Supplementary Environmental Estimates

More questions, a few answers and an unwelcome appearance by Dorothy Dix

By Peter Burnett

Senate Estimates are potentially an important process throwing light and meaning on government expenditure and process. Unfortunately, over the years it’s become a bit of a political circus with all parties doing their best to score political points by squeezing answers from unwilling public servants, who in turn try to avoid being drawn into the politics by giving very flat ‘dull-as-dishwater’ and ‘nothing-to-see-here’ answers.

The main Estimates examination of the Department of the Environment occurred in October (and was the topic of my last blog). But there was a follow up; in early November the Estimates Committee held a supplementary hearing on environmental matters.

This doesn’t happen very often, but one circumstance in which it does occur is when an issue has ‘legs’ (ie, is of topical interest) and Senators are in hot pursuit. This was one such occasion, so it’s worth a look.

‘Nothing to see here’

The Senators were pursuing more information on several controversial and well-reported matters on which they no doubt feel they have the Government well and truly on the back foot:

  • Minister Angus Taylor’s letter to Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney, concerning the climate impacts of the Council’s allegedly excessive travel expenditure
  • allegations of inappropriate interference by Minister Angus Taylor in compliance action under national environmental law concerning endangered ecological grassland communities in the Monaro region (the ‘Jam Land’ case);
  • the associated review by Dr Wendy Craik into interactions between the EPBC Act and the agriculture sector, said by some to have been initiated to appease angry farmers;
  • a letter from retired fire chiefs to the Prime Minister seeking a meeting to discuss their concerns about the increasing frequency and severity of fires as a result of climate change; and
  • the $443m grant made by the Turnbull Government to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a private body, and, now, whether the grant was motivated by a desire to avoid the Reef being given a ‘World Heritage in Danger’ listing.

The transcript on what transpired is here if you want to take a look.

None of the responses to questions on these issues revealed anything of great note. Most were to the effect that officers had followed standard bureaucratic processes and either were not privy to, or in the case of the Reef grant, were prevented by Cabinet confidentiality from revealing, anything nefarious that may or may not have been done by the Government.

The most that can be said about the answers is that they show first, that the Government appointed Craik without asking the Environment Department for the usual list of potential appointees; and second that they replaced the Department’s standard flat answer to Clover Moore with a letter of their own. Both of these things tend only to confirm the obvious, that these were purely political decisions rather than standard government decisions on advice.

A new participant at Estimates: Dorothy Dix

One thing that did concern me was the response of officials to a question from Senator McMahon, a government member from the Northern Territory, concerning the recent endorsement by Federal and State environment ministers of Australia’s new national biodiversity strategy, known as ‘Australia’s Strategy for Nature’. This strategy replaces Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy: 2010 – 2030.

In my earlier blog on the Estimates I reported the questioning that officials received about this strategy being late. This time around at the Supplementary hearing, the question and the answers it elicited resembled a ‘Dorothy Dixer’, the friendly questions that government backbenchers ask of Ministers in Question Time, providing them with an opportunity to make an announcement or other statement favourable to the Government. They also serve the very valuable purpose of using up time that might otherwise be devoted to attacking the Government.

Use of this self-serving practice has attracted increasing criticism to the point that it is under review by a Parliamentary Committee.

We are, however, talking about Estimates, not Question Time. Sometimes government members on Estimates Committees do ask benign questions that have a Dorothy-Dix feel to them. However, it takes both a benign question and a self-congratulatory answer to make a Dixer, and this is the first time I’ve seen an answer from officials that had the feel of a Dixer in Estimates.

A new more ‘flexible’ strategy for saving Nature

In responding to Senator McMahon’s question, officials in effect criticised the previous government’s strategy and complimented the Government for developing a ‘flexible framework’ that would place Australia in a ‘strong’ position to respond to expected developments, including the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that is due to be adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) when it meets in Kunming, China, in February 2020.

This post-2020 framework will replace the ‘Aichi Targets’, which were adopted in 2010 and mature in 2020.

According to the officers, the Strategy for Nature enabled all Australian jurisdictions to be represented on an ‘innovative’ website known as Australia’s Nature Hub which demonstrates ‘how much good work is happening across this country in relation to biodiversity conservation at multiple levels’. The strategy would ‘place us well in the international space’.

And on it went. Rather than simply explaining why the Government had elected to replace the previous government’s strategy before its expiry, and perhaps outlining the content of the new strategy, as public servants would normally do, one official ventured that ‘we thought it was really important to update’ the previous strategy and that ‘we think this will be an important international contribution for how we can frame our global efforts with respect to diversity’. In doing so officials were either revealing their advice to government, something that officials normally refuse to do, or portraying themselves as players, with their own independent views, another no-no.

The use of Estimates by officials to promote government positions and to deploy the promotional language of ‘spin’ is an unwelcome development and, I hope, an unfortunate aberration rather than evidence of a trend.

What’s in the Strategy for Nature?

As for the value of this new Strategy for Nature; well, that’s a big topic and an important one in this time of major and ongoing biodiversity decline. In an up an coming blog I’ll review the Strategy, not only to see if it puts Australia in a ‘strong’ position to respond to the post-Aichi world, but also to see how it might enhance the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

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