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Senator Waters questions the Department of Environment on budget cuts

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Larissa Waters 26 May 2015

Senator WATERS: Firstly to staffing—and my apologies, as I missed the first few minutes.

Senator Birmingham: It feels like only budget week that we were last together!

Senator WATERS: Indeed. Can the department please provide an update on the total level of full-time equivalent staffing?

Ms Wiley-Smith: Certainly. In terms of our paid full-time equivalent staffing as at 30 April, we have 2,176.1, and that number includes the director of national parks as well.

Senator WATERS: Do you have a breakdown of the number of full-time equivalents in the compliance and enforcement division?

Ms Wiley-Smith: I have a breakdown for the division itself, but not to the level of detail of just the compliance officers. When they appear tomorrow, they will be able to give you those details. With respect to fulltime equivalent for EACD, it is 171 FTE.

Senator WATERS: I have a note here that in May last year it was 236 full-time equivalents. That has now come down by some 60-odd folk. What was the cause of that reduction? Which budgetary measure can that be attributed to?

Ms Wiley-Smith: I will check in terms of the numbers. There sometimes can be a little bit of confusion with head count and full-time equivalent. I know that the head count was over 200 a little while ago. Certainly it is still at 197. I will need to look at that. It is quite possible that there has been some restructure within the division, including we had a task force that was being run from EACD and that task force has now gone back from basically a division size to a branch. That was to do with one-stop shop. But as to the details of any changes within the division, the staff would be able to answer that tomorrow when they appear.

Mr Thompson: What was that number that you had and at what date was it?

Senator WATERS: I had it that as at May 2014 it was 236 full-time equivalents for the EACD.

Mr Thompson: We will try to establish the provenance of that.

Senator WATERS: For compliance and enforcement specifically, are you saying I can check that tomorrow when they are here?

Ms Wiley-Smith: Yes.

Senator WATERS: Do you have any figures on conditions monitoring and approvals monitoring?

Ms Wiley-Smith: Separate numbers on those issues? No, I do not have the break-up further down than at the division level, as the divisions are able to manage their own budget and to move staff around as they need.

Senator WATERS: Will it be in 1.5 that I have to ask both of those? Mr Thompson: Yes.

Senator WATERS: Can I come back to a mention that you made of the one-stop shop task force, which you say was division size and is now branch size? Can you put some figures around those descriptions? How many folk were there and how many are there now?

Ms Wiley-Smith: That is another question that I think will need to be answered by the officers tomorrow.

Mr Thompson: In rough terms, it was a regulatory reform task force which had a division head and a number of band 1 SES assistant secretaries. So there would have been at least three there. It was not a full sized division in the sense of some of the other larger divisions in the place. There would have been about 30 to 40 people. That is my recollection but we will confirm that.

Senator WATERS: What has it come down to now? Mr Thompson: Those activities have been absorbed back into the environment assessment and compliance division and now constitute a branch within that division. There would be about 20 to 30 people but we will confirm that tomorrow.

Dr de Brouwer: The peak workload there was because of the negotiations of the bilateral approvals. There are now six draft approval bilaterals that have been completed, so the workload for that team has come down.

Senator WATERS: Those drafts have not yet finished their public consultations. Are you implying that the public consultation will not require as much staffing?

Dr de Brouwer: No, I am not. I am just saying that the initial drafting of those documents was a very intensive piece of work and there is ongoing work in responding to the comments. As I said, they are draft documents and not finalised.

Senator WATERS: So ongoing work: roughly how many people are looking through those public comments?

Dr de Brouwer: We will have to come back tomorrow on that.

Senator WATERS: I appreciate the update on those figures. It seems to me on the figures that I have that we have tracked through this process that there has been an overall staff reduction. Are you able to quantify the reduction in overall staffing?

Ms Wiley-Smith: Yes. We have actually reduced our staffing by just over 400 of our ongoing staff over the last 18 months. The reduction has been achieved through a combination of voluntary redundancies, the capability round—that was spoken about before at estimates—and also natural attrition; so that is employee initiated departures. At the moment we are tracking within our budget and we are right for going into next financial year.

Senator WATERS: So you have lost about 400-odd. I have 430 here on the budget figures; that is about 16 per cent. Are you still tracking to be a total reduction of 670 by 2016-17, which would be a 26 per cent reduction in the department's workforce?

Ms Wiley-Smith: We are already almost there because the reduction also occurred before the last 18 months. We also lost a considerable number of staff earlier in 2013. At this point we are tracking on target. There will be a further reduction in 2016-17. We think it is around 100 staff that we might need to reduce by at that stage, but it also depends on future budget decisions. It is a little bit too early to tell.

Senator WATERS: Are you saying that you have lost more than 16 per cent of your workforce currently?

Ms Wiley-Smith: Yes, we have.

Senator WATERS: Do you have a figure that more accurately reflects that?

Ms Wiley-Smith: I will have to actually come back. I only have more recent figures around the last 18 months. We can have a look at what happened before that.

Senator WATERS: Thanks very much, because it is certainly an alarming reduction. Of course, right at the time when the ANAO is scrutinising the ability of the staff to conduct appropriate compliance and enforcement work, it is alarming that there are still losses. I will pursue tomorrow whether there have been significant losses from that particular section. I want to move now to the DGR inquiry. Was it the minister who referred that inquiry to the Reps committee? That is my understanding; I am just double-checking.

Senator Birmingham: I do not recall, but others at the table may.

Dr Kennedy: My understanding is that the committee itself established and got going the inquiry that it is undertaking, but it may have discussed the matter with the minister.

Ms Jensen: Minister Hunt wrote to the committee requesting that the inquiry take place.

Dr Kennedy: I beg your pardon, Senator.

Ms Jensen: My colleague is not quite across the details that I am.

Senator Birmingham: The exact practices of House of Representatives committees are probably something that none of us are precise on. They may have needed their own motion or agreement of the chamber or otherwise to instigate it, but I am not sure.

Senator WATERS: I would hazard a guess that they would. Did the department provide any advice to the minister relating to that referral?

Ms Jensen: No, we did not.

Senator WATERS: Have you provided any advice subsequently?

Ms Jensen: On a daily basis, in terms of the normal course of business in administering the register, the department provides advice through to the minister. In relation to the inquiry, we have completed a submission and we are gearing up to make sure that we can provide whatever advice and support the committee needs in undertaking its inquiry.

Senator WATERS: Is that submission public yet?

Ms Jensen: We would have to ask the committee, actually.

Dr Kennedy: It was provided late last week.

Ms Jensen: I might call on my colleague Ms Musgrave to respond to that question.

Dr Kennedy: It should be up on the website now.

Senator WATERS: I will have a look at that; thank you. Did the department provide any advice to the minister or to the House of Reps inquiry, for that matter, on the terms of reference for that inquiry?

 Ms Jensen: No, we did not.

Senator WATERS: Where has the minister got this idea from then, if it is not from you guys?

Senator Birmingham: Senator, I do not know whether you have been absent during some of the hearings of this estimates committee and have not read the press clips or otherwise. There has been some contestability around the operation of the DGR rules and we just had yet again a series of questions posed by Senator Canavan.

Senator WATERS: There was a series of assertions. There has not been any evidence of the department—

Senator Birmingham: They were a series of questions and Senator Canavan cited a number of references in his questions today, as he has on previous occasions. Ultimately, I am sure you would agree, parliamentary committees are a good means and process of allowing such concerns to be aired and for information to be provided and ultimately for recommendations of the parliament to be made to the government which the government would then consider.

Senator WATERS: Sure. I happen to think this one was a baseless attack on environment groups, but that is my view and there has also been no evidence to date—

Senator Birmingham: That is okay, Senator Waters. I happen to think that some of the proposals from the Australian Greens are quite baseless as well.

Senator WATERS: I am sure that the inquiry will find that everything has been done above board by the environment groups and, in fact, they deserve more support, not less. Can I just confirm—

Senator Birmingham: That sounds like your opinion and you are welcome to it. I trust the inquiry will move beyond opinions and establish the facts.

Senator WATERS: Let us hope so, because I do not imagine that there is actually much evidence there.

CHAIR: Senator Waters, I think it is time to move on with some questions; thank you.

Senator WATERS: Thank you, Chair. Can I ask what support role the department is actually playing in relation to this inquiry? You have done your submission. Do you anticipate any— Senator Birmingham: I am sure the same as it does in relation to any parliamentary inquiry. The department provides submissions. It may appear to give evidence. But, of course, parliamentary inquiries stand alone and are supported, as you well know, by their own secretariats and are autonomous from the arms of government.

Senator WATERS: Yes. So what report are you providing to the minister in relation to this inquiry and the conduct of it?

Dr Kennedy: Just on the committee first, we have been asked questions from the committee about statistical information on the number, how it has changed over time and all those sorts of matters; so we have tried to incorporate all of that material into our submission. As Ms Jensen said, we talk to the minister on a range of matters, but our focus in this most recent period has been on preparing that submission and getting prepared for our appearance, which I think is on 2 June, so we are able to provide the committee with evidence around how we go about administering that law and as much statistical information as we can on how the register has changed over time and those sorts of issues. It is not our job in that submission to advise the committee about the broader policy; it is to just provide as much evidence as we can about how the policy is currently administered and any information the committee seeks for its own deliberations. We provide policy advice to the minister and normally we would not go into details about what that advice is, but I can say—I think it is reasonable for me to say—that our focus at the moment is on providing that information to the committee.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. Canvassed earlier in response to some questions were the Charities Act requirements. I understand that this is not your purview normally but I appreciate that you have some level of familiarity with the statutory structure. My understanding, from the section that you read out earlier, is that it is in fact fine for groups that are registered charities to go so far even as to endorse political parties, but my understanding of Senator Canavan's reference is that that is as long as it is not specifically a purpose of that organisation. Is that an accurate summation?

Dr Kennedy: I think that is accurate. I think there is the confusion that I have fallen into there with Senator Canavan. Yes, you are right; it is an activity that can be undertaken by the charity, but they cannot exist just to be that activity, as I understand it.

Senator WATERS: You clarified that about 75 per cent of organisations on the REO are listed as charities and therefore those rules apply to them. What about the other 25? Are there similar rules that apply in relation to political endorsements, which was the issue that Senator Canavan was so concerned about?

Dr Kennedy: I was saying to Senator Canavan that those sorts of issues are not expressly prohibited in the existing arrangements. Whether the activity is reasonable or not is always through the eyes of whether the principal purpose of that organisation is promotion of activities to restore the natural environment or education and research and those sorts of things. So it is always through that lens. There is not a set of activities which 'you must not, you must not, you must not'. It is really: is your principal purpose those other things? To the extent that undertaking some of these activities means that your principal purpose is not that, that would be the basis upon which an organisation would function. We might advise ministers in that case that the organisation's principal purpose is not that. So it is through that first lens: what is the principal purpose of that organisation?

Senator WATERS: Again, it seems to me that pretty much everything is above board, but I understand that that is what we have inquiries for. Has there been any evidence that the department has tracked where any groups on that register have in fact endorsed any political party, as opposed to criticised decisions that have a poor impact on the environment, no matter which government is in power?

Dr Kennedy: I am not aware of our routinely investigating whether organisations on the register are supporting or engaged in any way with political organisations. But, to be absolutely clear, because there is a long history of this register going back to 1992, I will take on notice whether any such activities have occurred in the past.

Senator WATERS: Thank you, because I am certainly not aware of any myself. But you are saying that that is not precluded anyway; even if there were, that would not be against the rules. Is that correct?

Dr Kennedy: It is not precluded for them to engage with or discuss with those organisations. All the avenues are the ones that I have engaged with Senator Canavan in the past. A party cannot come along and donate through this organisation as a conduit, if you like, to undertake political activities. There is a set of rules around the operation of the organisation that prevent, for example, a donating party from directing the organisation to do something political. But, as long as the organisation is acting independently according to its constitution and its constitution reflects the principal purpose, it can undertake a range of activities.

Senator WATERS: Thank you for your help.

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