Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (14:14:55): I am pleased to rise and contribute to this debate.
As I understand it, four members from western Victoria will speak on this motion today. That is of little surprise given that, one, we represent the area but, two, I think everyone that has been to the Grampians would agree that the Grampians is one of the most beautiful places that you could ever, ever wish to see, whether it be in Victoria or indeed this country. It is a landscape that I think is quite unique and quite distinctive, and obviously needs to be protected at all times.
The government’s position on this motion before us today is to oppose the motion. Mr Quilty’s motion raises issues related to rock climbing in the Grampians National Park, or what is known as Gariwerd.
In particular, this motion questions the evidence that points to the impact of this sport and questions the approach of Parks Victoria in dealing with significant challenges to this area of special importance culturally and environmentally.
In short, this government’s priority is protecting the natural and cultural values of the Grampians National Park.
We are working to support climbers and other park users to find alternative locations in the Grampians to climb, with over 60 per cent of the park still available for their use. We will keep working with local businesses and tour operators to clearly identify where climbing can continue.
So one might ask: what is so special about the Grampians National Park?
Well, this area contains one-third of Victoria’s flora, supporting a diverse range of mammals and birds. Despite this apparent richness it remains vulnerable to human activity. Its distinctive sandstone features and challenging slopes have made it a huge attraction for a wide range of outdoor pursuits, especially bushwalking and rock climbing.
The Grampians, or Gariwerd, is also an extraordinarily significant region to its Indigenous cultural heritage. Around 90 per cent of the known rock art sites in Victoria are found here. In the last seven years about 40 rock art sites have been discovered—or perhaps, one could argue, rediscovered—within the park, making a total of more than 140 sites.
For traditional owners and for everyone else, this evidence of human activity going back 20,000 years is incredibly important, and I do not believe that there are many people who would argue against my view that this is part of Australia’s history and that it must be respected and it must be protected.
So what are the problems that have led Parks Victoria to take the action that it has?
Firstly, the Grampians National Park has experienced a surge in visitations in the last 15 years, especially tourists for the visual and cultural experience, visitors pursuing the outdoors and rock climbers in particular. The human impact stemming from this traffic has become much more marked over time, but it is in the areas favoured by rock climbers where it is especially visible as the number of climbers has grown and the climbing activities and techniques have changed.
Bouldering is a new facet of the sport. The fixed protection methods—in brackets, like bolts and chain anchors—have become common.
Ms Bath interjected.
Ms TIERNEY: In brackets—that is right, Ms Bath.
Damage has occurred even when it is not the result of inappropriate behaviour by a minority.
Having said that, bolts and hooks have been left in rock faces. Climbers’ chalk marks the face of many surfaces. Rock is broken and vegetation is pulled out as climbers search for grip. In some areas trails have been cut in the approach to new rock faces. Vegetation at the base of climbs has also been trampled on and lost, sometimes by the use of matting or what are called soft landings.
Camping outside of designated areas has led to further impacts, even within designated spots. Human waste and indeed rubbish denigrates the park.
Perhaps most importantly, some Aboriginal cultural heritage sites have not been treated with respect.
On ABC’s 7.30 on 29 April, John Clarke, an Eastern Maar traditional owner, said, and I quote: Our heritage, our stories, our identity is just not up for debate, the value of these places is just not up for debate … … Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Now that’s the bottom line …
In a similar vein, Indigenous ranger Jake Goodes said seeing the damage was devastating, and I quote: To see there’s fire rings, there’s bolts, there’s chalk all over the rock, vegetation’s been cut, it’s really heart-wrenching … You feel gutted. … With more people, you know, we love the landscape to death … It’s an actual thing and it’s happening here in Australia, it’s happening here in the Grampians.
So what action is being taken to protect the cultural heritage and the environmental values that we have in the Grampians?
I would say, to be clear, the protection of natural and cultural heritage sites is of course mandated by legislation. Special protection areas have been in place in the national parks since 2003. These areas have specific significance because they protect an Aboriginal site or have a threatened species of plant or animal that can be significantly affected by human activity. Some activities are not permitted, such as hunting and trail bike riding.
But since March this year Parks Victoria have enforced climbing prohibitions in eight special protection areas of particular significance and indeed vulnerability.
So is this a lockout?
No, it is not. Everybody still has full access to all parts of the Grampians National Park for bushwalking, picnicking and various forms of outdoor recreation. Climbers continue to access approximately two-thirds of the park. So many popular and world-class sites remain accessible and unaffected, including those at Bundaleer, Mount Stapylton Amphitheatre, the Watchtower, the Wonderland area and the Halls Gap Valley.
What is the way forward in all of this, one might ask?
I think the first thing is that we need to acknowledge that the enforcement of special protection areas in response to the challenges I have outlined has caused some disruption and some angst amongst the rock climbing interest groups and of course some tour operators.
I am advised and I am confident that Parks Victoria is committed to proactively working with those groups and others to limit disruption. In partnership with the traditional owner groups Parks Victoria is inviting the public to participate in the development of a plan for how the Grampians landscape can be managed over the next 15 years.
The preparation for this updated Grampians management plan will involve consultation with all stakeholders over the next 12 months. It will address environmental conservation, cultural heritage and protection of Aboriginal rock art, recreational activities, tourism opportunities, safety and visitor experience, and it will cover the Grampians National Park plus adjacent parks and reserves.
This process provides recourse for all public land users, including licensed tour operators. All interested people can register on the Engage Victoria website, and I would encourage people to absolutely do so.
I must say, though, that I am disappointed that Mr Quilty sees Parks Victoria as an organisation that, he alleges, quote: … manages regional public land from a centralised office in Melbourne. I know Ms Pulford touched on this, but nothing could be further from the truth. Seventy per cent of Parks Victoria staff operate outside of Melbourne, and they work out of 103 different locations across the state. They are subject matter experts in a full range of park management functions, from environment, science and operational delivery through to community engagement and of course land use planning. Their role in conservation, education and visitor management is absolutely crucial.
This government will continue to rebuild Parks Victoria. We have increased the range of staff, and we have renewed and increased funding for the organisation in the aftermath of the deep cuts by those opposite, when one in 10 Parks Victoria staff lost their job. Parks Victoria is acting now to improve management and protect our national parks for future generations.
Can I say that this government actively encourages and supports Victorians in getting out and enjoying outdoor recreation. There was $107.2 million allocated to the great outdoors package, which is focused on making it easier and better for Victorians to go camping, bushwalking and taking our four-wheel drives out for tours. There are places in Victoria where you can actually enjoy virtually any form of outdoor activity, and these bring tourist dollars, boost our local economies and deliver, of course, regional jobs.
We do proudly support Indigenous Victorians in assisting them to protect significant cultural heritage sites—not just the Gariwerd traditional owners but also of course, in western Victoria, the Gunditjmara people, who are currently working with UNESCO in gaining World Heritage listing for the Budj Bim cultural landscape, which if successful will become the first Australian site listed exclusively for its Aboriginal cultural values. The master plan for this site will include tourism infrastructure when it is implemented.
I see a future where Aboriginal cultural heritage sites such as Budj Bim and the rock art sites at the Grampians National Park will become world-class tourist destinations.
I do fully support the work of Parks Victoria that will help preserve the special protected areas in the Grampians National Park. I also support the current consultations that are being undertaken to create a new management plan for the next 15 years, and as I indicated at the beginning of my contribution this government opposes the motion before the house.