Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
Estimates hearings, 22 May 2012
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
- Senator Richard Colbeck, Liberal Senator for Tasmania
- Dr Conall O’Connell, Secretary
- Mr Mark Tucker, Deputy Secretary
- Mr Tom Aldred, First Assistant Secretary, Climate Change
Senator RHIANNON: Considering there has been a failure to complete five-yearly reviews for nearly all regions covered by RFAs, what are your plans for the future for the RFAs?
Mr Aldred: Five-yearly reviews have been completed and tabled. I am happy to provide a table of those. At the moment, in the case of New South Wales and Victoria, what we are doing with our state government colleagues is finalising the government responses to the five-yearly reviews. We are in the final stages of that. I believe that we either have had or have sought meetings with Victorian and New South Wales colleagues in the first week of June to finalise officials-level proposals that would then go to ministers for consideration.
Senator RHIANNON: You would acknowledge, though, that many of the regions and areas, the states, were late in their five-yearly reviews?
Mr Aldred: Yes, Senator.
Senator RHIANNON: Have any warning notices been issued to the states regarding their compliance with RFAs?
Mr Aldred: Not warning notices. We have certainly had a range of discussions and encouraged jurisdictions to move on the five-yearly reviews. Obviously, it can become not a protracted but a detailed process to run the reviews and the consultation period, finalise those and then form a joint government response. I think in at least a couple of cases state elections have intervened and those sorts of things.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that you have actually helped derive the process that the states should have been looking after?
Mr Aldred: They are joint processes. The five-yearly reviews are joint processes. We are trying to make sure that they are on time and on track. I am confident that that will be so in the near future.
Senator RHIANNON: So not all are on track?
Mr Aldred: There are a couple where, as I say, we are still working on the government responses to the five-yearly reviews, even though the reviews have been tabled. Certainly, from my perspective, I would like to make sure that those are completed.
Senator RHIANNON: Which ones were they again?
Mr Aldred: We are dealing with New South Wales and Victoria. There are multiple regional forest agreements in each of those jurisdictions. What we have tended to do is deal with the five-yearly reviews in an amalgamation of several of the RFAs. That is another reason why the strict five years may not have been achieved, say, in the case of East Gippsland, which was the first RFA in Victoria.
Senator RHIANNON: Where state governments have changed their regulatory environments to lessen protections for biodiversity, as is happening in Victoria and is planned for New South Wales, and thus not meet their commitments, what action would the federal minister consider taking?
Mr Aldred: Firstly, I am not sure I would necessarily agree with changing regulations to lessen protection. Where governments—
Senator RHIANNON: I am sorry; can I just ask you to expand on that. My understanding of the changes to the law is that that clearly is the outcome.
Dr O'Connell: Senator, I think there are proposals around. I do not think that is a representation that the relevant minister would be inclined to agree with. I do not think we can make a comment on that.
Senator RHIANNON: I understood that under the new Victorian legislation that would be the outcome—that there would be reduced protection for biodiversity.
Dr O'Connell: I do not think that is necessarily right.
Mr Aldred: In terms of the proposed changes to the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, you did actually ask at the last hearings what we had done about that. I indicated that we had sought, or were seeking, advice from the Victorian government. We have had a response from the Victorian department that has provided an assurance that the changes will conform with requirements under the regional forest agreement. I expect we will continue some discussions along those lines as we finalise the government response.
Senator RHIANNON: Does that mean you have just relied on their interpretation?
Mr Aldred: No. As I just said, I anticipate that we will continue discussions around that as we finalise the matter.
Dr O'Connell: The operable part of it will be how it related to the EPBC Act requirements, essentially—so whether or not it would be adequate to manage the requirements of the Commonwealth, given that a function of the RFAs is essentially to provide equivalent protection to the Commonwealth legislation. So it would, in essence, require the Commonwealth minister to agree that the changes had not done damage to those objectives. I do not think we have got anywhere close to that being assessed yet. But I could be—
Senator RHIANNON: Dr O'Connell, did you just say you did not think that that had actually been determined yet?
Dr O'Connell: No. I am saying that I do not think we have got to the stage where we have had that judgment made by the Commonwealth minister, but I could be wrong.
Senator RHIANNON: Can I just clarify? At this stage you have not determined whether the legal changes, the new legislation in Victoria, have lessened protection for biodiversity. You are still waiting to determine the federal position on that?
Dr O'Connell: As I said, the matter is fundamentally one for the Environment portfolio in terms of the relationship of that act to the EPBC Act. My understanding—as I say, I could be corrected—is that that judgment has not been made. But, as I have said—
Senator RHIANNON: It has not been made?
Dr O'Connell: it would be one that would be better put to the Environment portfolio, given that that would be the parallel that you are looking for.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.
Mr Tucker: That was the addition that I was going to make. We work jointly with the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities to undertake our recommendations to the government.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Can I just ask for some more elaboration about the process of renegotiating the RFAs? How will that be managed? Can you explain the process that leads up to the new agreements being signed or not?
Mr Aldred: Each of the RFAs contains a clause that determines that the process for renewal will be agreed as part of the third five-yearly reviews. As yet, we have not hit the third five-yearly reviews. We are close. In terms of the actual mechanism and the government position, we will be providing advice to Minister Ludwig and Minister Burke about those processes.
Senator RHIANNON: I would like to ask about logging on private land. Private land logging in RFA regions, I understand, is exempt from the EPBC Act, despite not having been surveyed or assessed for its conservation value in the comprehensive regional assessment process. Now that the koala has been listed as vulnerable under the EPBC Act, what action will the Commonwealth take to protect it from habitat destruction in private land logging operations?
Mr Aldred: That is probably a question best directed to the Environment portfolio. My understanding is that the Environment portfolio is starting to look at the nature of any guidelines that would need to be developed to provide guidance on how the listing of the koala should impact on different land types.
Senator RHIANNON: Will there be any—
Mr Aldred: Perhaps I could just continue there. That is my understanding, but I stand to be corrected. We have had some preliminary discussions with officers in the environment department, but I think it is probably best put to those officers directly.
Senator RHIANNON: You just said you have had preliminary discussions. That is what I was interested in understanding. Is there interaction between the two departments or do you just rely on getting advice and you go along with their assessment?
Mr Aldred: In terms of interaction with the environment department, we have got very close working relationships with our environment department colleagues. These are the sorts of matters that we discuss.
Mr Tucker: Let us also be clear that it is a matter of implementing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It is that department's responsibility.
Senator RHIANNON: Staying with some of the environmental angles, I want to look at it in the context of the Hawke review. In response to the Hawke review, the government states that the various failures of the RFAs will be addressed in the renewal process to be renegotiated with RFA states during 2011 and 2012. Is the government proposing to extend RFAs that have failed to deliver protections for the environment, and what environmental assessment is planned for prior to RFA renewals?
Mr Aldred: There were some suggestions in the Hawke review that were not accepted by the government. The government certainly indicated—I do not have the strict words—that it will be looking to pick up some of the concerns expressed through the Hawke review in renegotiating and renewing RFAs. That will form part of the advice that we will provide to ministers in suggesting a process.
Senator RHIANNON: Just a little bit more on Hawke: I am just trying to understand how all this works, considering you have accepted some but not all of his recommendations. He also stated:
In order to demonstrate that environment protection outcomes have been achieved in RFA forests, the RFA reviews need to focus on the performance of RFAs in achieving their objectives, including protecting biodiversity, and not just report on processes under the agreements. Reviews should specifically address relevant matters of national environmental significance ... and report on verifiable information.
Was that accepted or is that one of the aspects that you dispute?
Mr Aldred: I would need to check the specific words, Senator.
Senator RHIANNON: Hopefully you can help me with this, otherwise you can take it on notice: how does the government propose to make the states deliver the RFA reviews and ensure that RFAs have been meeting their objectives, including protecting biodiversity?
Mr Aldred: Again, as I indicated earlier, we are pushing as quickly as we can to finalise all the five-yearly reviews. We will be proceeding towards the third five-yearly reviews over the next couple of years and we will be providing advice to government, but there is no determined process as yet.
Senator RHIANNON: Could you go around the states and give me a sketch on where the states are up to so we have a sense of progress in a more specific way? Can you start with New South Wales?
Mr Aldred: Yes, Senator. The first five-yearly reviews of all New South Wales RFAs have been completed and independent reviewers report tabled in March 2010. As I have indicated, we are in discussions with our New South Wales colleagues to finalise the joint government response. For Tasmania—
Senator RHIANNON: When do you expect that to be finalised and tabled?
Mr Aldred: I indicated that we are seeking a meeting with our colleagues in the first week of June. And it will be as quickly as we can after that, and I would expect that we are talking a matter of weeks to get an officials-level discussion, but obviously we both need to go back to our governments, our ministers.
Senator RHIANNON: When you say as soon after that as possible, you mean the actual tabling of the report? Is that what you meant? I am just trying to get a sense of the time line.
Mr Aldred: I will stand corrected, Senator. I am not entirely certain that it is a requirement to table the government's response. I would expect the government's response to be made public soon after that.
Senator RHIANNON: Approximately when?
Mr Aldred: As I have indicated, a matter of weeks, I hope, for officials-level agreement. We will then have to seek the approval of both governments for that.
Senator RHIANNON: So maybe a couple of months after June?
Mr Aldred: I would not like to put a specific requirement on my minister or the New South Wales minister in that regard.
Senator RHIANNON: Fair enough. Next one?
Mr Aldred: The first and second reviews of the Tasmanian RFA have been completed. That is 2002-07. As to the third five-yearly review, Tasmania has started drafting some of the preliminary documentation and will proceed with that this year.
Senator RHIANNON: The third five-yearly review is being drafted at the present time?
Mr Aldred: The preliminary information is being put together in Tasmania. We have had initial discussions with Tasmanian officials to commence that process.
Senator RHIANNON: Following on from that, when do you expect that will be finalised and possibly made public?
Mr Aldred: That one? It is difficult to say exactly. It usually takes some months for these processes to run through.
Senator RHIANNON: This year, next year?
Senator COLBECK: Would that one be impacted by the IGA process, potentially?
Mr Aldred: It could well be, Senator.
Senator RHIANNON: The next one?
Mr Aldred: In Victoria, the first and second reviews of all five of the Victorian RFAs were done together. As I indicated earlier, the first RFA in Victoria was 2012. The last one was 2015. There was a three-year period across which they spread. As to the first and second reviews, the independent reviewers' report was tabled in September 2010. It is a similar situation, as I indicated, for New South Wales. Again, we have sought discussions with our Victorian colleagues in the first week of June. We would anticipate, I would hope, that we would finalise, again at officials level, within a few weeks. Then it goes to governments for consideration. For Western Australia, the first and second reviews have been completed in a single report and we are proceeding to develop a public consultation document at the present time.
Senator RHIANNON: So in the WA situation you are going for a single report and public consultation?
Mr Aldred: We would normally put out a document for public consultation. We are discussing it with Western Australian colleagues. We are trying to get that put together right at the moment.
Senator RHIANNON: Your time line there? How is that all going to roll out?
Mr Aldred: Again, the public consultation document would go out. We would then have an independent reviewer examine. Again, it will probably take several months.
Senator RHIANNON: Public consultation is expected to start when?
Mr Aldred: I would expect it is still going to take us two or three months to get a public consultation document. I just need to check the status of WA.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Perhaps you could take that on notice. I am particularly interested in the time line. You mentioned public consultation with regard to Western Australia but not any of the other states. Is there a different process?
Mr Aldred: No. The public consultation processes have led to the tabling of the independent reviewers' reports. The step after that is a joint government response.
Senator RHIANNON: You are saying that in those other three states that part of it is completed; we are past that?
Mr Aldred: That has been done, yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Western Australia is a bit behind. Is that what we are saying?
Mr Aldred: We are working on Western Australia at the moment, yes.
Senator RHIANNON: I am expecting, therefore, that it is—what?—a year behind?
Mr Aldred: With Western Australia, yes, it has certainly been delayed. As I have indicated, I would like to see that we would move that along this year.
Senator RHIANNON: Why is it being delayed? Why is Western Australia so much behind the other states?
Mr Aldred: I would need to take that on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Please take that on notice. Thank you, Mr Chair.