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Waterways governance: So close, and yet …

13 Aug 2015

Waterways governance: So close, and yet … Image

Editorial comment, by Shane Scanlan

The Southbank and Docklands communities have come so close to achieving an economic “silver bullet” with waterways governance reform but, sadly, a solution remains as elusive as ever.

As reported on page 3, the working party charged with recommending reforms to the State Government has formulated a compromise position that pleases no one.

There have been some victories in the process.  Agreement has been reached on the need for an independent waterways authority.  And at least the governance issue was discussed.

But the regulators (Parks Victoria) remain in charge, which, most likely, means that nothing will change.

The regulators need to remain in play but, for the waterways to flourish, decision-making authority needs to pass to the innovators.

It is the innovators who look at the river see its unrealised potential.  They see tourists, jobs, scheduled water transport, activity, vibrancy and a buzzing sub-set of the local economy.

It’s not the fault of the regulators that they look at the same stretch of water and and see only risk, rules that need enforcing and taxes that need collecting.  It’s also not surprising that they fail to see themselves as part of the problem.

They don’t actually understand why they have been asked to hand over the reins.

The City of Melbourne is equally at fault and, again, it’s not fair to blame bureaucrats for being wired differently to entrepreneurs.

The council sees the waterways as an operational matter and seems determined to ignore the economic development potential of the river.

The regulators can’t see what’s not there and the business representatives on the Lower Yarra River Use Future Directions Group failed to transfer the vision.

The risk is that the visionaries will give up, pack up and leave during the next (supposedly-interim) period of hybrid administration during which a committee of three will attempt to direct the regulator. Momentum will be lost and status quo will prevail.

With the right people, the right attitudes and with high-level political patronage, the proposed interim arrangement could work.

But, as an indication of what is more likely, the word “interim” does not appear in the draft report to government (despite being agreed to at the final meeting).

The business representatives on the working group did not have the bureaucratic knowledge or experience to counter the legislative arguments put forward in support of the agreed model.

In the interests of consensus, they also accepted the outlined practical difficulties in moving too quickly to an independent authority.

It would be nice (but probably naive) to think that government representatives were genuinely on a short journey towards an independent waterways model.

The Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water, Lisa Neville, does not have to accept recommendations made by the working party.  

But, without loud dissenting voices, there is no political mileage to be gained from removing the fox from its position in charge of the hen-house.

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