Victorian Fisheries Authority Bill 2016

Thursday 13th October 2016

Second Reading  -

Debate resumed from 15 September; motion of Mr DONNELLAN (Minister for Roads and Road Safety).

Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) — I rise as the lead speaker on behalf of the Liberal‑Nationals on the Victorian Fisheries Authority Bill 2016. This bill establishes the Victorian Fisheries Authority, known as the VFA, which will be the statutory authority that has responsibility for both recreational and commercial fishing regulation and management here in Victoria. Effectively the functions and roles of Fisheries Victoria, currently managed by the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, will be transferred to the VFA in the future.

The VFA is in many ways modelled on the Game Management Authority (GMA) legislation that was introduced by the former Liberal‑Nationals government between 2010 and 2014. I acknowledge the very hard work of Roger Hallam, as chair of the GMA, and particularly the staff of what was then the Department of Environment and Primary Industries in developing that legislation and getting the GMA set up. The people from KPMG helped with that as well.

I suppose the VFA takes over the administration role. It takes over licensing and it takes over the compliance and enforcement functions of Fisheries Victoria. The bill sets out the powers to do that work and also the powers to develop fishery management plans and operational plans for Victoria’s fisheries. The VFA will give the minister and secretary advice on fishery management matters and strategic policy advice for fisheries in Victoria, including the setting of quotas, the allocation of funding, the development of legislation and the development of fees, royalties and levies. The VFA will also continue current duties around the promotion and support of recreational fishing opportunities in Victoria and make provisions for the continuation of enforcement activities so we can, importantly, protect our world‑class fisheries from poachers and other illegal activities.

I think our fishery officers have done a very good job here in Victoria over the years. I never cease to be amazed, I suppose, at the ingenuity of those who want to do something illegal, but I think our fishery officers have in most cases been very good at staying one step ahead of those illegal activities and making sure they catch people, particularly those taking abalone and some of the particular species that are very popular with some people in Melbourne.

It is a rather large bill at 88 pages, but quite a lot of that relates to consequential amendments to the 14 acts affected as a result of setting up the authority. Those consequential amendments transfer legislative accountability and associated decision‑making responsibilities to the VFA, and the CEO of the VFA is responsible for the employment of staff and compliance issues.

From the point of view of the Liberal‑Nationals, we will not be opposing this legislation. While the legislation is between houses we will be discussing a couple of issues with the bill, which I will come to a bit later when I talk about that. From a two‑party point of view, we have always been very strong supporters of both the recreational fishing industry and the commercial sector. From the recreational fishing point of view, one of the programs we were responsible for when we were in government was providing the extra $16 million of actual budget appropriation that went into the recreational fishing sector on top of the licence fee money. I think that enabled a lot of very good work to be done in the recreational fishing sector.

There was talk from the minister in the second‑reading speech about the number of fish stocks that have been released. The scene has been set for a continual increase in the numbers of fish stock that are being released in Victoria over time, particularly by the investment that we made when in government to upgrade the Snobs Creek hatchery. There was quite a bit of money invested in the upgrade to Snobs Creek, and there was some improvement in the technology they were using and an increase in the number of fingerlings that were coming out of that particular establishment.

One of the pleasant jobs I had as minister was to go and help the staff of the Snobs Creek hatchery to actually release some of the big mother fish from up there. I must admit as a fisherman it was very disappointing in some ways, but very good in others, to go there when the great big cods that were used for breeding were actually let loose into Lake Eildon. We let them loose a month before the cod season opened so there was time for them to acclimatise and get away. I was very tempted to tether one around the corner so I could go back in a month’s time and maybe catch that particular fish, but I know that is illegal and I would not have done that. The breeding stock they were using were magnificent fish.

Out of that additional $16 million of budget appropriation that we put into the recreational fishing industry over four years a lot of boat ramps were built around Victoria. A lot of fish cleaning tables and fishing decks were put in at some of the estuaries around the coast. There was a significant improvement in the infrastructure for the recreational fishing industry over that particular time in addition to what was reinvested out of the licence fees. I am very proud of that time.

I know the current government, as part of its election commitments, had its Target One Million program, which is about increasing the number of people involved in recreational fishing to 1 million Victorians. I suppose the question I would ask — and maybe the minister in the upper house can talk about this in her summing up on the bill when it is in committee — and it is a question a lot of people have asked me, is: is Target One Million a slogan or is it actually a plan to get 1 million Victorians involved in recreational fishing in the future? When you go onto the website and search, you find there is very little detail about the actual plan. I cannot find a detailed plan. I cannot find any detailed accountability or key performance indicators that the department is supposed to meet or time lines around when different milestones are supposed to be met if there is such a plan.

I would be interested in hearing an explanation from the minister of the detail of the Target One Million program, including the key milestones and key outcomes that are going to happen over the term of this government. I note that both sides of politics went to the state election with a plan to stop netting in Port Phillip Bay. We were actually first, but I do not think it is a matter of who was first and who was second. It is something that has happened, and it is something that was sought by the recreational fishing industry. It is one of the things that will supposedly increase the number of recreational fishers, but I have not seen any detail around how that is actually going to happen and where the milestones are for those particular things to happen. I suppose the question to be asked is: is the Target One Million long on spin and short on substance or is there a detailed plan that goes behind it?

In the recreational fishing fish stocking program one of the other interesting little projects that was done at that time was the breeding of estuary perch. Estuary perch is a fish that is quite hard to breed in captivity. A hatchery in New South Wales developed the technology to breed estuary perch and I had the opportunity to release some of those perch into Lake Bolac as the then Minister for Water. Most people would remember the droughts of the early 2000s when a whole heap of lakes and wetlands across Victoria went dry, of which Lake Bolac was one. It filled in a matter of a couple of days with the heavy rains in late 2010 and early 2011 and we were able to restock Lake Bolac and a lot of those wetlands. Because they had been dry and were then filled with floodwater the lakes and wetlands had high nutrient levels and there were very good growth rates for those fish.

Another good program that came out of that $16 million investment in the recreational fishing initiative was the breeding of other species of fish as well, including the estuary perch that were put into Lake Bolac and into the Hopkins River down there.

When you come to the actual bill, the issues that have been raised with us are around the prerequisites for the appointment of directors to the board, which are set out in clauses 21 and 22. We have no issue at all with what is in the legislation except that there is one prerequisite that is not there. The legislation stipulates that the minister must appoint a board of between five and eight people, to my recollection, and have a mix of practical skills to ensure the board functions well. They include legal practice, finance or accounting, public administration or governance and natural resource management — all things that make sense. They also include fisheries management; Aboriginal culture and identity as it relates to fishing and fisheries — again we support that; stakeholder engagement — I wonder whether that is more a staff administration issue rather than a board issue but we accept that being there; leadership and business management, including human resources, again a good skill to have on the board to make sure management is functioning correctly;
communication skills; and marine or freshwater science.

Then in clause 22(2) the bill goes on to talk about those who must not be appointed to the board. They include people who are members of a council, licensing appeals tribunal or commercial fisheries licensing panel, and we agree with that. It then talks about not appointing the holder of a current commercial fishery licence or aquaculture licence or a person or entity associated with the holder of a current commercial fishery licence or aquaculture licence. I would agree that probably a person who holds one of those licences should not be appointed to the board, but if you think about the skills you are looking for on the board, my suggestion to the government is, maybe between houses, they look at having a paragraph (k) after paragraphs (a) to (j) and have someone with some commercial fishing experience on the board.

If you think about the regulatory role that the Victorian Fisheries Authority will have with the commercial sector, the commercial fishing sector pays significant licence fees and significant royalties. The VFA will be responsible for setting quotas for that sector and all that work will be done on a fee‑for‑service basis. It is important that the VFA, in fulfilling that role and given it is a fee‑for‑service role of behalf of the commercial sector, has someone on the board who has experience in and an intimate understanding of the commercial sector so those decisions can be made with some good knowledge.

Although we all talk a lot about the recreational fishing sector in this place, and it is a very, very important sector, with a lot of people enjoying fishing, whether it be freshwater or ocean water fishing, the commercial sector is also important here in Victoria. Given the VFA is going to be regulating that sector and given the amount of fees and royalties that will come from that sector that will go to the VFA, I think it is important that there is someone who has a very intimate understanding of the sector appointed to the board. My suggestion would be that the government might like to consider adding that to the other prerequisites for appointment to the board into the future.

As is always the case when we debate these sorts of bills and when it comes to appointments to government boards, it is important to make sure there is balance in the people who are appointed to that board. Given the income from both the recreational sector through licence fees and the commercial sector, which I have already talked about, I would not like to think that appointment to this new body will become a matter of jobs for the boys or jobs for Labor mates into the future. You could craft a scenario where, for argument’s sake, Craig Ingram might be chair of the new Victorian Fisheries Authority and Travis Dowling, for argument’s sake, might be the CEO.

An honourable member interjected.

Mr WALSH — I am not sure whether he is in the gallery. Is he in the gallery? We do not want to see this become — —

Mr Pearson interjected.

Mr WALSH — The National Party has never, ever stacked a board. I would like to have faith that there will be balance across politics in the people who are appointed to the board so that it does not just end up a Labor mates board, and I think there should be some gender diversity on the board. I know the government has quotas around gender diversity, but I think you will find that there are a lot of women who enjoy recreational fishing so I hope there will always be some gender diversity on the board into the future. I am just putting it on the record as a cautionary note. I would not like to see the recreational fishing licensing funds and the commercial fishers fees, royalties and charges used to fund just a Labor mates board.

The other issue I would just touch on while we are talking about this bill is that there has been, with the support of the industry, I do concede that, a significant increase in the cost of licence fees for recreational fishers. The two‑day licence has gone from being a $6 licence to now being a three‑day licence for $10. A 28‑day licence, which was $12, has now gone to $20. A one‑year licence, which was $24.50, has now gone to $35 or $33 if you buy it online. And a three‑year licence, which was $66, has now gone to $95 or $90 if you buy it online. The announcement of those fee increases was touted as one of the major parts of the Target One Million plan. As I said, there was general support from the industry for those increases but again I want to strike a cautionary note by saying that we want to make sure that money actually goes back to the recreational fishing industry for infrastructure and for restocking programs to enhance the fishing experience for recreational fishers.

With the setting up of the Victorian Fisheries Authority what we do not want to see is that money starting to be used to fund the authority itself rather than having budget appropriations for that particular project. Again I make a cautionary note that we do not want to see this become a cost‑shifting issue, where what has previously been money that has been paid willingly by recreational fishers, because they know it will improve their fishing experience in the future, is hypothecated across to substitute for budget appropriations for the recreational sector. With the money the commercial fishing industry pay, we also do not want to see their fees, charges, royalties and levies increased to cover the cost of running the Victorian Fisheries Authority into the future instead of having the appropriation that would normally have gone to the department to employ the staff to do that work.

Back in the early 2000s we had an experience with PrimeSafe, which was originally the regulator for the red meat industry and the chicken meat industry. When Bob Cameron was the minister — between 2002 and 2006, if my memory serves me correctly — the fishing industry was brought into PrimeSafe and all of a sudden it got stung with something like half a million dollars of extra fees and charges, which they did not believe were fair and equitable. They did not believe they were getting value out of that.

Mr Katos interjected.

Mr WALSH — The member for South Barwon, who was a member of the commercial fishing sector and a fish wholesaler and retailer, will no doubt talk a little bit about the PrimeSafe experience in his contribution on the bill.

Having a dedicated authority for the fishing industry is a good thing for Victoria, particularly given the mega‑department we have now. I think it is good to have it carved out of that department, because with the size of that particular department there is a risk that things like this will in some way get lost. So setting it up is a good idea. I just reinforce those points I made through my contribution to the debate about having someone with commercial fishing experience on the board because of the amount of money the commercial sector will pay into the Victorian fishing authority, and making sure it is not a board for Labor mates to have a job for life on a high salary. I would ask the government to consider those thoughts I have raised, particularly around the appointment of people with commercial fishing expertise to the board in the future.


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