DSE’s $34 million dollar marine park black hole – where did the money go?
“Environmental Management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)” is 44 page report prepared by Victorian Auditor General, Des Pearson. It offers a scathing insight into the workings of the two key agencies responsible for the management of Victoria’s natural assets, public land and biodiversity. It assessed the effectiveness of Parks Victoria and the Departments of Sustainability and Environment and Primary Industries in their environmental management of marine protected areas.
This is the 6th report detailing systemic failure in biodiversity management and administration since 1995 and the third in as many years.
The report finds that $37.1 million was paid to Parks Victoria over a 7 year period to manage the Victorian Government’s Marine Protected Areas but that only $3.8 million was spent on their management. It also finds that the balance of the money, ($34.3 million) was diverted to works that Parks Victoria couldn’t identify.
The National Parks Act directly tasks Department of Environment and Sustainability Secretary Greg Wilson with responsibility for the management of marine reserves. Parks Victoria was contracted to manage them.
Parks Victoria is governed by a board appointed by the Minister. It’s chaired by Rob Gerrand. The board has “ultimate responsibility” for the governance of Parks Victoria and for “directing and monitoring its business”. Its CEO for all bar a few months of this 15 year period was Mr. Mark Stone.
What the report said
Victorian Auditor General Des Pearson says in his report summary,:
Parks Victoria contested Pearson's key finding regarding the allocation of money but could not substantiate its case.
The report reveals a memorandum written by Parks Victoria’s Manager, Policy and Planning to the General Manager of Parks in May 2009. It says:
Pearson says of this correspondence, “This also clearly indicates that Parks Victoria has not allocated the financial and human resources to fulfil its environmental management obligations for MPAs, consistent with the funding provided for this purpose since 2002.”
Additionally the report found that:
The Auditor General was also critical of staffing.
Is there a history of systemic failure?
This is the 6th adverse performance report for DSE, Parks Victoria and its predecessor (Victorian National Parks Service) relating to biodiversity and habitat management since 1995. Successively these were:
In his 1995 Special Report 34, Managing Parks for Life: The National Parks Service the Auditor General found:
The May 2004, an Auditor Generals report (Report on Public Sector Agencies) queried the lack of reporting by Parks Victoria of the Parks and Reserves Trust funds advanced by DSE for the maintenance of metropolitan parks, reserves and some waterways. These funds are generated via open space levy paid with water rates. For the period from 03/04 to 09/10 $505m was acquitted from the fund by DSE to Parks Victoria.
In December 2008, the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability found of the management of biodiversity that “A repeating theme amongst the findings, and hence the recommendations, is lack of suitable data to enable sufficient reporting. Problems with access to suitable data encountered during development of this report included:
The April 2009 the Auditor General’s inquiry “Administration of the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act” reported:
The April 2010 the Auditor General tabled his report entitled “Control of Invasive Plants and Animals in Victoria's Parks”. He commented:
Parks Victoria’s 2009/2010 Annual Report makes no reference to the April 2010 report. Most boards, CEO’s, chief financial officers and management accountants would see this report as impacting on the organisations finances should the recommendations be acted on. The land owner's (DSE) Annual Report is similarly silent on the report’s implications and makes no reference to previous reports.
In total, over the past 10 years the DSE Ministerial portfolio inclusive of water, waste management, biodiversity, air quality and environmental regulation has been found wanting in 10 separate reports prepared by the Auditor, Ombudsman and CES.
Recurring themes have been failures in performance reporting, lack of performance indicators, unclear accounts, governance, lack of strategic planning; the monitoring and implementation of strategic intent, inadequate and disparate data sets and failure to enforce that in one case has resulted in what may be the largest damages action involving local government.
Experts point to systemic failures in other areas such as the administration of the Native Vegetation Management Framework whose successes or otherwise in achieving a net gain in native vegetation are unreported. They say that there’s a general reluctance to enforce agreements, particularly those related to government agencies.
They also point to and a high level of ambivalence with regard the management of land reserved for the conservation of nature as it pertains to conflicts between flora and fauna management and visitor activities such as dog walking and fishing.
People inviolved in land use planning processes refer to half hearted performances and compromise positions taken in VCAT, at planning panels and EES hearings and point to local extinctions as being proof of DSE’s failure to impose its portfolio responsibilities without fear or favour. Des Pearson’s 2009 and 2010 reports appear to support the thrust of this contention.
Other practitioners comment that while Healthy Parks might be for Healthy People, the metropolitan and fringe flora and fauna of reserves designated for its protection are in most cases barren of fauna bar the possums, foxes and rabbits and say that regardless of land set aside within the metropolitan foot print for the conservation of biodiversity, there’s an unspoken Brisbane Line that’s been drawn by Parks Victoria and DSE that’s well beyond the metropolitan footprint and that core conservation management objectives of the Parks Victoria/DSE Conservation Reserves Management Strategy for metropolitan and peri urban reserves have been deeply compromised by Parks Victoria’s internal ranking system and the Healthy Parks for Healthy People campaign.
The fact is that $34.3 million of the Victorian Government’s marine reserves budget of $38.1 million got unaccountably shot sideways by Parks Victoria's management.
Responsabilities and accountablities?
DSE Secretary Greg Wilson by passed the Parks Victoria board and responded on their behalf. He has no statutory responsability for Parks Victoria's management,
DSE Secretary's responsibilities are prescribed in the National Parks Act as being :
These responsibilities are contracted to Parks Victoria via a funded management agreements.
Mark Stone was Parks Victoria's CEO for most of this time. He was also the Director of National Parks in this period and before that CEO of the National Parks Service. As Director of National Parks in accordance with the National Parks Act, his job was to advise the Minister and Secretary “about the operational elements of the management of land to which the Act applies.” Can it be assumed that if he was having to "rob Peter to pay Paul" then then as CEO of Parks Victoria and Director of National Parks he would have bought this to the direct attention of the client's most senior officers?
By any contemporary governance protocol, occupying the dual roles of CEO Parks Victoria and Director of National Parks clearly places the CEO of a service provider in a position of influence within the contracting agency and that’s a conflict of interest.
Parks Victoria has a board. Its Annual Report says the board has “ultimate responsibility” for the governance of Parks Victoria, for “directing and monitoring its business”. The board is accountable to the Minister for the organisation’s overall performance. It “delegates day-to-day responsibility for operations and administration to the Chief Executive and executive team”.
Despite its collective commercial and legal experience, it’s unclear as to what kind of the budgetary and reporting framework that this board had in place to ensure that these things don’t happen.
In his response to the Auditor General's report, Mr. Wilson says, “Alignment of the priorities and activities of DSE and Parks Victoria will be addressed through a joint commitment to cross agency collaboration.”
At the end of the day one could wonder if someone fitted a revolving door to Kafka’s Conservation Castle. “Close collaboration”, not sound contract management might explain how this scenario evolved. Similarly, the Parks Victoria board has a clear obligation to ensure that its executive delivers its contracted obligations and the two organisations should be functioning at an arms length basis where one entity determines service obligations and monitors their implementation and the other delivers the service.
Environmental lawyers say the state has a relatively sound statutory framework but say it’s only as robust as the strength and positioning of its Minister.
In circumstances where previous Ministers, chief's of staff and Liberal and ALP MP's have been deaf to the direct intelligence delivered by auditors and community alike, how Liberal Minister Ryan Smith deals with the coterie of conservation mandarins who oversaw this and other debacles will be the first test of his metal, competance and real authority.
Links & referances
Auditor Generals report on marine protected areas
Summary of audit (with links) and other reports dealing with natural resource management
Summary of audit and other reports dealing with the DSE/DNRE general portfolio 1995 to 2011 (download)
Summary of Parks and Reserves Trust aquittals remmitted by DSE to PV (download)
National Parks (Marine National Parks and Marine
Sanctuaries) Act 2002
(3) The Secretary must--
(a) ensure that each marine national park and each marine sanctuary is controlled and managed, in accordance with the objects of this Act ~
National Parks Act 1975
5. The person who is the Chief Executive Officer of Parks Victoria, appointed
under the Parks Victoria Act 1998, is the Director of National Parks.
6. Function of the Director
The function of the Director is to advise the Minister and the Secretary about
the operational elements of management of land to which this Act applies.
16A Secretary may enter into management agreements
(1) The Secretary may enter into a management agreement with Parks Victoria
for the management of the whole or any part of- (a) a national park or State park under section 17; (b) a wilderness park under section 17A; (c) a marine national park or marine sanctuary under section 17D;
Parks Victoria Act
6. Constitution and membership of Parks Victoria Parks Victoria consists of-
(a) a chairperson; and (b) not more than 8 other persons-appointed by the Governor in Council on the recommendation of the Minister and of whom one or more persons must have skills and experience in conservation
Parks Victoria Annual Reports
Water Industry Act 1994
There shall be paid out of the Parks and Reserves Trust Account- (a) such amounts as the Secretary, with the approval of the Minister,
determines for the purposes of the management and control, within the metropolitan area, of open space, parks and waterways for the purposes
of conservation, recreation, leisure, tourism and navigation;
Auditor General's check list for public sector Chief Financial Officers's