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Senate Estimates: Senator Larissa Waters questions Department of Environment on GBR

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Larissa Waters 12 May 2015

Senator WATERS: Staying with that theme, I am interested in what the concerns or the questions have been from those 19 member countries that have been visited to date in relation to the Great Barrier Reef.

Dr Dripps: As the Secretary just said, there is a very large number of questions that are reported back in the government-to-government diplomatic context. The general questions have been around: how is the property protected? How does the long-term sustainability plan work? What is the situation regarding capital dredge disposal prohibition? And many questions going down multiple different technical alleyways in terms of how does a best management program for sugar actually work from one of the countries. There are very long and broad-ranging discussions covering a lot of topics both directly and indirectly related to the Barrier Reef and to the obligations of environment ministers more generally.

Dr de Brouwer: A part of the response there is that countries have raised specific issues or the general propositions that have been raised in previous decisions of the World Heritage Committee in listing their concerns or things they wanted pursued. The state party report and the long-term sustainability plan address those specific issues or questions that have been raised in previous decisions of the World Heritage Committee. So they are very much keyed to those technical or broad framework or the way policy decisions are made in Australia. It can be anything from how to monitor water quality to controlling nutrient outflows, as Dr Dripps outlined. They are all related to the specific concerns raised in previous World Heritage Committee decisions.

Senator WATERS: There were no new concerns. The previous concerns were retained?

Dr de Brouwer: Broadly, it was about how Australia has met those concerns, and that is the detail of both the State Party Report and the Long-term Sustainability Report. Those reports are specifically geared to addressing those individual issues or concerns raised in previous decisions of the World Heritage Committee. There has been a discussion around all of that detail. Both the State Party Report and the Long-Term Sustainability Report are very long and pretty full documents. They have been outlining that architecture.

Senator WATERS: They do not talk much about climate change for their length, but, yes, they are long. No new concerns were raised between the 19 member countries in the last tranche of the past few months and the previous draft and final decision of last year—given that Abbot Point was approved in that time. Did any of the countries raise that issue?

Dr Dripps: Abbot Point was approved in advance of the 2014 decision by the World Heritage Committee, and that decision regretted the approval of the project by Australia, as I recall. Subsequently, Australia has committed to ensuring that project dumps its dredge spoil on land and, in fact, has gone quite a bit further in banning capital dredge disposal in entire Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area.

Senator WATERS: My question was: were there any concerns expressed about the Abbot Point expansion, which is proceeding, despite the changes to where the dredge spoil is going?

Dr Dripps: The original question I thought was about the divergence—

Senator WATERS: That was to be my follow-up question.

Dr Dripps: divergence from previous World Heritage Committee decisions. The World Heritage Committee has for a number of years expressed concern about ports, port limits, Australia's environmental impact assessment and approval system and the Abbot Point project specifically. The discussions have not gone beyond those points.

Senator WATERS: None of those 19 countries has raised additional concerns or refreshed existing concerns about the expansion of one of the world's largest coal ports in the World Heritage area of the Great Barrier Reef?

Dr Dripps: The topic of what is the status of the environmental impact assessment at Abbot Point and how it is intended to be managed by Australia has come up in a range of discussions, as you would anticipate, given that it was part of the 2014 decision of the World Heritage Committee.

Senator WATERS: If you could take on notice the precise concerns that each of those 19 countries has expressed in that series of meetings you went through and provide them to us as soon as you can, that would be very helpful. With all of that travel, what has been the total cost, firstly, for the minister—I presume he would fly business class and so I imagine we are talking about tens of thousands? Are we above $100,000? Then I will ask about the department's costs.

Dr Dripps: The minister's travel is managed by the Department of Finance and so that question will need to be addressed to him. We have indicative costs for departmental travel only, but we have not added those up.

Senator WATERS: Could you give me an indicative total for the departmental costs of travel?

Dr Dripps: I can do it by trip, Senator, or we can table the total. Senator WATERS: Tabling it would be helpful, if you can do that now. Dr de Brouwer: Sorry, Senator, we will take that on notice.

Senator WATERS: No, I would like the information now. So if you are not going to table it, I would ask you to read it out.

Dr Dripps: Okay, I will read it out. Senator WATERS: I thought in the interests of time it might be easier if you tabled it.

Dr Dripps: For the Qatar, Lebanon and Turkey trip, $16,000. For the Japan—

Senator WATERS: I beg your pardon. Could you speak up?

Dr Dripps: Sixteen thousand dollars. For Japan, Korea and India, $12,307.97; Jamaica, Columbia and Peru, $25,387.97; Portugal, Finland, Poland and Germany, $13,904.91; Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, $12,063.14. Travel with the minister to Croatia, Serbia and Germany, $17,088.61.

Senator WATERS: And the November trip to Japan and Korea with the ambassador and yourself?

Dr Dripps: That was $8,397.73. Senator WATERS: And the earlier visit to Senegal and Algeria was ministerial and so that is the Department of Finance?

Dr Dripps: No, there have not been visits to Senegal and Algeria at this point. Senator WATERS: Sorry; my apologies! Serbia and Croatia was what I meant to say to you.

Dr Dripps: Yes, I said that one at the end of the list—$17,088.61.

Senator WATERS: I had that down as Kazakhstan. How much was the Kazakhstan trip?

Dr Dripps: Sorry, Kazakhstan I do not have because it was done by the Ambassador for the Environment by himself, so the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will have that information.

Mr Thompson: Just to be clear, the visit to Serbia and Croatia were side visits around the International Whaling Commission.

Senator WATERS: Yes, around the IWC meeting; thank you. Can you tell me how many full-time equivalent staff there are in total and what is the budget from the department for the work that the department has done in concert with DFAT special task force on the reef?

Dr Dripps: We have to take that question on notice. As you would appreciate, we have a number of different divisions in the department that are making contributions and various parts of various officers' times, so we will take that on notice.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. Can you give me a ballpark estimate?

Dr Dripps: No, sorry.

Senator WATERS: Have or will the departmental staff on the task force—so yourself and anyone else who has accompanied the DFAT task force—been meeting with any banks or financial institutions? Have you for the 19, and will you for the upcoming ones?

Dr Dripps: Have we?

Senator WATERS: And will you?

Dr Dripps: I am just trying to think. I will have to check the details, but Dr Reichelt and I, as part of another trip to Europe, did undertake a briefing of Deutsche Bank and also, on one of the trips to Paris to engage with the World Heritage Committee, I did have a briefing with Societe Generale in Paris.

Senator WATERS: Was that before or after those institutions said they would not be financing the Abbot Point expansion?

Dr Dripps: I would have to check the detail on that; I do not recall. Senator WATERS: Thank you. I am very interested in that.

Senator SINGH: Senator Waters, can I just check something? With that answer about the costings of the delegations, did you, Dr Dripps, say that you would provide that on notice?

Dr Dripps: I have just run through it, so it will be in the Hansard now. I can also provide the cost for those trips as an answer to a question on notice.

Senator SINGH: Yes, could you please provide the cost of those trips as a question on notice?

Dr Dripps: So the trips with the minister to the World Heritage Committee member countries?

Senator SINGH: The entire delegation, so yours included—so the 19 representations.

Dr Dripps: Yes; that is clear. Senator WATERS: Do you have an estimate of how many working days have been spent lobbying and communicating with UNESCO about the reef as opposed to days spent protecting it?

Dr Dripps: I am not sure that I am well placed to separate these two activities.

Dr de Brouwer: We would regard that work as being for the protection of the reef, Senator.

Senator WATERS: The lobbying mission?

Dr de Brouwer: It is talking and explaining Australia's positions on the various concerns that have been raised by the World Heritage Committee and the development of plans to address those concerns.

Senator WATERS: So how many working days have you spent undertaking that?

Dr de Brouwer: We have been working continually.

Dr Dripps: Probably, as part of the answer to the question about how many ASL, we could pick up that question on notice.

Senator WATERS: Again, do either of you have a ballpark estimation?

Dr de Brouwer: It is something that we have an ongoing team working on; I do not have a ballpark figure.

Senator WATERS: How many are on the ongoing team?

Senator Birmingham: It is important to note the policy work that is undertaken, and that includes policy work in relation to working with the World Heritage Committee around supporting the reef, would be quite minor by comparison with the very significant investments through GBRMPA, through the department and with the Queensland government in the overall management and ongoing protection of the reef. I can see where you are attempting to go. I am sure if the government did not engage with the World Heritage Committee, you or others would be eager to criticise the government. You can criticise us for engaging too much with the World Heritage Committee if you want, but that is part of the value of the policy proposition of making sure that all of the strategies and programs designed to work on the protection of the reef are adequate and successful and, yes, that the World Heritage Committee understands all that we are doing in that respect.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. Just coming back to that ongoing team you mentioned, how many staff are on that?

Mr Thompson: We will take that on notice. As Dr Dripps indicated before—

Senator Birmingham: No match was found.

Senator WATERS: Can I ask now: has the minister or any of the departmental officers met with or spoken to any staff from the Big Four Australian banks about either the Galilee Basin coalmine proposals or Abbot Point?

Dr de Brouwer: We will take that question on notice. Frankly, we talk with everyone in the department. We talk with all sorts of different businesses, as we would talk with all sorts of environment NGOs, community groups and others. As to whether we have had a specific conversation around Abbot Point or other topics, I cannot answer that off the cuff.

Senator WATERS: I think you would remember a meeting with one of the Big Four.

Dr de Brouwer: We certainly meet with the banks but, as to whether that is the main topic of conversation, let me come back to you on that.

Senator WATERS: What are you talking about if not those ones?

Dr de Brouwer: We are talking about a range of lots of things.

Senator Birmingham: The government's deregulatory agenda, perhaps.

Senator WATERS: Okay. Well, can you take on notice precisely what it is that you are speaking about with the banks, including whether that is the Galilee Basin and the Abbot Point coal port dimension.

Senator Birmingham: Those evil banks!

Dr de Brouwer: It can be anything—in fact, as the minister pointed out, the deregulation priorities, but also the nature of environment regulation and how that is working out, the nature of different spending and policy proposals that are—

Senator WATERS: What is the banks' stated interest in the deregulation agenda?

Dr de Brouwer: That it goes to the effectiveness of the investment environment in Australia: is it a strong investment environment? What is the nature of sustainable development in Australia? Those sorts of issues are things that we would talk about with the banks as well.

Senator WATERS: Sure, but you cannot recall talking about—

Senator Birmingham: Obviously the length and duration of—

Senator WATERS: the Abbot Point coal port expansion?

Dr de Brouwer: The nature of resource development is a topic that would come up, but if you want to ask if we have had a specific conversation about Abbot Point coal or another development—

Senator WATERS: The Galilee Basin, perhaps.

Dr de Brouwer: it is very hard to say, without some further reflection, whether we have had specific conversations about specific projects. But we do talk about sustainable development, the nature of resources and the nature of environment protection in Australia.

Senator WATERS: Okay. Can you just provide on notice for me the dates, the locations, the folk present at those meetings and the issues that were discussed, particularly whether or not that included the Galilee coalmines and the Abbot Point expansion. Do you recall—if any of the officers are in the room, hopefully they have a good recollection as well—

Senator Birmingham: We will take on notice and provide what information can appropriately be provided in that regard.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. Just one final point: do you recall if any of the officers have ever asked any of the Big Four banks not to make any public statements about whether they would finance the Galilee mines or the Abbot Point coal port expansion?

Dr de Brouwer: I am not aware of that at all.

Senator WATERS: Not aware or cannot recall?

Dr de Brouwer: I am not aware.

Senator WATERS: Could you check on that too.

CHAIR: What is the difference between 'cannot recall' and 'not aware'?

Senator WATERS: Either he—

Dr de Brouwer: I will take it on notice.

Senator WATERS: It is not for me to tell the officer what he does or does not know. I am interested in his state of knowledge and the level of confidence in it. Thank you for your patience. I just have two final quick questions on another matter. In relation to staffing for the World Heritage section, particularly the Heritage section in the department, you have previously told me that there were about 30 in the Heritage section that did World Heritage, and of that there were 1½ that were working on the Cape York World Heritage nomination, plus a number of other things that those 1½ were working on. Can you give me an update on the total staff that are working on World Heritage in that Heritage section. Is it still 30 or thereabouts?

Mr Johnston: It is about 27, although, that said, some people work on it as a small part of a broader position. So, if you took the numbers who at some time or other might do some work on World Heritage, you are at about 27.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. Is the 1½ figure—how many are dedicated to the Cape York World Heritage listing?

Mr Johnston: There are none dedicated to Cape York full time. Cape York is one of a number of things that a couple of the officers do.

Senator WATERS: Sure. The full-time equivalent was about 1½, you told me previously. Has that changed?

Mr Johnston: It would probably be about one to 1½.

Senator WATERS: Why has that been reduced? Mr Johnston: It is just generally that we have a lot of different things we have to work on.

Senator WATERS: Have you had any contact with the new Queensland government about restarting that stalled nomination process?

Mr Johnston: There has been some discussion at officials level—at junior officials level. My understand is that Queensland are working through all of the different issues on their plate and that Cape York is one of them, but it is not yet at a position where there is a definitive view.

Senator WATERS: What would be the next steps in restarting that nomination process?

Mr Johnston: The next step would be, once Queensland had taken some decisions on what they wanted to do, that we would probably talk at more senior departmental levels with them about how we can assist and what it is that we are looking at doing.

Senator WATERS: Would that require additional staffing?

Mr Johnston: No.

Senator WATERS: Okay. Thanks very much. 

CHAIR: I thank officers from program 1.4. 

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