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Infrastructure and Transport – Eaglehawk Neck Road Widening

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Tags: Aboriginal Heritage, Tasmanian Aboriginals, Roads

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, I want to talk to you about the road widening works at Eaglehawk Neck, which we understand will impact on a quite ancient Aboriginal burial site. Can you confirm that Aboriginal heritage is a significant issue at the Eaglehawk road widening works?

Mr FERGUSON - Thank you, Ms O'Connor, for the question. I will invite Deputy Secretary Gary Swain to respond.

Mr SWAIN - I am aware that there are significant issues on that site, and the addition of a pathway to that site has required some redesign work to occur. There is now a revetment wall that goes out into the marine environment a little way. That will protect the land side from any erosion, but the short answer is we are very aware and very conscious that it is a significant issue, and we are talking to DPIPWE in their regulatory capacity in relation to reserves about this.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Mr Swain. Through you, minister, to Mr Swain - can you confirm that it was originally thought that there were eight 'bodies', if you like, at that burial site, and then Aboriginal Heritage Council provided advice that in fact the heritage on that site was much more substantial, and potentially it is a burial site for around 80 people?

Mr FERGUSON - Can I just interrupt, only to say I have invited Denise McIntyre to the table, Chair. She is Acting General Manager of State Roads. I am more than comfortable with Gary continuing to answer, but Denise is in the role of acting state manager for the roads program.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. Did you hear the question, Ms McIntyre? It really relates to the size of the Aboriginal heritage on site, the scale and significance of it, and what measures are being taken to protect that heritage, and whether or not the Aboriginal Heritage Council will be involved or is involved?

Ms McINTYRE - In terms of the significance of the site, the department and its consultants have been working extensively to avoid any impact on the sensitive site. The road widening is predominantly outside the listed site. There is a potential site that has been identified through the road widening project, and investigations will be undertaken to determine the extent of heritage value, if there is, at that particular location. So, there have been extensive conversations with the Aboriginal Heritage Council, with Aboriginal Heritage Tasmania and community, as far as I understand, in investigation of the impact of the road project on the site.

Ms O'CONNOR - The first thing I will say is, as a regular resident of the Tasman Peninsula, I am not sure why you would be spending much money on widening that road. There does not seem to be a huge problem with it, and it looks like a 'make work' scheme to me.

Minister, can you give your absolute commitment that this ancient burial site will be protected from the impact of the roadworks.

Mr FERGUSON - Ms O'Connor, I am more than comfortable giving you that guarantee that we will be sensitive to, what I am advised now, is a potential site for Aboriginal heritage. Those are the words that I have correctly portrayed, a potential site.

Ms O'CONNOR - It is not our advice.

Mr FERGUSON - That's okay. I will be happy to correspond with you further on this matter, but I give you a guarantee that the Government will observe every possible way that we can be sensitive to that in the progress of delivering that project.

Ms O'CONNOR - To be clear, and I am not asking another question, but the Aboriginal Heritage Council seems pretty clear that it is not a potential site; it is a site of significance to the Aboriginal community.

Mr FERGUSON - Would it be possible to spend another moment on this, Denise?

Ms McINTYRE - To clarify, the Eaglehawk Neck site itself, there is an extensive very sensitive identified Aboriginal heritage site. There is an area outside of the identified site, and the known site, that has been identified in the road widening project, that may have potential Aboriginal heritage. That particular area is being investigated as part of our project development process.

Infrastructure and Transport – Swift Parrot Nesting Hollows

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, we have received this morning another classic example of your Government's approach to transparency and accountability, which is an RTI from the Department for State Growth, which is one of the worst offenders, I might say, in terms of not being transparent. It relates to the decision to block nesting hollows to allow for the road widening near St Helens as you cover this state in concrete.

It is very clear that advice was given to State Growth to consider the EPBC implications so I will quote from the advice -

As swift parrots are listed under the EPBC Act, NCH advises that the proponent seeks advice from the Commonwealth in regard to potential impacts on the swift parrot and make themselves aware of their obligations under the EPBC Act.

It also notes that -

The potential loss of these trees could impact local swift breeding success through removing hollows and foraging resources.

There is a lot that we don't know. We don't know who the consultants were, for example, because there is so much black in this RTI. Perhaps you could tell us whether or not there has been reference to the Commonwealth because we are talking about a critically endangered species which your agency pre-emptively blocked nesting hollows on these trees.

Mr FERGUSON - I would like my officials to support the answering of this question. I will say what I know and the secretary will be able to give a precis on the RTI process and why certain things at times are redacted. I assume that is something you would like to know about but I will also ask Jackie of the State Roads Program to respond in respect to how we are appropriately and really responsibly looking after the breeding habitat.

Ms O'CONNOR - By blocking their hollows and then flattening their trees?

CHAIR - Order, allow the minister to answer, please.

Mr FERGUSON - I am not an apologist but I do understand the principle that is being applied here that if you block the nesting hollows you are actually inviting the newlyweds to go and find another nesting hollow somewhere else.

Ms O'CONNOR - In diminishing habitat.

Mr FERGUSON - Maybe that is so but if you would be good enough to listen to the answer at a high level I am advised that their response is a conventional and sensible one and that for trees that are listed for removal for the road-widening project, the right thing to do is to block the nesting hollows so that when the birds are exploring nesting sites they will not be able to find one in those trees and will find a different tree which will continue to be appropriate habitat for that. It is actually about saving the destruction of nests.

Ms O'CONNOR - That's pretty twisted logic. The question was about the federal legal implications.

Mr FERGUSON - The initial assessment of the site identified the presence of potential breeding habitat for the swift parrot. I am not sure if there was an actual breeding site. To minimise the risk of possible breeding disturbance I am advised tree hollows have been covered in a small number of trees and that was based on specialist advice from ecological consultants. I will just allow the officials to answer your question further and we will do our best to be as helpful as we can.

Ms O'CONNOR - The advice relating to the EPBC Act is the nub of the issue.

Ms McINTYRE - The advice that we had was that the roadworks impact would be on six trees that had potential nesting hollows. Of the many thousands of trees there are through that section of the estate there were only six potential habitat trees identified.

The department sought advice from ecological consultants, two separate companies, independent advice and a review of that advice. They were very thorough in their identification of the need or otherwise to refer. They have identified that there is not a need to refer to the federal department regarding the limited impact on the environment for swift parrots.

Ms O'CONNOR - On that issue, Ms McIntyre, the brief that we have here in the heavily redacted Right to Information documents states that there will be a net loss of foraging habitat until these trees mature and they are the proposed offset trees. It is really clear, and I don't know who NCH is because that part of the RTI has been redacted, swift parrots are listed under the EPBC Act. 'NCH advises that the proponent seeks advice from the Commonwealth'. Did the proponent seek any advice from the Commonwealth?

Ms McINTYRE - I do not have the details. My understanding is that it is standard practice for our EDA team to do that, to seek advice from the Commonwealth on these issues.

Ms O'CONNOR - Maybe Mr Evans knows whether the department sought advice from the Commonwealth.

Mr EVANS - I do not know the specifics but I am happy to follow up.

Mr FERGUSON - What I might do here is take it on notice. Let's have a question on notice and I will respond further to the committee. We will get some proper advice.

Ms O'CONNOR - The second question, Chair.

CHAIR - It is actually your third question.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, I simply restated the first one because it was not being answered.

I have been told Bird Life Tasmania specifically did not agree with the consultant's advice about it being fine for the critically endangered swift parrot.

Minister, given that you are part of a massive road building venture which will change the fabric of the island and concretise the whole island, are you aware of other road works that are planned that will impact on threatened species? Is there an overlay in your agency that makes sure that it is not standard operating procedure to knock down the habitat of a critically endangered animal?

Mr FERGUSON - What I would suggest, if you will forgive me for overlooking the pejoratives in the question, as amusing as you may have wanted to be about a serious subject -

Ms O'CONNOR - I do not think it is amusing at all.

Mr FERGUSON - Well, that's what I was saying. We are not concretising Tasmania. That is just a silly thing to say.

Ms O'CONNOR - Look at those pictures of what you are doing at St Helens and Eaglehawk Neck? It is changing the whole island.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor.

Mr FERGUSON - I want to take the question in good faith. Often it is the case that State Roads is the proponent in a construct contract. Sometimes when it is a design and construct it is the civil contractor that is the applicant. There are different applicants at different times depending on the way in which the project is been tendered. When State Growth is managing its asset, we're mindful of the need to observe threatened species regulations. I think so are councils. I wonder if you want to add to my answer that we are not going to be doing anything other than sensitively. As per our last answer on a different project, we are going to sensitively deliver projects in a way that is appropriate to the sensitivities that might locally be the case, whether it is Aboriginal heritage or threatened species.

Ms McINTYRE - The department has a team of environment developmental approvals specialists. We have identified the need to be excellent in best practice environmental management and identification of issues on our projects. From the inception of projects in the early planning stage environmental and heritage matters and potential constraints are identified. There are a couple of projects underway at the moment that will require referrals to the federal Department of Environment on identified listed species. That is part of our normal development of project practice.