PARK WATCH September 2019 |

There are real visitor management problems along the Great Ocean Road, but is the proposed self-funded ‘Coast and Parks Authority’ just a bizarre brainstorm fix? VNPA’s Parks Protection campaigner Phil Ingamells is worried.

Over two years there have been, so far, two rounds of public consultation on a new governance model for the Great Ocean Road (GOR) precinct. But despite obvious public concerns about the management of the area, there has never been a clear articulation from the Victorian Government of exactly what a new ‘Great Ocean Road Coast and Parks Authority’ would look like, and how it would be funded.

This is a dangerous situation, as the proposed new body will have authority over the management of national parks and marine parks along the Otway coastline, including, it seems, a driving interest in future lease and licence revenue from those parks. The consultation process has been extensive, yet the community is still largely left in the dark.

Phase one

Initially, the state government’s Engage Victoria website posed a series of questions for the public to answer, ranging from “What do you love most about the Great Ocean Road and its landscapes?” to “What criteria should the Taskforce use to evaluate the management model options?”

A look through the written submissions in the first round of consultation, up to the end of April 2018, showed that:

  • The Parks Victoria Board opposed a new over-arching GOR authority, saying “we do not believe a case has been made to add further bureaucracy and costs”.
  • Most submissions, including those from local councils, were confused about the nature of the proposed authority.
  • Most submissions called for more clarity and further engagement about both the structure and funding of the new authority.

The process was overseen by a Great Ocean Road Taskforce, charged with recommending GOR governance reforms that would “boost tourism expenditure and investment” along the road, help local communities benefit more from visitors, and maintain “appropriate environmental and landscape protections”. The Taskforce was to report to three Victorian Government ministers:

  • Minister for Planning
  • Minister for Regional Development
  • Minister for Tourism and Major Events.

The Environment Minister, oddly, was left out of this first round of consultation and decision-making.

The Taskforce’s report proposed a very comprehensive list of functions for the new authority. It would encompass “advisory, regulatory, management and service delivery, scientific research, park management, inter-jurisdiction activities, program design and implementation, coordination and client representative for delivery of major state construction projects”.

That’s a sizeable new government department with extraordinary powers – far above anything clearly flagged in the phase one process.

Strong reference was made to the need to rationalise the large and confusing number of councils and committees that manage land along the GOR, such as tennis courts, carparks and toilet blocks. But around 80 per cent of the land along the road is national parks and other reserves managed by Parks Victoria. The new authority will actually take charge of:

  • Port Campbell National Park
  • Otway National Park (unspecified areas only)
  • Point Addis Marine National Park
  • Twelve Apostles Marine National Park
  • The Arches Marine Sanctuary
  • Bay of Islands Coastal Park

There were no problems with park management identified in the submissions or in the Taskforce report, other than visitor pressure at the Twelve Apostles site. Nevertheless, the new authority will reduce Parks Victoria to, effectively, a sub-contractor for all parks along the road. It’s a terrible precedent for parks elsewhere in the state.

Funding the beast

The Taskforce report talks about a “secure funding model” for the new authority, but there is no mention of government funding, and no remotely realistic funding appeared in the state budget.

While there are potential sources of revenue for the proposed authority if it hoovers up all profits from camping areas and car parks on council land, and if it puts a levee on the 40,000 odd tour buses and vans that use the road annually, that revenue, in our estimation, would struggle to support the authority itself, let alone the on-ground infrastructure and maintenance it is expected to deliver. Oddly, while a self-funded authority seems to be the model proposed, the Taskforce report made it clear that an all-important “detailed cost-benefit analysis … was outside the scope of the terms of reference”.

  • Is it possible that this achievement-driven but cash-strapped new government authority would be tempted to raise revenue through new commercial leases on the land it manages, including our national parks and reserves?
  • Is it at all reasonable to expect this new body to survive without a large slice of government funding?
  • Is duplication of existing government services, such as park management, a fundamentally foolish move?

These are the sort of questions that should be addressed in the consultation process, but they are not.

Phase two

In the second (recent) round of consultation, the questions on the Engage Victoria website were largely trivial. No discussion or feedback was entertained on the governance model nor on the funding model, despite the statement in the Taskforce report that “stakeholders held a consistent view that they would like to be consulted on future governance arrangements”.

And bizarrely, with a decision on that governance model apparently already made, and in the absence of any business model for this self-funded government department, the implementation of the new GOR Coast and Parks Authority has now been handballed to the Environment Minister.

It’s unclear who has been driving this process, but it appears to be an ideologically driven exercise rather than a practical one.

There is no need to duplicate park management expertise and responsibility, or other expertise along the road.

Is there another way?

The very real problems along the road could more realistically be solved by:

  • Declaring the Great Ocean Road as a ‘distinctive area and landscape’ under Victoria’s Planning and Environment Act 1987. This would ensure long-term protection for the area.
  • Finishing implementation of the Shipwreck Coast Master Plan, which was designed to handle visitor pressure.
  • Setting up a smaller, and more practical, Great Ocean Road Authority to guide management of the GOR landscape, especially the many small reserves and facilities currently run by committees of management.
  • Leaving marine and terrestrial park management in the competent hands of a properly-funded Parks Victoria.

And yes, it’s probably sensible to put a toll on tourist busses, to help fund essential infrastructure like those problematic toilet blocks.

The question “What is the problem in our national parks that is so severe that it needs a new park authority to solve it?” is central here. It’s a question we have addressed to the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) at all levels, and to the Environment Minister, without being given even a hint of an answer. 

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