ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS
Senator SIEWERT—I suppose you will find it hard to guess what I want to ask about: Christmas Island. First, I want to go to the issue of mining. I know I have to go to the other part of the portfolio, but I thought I would try you first. Where are you up to with the mining application?
Mr Cochrane—You will have to ask AWD, because we only provide inputs into that process and are not the decision maker.
Senator SIEWERT—Should we do that now or later? If we can do it now, that would be good.
Mr Burnett—You will recall that there was a process whereby the mining company submitted supplementary information. That information was put out for public comment. That has now finished. The department then prepared a draft recommendation report. Consistent with the process that the minister had determined—I think we might have taken you through this last time—we provided the draft recommendation report to the company for comment, and they have provided those comments. We are now in the process of finalising our recommendation report to go to the minister.
Senator SIEWERT—When do you expect to give that to the minister? What is the time frame following that?
Mr Burnett—There is no set time frame because this is following a court case. It is not the standard process under the act. I am afraid I just do not have the information in front of me. I think we are fairly close to finalising it, but I cannot give you a specific time.
Senator SIEWERT—Within the next month?
Mr Burnett—Yes. I might ask Ms Middleton to come to the table.
Ms Middleton—Would you mind repeating the question, please?
Senator SIEWERT—I am looking for the time frame for when the final recommendations will be given to the minister.
Ms Middleton—We should be in a position to put a proposed decision to the minister in November, and then it will be the time he takes to consider that. Once he makes his proposed decision, he will then provide that to the proponent. The proponent again has an opportunity to comment and then a final decision can be made.
Senator SIEWERT—This is not the normal process?
Ms Middleton—No. The process was finalised and designed to take account of the findings of the Federal Court case to make sure we adequately covered off the issues identified in that.
Senator SIEWERT—Can you take me through, therefore, why the company gets to comment on your proposed recommendations and then the final recommendations and the minister’s decision? This is bizarre to say the least.
Ms Middleton—It is not really bizarre. The only additional thing that is different from a normal process is that normally a proponent on any assessment that has been conducted since the act was amended in 2006 is given the opportunity to comment on the proposed decision. That serves as exhaustive natural justice under the EPBC Act. So that step of the proponent commenting on the proposed decision is routine in every event.
Senator SIEWERT—But you have done that already.
Ms Middleton—We have actually provided the department’s assessment report. That assessment report has gone to the company to make sure that it is factually accurate and that we have not, I guess, misinterpreted any information. We have had to base that assessment report on the original material submitted by the proponent for their first proposal pre the Federal Court case, their supplementary submission following the court case and taking account of the public comments. So we have a range of documentation from the proponent that is quite extensive. In formulating that into our assessment report, we are ensuring that we have accurately represented
all of the information provided by the proponent.
Senator SIEWERT—But is it general practice for the minister’s decision then to be sent to the proponent for comment?
Ms Middleton—Yes, it is. The proposed decision, whether it is made by the minister or a delegate, is always provided to the proponent.
Senator SIEWERT—Before it is released to the public?
Senator SIEWERT—Before a decision is made?
Ms Middleton—Yes. They are allowed to comment for a period of 10 business days. At that same time, if there are any Commonwealth ministers with administrative responsibilities, they are also provided with that same 10-day window in which to provide any comments.
Senator SIEWERT—How does the public find out if the company makes some objection and the minister changes their mind and it is contrary to the departmental advice on this particular issue?
Mr Burnett—The information on which the decision is based is all available after the minister has taken his decision.
Senator SIEWERT—But what about the minister’s decision? That is the information that you provide the minister. What about if the minister changes their position following lobbying from the company?
Mr Burnett—I do not quite understand the question.
Senator SIEWERT—At the moment you are providing advice to the minister. You are providing final recommendations. The minister makes a decision. So that information eventually will become available.
Mr Burnett—He reaches a proposed decision, which he then provides to the proponent to comment on. If the proposed decision is to allow it, it might be subject to conditions, so the proponent gets to comment on the conditions as well.
Senator SIEWERT—What about if the minister says no, like he did last time, and the company lobbies to change that decision?
Mr Burnett—Ministers are entitled to change their minds. Under the process, a minister could have proposed a decision of yes or no and then, in the light of the comments, could change that position. That is really what the process is for. A proponent may raise an argument or information that persuades a minister to adjust their position.
Senator SIEWERT—The information that you provide to the minister will be available on your website following the release of the minister’s decision?
Mr Burnett—We do not post it routinely, but it is available on request, as I understand it.
Senator SIEWERT—I can guarantee that it will be requested.
Mr Burnett—We would expect that.
Senator SIEWERT—So you will be providing that information to the minister in November and there is no time line for him to make his decision?
Senator SIEWERT—I want to move on to the bats and the announcement on 7 September about the failure of the program. As I understand it, no bats could be captured. Is that a correct understanding of the situation?
Mr Cochrane—Yes. There was an intensive monitoring effort undertaken with the researchers on the island and a group of volunteers. Bats were detected for the first two weeks of the capture attempt. I think one attempt to capture them was unsuccessful. Shortly thereafter, there were no more sounds of bats for the remainder.
Senator SIEWERT—No more sounds?
Mr Cochrane—No more, no. A bat was observed in close proximity of the researchers and avoiding the nets. But for whatever reason—no-one has a theory, that I am aware of—despite us having something like 31 bat detectors around the island, for the last two weeks of that attempt, there were no more sounds recorded.
Senator SIEWERT—I am pretty certain last time we had a discussion about the bats you thought there was an estimate of around 20 bats.
Mr Cochrane—The researcher estimated that, but she actually distinctly recorded four, or visually said there were four. The 20 was an estimate or her best guess of what it might be.
Senator SIEWERT—So the presumption is now that the bats are extinct and these are the last?
Mr Cochrane—Formally, animals are not declared extinct for some lengthy period. There certainly have been cases of things appearing. It is a complex island. We have done our best to cover it with bat detectors because that is the best way to detect them—from their sounds. But there would certainly be areas of the island that we have not covered in the park and we are continuing to monitor.
Senator SIEWERT—The minister made an announcement following the release of the interim report from the expert panel. There was an announcement of $1.5 million initially for investment on Christmas Island.
Senator SIEWERT—Part of that was for the bats, as I understand it.
Senator SIEWERT—How much was that? What is happening with that money that has been allocated?
Mr Cochrane—We constructed that on the basis that our medium-term to long-run costs were unknown. We were certainly going to be up for some very substantial costs if bats were captured, because they are expensive to maintain. So really that announcement covered just the initial phase of capture and initial phases of captivity. We also had to design and build enclosures if we caught bats, for example. In parallel with the bat capture effort, we were also targeting two species of skink which were also identified as being in serious decline. I am pleased to say, and I think the minister announced, that we were more successful on that account.
We have captured individuals of both species of concern. At the moment, it is 39 of one species and only one still of the other. I think it is 39 blue-tailed skinks and one forest skink. We are currently redoubling our effort for the forest skink, but they seem to be surviving well in captivity. We are in the process of finalising a longterm captive breeding program with Perth zoo to maintain them off island because—
Senator SIEWERT—For those two?
Mr Cochrane—Yes. It would make no sense to try to maintain them on the island whilst we still have no idea what is causing their decline.
Senator SIEWERT—I also understand you were going to be undertaking some aerial baiting of the yellow crazy ants.
Mr Cochrane—That has been completed.
Senator SIEWERT—How much was that?
Mr Cochrane—We estimated from our recent survey of the island that there were something like 800 hectares of super colonies on the island. We aerial baited 784 hectares. But there are still some super colonies that we did not target in the aerial baiting campaign. On a precautionary basis, we avoided areas close to water supplies. We were asked by the community not to aerial bait near the Kampong. They were concerned about that, although it is incredibly inaccessible country there and not amenable to hand baiting. Nonetheless, they were concerned about the whole idea of aerial baiting near them. We did not aerial bait in the proximity of the areas that the mining company is currently trialling its own bait approach. Quite rightly, we did not want to influence the results of their experiment.
Senator SIEWERT—In terms of the two super colonies that you did not aerial bait, are you doing—
Mr Cochrane—Well, it is not two. We estimate there is still something like 150 hectares of super colonies remaining unbaited. We will be doing our best to tackle those by hand over the next few years. It is very early monitoring because it was only completed last month. From the early monitoring, it appears to have achieved the same sort of knockdown effect that we had last time.
Senator SIEWERT—In terms of the $1.5 million that was identified for investment, is the money that was put aside for the pipistrelle bat now going to be reinvested in ongoing work?
Mr Cochrane—It is now pretty much committed to the skink recovery.
Senator SIEWERT—So you have just transferred that money to boost the skink program?
Senator SIEWERT—In terms of the finalisation of the report from the expert panel, when do you anticipate that being finalised?
Mr Cochrane—We hope by the end of the year. It is really up to the panel itself to decide when it has enough information. But I can say that the minister has asked them to broaden the scope of their work to help us address the issues that they themselves have identified as needing addressing. So we will have the benefit of that group with us for a few more months looking a bit more broadly at the suite of issues on the island.
Senator SIEWERT—As I understand it, there was also another biodiversity survey being undertaken.
Mr Cochrane—Every two years we do what we call the island-wide survey.
Senator SIEWERT—Which is what you gave us a copy of last time.
Mr Cochrane—I probably did. Someone asked me about what we actually do. We cover something like 900 points on the island over the entire island in a systematic way. This time we broadened the survey to not just focus on ants and red crabs, which is what we have done in the past, but to include a wide range of threatened species, major weed species and major pest animals so that we have a much better handle on the abundance and distribution of them. That will help us into the future as well.
Senator SIEWERT—When will that be publicly available?
Mr Cochrane—There was a huge amount of information collected. I am told the final analysis will not be ready until early next year because the staff that were engaged in that pretty much then ended up going straight on to helping with the aerial baiting.
Senator SIEWERT—Was that your own park staff that carried out that survey?
Mr Cochrane—And I think a few casuals we employed.
Senator SIEWERT—You did not use external consultants?
Senator SIEWERT—That will be available just in time for next estimates?
Mr Cochrane—It should be, yes.
Senator SIEWERT—I will flick back to the expert panel again. Once the final report is finalised, presumably the minister will consider that and release it publicly?
Mr Cochrane—I would be very surprised if he did not, given the interest in it.
Senator SIEWERT—We have had numerous discussions before about the need for a whole-of-landscape approach. I will not go through that again. Based on the final report from the expert group, additional resources will be committed once you have that plan finalised?
Mr Cochrane—Any additional resources would really be a budget question rather than just on the release of the report, I would imagine. It would be a budget cycle question.
Senator SIEWERT—Yes; point taken. However, when the minister released the interim report he did announce the additional funding at that time of $1.5 million.
Mr Cochrane—That is true.
Senator SIEWERT—The $1.5 million now has all been committed? Were additional resources committed to the skink recovery program?
Mr Cochrane—It has been committed. One million dollars of that is going to focus on red crab protection.
Senator SIEWERT—Red crab protection?
Mr Cochrane—Red crab protection in particular. One of the issues that was identified by the expert working group is that we need to broaden what we do away from just knocking down ants to actually helping to re-establish viable red crab colonies in the areas where they are no longer present. So that is a significant additional focus for us to do that.
Senator SIEWERT—And then the $0.5 million is going to the recovery program?
Mr Cochrane—That helped fund the capture attempt, yes, and the set-up, basically, for the captive breeding.