Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport
Senator SIEWERT-I am still very desperately interested in the future of the NRM groups. I want to go to the bigger picture issues around Caring for our Country and the approach that has been taken in terms of developing the framework. I would like to know who has been consulted, what that framework encompasses and when it will be released for public comment. It is being released on 30 June. Does that mean it is finalised, or is that just a draft that is released for public comment? That will do for a start.
Mr Smith-On the consultation process, the program has been developed in consultation with the states and territories. I understand there have also been some discussions with other non-government organisations. But I do not have full details of all those groups that were consulted and which groups were not and which groups were.
Senator SIEWERT-Can you provide a list of who has been consulted, please, from the NGO perspective?
Mr Smith-I can try to do that, yes.
Senator SIEWERT-You cannot tell me? I am taking that as read-
Mr Smith-I will take it on notice.
Senator SIEWERT-that you cannot provide it to me now. Have regional bodies been consulted?
Mr Smith-Regional bodies certainly have been consulted.
Senator SIEWERT-All of them?
Mr Smith-All of them.
Senator SIEWERT-And that is on the overarching framework for Caring for our Country?
Senator SIEWERT-Every aspect of that overarching framework-strategic goals et cetera?
Mr Smith-Well, since the announcement by the government, we have been in direct engagement with all regional bodies around Australia.
Senator SIEWERT-Direct engagement could mean a range of things-for example, talking about their future rather than actually the overarching strategic plan.
Mr Smith-It depends what you mean by consulted, Senator. The government announced the program and announced that it would have a certain amount of money over a five-year period with a goal and six investment strategies. That was a decision by government. We are now working through the details of those arrangements and, where they apply to regions and to states, we are consulting with them on those arrangements. A good example would be on the set of outcomes that are to be determined, as I mentioned. Those outcomes are to go to the Prime Minister by 30 June. There is a limited consultation process with the states, territories, regional bodies, science groups, NGOs and industry.
Senator SIEWERT-And they are on outputs?
Mr Smith-They are the outcomes. They are the five-year program outcomes, if you like.
Senator SIEWERT-For each of the six programs?
Mr Smith-For each of the six priority areas, yes.
Senator SIEWERT-It is just that information that is being released on 30 June?
Mr Smith-The commitment is for us to get it to the Prime Minister by 30 June.
Senator SIEWERT-I beg your pardon.
Mr Smith-At the latest, I expect it would be released in the Australian government's business plan for the program in September this year. It could well be released publicly before that.
Senator SIEWERT-So what are you asking the NGO groups? What directions have they been given for expenditure for the next financial year with their 60 per cent? I am presuming the 15 per cent is about transition and whether they are going to get rid of staff et cetera.
Mr Smith-The 60 per cent applies only to the 56 NRN regional bodies around Australia. So that is the only money, if you like, that the government has guaranteed.
Mr Smith-Of the other money that is available through the program, for instance, there have been advertisements in recent weeks for the national reserve system and for Community Coast Care grants. They are contestable moneys. All groups, including states, NGOs, industry, small community groups and regional bodies, can apply for that money.
Senator SIEWERT-While I appreciate what you have just said to me, it actually was not the answer I wanted. I will just pursue the question for a minute. The advertising that has already been carried out, that is outside the outcome process that you are developing for the Prime Minister by 30 June?
Mr Smith-No. All funding under Caring for our Country, apart from the initial component of the transition year, which is about to commence, will be directed towards those outcomes. But because the outcomes will not be known until September, and funding needs to flow from 1 July, we will have to come up with other mechanisms for directing the funding.
Senator SIEWERT-The question I actually meant to ask before was: what direction are you giving to the regional organisations about the use of the 60 per cent?
Mr Smith-We have asked the regions to draw on their current NRM plans and investment strategies and to put forward those activities that are directly related to the six national priority areas that have been identified by the government. So they have done all that. Some have done it and some are in the process of finalising it right now. Of those investment strategies, some are already sitting with ministers and some are in the process of going to ministers.
Senator SIEWERT-That is for the 60 per cent?
Mr Smith-That is for the 60 per cent.
Senator SIEWERT-For the next two to five years, is it envisaged that the same approach of investment planning and the development of investment plans will be continued?
Mr Smith-No. It will be a different approach. Come September we will have the outcomes and we will have the business plan. That will be the trigger for not only regional bodies but for all other groups to then say, 'Okay, well, now we know what the Australian government is seeking investment in.' So they will then be asked to direct their funding towards those areas. For instance, if a regional body was wanting to access funding, it would need to ensure that its activities line up against the identified outcomes by the Australian government.
Senator SIEWERT-So what happens to the projects and the massive amount of money that this country has already invested into NRM and those continuing projects?
Mr Smith-Well, the Australian government is not the only investor in NRM. The Australian government is just one of a range of investors. What the Australian government is saying under this program is that there is a limited amount of money. They are focusing the investment to a specific set of measurable outcomes yet to be determined.
Senator SIEWERT-You did not answer my question.
Mr Smith-What I am saying is that the Australian government under this program is saying they want to focus the investment.
Senator ABETZ-And you are still not answering the question.
Senator SIEWERT-You are still not answering the question. I am not for one minute saying that NHT2 or the other programs were perfect. But it seems to me we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Mr Quinlivan-I do not think it is possible to answer the question in the abstract other than by saying that the outcome for individual projects will depend on their alignment with the new priorities that are being articulated.
Senator IAN MACDONALD-As a result, there will be clear-
Mr Quinlivan-Some will fit very neatly; some will not. It is not possible to make judgements at this point.
Senator SIEWERT-I am aware I am running out of time. Have you done an assessment of what the attitude of the regional groups is going to be and the people that are associated with those regional groups and whether they are going to walk away?
Mr Smith-Yes. I have spent considerable time. There is a meeting in Melbourne of the chairs of all 56 regions around Australia. They made some very welcoming statements about a program that had one clear goal and that had six national priorities. They welcomed the arrangements around a more streamlined approach by the Australian government.
Senator ABETZ-Do not verbal it. They loved the budget cuts.
Mr Smith-They were uncertain about what it means for them. But I think if you were in that room and you were listening to what they were saying, they were welcoming that approach.
Senator ABETZ-We were not in the room, but we know what they were saying.
Senator SIEWERT-Can you just let him finish.
Senator McGAURAN-Is that a clue what money you paid?
CHAIR-Senator McGauran, Mr Smith was halfway through his answer. With the greatest respect to Mr Smith and any of our officials, at least hear him out. Mr Smith, do you wish to continue? If you do not, I do not blame you.
Mr Smith-I do not have any more to add.