Victoria’s national parks are increasingly struggling to cope with feral animals, weeds, fire threats and degraded infrastructure after deep budget cuts.
Parks Victoria’s most recent annual report shows direct funding from the state government has collapsed by 37 per cent in nominal terms over the past three years, from $122 million in 2011-12 to $76.8 million in 2014-15.
Over the same period, the organisation slashed its spending by more than 16 per cent. Even after adding in cash from trusts and other sources, total income was still down almost 20 per cent, leaving Parks Victoria $6.2 million in the red.
Park managers also say they have been forced to remove badly degraded facilities in less-frequented areas because they no longer have funding for maintenance.
There has also been a cut in the information services provided to visitors, with no cash brochures and maps. Parts of the state now receive “little or no attention”.
According to one insider, the organisation has been “running on the smell of an oily rag”, with easy efficiency gains long since exhausted. That means budget cuts have hit such areas as road and building maintenance, with a huge backlog.
The funding cuts also appear to have had a major impact on staff morale at Parks Victoria. A leaked confidential report by the Victorian Public Sector Commission, obtained by Fairfax Media, reveals a faltering performance by the agency, with growing numbers of staff considering their careers and increasing pessimism about the performance of management.
The report, based on a survey of 500 Parks Victoria employees from June this year, found almost six out of 10 staff believed workplace stress was an issue for their wellbeing.
Almost half suggested they had considered leaving, compared with about one-third in 2013, and just 58 per cent said they were confident a grievance would be properly investigated, down from 67 per cent in 2013.
A senior source at the agency said the Parks Victoria Act needed to be overhauled to give the agency more autonomy. It should also get a guaranteed proportion of funding of the Parks and Reserves Trust, an opaque funding source which goes into consolidated revenue, the source said.
Victorian National Parks Association spokesman Phil Ingamells said the government urgently needed to reverse the drop in funding, not only to protect native plants and animals but also to recognise the economic contribution parks made to the state.
“Our parks already more than pay their way,” Mr Ingamells said. “They contribute over $1 billion each year through tourism, $330 million in water services and $180 million in avoided health costs.”
State Labor came to power promising to create a “world class” system of national parks. Its election platform promised a stronger park management agency answerable to the environment minister, with a bigger focus on managing the environment and protecting plants and animals. But so far progress has been limited.
Environment Minister Lisa Neville blamed the previous government for “gutting” Parks Victoria, with the loss of one in 10 staff, leaving the state’s parks and $1.8 billion in portfolio assets at risk.”The Coalition reduced Parks Victoria funding by $88 million since 2011,” Ms Neville said. “We are investing $56.5 million back into Parks Victoria, to build new and improve the facilities in our parks, while improving the management of parks across the state.”Ms Neville said Parks Victoria’s new chief executive, Bradley Fauteux, who previously managed Ontario Parks, was working hard to rebuild morale within the organisation.