I am pleased to introduce the first annual report for the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. This report includes information about our activities and performance results for 2019–20.
By February 2020 it would already have been reasonable to describe the year as challenging, given the emerging impact of the Black Summer bushfires on a country already dealing with the effects of drought on agriculture, the environment and our communities. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made this possibly the most challenging year many of us have faced, especially when you consider that in the middle of the pandemic we were also establishing a new department.
A new department
I would like to pay tribute to all my colleagues, who worked tirelessly to set up our new organisation. When the Prime Minister announced in early December that the government would be bringing together agriculture, water resources and the environment in a single portfolio, the department's staff had 6 weeks to get ready. I commenced my role as secretary the day the new department was established – 1 February 2020.
This was a complex change. We had staff who were being transferred to another department. At the same time we were planning how to bring the people from our former departments together in our new entity.
Our new portfolio is led by 3 Cabinet ministers and 2 assistant ministers, and includes the department and numerous portfolio agencies.
By early February we had our initial management structures in place, our staff were operating under a single set of employment conditions and we had already begun the task of integrating the department's operations. In a seamless transition, at midnight on 1 February 2020, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment was ready to continue the important work of our former departments.
It was a very successful effort, made possible by our staff and by the leadership of my predecessors in our former departments, Daryl Quinlivan and David Fredericks.
In the months following we have been building our new department – integrating our different systems, finalising corporate policies and continuing to deliver existing programs and regulatory activities. We have given a great deal of thought to the department the government wants us to be, about how our many responsibilities fit together and how we can make the most of the synergies between the responsibilities of our portfolio. Despite the challenges we faced, we reached the end of 2019–20 in good shape and ready for the year ahead.
Responding to COVID-19
In January 2020 when the Australian Government announced its first measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, we were already at the forefront of the response. While our primary focus is on animal and plant biosecurity, our biosecurity officers were also at the border helping to carry out additional health checks on the international travellers coming into the country. Although the number of passengers is now much smaller, our officers are still on the front line, helping people, supporting trade and making sure that food, medical supplies and equipment get here as smoothly as possible.
Around 300 of our staff volunteered to be redeployed to other agencies, particularly Services Australia, to support the effort to help Australians affected by the pandemic get income support and other assistance. Many of our graduate group spent some weeks at Services Australia.
We worked quickly to deliver the government's International Freight Assistance Mechanism to re-establish and maintain existing supply chains in the agricultural and seafood sectors. By working quickly with industry and our trading partners, we were able to establish electronic systems to transfer export certificates and remote audit arrangements to maintain critical export functions. A study by ABARES has found that despite the pandemic, in early 2020 agricultural exports were on a par with what would otherwise have been expected – which is very good news for our agricultural producers and the economy.
We worked closely with our agricultural stakeholders. I appointed a former deputy secretary from the Department of Agriculture, Mark Tucker, as Senior Agriculture Industry Engagement Officer. Mark has spent his time at countless round tables, in video meetings and on phone calls, to ensure the perspective of agricultural industries and regional communities is considered in policy responses across the government. This work has been instrumental in supporting agricultural, fisheries and forestry businesses during the pandemic.
For the environment, the health measures in response to COVID-19 have had a big impact on tourism. Our national parks and the Australian National Botanic Gardens, which are treasured places for both locals and visitors, had to be closed. Parks and gardens have since reopened, supported by COVID-19 management plans, but it will be a long road to recovery for the tourism businesses that bring visitors to these places.
The health and safety of our staff was our highest priority. We assessed new risks, increased the use of personal protective equipment for frontline officers and implemented physical distancing and hygiene measures across all our worksites. We used technology to implement new processes including remote audits and inspections. These were a great success and will continue to be used as part of delivering effective and efficient regulation.
Like many organisations, we had most of our staff working from home during the initial lockdown around Australia. Thanks to their commitment and a lot of hard work from our ICT teams, we were able to keep the department running smoothly despite the radical change in our working arrangements.
I would particularly like to mention the staff in our overseas network, who play such an important role in our trade and market access work. Many are living in countries where COVID-19 has had a much greater impact than here at home. Others had their postings cut short and continue to work remotely from Australia. They have all continued to deliver services and we are proud of them. I particularly thank their family members, whose lives have also been disrupted by the pandemic.
The pandemic has also had a significant impact on the stakeholder engagement and partnerships that are a key part of our work. Our partnerships nationally and internationally are under pressure. We are working to implement a new approach for managing our international engagement that best represents Australia's interests.
In recent years agricultural production has been significantly affected by drought in many parts of Australia. For some sectors, the Black Summer bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the situation. Producers have shown remarkable resilience and adaptability. The gross value of farm production in 2019–20 is estimated to be $60 billion, down by 1% on the previous year. The pressure on the value of agricultural production has been eased by relatively high meat prices related to the global effects of African swine fever, as well as high domestic grain prices.
This is the third consecutive year of decline in the volume of agricultural production, which is down by 16% compared with 2016–17. These conditions have placed pressure on farm incomes, resulting in similar declines, particularly in those areas most affected by drought. The pandemic is continuing and the economic fall-out will be with us for some time. However, the long-term outlook for agricultural trade remains strong. With better seasonal conditions expected this spring and summer, we expect to see a modest rise in the value of farm production to $61 billion in 2020–21.
We are making progress on the government's support for industry in its ambition of an agricultural sector worth $100 billion by 2030. We have been consulting our stakeholders on opportunities and challenges that will cut across policy areas and jurisdictions. Work has begun on building farm management skills and developing an agricultural workforce strategy. Following the 2019 report on rural research and development, we are supporting the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management to build and implement a new plan to modernise the agricultural innovation system.
We worked throughout the year on the key measures to help Australia respond to the challenges of drought. In November 2019 the government released the Drought, Response, Resilience and Preparedness Plan, building on the work of the Coordinator-General for Drought. After 12 months of work the Future Drought Fund was ready on time, and the minister announced the first year of programs in July 2020.
We finished implementing changes to the Farm Household Allowance. Since its establishment in 2014, the initiative has assisted almost 15,000 Australians and is currently investing more than $2 million a week into rural communities.
We are working with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and Emergency Management Australia to ensure farmers and rural communities have the tools and assistance they need to recover from the bushfires. This includes a range of grant programs for fire-affected producers and funding to increase the number of counsellors and support workers available through the Rural Financial Counselling Service.
Agricultural exports have faced some major challenges. We have been at the centre of the negotiations on China's investigations into Australian barley exports, and have provided clear evidence that barley is not being subsidised or dumped onto the Chinese market. Our barley producers are able to export barley at competitive prices because they are among the most efficient worldwide. We are working with the industry to help it consider alternative markets.
Diversification of our agricultural markets is a challenge and an opportunity for Australian producers who are facing increasing protectionism. We worked through 2019–20 to prepare for the implementation of Australia's economic partnership agreement with Indonesia, which came into force in July 2020. We continued our important technical market access work, maintaining markets worth billions to Australian producers and opening another 84 markets during the year.
We are delivering on the government's congestion-busting agenda, implementing deregulation initiatives to modernise our export controls and make it easier for exporters to do business. In late 2019 we released the National Traceability Framework to help producers and industries enhance our traceability systems and promote 'brand Australia' in international markets.
Work also continues on improving Australia's agricultural export legislation. The Export Control Act 2020 passed parliament in February 2020 and will come into effect in March 2021. This legislation underpins our reputation as a supplier of safe and reliable food and other products, and assures our trading partners that Australian exports meet their requirements.
We are now 8 years into the 12-year reform program for water management in the Murray–Darling Basin. Recent drought, bushfires, flooding, fish death events and the COVID-19 pandemic have all contributed to community stress.
The Australian Government has committed $13 billion to water reform in the Basin. At 31 December 2019, $9 billion had been spent and more than $3 billion committed to implement Basin Plan programs such as the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism and the outcomes of the Northern Basin Review.
We delivered additional support for drought-affected farmers in the Basin through the government's Water for Fodder program. In 2019–20 the program enabled 800 farmers in the southern connected Basin to apply to buy South Australian River Murray water at a discounted rate.
One thing we are concerned about is the effect misinformation is having on Basin communities, increasing anxiety and polarising stakeholder groups. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Office has put considerable effort into informing government, communities and the public on how we work with partners to manage Commonwealth environmental water.
Commonwealth environmental water has been central to key events in the Basin in 2019–20. We secured 2,100 GL of water for the environment, and delivered more than 1,197 GL for environmental water flows. These actions help maintain habitats and provide food and shelter for native plants and animals.
Scrutiny of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan continues. We have helped support the office of the interim Inspector-General of Murray–Darling Basin Water Resources. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has begun an inquiry into water markets. We are doing all we can to support this work to ensure the Basin Plan is operating effectively and efficiently.
Our work to enhance Australia's unique environment has been dramatically affected by the Black Summer bushfires. More than 12 million hectares was burnt and the effect on our wildlife has been catastrophic.
We are delivering on the Australian Government's commitment to the recovery of native wildlife and their damaged habitats. We are also supporting the sustained effort that is needed across bushfire-affected areas, including World and National Heritage places, to prevent extinction and limit the decline of native species.
During the year the foundation of our environmental work – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) – has been closely scrutinised. Professor Graeme Samuel AC commenced an independent review of the EPBC Act, which is required to be undertaken every 10 years. We provided administrative support to Professor Samuel and his expert panel. The importance of the EPBC Act is highlighted by the response to the consultation process. The review received around 30,000 submissions and comments during a consultation period that had to be extended because of the bushfires.
In 2020 we have been delivering on the government's commitment to reduce unnecessary delays in environment approvals under the EPBC Act. I am pleased to say that we have accomplished a big turnaround in 6 months, despite the demands of establishing our new department and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. In the December 2019 quarter only 19% of our decisions were made on time, but by June 2020 this had increased to 98%. We also cut our backlog of key decisions by more than 60%. We are well-placed to continue this improvement and are aiming to make all key decisions on time.
The year began with celebration when, on 6 July 2019, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape – a 6,600‑year‑old Indigenous aquaculture system in western Victoria – was inscribed on the World Heritage List. It is the first Australian property inscribed exclusively for its Indigenous heritage values. Another highlight was the government's decision to begin the implementation of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program by a consortium of leading science institutions, supported by the allocation of $100 million from our Reef Trust and Great Barrier Reef Foundation Partnership.
Building on our work under the $1 billion National Landcare Program, we have delivered the government's commitments to support environmental projects. We have designed and rolled out the Communities Environment Program and the Environment Restoration Fund. These initiatives provide grants for community projects, to protect threatened and migratory species, Australia's coasts and waterways and to support the clean-up, recovery and recycling of waste.
We all generate waste and this has an impact on our environment. Australians expect that when they put recyclable material in the yellow bin it is recycled, not sent overseas where it might end up in landfill, or finding its way into the environment. Reducing waste, increasing recycling rates and building capacity in the domestic recycling industry is a priority for the Australian Government and was a focus for us in 2019–20.
The Council of Australian Governments has agreed to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres. The Minister for the Environment, the Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management, and the department have all worked with state and territory colleagues, local government and industry on the plan to implement the ban, which will be phased in from January 2021. We also developed the National Waste Policy Action Plan, which sets a new, unified direction for improving waste management and recycling. This will be a major piece of work over several years, and will enable Australia to take responsibility for its own waste.
Managing biosecurity risks to agriculture and the environment
The response to the human pandemic has been a significant job for our biosecurity officers in 2020, but the work of managing animal and plant biosecurity risks has also been critical. Restrictions on international travel mean our task of screening passenger arrivals has been greatly reduced. Freight and cargo are still arriving. We have moved more resources to screening international mail, which has increased in volume during the pandemic.
Australia remains at risk from the global spread of pests and diseases with the potential to devastate agricultural industries and our native plants and animals. African swine fever is now on our doorstep, after detections in neighbouring countries. In 2019–20 we have continued our work to stop this disease at our border, supported by a substantial Australian Government investment to bolster these defences. We are working with Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste to help them manage their detections, and with our pork industry and the states and territories to raise Australia's preparedness.
We are working with states and territories on the response to the arrival by natural dispersion of fall armyworm. The history of this pest shows that it cannot be successfully eradicated once established. We are working through the national biosecurity arrangements to build Australia's capability to manage the spread of this pest.
Brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) continues to spread around the world. Our efforts have continued to help prevent the entry of this pest into Australia. Our increased requirements for offshore treatments and our continuing work at the border resulted in an overall reduction of live and dead BMSB by 29%, and a 72% fall in post-biosecurity intervention detections.
As biosecurity challenges increase, our success in this area depends on us finding new ways of working. We are partnering with our stakeholders to test new processes that help us work better and make it easier for regulated entities to do business. The Biosecurity Innovation Program has funded several projects to investigate new technological approaches. I was very pleased to see the department recognised at the 2020 Public Sector Innovation Awards for our use of 3D X-rays for biosecurity inspections. This is a great example of our efforts to work smarter.
In 2019 parliament passed legislative changes allowing visas to be cancelled for international travellers who breach biosecurity requirements. Those powers were used 12 times in 2019–20, reinforcing the message that we will always seek to inform and educate people about doing the right thing, but we will also take appropriate action to enforce biosecurity laws in cases of serious non-compliance.
In 2020 our biosecurity system has shown remarkable resilience to keep operating in extraordinary times. It is a testament to our people and demonstrates that Australian biosecurity continues to be robust and world-leading.
During 2019–20 Australia celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty and continued to enhance international cooperation on scientific and environmental interests in Antarctica. The anniversary was an appropriate time to recognise the contribution of our Australian Antarctic Division, which has worked over many decades to represent and advance Australia's interests.
We continued to implement the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan. We have been making good progress towards the year 5 milestones in the Action Plan, including testing Australia's new icebreaker, RSV Nuyina, planning for the Davis Aerodrome Project and a range of infrastructure works across our Antarctic stations. We are also moving ahead on our work with the new Australian Antarctic Science Council, established in 2019, and the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership, which is funded under the government's Antarctic Science Collaboration Initiative to support researchers.
Much of our work was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to good incident management and hard work, we kept our Antarctic bases free of coronavirus. But the global effects of the pandemic prevented us from finalising the testing program for the Nuyina and we are still looking at how it will affect the ship's delivery schedule. We have had to limit the movement of people, reorganise supply chains and cut back our operational capacity.
The pandemic has also had an impact on the Antarctic-related forums we engage in, including the Antarctic Treaty system. Many of the regular international Antarctic meetings had to be cancelled, postponed, or held virtually with reduced agendas, leaving progress on issues of importance to Australia delayed. Our bilateral engagement with other Antarctic nations is under pressure and we face the challenge of maintaining these relationships while sustaining our own program.
The year ahead
The decision to create our new portfolio marks a new era in the holistic management of Australia's agricultural land, environment, heritage, water and other natural resources. In our first months as the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, we have been identifying the synergies between the policies and programs under our responsibility. They are interconnected and we recognise that the outcomes in one area can have a critical effect on the others. In 2020–21 we will continue to establish and adapt our approaches to consider the policy impacts across our areas of responsibility. We will keep identifying opportunities to maximise the outcomes from our work.
The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to have a profound effect. Our people remain at the forefront of the pandemic response. We have turned our policy work towards preparing for a post-COVID world and the need to help our agricultural and environment-related tourism industries recover and take advantage of new opportunities. The health of our people remains a priority. We have been cautious in our approach to returning staff to the workplace. We will continue to use flexible working arrangements to keep them safe while making sure we are delivering on our purpose, objectives and priorities.
We remain committed to enabling industry to achieve its ambition of an agricultural sector worth $100 billion by 2030. Work to deliver the government's priority of modernising the agricultural innovation system has a domestic focus in supporting this aim. We will also focus on trade and access to overseas markets where new and improvement market access opportunities, remaining internationally competitive and ensuring our trade profile is secure are key to the success of Australian agriculture.
Agriculture, water and the environment are facing a range of challenges, from catastrophic events like the Black Summer bushfires to droughts and floods, and from ongoing threats to biodiversity and ecosystems. The global and domestic movement towards a lower carbon and climate-resilient future also presents a challenging policy and regulatory environment. Climate science and adaptation is critical in responding to threats and building the nation's resilience.
The Future Drought Fund is now in place and our national drought approach will continue to focus on helping farm businesses plan and prepare for these challenges. Our environment has begun the long journey towards recovery from the Black Summer bushfires. The early positive signs are encouraging, but the recovery of native wildlife and their habitats will require long-term planning and significant effort. We have supported the commitment of funds for the recovery of our unique native wildlife and their habitats. We will be supporting the sustained effort that is needed across bushfire-affected areas to prevent extinction and limit the decline of native species.
In 2020–21 we are at a pivotal point in our national environmental protection efforts. Professor Samuel's interim report on the EPBC Act found that the Act has become cumbersome and does not serve the interests of the environment or business. Planning is underway to deliver a reform program that revitalises the legislative and policy framework. This will ensure ongoing ecologically sustainable development that is both streamlined for businesses and effectively protects the environment.
This includes working with states and territories to ensure robust processes are in place to support the infrastructure pipeline in a post-COVID economy. We will fast-track 15 major projects, worth $72 billion to the economy, for assessment by joint Commonwealth-state teams. The ultimate objective will be to deliver 'single touch approvals' for projects.
The government has embarked on an ambitious recycling and waste-recovery agenda under the National Waste Policy Action Plan. The first milestone – a ban on unprocessed glass – will commence on 1 January 2021. We will continue to take a national and strategic approach to finding solutions for our waste and recycling industry. The Recycling Modernisation Fund will invest $190 million for infrastructure to sort, process and remanufacture waste materials.
After more than a decade of policy design and consultation, the coming year will realise reforms by the Council of Australian Governments to improve Australia's laws preventing chemical pollution. The Industrial Chemicals Environmental Management Register will provide a nationally consistent standard for managing the environmental risks from industrial chemicals. This will give greater certainty to industry and better protect Australia's environment and communities from contamination by chemicals like PFAS and mercury.
Heading into the 2020–21 summer season we are planning a limited Antarctic program, with a reduced number of expeditioners expected to head south after going through quarantine. Our construction and scientific research programs will be greatly reduced. We will be planning ahead to explore ways to continue our important work in the Antarctic in a post-COVID world.
We have entered 2020–21 with a strong set of priorities, clear objectives and a commitment to our new purpose of 'Partnering and regulating to enhance Australia's agriculture, unique environment and heritage, and water resources'.
As I present this annual report, I can say with pride that the hard work of our staff in supporting our ministers and through them the Australian community, and in undertaking our many and varied roles in 2019–20, has us on track to achieve this Purpose.