Greens Senator and forests spokesperson Lee Rhiannon asks questions of Minister Ludwig and departmental staff about forests.
Senate Estimates - Monday, 11 February 2013
RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
Senator Ludwig, Minister Assisting on Queensland Floods Recovery, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
Mr Andrew Metcalfe, Secretary
Ms Rona Mellor, Deputy Secretary
Mr Phillip Glyde, Deputy Secretary
Mr Mark Tucker, Deputy Secretary
Ms Fran Freeman, First Assistant Secretary
Mr Paul McNamara, Assistant Secretary, Forestry
Ms Julie Gaglia, Acting Assistant Secretary, Climate Change Policy
Senator RHIANNON: Minister, have you been involved in any talks about the closure of the Eden chip mill owned by South East Fibre Exports?
Senator Ludwig: I will check, but I do not have any clear recollection of that.
Senator RHIANNON: So you will take it on notice if there have been any informal or formal talks?
Senator Ludwig: If I have, I do not recollect. You asked me whether I have been involved. My recollection is no. Just in case it involved another entity or another name, I will check my records.
Senator RHIANNON: Is there anyone from the department who has been involved in such talks?
Mr Metcalfe: I recall visiting the facility as part of my familiarisation program with the portfolio back in December. Certainly to my recollection there were no discussions of that nature. I was there purely to familiarise myself with the forestry industry in the south-east.
Senator RHIANNON: As you were there to familiarise yourself, are you aware that there have been a number of media reports in the area of the possible closure of the mill, and is that something that you are acquainting yourself with?
Mr McNamara: We are aware of reports of some downsizing of the staff in that particular mill. We have not had any formal discussions with SEFE.
Senator RHIANNON: I understand that the New South Wales government is reviving logging licence conditions, which could mean that areas of old-growth forest and rainforest currently in special management zones and thus protected in state forests would be opened up for logging. So it is with regard to revising the conditions. Is there any discussions with the New South Wales government about these changes and would such changes be a breach of the RFA?
Mr McNamara: We have not been in discussions with New South Wales with regard to that. Land planning, as you would be aware, is a state matter by constitution. The case would be that the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries would be in discussions with the Environment Protection Agency within New South Wales, and those discussions would be ongoing. We have not been involved in those discussions at this point in time.
Senator RHIANNON: Under the RFA, if considering such a revision would breach the conditions, would that trigger the requirement for discussions?
Mr McNamara: What you are saying is that it would breach the RFA; I am not sure that it would breach the RFA. The RFA provides for adaptive management, so what it actually provides for-it is a long-term 20-year agreement. Certainly when the RFAs were put together it was recognised that views on forest management and views on environmental management could well change over the course of that 20-year period. What the RFAs provide for is an ability for state laws to change, adapt and evolve over that time and the RFAs remain current.
So, if the practices that are being undertaken within state forests are consistent with the current state laws, then that also means they are consistent with the RFAs. So I am not sure that the proposition you are putting forward is correct.
Mr Tucker: I will add to that reply. Yes, RFAs are to be adaptive instruments, depending on how circumstances change. But state governments also have certain commitments in those regional forest agreements.
So it is slightly hypothetical-I do not have it in front of me-but certainly, if they were considering arrangements which may affect those commitments, we would expect a discussion.
Senator RHIANNON: Back to issues to do with SEFI again. In October last year, there was information about a sawmill biomass study being undertaken. I understand that a little bit over $73,000 went to SEFI for that. When will this report be released to the public?
Mr McNamara: The report has been published on the DAFF website.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Are there any export controls over the export of wood pellets made from native forest wood?
Mr McNamara: I would have to take that on notice. We should be able to get an answer back this afternoon.
Senator RHIANNON: Another one to take on notice with that: for whole logs or wood chips that are destined to be used for energy purposes, including electricity generation, are there any controls with respect to export or generally?
Mr McNamara: Under the Export Control Act that there is a requirement for saw logs over two tonnes for licencing, but under two tonnes it essentially falls to state legislation.
Senator RHIANNON: Could you take that on notice, please. I want to ask about the exit strategy package for the Tasmanian forest contractors. DAFF has put many millions of dollars into this. Could you provide a final list of grants that have come under that scheme?
Ms Freeman: It is up on our website. But we are happy to provide that to you.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Minister, in relation to the fraud inquiry-with respect to the package paid out to some companies in Tasmania-at the last Senate estimates you explained that no charges were laid by Federal Police and no report would be published. Is the reason that no charges were laid because some of the original recipients paid the money back?
Ms Freeman: Can I just clarify which program you are talking about. Senator Colbeck asked a number of questions about the intergovernmental agreement contract exitors program and we talked about allegations of fraud in that. So I just want to clarify-
Senator RHIANNON: A fraud inquiry commenced in February 2011, and one of the companies it covered was Kasun Pty Ltd. The minister explained at the last estimates that there would be nothing further done about this, and I just want to clarify: is part of the reason for that that some of the money was paid back by companies; and, if so, what and how much?
Ms Freeman: I will take that on notice.
Mr McNamara: I want to confirm this with you, Senator. There have been a number of grants programs run in Tasmania over the last five to six years. I was wondering if you could perhaps provide us with some more detail. Which particular program was that grant provided under?
Senator RHIANNON: I will give the website that I am picking it up from. If you look at the response that the minister gave at the last estimates, it will clarify what program that we are talking about. We had an exchange.
The minister said: 'No charges were laid by the Federal Police and no report will be published.
Senator Ludwig: I am happy to take that on notice and get back to you.
Senator RHIANNON: I want to go back to an RFA in western Victoria. That RFA notes that while the review process will not open the agreement to renegotiation both parties may agree to some minor modifications to incorporate the results of the review. There are enormous developments in that area. We have seen the phasing out of commercial logging in the region, there is a recommendation of the five-year review to cancel the agreement, a large number of nationally significant species are in the area, there are moves by the state government to reopen sensitive forest areas for new logging and changes being made by the state government to water down the protection under state law. These are considerable changes. What steps will the federal government take to revisit the western regional forest agreement?
Mr Tucker: I can answer in the general sense-I do not have that agreement in front of me. In answer to one of your previous questions we said that the RFAs are documents that adapt to changes in circumstances. Clearly, if there are intentions or decisions that may affect state commitments then we expect a discussion around the content of the RFA. There is also the regular process of examination of the delivery of the RFA and the review of the RFAs as we get towards the end of their 20-year span. In each of those circumstances, we have the capacity to revisit the commitments in a regional forest agreement. Governments of the day, as they have chosen to do in the case of Tasmania, can also reach other agreements if that is their policy position. I do not know the specific circumstances of western Victoria but there are a number of opportunities or occasions available to change those agreements.
Mr Metcalfe: I have one thing come back to assist the matter that we took on notice earlier. Senator Rhiannon asked for a list of all the grantees under the Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement Contractors Voluntary Exit Grants program. I am advised that all grants paid for by the department are listed on the grants reporting section of the department's website. The 58 grantees of the program are listed from March 2012 onwards. I have a particular part of the website I can refer you to so I will give that to the secretariat and they can refer it to Senator Rhiannon.