NSW minister accused of putting a 'giant wrecking ball' through marine park planning

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Doubts have been cast over the independence of a NSW marine park advisory body after a senior Liberal minister appeared to indicate to a meeting of recreational fishers he had influence over the make-up of the committee.

Key points:

  • MP Andrew Constance discussed his intention to scrap four sanctuary zones within the Batemans Marine Park
  • The comments were made at a public meeting hosted by a fishing group and later published to a Facebook page
  • Mr Constance says the advisory committee has representation from all stakeholders in the region

The Batemans Marine Park advisory committee was set up to represent a diverse range of marine park stakeholders and was overseeing a pilot project that would guide the future management of the entire NSW marine park estate.

In an audio recording of the public meeting hosted by a Eurobodalla fishing group — and posted to a public Facebook page — Member for Bega and Minister for Transport Andrew Constance discussed his intention to scrap four sanctuary zones within the Batemans Marine Park.

The move would allow recreational fishing in the park.

“We’ve got the advisory committee with good people on it, that hasn’t happened by accident,” Mr Constance said, in the audio obtained by the ABC.

“I’ve been involved in it, making sure people like (name withheld) people like (withheld) people like (withheld) who are our friends are on that committee, with the very clear intent to make sure that the pilot works well and obviously we start to get some results.”

But when questioned by the ABC, Mr Constance insisted the advisory committee had representation from all stakeholders in the region.

“The point that I was making is that there are friends of the recreational fishermen who are on that committee and that these people are there as the voice of recreational fishers,” Mr Constance said.

Four days after speaking at the meeting, Mr Constance publicly announced the Government’s plan to open up sanctuary zones at Montague Island, Brou Lake South, Wagonga Inlet and Nangudga Lake.

The commitment, made on the eve of the official caretaker period, came as a surprise to at least five of the committee members.

Advisory committee member Bill Barker, from the Nature Coast Marine group, said he was stunned by the move which had “put a giant wrecking ball” through the future planning of the Batemans Marine Park.

“Now it’s hard to imagine what kind of advisory body you would have, if in fact, instead of giving advice, the advisory body is simply expected to take instructions from the local member.”

In response, Mr Constance said the Government did not have to take the committee’s advice.

“It’s ultimately there to provide advice — the advice can be accepted or rejected at any time by Government,” Mr Constance said.

Calls for advisory committee to be dissolved

Minister Constance’s comments prompted advisory member and ANU scientist Dr Chris Fulton to call for the committee to be dissolved, saying it would affect the future of the entire network of Marine Parks in NSW.

The Batemans Marine Park is the focus of a management planning pilot project which began in 2018 and is due for completion in just over a year

The review will serve as a pilot for how the state’s five other marine parks are managed, including the Cape Byron, Solitary Islands, Lord Howe Island, Port Stephens-Great Lakes and the Jervis Bay marine parks.

“Are we really able to trust this government with managing the marine estate in a fair and equitable way?” Dr Fulton said.

“It’s completely offensive to suggest we’re going to favour just one of those stakeholders in what is a common resource … no single group should own this resource.”

“If I was looking at this as a reasonable person in the NSW community, I would be seriously upset and distrustful of the committee and I think it should be dissolved immediately.”

In the audio recording of the meeting, Mr Constance was questioned by fishing advocates about whether the move to open the sanctuary zones was brought to the committee.

Mr Constance said: “I’ve gone around to Marine Park Advisory Committee members… and done the right thing.”

The Minister was also questioned over future appointments to the committee, with members’ terms due to expire later this year.

One participant asked, “Our term is due to expire in August … can we get a commitment that we will just rubber stamp appointments, so we can finish it’?”

In response, Mr Constance said, “So, with the advisory committee, it doesn’t generally come to cabinet — it’s just the minister [for Primary Industries]. But I get engaged as a local member, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”

That prompted an angry response from Dr Fulton.

“This is supposed to follow a procedure at arm’s length from the Minister and anyone else influencing it so that all sectors of the NSW community are represented,” Dr Fulton said.

According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, the Batemans Marine Park was unique and contained large expanses of rocky reef that supported a diverse array of fish, invertebrates and algae.

One of the sites Mr Constance earmarked to be opened for recreational fishing was the Montague Island Nature Reserve, home to hundreds of seals and more than 90 bird species, according to the DPI.

Dr Fulton, a marine ecologist, said the four sites were iconic to Southern Australia.

“Some of these places have endemic species that we find nowhere else in the world,” he said.

The Member for Bega said when the park was created, people were just drawing lines on maps.

The Government has long criticised the Labor party for rushing through the establishment of the Batemans Marine Park in 2006, which it said locked up prime fishing areas.

“The key element out of this is that when this park was devised, a whole bunch of people sat in offices and just drew lines on maps,” Mr Constance said.

Public servants criticised

Public servants responsible for researching and implementing the marine park copped a serve in the Minister for Transport’s address for failing to implement the Government’s agenda.

“I’ve got to say some of the green tentacles that exist across bureaucracy, where they just quietly go about just enforcing things, there’s a lesson in that”

He goes on to say the Government had “changed a lot of the secretaries of the departments”.

“The best [that] ministers can do is try and sweep through their agencies and look for where those problems are and then jump on them.”

Referring to Mr Constance’s comments to the fishing representatives, Eurobodalla councillor and committee member Jack Tait said, “obviously you can tell by it that there’s an election somewhere around the corner” but he maintained the group was neutral.

“We’ve never been advised on any political views in any way whatsoever by any people on that committee,” Cr Tait said.

“I can honestly tell you that through the process of being appointed to this committee I have never, ever heard Mr Constance tell anyone that they were going to be on it.

“After the submissions were called to go on it, I had a phone call from Mr Constance asking me had I applied for the position — and I had.”

“I applaud the Minister for trying to maybe look after some of his own patch, but trying to do the right thing by recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, everyone that comes from wherever in the world to use our waterways.”

Cr Tait said there was no need to dissolve the advisory committee.

“We will work through it because there’s some very, very intelligent people there. We have got a terrific chairperson and we will come out with the best outcome for everyone,” he said.

The Minister for Primary Industries, Niall Blair, who is ultimately responsible for the NSW marine park estate, said he agreed to fast-track consultation for some areas within the park.

“Ever since I’ve been Minister for Fisheries, Andrew Constance has expressed concerns about Labor’s botched marine park process and has been calling for a review,” the Minister said in a statement.

“His primary concern has been the significant impacts the marine park has had on fishers.”