Looking for little gems: Senate Environmental Estimates, October 2021

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Government priorities revealed in the detail of evidence from officials

By Peter Burnett

The Australian Senate holds ‘Estimates’ hearings three times each year. The official purpose of these hearings is to scrutinise estimates of proposed expenditure contained in Budget-related legislation.

In practice, the hearings are used mostly to extract information from public servants that can be used to attack the Government. The Senate rules aid in this by allowing questions on any spending, including money already spent, or any activity supported by government funds, including the activities of ministers and officials.

A favourite ‘game’ for Opposition MPs and journalists over the years has been to use the information to suggest that government members have their snouts in the trough. Examples include spending on redecorating the Prime Minister’s Lodge, or on flying ministers to Party fundraisers under the pretext of official business (including in helicopters).

Environment Estimates

I follow Estimates hearings for different reasons. I look for little gems of information about environmental programs, the sort of information that reveals something new, but which is not significant enough to attract the attention of the mainstream media.

The Senate held its second round of Estimates hearings for 2021 in late October. The Environment and Communications Committee heard evidence from officials administering a wide range of environment programs, including on climate change.

The government ‘team’ is always led by a government minister, who must be a Senator.

This often means that the minister at the table is not the actual minister for the portfolio concerned. For example, Environment Minister Sussan Ley was represented by Senator Jane Hume, Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy.

As a result, the minister at the table often does not have a deep knowledge of the portfolio. This amplifies the tendency, already strong in all ministers, to rely on speaking points and otherwise to argue, deflect and otherwise stonewall.

But the minister at the table can’t block officials from answering factual questions about government activities, like how much was spent flying the environment minister around the world to lobby against the proposed World Heritage ‘in danger’ listing of the Great Barrier Reef, where she went and who went with her?

The answer may or may not be a ‘little gem’.

On this occasion, I didn’t find the answer to the question about Sussan Ley’s peregrinations all that interesting. Rather, my little gems relate to climate, environment protection and Indigenous heritage.

Climate

These Estimates hearings took place before the government announced its switch to a ‘Net Zero by 2050’ climate goal. So, a lot of the questions were directed to pressuring officials to reveal what they knew about the as yet unannounced deal between the Liberals and Nationals on climate policy.

This generated a lot of verbal jousting, but little information. Much heat, little light.

My climate gem, however, involved an official confirming that the government’s projections on emissions (and thus its measure of progress towards targets) counted commitments made by the states, but only where officials had some confidence that the state concerned would actually take the promised action.

For example, if a State announced funding for a commitment, Commonwealth officials would count it in projections, but they wouldn’t if the announcement were ‘just a statement, for example’.

Later, once the government had released its plan to deliver Net Zero, ‘The Australian Way’, this gave me pause for thought.

I had read all 126 pages of this plan but could not find any new policies. This must mean that Australia’s projections before and after the release of the plan would be identical — some plan!

Environmental protection

Labor Senator Nita Green quizzed officials about media reports that the deal with the Nationals included changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Sources said that changes proposed to the Act would make it easier for farmers and miners to do what they do, rather than have obstacles in the way.

Had the department been asked to provide any advice on potential changes or amendments to the Act in the last two weeks?

‘No, Senator’ was the reply.

If the Liberals and Nationals have agreed to amend the EPBC Act, and without advice from officials, the most likely amendment for farmers would be to exempt them from applying for approval to clear native vegetation on their properties, where this vegetation might be habitat for nationally-listed threatened species.

For miners, the exemption might be for the clearing of sites under a certain size.

I expect the justification would be that native vegetation is already protected by State land clearing laws and that the EPBC act should only apply where there was a direct impact on a known population of threatened species.

Such amendments would ignore the fact that threatened species rely on habitat to survive, that they are not always present in habitat and that State native vegetation laws are not necessarily designed to protect Matters of National Environmental Significance.

They would also fly in the face of the intent implied by the government in its limited response to the recent Samuel Review of the EPBC Act, that it ‘agrees with the central pillars of reform recommended by the Review’.

Those pillars include reversing the unsustainable trajectory of Australian environmental decline through comprehensive and legally enforceable National Environmental Standards.

Would this inconsistency concern the government? I don’t think so. In fact, without advice from officials, they might not even be aware of it.

Indigenous heritage reform

Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves in May 2020 precipitated a national outcry. Although the approval was given by a WA Minister under its fifty-year-old Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, attempts by Traditional Owners to seek federal intervention through environment minister Ley’s office came to nought.

This was despite the existence of federal laws which might have been invoked to prevent the destruction.

The government scrambled to defend itself against allegations of bungling by Minister Ley.

This included convening a national roundtable meeting on Indigenous heritage reform. At the meeting, Ley linked reform to the then-current Samuel Review of the EPBC Act and advised of the government’s intention to address Indigenous heritage protection reform as part of its response to that review.

In its subsequent, partial, response to the Samuel review, the government committed only to ‘engaging’ with Indigenous peoples to ‘further canvass options and determine the key priorities and a pathway for this important area of reform.’

Asked whether this process was underway, an official replied that:

We have been discussing the issue with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance in relation to a pathway for consultation that would include Indigenous groups. So I would characterise that as certainly being underway but still at relatively early stages from the department’s perspective.

This is bureaucratic speak for consulting about consulting.

Officials then advised that they were close to an agreement with the Alliance. Once that was done, they planned to start consulting about the substantive issues of Indigenous heritage protection.

‘Is there a timeline for that?’ asked a Senator. ‘Not as yet’ replied the official. ‘What we are hoping is that when the partnership agreement is finalised and put forward will also be able to release an implementation plan at the same time.’

More process, more delay!

Was there ‘any truth to the assertion that this whole process is being run by the Prime Minister’s office and the environment minister, your boss, is just the face of the show?’ asked a Senator.

This prompted an intervention by the Secretary of the department, Andrew Metcalfe:

I think that’s a very unfair assertion given we have worked extensively with the minister and her office … But I can absolutely assure the committee that the minister is very heavily across the detail and has been very much determining the progress of the matter.

With all respect to Mr Metcalfe, a distinguished public servant, the minister could be ‘heavily across the detail’ and giving his department specific directions, without him knowing that she was being directed by the Prime Minister.

This is borne out by the next question: How involved has the Cabinet Secretary [a political staffer in the Prime Minister’s office] been? asked the Senator. ‘We have no knowledge of that …’ replied the Secretary.

While I have no inside knowledge, it would certainly be consistent with Scott Morrison’s political style, and the high risk of embarrassment associated with the destruction of the Juukan Gorge, that his office would be calling the shots

And that the government would be dragging things out to avoid having to make any substantive calls on Indigenous heritage reform before the election due by May 2022.

What these little gems reflect

While these little gems hardly sparkle, they do shed some light on the directions of the Morrison Government on environment.

Unfortunately, it looks to me to be politics all the way down with little priority on good policy reform.

On climate, the government has delivered a content-free ‘strategy’ on achieving its Net Zero target, while officials have confirmed that the federal government can claim the benefit of substantive state action. Great politics, poor policy.

On environment protection, it seems that the government is willing to ignore the parlous state of the environment and to run counter to its own rhetoric on reform, to buy off the National Party.

And on Indigenous heritage, it appears the strategy is to kick the can down the road, avoiding real reform before the next election. This is because real reforms would involve an impossible (for the government) choice between popular support for proper Indigenous heritage protection and maintaining the ability of industry to operate in culturally-sensitive places without having to risk a veto from Traditional Owners.

Good government requires hard decisions, doesn’t it? That’s why we have them!

Banner image: When it comes to the environment, the devil’s in the detail. (Image by pen_ash from Pixabay)

Game of Species: Budget Estimates October 2020

“Yes Senator? When will we save that adorable possum? I’ll take that on notice.”

By Peter Burnett

It seems that there are 172 species and ecological communities awaiting a recovery plan and that not a single plan had been finalised in the last 16 months! How do we hold government to account about this? Maybe the Senate Estimates Committee can extract some answers.

The average person is unlikely to have heard of Senate Estimates Committee hearings. Even when these obscure (and typically dull) proceedings generate the occasional political frisson, as they did with last month’s unexpected revelation that Australia Post had rewarded high performing executives with Cartier watches, the brand ‘Estimates’ will barely register.

Yet the Cartier watches revelation has now cost Christine Holgate, Australia Post’s Chief Executive, her job, and there were also casualties in the corporate regulator, ASIC. So, despite their obscurity, these are definitely proceedings to keep an eye on.

While Environment Estimates produced nothing as coruscating as the toppling of a CEO, for the aficionado there were, as ever, a few small gems among the dross.

To illustrate my point, in this blog I’ve focused on a perennial favourite with Senators in Environment Estimates – programs dealing with threatened species.

Nothing to see here, possums

One reason for the popularity of threatened species in estimates is that individual ‘cute-and-cuddly’ species such as the koala are very useful in drawing political attention to the complex issues of biodiversity decline and the parlous state of government efforts to do something about it.

Take for example the ongoing failure of the Commonwealth and Victorian governments to produce a recovery plan for Leadbeater’s possum after more than a decade.

Despite the very long delay in producing a recovery plan for the possum, officials gave evidence that they were “working very closely with Victoria”. Was the problem with the Victorian end, asked a Senator? Admirably, the Commonwealth official replied that she did not want to pass the buck to Victoria and so would “take responsibility for the timeframes”.

In that case, could the official give the Senator any information about why it was taking so long and what were the problematic issues? It turned out that Commonwealth officials were trying to understand the implications of Victoria’s 2019 decision to exit native forest industries. Were Victorian officials not being forthcoming with the details? “It is taking longer than I would have expected to get those details from Victoria” came the understated reply.

In that case, could the official tell the Senator what monitoring there was of the possums? Answer: “there is a range of monitoring underway undertaken by the Victorian government under the regional forest agreement” [RFA] but the detail was a matter for the officials who looked after RFA’s and they would not be available until the evening.

What then was the official’s expectation as to the timeframe for completing the recovery plan negotiations? Official: “Knowing that I said ‘shortly’ last time, I’m hesitant to repeat that time frame.”

And so it went on, ultimately leaving us none the wiser as to why the plan was taking so long or when it might be finished.

Not much to see anywhere else, either

The story is no better and the information no more forthcoming at a higher level. So, on this matter of 172 species and ecological communities awaiting a recovery plan and not a single plan being finalised in the last 16 months: And how long will it take to get through this backlog, asked one Senator? “It will take a very long time,” came the helpful senior official’s reply.

The Senator moved on to the government’s Threatened Species Strategy. This initiative was announced by then-environment minister Hunt in 2015. It set targets to improve the recovery trajectories of 20 mammals, 20 birds and 30 plant species by 2020. Although the announcement included several grants in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, there was no ‘new’ money associated with the initiative.  

In thinking about a flagship strategy such as the Threatened Species Strategy, one can almost see the political wheels turning in the minister’s mind. The ‘cute-and-cuddly’ factor works for governments just as well as it does for oppositions and cross-benchers. If one is responsible for nearly 2000 listed species and communities, has a small budget and cannot even keep pace with the paperwork involved in producing recovery plans, what does one do?

The answer, one might infer from the Threatened Species Strategy, is to focus on eliminating something can be the ‘enemy’ (feral cats), and on turning things around for a small number of well-known and/or photogenic species, representing about 3.5% of all listed species and communities. Even these limited objectives are characterised as a ‘stretch target’.

The evidence of officials at Estimates was that, although a final report would not be available until early 2021, after three years the trajectories of the 6 of 20 birds and 8 of 20 mammals had improved. It’s clearly hard to make progress even with a narrow focus.

Perhaps the final results will be better. Perhaps in anticipation of this the current environment minister, Susan Ley, announced recently that there would be a follow-on strategy, this time with a 10 year horizon.

Officials were coy, but the tenor of their evidence concerning this new program was that, once again, there would be no new money involved. So we should probably expect something much like the strategy just ending.

Of course, the government had recently put some significant new money on the table, announcing $150 million for bushfire recovery. Officials said that $28 million of this would go to the department for administration, including to support the preparation of recovery plans.

So we may be about to see a jump in production, and even implementation, of recovery plans. However, this is a one off figure in the context of the enormous environmental damage done by the Black Summer, so it’s hardly something to be welcomed.

And the game goes on

As a former public servant, now an outsider looking in, I find Estimates frustrating to watch. Although you do stumble upon the odd gem, most of what you hear consists of politicians asking politically loaded questions of bureaucrats, who respond with reams of blather, including repeated procedural statements like “I’ll take that on notice” and “that question needs to be directed to [someone else who isn’t here]”.

After one estimates committee which I attended, nearly 30 years ago, my department head commented that “they didn’t lay a glove on us.” From the public servant’s point of you, it’s about running the gauntlet without being wounded.

From my present vantage point as a citizen however, estimates is yet another accountability mechanism where the practice of holding governments to account falls far short of the theory. The game goes on: non-government politicians try and extract information from public servants for political purposes, while ministers and public servants work studiously to reveal nothing beyond the mundane.

As serious as the accountability issue is, the more significant problem lies with programs such as the Threatened Species Strategy, which target a tiny slice of the problem and even then struggle to achieve a modest set of objectives.

Like Rome, the Australia’s environment has been burning. And, like Nero, it seems that for government, the fiddle will remain the instrument of choice.

Image by David Salt

‘Practical Environmental Restoration’

The new Government mantra (and more grist from the Estimates’ mill)

By Peter Burnett

The Senate held another round of its regular environmental estimates hearings and, once again, I thought I’d share with you what emerged. As I’ve said in the past, these hearings often contain valuable evidence on Government thinking and action.

The topics covered this time were mostly grist for the mill, but one item really stood out: the Government has become focused on something called ‘practical environmental restoration’? Heard of it? Neither had I.

Practical environmental restoration

The government has a bit of a thing about taking ‘practical’ action when it comes to the environment. This theme emerged as a way of contrasting the Coalition Government’s main climate initiative, the Emissions Reduction Fund, with the complexities of the previous Gillard Government’s carbon price (which Tony Abbott had labelled, confusingly but very successfully, as a tax).

And then there was the Government’s obsessive focus on the second-order environmental issue of plastic pollution while ignoring the first-order issue of climate change because this government is all about practical solutions.

In the last budget, brought down in the lead up to the 2019 election, the Government developed this ‘practical action’ theme further, introducing two new programs, an Environmental Restoration Fund ($100 million over four years) and a Communities Environment Program ($22.6 million in one year only).

Smells like a pork barrel

On the face of it, the Environmental Restoration Fund seems respectable. However, look a little closer one and it takes on the appearance of a pork barrel. With the fund established and an election called, the Government proceeded to make election commitments covering nearly 80% of the fund. According to a non-government Senator, some of the groups nominated as recipients knew nothing about the grants coming their way until contacted by someone from a Coalition Party.

With the government re-elected, these election commitments prevented the Environment Department from giving the standard advice about holding competitive grant rounds. It had no choice but to advise the Government to hold what officials described as a ‘closed, non-competitive’, funding round. This meant that the grant guidelines actually specified the recipients as the groups nominated in the Governments election commitments.

None of this is illegal, because various policy guidelines allow for standard procedures like competitive grant rounds to be overridden by election commitments. The theory is that the Government has a mandate to implement his commitments.

So it’s not a second ‘Sports-Rorts’ affair, with attendant allegations of illegality.

It is, however, a blatant case of pork barrelling, likely to lead to poor policy outcomes because the politicians have specified the grant amount, purpose and recipient without any public service or other expert advice.

With the environment in continual decline and a desperate need for restoration, this is another example of very poor governance.

School yard stuff

And the response of Minister Birmingham, the minister representing the Government at Estimates, to Opposition criticisms of the program? ‘I don’t have to sit here and accept hypocrisy from you. You made similar promises at the election.’

In other words, you are just as bad as us, so we can get away with this. At a time when trust in government is very low and the environment in significant decline, this is school yard stuff and a very sad state of affairs.

The Communities Environment Program is not much better. The fact that the program is limited to one year, immediately following at election, is unusual and strongly suggestive of the program being another pork barrel. The fact that the money is allocated to all MPs ($150,000 per electorate) allowing non-government MPs to access to the pork, is hardly a saving grace.

Again, this is bad policy. Small numbers of piecemeal local grants in a one-off program make no contribution to the big environmental issues that face the national government.

So what does ‘practical environmental restoration’ mean? Pork barrelling, obviously.

Grist for the mill

To finish, some quick ‘grist for the mill’ themes from Estimates:

  • There was the usual manoeuvering in which the Greens asked the Bureau of Meteorology questions designed to elicit strong statements about the severity of climate change, while One Nation asked questions directed to showing that the Bureau was cooking the books.
  • The Opposition was in pursuit of Warren Entsch, the Government’s backbench Reef Envoy: why was he so focused on single use plastics in the marine environment when it is such a small component of marine waste?
  • There were the expected questions concerning the impact of bushfires on threatened species. In short, the Government has convened an expert panel and the Threatened Species Committee is reviewing conservational advice and recovery plans, but it really is too early to have much data from bushfire-affected areas.
  • Opposition and Green senators are still pursuing Minister Angus Taylor’s alleged intervention in a compliance investigation concerning his brother’s farm in southern New South Wales. Officials advised, yet again, that this long-running investigation remains incomplete.
  • Senator Matt Canavan, formerly Resources Minister and now on the back bench, asked about climate change as an issue in environmental assessments under the EPBC Act. He is clearly concerned that an environmental assessment for a large oil and gas project off the coast of WA, requires the proponent to assess the impact (if any) of greenhouse gases (including scope 3 emissions) on features such as the Great Barrier Reef, which lie on the other side of the country.
  • While on the topic of environmental assessments, officials revealed that the Environment Department had received some funding for extra environmental assessment staff under the government ‘congestion-busting’ initiative. This reverses the trend over the last few years of regular staffing reductions in this area. It’s ironic that governments cause the problem through general cuts (the so-called ‘efficiency dividend’, then ‘fix’ the resulting ‘congestion’!
  • Senators pressed the government on it’s electric vehicle strategy, due out in mid 2020, particularly given pre-election comments by the Prime Minister and other ministers about electric vehicles putting an end to the weekend. Perhaps rehearsing the lines that will be used to explain these pre-election comments away when the Government starts to promote electric vehicles in its forthcoming ‘Technology Roadmap’. Minister Birmingham made it clear that the electric vehicle market was ‘obviously one that is adapting in terms of the technical specifications’ and that ‘the electric vehicle strategy will no doubt take into account how those technical specifications are evolving.’

Image: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay