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Janet questions the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources

Estimates & Committees
Janet Rice 24 Oct 2017

Senator RICE: I will continue with the Regional Investment Corporation, as I threatened, Minister Ruston, when we were discussing this in Senate last week! Minister Ruston indicated in the Senate last week that the decision to locate the head office of the Regional Investment Corporation in Orange was a decision of the government and not based on advice from the department. I'm interested in when the department first learnt of the decision to locate the headquarters of the Regional Investment Corporation in Orange?

Mr Williamson: I'd have to take the exact date on notice, but I think it was in April. I will check that and come back to you.

Senator RICE: Do you concur that it was basically a government decision, rather than something that came out of the department?

Mr Williamson: That's correct.

Senator RICE: And have you, consequent to being informed of that decision, provided any feedback or analysis of the decision to the government?

Mr Williamson: I wouldn't characterise it as feedback or analysis. In the context of delivering the election commitment, which includes physically establishing the RIC, we provided advice on what needs to be done. Indeed, as I think was discussed last week, we had some consultations in Orange. We provided feedback to the minister on those consultations and on what we're doing to prepare advice for the board to then make decisions on when it exists formally.

Senator RICE: As well as not having any input into the decision to locate the headquarters in Orange, did you have any role at all in putting together the shortlist that was referred to in the Senate last week?

Mr Williamson: No.

Senator RICE: Did you provide any advice at all to the government about the potential location of the headquarters of the RIC?

Mr Williamson: Again, I'll take that on notice and double-check but I think the answer is no.

Senator RICE: So totally silent on it as far as you're aware at the moment. Thank you for that. I'd like to ask questions about the September heatwaves that were experienced in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. Has the department investigated what impact those heatwaves might have had on the region in terms of the impact on cropping industries, livestock and horticultural production?

Mr Quinlivan: The answer to that question will be that we have assessed the impact of the warmer and dryer seasonal conditions across quite a bit of the cropping land in Australia. That's done continuously as the winter crop develops. ABARES have, based on that, made one downward adjustment to the forecast crop for this season and have also indicated that they may make a further downward revision to the crop estimates before the harvest is finished, probably in the first half of December. We don't have the commodity forecasters from ABARES here. But if you would like a more expansive description of what they did and how they made those adjustments to their crop forecasts, we'd be happy to provide it.

Senator RICE: Yes, I would appreciate having that provided. Other than the work that ABARES is doing specifically, what work is the department doing in looking at the potential impact of heatwaves like this, or other changing climate conditions—increasing heat, increasing drought conditions?

Mr Quinlivan: It's a continuous process. It happens all the time in the context of the commodity forecasts and it also happens in discussions with the various R&D bodies and those that are involved in assisting us in our market access work in estimating production available for export markets in particular. So I would say it's an ongoing process.

Senator RICE: We had heatwaves with temperatures tipping 43 degrees during the first month of spring. Was there any discussion in the department about the extremity of those conditions?

Mr Quinlivan: I think the unseasonably high temperatures in September were predicted by the bureau. I think what probably wasn't predicted quite so much was the extent of the heavy frosts in the two months previous to that. Those heavy frosts had a very significant impact on some regions. Through the season, we've had extremely low night-time temperatures in some regions. That's clear around Canberra, for example, where a lot of vegetation that has been coping happily with Canberra winters for 20 years suffered terribly this winter—and a lot of crops have as well. And then we have had unseasonably warm daytime temperatures in September. Both of those things have had a big impact on vegetation this year.

Senator RICE: Is there any work being done to build resilience amongst producers to deal with the increasing frequency of this? The heavy frosts are indicative of drought conditions as well.

Mr Quinlivan: That's correct—although it wasn't an El Nino year this year. That was a surprise.

Senator RICE: Is there any work being done on building resilience for broadacre, livestock and horticultural producers?

Mr Quinlivan: We've been talking about that for a fair bit of the last two hours, I would say.

Senator RICE: We've have been talking about drought assistance packages and farm loans—but that's not necessarily building resilience.

Mr Quinlivan: And the possible development of insurance products and so on.

Senator RICE: Is there anything else—changing cropping patterns, adaptation mechanisms?

Mr Quinlivan: That's a constant ongoing process. It's a very high priority for the GRDC.

Senator RICE: What resources are being put into that from the department?

Mr Quinlivan: It's not so much the department as other portfolio agencies. Obviously the GRDC has a big program in this area, and has had for a very long time—as does Horticulture Innovation Australia and so on. All of the R&D bodies that are supporting the production sectors have research programs that are relevant to this issue.

Senator RICE: But it's within the GRDC? You don't have much capacity within the department itself?

Mr Quinlivan: We don't do our own research—although we have—

Senator RICE: It's not so much research; it's building resilience and adaptation mechanisms among agricultural producers.

Mr Quinlivan: We have talked about those that we have.

Mr I Thompson: The secretary may go on with other areas, but one of the programs I look after is the agriculture component of the National Landcare Program, and one of its objectives is to help farmers, foresters and fishers adapt and operate in a changing climate and improve their resilience. It's not the only objective, and it's not the only thing the program does, but it is part of it, in terms of extending some of the practices that are recognised or researched by the R&D corporations, or it's about providing information to farmers, or it's about helping farmers form self-help farming systems groups by which they can trial mechanisms themselves for improving their own performance. So it's building up social capacity as well as extending information and trialling farming technologies that may be applied in new areas or under new climate circumstances.

Senator RICE: So what resources of the department go towards fulfilling that objective?

Mr I Thompson: The total National Landcare Program is just over $2 billion over—

Senator RICE: As you said, the total Landcare program has a range of objectives, of which that is one. I'm interested in terms of the—

Mr I Thompson: It's a program. We've just announced some of the guidelines and just announced a program, so the details of how much will be spent in each area will come through as applications are received over this year and over coming years. So we couldn't say how much at this point in time.

Senator RICE: Are there particular officers within the department overseeing that program who have expertise in helping agricultural producers to adapt to a changing climate?

Mr I Thompson: We have a small number of staff running the program—around 20 staff at the moment. Some of those have expertise in the field. Others have expertise in program management and others in extension. So that's a bit varied. They do other things as well, though. They're also looking at improving productivity, or how farmers could minimise environmental impact, or how they could work as groups.

Senator RICE: Thank you.

Mr Quinlivan: Outside the dryland production sector, of course, creation of a water-trading system has been a major contribution—and the general reforms in the Murray-Darling Basin system, but particularly water—to the resilience of producers. It has given them a lot more flexibility to adapt to varying water prices and water supplies across years.

Senator RICE: How much longer do I have?

CHAIR: Until a quarter to 10—another three minutes.

Senator RICE: Three minutes—all right.

CHAIR: Actually 2 minutes 34.

Senator RICE: I'll start with forestry, then, and then I'll have to come back to it. Minister, where are we at with the Victorian regional forest agreement negotiations?

Senator Ruston: In terms of specific details, I might ask Ms Lauder to answer that, because she's the one who's actually in the day-to-day discussions with the Victorian officials.

Ms Lauder: This is on the Victorian RFAs?

Senator RICE: Yes.

Ms Lauder: We've been working with the Victorian government on the third five-yearly review of the five RFAs in Victoria, and we're expecting to go out for public consultation shortly on that—on all five RFAs in Victoria.

Senator RICE: What exactly will you be consulting on?

Ms Lauder: That will be on a consultation on the implementation of the RFAs through from 2009 to 2014. So it's a backward-looking review.

Senator RICE: That's the review.

Ms Lauder: Yes. There'll be a document put out explaining what has happened and how it has been managed but seeking feedback and any views from the community. That will be out for a six-week period, and at the same time—

Senator RICE: Sorry, when are you expecting that to be released?

Ms Lauder: In the next couple of days, possibly—very soon. At the same time, we're working with them on the future of the RFAs. Both the Victorian and Australian governments are committed to the long-term future of the RFAs in Victoria. So we're currently working through—

Senator RICE: Could you tell me what the articulation of that commitment from the Victorian government has been.

Ms Lauder: They have been in discussions with us to the ministerial level about that, and we're working together on what will be public announcements and media releases on that. I don't think that at this stage Victoria has put out any public statements on it.

Senator RICE: But at a minister-to-minister level you are confident there is support from the Victorian government for the Commonwealth's position of rolling over the RFAs?

Senator Ruston: Senator Rice, the Victorian government was a party to the forest statement, which quite clearly articulated the belief that RFAs were a positive tool for the managing of forests. They are on the public record as saying that they support RFAs.

CHAIR: This will be your last question.

Senator RICE: Thanks, Chair. Do you perceive any difference between the Victorian government and the Commonwealth government as to what process would need to be gone through before the RFA was rolled over?

Senator Ruston: I think we both want to see the same outcome and, as part of that process, obviously, we'd be seeking to work with the Victorian government to make sure that the issues that they have identified, given that the forests are under their jurisdiction, we'd be looking at. But I think it would be reasonably fair to say that we both want the same outcome, and that is the responsible, efficient management of a shared resource.

Senator RICE: All right. Back to forests. I want to ask some questions about the review of the National Forest Policy; it was announced by Senator Ruston at the AFPA dinner that that was occurring. Can you tell me what's happening with that?

Ms Lauder: It's not actually a review of the National Forest Policy. The Prime Minister announced a new forest industry plan by the Australian government. We are at the very early stages of that, of course, as it was just announced recently. We're currently looking at the consultation that will be required. You would be aware of the FIAC report, the Forest Industry Advisory Committee report. A lot of consultation was done in developing that, and it has come up with 19 recommendations. That is definitely part of the thinking of the plan, so we're not starting from a blank piece of paper. The FIAC report is sort of the blueprint or the base that we're working from. That recommended a number of actions for the Australian government and for industry, so we will be looking at those recommendations to the Australian government and what we need to be doing to help deliver our components of that report. We're open to other things that come out of the consultation.

Senator RICE: What's the time line and the process for that consultation, and the expected delivery of the plan?

Senator Ruston: At the moment we're in the very preliminary stages of putting together the work plan, and Ms Lauder and her team have been working to achieve, I suppose, an outline or a blueprint of the process, which I have requested to have by the end of November. As part of that process, we would be looking at the time frames that would be realistic in terms of delivering the plan. But I would be very hopeful that we would be in a position within 12 months of the announcement to have a plan.

Senator RICE: My understanding, as I said, which is obviously a misunderstanding, was that we were reviewing the National Forest Policy.

Senator Ruston: No.

Senator RICE: So it's planned the National Forest Policy stays as is. Is there any expected change to that? What's the interaction of the plan with the National Forest Policy?

Senator Ruston: As Ms Lauder said, we're certainly not intending to rewrite the plan. What we're doing is responding to what we think is a forward vision for the Australian forestry sector to be a major economic contributor to the Australian economy between now and 2050, which is the time frame that we put around the plan. As you probably well know, this is a significantly patient industry when it comes to investment before you actually realise the outcome. We're trying to deliver an outcome that would see the forestry sector grow significantly over the next 32 years.

Senator RICE: Moving on, did the department have a role in the development of the National Energy Guarantee?

Mr Quinlivan: No.

Senator RICE: Not at all? So no input whatsoever into it?

Mr Quinlivan: No. My understanding is that the advice was provided to the government by the Energy Security Board, and there was a presentation to cabinet from that board. There would have been advice, obviously, from the two departments that are most involved in energy and resources, and we did provide some briefing, I think, to the Deputy Prime Minister for the cabinet discussion, but that would have been the extent of our involvement.

Senator RICE: What was covered in that briefing to the Deputy Prime Minister?

Mr Quinlivan: It was a cabinet briefing.

Senator RICE: So can you give me the broad—

CHAIR: No, he cannot.

Senator RICE: Subject area, rather.

CHAIR: It is quite clearly excluded, as you know full well.

Senator RICE: Because the National Energy Guarantee did refer to the role of biomass as dispatchable energy and also referred to plantations and encouraging plantation development, did you have any input in terms of advice relevant to those two areas in the National Energy Guarantee?

Mr Quinlivan: Not in the advice that went to cabinet, no.

Senator RICE: No. The level of ambition for reductions in our carbon emissions under the electricity sector now looks like it's going to be a maximum of 35 per cent. Previously it had been considered, in order to meet our Paris agreements, that the electricity sector would do more of the heavy lifting so the other sectors, in particular transport and agriculture, wouldn't have to have the same level of ambition. That's obviously changed now. I'm wondering, have there been discussions within the department about the level of emission reductions that is going to be required in the agriculture sector in order for Australia to meet its Paris targets?

Mr Quinlivan: Those issues will be covered in the review of the government's climate change policy, which the Department of the Environment and Energy has been undertaking. I'm not sure what state that review has reached, but I think they must be getting pretty close to completion and ready for cabinet consideration, but that would be a matter for them to deal with in their estimates.

Senator RICE: So are you actively involved in having input in that review?

Mr Quinlivan: I contribute, yes.

Senator RICE: Is there any publicly available information about what type of input the department is putting into that review?

Mr Quinlivan: No, it would be advice to the government through the cabinet, but I wouldn't disagree with the way you've characterised the situation.

Senator RICE: So you recognise that there is going to be a need for agriculture to—

Mr Quinlivan: I think the government has to make some judgements there, but that's a realistic characterisation, yes.

Senator RICE: I've got about two minutes left, have I?

CHAIR: You've got 72 seconds.

Senator RICE: I've got a minute left. In terms of forest policy direction, you have had a big focus, Minister Ruston, in the industry. In terms of that national forest plan, what sort of focus on ecologically sustainable forestry in native forests do you see in terms of the different ways operations have occurred over the last two decades?

Senator Ruston: I don't think that we're necessarily at the stage where we're into that sort of level of detail. Certainly the broad outcomes that were sought from the FIAC report, that the government supports in relation to having the right trees in the right place in the right quantity, is something that we've been looking at. Obviously, if we're talking about new trees, we're talking about plantations.

Senator RICE: Yes.

Senator Ruston: Which I'm sure will make your heart sink.

Senator RICE: Absolutely.

Senator Ruston: In terms of the growth of the Australian forestry sector, I think we'd be fairly sure, and in agreement, that the plantations will be providing the majority of the growth in the—

Senator RICE: Do you have any views on instances of ongoing logging of old-growth forests and what contribution towards our forestry sector they should be having or could be having in the future?

Senator Ruston: Are you're talking of old growth or regrowth?

Senator RICE: No, old-growth forests: unlogged areas of forests which are still being logged.

Senator Ruston: I think the future of the forestry industry certainly is going to be based around plantations. We have a shared resource at the moment and we have a very conservative and light-touch approach, particularly to our native forests—the very limited amount of forestry that occurs in, as you refer to, old growth as opposed to the equally limited amount of access that is available to the forestry sector for regrowth forests. But they do play a very important role in the Australian forestry mix. Certainly, appearance-grade timbers are generated through these native species.

Senator RICE: You think there's still a legitimate role for the logging of old-growth forests with trees in them that are hundreds of years old?

CHAIR: Sadly, Senator, that's your last question.

Senator Ruston: No, no, absolutely. As I said, there is a balance between using our trees for various purposes. There is an overall plan in relation to the harvesting of some of our native timber species. That is part of our policy and part of our plan. As I said before, I think we both agree that the future of the Australian forestry sector and the growth, particularly the growth in the future, of the Australian forestry sector will be coming from plantation timbers.

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