Little gems from the 2019 Senate Environment Estimates

What’s hot and what’s goss in the Federal Department of Environment

By Peter Burnett

The Senate held one of its regular ‘Estimates’ hearings in October. Some of the high profile issues raised in Estimates get reported in the mainstream media, but for those with sufficient interest, Estimates are also a treasure trove of small gems. As these small gems are rarely reported I thought I’d share what came out of the session on the Environment Department with you here. But first, some background.

Preparing for battle

Estimates is a strange ritual. To the casual observer, it is the very acme of boring. Public servants file in and out of the hearing room in troupes, while Senators put a miscellany of questions about what appears to be administrative detail, such as: ‘How many staff in the department?’ ‘How many times has the Minister met with representatives of Rio Tinto while this mine was under environmental impact assessment?’ ‘How much have you allocated to the Threatened Species Recovery Plan for the Striped Earless Dragon?’

Estimates has some of the trappings of a court. For many years I participated as a departmental ‘witness’, giving ‘evidence’. Preparing for it reminded me of preparing for court as well: a lot of swatting, including much time spent learning material that did not attract any questions.

It also reminded me of what people say it’s like to fight in a war: long periods of boredom (while others are questioned) punctuated by intense periods of action when suddenly it’s your turn and Senators are trying to lure you into confirming their suspicions about what the minister has been up to. The media and the minister’s office are nowhere to be seen, but you are acutely aware they are able to watch your every word on closed-circuit TV.

Rules of engagement

It seems to me that Estimates has become increasingly political. A colleague who had participated in early Estimates hearings in the 1970s told me that he attended as a relatively junior officer (now a no-no) and that he was actually asked straight and detailed questions about the ‘estimates’ of expenditure, a much less common phenomenon now. Certainly during my time I felt that some of the interchanges were becoming more combative.

Despite the apparent focus on spending proposals, at some point the Senate ruled that almost any question was an Estimates question, because anything done by ministers or public servants involved government spending, if only on their salaries.

Despite this broad scope, in my experience environment estimates questions tended to fall into a small number of categories, all with political intent. For example:

Questions to buttress a political point on the environment generally; for example, questions about staff reductions or budget cuts, to show that a government was reducing its support for the environment.
‘Spill the beans’ questions, designed to get public servants to reveal what ministers were doing or failing to do; for example, ‘How many meetings did you attend between the Minister and the Farmers’ Federation?’ or ‘How long ago did you brief the minister on these grant applications?’
Probing of policy and regulatory processes, looking at a minimum for some insider detail that might serve as grist for the political mill; such as ‘Have you engaged expert advice on this application to take water from a Ramsar wetland?’

Even though the rules exempt officials from revealing departmental advice to ministers, this doesn’t stop those questions being asked anyway, as a revelation that a minister had departed from public service advice would be potent politically.

Don’t be ‘interesting’

No public servant wants to be remembered for saying something ‘interesting’, so most would endeavour to make their honest answers as dull as dishwater. 

Environment Estimates this October was nothing out of the ordinary, with ‘dishwater’ answers aplenty. Despite this, if you’re prepared to pay attention, there are always a few little gems arising from each session of estimates. And so it was this year.

Below is list of topics that I found interesting. (And you can read the full transcript yourself if you like.)

One thing that stands out for me is the under-resourcing of the Department. There’s mention below for example of non-compliance with FOI regulation because of IT problems, delays in listing threatened species, an overdue national biodiversity report, and an inability to fast track development proposals.

Small gems from the October hearings:

Interference by a minister: Top of the list were attempts to elicit information that might support allegations that Energy Minister Angus Taylor had attempted to interfere with compliance action affecting his farming interests (this has been covered in the mainstream media).

Admit it’s a ‘crisis’: The Greens tried to get the senior climate change official to use the phrases ‘climate emergency’ ‘climate crisis’ and ‘getting worse’ but the replies used the flattest of language such as ‘the climate is definitely changing’.

FOI non-compliance: Labor quizzed the department about its non-compliance with FOI (Freedom of Information requests) and what the minister knew about it – the Department claimed that IT problems had put it many months behind in disclosing FoI releases on its website.

GBR conflict of interest:  Several Senators asked about the Great Barrier Reef (‘GBR’), including an alleged conflict of interest associated with a contract from the GBR Foundation, which holds over $400m of government reef funding, to the Cane Growers Association, which had also hosted a speaking event by a climate skeptic.

Delays in uplisting the Australian Sea Lion: South Australian Senators probed delays in listing threatened species, especially the ‘uplisting’ of the Australian Sea Lion. The Sea Lion questions seemed connected with concerns about oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight.

Underwhelming Special Envoys: There were questions about the role of backbencher Warren Entsch as ‘Special Envoy’ for the GBR–this seemed to be linked to criticisms that efforts by the Drought Envoy, Barnaby Joyce, had been underwhelming (eg ‘briefing’ the PM by text message).

EPBC Review: Senators probed officials for information about the review of the EPBC Act, which was about to be announced — answers revealed little, but it did emerge that a review of the biodiversity offsets policy, due in 2017, had in effect been rolled into the EPBC review.

Ban on exporting waste: Officials expect the government’s proposed ban on export of major waste streams — paper, plastics, tyres and glass — to be in place next year.

GBR – World Heritage in Danger: There were questions about the forthcoming lodgement of a ‘State of Conservation’ report on the GBR to the World Heritage Committee — Senators seemed to be probing for any indication that the Committee might revisit the possibility of a ‘World Heritage In Danger’ listing.

Overdue response to Convention on Biological Diversity: There were also questions about Australia’s overdue sixth national report to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — the ‘dishwater’ answer was that ‘it’s taken longer than we anticipated’. In the course of answering this, the Deputy Secretary revealed that there was a new national biodiversity strategy, the ‘National Strategy for Nature’, was going for endorsement at a meeting of environment ministers on 8 November.

Fast tracking dam proposals: There were questions about the ‘fast-tracking’ of NSW proposals to build dams, to which a Deputy Secretary replied that the Environment Minister’s expectation was that ‘we will meet the statutory requirement of the Act and not be late in our approvals-which, sadly, is fast-tracking for us these days.’

Follow up on the Craik Report on ag: As to the fate of the Craik Report on agriculture and the EPBC Act, [Ed: apparently done to appease farmers angry about the impact of threatened species listings on their ability to farm] it seems that there will be no response. Rather, it ‘would certainly be a … document that we would draw to the attention’ of the EPBC Act review.

Adani: Not surprisingly, there were several Adani questions. First, a new referral for the North Galilee Water Scheme had attracted 7,000 submissions, but there was no decision yet as to whether this proposal needed an environmental assessment. Second, Adani still had not identified the last 3% of a Brigalow offset required under an earlier approval.

Kyoto carryover credits: As to Australia’s carbon emissions and whether we would meet the 2030 target — we will meet the target, using Kyoto carryover credits ‘to the extent necessary’. Interestingly, officials were not aware of any other country proposing to use Kyoto carryover credits.

Electric vehicle strategy: The government is developing an electric vehicle strategy and expects it to yield no more than a (very small) 10m tonnes of abatement (from an overall target of 695 m).

Abatement vs land clearing: Vegetation accounts for 125.7m tonnes out of the 192m tonnes of abatement contracted under the Emissions Reduction Fund but there is no comparison available to contrast this with the amount of native vegetation lost to land clearing.

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