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Ryan Smith MP, Member for WARRANDYTE

Warrandyte Media 

Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Bill 2017

9 August, 2017

I rise to join the debate on the Yarra River (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Bill 2017. It was interesting to hear the Minister for Planning introduce this. There were a lot of grandiose statements. To listen to him you would think that no-one had ever thought about protecting the Yarra before. Certainly that may well have been the case under the Bracks and Brumby governments. When I was first elected, in fact first preselected, one of the biggest issues in my electorate, which obviously is bordered by the Yarra River, was the extremely high levels of E. coli. That situation was of such extreme concern to the local community that it was one of the first issues brought to me when I was first elected. We had to do a lot of work to ensure that those bacteria levels were brought down.

There were no protections for the Yarra under the Bracks and Brumby governments, and in fact under John Brumby as Premier there was a high-density development on the banks of the Yarra around the Victoria Gardens area. I think it is quite ironic that we have the Minister for Planning coming in and making all these grandiose statements about protecting the Yarra when he was and still is the member for the area where this high-density development was actually approved by then planning minister, Justin Madden.

In fact it came to a head for me to understand the importance of stopping that sort of development, the sort of development that the former Labor government allowed, when I went out on a boat with Ian Penrose from the Yarra Riverkeeper Association and looked at that particular development from the river's point of view. I got a great understanding of how intrusive that development was. So as I say, it is very interesting to hear now some years later the Minister for Planning saying that the Yarra needs protection against development of that sort when he was complicit in the development that is there at the moment being done in the first place.

It is timely to give the house a little bit of a history lesson on the actions that the former coalition government took to protect the Yarra and its environs from both a planning and an environmental protection point of view. As I said, the protections that were put in place over the four years of the coalition government actually did a lot to make sure that development was kept at bay and that the environmental protections were ones that were important for the future of the Yarra.

Back in October 2012 the then Minister for Planning, now the Leader of the Opposition, introduced VC96, which was gazetted. This particular amendment changed the Victoria planning provisions and all planning schemes in Victoria, updating the state planning policy framework to protect and enhance the significant river corridors of metropolitan Melbourne. The amendment also strengthened the planning provisions along the Yarra River corridor in the City of Boroondara.

I might also mention this particular planning amendment sought to put protections around the Maribyrnong River, the other important river of Melbourne and one that has been forgotten by this government. But it is important that this house realises that the Maribyrnong River is of equal importance to the city as the Yarra River.

In September 2013 the now Leader of the Opposition, as planning minister, delivered further planning controls along the Yarra River between Burke Road in Ivanhoe and my electorate of Warrandyte, and on 14 July he went on to release the draft Middle Yarra recommendations report.

This particular report applied the principles set out in the Yarra River corridor Punt Road to Burke Road report that had been sitting on Labor's desk since 2005. It is a report which the governments of the day, the Bracks and Brumby governments, did nothing with. It was only the now Leader of the Opposition as the planning minister who actually applied the principles of that particular report to the draft report, and it was some years later, after the current government took office, before there was any reference to this particular report and to the provisions put forward by the then planning minister with the Middle Yarra River recommendations report. So planning provisions that protect the Yarra have been in place or were certainly in process over the four years of the coalition government, and it is good to see, albeit three years after this government took office, that this government is finally picking up the view that the Yarra does need protecting.

From an environmental point of view we certainly were able to do a lot with regard to understanding the protections that were needed for the Yarra River, in terms of pollution, in terms of litter around the area and in terms of putting the sort of vegetation in place that needed to be put in place to protect the banks of the Yarra.

In October 2012 we launched the policy document A Cleaner Yarra River and Port Phillip Bay: A Plan of Action. This outlined four actions, the first being a much clearer management structure. The minister at the table in his second-reading speech said this bill is:

… a landmark bill because it establishes a holistic approach to the management of this iconic river …

Well, that was already done back in October 2012. In October 2012 as minister I brought together all the agencies and departments that had carriage of various aspects of the Yarra River — the Port Phillip and Westernport Catchment Management Authority, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA), Parks Victoria, the department itself and the various local councils — and included in that particular task force there were representatives from the Yarra Riverkeeper Association and the Dolphin Research Institute.

The principal aim of that task force was to ensure that with any action that was taken — any part of the $1 billion that was budgeted for use over the coming four or five years — the principal spend was done in coordination with other agencies to ensure that the health of the Yarra River was the principal priority of that spend. That task force was in place. It met quarterly over the period from 2012 through to the end of the term of the government. My understanding is that the then environment minister scrapped that task force. Three years later they come in and try to pretend that this landmark bill puts in a task force to look after the health of the Yarra. The fact of the matter is that that was already done some five years ago.

The second part of the action plan that we put forward was to prevent pollution. We reviewed the guidelines and the management of urban stormwater. One of my proudest achievements around the Yarra was to put an agreement in place with Mobil Oil, which was the last major company or last major industry to be dumping wastewater into the Yarra. They were doing so under licence from the EPA and did conform to the various aspects of that licence. However, it was a bad look and I think that they no longer had the social licence to do it, so we were able to come to an agreement where they made some significant investments to make sure that wastewater did not continue to be pumped into the Yarra. I think that was a very important outcome, and it showed that government can work with business to get some very good environmental outcomes.

The minister also talks about this bill being a landmark bill in establishing unprecedented standards for public transparency and accountability with multiple checks and balances. Again, according to the action plan put out in 2012 one of the actions was to make sure that there was accessible information. We updated the Yarra Watch function run by the EPA to make it real time rather than reporting on previous events and prepared a regular audit report for both the Yarra and the bay — and the bay is as important as the Yarra when talking about these very important and iconic environmental assets that Melbourne has.

The fourth action was to support community action, and there was significant funding put forward to make sure that communities could do their bit to work with and protect this iconic river in our city. We put $700 000 towards tree planting. We put in place a $20 million program for communities and community groups to do work around the Yarra as well as $180 000 towards working out where the litter hotspots were and making sure they were cleaned up.

A lot of work was done over the course of the previous coalition government. This bill certainly builds on that, but it is not the landmark bill that it pretends to be. I am certainly very proud of the work I was able to do as environment minister and proud of the work that the member for Bulleen, as planning minister, was able to do to protect the Yarra River. I certainly do not oppose this bill as it does recognise the importance of the Yarra, and certainly from a personal point of view of the Yarra going through my electorate, I know how important it is to my local residents. It is important that the government does not forget the Maribyrnong River — as I said, another important river in Melbourne. There is little particularly wrong with this bill. It is a fine bill. We are not opposing this bill, but let us not pretend this bill is something it is not.
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