Environment Agriculture

National Parks and Victorian Environmental Assessment Council Acts Amendment Bill 2016

22nd June 2016 - Second Reading -

Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) — I rise to make a contribution on the National Parks and Victorian Environmental Assessment Council Acts Amendment Bill 2016. It is interesting to follow the member for Ivanhoe, the member for No Police Station in Heidelberg West. I correct the record that there were additions to national parks in the term of the previous government, so I think his comment that there were no additions to national parks is incorrect. There were a number of small additions to national parks through that period of time.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr WALSH — It is important to have the truth out there. The truth might not mean much to that side of the house, but it is important to have the truth out there on those particular issues.

This bill does two principal things. In the national parks area it adds an additional 245 hectares to the Greater Bendigo National Park. Some of that is in line with the 2013 recognition of settlement agreement that was signed by the previous government and the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation. The coalition obviously supports that happening, and there has been a donation from Villawood Investments as part of native vegetation offsets.

The member for Ivanhoe waxed lyrical about how good increasing the size of national parks is, but it is very important that whatever national parks we have are well maintained. One of the constant complaints that I have heard as I have travelled around Victoria in my time in the Parliament is that Parks Victoria is the neighbour from hell — that is, because of the weeds, because of the vermin and because of wild animals, Parks Victoria is the neighbour from hell. Something we in this place need to bear in mind is that there is a responsibility on all landholders in Victoria. There is a lot of responsibility put on private landholders to control weeds and to control vermin. There is not that same responsibility put on public land and particularly on Parks Victoria.

Whether it be foxes, wild dogs or deer that are coming out of those areas and doing damage to private land, it is the private landholder that pays the cost of those animals coming out. We know that this government does not have a commitment to wild dog control. The government has scrapped the bounty and got rid of the Wild Dog Advisory Committee. The government does not have the same commitment. There is only one aerial baiting program per year instead of two, as happened under the previous government. There is no commitment to controlling vermin, particularly wild dogs, let alone blackberries and all the other weeds that are in the public estate and that are constantly coming out and being washed downstream in the waterways to infest private property.

The member for Ivanhoe and members on the other side of the house might want to wax lyrical about the public estate and how it is great to add more hectares and more area to it, but unless there are the resources and the commitment to maintain that land properly, it does not change very much at all. There is a very good saying that just changing the sign on the front gate to call an area of land a national park does not deliver a good environmental outcome. The member for Ivanhoe and others who might want to make contributions to the debate might want to bear in mind that you have to maintain the public estate. Yes, national parks are for people — there is no argument about that; they are definitely for people — but people have to have access to them. You have to make sure that tracks are maintained and not overgrown, and you have to make sure that the weeds and vermin are controlled.

Apart from weeds and vermin, the greatest threat to the public estate and to national parks is fire, particularly large wildfire. In a previous Parliament I was part of the parliamentary inquiry into the 2002 and 2006 mega‑fires in Victoria. Both those fires burnt in excess of a million hectares. A lot of that was public land and national park, and because of the fuel load build‑up, those fires were very intense fires that caused huge environmental damage to the areas that burnt, particularly in the ash forest areas and some areas that burnt twice.

If an ash forest burns, it can regenerate, but if it burns again within the next 15 years, the ability to regenerate is killed. There is not the seed there for it to grow again. On trips that members of that parliamentary committee made into the high country, we saw that there are a lot of areas of ash forest that will never be ash forest again because the forest burnt twice — once in 2002–03 and again, as it was regenerating, in 2006.

Out of that parliamentary inquiry, the recommendation was to effectively have controlled burns for about 5 per cent of the landmass in Victoria. It was a very similar number to what ended up coming out of the royal commission after the 2009 bushfires. I notice there has been a change of policy by the current government now that its members have moved away from the hectare burn to more of a risk management strategy. That may be fine, but if enough burns are not done — and they are expensive and a challenge for the relevant minister to get the budget allocation to do — and a good controlled burn regime is not maintained, we will end up with mega‑fires again like we had in 2002, 2003 and 2006. The greatest loser out of those fires is the environment, with the damage that is done to it, because we lose not only the flora but also the fauna, particularly small marsupials and those sorts of animals that do not have the opportunity to outrun those mega‑fires.

What is really interesting with that whole fire issue is that we have the current debate about the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the lack of respect being shown to CFA volunteers by the government, particularly the Premier. When we have those mega‑fires, we rely on the surge capacity of the volunteers that come in and support Parks Victoria firefighters and Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) firefighters. Teams in my area go away on campaign fires regularly. They go away for five days, and the truck stays there, there is a change of shift and the volunteers come for another five days. Having surge capacity during those mega‑fires and campaign fires that last for weeks and weeks is how those fires are fought. If we as a state lose the commitment and the goodwill of the volunteer firefighters to give up their work, leave their families and travel halfway across the state quite often to go to those campaign fires, the state will be the poorer for it. In this case, when we are talking about a national parks bill, the environment will be the poorer for it as well.

At the moment all the volunteers are saying, ‘We are there for the community, and we will still go and fight fires no matter what happens’, but there is a real mistrust of the government. There is a lack of faith in the government that its members are going to negotiate in good faith around this particular enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA). We have heard the rhetoric from the Deputy Premier, who is also the Minister for Emergency Services, about how the things that the CFA is saying about the EBA are not true. At this stage I have yet to see anything that proves that the Deputy Premier is right in what he says, because I think he is effectively using weasel words. They are hollow words to try to gloss over what is an absolute disaster for the government in how its members have been caught out mistreating volunteers here in Victoria and their lack of respect for volunteers as well.

Ms Hutchins — Why don’t you get back to the bill?

Mr WALSH — It is on the bill. This is about national parks and making sure they are protected into the future, and having them protected involves making sure that we have a viable and committed volunteer staff at the CFA that can be there to fight those mega‑fires and those campaign fires in the future. So it is very much to do with national parks and making sure they are protected into the future.

The other thing this bill does is that it changes the process around how Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) inquiries are started. There is not only the opportunity to have to go through the cabinet process to have VEAC inquiries done in the future, there is also the opportunity for the minister to instigate those particular inquiries.

Again, there are mixed views in the community about the effectiveness of VEAC in terms of some of its inquiries. I speak on the basis of history in terms of the inquiry on the red gum park along the Murray River, where the overwhelming majority of the communities and the industry there were very, very dissatisfied with the VEAC report and the subsequent closing up of some of those particular areas. Again, as I said before, those areas now are infested with weeds and with vermin because they are not being managed appropriately into the future.

So I would like to end with a caution to the government: yes, you can brag about having more national parks, but you have actually got to maintain them properly, you have got to control the fire risk and you have to do controlled fire burns to make sure we do not have mega‑fires in the future.

 

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