Confusion remains over a state government plan to allow bushwalkers and fishers to more readily access Crown land river frontages, after a Victorian MLC alleged the proposal had been dropped.
Member for Western Victoria Bev McArthur said proposed amendments to the Land Act allowing bush users 28 days access to riparian frontages had been shelved without public notice after environmental and traditional owner representatives had expressed concerns to government ministers.
The proposed amendments are due to come into force in September. It's understood the changes came after intense lobbying by the Victorian Recreational Fishing Peak Body (VRFish).
In a release, Ms McArthur said campers could stay on farmland for 28 days, "pitch their tents 20 metres from the rivers, defaecate 50 metres from the water, collect wood and all without the farmers' knowledge they were there."
"The consequences of this policy were potentially catastrophic," Ms McArthur said.
"Farmers were right to be worried about the safety of their livestock, biosecurity risks or an outbreak of fire in summer. It allowed someone to stay for weeks, make a mess - pack up for a few hours - and return for another 28 days and so on. Under this plan, farms became protected places for squatters."
The Courier contacted the office of Melissa Horne, Minister for Fishing and Boating, attempting to clarify whether the proposed amendments to the Act, introduced in late 2020, had been withdrawn.
In a statement attributed to a government spokesperson, the office reiterated its commitment to the amendments, saying it was 'delivering on the election commitment to make more water frontage land available for all to enjoy through fishing and camping'.
"Any suggestion that we aren't is misleading," the statement said.
"We are delivering on an election commitment we made to Victorians in 2018 that has been welcomed by over 800,000 fishers and campers."
"The draft regulations - including how they're going to be enforced - are still being finalised and we will have more to say soon."
The government believes it is able to regulate to protect the environment and interests of licence holders and adjoining landowners, while protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage sites and values, using regulations to give the Victorian Fisheries Authority power to prosecute.
However sources within the authority have previously told The Courier the body is understaffed already, and the new arrangements were an 'administrative nightmare', unenforceable and dangerous.
While the authority has 160 staff according to its website, fewer than 20 were assigned to on the ground and field work, the source, who asked not to be identified, said.
The Courier understands the concerns about the the proposed amendments were raised by fellow government ministers Lily D'Ambrosio, Maryanne Thomas and Gabrielle Williams, after stakeholder meetings were held in April.
Strongest opposition to the amendments was raised by traditional owners, a source told The Courier, due to Cultural Heritage Overlays existing along many waterways.
The Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) issued a statement calling the government to establish a Stakeholder Reference Group to advise on the implementation of the proposed regulations.
VFF president Emma Germano said the regulations will have a considerable impact on stakeholders.
"Farmers and the environment will be significantly impacted by the camping regulations set to come into force in just over a month's time," Ms Germano said
"It's only fair that those impacted have a means to have their voice heard. The Victorian Government should have by now provided an official response to key stakeholder concerns and we remain hopeful that they will listen to the issues raised by the community."
The VFF says it has led meetings for stakeholders, including Environment Victoria, Landcare Victoria Incorporated, Rural Councils Victoria, Thoroughbred Breeders Victoria and the Victorian National Parks Association.
"The overwhelming sentiment of those involved in the meetings is that the Victorian Government must push back the implementation of the rules, undertake a proper assessment of risks and only proceed with low risk pilot sites, rather than on 17,000km of river frontage," Ms Germano said in her statement.
"A pilot will ensure there is time for the Government to conduct an appropriate risk assessment of how these rules will impact agriculture, the environment and make sure the welfare of campers is also considered."
Farmers The Courier spoke to had expressed fears over biosecurity, campfires getting out of control, confrontations with campers and weapons being used on land without regulation.
If you are seeing this message you are a loyal digital subscriber to The Courier, as we made this story available only to subscribers. Thank you very much for your support and allowing us to continue telling Ballarat's story. We appreciate your support of journalism in our great city.