You are here

Corrections - Westbury Prison Proposal

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Tags: Westbury, Northern Prison, State Budget, Threatened Species, Environment

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, I'd like to ask you about the proposed Westbury prison and explore what your agency's recent engagement with the Commonwealth has been. The federal Environment department is continuing to ask your Government about the lack of any protections over the land at Birralee Road and the quotes from the Commonwealth Environment department are that the land must be legally protected, managed in perpetuity, not used for any purpose other than in accordance with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature category specified in the funding deed.

The Tasmanian Government has obligations in the agreement with the Commonwealth over that land and it is clearly not meeting those obligations. What is your response and can you talk about the most recent conversations with the federal Environment department?

Ms ARCHER - My department is continuing to work with relevant federal bodies on any matters that arise from the Regional Forest Agreement and any issues that are raised. An initial meeting between representatives of the Tasmanian departments of Justice, as well as Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment and the Commonwealth department of Agriculture, Water and Environment took place on Thursday, 20 May. I understand discussions between the departments are ongoing. I don't think I can shed any more light on that.

I might get Colin Shepherd to the table, because if we're examining the northern regional prison he heads that project. His focus is on all of these matters, the planning process, the development applications and particular-purpose zone - is that what we call it? That project is procedural now and largely based with him.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, but before we go to Mr Shepherd.

CHAIR - Minister, can you please just introduce the witness, for Hansard.

Ms ARCHER - I don't need him to address anything yet but I've called him up to the table. He is Colin Shepherd - I will get the correct title -

Ms WEBSTER - Through you Attorney-General, Colin Shepherd, acting director of strategic infrastructure projects.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, how will your department respond to the requirement articulated by the federal government, the federal Environment department that the reserve at Westbury Road, on which your Government wants to put a prison, which contains numerous threatened and endangered species, must be legally protected and managed in perpetuity and not used for any purpose other than in accordance with the IUCN category-specified in the funding deed?

Ms ARCHER - As I said, the relevant departments are working through that. It's part of the due diligence process that we're undertaking at the moment. It's important that we comply with not only our own approvals process but that which the Commonwealth has a say over as well.

Ms O'CONNOR - In response to that answer, is it then the Tasmanian Government's intention to meet the legal requirements contained in the deed over that land and legally protect the Westbury reserve, manage it in perpetuity, place a covenant or any other legal conservation protection over the reserve? That's a matter of Government policy.

Ms ARCHER - How is it a matter of Government policy?

Ms O'CONNOR - Why would you put it on Mr Shepherd to answer?

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, please.

Ms ARCHER - Because he is managing a process to do with the northern regional prison. As I've clarified, the department is dealing with relevant departments on any issues that might get raised there. As for any process on foot now to do with federal government, that's not something I'm dealing with personally. That's why I was seeking the input of Mr Shepherd in case he can answer. He's nodding that he can. Ms O'Connor, I'm entitled to ask Mr Shepherd to answer that question.

Mr SHEPHERD - I don't have a lot to add. I think the minister has clearly articulated that at the moment we're in active discussions with the Commonwealth around future management of the site. It is important to note that part of the original agreement was to protect that land because there was thought to be a particular threatened vegetative community on that site. Subsequent assessment has shown that this vegetative community is not actually there. The reality is that the site at Marneys Hill, the Crown land, is protected for a reason that does not exist in terms of what was originally thought. That is part of the discussions with the Commonwealth to look at the future management as a result of these sorts of things.

Ms O'CONNOR - The northern field naturalists have found there are multiple threatened and endangered species -

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor. Ms Ogilvie has the call.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, have you read the report on the environmental values of Brushy Rivulet Forest Reserve which has been prepared by field naturalist Sarah Lloyd in which she states it is clear to her that this reserve is, 'an extremely important fragment of remnant vegetation'. She notes that only four per cent of the Midlands region is protected and less than 10 per cent of the original vegetation remains. She says:

The site is used by threatened fauna including the Tasmanian masked owl, the grey goss hawk, the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle, the green and gold Frog and Tasmanian devils. It supports the fifth largest reserved population of the rare blue pin cushion and a further two rare plant species. It is also important for endemic and migratory bush birds whose populations have declined or are becoming locally extinct in the region.

Further she notes that the entire crown land parcel is mapped as priority habitat under the Meander Valley Interim Planning Scheme 2013. We have just heard Mr Shepherd try to deny that there are significant natural values on that site. What is your response?

Ms ARCHER - Don't get personal. Chair, I object to Ms O'Connor making that type of comment about someone who is at the table, who is not a member of parliament and therefore should not be subjected to the same criticism and personal attacks that we are as members of parliament.

Ms O'CONNOR - I am just making an observation of what I heard. What is your response to Ms Lloyd's paper?

Ms ARCHER - Let us not get personal with staff members at the table please. I have seen that information come through from Ms Lloyd. I have sent correspondence back to Ms Lloyd. These things are being considered as part of the due diligence.

Ms O'CONNOR - You want to offset their habitat.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor the minister is answering the question.

Ms ARCHER - Part of the due diligence process for the planning approvals process is that a lot of these things can be dealt with sensitively in a planning application. I am a former alderman of Hobart City Council and I know that the finding of something on a site doesn't necessarily mean that something can't be built there. It is how you deal with it. This is why we are undertaking the due diligence process and why these matters will be addressed as part of that process.

Ms O'CONNOR - Ms Lloyd makes an unarguable and compelling case for the protection of the Westbury Reserve. She says:

It is important and urgent to retain this vegetation community, especially with the additional rare and threatened fauna that have been recorded at the site in the past nine months.

We have just heard that your Government is negotiating with the Commonwealth to undertake what is potentially an offset which means destroying the habitat for these species and setting aside another area of threatened habitat. How do you offset an area of such significant natural values which has remained unprotected in contravention of the Commonwealth agreement by your Government?

Ms ARCHER - I just answered the question.

Ms O'CONNOR - No you didn't.

Ms ARCHER - I did, I've answered all of this -

Ms O'CONNOR - How do you offset it?

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor.

Ms ARCHER - All of this is part of the process that is being prepared by the department and will be addressed as part of that process. I don't have that information on what's going to be submitted to the local council for a decision for which the public will have every right to have their say on what is proposed. Ms O'Connor is asking a question that I can't answer.

Ms O'CONNOR - Why can't you answer? Do you accept Sarah Lloyd's findings and agree that the Westbury Reserve is a significant habitat?

Ms ARCHER - I'm letting due diligence takes its process, Ms O'Connor. The reason for due diligence -

Ms O'CONNOR - Do you agree it's critical habitat?

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, the minister has answered -

Ms O'CONNOR - No, you're trying to destroy the habitat of threatened and endangered species.

Ms ARCHER - No, we are not. I won't accept. We're being verballed.

Ms O'CONNOR - How do you offset this sort of habitat?

CHAIR - Ms Ogilvie, you have the call.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, are you able to tell the committee which agency undertook the assessment of values of the Westbury Reserve that apparently allows your Government now to say that the original purpose for reserving that area of land no longer exists?

Ms ARCHER - Sorry, could you just repeat that?

Ms O'CONNOR - Which agency undertook the assessment of values on the Westbury Reserve that apparently allows your Government to say the original purpose for its protection no longer exists? Is that a scientific assessment? Is that a publicly available document?

Ms ARCHER - DPIPWE identified this Crown land site was available. It was not put as part of the original EOI process but as a result of the nine months of public consultation, it was then identified.

Ms O'CONNOR - That is not the question, sorry

Ms ARCHER - I said that DPIPWE was responsible for identifying that Crown land site.

Ms O'CONNOR - Yes, but that is not the question. The question I asked related to the response given by Mr Shepherd earlier, where he said that the original vegetation community which was one of the reasons that the areas was set aside, is no longer there. What I am trying to get to is, who undertook the assessment of the natural values of the site once it had been selected as the preferred site? Is that a scientific assessment and is that a publicly available assessment?

Ms ARCHER - Yes. We engaged environmental consultants. I can get Mr Shepherd, although it may have been prior to his time. But environmental consultants were engaged.

Ms O'CONNOR - Who?

Mr SHEPHERD - We might have to take a portion of this question on notice. My understanding is that there was an assessment done in 2019. I will have to find out whether that is publicly available and who undertook it.

The most recent assessment is the work that we have had done as part of our due diligence where we have used independent specialists. That work confirms in our minds the same result that came from the 2019 assessment. That is, as I have already mentioned, that we don't believe that the threatened vegetative community that was the principle reason for the protection of this land, is shown to exist on the site.

Ms O'CONNOR - To clarify, I can put on notice, the question about who undertook the most recent work once it was designated as the preferred prison site and whether or not that information is publicly available? You are happy for that to go on notice.

Mr SHEPHERD - Yes. All the information that we are collecting as part of the due diligence investigations will be made publicly available when we submit the combined planning scheme amendment and development application, subject to the normal statutory process provided for under the Land Use Planning Approvals Act.

Ms O'CONNOR - What I heard then, minister, is that consultants have been engaged to determine whether there are relevant natural values on the site.

Ms ARCHER - Experts, yes.

Ms O'CONNOR - Was there any consultation, for example, with the nature conservation branch in the department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment or was this critical work on assessing the natural values of that site, which have been verified by Sarah Lloyd's work, contracted out to consultants?

Ms ARCHER - On notice, or can you answer that, Mr Shepherd?

Mr SHEPHERD - The part of DPIPWE that deals with this has produced a series of guidelines around undertaking terrestrial assessments. The independent consultants that we are using are operating in accord with delivering the work that we need along the lines of what is required in those guidelines.

I would contest that DPIPWE has been consulted in that they have provided the guidelines upon which the consultants operate. At a point in time, as is the normal process, when the combined planning scheme amendment and development application is submitted, the council will then be able to seek advice from DPIPWE as to how they felt the information was being provided in those submissions marries into what DPIPWE would expect.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, again I want to ask you about the Westbury Reserve and the apparent report that found the natural values for which it was originally set aside are no longer there. The scientific advisory committee that undertook the work through the Regional Forest Agreement found that the property was, 'of high enough import regionally to consider purchasing', so the block was purchased in 1999 with Commonwealth Government funds. In a summary of its comprehensive adequate reserve values, it stated, 'The block is composed of two forest types, inland Eucalyptus amygdalina and Eucalyptus amygdalina on dolerite.

Sarah Lloyd's report says, 'The forest was subsequently reclassified as a non-threatened community that was not required by the state Government to fulfil its Regional Forest Agreement obligations.'

Who did this work, when and why?

Ms ARCHER - Again, that's a question we will either take on notice or Mr Shepherd might have the answer to as managing this project. We will take it on notice.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, going back to the Westbury Reserve and its myriad natural values. This is in relation to the question I already asked and have put on notice. The Scientific Advisory Committee that was part of the Regional Forest Agreement assessment process found the two communities of eucalyptus amygdalina on the property. Is it the state Government's finding that this flora species is no longer on the property or has the state Government listed those flora species as not threatened, which enables you to access the property in contravention of the Commonwealth agreement?

Ms ARCHER - Ms O'Connor, a lot of that is probably -

Ms O'CONNOR - Mr Shepherd may know.

Ms ARCHER - I'm very happy to see if he can answer that question but as to listing of threatened species and those sorts of things, that's obviously the Environment minister's portfolio.

Ms O'CONNOR - That's definitely something you should take an interest in given your role in this site's future.

Ms ARCHER - I take an interest in it. I'm a former minister for the environment but I'm also acutely aware of decisions like that are not made by myself as part of this process. I would be very happy for Mr Shepherd to address the question. A lot of this, as he has already covered, will form part of the planning process to which people will have access- to all of the public information.

Mr SHEPHERD - My understanding is that the original identified suggested that there was inland Eucalyptus amygdalina forest. That has been further re-evaluated in terms of the threatened vegetative communities. The two threatened vegetative communities that the Commonwealth is particularly interested in protecting are the Eucalyptus amygdalina forest on mudstain and the Eucalyptus amygdalina forest on Cainozoic deposits. Neither of those communities occur on the site at Marneys Hill. The forest community that we've been advised occurs there is eucalyptus amygdalina on dolerite.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you for your answer, Mr Shepherd. That is what the Scientific Advisory Committee also found, that it is that species exists there.

Minister, what's your response to the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, which was in negotiations with your Government about taking over ownership of that area of land and placing a covenant on it? They say in their statement of October 2020:

As outlined in the Brushy Rivulet/Westbury Conservation covenant proposal prepared by the TLC, the property has numerous natural values including suitable habitat for a range of rare and threatened species. The TLC is supportive of the property's conservation as originally intended through the revolving fund mechanism. The TLC believes the property on Birralee Road, Westbury, should be conserved as originally intended through the private forest reserve program contributing to the national reserve system.

Ms ARCHER - I know the land conservancy was something that was dealt with a long time ago.

Ms O'CONNOR - They say they were negotiating with you until April 2020, I believe. On 18 June 2020, the TLC says it was verbally informed by DPIPWE that the transfer of the property would no longer transpire. It's not that long ago.

Ms ARCHER - The Government, and a number of Government departments worked with the Tasmanian Land Conservancy and other stakeholders in the lead-up to the announcement of the new site and informed the Tasmanian Land Conservancy of the decision not to transfer the site to them on the same day the announcement was made.

I don't have anything further on the Tasmanian Land Conservancy other than what Mr Shepherd might be able to add to that. With such a long, convoluted question, Ms O'Connor, I forget what the question was.

Ms O'CONNOR - It wasn't convoluted, I was reading to you from the Tasmanian Land Conservancy's statement and their statement that the area should be protected for its original conservation purposes. What is your response to that?

Ms ARCHER - My understanding, from meeting with them at the time was that they weren't utilising the site. Do you have any information on this?

Ms O'CONNOR - I have some information on this; it's about the fact that a wedge-tailed eagle's nest was found near the site, which placed further restrictions on potential residential uses of the site. Just a final question on the Westbury site, given its natural value -

Ms ARCHER - Can we just go to the TLC? I did have a meeting with them. I know that this particular site was not something that they necessarily wanted to keep in their portfolio. I'm not quite sure the issue that you're making out of that -

Ms O'CONNOR - I'm making an issue out of the fact that the Tasmanian Land Conservancy wants to see the site protected for its conservation values, which leads me to the final question that I have on the Westbury site.

Ms ARCHER - But they weren't wanting to keep it themselves. That's why I'm struggling to understand the reason for the question.

Ms O'CONNOR - They wanted to have a covenant put over it and they prepared covenant documents.

Minister, this is a question that field naturalists, conservationists, people who live in and around Westbury would like answered. Given the natural values of the site, the rarity of the habitat that it contains, the controversy over the proposed site, the complexity of the issues that you need to deal with the federal government, are you looking at any alternatives to that reserve? Is there any possibility that you, as minister, will see the light and look for another less naturally sensitive location for a northern prison?

Ms ARCHER - Ms O'Connor, as we have consistently said, and what I've tried to do throughout this process is that we moved away from the original preferred site due to public -

Ms O'CONNOR - But it was in a paddock.

Ms ARCHER - If I could just finish.

After extensive public consultation feedback, we looked at Crown land that might be available. We did that for a reason. The expression of interest process did not turn up much by way of other land available in the north-west region of the state. Despite what people think, not a lot of land is available that's not high agricultural value.

Ms O'Connor, this is taking its course by way of due diligence and submission through the planning process, which may or may not be successful. The public will have their say throughout that process. I understand what you're saying with the issues that arise, but that's precisely what we're doing by way of due diligence. The Planning Authority makes that decision, not us.

Ms O'CONNOR - Why would you choose a natural reserve?

Ms ARCHER - The Planning Authority makes that decision.

Ms O'CONNOR - A place set aside for conservation.

Ms ARCHER - That's the terminology that you've used.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, it's actually listed in the Tasmanian Reserve Estate. It makes up part of the Tasmanian Reserve Estate.

Ms ARCHER - Do you want me to address the issue of the reserve again which I've addressed in parliament?