SPEECH: Use of off-road vehicles

Speaking to the Motion that the fifth report of the Natural Resources Committee, on an inquiry into the use of off-road vehicles in South Australia, be noted, Mark expressed his disappointment that the Committee had the opportunity to make some recommendations that favoured the environment over recreational vehicle use but did no such thing. 

I do not serve on this committee but I do pay attention to its work. This was a self-initiated report, so presumably it arose from the personal interests of committee members or perhaps it was suggested by stakeholders. Regardless of how the inquiry and report came about, the result is very disappointing. Despite the opportunity that was presented to the committee to offer some real reform for the protection of the environment, this report simply continues the decade's old tradition of kicking the can down the road, or in this case, kicking it down the beach.

It seems to me that the committee has capitulated to the off-road lobby and completely ignored the verified, documented environmental impacts of what is effectively an unregulated industry of driving off-road vehicles on beaches and in coastal areas. I say 'effectively unregulated' because, of course, there are regulations; it is just that they are very often ignored and very rarely enforced.

Given the comprehensive evidence that was received by the committee, I expected that they would have recommended a complete ban on driving off-road vehicles on certain identified beaches in South Australia, and in certain identified coastal areas. Instead, they squibbed it. A statewide code of conduct simply does not cut it. As the committee itself acknowledged, the vast bulk of off-road drivers are not members of clubs, not bound by their codes of conduct, and do not participate in their training programs whether they be based on skills or based on ethics. A code of conduct simply will not cut it.

Off-road vehicles are causing a huge amount of harm in sensitive environmental areas and there is no return other than the short-term thrills of a relatively small number of four-wheel-drive owners. The committee was told clearly which beaches were most affected yet there were no site-specific recommendations made in the report.

I will give you a couple of submissions. One was from the Louth Bay Coastal Action Group, and in their submission they say:

Years of rehabilitative community work is often undone within minutes and community members have no authority with whom they can work with to ensure protection of coastal areas.

Further in their submission, they said:

The degradation of the dune system has been obvious over the last 10 years. Added to the seemingly more extreme weather events, ORVs [off-road recreational vehicles] are attempting to drive higher up the beach, particularly at high tide. The encroachment onto the remaining vegetation and its subsequent loss has resulted in the collapse of most of the remnant dunes, and allowed seawater to breach the area behind the dune system. This has also resulted in the loss of a safe breeding zone for shorebirds such as our Hooded Plovers, Red-Capped Plovers, Sooty and Pied Oystercatchers, and Crested and Fairy Terns.

This bit in the submission got to me the most:

All four of our monitored Red-Capped Plover nests have been destroyed by vehicle impact over the past five weeks alone.

They only found four nests. They only monitored the four nests that they found. All of them were destroyed by four-wheel vehicles on the beach and in the dunes. Another submission was from the Australian Coastal Society:

It is the view of the ACS [Australian Coastal Society] that the current regulatory framework is woefully insufficient to manage ORV use in coastal environments. It recommends a range of measures including the following:

There is a long list but the first dot point is:

Careful consideration of legislative approaches that have proven successful in other Australian states, including a state-wide ban on the use of ORVs in the coastal zone.

There are many other submissions. I am not going to refer to them all or read them all, but I will refer to a couple, including the Friends of Shorebirds SE (South-East). This is a group of volunteers who work towards the conservation of migratory and resident shorebirds. Their emphasis is on physical protection works, as well as education and other sorts of programs. They are based in the South-East. They point out the impact of ORVs in their neck of the woods. They say:

The direct crushing of eggs and/or chicks during the breeding season of beach nesting birds [is a major impact]. The South Australian coastal and inland sites are used by a number of species including…

There is then a similar list as before: the vulnerable hooded plover, the rare Australian pied oystercatcher and sooty oystercatcher, the endangered fairy tern and little tern, plus the red-capped plover, crested tern and Caspian tern. They go on about the disturbance to feeding and roosting sites.

A number of submissions included quite graphic photographic evidence of the impact of off-road vehicles on the environment: on beaches and on shorebirds in particular. They also pointed out some things that would not be apparent unless you were someone who studied birds: the wheel ruts created in sand by off-road vehicles provide nice sheltered spots for birds to shelter in. There were photos of the birds all sitting in the wheel ruts, effectively waiting for the next four-wheel drive to come along.

Other submissions that I thought the committee should have paid much more attention to certainly include the submission from Birdlife Australia and the submission from Birds SA. As a matter of disclosure, I will admit to being a member of both of those organisations. It was the submission from Birds SA in particular that included a large number of photographs showing the impact on places such as Long Beach at Coffin Bay.

I know that in this chamber we have former ministers for the environment. The issue of driving off-road vehicles on Long Beach at Coffin Bay has been around as a controversy for decades, yet we still have a parliamentary committee that had the opportunity to look at this issue and make a recommendation and it did no such thing. I think that I understand why. It is because the Friends of Shorebirds, which I mentioned before, a pragmatic bunch down in the South-East, said in their submission:

While the total removal of ORV's from South Australia beaches is considered to be a politically impossible outcome it is certainly recommended that the State Government, in conjunction with local councils and DEW develop and implement legislation and by-laws which stipulate areas where:

ORVs are permitted without restriction

ORVs are permitted, subject to specific rules

ORVs are not permitted.

In addition that the responsible authorities…[should properly] enforce these restrictions and impose penalties for non-compliance where required.

The part of that submission I want to draw your attention to is that they considered it to be politically impossible, and that shows you the power that people realise the four-wheel drive, or the off-road lobby, has. My point is that I am disappointed that this particular parliamentary standing committee was given the opportunity to make some recommendations that favoured the environment for a change over recreational vehicle use and they squibbed it.

Whilst I certainly will not be opposing the motion to note this report, my note is that it is disappointing. I think that particular committee does have a proud tradition of excellent reports. I think of their report that related to the gas industry. They quite rightly pointed out that in the South-East there was no social licence to operate. They named it and, as a result, the law changed, but when it comes to off-road vehicles, this committee on this occasion has squibbed it.