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Estimates: Regional Forest Agreement rollovers

Estimates & Committees
Janet Rice 3 Mar 2017

Senator RICE: I have some questions about the regional forest agreements, and in particular about the efficacy of the agreements. What measures has the Commonwealth taken to monitor the effectiveness of the protection provided under the RFAs to ensure that they do, as claimed, provide the equivalent protection as if they were covered under the EPBC Act?

Mr Dadswell: As Mr Knudson mentioned earlier, I should just note that the regional forest agreements are the responsibility of Senator Ruston and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. What I can indicate is that part of the regional forest agreements is a process of five-yearly reviews that evaluate the effectiveness of those agreements. They are generally undertaken by an independent reviewer and involve public consultation. Those recommendations are then provided to both governments and the governments then provide a joint response. Typically, those recommendations go towards incremental improvements in the RFAs.

Senator RICE: I know the five-year reviews. Is that the extent of the monitoring of the effectiveness of them?

Senator Ruston: Senator Rice, probably what would be useful here is that whilst I can give you the same broad brush answer I would normally give you, in terms of the absolute details in relation to the monitoring processes that are undertaken though the department of agriculture, tomorrow night we will have the opportunity.

Senator RICE: I was going to come and ask you some questions, as you probably would have been expecting.

Senator Ruston: Absolutely. We have the department thoroughly briefed because I can anticipate your questions. So unless there is something particularly for Environment and Energy I am quite happy to make all of that information available to you tomorrow through that process.

Senator RICE: With regard to that, that would be good. But from Environment and Energy's perspective, have the state forestry agencies ever been asked to provide evidence or reassurance that equivalent protection has been provided? You have your five-yearly reviews, but what is claimed is that the RFAs are providing equivalent protection as would otherwise occur under the EPBC Act. So I am interested to know from the department's perspective what certainty or assurance you have that that indeed has been the case over the last 20 years.

Mr Dadswell: I think that the regional forest agreements are quite different to the EPBC Act, so I do not think there is any comparison. Again, they would be questions relating purely to the regional forest agreements for those areas that they cover.

Senator RICE: Basically, because the RFAs have been in placed you have washed your hands of them and said that the EPBC Act does not apply, so you do not have to do any further monitoring to ensure that they are providing equivalent protection?

Senator Ruston: Obviously our requirement, through the department of agriculture, was to ensure that the provisions are written into the RFA such that there are no lesser protections in place than would exist under the EPBC Act. That was the principal act, which implied quite clearly the guidelines under which we have to operate in this space.

Senator RICE: But quite clearly the area of debate is that in fact for the last 20 years we have not had the equivalent protection.

Senator Ruston: That is the debate, and you and I are going to agree to disagree on that, all the way through discussions tonight and tomorrow. All of the questions you are asking here can be answered—probably not to your satisfaction—tomorrow night.

Senator RICE: I will take that on board, absolutely. In terms of federally listed species in RFA areas, what measures are in place to protect them where a state lists a particular species at a lower level than the federal listing? What level of protection does the Commonwealth require the RFA to provide?

Mr Dadswell: Under the regional forest agreements, in addition to the comprehensive and adequate representative reserve system that was established with each agreement, each state agency is bound through their forest management practices to protect threatened species, and they have regard to both state and federal recovery plans and conservation advice.

Senator RICE: But, specifically, if the state has it listed at a lower level than the federal listing, what level of protection is required?

Senator Ruston: The higher level applies, doesn't it?

Mr Dadswell: It is up to the state in terms of looking at their conservation advice, but I will have to take it on notice for further detail.

Senator RICE: The Australian government is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity and has agreed to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. We know that within the RFA area there are many important aspects of species in biodiversity conservation, including habitat protection, that are covered under the RFAs and are matters for the states. That is what you are saying. It is up to the states to decide. So how is the Commonwealth able to ensure that it is able to meet those international targets according to the convention that it signed up to? In particular, target 7 says: By 2020 areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry are managed sustainably, ensuring conservation of biodiversity. Target 12: By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained. Target 14: By 2020, ecosystems that provide essential services, including services related to water, and contribute to health, livelihoods and well-being, are restored and safeguarded, taking into account the needs of women, indigenous and local communities, and the poor and vulnerable.

Ms Campbell: Australia has committed to the range of commitments under this Convention on Biological Diversity, including the Aichi targets. We work very cooperatively with the state governments through all of those targets. In a federation like ours, state management of threatened species, either within the RFA or out of the RFA, are critical for us meeting those targets. We work cooperatively with them. The regional forest agreements do provide a framework that allows that protection, with the reserves that were created under the forest agreement and the forest management practices in line with the states.

Senator RICE: Despite the fact of the experience that we have had under the last 20 years of the RFAs. For example, Leadbeater's possums are becoming critically endangered in those forest areas. Greater gliders were once common and are now vulnerable or endangered—I am not quite sure of their classification. The swift parrot is similarly being affected by forestry, as is the giant freshwater lobster in Tasmania. All of these areas under the RFAs over the last 20 years have gone backwards. I am wondering: how can the Commonwealth actually commit to fulfilling those targets while the RFAs have been in place?

Senator Ruston: Senator Rice, can I just put something on the record here. The inference you are making is that everything that relates to the classification of a species in terms of its existence is completely determined by, say, the six per cent—in Victoria—of a state that is under forestry.

Senator RICE: For all of those species that I have mentioned, their threatened species recovery plans have acknowledged that forestry is a key threatening process.

Senator Ruston: Threatened species recovery plans are the key point here. They have been identified. Leadbeater's possum is a very good example, as you would well know. We have had 436 identifications of Leadbeater's possum since the recovery plan has been put in place. I think we can take some pride in the fact that it was identified and that the actions that have been taken have seen an increase in the numbers of these animals being sighted.

Senator RICE: There have been more citizen scientists out there looking for them. But it remains a fact that the key threatening process for these species is forestry. We have had 20 years of the Regional Forest Agreements, where the conservation—

Senator Ruston: That is your opinion.

Senator RICE: No, it is not my opinion.

CHAIR: Senator Rice, it is starting to turn into a bit of a debate. Do you have a question?

Mr Andrews: Excuse me, Minister Ruston and Senator Rice. I might be able to help you here. I have got some data on the science. This is from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and it was written by Professor John Woinarski, who I call Australia's leading mammal scientist—and I think most mammal scientists would agree indeed. He is on the drafting team for the Leadbeater's possum recovery plan, which is being done by the government. These were the threat factors for Australia's mammals. The threat factor for timber harvesting, according to Prof Woinarski, is 32 times less than the threat factor for feral cats. Timber harvesting affects eight of our mammals—that is, eight out of 138 endangered mammals. Feral cats affect 97 out of 138, the red fox affects 58, fire affects 63 and climate change affects 26. So the data is that timber harvesting is actually one of the lower threats to Australia's mammals.

Senator RICE: With the greatest respect, Mr Andrews, we are talking particularly about forest dependent threatened species. I know there are a lot of other threatened species that are not forest dependent, but for the ones which are primarily in forest areas—such as Leadbeater's possum, the greater glider, the giant freshwater crayfish and swift parrots—timber harvesting is acknowledged as the key threatening process. We have got the government, which has signed up to international conventions, saying that the way it is going to meet them is through the RFAs. You are telling me that the RFAs are basically up to the states. Clearly the evidence of the last 20 years is that because of timber harvesting the conservation status for of all of these species has declined.

CHAIR: Senator Rice, is a question here? It sounds as if it is going to a debate.

Senator RICE: The question goes back to: having signed up to these international conventions how, under the current management regime, are you going to meet those conventions?

Senator Ruston: Senator Rice, as you well know, the negotiations and reviews that are being undertaken in relation to the RFAs are to ensure that the protections are in place to enable the states to manage the forests, but with the overarching protections that get put in by the RFAs. What we are seeking to do in rolling over the RFAs is to ensure that those levels of protection are in place so that we can allow the states to get on with it.

Senator RICE: Do you expect the RFAs to substantially change? We can have this debate tomorrow and—

Senator Ruston: Certainly, Senator Rice, if there are clearly things that can be changed in the RFAs that will give the kinds of protections that will satisfy the things that Mr Andrews is obviously looking for when he does his job, and our international obligations, then of course they are the things that will be looked at. But to suggest that we are just letting the states do whatever they like when it comes to forestry is a false statement on your part. What the RFAs seek to do is enable the states to manage their forests with the protections that are provided in the EPBC Act, but under RFAs.

Senator RICE: Except that you have not got that monitoring in place to know whether they are the equivalent of the EPBC Act.

Senator Ruston: The details of that we will discuss tomorrow night. You are just making blanket assumptions that what you are saying is correct—

Senator RICE: No, I am making statements based on the evidence.

Senator Ruston: and I am disputing that.

CHAIR: Senator Rice, you have identified that you are making statements. That is it?

Senator RICE: Yes, that is it.




Tuesday 28 February 2017, Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport

Senator RICE: I want to talk about the Regional Forest Agreements, which you are probably not surprised about—in particular, starting with the East Gippsland Regional Forest Agreement, which has recently beenextended. What was the process? When did the Victorian and the Commonwealth governments get together to sign off on the East Gippsland RFA extension? Senator Ruston: It has been an ongoing process for some time at a departmental level and at a ministerial level. I would have to refer to Ms Lauder for the exact dates. The decision to extend the existing RFA to come in line with the Central Highlands RFA was taken by agreement between Premier Daniel Andrews and the Prime Minister on 20 January. Senator RICE: When did the formal discussions start in terms of extending that RFA?

Ms Lauder: I think the Victorian government wrote to us in April 2016. We have been working with them to try and get a scoping agreement for the reviews. As you know, the Victorian Forest Industry Taskforce was happening. They were not wanting to progress too much until the results of that. Because of that, the reviews were not able to be done in time for the normal extension process for the East Gippsland RFA.

Senator RICE: It is not a normal one, because we have reached the end of what was a 20-year agreement. Ms Lauder: That is true but, as you know, the Commonwealth is looking at ending by 20 years. The Victorian government sought a short-term extension because the reviews had not been done—a 13 months extension from us. They wrote to us in approximately April—and I will correct that on the record if that is not the exact date—to seek an extension. It is just a time extension and nothing else to give them the time to do the proper review.

Senator RICE: Essentially they approached you?

Ms Lauder: Yes.

Senator RICE: The Commonwealth agreed and then you signed off on the extension on 20 January?

Ms Lauder: Yes.

Senator RICE: How was it then announced publicly?

Ms Lauder: A joint media release between the Commonwealth and the Victorian government was put out. I think it was put out on the day that the East Gippsland RFA would have expired.

Senator RICE: So, the decision was on 20 January and I think the expiry date was 3 February.

Ms Lauder: Yes, that is right. We needed to get the Victorian Premier's signature, for example. We had heard verbally by then, but we needed to get the hard copy before we could announce and table it in parliament et cetera.

Senator RICE: So, it was just because of waiting for the Premier's hard copy that it was not announced in that period between the 20th and the 3rd?

Ms Lauder: That is right. It was just a process, yes.

Senator RICE: How widely was that media release circulated? It seemed pretty low key for what was a very significant announcement after the expiry of the first of the regional forest agreements.

Senator Ruston: It was distributed the same way as the press release that I put out. I cannot speak on behalf of the Victorian minister as to how she chose to distribute the press release, but certainly it went to my standard database that all of my press releases go to.

Senator RICE: So, you agree it was fairly low key given the significance of it?

Senator Ruston: No. It was the same as any other press release. I think everything I announce is immensely important.

Senator RICE: What briefings were the minister and the Prime Minister provided with as signatories in terms of the process leading to that signoff?

Ms Lauder: The Prime Minister and the Premier of Victoria were the signatories. Minister Ruston and Minister D'Ambrosio in Victoria were provided briefings with what the impact of a 13-month extension would be on the East Gippsland RFA and looked at each of the matters under the RFA Act and what the implications would be for each of those.

Senator RICE: Can you go through what those considerations were?

Ms Lauder: I am sorry, I do not have them with me, but there are environmental, social, community and economic considerations. Under each of those there is more detail. So, for example, under environmental I think there are things like threatened species and old growth.

Senator RICE: Can you tell me, more specifically, the considerations in terms of threatened species that were taken into account in signing off on such an extension?

Ms Lauder: The consideration was that the 13-month extension would still ensure the current forest management system that Victoria runs for the forest under the RFA; that it would be extended for that period, and that it is working as an adaptive management style. As new information becomes available on, for example, threatened species, then they adjust the harvesting regime or timing or if there are new colonies of species found that the relevant buffers are extended to those new species, for example. So, all of those things would continue. It was a brief assessment. It was not the equivalent of what would be done for a 20-year extension.

Senator RICE: How did you take into account the dramatic change in status of threatened species and how that was likely to continue to occur over the 13-month extension? We have had, in the East Gippsland area, for example, long-footed potoroos or greater gliders, which have just been declared as being endangered which were common 20 years ago.

Ms Lauder: Yes. For those species that have recovery plans in place the actions would continue to be implemented. Under the forest management system in Victoria as soon as they are aware of individuals of that species being present they then adjust the operations to ensure—

Senator RICE: If they know about it?

Ms Lauder: That is right. It is as soon as they are aware of them.

Senator RICE: Are you aware of allegations that there are woeful prelogging surveys in that area and it has been up to citizen scientists to do the prelogging surveys, particularly for identification of long-footed potoroos, greater gliders and tiger quolls? There have been very poor prelogging surveys by the department.

Senator Ruston: We can sit here and go tit for tat in relation to the accusations that are made on both sides of this debate in relation to threatened species, but you and I both know the most important thing that we can do is to ensure that we have good processes in place to deal with them. I do not think that it serves any purpose to sit there saying that we have citizen scientists and we have got this and that. I think you and I had a discussion earlier this morning to say that we both agreed that dealing with threatened species was one of the very important things that we needed to do about the review and the possible rollover of these RFAs. I do not think any purpose is served in having a witch-hunt over what is happening right now. If you are genuine about wanting to resolve this problem, I am happy to do that but I would like to say—

Senator RICE: Given the interests of time as well, are processes for the next 13 months with this extension going to be any different than they have been for the last five years of the East Gippsland Regional Forest Agreement?

Ms Lauder: No. It was purely a time extension.

Senator RICE: Purely the same?

Ms Lauder: Yes, that is right.

Senator RICE: So, there has been no requirement to tighten up the prelogging surveys or other requirements? They stay the same as has been occurring for the last five, 10, 15 or 20 years?

Ms Lauder: Not in the short-term extension. One of the issues was that the reviews over the last 10 years had not been done and so we are needing that information to help make a thorough and full assessment and then to consider—

Senator RICE: So, it is another 13 months of business as usual?

Ms Lauder: Yes.

Senator RICE: Moving on to Tasmania, where is the Tasmanian RFA up to as far as the department is concerned?

Ms Lauder: The review has been undertaken and released, as I think you are aware. I think we discussed it at last estimates. So, the independent reviewer will release his report and the Australian Tasmanian government will release their response. We did further consultation on the extension of the Tasmanian RFA just before Christmas.

Senator RICE: What was the period that the consultation was out for?

Senator Ruston: That is the additional consultation, not the original consultation. Ms Lauder: It was November to December. It was definitely more than a month.

Senator RICE: Throughout December, basically. That is not a good time when people are busy end of the year.

Ms Lauder: No. You are right, but we felt that it was important to do consultation. We are trying to get the Tasmanian RFA extended by—

Senator RICE: Did you consider extending it? In terms of the consultation process, that is not a good time and neither is December and January?

Senator Ruston: Can we just be clear here? This was additional consultation that the department undertook over and above the consultation that was specifically required. I want to be very clear that this was not some rushed consultation. We went through the consultation process as was required and then we added this.

Senator RICE: Was this the consultation about the rollover rather than as part of the five-yearly review?

Senator Ruston: Yes.

Senator RICE: There was a promised consultation process, so it is not really additional. We are in a different state of affairs because we have had a 20-year agreement and they all coming to conclusion, so it is a big decision, particularly given the experience of the last 20 years, to decide just to roll them over.

Senator Ruston: Absolutely.

Ms Lauder: So when we advertised the consultation for the review we also did consultation on the extension at that time, which is what Minister Ruston is pointing to. This was additional to that because we had a number of submissions relating to the extension in the first lot of consultation but because that was done many months ago we thought additional consultation would be useful.

Senator RICE: So I understand that the consultation is looking for feedback on potential improvements to the Tasmanian RFA framework, but what have you heard so far of what people have suggested as potential improvements?

Ms Lauder: I do not have that information with me. Tasmania is doing the summary of all of the consultation and all of that will be incorporated into the assessment document of the Tasmanian RFA over the last 20 years. That document is part of the package that goes to the decision makers, so the first ministers.

Senator RICE: When is that expected?

Ms Lauder: Tasmania has sought for us to have the extension in place before the start of June, which is a little bit earlier than we were planning, so we are currently adjusting the time lines now. That would require us to have the assessment in place and have briefed Minister Ruston, the Prime Minister and the Tasmanian equivalents by the start of May.

Senator RICE: Minister, do you expect major changes to be made in the operation of the Tasmanian RFA?

Senator Ruston: I suppose 'major' is a subjective word but we do expect changes, yes.

Senator RICE: What sort of changes are you expecting?

Senator Ruston: Certainly one that we discussed this morning was to ensure that the threatened species provisions in the RFA reflected current expectation. I certainly think that was probably the key issue that you had raised.

Senator RICE: What are you looking at in terms of the opportunities to do that?

Ms Lauder: Is this the improvements to the RFA?

Senator RICE: Yes.

Ms Lauder: One of the things that we are doing is looking at each of the five-yearly reviews. You would be aware that there were a number of recommendations that came out of the last five-yearly review, so we are looking at those recommendations and what could or should be part of the next RFA. We are also looking at improved monitoring and reporting, so looking at more outcome based reporting rather than clause by clause, which tends to be more process driven. We are looking at using the internationally agreed Montreal protocol outcomes as part of the reporting process. That has a number of outcomes that we would report against. It goes down into quite a lot of detail. That is currently what the 'State of the Forests' report also reports on, so it will link for every state.

Senator RICE: Would you be looking at mandatory pre-logging ecological surveys?

Ms Lauder: We could be. As you can imagine, we have not agreed on these things yet.

Senator RICE: With the requirements in place in Victoria we have the situation, because of the Victorian legislation, as we were discussing before, that there is a requirement for exclusion zones around identified threatened species.

Ms Lauder: Yes.

Senator RICE: So that is not required in Tasmania?

Ms Lauder: No.

Senator RICE: Would you be looking at considering those sorts of options?

Ms Lauder: Those sorts of things will not be covered in the RFA; they will be covered in the forest management system for Tasmania. My understanding is that they do have some buffer zones, for example, for when the—

Senator RICE: But they are not necessarily required. My understanding is they are guidelines.

Ms Lauder: Yes.

Senator RICE: Whereas in Victoria they are legislated and they are there that if a threatened species is found that there automatically has to be buffer zone around it.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Mr Quinlivan, you know I have a continuing interest in levies?

Mr Quinlivan: Yes.

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