I rise in the house today to speak on the motion moved by Mr Quilty, which:

(1)    recognises that the government has locked Victorians out of public land and in doing so has:

(a)    prevented enjoyment of outdoor recreation, caused severe distress to affected businesses and disrupted long-running events;

(b)   in many instances, failed to:

(i)       consult with affected parties;

(ii)      construct public land arrangements that satisfy all users that rely on public land access;

(iii)      provide notice to public land users;

(iv)      provide adequate recourse to public land users;

(2)    notes that:

(a)    cultural heritage legislation is a cause of many lockouts;

(b)   Parks Victoria manages regional public land from a centralised office in Melbourne;

(3)    calls on the government to:

(a)    improve accountability in Parks Victoria and Aboriginal Victoria; and

(b)   consider a decentralised management structure for public lands so that local communities have a guaranteed opportunity to provide input on all significant decisions made about public land.

In speaking to this motion today I wish to make some key points. It is important to both respect and protect areas of cultural significance in the Grampians, and in particular the unique rock art sites. Many of these sites are either inappropriately caged behind cyclone fencing or have no protection at all. However, the rock climbing community are rightly frustrated at the way they have been treated by Parks Victoria. The climbers feel they have been unfairly blamed for damage to Aboriginal rock art sites and to the environment more widely. The climbers rightly see themselves as protectors of this important landscape. It is unacceptable that the Andrews government continues to refuse to consult with the rock climbing community or the many small businesses who rely on rock climbing in the Grampians for their financial sustainability.

The government must work with everyone involved: Parks Victoria, the local traditional owners and park users, including the rock climbing community. A solution must be found which both preserves these important sites of cultural significance and protects the environment, while retaining access to some of the best rock climbing in the world. For those not familiar with this unique area of Western Victoria Region allow me to familiarise you with a few facts. The Grampians National Park is a nature reserve in western Victoria. Rising abruptly from the surrounding Western Plains, the Grampians is known for its sandstone mountains; wildflowers; and wildlife, including echidnas and wallabies. It has been described as the garden of the area.

The Grampians is not only a destination in itself but the gateway to many other areas. In rural Victoria and in my electorate of Western Victoria Region we welcome tourism and its associated positive benefits. We want growth in sustainable businesses in rural Victoria. Tourism is one such beneficial industry. We welcome visitors from around Australia and across the seas, and we particularly welcome visitors from this heavily congested city inside the tram tracks, where we are today. We know you need to escape the bumper-to-bumper traffic and come out into our clean air and open spaces. We want to grow our economy in population areas that are declining.

The Grampians area is an area that fulfils our growth expectations and your desire for outdoor escape and sporting activities—and just so you know, the region has experienced a 37.3 per cent increase in interstate visitors, from 2016 to 2017, higher than any other area in the state. Domestic visitors have also increased 22.7 per cent. Northern Grampians mayor, Cr Tony Driscoll, said it was an extremely pleasing result for the entire region. In 2017 visitors spent $335 million in the region, which was a 91.2 per cent increase from 2016 when visitors spent $175 million. Cr Driscoll said when tourists came to the region, their spending often reached towns outside the Grampians. He said:

“The curiosity of visitors is great because they often discover other treasures while they are here […]. They might come for one specific event, but then they also decide to go to Halls Gap or St Arnaud, so it has a flow-on effect.”

In fact there is a considerable multiplier effect from this one locality.

“We are good at celebrating the uniqueness of the region and we have been trying to make the destination better and better,” he said.

The amount of expenditure in the Grampians has also significantly increased in the past year. Expenditure by overnight visitors from March 2017 to March 2018 increased by 42.8 per cent in comparison to the previous year. Overnight visitors spent $317 million in the region during the year.

Visitors spent 2 367 000 nights in the Grampians from March 2017 to March 2018—a 26.6 per cent increase from 2016–17. Grampians Tourism chief executive Marc Sleeman has said the growth in tourist numbers and expenditure was ahead of both state and national averages. ‘It’s an amazing result for our region’, he has said.

We do not want to put all of this at risk, and already we have seen reports of these bans and the damage they are doing to the economy. The Save Grampians Climbing team have suggested that their climbing guiding industry employs over 50 locals, and some businesses have already seen a 30 per cent decrease in income. A yearly climbing festival has been cancelled this year that had previously brought significant income to the region. Accommodation and restaurants are being affected as thousands of climbers go elsewhere. The bans have cut elite climbing by a drastic 93 per cent. These climbing bans have removed almost all of the high-level routes - that is grade 28+ - that Victorian Olympic hopefuls use as training routes on their way to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Now, this issue is a self-made problem of the government—no-one else. The government and the minister are totally responsible. As Mr Quilty has said, this is primarily about public land management, and this government is clearly not known for its ability to properly manage public spaces. The adversarial approach taken by senior Parks Victoria officials is also of concern. The bans were enacted without consultation with the public and there has been no release of official reports to back up claims made against the climbing community. As Minister Pulford has said, she and many millions of people have been enjoying the Grampians for generations. Management of public land is solely the responsibility of the managing agency, which in this case is the government, and through them their bureaucracies. This problem cannot suddenly have arisen. There has clearly been an abrogation of responsibility on the part of the minister and the government, and to suddenly lock out various user groups begs the question: how did we get to this point?

By far the majority of climbing sites in the Grampians were first established in the 1970s and 80s. Rock climbing is not a new thing. It is a textbook story of how not to address an issue. Mr Aaron Lowndes from the Melbourne Climbing School wrote to me and said:

“I am a responsible, environmentally-conscious rock-climber of 20+ years (worldwide) and a Licensed Tour Operator with Parks Victoria ….”

“ As sole owner and operator of the Melbourne Climbing School, I make a point of teaching environmental and, where possible, cultural awareness as part of all of my structured courses, in the hopes that by influencing the awareness of my students, I can influence the quality of the knowledge that gets passed onward to their fellow climbers. The Grampians are a big drawcard to climbers from all over the world, and a major reason I moved here in the first place, not to mention starting a business specifically focussed on introducing new people to the sport.“

Not only had Mr Lowndes not been contacted prior to the recent bans in the Grampians, but the smear campaign that immediately followed was devastating to all climbers, especially to businesses like Mr Lowndes’s. He said:

“We make a living by in part reinforcing the importance of environmental and cultural awareness to all climbers we interact with, along with (obviously) the safety aspect inherent in the sport. By and large the sport has attracted a healthy mix of people from all walks in life … it is one of the 10 most gender-neutral sports in Australia—”

that should be pleasing to all of us—

“a positive aspect that is reinforced around the world. So an outright ban followed by a smear campaign by Parks Victoria is seen as extremely damaging and the fact that it was done without consultation and apparently entirely without merit is insulting to the entire community.

Parks Victoria themselves have made many mistakes in this campaign and have admitted to far too few of them, even going so far as to outright refuse to publically acknowledge their apparent ‘support’ … “

Excuse me— 

Thank you, President. I appreciate the indulgence of you and the house for allowing me to have a break, and I thank the whip for the medication. Now I will attempt to continue on this important motion.

It has been valuable to have the minister’s contribution in the meantime because she has indicated that there is suddenly a problem. As I said, this rock climbing has been going on for a very long time, and the use of the Grampians National Park also for a very long time, so this cannot suddenly have come to the minister’s attention. It seems that these parties that the minister has referred to have not been doing their job for a very long time, because there cannot suddenly be rubbish around, there cannot suddenly be chalk on rocks and there cannot suddenly be nails in rocks and bolts in holes. I am interested in the minister’s response to Mr Limbrick’s question in an adjournment debate when the minister referred to the website to go and have a look at these bolts in holes. Well, actually it turned out that the bolt holes had been put there as a result of the fencing that had been put around some Aboriginal art; it was not put there by rock climbers at all.

 I am sure that with goodwill the parties can all work out a very appropriate solution for this so that it benefits everybody—rock climbers, tourists, people that want to walk in the park and the local Indigenous landowners, who I know want to always work with people, not against them, and they are very willing to be cooperative and get to a solution that is for the benefit of everybody. I think we have suddenly produced a problem that could have been worked out with a better approach, and I call on the minister to act sensibly and with an understanding of what the needs are for many people in this very important area, so I thank Mr Quilty for bringing the motion to the house. I think it has been a very valuable discussion, and I thank you for your indulgence.

19 June 2019