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Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 [No. 2]

CHAIR —Welcome. You have provided us with a submission. We thank you for that and we have numbered it No. 27 in case people would like to go and look at it on the website. Do you need to make any changes to that?

Mr Yanner —No.

CHAIR —Would you like to make an opening statement or give us some comments and then we will go to questions.

Mr Yanner —Can we tender some other stuff?

CHAIR —Yes, you can.

Mr Yanner —This is obviously not to be discussed today, but for you to use as background material later.

CHAIR —It is a video.

Mr Yanner —It is a video produced by the wild river rangers. We produced it ourselves. There is a press release and a document on some scientific work on burnt colonies, a map of our region, a calendar we have produced with the wild river rangers and a letter from a manager of several pastoral leases in the lower gulf.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Senator BOSWELL —How long is it?

Mr Yanner —Only 15 minutes. It will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Senator BOSWELL —I know, but we have only got 15 minutes.

CHAIR —We are not going to watch it now. They are tabling it.

Mr Yanner —Keep it for midnight viewing.

CHAIR —An opening statement and then we will go to questions.

Mr Yanner —These two fellows will talk later about the ranger program itself. I think that is by far one of the better parts of the wild river legislation and often ignored at its own peril while people focus on the legislation. I have not heard anything bad spoken in all the hysteria or media stuff going on about wild rivers. I think the ranger program, itself, is universally supported so we would like to talk about that.

In general we in the lower gulf were the first four declared. That is the Gregory, the Staaten, the Morning Inlet and the Settlement. With the Staaten, of course, half of that goes into Cape York and half is in our area in the lower gulf, so I am just talking about our area. We are wild about wild rivers, in a good way. We love it. If we had our way the whole of the lower gulf would be covered in wild river declarations. I am on the public record in the last 20 years as not agreeing with a single piece of legislation pushed by the Queensland government so, in light of that, you should note my support for this is with that background in mind. I think Premier Bligh has had a bit of courage to do that. I think it is timely in that we know with the northern water task force set up by John Howard that the silly buggers down south have buggered up all their own rivers and waters and are greedily eyeing off northern Australia to exploit it for large agricultural purposes, and we will end up like all of those poor buggers down there. We think it is very timely and is something that we will use to preserve our country in coming years.

Also, although they have copped a bit of stick, we do not have any greenies in our region, because the blacks hold a green mandate. We are fairly solid, but we would like to give the Wilderness Society an acknowledgement and congratulations. They have been extremely supportive in the early days of the drafting of the legislation and ensuring our concerns, particularly with the wild river ranger program, were taken into account.

Today we want to focus on the ranger program, other than obviously any questions you have on our submission. We do not have a problem with it and we will be asking for more to be declared in our region. We think it is great.

I speak as both a traditional owner, under native title and all of that, but also, more importantly, in the last 15 years Aboriginal people in the lower gulf have become the largest pastoral lease owners in the lower gulf, outnumbering Colonial Mutual, AA Company or any other large company for that matter and my mob, the Gangalidda Garawa from Settlement Creek and Gregory declared areas, are the single largest pastoral lease owner in the lower gulf. We have six stations. I did not bring my cowboy hat—I left it outside—but I am here both as a pastoralist and as an Aboriginal traditional owner.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Before you call on others I would like to apologise particularly to the witnesses and the subsequent witnesses. I am chairing a committee in Melbourne tomorrow and I have got to leave now to get there. My apologies.

Mr Yanner —I was not going to give you a hard time.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I was wishing I could stay and have a little bit of interaction with you, but unfortunately the plane will not wait for me. I do apologise for not being here.

Mr Yanner —No worries.

CHAIR —Mr Hogno and Mr Taylor, do you have any comments?

Mr Yanner —I would like to introduce them properly. Mr Taylor is our head ranger with the wild rivers in the Burketown, Doomadgee to the territory border area and Mr Hogno is a former member of Australia’s elite military unit, the SAS, is currently a resident in the lower gulf and is our coordinator of the wild river rangers in Normanton.

Mr Hogno —Basically, as Murrandoo said, I am the ranger coordinator in Normanton for wild rivers. I have three rangers that work under me. There is one from each of the different tribal groups in the region, that is Kukatj, Gkuthaarn and Kurtijar. They were selected from a steering committee put together by two prominent people from each group once they decided they were going to put wild rivers in that region. I have been going for about 20 months and the rangers have been a little bit shorter, so really 2009 was our first operational year. The first six months was basic training, getting equipment and things like that.

Probably what is unique in our area is that all the wild river declared area is currently on private pastoral lease; there is no country there that has been handed back to the Indigenous people. I was given the possibly difficult task of developing a relationship with landowners, if you consider that the initial wild rivers legislation in its original format was a bit annoying to them. We did that through basically approaching them with programs and activities that would mutually benefit each other and from that we now have access to basically all the pastoral country that has wild river declared area on it. We have access to that. There is only one I have not approached, but will probably do so this year. You are probably looking at an area of four-odd million acres.

Through a number of our efforts and utilising the media we have stimulated some self action within a lot of the pastoral leases up there. Just in the last year, either through our own efforts or in conjunction with some of these major landowners, we have removed over 9,500 feral pigs. Remember our year is a short year. We usually have about a six-month working year due to the wet season. We have done many hectares of weeds of national significance. Public enemy number one is prickly acacia and also Parkinsonia. Looking at this year alone and at the cost to the pastoralists and us using our manpower we have removed 10,000 feral pigs alone from one property. Prior to this the local council had a baiting program. There was no data or planning. Through us sitting down with these pastoralists there is a more positive approach to the real threat of feral animals and weeds and what they do throughout the region.

What I did forget is that the two wild river declared areas that myself and the rangers are responsible for is the Morning Inlet area in the southern gulf up to the state and river which is the northern gulf, southern cape area.

A lot of these pastoralists, through these efforts, are very interested in our data collection with the items and technology that we use to collect data. They are very interested in purchasing it themselves, which will allow us to share data between the two organisations, that is the pastoralists and us, the Normanton rangers.

Another thing that has come about is the pest management plans. Now that we have access to country we are commencing pest management plans for individual properties. That is dependent on the proactiveness of the landowner and also the type and number of pest plants and pest animals. We currently have a contract with Northern Gulf Resource Management Group’s Carpentaria ghost nets program. We do not make money, but we recover operational costs. Prior to us there was no one actually doing ghost nets in that region from basically Kowanyama around to Burketown, so we have provided a very valuable link.

We have a contract with AQIS to do survey work. We do yearly migratory bird surveys. Last year was for nine individual colonies, and five of those were unknown to science. We have recently signed a contract to take over the initial stages of the Mutton Hole wetlands near Normanton from Queensland parks. Originally the council was looking at that, but they dragged their feet so it was offered to us. We are now looking at the first stage of it, which ends on 10 December this year. We are about to commence crocodile surveys with Queensland parks. The view to that is that we can develop the skills required. There would be a fee for service type of thing for crocodile surveys in our region.

The fellows carry out many school visits, but probably what is most important to all of this is the guys that actually do the work, the three rangers. They are Philip George, Lance Rapson and Paul Richardson. They are actually a fine example of a successful ranger program. They are highly regarded throughout wild rivers. Considering the quality of rangers within the wild river ranger program, that is no mean feat. They have a passion for the job. A lot of this country, up until now, has been closed off to everybody and through their work they get to go back on traditional country where otherwise they would not be able to, which is a very important thing for these Indigenous rangers.

There is a hell of a lot of respect from within the community, from all parts of the social sectors. You get people that normally would not care what ranger Paul was doing, but they are now coming up and asking about the things they do and are surprised by what they do. It is also the interaction with the kids. The week before last I was over here having a meeting with parks and wildlife, and the guys were scheduled to make a Powerpoint presentation to the Gulf Christian College. When I got back I asked, ‘Did you have to field many questions?’ They said, ‘Yes, we had to field quite a few questions.’ I said, ‘What sort of questions?’ He said, ‘The best one was the last one from a nine-year-old kid in the audience who put his hand up and he said, “Do you fellows enjoy your job?” ‘The head ranger turned around and said, ‘Yes, I do enjoy my job. It’s the best job I’ve ever had in my life.’ It just goes to show the passion. It is a very real job, they get a lot of pride out of it, and they love working on the country.

You might say why the wild rivers program, why not just any other ranger program? The wild rivers is different. You would have heard the success that we have had with the highly commended Premier’s award. What wild rivers has done is they have backed their money. They have put good people in the right place, people who know how to develop people and develop good training. It is not the qualification, it is the training that you get doing the qualification. For example, it would only take you half a day or a day to get a boat licence. The wild river ranger program’s boat course is a minimum of five days and about four hours of night work thrown into that. There is no just ticking the box for just turning up, you have to perform, and this is what makes it different.

Wild rivers has developed a training approach that has never been utilised before and that is just fact. For instance, we have a thing which was developed between myself and the senior project officers. It is called a validation week. It has been run twice now. The first time was up in Pormpuraaw. Pormpuraaw has a very successful wild rivers ranger program up there in the cape. The following year four other ranger groups went to the Pormpuraaw region under validation training. It is quite an arduous week, but at the end of it, it is not all about developing their skills, it is about developing the person. I could go on all day about that.

To sum up, in our region it is very well thought of throughout the community. The elders are quite amazed when they see these rangers getting up and giving Powerpoint presentations to 150 people in a hall. They see the work that they are doing; they absolutely love the program and they fully support the wild rivers.

Before I hand you over to Terry I will give you an open invitation to come out to Normanton any time. It is hard to gauge what they actually do with the time they spend on country and how long and far it is. It is four or five hours from the ranger base, probably two hours from the nearest station house, and they might be there for two weeks doing weeds and things like that. You are more than welcome to come out and you will be impressed.

CHAIR —Thank you. I am from the Territory. I might have to come up and compare it to the great rangers that we have over there.

Mr Hogno —Territory rangers do. To sum up this validation, I was asked recently by Riki Gunn—I do not know whether you know Riki from Carpentaria Ghost Nets—if myself and probably one of the senior project officers from wild rivers could give a bit of a presentation on this validation, because she feels that is something they have not approached before and it is something they might want to take on board.

CHAIR —Mr Taylor, you have a few words that you want to tell us. Can you be very quick because we have some questions for you?

Mr Taylor —Yes. I want to touch on the work programs that we have been doing in the lower gulf around the Burketown area settlement and Gregory. We have been doing fire management, weed eradication, feral animal control, fish surveying, turtle and dugong work, ghost net patrols, biodiversity surveys, bird colony surveying and also school education, which is very important. We take that very seriously. We have also been doing community awareness to let everyone know exactly what we are doing at all times. I think that it is important, that we do not hold things back from the community or anyone within the region. We try to be very approachable, so if anyone has any questions they can come up and see us on the street or wherever we are. They might find us out in the scrub doing our job when they are fishing or hunting. We also use them as eyes and ears. We are only eight people up there with eight pairs of eyes and ears, so you could have an extra 6,000 eyes and ears looking out for things out on the ground. That is something alone where everyone is involved. We do get great response back from people out hunting and fishing, whether they are dugong or turtles, if their numbers are dwindling or they think something is wrong. We try our best to get out there and look at these situations and problems.

We also have ranger exchange programs right across the whole of northern Australia. We have been to the territory and we are setting up soon, so we get a bit of Galkan and a few of the mob up there. We have been networking with them through I-tracker and other things like that.

Also, we do crocodile surveys. We work with AQIS. AQIS is doing a lot of things with pig autopsies, checking for exotic diseases and anything that might come in through the gulf. I think that is not only important just to our Indigenous people who live in that area, but also for the sustainability of the whole of Australia. If there is an epidemic there it will affect everyone. Exotic diseases like bird flu, equine flu and things like that could come through. We try to keep an eye on that.

We also do bat surveys with the deadly Hendra virus. We are hoping we do not find anything, but it is always good to be out there checking these things.

We have done quad bike training to operate them safely; also GPS and GIS systems training, map reading, uploading maps, feral animal trapping and biopsy training on all animals and that sort of thing with AQIS as part of the security of the top end. For those things we had to be certified; we just cannot go out and do it. Part of the certification that we have been doing is Certificate III in conservation land management, fire management I, team leadership, crew leaders, chainsaw tickets, advanced first aid, chemical application ticket, chemical handling, and DPI and Fisheries compliance training. Obviously there are only two in Karumba as we speak, so we are also the eyes and the ears up in the gulf because we are always out and about, and we also do a lot for DPI and Fisheries. We do our boat licence and how to operate a boats safely.

Those are just a couple of things that we have been going through and I would just like to say that our country and mother nature is something that is important. No matter what race, creed, colour you are or where you come from, on this planet without mother nature we will not survive, so I think we are going in the right direction in looking after it for our future generations.

CHAIR —Thank you. That is a pretty comprehensive overview. Senator Siewert has some questions for you.

Senator BOSWELL —I have some questions, too.

Senator SIEWERT —I have a number of questions. The rivers in your area were declared in 2007.

Mr Yanner —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —We have heard a lot of evidence today and in submissions of development applications being rejected and that wild rivers legislation can depress economic activity. What experience have you had in terms of the application process for any development approvals? Have you had any development approvals knocked back? Are there developments that you thought you would like to put up, but you thought would not be approved so you have not put them up? One of the concerns that we have heard is that certain development proposals are not put up because they will not get approved.

Mr Yanner —I know several applications have been made in the lower gulf by pastoralists and some Indigenous groups. I am not aware of any of them being rejected. We have big plans for the future in different developments. We are quite confident that the legislation will not impinge on that. We believe in long-term sustainability. We are all for getting off welfare and for economic development, but it must be done in a manner that is sustainable in the long term, not short-term sustainability for a quick buck where we are left living in a dust bowl while whoever has made the money can move on and pay for their tucker.

The one thing about the lower gulf with most Aboriginal communities is that you will find the highest unemployment rates in Australia. If you take away the work-for-the-dole program, you are looking at 90 per cent unemployment in most of these communities. The way people have survived the last couple of hundred years since white occupation, but particularly the last few decades, is living off the land and if you have a nice healthy river you can work for the dole on $430 a fortnight and after you pay your rent and electricity bill there is hardly any money left for food, for the kids, the school or at home. Really the rivers are what sustain us and keep us going. You can be a pauper, but live like a king. I eat stuff you mob would pay $50 or $80 for here in Cairns, like fresh mud crabs. They are half gammon; we have got the good stuff. We live like kings even when we are paupers.

I am not aware of any, and any that would be rejected I would think would be sound because you can do anything. You can have a mine in the wild river area providing it is done right. It must be done with science supporting the fact that it will not wreck the environment. For too long we have had miners out there in the lower gulf or pastoralists who are just dammed this and dammed that; wear this, wear that, without any real environmental or scientific evidence that it is not going to stuff the place up. In fact, the evidence shows otherwise, that it prevents animals travelling up and down the river—the barramundi spawning upstream and so on—through these silly things they build which are out of sight and out of mind in our region because Brisbane is a long way from us. So it is about time this sort of legislation was put in place because they have been getting away with a lot of rubbish over the years and we are on a threshold of the gulf rivers remaining pristine or going on a downward slide. They are not going to get any more pristine than they are; we are at the top and if the greedy developers have their way they will be buggered.

You can develop even a mine, but it has got to be done right. I agree with those things being put in place, ticking those boxes to ensure that there are no bad environmental outcomes when these developments happen.

Senator SIEWERT —I know I am going to get pinged in a minute because we are going to run out of time. The other issue I wanted to ask about is related to that. This morning we were also told that the wild rivers legislation has robbed people of their right to speak for country. Do you feel that you have been robbed of your right to speak for your country?

Mr Yanner —Not at all, but I think I have made it plain to the public in the past, I support the right of Cape York people to be consulted in the manner they see fit. I believe we were consulted appropriately. The Queensland government came out at first and did not consulted with us. They went around to the councils. We had a big row with them and they came back and consulted intensely and properly across the region with the native titleholders.

The lower gulf is a region the size of France of which we are 70 or 80 per cent of the population and there is only 12,000 people in that region the size of France. They consulted properly in the end and we were happy with it, but I believe things may have occurred differently in the cape, and I support the right of Cape York people, or Aboriginal people anywhere, to be consulted properly. All I can speak for is my area. The Queensland government started off wrong but then they corrected it and they should be applauded for that.

Senator SIEWERT —I just want to clarify. You feel you were not properly consulted in the original process, but you jumped up and down and got appropriate consultation. You are not saying that you think the overall consultation process has been adequate, that there could still be problems with it. Is that what you are saying?

Mr Yanner —No. From what I am aware of from my discussions with my comrades in the cape, I feel they were not consulted as adequately as we were or in the manner they preferred. I think a lot more work needs to be done there. Obviously they have made that clear. In my region we have no problem with the consultations now or the legislation.

Senator BOSWELL —You say in your submission that there is a legitimate concern about trying to get through red tape when submitting development applications in a wild river area. What do you propose a solution to that problem is?

Mr Yanner —What page are you on there?

Senator BOSWELL —I do not know. I do not have your submission in front of me. I have gone through it and pulled out representative pieces.

Mr Yanner —I have it. As it says in our submission, this is a legitimate concern because if Indigenous people want to start up a little business within the wild river area, unless you can afford a lawyer and a few different things, it could be quite complex and scary to some people. Our simple solution to that is that the government should provide funding and resources to any traditional owner or owner groups who, with the support of their community, want to propose a sustainable development on the wild river area and need help to make a proper application and get through the necessary red tape.

Senator BOSWELL —You focus a lot on the ranger programs and obviously you are doing a good job with them. How many Indigenous wild river rangers have been appointed in your area?

Mr Yanner —In our area?

Senator BOSWELL —Yes.

Mr Yanner —Ten. We certainly need a lot more. You have to put it in a historical perspective. The Queensland government has never, ever funded or resourced rangers outside of their own existing national park system. If you were a black fellow in the past and you wanted to be a ranger they would ship you half way across the state to work in some national park. They should be commended for the first time ever in agreeing to fund regional bodies or local Aboriginal groups in a ranger program directly. All other ranger programs in Australia are usually done from the Commonwealth government, so that has been something different by the Queensland government. There is a promise, I believe, of up to 100 throughout the gulf and cape, and we certainly want a lot more down in the lower gulf because the guys we do have are doing great work and the more we get the more great work we will do. These are real jobs, too. They are on three-year contracts; they are on a bloody good salary.

Senator BOSWELL —I am not suggesting that they are not. You have got 10 jobs and you probably have a couple of vehicles. How many vehicles do you have? Ten vehicles, I suppose.

Mr Yanner —No, that is a low blow. Why would you have 10 vehicles for 10 rangers?

Senator BOSWELL —I don’t know. If you have got 10 rangers—

Mr Yanner —How many cars do you have?

Senator BOSWELL —I have one.

Mr Yanner —It is probably a Mercedes, though.

Senator BOSWELL —No, it is a Holden at the bottom of the range.

Mr Yanner —We are well resourced. The Queensland government has provided us with the appropriate amount of vehicles, boats and quad bikes. We have the odd use of a helicopter to get up and do our aerial stuff. The aerial shoots, for instance, that Mark spoke about. We can kill hundreds of pigs a day by helicopter rather than on foot. We are extremely well resourced.

Senator BOSWELL —Let me put it to you this way. You said you have the highest unemployment and you can live like a lord out of the rivers. You just made a statement then that if someone wanted to open a business you would have to get special permission to do it under the wild rivers or you would have to get legal advice to do it. I accept everything you say about the rangers. I accept that they do a great job with the ghost nets and so forth. It seems to me that you have got 10 jobs and the appropriate amount of cars, but what about the other 90 per cent of the people who might want to go and grow watermelons, run a cattle property or do something else?

Mr Hogno —They do run cattle properties.

Senator BOSWELL —I know they run cattle.

Mr Hogno —There are plenty of them.

Senator BOSWELL —I am talking about the people that want to access land. You and I have known each other for a while and I knew your father, but I am just concerned. I accept everything you say about the rangers, but you are sort of tying rangers to wild rivers. Rangers should be there anyhow, irrespective of the wild rivers. What you are saying is that this wild rivers has given us 10 rangers and they are doing a great job, but I am saying what happens to the other people that cannot get a job because they cannot go and do something? I know the land in the blue on the map was given under deed of grant.

Mr Yanner —That is out of my turf. I cannot talk about that. If you listen to what I originally said, I said the ranger program is an excellent thing. It is tied to legislation; we cannot help that. Everyone is going on about the legislation and they are forgetting about this. One hundred ranger jobs in the lower gulf and cape, when you know the numbers up there with 90 per cent unemployment, is not something to be baulked at; it is something to be taken into consideration.

More importantly, as we have shown with the Century Mine debacle, that mine alone in the lower gulf employs more Indigenous people than any mine in this country. You have only got to go there to see that. There are black fellows falling out of the woodwork left, right and centre.

Senator BOSWELL —Isn’t that a good thing?

Mr Yanner —It is a good thing, but you can still have mining. They have just got to do the right thing by the legislation environmentally. There is no one stopping development. I do not believe this legislation stops it.

Senator BOSWELL —You can have mining because that comes under a different act. This has got to be determined. Most people say you cannot go and develop either side of a river. Other people say you can. That has got to be tested.

Mr Yanner —We are doing it. We are running cattle stations that comply with the legislation. For instance, we fenced off the water hole and we run a water pump up to a turkeys nest and we gravity feed to the troughs. All the cattle are fed back from the river, away from the 200 metres, so the riverbanks are protected and the biodiversity and the ecosystem, so the cattle do not trample it.

Senator BOSWELL —It is a kilometre, isn’t it?

Mr Yanner —No, it is 200 metres from the high preservation area.

Senator BOSWELL —I think you might be in trouble.

Mr Yanner —In any case, the real point is that we in the lower gulf were doing this on our own stations before the legislation came in. The legislation simply complements what we know from our occupation, observation and 1,000 years in the lower gulf of what is best for our rivers.

Senator McLUCAS —Just on that point, Senator Boswell, I think the difference that we have in Carpentaria is that the land tenure in the area that the wild rivers have been declared is all Indigenous owned pastoral lease, so if someone wants to go and grow watermelons, you cannot go over to someone else’s land and grow those watermelons. That is the issue. It is not whether or not an Indigenous person who lives in Normanton can do that, you cannot just walk onto someone else’s country and run an economic activity. I think that is the key difference between Carpentaria and Cape York.

Mr Yanner —Absolutely. If the wild rivers were not declared then that place there, in my region, would not be starting to get cleaned up like it is in some regions. We have instigated a lot of stuff and we now have the action actually happening.

Senator BOSWELL —You are doing a great job and probably a very necessary job. I cannot see why you would have to put wild rivers legislation in to do that job. Your rangers’ job should stand on its own feet.

Mr Yanner —We agree. They are two separate issues, in a sense, but the legislation firstly protects our rivers. We are totally in support of it for that alone without the ranger program, but the ranger program allows the ability and the resourcing to get out and look after your country. You cannot just put legislation down and say people should not be building weirs illegally and this and that. This was the whole argument in the first place. Who the hell in Brisbane is going to know what is going on out there? The rangers regulate and monitor illegal activities under the legislation.

Senator McLUCAS —I suppose the observation that I take home from your presentation today is that wild rivers was the catalyst. It was the entrée into being able to work on properties that previously your rangers or people who were working in a ranger type role would not have been able to do. That has given that partnership arrangement with the pastoralist and your rangers. Is that accurate?

Mr Yanner —Absolutely, and with further trickle-on effects. As they develop a relationship with the rangers and see the important work that they do and there is an economic benefit, as you are clearing pastures belonging to a pastoralist of weeds and so on, the economic wealth of that station grows. They obviously get a buck out of it, but the rangers with their families or traditional owner groups, get more access to the stations in general as that relationship is developed. It is not just the rangers, but there is a bit of reconciliation and practical stuff where the mob is allowed back to camp to hunt and fish on country and so on.

CHAIR —I do not think that we have any other questions.

Senator McLUCAS —Thank you for your submission.

Senator BOSWELL —I can ring Senator Heffernan up for you, if you want!

Mr Yanner —Get Wild Bill. I wanted to have a go at him. He is dodging me. Him and old Macdonald both took off.

Senator BOSWELL —I stayed here to take it up.

—Good on you, brother!

CHAIR —I think Senator Heffernan is at the dentist getting his comeuppance this afternoon. Thank you very much for your submission and thank you for taking the trouble to travel down and present your evidence today. It was great.

Mr Yanner —We had to swim half way here!

CHAIR —You have an ex-SAS trooper with you so you will be right.

Mr Yanner —That is him. We will be right.

Proceedings suspended from 4.33 pm to 4.44 pm