National Parks & Christmas Island

estimates

ENVIRONMENT AND COMMUNICATIONS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE  Estimates  TUESDAY, 24 MAY 2011  Full Transcript

Director of National Parks

Senator SIEWERT:  I would like to ask about Christmas Island at some stage but first I want to ask some general questions about the NRS program, if that is okay. As I understand it, $38 million was set aside for the NRS through the business plan in this financial year. I am wondering how much of that has been committed and how much is likely to be—is it all spent for this financial year? 
Mr Cochrane:  We have approvals for 27 projects this financial year, which total $38 million. We are working our way through those. A number have been purchased but not yet announced. Most are in negotiation with either contracts with the proponents or we are still finalising contracts. We have some new proposals to put to the minister as well. It is still a moving feast, I am afraid. I will probably leave it there at the moment because we are earnestly finalising a number of contracts with proponents as we speak. 
Senator SIEWERT:  We have discussed this before where you cannot quite sign off before the end of the financial year. If that does not happen, you have other projects already—
Mr Cochrane:  That is correct. We have a reserve list because, as you know, some projects fall over. Also we need to manage the risk, in that sometimes projects are more expensive than originally forecast and sometimes they are under. 
Senator SIEWERT:  In terms of the cumulative amount that you have spent since the beginning of this particular round of the program, in other words Caring for our Country, how much does that add? How close are you to the $180 million? 
Mr Cochrane:  We have spent $62.1 million so far under Caring for our Country, and that has resulted in the purchase of 45 properties. 
Senator SIEWERT:  That is right, isn’t it—there was about $180 million committed? 
Mr Cochrane:  That is correct. 
Senator SIEWERT:  You have spent $62.1 million, plus the $38 million for this year? 
Mr Cochrane:  Correct. 
Senator SIEWERT:  So you still have about $80 million to go; is that correct? 
Mr Cochrane:  More or less, yes. In fact, it is very close. 
Senator SIEWERT:  That is on track? 
Mr Cochrane:  That is on track. 
Senator SIEWERT:  Last time, or it might have been the estimates before last—it might have been several—we were having the discussion about what percentage of the cuts or how much was cut from the NRS program, for the cuts that were made to the program last year. At the time, if I recall, it was a bit unclear whether you were going to get cuts and how much of the share you were going to sustain. How much of the share has the program sustained? 
Mr Cochrane:  I cannot say we have sustained any cuts. The cuts that were made to the program overall are still not reflected in any particular part of the program. We are driven by the target. I believe we are on track to meet the target of the 25 million hectares addition. That is what drives the investment strategy. 
Senator SIEWERT:  I know that I do not ask about the environmental stewardship program here; I have to ask about that in the next session. As I understand it, there is a program to secure nearly 26½ thousand hectares. Do you work with any of those landholders in any way to talk about ongoing protection—long-term protection or co-management as part of the conservation estate? 
Mr Cochrane:  There is a fairly clear line between the environmental stewardship program and the national reserve system program. Under the NRS program we do fund covenanting organisations to support covenanting of private lands, but the primary criterion there is that they are covenants in perpetuity. Under the environmental stewardship program they are of more limited duration and, therefore, do not count towards the NRS targets.
Senator SIEWERT:  So there is no interaction between the covenanting program, the NRS and the environmental stewardship program.?
Mr Cochrane:  There is one at least. That would be that, to the extent that landholders become comfortable with the notion of covenanting their land, they may then consider moving to covenanting in perpetuity.
Senator SIEWERT:  I want to go to the report card from 2008-09 where the NRS program was rated under manageable risks as ‘on track’, which was the lowest of the scores. Have you done any analysis of why that got that rating and, if so, can you share it with it us?
Mr Cochrane:  The primary reasons for our not doing so well in that first year were the bedding down of the new systems, the new contracts being developed under Caring for our Country and the primary emphasis on a competitive round for applications. As you would be aware, one round of inviting applications does not work that
well with the national reserve system when properties become available on the market at different times through the year. We have moved to a system where we can accept proposals through the year, and that has improved the efficiency with which we work. We increased the number of hectares acquired in the second year of the program by about an order of magnitude from the first year; we secured about 1.2 million hectares in the second year. The first year was a start-up year. We are expecting to add over one million hectares this year as well.
Senator SIEWERT:  That was the question that I was going to come back to. It is all very well spending $38 million, but how much are you adding? It is one million hectares 
Mr Cochrane:  Yes.
Senator SIEWERT:  So you consider that you are on track to make the 25 million hectare target?
Mr Cochrane:  Yes, because that target also includes Indigenous Protected Areas, as you would be aware. 
Senator SIEWERT:  I have a budget question about the agency resource statement. I am aware that this probably has a simple answer which I cannot work out. Payments from related entities are on page 131 of the portfolio budget statement. It says: 'Payments from related entities,' and then says that the total estimate for 2011 was $41,485 and the actual available appropriation for this year was $46,444. What is the difference there between last year's income and this year's income?
Mr Cochrane:  There are a number of items that change year by year, but the predominant one is the scheduled reduction in funding that we received from a new policy proposal for dealing with asbestos. It is scheduled to be $4.1 million next year, so that is the primary component of that drop. So, in a sense, this current year, we received extra funds—
Senator SIEWERT:  For that.
Mr Cochrane:  Yes, and we are back to a lower level. 
Senator SIEWERT:  So it is not a drop in your operational budget? You have maintained your operational budget?
Mr Cochrane:  Correct.
Senator SIEWERT:  Can I move on to Christmas Island? Do I ask about crazy ants here?
Mr Cochrane:  Yes; we are crazy ants.
Senator SIEWERT:  You got $4 million for crazy ants in the budget?
Mr Cochrane:  Yes.
Senator SIEWERT:  We were told yesterday in Regional and Transport that that was not new money; someone in the environmental stewardship program said that was not new money. Do I find out from you, or later, where that money comes from, if it is not new money?
Mr Cochrane:  The source of that funding is actually specified in our portfolio budget statement, at the top of page 138.
Dr Grimes:  I may be of some assistance here. That is new money that is being provided for the continuation of the yellow crazy ants program. The drafting here indicates that the amount is coming from Caring for our Country and then also a redirection from the National Environmental Research Program.
Senator SIEWERT:  That is what I wanted to know. As I understood it, the money that was coming in for other programs yesterday was new money outside of the normal Caring for our Country budget. This money is actually coming from within Caring for our Country.
Dr Grimes:  Some of the money is coming from within Caring for our Country.
Senator SIEWERT:  And the other is coming from a redirection.
Dr Grimes:  Yes, that is correct.
Senator SIEWERT:  So what isn’t that money being spent on, if it is a redirection from another program?
Dr Grimes:  That is from unallocated amounts in the National Environmental Research Program for future years that have not yet been locked in—
Senator SIEWERT:  That have not been allocated yet.
Dr Grimes:  Were not locked in.
Senator SIEWERT:  So no money has been taken from another program to fund this program?
Dr Grimes:  There has been a reduction in the size of funding provided for that program in the forward estimates; it is indicated as a savings measure in the budget statements. That is being used in order to meet other priorities within the department, one of which is the yellow crazy ants program.
Senator SIEWERT:  Can I go back to the other Christmas Island issues that I always ask about. Where are we up to with the feedback from across the other portfolios regarding the recommendations from the expert working group's final report?
Mr Cochrane:  I am pleased to say that we now have responses from all portfolios, so we are now finalising that. We will need to put that to the minister, but our basic cross-portfolio coordination exercise has concluded. So it should not be too long before we can release that. But I should add that we have been undertaking as many of those actions that have been recommended as we can within existing funding levels. On a number of them, we are doing quite well.
Senator SIEWERT:  It is hard for me to ask anything further about a number of those actions until we see the report. Is it anticipated that that report will then be released?
Mr Cochrane:  I believe so, yes. That decision is up to the minister, but that has certainly been past practice.
Senator SIEWERT:  I appreciate that, but that is the expectation. I am not going to ask for time lines, because I know that I will not get anywhere. In terms of the flying fox population, last time we talked about the regional recovery plan. Is that right?
Mr Cochrane:  Yes.
Senator SIEWERT:  Where are we up to with that?
Mr Cochrane:  Again, the final draft is now under review. Let me just confirm that. It is being reviewed. I think we forward it to the Approval and Wildlife Division for their commentary for compliance with the requirements of the EPBC Act. and then it will go out for consultation.
Senator SIEWERT:  What is the time line for that?
Mr Cochrane:  My guess is that it would be within a month or two.
Senator SIEWERT:  With regard to the expert working group report you have said that some of the measures are already being undertaken.
Mr Cochrane:  Yes.
Senator SIEWERT:  Is it likely that you would be able to implement these in your current budget or will you need more funding in the future?
Mr Cochrane:  The things that we can implement within our budget are largely the things that need to be done within the park, but there are a number of recommendations which apply across the island and they would be certainly outside our capacity to support. 
Senator SIEWERT:  Then there is a process of going through to regional—
Mr Cochrane:  Perhaps I can short circuit the question. We are looking for other partners. We have received, I believe, some funding from the Department of Regional Australia to support some of the works on cats.
Senator SIEWERT:  That is where I figured you had to go to now.
Mr Cochrane:  Cat control is a big issue on the island, but there have been some great successes there. Regional Australia has been very supportive in working with us there. So they have part funded that program. Senator SIEWERT:  That has already been funded.
Mr Cochrane:  It has been funded in the settlement at the moment. That is the major source of where they tend to come from, so we are focusing on that at the moment. As you would be aware, they are a significant threat to sea bird nesting in and around the settlement, so we are concentrating activity there first.
Senator SIEWERT:  Can I go back to crazy ants. I presume that funding is to extend the work that you have been doing already on crazy ants.
Mr Cochrane:  Absolutely, yes. 
Senator SIEWERT:  Last time we talked about the planning process, the process you are already undertaking. So that is a continuation of that?
Mr Cochrane:  Yes, and the research work looking for alternative baits and for biological control approaches so that we can get away from the bait that we use at the moment.