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Estimates: Threatened Species Commissioner

Estimates & Committees
Janet Rice 26 May 2015

Senator RICE: My questions are also largely for the Threatened Species Commissioner. I will start with some questions about Leadbeater's possum, which, as we know, has had its status reclassified to 'critically endangered'. Last year the Victorian government released two reports prepared by the Leadbeater's Possum Advisory Group—a recommendations report and a technical report. A Bayesian network model, I am told, was used to quantify the benefits of the various combinations of proposed actions. Do you know the reports I am referring to?

Mr Andrews: Yes, I am aware of them.

Senator RICE: Which action or actions did the Leadbeater's possum group consider most likely to be of greatest benefit to the conservation of Leadbeater's possum.

Mr Andrews: The advice was actually prefaced with suggestions. The group was asked to provide advice on measures that could be implemented—measures other than the Great Forest National Park. The advice that they gave included a set of measures other than the Great Forest National Park, but they also provided advice on the benefits of the Great Forest National Park.

Senator RICE: Which option did they feel offered the best chance for recovery for this critically endangered species?

Mr Andrews: I am sure you are aware that the Bayesian modelling from the Leadbeater's Possum Advisory Group report was clear that the benefits of the Great Forest National Park, in relation to other interventions, were the most important.

Senator RICE: Is that advice the government is taking on board in terms of its recommendations to the Victorian government given the results of that modelling?

Mr Andrews: The minister, when he announced the uplisting of the Leadbeater's possum, was very clear and unequivocal about the fact that the possum was being uplisted to critically endangered, but he also asked the department to work with Victorian government officials to commence a review and to update the Leadbeater's possum draft recovery plan.

Senator RICE: Moving on to the Leadbeater's possum draft recovery plan, given the results of those reports and the Bayesian network model saying that the creation of the Great Forest National Park was the most effective action, what plan does the department have to restore the Leadbeater's possum recovery plan's activity, effectiveness and credibility?

Mr Andrews: That is not actually my responsibility; it is the Wildlife, Heritage and Marine Division's responsibility. So I feel like I should let them answer that question.

Mr Thompson: That program area is 1.4, and the officers appeared earlier today. In relation to recovery planning, that is, as Mr Andrews indicated, the responsibility of the Wildlife, Heritage and Marine division. We would have to take that on notice.

Senator RICE: Okay, take that on notice.

Mr Sullivan: In terms of the line of questioning, I think Mr Thompson referred to Mr Andrews's terms of reference as the Species Commissioner. It is very clear in those terms of reference that the work of the commissioner complements but does not duplicate or override the statutory responsibilities of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee. So, in terms of the statutory requirements with respect to threatened species, there is a definitive rationale for Mr Andrews being in my division, which is associated with response mechanisms, in contrast to the statutory underpinnings, which are in program 1.4 in the Wildlife, Heritage and Marine division.

Senator RICE: Okay. Back to some questions for Mr Andrews: I understand that in your role you are advised by representatives of Zoos Victoria who are on the Leadbeater's Possum Advisory Group. Are you aware of Zoos Victoria also providing expert conservation advice on the Leadbeater's possum directly to VicForests, who are also an agency on the Leadbeater's Possum Advisory Group?

Mr Andrews: Yes I am.

Senator RICE: Do you know of briefings or correspondence between Zoos Victoria and VicForests about Leadbeater's possum?

Mr Andrews: Yes, Zoos Victoria gave me a copy of a letter that the CEO of Zoos Victoria wrote to the acting CEO of VicForests.

Senator RICE: Can you tell me what was in the correspondence?

Mr Andrews: I am not sure whether it is appropriate for me to reveal third-party advice.

Senator RICE: Perhaps in general.

Mr Sullivan: I think, just as a general principle, if that were, for example, a freedom of information request, we would have to seek approval of the third party even if it were in our gift or we were sent a copy of that letter. I think it is unfair to Mr Andrews, who is continuing to operate in good faith where he is given access to a whole range of information, to then ask him to talk about the content of that correspondence, which is between Zoos Victoria and VicForests.

Senator RICE: Certainly. It seems to be of relevance, though, in terms of his role in advising on the conservation of Leadbeater's possum. Does the information from Zoos Victoria concern the impact of logging activities by VicForests on Leadbeater's possum?

Dr de Brouwer: I think that is straying into the subject matter of the letter.

Senator WATERS: Can we not ask about that? Is this not estimates?

Dr de Brouwer: It is someone else's correspondence. It is not our correspondence or someone corresponding with us.

Senator RICE: But it was correspondence that was given to the commissioner in his role as the Threatened Species Commissioner for critically endangered species.

Senator Birmingham: But not necessarily given to the commissioner to reveal the contents to the whole world.

Senator WATERS: Can we seek some advice on whether we can ask that?

Senator Birmingham: We can take it on notice, but I think Mr Sullivan's point is correct. If the request was done as a FOI request, the law would require us to ask permission.

Senator WATERS: Sure, but we are not doing an FOI request. Senator Birmingham: That is not a bad principle to apply when it is not actually the government's correspondence.

Senator WATERS: It is not about the principle; it is about what the standing orders say. Do we have any advice on that?

CHAIR: We will find out for you and let you know.

Senator WATERS: I will await advice from the secretary on that point.

Mr Andrews: Sorry, I want to do my best but I do think I need to follow the rules and do the right thing.

Senator WATERS: Yes totally, we are just establishing what they are.

Senator RICE: The next topic I would like to talk about is the threatened species summit that is going to be held in Melbourne on 16 July to be hosted by the minister and that you, as commissioner, will be chairing. I note that the invitees include state and territory ministers, relevant business leaders, scientific and conservation management experts, non-government organisations and others active in threatened species conservation. Are you able to give me some more specific details of which non-government organisations and others active in threatened species conservation have been invited?

Mr Andrews: The minister has asked me to brief him this week on the invitation list and the invitations will be going out, I hope, as soon as he gets that brief. So I feel I should not announce here—

Senator Birmingham: If you have any suggestions, Senator Rice, I am sure they can be considered.

Senator RICE: But I understand some people have been invited already.

Mr Andrews: No-one has been formally invited. But to develop the program and to consult, I have spoken to the Australian Conservation Foundation, Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater, Friends of the Western Ground Parrot and various government officials. No-one has been formally invited but the formal invitations will come from the minister and myself, I hope, next week.

Senator RICE: Getting back to the Leadbeater's possum, for example, will MyEnvironment and Friends of Leadbeater's Possum be invited, given their experience with threatened species conservation activities on the ground?

Senator Birmingham: We will take that as a suggestion. It is not for Mr Andrews to say who will or will not be invited. He said the minister is yet to be briefed. The minister obviously will then make determinations on who will be invited.

Mr Andrews: We want it to be inclusive. I have spoken to the minister and we are going to have it webcast so that anyone anywhere in the world with access to the internet will be able to participate, not just to watch but also to ask questions. There will be an interactive webcast for anyone to participate.

Senator RICE: I understand from some stakeholders that you have been speaking to that the invitation list will be limited because of the size of the venue. Do you know what the total capacity of the venue is?

Mr Andrews: The capacity of the venue depends on those seating configuration. A recent meeting that was held there—I think it was a mammologist meeting last year—had about 150 people. The feedback was that that was the maximum carrying capacity, so we are looking at 150 people.

Senator RICE: Have you got specific invitations out yet? Or are you considering the business leaders that have been involved?

Mr Andrews: We have not invited anyone formally yet. The invitations will go out, I hope, next week after the minister and I sign them off together jointly. There will be businesses, major non-government organisations and there will be people representive of the threatened species community big and small.

Senator Birmingham: I think it is safe to say the minister wants to make sure that the event is a success and has a broad representation of the different stakeholder groups. Obviously we will be prioritising the invitations to ensure that he gets that broad representation.

Mr Thompson: I have a slight correction to Mr Andrews's answer there. Because the threatened species summit will follow on the next day from the minister's environment meeting, state and territory environment ministers have been invited in that context. So they have been formally invited, but that is not surprising.

Senator RICE: So they have already been invited?

Mr Thompson: Yes.

Senator RICE: I am keen to talk about funding for threatened species conservation. You might be aware, Commissioner, there are several scientists who are crowd funding projects to conserve threatened species and there are citizen science groups that are doing research on the ground. I am wondering whether the threatened species strategy that is set to be announced at the summit will have a substantial budget attached to it? If so, will there be funding provided to the work of these scientists and groups around the country, who are now being forced to crowd fund to save threatened species?

Mr Andrews: Senator Urquhart asked a similar question. Really, we need to wait. The strategy is still a draft. When it is released, it will have actions and targets in it and that is when it will be appropriate for me to be able to discuss the costs.

Senator RICE: Do you see that it would be of value to fund these citizen science groups and scientists who are currently doing work as volunteers on the ground?

Senator Birmingham: We do fund many science programs and we welcome the fact that many others around Australia fund those programs. If you would like a summary of some of the environmental research programs that are funded and other funding streams that are available, the officials might be able to highlight some of those streams.

Mr Sullivan: We do fund a range of citizen science responses. A part of the ongoing legacy from the Green Army Program is that the project sponsors, who are the stewards of the sites where Green Army activities have occurred, will continue to report on the status and condition of the activities that have been undertaken by those teams. It is always a very difficult question to say that some areas are being forced to crowd source funding. It is a longer discussion because a number of groups would prefer to do that out of choice rather than be funded by the government.

Senator RICE: Or they would prefer to have the government undertaking the research that they feel they have been forced to undertake.

Mr Thompson: I think there are different sources of funding and different groups respond differently. From the Commonwealth government's point of view, it is important to have multiple sources. That is expressed in relation to the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan as well, so it is a common theme.

Senator RICE: One of these citizen scientists does the work of the Goongerah Environment Centre. We have got a situation where a young woman from Far East Gippsland named Rena Gaborov recently rediscovered the large brown tree frog, which had not been seen for 15 years. Her work is being undertaken in an area that is still threatened with logging by VicForests that has only been halted due to legal action being undertaken by a volunteer unfunded community group, Environment East Gippsland. The large brown tree frog was one of four threatened species named in in 2013 Supreme Court case lodged by Environment East Gippsland against the state government. The Environmental Defenders Office claimed the government had failed to draw up plans to adequately protect the threatened species. In cases such as this, what is the role of the Threatened Species Commissioner?

Mr Andrews: I have not been contacted by that group that I can recall. But if they contacted me then I would help them to find funding from both within the government and outside of government. The Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater, for example, contacted me and I assisted them to apply for a 20 million trees grant. They are planting trees for habitat for the honeyeater. So if I am contacted then I can help access funding. I can also help by drawing on the $30-million Threatened Species Recovery Hub of the National Environmental Science Program to help with the appropriate science.

Senator RICE: But beyond the funding, in situations like this where you have a species that has just recently been rediscovered by a volunteer and that is threatened by logging—we have got Supreme Court action that has now halted that logging—what is your role in that? Given what we know in the case of Leadbeater's possum, does your role include calling for a halt to native forest logging while we have got these threatened species?

Mr Andrews: My role is just to follow my terms of reference.

Mr Sullivan: The Threatened Species Commissioner is a public servant inside my division. As I pointed out before, he does not override the statutory responsibilities of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee nor does Mr Andrews override the fundamental policy parameters of the government of the day. In terms of that logging action—and I do not recall the aspects of the particular court case you are referring to—if that was a matter of logging inside a regional forest agreement area then, again, Mr Andrews's job is not to override either the policy provisions or the legal provisions that underpin those forestry operations. His part of the division would give advice to the minister in terms of updates or implications of that. But it is not within Mr Andrews's terms of reference to openly advocate for a particular group where that is in conflict or overrides or duplicates other statutory responsibilities including other policy frameworks and legislative commitments.

Senator RICE: So at the end of the day, we have got a Threatened Species Commissioner, who, when it comes to the crunch, has not got a role where threatened species are in areas covered by regional forest agreements?

Mr Sullivan: They are covered by statute. Mr Andrews's role is to—

Senator RICE: Do you find it frustrating, Mr Andrews?

Senator Birmingham: That is asking Mr Andrews for an opinion. That is not what we are here to do. Senator Rice, Mr Andrews is able to present policy to the minister within government and argue or present through proper public process and public service channels ideas and thoughts, as all officials are. Public advocacy is something that I do not see a great shortage of out there in the community for a range of opinions.

Senator RICE: But at the end of the day, his role is limited. You have got a role that is called a Threatened Species Commissioner that cannot act to protect threatened species.

Senator Birmingham: Senator Rice, all of our roles are limited, but Mr Andrews's role is valuable. We have heard tonight some of the valuable work he is doing in engaging with communities, in working through certain issues and in elevating discussions around threatened species management both within and outside of government.

Mr Andrews: It might be worth mentioning that New Zealand, reflective of the value of this model, have announced that they are going to appoint a threatened species ambassador. They contacted us about the model and were very interested. So they have announced that they are establishing a similar threatened species ambassador position to promote awareness, to advise on policy and programs and to secure resources to turn around unacceptable extinction.

Senator RICE: I also note that they no longer log their native forests—but that is another point. Moving on to another species but still staying in Far East Gippsland, can you please tell us what stage the recovery plan is at for the spot tailed quoll?

Mr Andrews: I will need to take that on notice. It would be the wildlife and marine division that would respond to that.

Senator RICE: Also, what resources has the federal government committed for its recovery? Moving on to swift parrots, these questions may be more for the department rather than the Threatened Species Commissioner but I am not sure—I am still confused about where the roles overlap. We have an issue of sugar glider predation of swift parrots. Has consideration been given to incorporating the recent body of scientific work demonstrating the impacts of sugar glider predation and the direct and indirect impacts of logging on the swift parrot into the swift parrot national recovery plan?

Mr Thompson: It can because it is a recovery planning question. Program 1.4 is the right program to ask those questions because that is the part of the department that does the recovery planning activity. There are no officers at the table who I think can answer that, so I think we will have to take that on notice.

Senator RICE: Okay. I will put them on notice then. I will move on, keeping with regional forest agreements and looking at climate change. As we have said, we know that forestry operations in areas under RFA are not required to obtain approval under the EPBC Act, but, clearly, dealing with climate change is of direct concern to the department, and, at the moment, the regional forest agreements do not have to include consideration of climate change. We are now in a situation where the regional forest agreements are about to be extended for another 20 years. Do you know whether the impacts of climate change and carbon sequestration will be taken into account in the review and progress reports to come before the agreements expire?

Ms Campbell: The government has committed to rolling extensions of the regional forest agreements, and we are supporting the Department of Agriculture in that process. The first RFA renewal process will happen in Tasmania, and the public consultation process on the third five-yearly review is underway. That closes, I think, at the end of this week, so we will look at the full range of questions and work with Agriculture on that, but those decisions have not been taken by government.

Senator RICE: What is the role of the Department of the Environment going to be?

Ms Campbell: We work closely supporting Agriculture, which has the lead within the Commonwealth, and with the Tasmanian government in negotiating a bilateral agreement in that space.

Senator RICE: In January The Age newspaper published an article entitled 'Highlands logging halt would earn Victoria $30m a year in emissions reductions: report'. The article referred to a methodology that would need to be approved to calculate the CO2 emissions saved from ceasing logging of native forests. What can you tell me about this report? 

Dr de Brouwer: I think the issues around methodology were really discussed in 2.1, in the climate change discussion. We have experts on land sector methods, and those officers are not here now. We can take that question on notice for them.

Senator RICE: Okay. I wanted to know whether that report was publicly available. I have written to the minister to seek a copy but have not had a response yet.

Dr de Brouwer: There is no-one here who can answer that.

Senator Birmingham: Sorry, Senator Rice; what is the report you were quoting from?

Senator RICE: It is a report that I understand is with the minister, which has got information saying that, if logging ceased in the Central Highlands, it would be of $30 million a year value in emissions reductions. It would mean that there would be 3.2 megatonnes of carbon sequestered if we ceased logging.

Dr de Brouwer: I am just not aware of that report, and the team who work in detail on that are not here at the moment. We can only take that question on notice.

Senator RICE: My final area is away from native forests and natural forests. I have some questions about the 20 Million Trees program, particularly looking at the planting of trees in urban landscapes. Was a baseline assessment of the current numbers and conditions of trees and plants done before the 20 Million Trees program commenced?

Mr Sullivan: Sorry, Senator; is your question: did we do a baseline assessment of all of Australia, of current tree levels?

Senator RICE: Yes.

Mr Sullivan: No. What we have done is look at additionality. If, for example, a proposal come forward that was clearly going to be funded by a state government or a local government or it had not received funding previously from other sources, then the additionality test was around the particular project in terms of whether it was additional to current projection from the relevant jurisdiction, whether it be at local council level or state government level. But, no, we did not do a full baseline assessment of total tree cover in Australia. In saying that, there is baseline work with respect to national greenhouse gas reporting components with respect to trees over two metres et cetera, but in terms of 'In Western Sydney, did we look at the specific number of trees covering Western Sydney versus the additionality component in terms of baseline?' no. It was about additionality with respect to current—

Senator RICE: I am particularly interested in terms of the fact that urban trees struggle a lot in terms of their health. I know from my experience on local council that you can plant a lot of trees and a lot of them do not survive. Do you have some baseline that you can draw upon for trees in urban settings in terms of health? How do we know what tree cover we have, so that with your 20 Million Trees you will know what condition or health they are likely to retain?

Mr Thompson: It is a fair point. Before, when we were talking about 20 Million Trees, we made the distinction that the program has two streams. One is around small-scale plantings, and that is the competitive grants program. That typically would be the stream through which trees would be planted in urban areas. Now these are not necessarily street trees—these are urban parklands or vacant areas that could be re-treed and revegetated to create some habitat. The other stream, which is around large-scale plantings, typically will not occur in urban areas, so I am going to leave that aside because I think your question goes more to the former.

Senator RICE: Trees in urban areas, that is right.

Mr Thompson: Really, as Mr Sullivan said, we are relying on the competitive grants program. We are relying on the applications from the proponents. I could be corrected, but I do not think we sought information from the project proponents in that competitive grants program element, about baselines and the success of trees; but we did seek from them information about how they would seek to ensure high survival rates, the ongoing maintenance and care of trees, the replacement of dead trees and those sorts of things.

Mr Sullivan: Part of judging applications under the small grants process was around demonstrated capacity with respect to these sorts of endeavours, as well as knowledge of appropriate local trees, sourcing seeds and appropriate maintenance regimes to ensure the longer-term investment. In addition, in terms of the urban and periurban and the small grants stream, there are also one million trees being contracted to be planted in a corridor in west Melbourne, and there is also the Cumberland corridor commitment for one million trees. There are significant corridors within peri-urban and urban areas.

Senator RICE: Does your tree planting—your assessment of their likelihood of survival—take into account soil health? I am told there is observed decline and premature death of normally long-lived trees in urban areas.

Mr Sullivan: I would have to take that on notice in terms of the absolute inner-urban proposals. Let me take that on notice.

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