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Bureaucrats strut their stuff on governance

31 May 2016

Bureaucrats strut their stuff on governance Image

By Shane Scanlan

If any further evidence was needed to prove the case for water governance reform, it was provided by the six state government speakers at a special forum held in Docklands in late April.

Each spoke of their sectional interest in the subject and, collectively, presented a case why reform was not possible at this time.

The forum, hosted by the Docklands Chamber of Commerce at Berth restaurant on April 28, heard that the governance issue was under review from at least three different and disparate directions. Other speakers revealed their singular and sectional interests in the processes surrounding any efforts to activate local waterways.

Local stakeholders have been pressing for a single, independent waterways authority to replace the myriad departments and processes which have paralysed any real activation of the local waterways over past decades.

The most recent government-sponsored study into the problem, the Lower Yarra River Use Future Directions Group (LYRUFDG), late last year recommended the establishment of an independent interim committee charged with bringing an independent authority into existence within two years.

The substance of this recommendation has fallen on deaf ears and it was the task of the six state government speakers to explain why.

The forum itself was a tightly-controlled panel of speakers moderated by Docklands Chamber of Commerce president Joh Maxwell, augmented by a number of prepared questions.

Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) ministerial policy adviser Will Guthrie explained the genesis of the LYRUFDG and the broad reasons why it was not possible to move to a single, independent authority at this time.

Mr Guthrie said “broader actions” were in play and it would have been pre-emptive to move decisively before these activities concluded.

In the interim, he said, the Environment Minister Lisa Neville believed problems could be solved without going to a single port model.

“Hopefully this is a beginning of a new chapter in how well we can activate the river,” Mr Guthrie said.

Parks Victoria executive director Chris Hardman spent much of his allotted time acknowledging and apologising for past failures and promised Parks would do better in the future.

“In the future, we want to focus on outcomes and we have been given a green light to do that,” he said.

It was, therefore, a shock to hear later in the session that Parks Victoria was currently introducing a fee for boat operators who wished to take photographs of things and activities on the river, which were outside of their current licence agreements.

Former Parks Victoria operations manager Chris Chesterfield explained his current role as chair of a ministerial advisory committee looking at establishing a Yarra River Protection Trust as part of pre-election promise by the current government.

He said the government intended to introduce a Yarra River Protection Act and river governance was part of his group’s terms of reference.

He acknowledged that stakeholders had competing ideas about the river’s values, but said commercial aspects were explicitly excluded from this current exercise.

Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources representative Kara O’Dwyer outlined two current reviews that she is part of, which “aimed to have a better understanding of pathways forward” by September.

In outlining yet another reason why an independent, single waterways authority was not possible at this time, Ms O’Dwyer said a review of the “local port space” and its management was underway. She said a report to government would provide “findings and potential strategies”.

In shedding light on the complexities of achieving permits for waterborne events, Transport Safety Victoria’s waterways safety manager, Geoff Swanton spoke of “new” legislation that required his part of government to look only at the safety of water-based, event proposals. Mr Swanton, who is also a former Parks employee, explained that applications were not made directly but, rather, via Parks Victoria and he revealed that half of all applications were sent back down the line for further information.

Parks Victoria events manager Alex Edney said, while Parks strived to be professional, he said the organisation was “not there yet”.   “It will be easier to get a permit in the future,” he said.

In the question and answer segment, the chamber of commerce avoided asking the question: “Will Parks Victoria willingly make way for an independent, single waterways authority?”  Rather, it asked whether Parks planned to become the sole governing body for the waterways, to which it replied “no”.

The questioning did reveal, however, that a new authority should be established within two years, that the government puts a lot of faith in collaboration as a means of fixing problems and that future boat operator fees will be set by the Valuer-General.

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