You are here

State Growth – Parks EOIs


Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Tags: Parks EOIs

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, are you able to update the committee on the number of expressions of interest that have been lodged in total for the EOI process in both round 1 and the open-ended round 2, and also to provide any information that you can on the projects in round 2, which, as we know, are subject to a gag clause on proponents.

Mr FERGUSON - Mr Perry and I will address this. The EOI process is a unique opportunity for private operators to develop sensitive and appropriate tourism experiences and associated infrastructure and broaden the range of unique experiences on offer in our parks and reserves. This process is intended to create jobs, support our regional economies and support the growing number of visitors to the state and our parks.

There have been 64 proposals submitted to date, I am advised, with nine of those now fully operational, having completed the RAA process and negotiated a lease and licence agreement. I am advised a further 18 are under lease and licence negotiations. Projects that have been approved to proceed by EOI process will provide investment of over $92 million, and potentially 264 FTE jobs when fully realised.

It has been a good exercise undertaken by the Government through the Office of Co Ordinator-General.

Ms O'CONNOR - Not according to people who love the wilderness, but carry on. Fishers and walkers.

Mr FERGUSON - I point you to all of those people in the tourism industry and the proponents who have some very exciting ways that we can be very sensitively allowing more human beings to enjoy our natural areas and our natural assets. It should be supported. It also provides the opportunity to sensitively look after these areas by sensitive developments. The successes speak for themselves.

Additionally, the Auditor-General handed down his independent assurance report for the tourism expression of interest process in September. He concluded that the EOI process as measured against the audit criteria was in all material aspects implemented and administered effectively and in a manner consistent with the Government's policy objectives, noting that I have just outlined that some of those policy objectives are about being sensitive with our natural areas.

I hope they are the numbers that you were looking for.

Ms O'CONNOR - Just to be clear, and this is part of the second question, so you are not verballing the Auditor-General's report, the report also found that the consultation process for reserve activity assessments is proponent-driven and lacks minimum standards. That lease and licences are not subject to ongoing review. The Solicitor-General advised the panel that individual proposals should be submitted for his review. This never occurred. The report found that the RAA process is insufficient for complex proposals. I will close shortly.

Of the 22 RAAs audited, only two had complete documentation. Some evaluation reports were missing, and key information was missing from activity plans. In a number of instances, documentation simply was not available. So, while you point to the Auditor-General's report in order to back your divisive expressions of interest process, it was much more complex than what you have told the parliament, and this meeting. To be really clear, we have through round 1 of the expressions of interest process a number of projects which are still, obviously, in the process of negotiation.

Can you please update the committee on the three projects from Tas Walking Company, which we regard as land banking? The Walls of Jerusalem Lodge Walk, the Overland Track Experience, the Cradle Base Camp Experience and the Frenchmens Cap Walk.

Mr FERGUSON - I will invite Mr Perry to address the question. The success of the program has spoken for itself. We are always willing to discuss the program, inevitably things can be taken on board, including from the Auditor-General.

Mr PERRY - Once the EOI process is assessed by the assessment panel and then moves to the minister, when they progress into lease and licence discussions and the RAA process, that then is managed by Parks and Wildlife Service. So, your question in relation to the progress for those would be best addressed to them.

Ms O'CONNOR - With respect, Mr Perry, we had this discussion at the Estimates table last year and the year before and from recall you were able to provide the committee with some information on those EOI projects which are still, as I understand it, at least in part with the Office of the Coordinator General. There are four significant projects which are part of stage 1 on which there has been no progress apparently for five years and remember the discussion we had about land banking? With respect, you did provide some information on those proposals last year.

Mr FERGUSON - It is better if the question comes to me. If I am not able to answer it or if I feel the public official can provide a more rounded answer I will defer to the official. For the purposes of the Estimate, I would invite Mr Perry to answer it however he sees fit in this case because we are going through a process and the process is to be respected. The EOI process includes advice, after having had an assessment panel process, to go to the minister to determine if it should progress to the next stage. For example, should it go to a lease and licence consideration. One thing you haven't said in your question, is there have been proposals rejected by the assessment panel.

Ms O'CONNOR - A small handful.

Mr FERGUSON - Nonetheless, we don't believe our parks and special areas should be keeping human beings out. We believe that with sensitive.

Ms O'CONNOR - No one is saying that. It is the impact it is having on wilderness and the fact you are giving away an island for $80 per week.

Mr FERGUSON - Let's keep it nice. The process is intended to create economic opportunity, jobs for Tasmanian while at the same time looking after our special areas.

Mr PERRY - Minister, if you would like I can call the project manager for the EOI process but, as I said, it is really obtaining information from how it is progressing with Parks and Wildlife Service.

Ms O'CONNOR - It would be useful to have the project manager for the EOI process at the table.

CHAIR - I think it is another question.

Mr FERGUSON - I do not see the need. It was nice of Mr Perry to offer, but I don't think it responds to the implicit criticism in all of your questions just now which is actually about undermining the entire process.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, we are here for the bushwalkers and the fly fishers.

 

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, I want to spend some time talking about the Auditor-General's report into the EOI process and perhaps you could answer some of the specific issues he raises. The report notes the absence of environmental conservation experts and members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community contributing to issues with projects receiving a social licence. The report also notes the decision not to replace the independent member of the assessment panel after their resignation was unexplained. Perhaps you could address those two findings of the Auditor-General?

Mr FERGUSON - I don't have advice on that to hand, Ms O'Connor, and I don't wish to take on notice unless it's absolutely necessary, so I'll just ask the secretary if he has some advice on that for the committee, otherwise we might take it on notice.

M PERRY - The general point we would make about the Auditor General's report is that we're working on the recommendations and the assessment panel have met the department, or various departments have also met, and will be providing advice shortly in relation to those recommendations. That is a work in progress.

Mr FERGUSON - Is that advice to Government that you are preparing in response to the Auditor-General?

Mr PERRY - To the minister.

Mr FERGUSON - To me. To the ministers relevant. Ms O'Connor, clearly there is a recommendation that has been issued by the Tasmanian Audit Office and the department, and the OCG are currently working through advice to Government about how best to respond.

Ms O'CONNOR - Well, no thank you for the non answer. Specific questions around the lack of environmental conservation experts, the lack of Tasmanian Aboriginal community input, leading to problems with the social licence, a specific question about the decision not to replace the independent member of the assessment panel - and if you do not have specific answers to them, am I able to put them on notice?

I also ask you to address the other issues that were raised by the Auditor-General, which is that the EOI process was meant to have a communications and engagement group to work with stakeholders. This group was never convened. The report notes that the EOI process probity adviser should not have had any other involvement in the process, yet most of the external review reports commissioned in relation to proposals went to the same organisation that provided a probity officer. No safeguards were put in place to prevent a conflict of interest. The Auditor-General quite rightly pointed out that Tasmania is the only state that allows for proposals that are inconsistent with management plans.

Do you have any specific information to provide in response to those issues which were raised by the Auditor-General in his report?

Mr FERGUSON - The previous answer will be the answer I would offer you for this question as well, because clearly there have been recommendations offered by the Audit Office. While we broadly welcome the generally positive nature of that report, if there are recommendations there, Mr Perry has already told the Committee and me, in your company, that the department and OCG are preparing advice to government about how best to respond to those recommendations. You are inviting me to pre empt that, and I am just not in a position to guess the answer.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, I am not. The Auditor-General's report was released more than a month ago, and some of these findings have not led to specific recommendations. It is not the Coordinator-General's response to the recommendations that we are interested in. It is how you, as minister, intend to address some really substantial flaws that the Auditor-General identified in the EOI process. Your continual efforts to misrepresent him and his report are an insult to the independent Auditor-General. I ask again, can we put these specific questions on notice, because they are of very significant public interest to a wide stakeholder group that your Government ignores?

Mr FERGUSON - I do not need to take it on notice, because I have actually answered it, and I have indicated to you that it is not -

Ms O'CONNOR - You have not answered it. Why, for example, was the independent member of the assessment panel never replaced?

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

Mr FERGUSON - I am not evading the question, or ignoring where you are coming from. What I am saying is that I do not have any different answer that I would provide on notice, because Mr Perry has already indicated, and I have repeated, that it will not be Mr Perry who will be responding to the findings of the Tas Audit Office. It will be Government, but I am not yet in possession of advice about how to respond to that. As you know, as a former minister, that is how it works. We do not fly blind. We make decisions, but usually we look for advice and options.

Ms O'CONNOR - So the opacity around this process continues. You are alienating people at all points of the compass on this island.

Mr FERGUSON - I do not see it that way.

 

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, further to your education on the actual substance of the Auditor-General's report, the scoring process was found to be problematic, with scores often being allocated before vital information was received - potentially prejudicing final scoring. Because of an averaging of assessment criteria scores, projects that failed one or more criteria could still be recommended for approval. The report noted the assessment panel did not have economic or financial expertise and, as we've established, the independent member of the assessment panel who resigned was not replaced.

We would argue there's not much ecological expertise on there either. Projects were often recommended to progress with poor quality or incomplete financial information. The report notes that despite job creation being a key requirement of the EOI program, there was no emphasis placed on this during assessment, and the assessments provided to the panel were unreliable. The report also noted that the jobs created so far by the process are relatively minor.

Minister, we know that you're not going to answer the substance of the findings of the Auditor-General, but one of the major findings was that report identified regular instances of documentation simply not being available. That's not something that you need to wait for the Coordinator General to provide advice on. Do you think this is good enough - given we are talking about projects that have significant impacts on public protected areas, that the proponents were able to be approved to lease and licence with insufficient documentation.

Mr FERGUSON - Ms O'Connor, you've already pre-empted my answer. It's a bit unfair of you to do so. I am more than happy to answer the question when I am in possession of some advice from the agency about how and if we should be making any improvements to the EOI process. In broad terms, this has actually been endorsed. Again, I am more than comfortable but you continue to ask me questions when I have already indicated to you that advice has been prepared for the Government by the Department of State Growth and OCG about if and how we should respond to those findings. I use the word recommendation; I believe you've corrected me that it's actually findings. I'm happy to take that on board, but until I'm in receipt of that advice I really can't answer you because I don't have any advice upon which to give you an answer. I sense your cynicism, but maybe it's a timing issue - I'm seeking to be as helpful as I can be.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, given that the Auditor-General's report was handed down more than a month ago, I find it breathtaking that you weren't provided with a response to those findings that went beyond the spin and misrepresentation in time for Budget Estimates. You knew there'd be questions that related to the Auditor-General's report and the EOI process. Why didn't you allow yourself to be fully briefed before this hearing?

Mr FERGUSON - I am briefed -

Ms O'CONNOR - Well, you don't want to answer basic questions.

Mr FERGUSON - Let's be courteous. I am briefed and I'm awaiting, as Mr Perry has indicated, for some actual advice about options that the Government could and may look at doing. I'm not even going to pre-empt that we will change the process. What I'm saying is we take on board the feedback. I again re-enforce that the overall audit report - I'll just let you interrupt.

Ms O'CONNOR - Happy with the process with incomplete documentation, lack of expertise, flaws in the scoring process. You're happy with that?

Mr FERGUSON - I haven't said anything of the kind. What I'm saying is the audit concluded that the EOI process, as measured against the audit criteria was in all material aspects implemented and administered effectively and in a manner consistent with the Government's policy objectives. I won't go through all of them, but I will give you a second. There was no evidence to support allegations which, if continued to run, of undue secrecy of the EOI process.

Ms O'CONNOR - I'm conveying what people in the community are saying and feeling.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, the minister is attempting to answer the question.

Mr FERGUSON - Feelings don't make for policy, Ms O'Connor. What I'm seeking to do here is to take on board what you're seeking me to do in response to comments from the audit office and - I'll just let you interrupt again.

Ms O'CONNOR - Secrecy - you signed over a whole island in the Walls of Jerusalem without telling the people of Tasmania, that's pretty secret, for about $117 a week. Total secrecy over the privatisation of a whole island and you say it's not secretive.

 

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. Minister, you made the incorrect statement before that the expressions of interest process is not secretive. I just give you an example of the Right to Information that we had returned, on review. The minister is not paying attention. Don't you want to see all the blacked out pages that came from your own department and the Coordinator-General's office only on the second attempt?

The first time we sought information in relation to all information provided by the proponents addressing the assessment criteria and guiding principles of the expressions of interest process and recommendations by the minister, the first response from Mr Perry was no, go away. You are not getting anything. We sought an internal review -

Mr FERGUSON - Is that a direct quote or not?

Ms O'CONNOR - No, but I am paraphrasing.

Mr FERGUSON - You are paraphrasing him.

Ms O'CONNOR - In a long letter we were basically told that no information would be provided because it was not in the public interest to provide that information. We sought internal review and then we got back no information but blacked out pages. Your claim that this is not a secretive process does not stand up to scrutiny. We are talking about developments inside public protected areas. Your government initially tried to hide behind commercial in confidence not to release the lease and licence details of the Lake Malbena proposal until in February this year the Ombudsman smacked you down.

Are you absolutely certain, in the face of the evidence, that this is not a secretive process? What do you have to say to organisations like the Wilderness Society, Fishers and Walkers against Helicopter Access, Tasmanian National Parks Association, who feel very strongly and legitimately, that this is a highly secretive process?

Mr FERGUSON - I will invite Mr Perry to answer it, however he sees fit. You will appreciate that I am not involved in that process. We were aware of RTIs, but we do not process them. They are processed independently of me -

Ms O'CONNOR - Give us a break.

Mr FERGUSON - I am giving you an answer. It is just you don't like the answer. Let's keep it civil. You have misquoted Mr Perry and then paraphrasing him isn't exactly fair.

Ms O'CONNOR - Mr Evans came back and almost did the right thing because he knew that the law had not been followed properly in the first instance.

Mr FERGUSON - Mr Perry, I would invite him to answer that. I'm not putting words in his mouth, but it may or may not be the case. I don't know.

Ms O'CONNOR - The question was to you and it was about secrecy.

Mr FERGUSON - Can I just have some courtesy -

Ms O'CONNOR - Well, don't buck pass to the Coordinator-General.

Mr FERGUSON - It is very difficult to answer a question when it is repeatedly interrupted. What I am saying is that I am not aware of even the material that has been redacted, Ms O'Connor. It may be the case that it is commercial. I don't know. I will allow Mr Perry to answer this, and make it very clear to you, that that is how the process works.

Ms O'CONNOR - The question was to you about secrecy.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor. The minister has asked Mr Perry to answer the questions.

Mr FERGUSON - The secretary will answer this.

Ms O'CONNOR - The question was to you.

Mr FERGUSON - I have answered my part.

CHAIR - Yes, under the committee guidelines the minister is allowed to ask an officer to assist him in the answering of the question.

Mr EVANS - With respect to the absolute detail in the RTI, I don't have that with me, so I can't comment in great detail about it, but I can talk about the process.

The Co ordinator General undertook the assessment of the original RTI request. There was an appeal, or a review, sorry. That review was undertaken independently within my department and advice provided to me. Without going into the detail of all of the reasons why there are so many blacked out pages, I can say that it was subject of independent review.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, can you explain to the committee - but more importantly to every Tasmanian who finds your proposal, or the proposal to have a development at Halls Island on Lake Malbena in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park - how signing over, in secret, a lease with a proponent for a whole island, inside the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, is not privatisation? You can try and fob it off to the Parks minister, but this is about your EOI process.

Mr FERGUSON - I am doing my best, and I will continue to try to answer your question, with courtesy and respect, Ms O'Connor, but you are again pre-empting my answer.

The issue here is that, in terms of the lease arrangements, that can, and is, a question for you to pose at the Parks and Wildlife Service ministerial Estimates. No problem there. I am more than comfortable talking about the process, and that is the role that I play as Minister for State Growth, and working with the Office of Coordinator-General. I believe, that you might have asked the same sort of question of the Premier yesterday, and I understand he may have given you similar advice as to how to raise that issue about the appropriateness of any individual lease that is within a PWS site.

I am not, Madam Chair, just looking to you, I do wish to add to the record with some other answers when you believe it is the right time.

Ms O'CONNOR - You have not answered this question.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, you have asked two questions, and the minister has given you a response to ask Parks tomorrow.

Ms O'CONNOR - Can I have my final question on this round? Minister, you say you are here to talk about the process -

Mr FERGUSON - I can.

Ms O'CONNOR - The process around the Lake Malbena proposal led to an entire island, in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area being exclusively leased to a private developer without recourse to the public. The only way people found out was through a Right to Information request that ended up going to the Ombudsman, as I understand it, to get the lease and licence details for Hall's Island and Reg Hall's hut. The question to you is, on the process can you understand why so many community organisations and stakeholders regard that as privatisation of a public island in the TWWHA. You privatised an island and you din't need advice. London to a brick, it was part of the discussion with the Coordinator-General with the developer, privatisation of a whole island.

CHAIR - Order. Ms O'Connor, the minister has the call. I ask that the minister be heard.

Ms O'CONNOR - He is not going to answer the question.

Mr FERGUSON - Because you are carefully listening to the advice the secretary is providing me with, you then rubbish this side of the table when we are about to provide you an answer. That is not fair. What I am saying is there is a process. If it is possible that the process could be improved in response to the Audit office's findings, then I look forward to receiving that advice and informing you accordingly. I am going to tell you the way to raise this issue with lease and licence arrangements would be the Parks and Wildlife Service and the relevant minister.

 

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, I am seeking some clarification on a response to a question I asked earlier. I asked how many expressions of interest had been lodged through round 2 and the answer was 64 expressions of interest. We can only find 30 on the State Growth website. Perhaps Mr Perry or you could explain either where the others are or help me to understand whether I have misinterpreted something?

Mr PERRY - Yes, the total is 64. That is across round 1 and 2.

Ms O'CONNOR - Okay, thank you.

Mr FERGUSON - You have not asked me, but for clarity I would like to break that down for you. I do not see any reason not to in the interests of being transparent and providing a bit more than you asked.

Adding up to 64 - inner assessment process - 3 proposals; lease or license signed, or both of which nine are now operational - 11; under lease or license negotiation - 18; withdrawn - 10; not approved to progress - 20, noting that this includes 12 projects that did not projects that did not from round 1, stage 1 to round 1, stage 2; lease or licenses actually being surrendered - 2. That brings us to 64.