questions and submissions came to us in Melbourne regarding again this question of communication between the operators of those airstrips—should I call them, because they are not, strictly speaking, airports. Are these under your control at all or do you have any oversight of those—shall I call them—privately owned airstrips?

Mr Doherty —No, we do not have the same level of control over those airstrips as over the leased federal airports. There may be a degree of regulation through CASA about the safety requirements for the strips, but we generally do not have a supervisory role for those airstrips.

Senator BACK —Under Aviation and Airports, you do not have any role at all? They are not licensed with you? You do not require of them any standards for operating activity?

Mr Stone —The Civil Aviation Safety Authority sets the operational safety standards for aerodromes no matter what the ownership. In the case of the planning and environmental oversight of those airports, they are the responsibility of the Victorian government.

Senator BACK —I will defer now, if I may, and come back with some more questions later.

Senator NASH —Can you give us some background of exactly what the Remote Aviation Infrastructure Fund was put in place to do, and the funding allocation for that?

Mr Wilson —The Remote Aviation Infrastructure Fund was put in place in the 2009-10 budget, and it has been extended through the 2010-11 budget. Funding is available for $8.1 million to rectify deficiencies in the facilities at aerodromes in remote Aboriginal areas. We are currently going through a process of assessing a number of reports into the technical aspects of those aerodromes, and over the next 2½ years will fund improvements to ensure that they meet the regulatory requirements as stipulated by CASA.

Senator NASH —At how many remote airstrips will you be looking at rectifying the deficiencies in facilities?

Mr Wilson —Sixty-eight.

Senator NASH —How much was the overall funding between 2009-10 and 2010-11?

Mr Wilson —$8.1 million.

Senator NASH —How many airstrips do you expect would benefit from that funding at this stage? Do you have an expectation?

Mr Doherty —It really depends on the outcome of the inspection process.

Senator NASH —Has any inspection happened to date? I gather that if funding was in the bucket last year some work has already been done?

Mr Wilson —We have completed the inspection work on all of the 68 airstrips in question. We are currently undertaking the analysis to determine the level of work that is required to rectify the deficiencies.

Senator NASH —Are there any particular areas of deficiency that you already know exist that are going to be priorities for you?

Mr Wilson —The major areas—and if I miss some, I will ask Mr Borthwick to add—relate to fencing, lighting, maintenance of runways and the like.

Senator NASH —I turn now to the aviation white paper Flight path to the future released in December last year. With regard to the white paper and the changes to the mandatory passenger and baggage screening requirements: the white paper notes that from 1 July 2010 the trigger for compulsory passenger and baggage screening for regular public transport and open charter aircraft will be applied to aircraft with a maximum take-off weight of 30,000 kilograms, regardless of whether the aircraft is jet or turbo propelled. Is that correct?

Mr Wilson —Correct—that is what the aviation white paper says. I would add, however, that that topic of conversation is probably best left to the Office of Transport Security.

Senator NASH —Thank you very much—rather than do another seven paragraphs and waste your time. This question may be for them as well, then; it is about the formal review at Brisbane airport for the next airport master plan. Where does that sit?

Mr Wilson —Here.

Senator NASH —We have a winner! When is the review going to start and finish?

Mr Doherty —This is the review in relation to whether or not there is a need for a curfew at Brisbane? Was that the review?

Senator NASH —I think so, yes. Brisbane is actually Senator Macdonald’s area. So you might like to kick off with that one, Senator Macdonald; I am very happy for you to do that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Curiously, I had some questions about the Brisbane airport as well. In relation to the curfew or the review, can you tell me who is going to be on the steering committee?

Mr Doherty —No. There has been no further work on that at this stage.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Do you know when the government is likely to make appointments to that steering committee?

Mr Doherty —The undertaking in the white paper in relation to this review was that it would be completed before the next master plan round, which would take place in about the 2013-14 period. We would envisage the review being in the year or so leading up to that, so it is at least a year—or two, perhaps—off at this stage that we would be finalising the structures.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay.

Mr Doherty —The other piece of context to add to that is that, in the master plan which was approved for Brisbane airport last year, there were a range of noise measures identified there, including the establishment of a community information centre. There was an interest in developing further information and seeing how some of those initiatives operated to feed that into the review.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —So it is a couple of years away yet before any substantive work will be done on appointing the committee and doing the work?

Mr Doherty —I do not want to be precise about the timing, but we would envisage that review being around the 2012 period.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Who would make the appointments to that review committee?

Mr Doherty —That would be the minister.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Your minister—Mr Albanese, or whoever is in that role at the time?

Mr Doherty —Yes, that would be my understanding—with whatever consultation within government he chose to make.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Was the decision to review or to consider the curfew encouraged by any local politicians—for example, the then backbench member the member for Griffith, who has long advocated a curfew there? Is that how this has come into play?

Mr Wilson —If I may respond, the decision is a whole-of-government decision, as reflected in the aviation white paper.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You would probably recall that the member for Griffith, as a backbencher, launched legal action against the Brisbane airport’s environmental impact statement regarding the parallel runway, which history shows was an unsuccessful approach—it was unsuccessful in the legal sense. Does that rejection by the courts have anything to do with this investigation into curfews now? Some might say that it is almost a payback. Does that play any part in it at all?

Mr Mrdak —Senator, I think as Mr Wilson has indicated, the decision in the white paper reflected a range of consultations and submissions, including public submissions. There was obviously a degree of concern raised by many members of the community about Brisbane airport’s expansion during its last master plan process. I think the government has reflected some of those concerns by asking that this work be done as a prelude to the next master plan process.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can you tell me what percentage of flights arrive and depart at Brisbane airport between, say, 11 pm and 6 am?

Mr Mrdak —We would have to take that on notice. We do not have that material. We can provide that information.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —My understanding is that it is about 6.5 per cent. Does that sound right?

Mr Mrdak —I would imagine it would be a relatively small proportion of movements, but I do not have that data with me, I am sorry.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —If it is a relatively small number, has any thought been given to what benefit there would be in dealing with such a small number that are already in that proposed curfew area? If it is six per cent—and I guess that is hypothetical until you tell me, but I am pretty certain that that is right—what benefit is there by—

Mr Wilson —I would contend that those sorts of issues, including the percentage of flights that operate into and out of Brisbane during a possible curfew period, will be issues that will be examined in the context of the review in 2012.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are you aware that the Queensland Premier condemned the suggestion that Brisbane airport should have a curfew?

Mr Mrdak —We are aware that the Queensland Premier made comments concerning the announcement in the aviation white paper.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Do you know if the minister shares the view of the Queensland Premier?

Senator Conroy —I am sure that if you want to know the minister’s views you can ask for the minister’s views, but soliciting opinion from officers is not part of the estimates process.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Unfortunately, the minister does not appear before this committee and I do not meet him often socially, although as it turns out—

Senator Conroy —If you named an airport after him, he might.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I was just going to say—

Senator Conroy —I am waiting for those photos. Time is running out, Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —As it so happens, as I left this room just after lunch was called I actually did run into the minister. Do you know what we spoke about? Not curfews in Brisbane, but the Stephen Conroy memorial airstrip at Karumba. Is that not coincidental?

Senator Conroy —You are a legend. That is on the Hansard. Macca is a legend, out there campaigning for me.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But, apart from that conversation, I do not have a lot of conversations with the minister. So, Minister Conroy, I am now asking you if you could ascertain if Minister Albanese shares—

Senator Conroy —I am happy to ascertain his views and take those on notice for you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you. If there were a curfew, has any work been done on how many flights would be pushed on to Melbourne, for example, if there were a similar curfew in Brisbane as there is in Sydney? Has any work been done on how many flights would have to be pushed through to Melbourne if they happen to be a bit late in?

Mr Wilson —Again, I would indicate that those sorts of issues will be examined in the context of the review in 2012.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Has the department done any work on the productivity of having curfews in all east coast major airports? This is hypothetical, but I am just wondering if the department has done any work on what would be the impact on productivity in Australia if there were curfews in Brisbane and Sydney, as there are, and everything was diverted to Melbourne. Has any work been done on that by the department?

Mr Wilson —I am not aware of any.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am told that Melbourne airport earns something like $300 million a year from late night flights. Perhaps Senator O’Brien can confirm that for us.

Senator O’BRIEN —I cannot remember the figure but it was significant.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Perhaps the department could confirm that. I am sure they are watching.

Senator O’BRIEN —I think it might be in Hansard, Senator.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The department would have been watching it with close interest, I am sure.

Senator O’BRIEN —I do not know about that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Could the department perhaps confirm what Melbourne airport claims it gets from those late night flights?

Mr Wilson —I have to apologise, I have not seen the Hansard from that hearing.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Not a good career move not to watch Senate committee hearings.

Mr Wilson —That is probably correct, Senator, but, as I have indicated, I am unaware of any individual work that we have undertaken with regard to that.

Senator O’BRIEN —Senator Macdonald is guilty of cruel and unusual punishment with that comment.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can you tell me how many complaints about noise you get in relation to Brisbane airport? Are there statistics on that?

Mr Doherty —We would not have the best statistics in the department. Airservices may have additional information and we would be happy to take that on notice and see what we can provide.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I guess I could ask Airservices myself, could I? They deal with that sort of thing, do they?

Mr Wilson —They hold the information with regard to noise complaints in relation to individual airports, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Minister, as a Victorian, in spite of your close association with the gulf country of North Queensland and airports, could you assure the people of Australia and this committee that the government would not, under any circumstances, allow a curfew on the Melbourne airport?

Senator Conroy —I would have to take that on notice and seek the minister’s response. I am not aware of any statements made by the minister on that. The officers are shaking their heads. I am happy to seek a response from the minister and take that on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can you tell me whether there had been any community submissions to the department or to the minister calling for a curfew on Brisbane airport or any other airport—you might throw Melbourne into that as well?

Senator Conroy —Wasn’t there some legal action on this issue a few years ago?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You are better informed than me. I am not aware of it.

Mr Mrdak —In relation to the master planning process at a number of airports, when the community makes submissions obviously issues of night-time operations are often featured in those submissions. Communities do raise the issue of curfews and the need for curfews at a number of airports where those consultative processes take place.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Have you been inundated in the last, say, 24 months by community submissions to the department or to the minister or indeed to parliamentarians who might have passed their constituents’ views on to minister in relation to curfews?

Mr Wilson —I do not have the details in terms of actual numbers. The department and the minister—the minister in the main—receive correspondence on a fairly regular basis with regard to aircraft noise and requests to impose restrictions on aircraft operations.

Mr Stone —If I might add to that, in preparing the aviation green paper and white paper the department accepted submissions from the public. There were something like 295 submissions to the green paper and 235 submissions to the white paper. As you might expect, those contained a range of views from industry and the community. Certainly there were community submissions about various airports that recommended curfews be imposed just as there were submissions from airports, business associations, some state governments that supported curfew-free operations at airports. Those submissions in general are still on the department’s website.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Apart from when the white paper and green paper were around and people were focusing on it, is it the sort of complaint either the department or the minister’s office—and you may have to take that latter one on notice—receive regularly or at all?

Mr Stone —The minister and the department receive regular correspondence about the impact of aircraft noise. As you would appreciate, it is a sensitivity for a number of members of the community.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am reluctant to ask you to take—

Senator Conroy —You are not that shy.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —No, I understand the value of public servants’ time, Minister. Outside the white and green paper process, without having you go through every bit of correspondence, are there a lot of complaints received about noise at Brisbane and Melbourne airport, or a little bit, or one or two, or rare? Do you have that feel?

Mr Wilson —If I return to an answer that I provided previously, the minister does receive regular correspondence in regard to aircraft noise issues and with calls for action to be taken to minimise those concerns.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I hear you say that he does. Did you say that he regularly receives?

Mr Wilson —Yes, but I cannot give you a number in terms of how many per month or how many per year and whether that is a lot or a little bit is a subjective determination.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I agree with that, but I was trying to make it easy. I am reluctant to say to you, ‘Can you go through all the correspondence and tell me how many complaints you have received in, say, the last 12 months.’ That is what I am trying to get a feel. Is it a dozen? Is it thousands? Is it one or two?

Mr Wilson —I am sorry, without actually trawling the ministerial correspondence in regard to aviation I could not give you a feel for a number, or a lot, or a little.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can I reluctantly ask you on notice to let me know how many complaints you have received about curfews in relation to Brisbane and Melbourne airports in the last 12 months. I ask you to take that on notice. You can come back to me with whatever you are able to glean, or if you are unable to glean anything, or not prepared to glean anything, but I will leave that with you on notice.

Senator O’BRIEN —Mr Wilson, doesn’t Airservices Australia have an air traffic noise complaint unit?

Mr Wilson —Airservices Australia holds statistics in regard to complaints about air traffic noise, which will provide guidance in regard to overall complaints about aircraft noise.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Do you—or would it be Airservices Australia—have the statistics on what percentage of flights that use Brisbane airport after 10 pm come in over Moreton Bay and which of them come over the west, which is the city area of Brisbane?

Mr Wilson —That would be a question best addressed to Airservices Australia.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Okay. I shall do that. Thank you. Are you able to confirm that the closest home to Melbourne airport is four kilometres away and that the closest home to the Brisbane airport is a distance of seven kilometres away? Are you aware of that statistic?

Mr Doherty —Away from?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —From the airport—taken in a seven kilometre semicircle.

Mr Mrdak —I have seen similar figures, I think, in relation to Brisbane airport—the distance from the centre line along certain runway alignments—but I am not familiar with that comparison between Melbourne and Brisbane. But I have seen similar figures in the past in relation to, say, the centre line of the Brisbane runway to the suburb adjacent.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Could you see on notice if you could find out for me if it is around. I am sure someone has done the study. My research shows those figures but I just wanted confirmation that my research is correct—that Melbourne’s is four kilometres away and Brisbane’s is seven and see if you can find that for me on notice perhaps. Are the Australian Air Force’s VIP flights allowed to land in Sydney during the curfew period?

Mr Mrdak —No.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —They are not.

Mr Mrdak —The Sydney Airport Curfew Act captures state aircraft.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —So they are prevented, too.

Mr Mrdak —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But you can get permission, can’t you, in circumstances such as natural calamities and that sort of thing.

Mr Mrdak —There are dispensation provisions under the act which are exercised in exceptional circumstances.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes. Exceptional circumstances and calamity? The Prime Minister’s plane coming in could be seen by some as a calamity about to happen!

Mr Mrdak —Well—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is a joke. No-one is laughing so I had to explain. A delay to, for example, the Prime Minister’s plane or the Governor-General’s plane; is that seen to be an exceptional circumstance?

Mr Stone —The guidelines administering the dispensations for curfew movements at Sydney airport require that the circumstances be immediate, unforeseen and unable to be met by alternative arrangements.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Would I ask you—or perhaps I would have to go to the Air Force to ask for this—how many times the Prime Minister’s VIP plane lands at Brisbane airport between 11 pm and 6 am? Would you have those figures?

Mr Doherty —At Brisbane airport, where there is not a curfew?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes.

Mr Doherty —We do not have those figures but we can find that out.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That would be very helpful, if you could. Have you heard the Brisbane City Council’s view in relation to talk about a curfew at Brisbane airport?

Mr Doherty —In the broad, my expectation is that the Brisbane City Council would be concerned about the economic impact of restrictions on the airport.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Has any work been done on the economic cost, as you say, of closure of the Brisbane airport?

Mr Wilson —I would draw your attention back to my previous comment, in which I indicated that the department has not undertaken any independent work on that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is all I have on Brisbane airport. Are the questions that Senator Nash started to ask about which airports any security upgrades would impact upon entirely for aviation security, or does your area of the department look at possible costs of upgrading—

Mr Wilson —The correct area to ask questions about the impacts of additional security screening at airports is the Office of Transport Security.

Senator Conroy —We will take that on notice, and if the department can supply any information on this or any of the matters you have raised we will get it for you. You are asking the wrong department. I would invite you to go to their departments. I am referring specifically to the previous questions about the PM’s flights. We do not have that information. I invite you to go—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That has already, very usefully for the committee, been offered to be given and we have accepted that.

Senator Conroy —I am making the point that if the department has any information on those matters we will get it, but if the information is held by another department I invite you to go and address their estimates.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I can read Hansard, thank you, Minister. Things like the cost of upgrading individual airports—again, that is not your department it is airport security; is that right?

Mr Mrdak —It is within Mr Wilson’s and my responsibility but it is handled by our Office of Transport Security. We look at all those issues of risk, cost implications and the like through our Office of Transport Security.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —So if I asked the Office of Transport Security about those costs of upgrading airports and estimates and that sort of thing they will not say to me, ‘You should have asked that earlier on in the day’?

Mr Mrdak —No.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Issues relating to near misses are not in your area, are they?

Mr Mrdak —No.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is all I had.

Senator LUDLAM —I have a couple of questions about Sydney Airport, if you are the right folk to speak to about that. The ministerial approval of the Sydney Airport master plan is something that I can speak to you folk about?

Mr Mrdak —Yes.

Senator LUDLAM —I am just going to briefly quote you back a couple of lines from the minister’s press statement when he announced that that master plan had been approved and then get your views on a couple of specifics. He said:

My approval of the Master Plan does not however indicate acceptance that the Airport can and should handle the projected growth in traffic, with the annual number of aircraft flying into and out of Sydney expected to rise to 427,000 by 2029.

Such traffic volumes would place considerable added pressure on those communities living around the Airport.

As the Airport gets busier, the supporting road and rail infrastructure will become more congested, delays more frequent and nearby residents exposed to even longer periods of aircraft noise.

So he is quite eloquently running the arguments of opponents of the expansion while approving just such an expansion. Can you tell us why it was signed off with all of those severe impacts being acknowledged in the statement of announcement?

Mr Mrdak —I do not think that is a correct interpretation of the minister’s comments.

Senator LUDLAM —That is why I am putting it to you, so please offer me the correct interpretation.

Mr Mrdak —I think that in the minister’s statement the minister has, in accordance with the provisions of the act, considered and approved the Sydney Airport Master Plan as meeting the development requirements of the industry and the airport for the master planning period. But what the minister’s statement is drawing attention to is that the demand forecasts do identify that in the future Sydney airport will not be able to continue to accommodate the growth of traffic into the Sydney Basin.

Senator LUDLAM —But it is the growth of traffic that he has just signed off on. He has just allowed them to go up to those thresholds. That is what I am saying.

Mr Mrdak —No, what he has indicated is that the master plan provides the land use planning around the side of the airport and how that will operate. The government has been very firm in its commitment to the movement cap at Sydney airport and the maintenance of the curfew and the slot allocation scheme at the airport. Those regulatory arrangements stay in place. What the minister has highlighted is that Sydney airport’s master plan indicates that it has a plan for handling within the foreseeable future of the master plan the traffic growth that needs to be accommodated within that airport. If you look at the medium-term horizon, there is a need to look at additional capacity for the Sydney region. The minister announced in the aviation white paper in December last year, and the government has confirmed with its budget announcement of resourcing for the portfolio, a review of Sydney’s aviation needs, which is now underway as a joint Commonwealth-state planning study to look at the aviation needs of the Sydney basin over a 30- to 50-year horizon.

Senator LUDLAM —So, when you talked about medium term before, did you mean the 2029 projections that I read to you in that statement?

Mr Mrdak —And beyond that, yes.

Senator LUDLAM —What do you consider medium term?

Mr Mrdak —If you look at aviation infrastructure, you are talking about sort of a 25- to 30-year horizon.

Senator LUDLAM —So how am I reading it wrong if he has approved a master plan that expects and anticipates and allows those traffic volumes in to and out of Sydney?

Mr Mrdak —What the minister has approved in accordance with the act is the master plan, which sets out the land use planning and the investment planning that will enable Sydney to accommodate over the 20-year horizon in the master plan the traffic that is forecast.

Senator LUDLAM —You said before ‘meets the development requirements of the industry’. Is it strictly traffic volumes and projected demand on Sydney airport that provide your modelling or your estimations of traffic growth? Would you plan and rewrite this master plan according to what traffic is expected or is there any sense that you would crimp the amount of traffic into and out of Sydney airport? Are you just reacting to what the industry says demand growth is going to be or can you push that?

Mr Mrdak —Certainly not. The forecasts that are produced by the airport are subjected to analysis by the department and providing advice to the minister on the master plan. The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, for instance, has recently published forecasts of traffic at Australian major airports. They have some expertise in this area. We subject those traffic forecasts to analysis and we provide advice on those traffic forecasts.

Senator LUDLAM —Maybe I will try to ask it in a different way. If the minister is acknowledging that neither local residents nor the airport can cope with the amount of air traffic that is projected, why has that master plan been approved?

Mr Mrdak —You have to understand what the master plan provides. The master plan is a land use planning document for the airport as to how it will propose to meet the forecast aviation demand over that planning period. What we have looked at closely is: is that master plan compatible with state and local planning arrangements? Is it compatible with the demands of the aviation industry for the forecast development of that airport?

Senator LUDLAM —Rather than air traffic, let us talk about ground traffic. As you say, it is a land use planning document and airport ground traffic was identified very strongly as a problem for residents of the Botany region. You might see this as being at a tangent, but why have you also agreed to fund a study into expanding the M5 motorway, which leads straight to Sydney Airport?

Mr Mrdak —As we discussed yesterday, the M5 was one of the studies commissioned by the government under urban congestion studies that were funded in 2008 to provide long-term strategic planning for our major cities. It is a key part of the government’s commitment to improving strategic planning. It does not indicate a commitment by the Commonwealth to fund such an expansion. At the same time, in relation to land transport access, one of the areas we are looking at in this joint Commonwealth study into Sydney’s aviation needs is actually land transport access to Sydney Airport and how we can improve and handle the forecast growth in land transport traffic in that very important economic sector of Sydney which contains both Port Botany and Sydney Airport.

Senator LUDLAM —It is an economic sector but it is also a community. People are living there.

Mr Mrdak —I understand that. That is something that my minister is very strong about. The need to improve the way the traffic flows and improved public transport access to Sydney Airport are the sorts of things that we are looking at as part of this joint work we are now doing with New South Wales.

Senator LUDLAM —Do you want to be specific then on your thinking around public transport access to the airport? Specifically, did you examine in any way or did you participate in the work of the recent studies that were undertaken by the Australian government on fast rail connection between Sydney and other capitals? Have you modelled or have you investigated, in any format, how much pressure could be taken off ground traffic and indeed aviation traffic with a fast rail connection in and out of Sydney?

Mr Mrdak —The last significant work done on a very fast connection between Canberra and Sydney was some time ago.

Senator LUDLAM —I do not believe that is the case. The CRC very recently provided a study to the Commonwealth government, which it sounds like you might be unaware of.

Mr Mrdak —I am not aware of any.

Senator LUDLAM —When you say some time ago, let us make sure we are not at cross-purposes here. How long ago was the last time you reviewed the documents?

Mr Mrdak —I am referring to the federal government study that was done in around 2000 or 2001.

Senator LUDLAM —There is much more recent work that has been undertaken by the CRC into rail.

Mr Mrdak —I think they are currently looking for—

Senator LUDLAM —They have tabled one which I have read. If they were currently looking at it, I presume we would not have a copy of it.

Mr Mrdak —I am not familiar with that study.

Senator LUDLAM —Do you think it is a bit of a problem, if you are working on projected ground traffic and projected air traffic in and out of Sydney airport, to not know what another arm of government is doing, which could potentially solve a number of your problems all at once?

Mr Mrdak —I am not familiar with the study, so I could not comment on what that study is about.

Senator LUDLAM —I think that actually tells us something quite important. Mr Collett, did you want to make a contribution?

Mr Collett —I am aware of some work that the CRC has done in relation to very fast rail. From memory it concluded that the federal government should carry out further work to actually drill down into much greater detail. As Mr Mrdak has flagged, one of the terms of reference for the joint work which is being done with the New South Wales government is to look at the needs of the travelling public and the needs more generally in terms of surface transport for Sydney airport. Clearly, there is further work which needs doing in the area of what the CRC has done. I understand that the CRC in fact highlighted that.

Senator LUDLAM —They did.

Mr Collett —That work is intended, at least in part, to be part of the joint study that Mr Mrdak flagged that we are currently undertaking with the New South Wales government.

Senator LUDLAM —I recognise that you cannot be aware of every single document that every government department produces, but I am glad that you at least acknowledge its existence. The government has declined to undertake that further work. The Greens put up a motion in the Senate to do just that. That opportunity has been denied us for the time being. You gave fairly broad framing around what your task force will be investigating. Can you confirm for us that rapid rail links, with links well beyond Sydney obviously, will be part of that mix?

Mr Mrdak —Our focus is looking at the aviation needs of the Sydney region. It is a joint piece of work we are doing with New South Wales, which includes looking at the transport corridors for the Sydney region.

Senator LUDLAM —Is that a yes or a no? Do you think rapid rail has any relevance at all to potential ground and air traffic into Sydney airport?

Mr Mrdak —I think it very much has relevance, but what I am saying to you is that we are looking particularly at the Sydney region, not beyond the Sydney region.

Senator LUDLAM —Yes, the Sydney region as it relates to where people want to go. I am not trying to be cute here, but the Sydney region as far as air and vehicle traffic into the airport is concerned is only really relevant if you are considering Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth et cetera. It is a bit disingenuous to say you are only allowed to think about Sydney. This is about national transport.

Mr Mrdak —We are looking more broadly. That is something that may well be considered.

Senator LUDLAM —It may well be considered. It is not part of the mix at the moment?

Mr Mrdak —No, I am trying to explain to you that we are in the stages of doing this joint work with New South Wales which will look at land transport corridors and demand for aviation access to the Sydney region.

Senator LUDLAM —Can you confirm for me whether rapid rail links will be part of that mix? Will that be at the table?

Mr Mrdak —We may well look at some of those issues.

Senator LUDLAM —You may look at it. The master plan expresses air pollution in a different format to the previous master plan in the third runway EIS. I am not a specialist in this area particularly. Can you talk us through the difference in methodology that has been used to assess urban air pollution in the area? What was the reasoning for the change in methodology between one plan and the next?

Mr Doherty —That is not an issue that anyone at the table could deal with, from memory.

Senator LUDLAM —Is that a fair characterisation of the situation?

Mr Doherty —I do not know.

Mr Mrdak —We will have to take that on notice.

Senator LUDLAM —So you cannot tell us anything about the way air pollution is being considered?

Mr Mrdak —Not by the officers at the table. I do not think that is what we were saying.

Mr Wilson —I think that is not actually what we said.

Senator LUDLAM —I asked a very specific question; you are correct. So what can you tell us then about the way air pollution has been assessed in the current master plan?

Mr Wilson —In terms of the differential between the previous master plan and this master plan, we would need to get you some advice. In terms of the specifics in regard to what is contained within the master plan, none of the officers here have the document with us so without that document—which I would assume is something in the order of 300 pages—we are not in a position to discuss the detail of what is contained within that report.

Senator LUDLAM —All right. If you are going to take that material on notice, I will add a couple of supplementaries to that if you like so I can be a bit more specific.

Mr Wilson —Certainly.

Senator LUDLAM —Firstly, why was the airport not required to use a consistent format between the two master plans? I would have thought that would have been a fairly reasonable expectation so that we could draw a correct comparison between the current one and the most recent one. Can you provide for us a way of interpreting the changed methodology between the two studies? That would be appreciated. Can you table all material that relates to air pollution within the current master plan? Are there any supporting documents that would help us make an assessment about how that has been considered?

Mr Wilson —We will certainly take those on notice.

Senator LUDLAM —There was a health study of Kurnell residents by Black et al in 2007 which showed elevated blood pressure among residents of that region. There are obviously people living a lot closer to the footprint of the airport—in Marrickville, Mascot, Rockdale, the surrounding suburbs and so on. There is medical evidence on the table obviously that the existing level of air traffic is affecting people’s health. What work are you doing within the scope of the current master plan or within the estimates of future traffic into and out of that airport about direct health impacts on residents in close proximity to the airport?

Mr Wilson —I certainly am not aware of the health study by Black in regard to Kurnell. I am not certain any of the officers at the table are aware of the report. We can have a look at the report and provide the committee with some advice on that.

Senator LUDLAM —Okay. Who are the lead authors of the master plan?

Mr Doherty —The Sydney Airports Corporation.

Senator LUDLAM —I presume they are well aware of this material, but that is another one similar to the air pollution because obviously health is one consequence of the urban air pollution there.

Mr Wilson —Senator, I would not want to comment on what Sydney airport are or are not aware of.

Senator LUDLAM —That is fine. I was not seeking to lead to that. I want you to talk us through the long-term operating plan for Sydney airport and its targets for aircraft movements north of the airport. My understanding, which you might be able to corroborate for us if possible, is that an Airservices Australia officer told the Sydney Airport Community Forum on 19 February that the targets in the long-term operating plan for the airport—this is looking at the northern corridor in particular—would never be reached and that there had only been one occasion that the airport had been within five per cent of the target and that was only as a result of a month of unusual weather. Would you care to comment on that?

Mr Wilson —If I might say, Senator, comments in regard to Airservices should be directed to officers from Airservices.

Senator LUDLAM —Okay. I can stick around and do that a bit later in the day. Can you just talk us through the long-term operating plan for Sydney airport and the targets for aircraft movements, at least in that northern corridor, and then I will have something to benchmark against?

Mr Wilson —Again, Senator, the long-term operating plan for Sydney is the responsibility of Airservices and your questions should be directed to them.

Senator LUDLAM —All right; thank you. My final question is just in the context of the master plan overall. Has there been any comparison or considerations or thinking or consulting about a replacement airport for Sydney rather than a second airport?

Mr Mrdak —In the work we are currently doing in terms of the joint study with New South Wales we are looking at future aviation needs.

Senator LUDLAM —So that is a kind of a no, but you would foreshadow that that thinking would be done there?

Mr Mrdak —I do not think any consideration is being given to a replacement for Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport.

Senator LUDLAM —All right then. That is fine, but you are saying that that thinking might occur in the work that you have foreshadowed with the task force?

Mr Mrdak —We are doing an extensive piece of strategic planning work.

Senator LUDLAM —Brilliant. I will leave it there. Thanks very much.

CHAIR —Thanks, Senator Ludlam. If there are no further questions of Aviation and Airports—

Senator BACK —I do, Mr Chairman.

CHAIR —I am so sorry, Senator Back. In all the excitement I thought you led.

Senator BACK —I did at one stage say that I would defer to my colleagues and then seek to come back.

CHAIR —I am sorry, Senator Back. I do know you have a longstanding interest in aviation and airports.

Senator BACK —I do. If I can just stay with Sydney airport for a moment, I understand that Australia has signed a contract with a US based company to deliver a system for arrival and departure flight paths starting with Sydney airport. Can you give us some advice on that?

Mr Mrdak —I think that would be a matter for Airservices Australia, which is next on the agenda.

Senator BACK —So Airservices Australia would be looking at the approach and departure?

Mr Mrdak —Yes, Senator.

Senator BACK —In which case I shall hold that over. Thank you, Chairman.

CHAIR —Thank you, Senator Back. As I was just about to say, if there are no further questions for Aviation and Airports, thank you very much, gentlemen.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can I just ask a question of relevance; I am pretty irrelevant. I put a question to the Office of Transport Security at a previous hearing which concerned Sydney Night Patrol Security. Do they still do the security for the airport?

Mr Wilson —The Office of Transport Security does not do—

Mr Mrdak —No, he is asking—

Mr Wilson —Does SNP still do security at Sydney airport?

Mr Mrdak —We will check, Senator.

Mr Wilson —I will check, Senator, but OTS—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Also ask them—

Mr Wilson —The Office of Transport Security will appear following Airservices and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The only other question, with your indulgence, Mr Chairman, relates to the global pilots federation concerns about access to the flight deck. Where will we raise that?

Mr Mrdak —Office of Transport Security as well, Senator.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Thanks. You got off light, didn’t you?

CHAIR —Thank you. I can now safely say thank you to officers from Aviation and Airports and now call Airservices Australia.

[3.04 pm]