Environment and Communications - Monday 21 February 2011
Senator SIEWERT—Generally, I want to continue on the course of questioning I was asking about last estimates in terms of funding. In fact, I think over the last two estimates we have been talking about whether the cuts that were announced last year in terms of the funding for Caring for our Country actually moved to the NRS program. My understanding from the answers that we got was that it did. I am just wondering whether you have any more detail about where those cuts have been made to the program.
CHAIR—Before you do that, for the record, can I ask you whether you have any opening statement prior to answering Senator Siewert?
Mr Cochrane—No, I do not.
CHAIR—Good. On you go, then.
Mr Cochrane—The cuts that you are referring to have still not been allocated specifically across program areas.
Senator SIEWERT—Is there a timeline, then, for when it is, because I think this is the third estimates I have been asking about this? You have just said there has not been a decision. When will it be made?
Mr Cochrane—I cannot tell you because it is a matter of when the NHT ministerial board meets.
Senator SIEWERT—Thank you.
Mr Tucker—Senator, perhaps I can assist. The reduction in the funding is to the whole amount of the money in the special account. There is always flexibility in those arrangements, so, as Mr Cochrane has said, the ministers can exercise flexibility in the way that funding is used. So, in some senses, it is looking at the opportunities for spending money to get the best return. Many of our areas of activity are still priorities, and ministers will consider them in their funding decisions.
Senator SIEWERT—Where are we up to, then, in terms of the recommendations that have been made regarding areas for purchase to add to the NRS?
Mr Cochrane—The minister has approved a range of projects for this current financial year and we are working through them with the proponents. In fact, there is a variety of projects we have executed and for which we have paid out the money. There are ones that we are waiting to pay, contracts that are under negotiation and ones that have been approved but on which we are still working through with the proponents the precise details.
Senator SIEWERT—I will not ask about them because I will get told you cannot tell me. But, as I recall in the past, you make a series of recommendations and it takes a period of time to actually negotiate a purchase with regard to the properties.
Mr Cochrane—That is correct.
Senator SIEWERT—So my concern, just picking up on what Mr Tucker was saying, is that you put forward proposals for funding and, if it takes some time to negotiate them, how does that work out in terms of this year’s budget compared to next year’s budget?
Mr Cochrane—We have an allocation for this year, and we are on track to spend that. We believe we will spend that.
Senator SIEWERT—Do I take it from that, then, you will be making good use of the money—picking up on the answer that was just given—and if that were the case, there will not be any cuts to NRS funding for this year?
Mr Cochrane—As you know, the precise amount of money that we spend depends on us executing all the contracts in the time and having the properties at that stage where they can be concluded by the financial year. So there is an element, if you like, of risk. Therefore, we tend to be working on a number of projects in excess of the actual amount available. So we do our best to come in on the precise budget figure.
Mr Tucker—I can add to that too. There have been occasions in the past, with this flexibility that I have discussed, where a project we might have funded for another purpose has not been able to complete its activity and the funds have not been able to be spent and they have been used for NRS purposes. So in the past we have had that flexibility. It can work that way as well.
Senator SIEWERT—I appreciate what you are saying. I would just like to see all the money retained in the NRS. If you get additional money, that is good. Have you done any assessment of the value for money of the program? I am thinking about some of the work that, for example, has been done by conservation organisations looking at the best way to spend money. Purchases for the NRS come out pretty high. I wonder whether you have done any such assessment of cost per hectare. If you have, can you tell us what it is?
Mr Cochrane—We have not done an assessment overall for the program. Obviously, each single property we look at in terms of its value for money. We do not put up propositions to the minister unless we believe they are value for money; that is a general point. I think your question will probably be best answered by the work that WWF has been doing because a couple of years ago they did, if you like, a report card on the program. I understand their update to that is very close to completion. So I think you will get an answer to that question from a third party rather than from us.
Senator SIEWERT—So you have not done any. I think I will probably need to be asking this under program 1.1, which is the review of the Caring for our Country program, which I have been asking questions next door about. One of the questions I did not ask is whether the NRS is included in that.
Mr Cochrane—The NRS is a key part of Caring for our Country, so the midterm review would certainly would look at the NRS.
Senator SIEWERT—Since the document was only released at about 3.30 this afternoon, I have not actually read it yet. But have you been, or has anyone from National Parks been, included in the internal team that is carrying out that review?
Mr Cochrane—Because the midterm review is at a fairly early stage, I would see us playing a key role in the system.
Senator SIEWERT—I understand there is a small team of six that is running it. Were you involved or were any of your staff involved in the development of the discussion paper?
Mr Cochrane—I cannot answer that one specifically. Mr Flanigan may well be.
Senator SIEWERT—Were any of the national parks team involved in the development of the discussion paper?
Mr Flanigan—Yes, they have been. The discussion paper, as my colleague Mr Thompson was explaining in the other room, is a document for commencing discussion. So we have framed some general questions. They are not exclusive. They are not the only things we have been looking at in the review. But the paper itself was produced in house and with input from our colleagues in parks, heritage division, marine division and all the parts of the department that are involved in the Caring for our Country natural resource management initiatives.
Senator SIEWERT—I appreciate now I am crossing lines over into another section, so you can tell me to ask it there. But, in terms of the question that I asked previously about the value for money of the program, is any of that likely to be looked at in terms of the review?
Mr Flanigan—That is in one very important part of what we are looking at—how we are running the program, the types of investment streams that we have in the program and whether they are delivering good value for money. Your earlier question was about value for money for, I think, different types of things like off reserve management versus on reserve management. I too have not yet seen that document from WWF. But in terms of, for example, the stewardship program, there are different figures bandied around for that. But our average cost per hectare per year is running about $200 per hectare. If you think of the labour input and all that, I would not want to say this too broadly, but it is fairly cheap and pretty good value for money.
Senator SIEWERT—In terms of your previous answer to two of my questions that I asked in previous estimates about the IPA program and the future of that program, is the future of the IPA program part of the discussion paper? Again, I am sorry that I have not read the discussion paper. It has only just been released. Is that canvassed in the paper, because I took from a previous answer that the future of that was being considered as part of the review? Is that correct?
Mr Cochrane—It will need to be because the IPA program is funded out of Caring for our Country.
Senator SIEWERT—I understand that the midterm review is more about how Caring for our Country could be refined in the final part of the program. Having said that, I am aware of the answer that Mr Thompson gave next door, which was that some of the forward funding for the program, if the government decided it wanted to, could address some of the issues that come out of the review. But will the review of Caring for our Country be the sole review mechanism for IPAs, or will there be some other process? Am I clear?
Mr Flanigan—For protected areas?
Mr Cochrane—I would have thought the government would look at the outcomes of the midterm review before it made any decisions on the future of any particular element of the program.
Senator SIEWERT—The IPAs were there before Caring for our Country. Although that has been used as a funding mechanism, it is a stand alone concept.
Mr Flanigan—I think the issue around the review, as my colleague was saying, is there are parts of the refinement to the existing outcomes work, if you like, that cover the period to 2012-13 which are ongoing and will be picked up in the review as we go forward but have been through other things. But Caring for our Country, as a budget initiative, is an ongoing program. One of the purposes of the review is to give government the information about the design of natural resource management initiatives for the next estimates period post that. So, in a sense, Mr Cochrane and I are unable to say obviously something like IPAs will continue into the next form. But there are significant elements of the NRM program—NRS, IPAs, working on country and the like—which you would expect to be in the mix somewhere.