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Senator Rice questions environment department about horse training in hooded plover habitat

Estimates & Committees
Janet Rice 22 May 2017

Senator RICE:  We have racehorses being trained on beaches in Warrnambool. This is occurring regularly. It is identified by the trainers as a strategy for training their horses. They are impacting upon the plovers. I wrote to the minister and was told that this was not an action that could be addressed under the EPBC Act because they were individual instances and they were not connected up in a series of actions. I want to explore whether these actions are being considered as an action under the EPBC Act. 

Ms Collins : I understand that the activity you are referring to is in the Belfast reserve in Victoria. 

Senator RICE:  Yes. 

Ms Collins : Primarily, the management of public land is a matter for the state government—in this case, the Victorian government. The Australian government has a role if there is a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance which are identified under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. So an individual act, as you have pointed out, can only be considered under the act if it constitutes a significant impact. I do understand that the Threatened Species Commissioner has been engaging on this. He has consulted with Birdlife Australia and Friends of the Hooded Plover and has engaged with the authorities to offer to assist. I understand that Parks Victoria is developing a plan of management for the Belfast Coastal Reserve and will be considering the management of the beach as part of that plan of management. 

Senator RICE:  With regard to the federal government's role and whether the horse training is a significant action under the EPBC Act such that they would have to seek approval of the federal government for that to continue, what is the current status of that? 

Ms Collins : My understanding is that if it is an organised activity—for example, one horse trainer undertaking routine horse training activities on the beach with a number of individuals—you could look at it as an individual and then assess the cumulative impact. But if it is not being coordinated or undertaken by a single operator at any level, it is seen as individual actions. The EPBC Act is triggered when an action is having a significant impact on a species. 

Senator RICE:  So in terms of it being organised, you have trainers that are training their horses there on a regular basis and more than one horse. So is that enough for it to be a significant action? 

Mr Knudson : I think what Ms Collins is talking about is that under the act you need a proponent. You need someone to say, 'All right. I have organised these seven different trainers to come and train their horses and I am accountable.' Therefore, it would be subject to the act, if I have understood it correctly. 

Ms Collins : That is right, yes. 

Senator RICE:  So you would need to have more than one trainer, are you saying? 

Mr Knudson : But organised and run. So if you had a company that was running a business where they had seven different trainers operating in a company on the beach, you would say, yes, that company owner is the proponent for this action. 

Senator RICE:  But if you just had one trainer that was undertaking a series of horse training activities and which were the equivalent of many horses on the beach, surely that would be sufficient to be a series of connected activities to be a significant action. 

Mr Tregurtha : You are absolutely right. Each individual trainer is obligated under the EPBC Act to assess their own activity as to whether or not it constitutes a significant impact under the EPBC Act. We provide significant impact guidelines to assist people to make that self-assessment. We have a compliance and enforcement function that looks at individual instances where they are referred to us. But each entity undertaking their own action needs to consider whether or not they are having a significant impact undertaking the particular activity they are doing. It does not consider everything else that is going on. Each individual instance needs to be considered by each proponent, if you like. 

Senator RICE:  So have these horse trainers done that self-assessment? 

Mr Tregurtha : I am unaware. There is an obligation under Commonwealth law for those self-assessments to be—

Senator RICE:  What if the department is made aware of the fact that there is a strong case that they should be doing that self-assessment and that has not occurred? 

Mr Cahill : So, practically, if you have lots of trainers, how do you get a picture of what is happening overall? We will talk to Parks Victoria, because, in doing their proposed management plan, they should be standing back and looking at what is happening on that reserve. We might have a strategic engagement with Parks Victoria to see about what their approach is for managing that reserve and what are the implications for our actions. 

Senator RICE:  But would Parks Victoria do an assessment for you as to whether there is a significant action occurring and there should be an assessment undertaken? 

Mr Cahill : What I would be looking for from Parks Victoria is what information they are taking into consideration if they are looking to do a management plan. We would look at the material from the Friends of the Hooded Plover and the Threatened Species Commissioner. We would stand back and look at that holistically and say, 'Okay, what does that mean for the EPBC Act?' I am hoping that there will be some good information from Parks Victoria. We would like to stand back and see what information is at hand, particularly when you have Parks Victoria managing that reserve and you have a range of local communities. Let us bring that information to the surface and look at what that means and the implication for the EPBC Act. 

Senator RICE:  I want to clarify that you have already requested Parks Victoria? 

Mr Cahill : No. We have not. Not to my knowledge. But I will undertake to have an engagement with Parks Victoria to see what information is at hand and see if we can find a sensible way for us to be able to manage what that means for a species that we protect. 

Senator RICE:  Would you be able to give me an idea of a timeline that that engagement could occur under? 

Mr Cahill : No. I will have to take that on notice. But I will give an undertaking to contact them this week. 

Senator RICE:  Thank you. In particular, I understand that there was a recent Federal Court decision in the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre v Secretary of the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment that reaffirmed the meaning of an action to include a connected series of smaller activities or instances of conduct that form a greater whole. So it seems to me that there is a very strong case that these smaller activities forming a greater whole would form an action that would need to be assessed under the EPBC Act. 

Mr Cahill : I think in the case that you refer to, again, the benefit of that is there is a level of government involved in pulling together that picture. It makes it more practical for us to stand back and say, 'What is the Tasmanian government looking at there?' We can have a similar engagement with the Victorian government and try to understand what they know about it, what their intent is in managing it, what the implications are for a species we protect and what is the most practical way for us to apply the EPBC Act. 

Senator RICE:  Thank you.

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