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Estimates Reply – Palmer

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Tags: River Health, Primary Industries, Water Quality

Ms O'CONNOR - I have known the lovely and intelligent Jo Palmer for 25 years. We worked together at Southern Cross News. I want Ms Palmer to be the best minister for Primary Industries and Water this state has ever had. I think she has the capacity to do that. In order for her to do that, she needs to have honesty from her department and she needs to have a dedication to science, openness and transparency.

Something quite shocking happened at the Estimates table in Ms Palmer's Estimates as it related to water. It was established by the Greens at the Estimates table last year that the report, The Temporal and Spatial Patterns in River Health Across Tasmania and the Influence of Environmental Factors, which was work undertaken by the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment water scientists, was always intended to be a public document. It was written internally by the department and it examined very carefully the health of our rivers and found that there has been an accelerated decline in the health of our rivers since 2014. We established last year that this report was always intended for public release.

I asked Ms Palmer whether any of the recommendations of the scientists in that report, one of whom resigned in dismay over the Government's actions, were being implemented. There were four key recommendations in that report. The minister said:

I understand that this relates to the internal deliberative report titled Temporal and Spatial Patterns in River Health Across Tasmania and the Influence of Environmental Factors.

I took the opportunity at the table to show the minister - her department should have shown her - the communication strategy prepared inside the then DPIPWE that was to go with the river health report.

What we now know is that at a senior level in the department with Tim Baker as secretary, because the report came back and said we have problems with river health, there was a decision made by the secretary and another senior bureaucrat who was the general manager of Water and Marine Resources, Ms Bourne, to take no action and to effectively bury the report. We were able to obtain that report on river health, ultimately, through Right to Information on our second attempt while the Government was in caretaker mode.

We have something very concerning here. We have a new minister for Primary Industries being fed absolute untruths in her ministerial briefs -

Ms Ogilvie - We should not be blaming staffers.

Ms O'CONNOR - Ms Ogilvie, I do not need your interruption. I just laid out the untruth and I have a deep knowledge of this subject, so stop trying to stop me. What has happened here is that somehow in the order of public servants, someone has written a brief for the minister that contained a lie and that has gone up the order, and it has been signed off by the acting secretary, Jason Jacobi. It is not true. The minister read out something that was untrue, provided to her by her own departmental advisers. It is untrue to say that the report on river health was an internal deliberative document. We have had scientists who worked on that confirm that it was always intended to be released publicly.

We have prepared a time line of development of work on that river health report; we have right to information materials that talk about the internal discussion about how we communicate this report in the department to the people of Tasmania. This is a communication strategy, this document, for the statewide analysis of river health. We obtained it through right to information on the second go. It is heavily redacted but it talks about communicating with the people of Tasmania about the health of their rivers. Shouldn't Tasmanians be part of that conversation?

It is one thing for us to expect dishonesty from a politician but to see a minister hung out to dry at the Estimates table by her own departmental advisers and her own acting secretary is next-level.

Mr JAENSCH - Mr Deputy Chair, can I please seek your advice? In this presentation Ms O'Connor is making, she has named a number of public servants who are not here to defend themselves. The minister is not here to represent herself or her staff. I believe that Ms O'Connor, under parliamentary privilege -

Ms O'Connor - I am exercising my rights.

Mr JAENSCH - And I would like to be heard in silence. She is attacking people who cannot defend themselves here. I do not know what particular -

Ms O'Connor - What is your point of order? What do you want?

Mr JAENSCH - I do not have a particular point of order. I am seeking the chairman's advice because there is a pattern of behaviour here from Ms O'Connor that I think is damaging to people's reputations under privilege. On their behalf, I am seeking some procedural fairness from our parliamentary system. I would ask for your advice, please?

Ms O'Connor - I have not broken any standing order.

Members interjecting.

Mr DEPUTY CHAIR - Order. Since it is not a point of information, there will be other opportunities for members and others to seek remedies through the process. We are happy to advise further on that if necessary.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. I am simply laying out facts that are on the public record. We have a time line, we have established the truth that a significant public good science report was suppressed within the department under the former secretary of DPIPWE, Tim Baker, who said at the Estimates table, and it is in the Hansard transcript, that it was his advice that this public good science report was superseded by another policy document. I am simply laying that on the record.

To have a minister of the Crown be presented with a brief to read at the Estimates table that contains a blatant untruth is very worrying. We expect untruths from politicians. What we expect from public servants is straight-talking. If I were the minister, I would be calling in my acting secretary and deputy secretary and saying: 'How is it that you did not tell me that this document was intended to be publicly released? How is it that I read out something at the Estimates table that is demonstrably untrue? Will you reassure me, dear departmental advisers, that you will never again give me material to read out that is demonstrably false?'

That is certainly what I would do if I were minister, having been hung out to dry at the Estimates table like the delightful, intelligent and, no doubt, committed minister Ms Palmer is.

Ms Ogilvie - Oh!

Ms O'CONNOR - Do not groan to me, Ms Ogilvie

Ms Ogilvie - I sighed.

Ms O'CONNOR - You are in enough trouble for being one of the great pork barrellers of the 2021 election campaign. I do not know what your relationship is like with Ms Palmer, but she and I go back 25 years. I am giving her this advice for free because I actually want her to be the best Minister for Primary Industries and Water this state has ever seen. No minister should fed a manifest untruth by their departmental advisers. It is a matter that the Integrity Commission should have a look at. Honestly, it is so disgraceful.

The public service is there to uphold a set of standards, to be impartial, to give the minister frank and fearless advice, not to lace the minister's briefs for Estimates with untruths which are easily disproven. I appreciate Mr Jaensch's attempts to run cover for Ms Palmer but I hope Ms Palmer reads my contribution and takes it seriously.