Community engagement is once again in the spotlight after the North Central CMA (NCCMA), the Victorian Environmental Water Holder (VEWH) and the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) pulled out of a meeting with the Central Murray Environmental Floodplain Group (CMEFG) held in Cohuna on Monday, June 19.
The meeting was being held to discuss concerns with the current reporting, management and environmental watering events, such as delivery of environmental water that commenced on June 8 in the Gunbower Forest.
The CMEFG is an active group of community members, farmers and environmentalists, who aim to bring community concerns to government bodies as a collective.
In the past, CMEFG has hosted tours, including state and federal politicians; the VEWH; NCCMA representatives and even Dr Simon Banks, Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and Hilary Johnson, Assistant Secretary, Commonwealth Environmental Water Office.
Late in 2022, CMEFG was notified that the NCCMA would not be answering further emailed questions from the group, Brad Drust (NCCMA CEO) indicating that his organisation will no longer respond to individual emails from members of the CMEFG, but will instead meet with CMEFG periodically to discuss issues related to environmental watering at Gunbower Forest.
Monday’s meeting was to be the second of those meetings but the boycott by the NCCMA, VEWH and DEECA representatives has left the community voice out in the cold.
Geoff Kendell, president of the CMEFG said he was bitterly disappointed by the decision as he thought it only right to allow the community time to hear the response to questions asked at the last meeting and subsequent questions given with notice.
“First, our concerns raised in emails were going to be ignored. Now, allowing community members, who approached us to attend this meeting, is enough for the departments to gag us again.”
An email sent to the CMEFG by NCCMA CEO Brad Drust stated:
“We understand via third parties that the CMEFG has decided to turn our agreed meeting on Monday into a public forum.
“However, the group’s decision to expand the attendance and change the focus and scope of this next meeting without requesting this, or informing key participants, is disappointing and damaging to the group’s relationship with the government agencies involved.
“This breach of trust and process means our agencies will not be attending Monday’s meeting and reassessing the relationship going forward. We have also spoken with the DEECA representatives planning to attend and they are supportive of this response.”
Geoff Wakeman, Environmental Chair of the CMEFG said nothing about the meeting sat outside the terms of reference, only the department’s fear caused such an overreaction.
“To put it into context, we had 24 people attend the meeting who were there to listen to the responses from the last meeting and the questions sent to the departments on notice for this meeting.”
An email supplied to The Bridge sent from Brad Drust (NCCMA CEO) to Geoff Wakeman on October 21, 2022 stated:
“With prior notice, an appropriate North Central CMA staff member, along with partner agencies where they are agreeable, can attend CMEFG meetings or meet with you and others at a suitable time, every two months if required and face-to-face if possible, to respond to new queries regarding our work. We believe that this will lead to improved understanding of different perspectives and more constructive dialogue.”
“Nowhere in the communique from Mr Drust does it say that everyone in attendance must be CMEFG members,” Mr Wakeman said.
“They are community members who want to hear what is happening to their environment, in their own backyard.
“The focus and scope of the meeting had not changed in any way; it was our intention to follow our planned agenda, which stated:
‘Section 1 – NCCMA/VEWH to provide written responses to the questions asked at the previous meeting (April 20, 2023) and a follow-up email (May 23, 2023).
‘Section 2 – A response to the unanswered questions asked in emails sent to Brad Drust and Sarina Loo (May 17, 2023) following us finding out (April 19, 2023), for the first time, about the current environmental watering.
‘Section 3 – Questions regarding comments made by NCCMA in their ‘Community Update’ (Gannawarra Times May 23, 2023).
‘Section 4 – Questions from the Community regarding the current environmental watering.’
“If NCCMA/VEWH had justifiable/defensible objectives for the current watering, this meeting would have been an excellent opportunity to explain the reason(s) for the watering and dispel the fears of the community.”
Could the nature of the questions have something to do with the departments boycotting a meeting in which the public could listen?
One question that may make for uncomfortable viewing centred around a Facebook post published on January 5, 2023 by the NCCMA promoting a kayaking tour of Reedy Lagoon in the Gunbower Forest.
While kayaking is a wonderful way to see and enjoy the forest, it was the photo used to promote the event that sparked curiosity of the CMEFG environmental chair.
“The photo used was a beautiful shot of Reedy Lagoon with the endangered swamp wallaby grass,” said Mr Wakeman.
“The problem is the wallaby grass is gone and we actually tracked down the origin of that photo.
“It was from six years ago. Reedy looks nothing like that now.
“At some point, you have to ask where the propaganda stops from departments paid to deliver on government programs with government money.
“All we want is honest, open discussions and clear objectives with measurable outcomes of the interventions currently taking place in our forest.”
This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 22 June 2023.