Protecting the Yarra River (Birrarung) Discussion Paper: Guide to submissions for community groups

A platypus in the Yarra River


The Yarra Protection Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) has recently released its discussion paper on ideas and options for a Yarra River Protection Act. This piece of work is the latest stage in the process toward enactment of this legislation, which was committed to by the Victorian ALP Government in 2014. The MAC’s role is to provide advice to Government on issues affecting the Yarra River and preferred outcomes for management and governance of the river. The MAC role is also to engage with the community and stakeholders.

The Discussion Paper lays out key issues and themes in river management, certain options and preferred directions, and questions on which it is seeking feedback. The MAC is taking feedback until 5 August 2016. Information about how to make a submission is contained in the Discussion Paper.

This guide from Environmental Justice Australia and Yarra Riverkeeper Association to submitters highlights principal issues and themes raised by the MAC, notes points that we think submitters should be aware of in particular, and suggests matters on which submitters may want to comment.

A report setting out our proposal for the Act will be available from mid-July. That report contains our detailed vision for a Yarra Act and may assist you further in making a submission.

Content of the MAC’s Discussion Paper

‘Case for change’

The MAC outlines its ‘case for change’ from current management arrangements for the Yarra at section 4. The Discussion Paper outlines nine reasons for change:

  • The need for partnership with Wurundjeri as Aboriginal custodians of the river;
  • Lack of overarching vision or strategy
  • No body with responsibility for amenity values
  • No community vision in statutory planning
  • No community ‘forum’ with status
  • Ad hoc funding arrangements
  • Inconsistent standards applied through permitting, works and management across the river
  • Major population and urban development pressures, both inner-urban/suburban and in greenfield sites
  • Climate change impacts

Of these matters, the MAC notes that fragmentation and lack of integration and harmonisation across governance as ‘perhaps the principal challenge.’

We concur that these matters are important grounds for change. You may have views on these particular considerations for change. Additionally, if you feel there are other factors contributing to the case for change make note of those as well.

‘New management model’

The Discussion Paper proposes a ‘new management model’ on which it seeks comment. The model includes the following key elements and tools, which would be incorporated into a legislative framework:

A community vision, applied to the ‘entire length of the rover over the long term’
An integrated, overarching strategic plan (a ‘Yarra Strategic Plan’), giving effect to the community vision
Improved management arrangements implementing the strategic plan, including overhauled institutional arrangements:

An entity to develop the strategic plan and work with Aboriginal and community participants
Statutory auditing and reporting functions reporting on progress to government and the community
Clear funding and infrastructure and service delivery arrangements.

Strengths of MAC’s review and proposals

In our view, responses to the Discussion Paper may wish to highlight the following points:

  • The broad direction the MAC’s paper provides is positive and appropriate, and highlights the main issues and important reforms. The approach of the Discussion Paper is to be applauded. There are important reform directions indicated, such as:
  • The need to deal with fragmented management and governance
  • The need for overarching vision for the river and tools, including plans, to achieve that vision
  • The requirement for a strategic plan for the river to be applied to agencies involved in managing the river and its environs
  • The identification of a range of values (ecological, social, Aboriginal, etc) to be protected
  • Recognition of the gap in responsibility for amenity values
  • The need for reform of governance, including institutional arrangements, and including an ‘auditing’ and monitoring function.
  • The important role for public participation on an ongoing basis (see the ‘community forum’ concept)
  • The need to consider the structure of the river (eg ‘reaches) and the influence of its urban character on management challenges
  • The need to deal with urban development pressures, implying the need to contend with land-use conflicts
  • The need to deal with the challenge of stormwater management and urban runoff
  • The need for funding arrangements to be resolved
  • Inclusion of management of tributaries, catchment management and impacts on the Bay in strategic planning;
  • The importance of management reform to be contained in legislative form, i.e. in a new Act

Where further feedback and contributions might be directed

The MAC has identified a series of 10 questions around which it is seeking feedback. These are contained on page 5. Submitters may simply want to direct their attention and responses to each and/or all of those questions.

There are some points to which you may wish to give particular attention or wider consideration, further to those questions or to the points we have noted above. These include:

  • How might the MAC’s themes, issues and proposals apply to local circumstances or with particular interests in mind? Including your visions and ambitions for the Yarra River Protection Act is important, especially as they might apply to your area of interest or locality.
  • The need for vision is emphasised in the Discussion Paper. You may wish to turn your mind to the timeframe over which that vision should extend. The timeframes we are dealing with here can extend out to decades (eg 50-100 years). By comparison, the decision to close the upper catchment in late 19th century had a ‘visionary’, century-plus impact. Given this context, the vision will need to be ambitious. This type of long-term thinking is important to actual achievement of good outcomes but also in establishing models for river governance elsewhere.
  • The timeframe for a Yarra Strategic Plan is proposed as 10-15 years. We suggest that both medium- (eg 5 year) and long-term (eg 20 year+) planning is required. Greater detail on timeframes would be a useful point for submitters to consider.
  • The direction of reform could more expressly be identified as landscape-scale governance, in unique and challenging circumstances – that is, an urban river and catchment
  • An important point on the effectiveness of any Yarra Strategic Plan will be the legal status of that instrument. Currently, there is some ambiguity in the Discussion Paper about the status of that Plan – in particular, whether it will merely guide decision-makers, such as council planners, or provide a legally binding framework with which government and public agencies have to comply. The former approach seems to be suggested at section 5.2, the latter at section 5.3. We strongly believe the plan should be a legally binding document in order to provide consistent and clear obligations on councils and government agencies.
  • Further details and ideas around public participation in decision-making and governance would be a valuable point of feedback. The MAC proposes a standing ‘community forum’. Suggestions around its particular roles, membership, and how it might operate would be useful contributions. EJA/YRKA have proposed a ‘Yarra River Panel’ as a key means for public participation. There is further detail of this proposal in our report The Future of the Yarra River.
  • The MAC proposes options for governing and for ‘service delivery’ bodies under the Act (see Table 10). It is important to provide feedback on these issues. [NR1] Our preference is for new bodies (institutions) within the Yarra River’s governing framework, although it would be essential for these to have close working relationships with existing bodies such as Melbourne Water, Councils and public agencies.
  • While we strongly agree with the need for ‘vision’ for the Yarra River and its incorporation into the legislative framework, feedback and greater detail on the content of that ‘vision’ would be useful. In our view, ‘vision’ likely would be invested in number of instruments under the Act, including the objects of the Act, long-term targets, and more specific elements in a ‘strategic plan’ or similar instrument. In this way, ‘vision’ can be translated into different scales and different levels of detail.
  • The MAC states that options for a Yarra Strategic Plan should, among other things, be evaluated in the ‘context of its tributary requirements, whole-of-catchment management and effects on Port Phillip Bay’ (Table 9, p 50). Acknowledgement of the role of tributaries, the catchment and Bay in river management is important but clarification will be needed on how a Yarra River Protection Act will protect tributaries and apply to them.  For example, management of the tributaries could be considered in the Yarra Strategic Plan, or there may be other ways of including the tributaries in planning and management. Which tributaries of to be included in the legislative framework would also be an important point to resolve.
  • How Aboriginal perspectives are to be included in the legislative framework is not resolved in the Discussion Paper. Aboriginal perspective might be included, for example, through requirements to act consistently with and protect Wurundjeri uses and values or develop ‘Country Plan’ as part of planning processes. Your views on how Aboriginal interests and perspectives can be best incorporated into the legislation would be useful.
  • We suggest that the focus of this legislative exercise should not just be ‘protection’ or ‘enhancement’, but restoration of ecological functions and maximisation of human benefits in a manner consistent with restorative processes.
  • Restoration works and actions require funding and revenues. The operation of the Act, such as the preparation and implementation of plans, also requires funding. The sources of funding and the management of investment needed to achieve the ambitions of a Yarra River Protection Act are crucial considerations and we suggest you turn your minds to this question in feedback to the MAC.
  • The challenge of stormwater management and urban runoff is recognised as the main pollution control issue for the Yarra River now, rather than ‘point source’ pollution, such as factories (Table 6, p 37). Do you think this is the case? How do you think we can best tackle either source of pollution through this legislation? And how can we best drive innovation in terms of pollution control, whether through regulation, technology, behavioural change, or urban or landscape design?
  • The highly modified character of the Yarra River includes flows that depart significantly from natural flows. Environmental flows are noted in the Discussion Paper (eg Table 6, p 35). Long-term outcomes for the Yarra will depend greatly on the management of river flows for river health outcomes and public benefits. What are the main issues in relation to flows in the Yarra and how should they be tackled?

This list of considerations is not intended to be exhaustive. We urge everyone thinking of making a submission to read the Discussion Paper closely and to put in a submission.

%d bloggers like this: