Victorian red gum national parks legislation passed

Legislation passed by the Victorian Parliament last night created almost 100,000 hectares of new River Red Gum National Parks from Lake Hume to the South Australian border. And in a state first, the legislation created a framework for the parks - or indeed any public land - to be co-managed with Traditional Owners.

27th November 2009

Legislation passed by the Victorian Parliament last night created almost 100,000 hectares of new River Red Gum National Parks from Lake Hume to the South Australian border. And in a state first, the legislation created a framework for the parks - or indeed any public land - to be co-managed with Traditional Owners.

The Parks and Crown Land Legislation Amendment (River Red Gums) Bill (2009) passed through the Victorian Legislative Council just before 9 o'clock on Thursday evening. From the gallery, members of the Wadi Wadi people, Friends of the Earth, the Victorian National Parks Association, Goulburn Valley Environment Group and Friends of Nyah Vinifera clapped as decades of our campaign work were formally recognised in legislation. The proceedings were also observed by the dedicated staff of the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC), who's three year investigation had recommended the legislation.

 

Liberals break with tradition to oppose Bill

The Bill was supported by Labor and the Greens, but opposed by the Liberals, Nationals, and the lone Democratic Labor Party member. Whilst the National vote was unsurprising, it was extremely disappointing to see the Liberals break decades of bipartisan support for nature conservation. Until now the Liberal Party have always voted for the creation of National Parks when recommended by VEAC or its predecessors.

The Bolte Liberal government created VEAC's predecessor, the Land Conservation Council in 1971, gifting Victoria with a nature conservation legacy. In the thirty-eight years since, the Liberal Party have never before opposed national parks resulting from their recommendations.

One step towards land justice

This legislation is an important milestone in the journey towards land justice for Indigenous people in Victoria. It creates a legal framework for the negotiation of individual co-management agreements with Traditional Owner Groups. In his speech to parliament, Environment Minister Gavin Jennings undertook to negotiate co-management agreements with the Yorta Yorta people over Barmah Forest, and the Wadi Wadi people over Nyah-Vinifera.

Until now, whilst is was legally feasible to negotiate co-management in one-off contracts, there was no system for integrating these agreements into the laws that control how public lands are managed. This has complicated negotiations and created a muddle of different approaches around the state. Of greater concern, however, is the limited powers these agreements have given Traditional Owners. Nothing higher than a senior advisory role has been conferred on the various Co-operative Management Councils and Committees established with the Yorta Yorta, Wotjobaluk and Gunditjmara peoples.

The Parks and Crown Land Legislation Amendment (River Red Gums) Act only goes some way towards addressing this problem. Whilst it allows for an almost infinite array of powers to be conferred onto Traditional Owner Land Management Boards, it makes no guarantees as to which powers the Minister will actually agree to hand over. This differs from the New South Wales approach, which mandates that Traditional Owner Boards of Management are responsible for the preparation of Management Plans and the "care, control and management" of a park, essentially putting them in place of the head of the National Parks service.

Despite a request from Friends of the Earth and the Wadi Wadi people, the Victorian Government refused to mandate these minimum powers in the Bill, preferring to retain discretion over what powers it may or may not confer on individual Traditional Owner Groups. This is a serious deficiency in the legislation. Nonetheless, we remain optimistic of a good outcome for the Yorta Yorta and Wadi Wadi peoples, and will be working closely with them as they negotiate co-management agreements with Environment Minister Gavin Jennings. Both groups are seeking substantive decision making powers that secure their rights to care for country. Whether they are successful will be a test of Minister Jennings' commitment to land justice.

More promises to deliver

The Parks and Crown Land Legislation Amendment (River Red Gums) Act is a major step forward but it does not completely fulfill the Brumby government's commitments on Red Gum. Over the next twelve months we will be working to ensure that the following promises are fulfilled:

* delivering environmental water to protect the forests. Although this committment was made, we see little progress being made. The Brumby government are obstructing Federal government attempts to buy water for the environment.

* signing co-management agreements with the Yorta Yorta and Wadi Wadi peoples. Negotiations have begun and we hope to see Traditional Owner Land Management Boards in operation by December 2010.

* passing legislation to enable handback of national parks to Traditional Owners. The government have committed to delivering this through the Victorian Native Title Settlement Framework. We expect to see legislation by mid-2010.

* establishing Indigenous advisory committees over Murray-Sunset National Park, Hattah–Kulkyne National Park, Murray-Kulkyne Park, Bumbang Island Historic and Cultural Features Reserve and Gunbower National Park.

We also call on the NSW government to follow Victoria's example and implement a similar high level of protection for the River Red Gum forests along the NSW side of the rivers.