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Estimates Reply – Minister Jaensch

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Tags: Local Government, Environment, State Budget

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - I have some comments to make about a wide range of Mr Jaensch's portfolios. Both Ms O'Connor and myself asked questions on behalf of interested stakeholders.

We had some important conversations about the proposed legislative changes that are coming down the line for local government. I want to raise some comments made by the Director of Local Government and the minister and seek a response from the minister at some point. I asked about strengthening the code of conduct process to protect employees, especially councillors, who make complaints under the code of conduct process, and witnesses who attend to provide evidence on behalf of either the accused or the complainant. There have been numerous stories publicised of the failures of that process to adequately deal with repeat offenders, or to provide safety for people during the code of conduct process itself.

The Director of Local Government said:

The minister said we had been consulting with the sector and seeking community feedback as well as potential legislative changes in the code of conduct framework.

Mr Limkin, the Director of Local Government, also said that there was:

…a process of reviewing the code of conduct, we have run three targeted sessions with local government to inform the discussion paper, which the Government put out in late August to seek community feedback.

The discussion paper looked at four things, further strengthening and clarifying the grounds of code of conduct, the panel chairperson, removing a perceived conflict of interest in the code panel chairperson, empowering a legal member, looking at confidentiality processes, implementing council dispute resolution procedures and other matters the community wanted to consider.

I understand the result of that process has been a number of recommended reforms to the legislation and the Government has issued approved reforms, and No. 20 related to legislating eight good governance principles from the Local Government Good Governance Guide and linking the guide which links to behaviours in the code of conduct process.

From what was outlined in the local government questions that I asked, I don't know that the process the minister and Mr Limkin outlined was specifically in relation to code of conduct matters. It was the whole of the Local Government Act review and it requires contact with people who have been applicants or respondents in the code of conduct process personally, to ask them how they would improve the process if they were being involved again.

People can make general comments about these things, but it is the specifics of whether people are presenting information in the room next to the person they are making a complaint against, the way in which information is received, the timeframes for responses. There are a whole lot of procedural factors which are critical to improve that process and I am not confident that the general Good Governance Guide which is being legislated would necessarily capture the specifics of the code of conduct process that are so important to get right. I urge the minister to consider, in addition to what has been done, contacting past people who have made complaints to the code of conduct process.

I want to go to the announcement for an independent EPA. There is no doubt that the EPA is moribund in its current form. It is failing to protect environmental values and failing to put the environment ahead of the requirements listed in the statement of expectations that govern the board. We were concerned to hear that although the minister made a pledge that the EPA ought to be independent actual and perceived independence when we drill down into it the questions I asked elicited an answer which doesn't fill me with confidence that is what is going to be delivered.

The minister made it clear that he believes that statements of expectation is a normal process. It may well be a normal process, minister, but it is by no means normal for a truly independent statutory body to have the sort of statement of expectations that currently govern the EPA. We will be looking in a lot of detail at reducing the ministerial influence which currently occurs over the EPA, in addition to the general interference that the statement of expectations runs on the EPA's ability to perform its functions as it ought, to put the environment first.

I asked about Robbins Island and the importance of that beautiful place as a globally significant shorebird and waterbird habitat and its place in the fly-way for birds from the Arctic Circle and indeed latitudinally around the globe. I drew the minister's attention to the information which is in the public domain that 150 disease-free Tasmanian Devils live on Robbins Island and the importance of retaining that island for a protection zone for Tasmanian Devils. I referred to the very distressing and sad experience of the Maria Island non-captive insurance population that was established a number of years ago. It was created as an artificial non-captive population. It was supported by many groups and individuals, conservation-minded people, who understood the threat to the Tasmanian devil.

We have since learnt, tragically, the whole penguin population, 3000 birds, are dead on Maria Island. We must understand the unintended consequences of meddling with nature in this way. The existing disease-free population of Tasmanian devils on Robbins Island are critical to keeping Tasmanian devils disease-free and not becoming extinct. I asked Mr Jaensch why Robbins Island was not Ramsar listed even though it fits all the criteria under the United Nations Convention. We will be raising this with the minister. It is clear from the response from Mr Crane on behalf of the minister that the department has not been given the resources. It ought to be done for the protection of those shore birds and the Tasmanian devil.