Thursday, January 30, 2014

Between A Rock & A Hard Place

Coming to Grips with a New Reality at Bastion Point

Curve of beaches like a horse-shoe, with a glimpse of grazing stock,
To the left the Gabo Lighthouse, to the right the Bastion Rock;
Upper Lake where no one dwelleth — scenery like Italy,
Lower Lake of seven islets and six houses near the sea;
'Twixt the lake and sea a sandbank, where the shifting channels are,
And a break where white-capped rollers bow to Mallacoota Bar.
 And the folk are like their fathers — bushmen-sailors, fishermen —
And they live on fish and tan-bark, with a tourist now and then;
And of hunting? Well, I know not. And what matter if we know
That they did a bit o' smugglin' or o' wreckin' years ago?
For I love these kindly people, and 'twill give my heart a jar
When I see the figures fading on the sandbank by the bar.

- Mallacoota Bar, Henry Lawson, 1910

A hundred years later, celebrated Australian writer Henry Lawson wouldn’t have had much trouble recognizing the rocky headlands that comprise the wilderness coastline of Mallacoota, which boasts more than 100 kilometers of pristine beaches and 320 kilometers of lake shore at the far south-east tip of the Australian continent.  Mallacoota remains one of the most isolated towns in Victoria, equidistant from both Sydney and Melbourne, about six hours by car in either direction.  The town is surrounded by Croajingalong National Park, a UNESCO designated World Biosphere Reserve – one of only twelve in Australia – which is home to over 1,000 species of native plants, including 90 types of orchids, and 300 bird species, making it an ideal destination for birdwatchers, bushwalkers, and other lovers of nature looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.  It is not uncommon to spot seals, penguins, and humpback whales during the migratory season along this stretch of coast along the Tasman Sea.  To further contextualize the unspoiled nature of Mallacoota, consider that its closest neighboring town is appropriately named ‘Eden.’

Mallacoota was first settled in the 1830s as a whaling station, and subsequently grew into a commercial fishing way station by the 1880s, serving as a base for fishermen in transit to Melbourne.  Fishing remains the lifeblood of the town, with the abalone industry supplying the bulk of Mallacoota’s jobs today, and as such, the pace of life in Mallacoota hasn’t changed too drastically.  Situated 25 kilometers off the rural and winding coastal Prince’s Highway, the town proper has roughly 1,000 residents, although the summer population can swell to 10,000, with the tourist season influx.  The modern Mallacoota airport has only recently (2011) been upgraded to a single million-dollar tarmac, from what had been a grass field capable of only handling small private aircraft, where the kangaroos often outnumbered planes.

Less than two kilometers out of the center of town is the main surfing beach of Bastion Point.  Tim Baker, renowned surf scribe and former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines, passed through Mallacoota in 2010 during his cross-country caravan adventure (documented in his book Surfari), and describes Bastion Point as a, “cold water, Victorian Snapper Rocks.”  Baker explains that, “On a good day, the ride extends almost 500 meters, from the outside section, known as Broken Boards, through the Point itself, and onwards towards the beachbreaks that extend to the east almost as far as the eye can see.”  Baker spoke of the frigidity of the water but also the warmth of the locals, who chivalrously wait their turn for waves, and don’t mind sharing as long as you get in the back of the queue.  The beach at Bastion Point seems to be the unofficial village square of Mallacoota – a place for a surf, a hike, going fishing, exploring the rocky tide pools with your kids, or just a scenic spot to enjoy a quiet lunch.

Photo by Vanessa Janss

However, underneath the shimmer of sunlight on the sea and sand, Bastion Point has become a focal point of contention for Mallacootans – as a battle over a proposed boat ramp improvement, one of the longest development battles in Victoria’s history, has divided the town between proponents of progress and preservation.  The development proposal, known as Option 3b, would essentially bisect the wave at Bastion Point with a 130m long by 3m high breakwall, rendering the marquee section of the wave known as “Broken Boards” unsurfable, among other environmentally deleterious effects, such as dynamiting existing reef and rock outcroppings to create a deeper channel, which would in turn have to be continually dredged.  Today, the Bastion Point boat ramp is the only open ocean access point for a stretch of roughly 150 kilometers between Cape Conran, Victoria, and the Port of Eden, New South Wales.

The original boat ramp, a simple concrete slab that runs parallel with natural rock outcroppings into the water, was built in the 1960s.  By the ‘70s, sand build-up had rendered the boat ramp ineffective for larger vessel launchings, and a tractor was employed to bring boats in and out of the water safely.  In 1989 the initial proposal for a new ramp, including a breakwater and carpark, was made.  There was an obvious consensus among residents that the ramp in disrepair was in need of work, but whether that meant a simple refurbishing of the existing structure or a new expansive project that would considerably alter the character of the coastline was a major point of contention.  Since this proposal, environmental groups such as the Friends of Mallacoota (which, along with other groups such as the Mallacoota Boardriders Club, would later spawn the Save Bastion Point Campaign as a unified voice in 2003) have kept a vigilant eye on developers and their plans to alter the best breaking wave in the region.

Option 3b Proposal

Because of Mallacoota’s proximity to the Biosphere Reserve in Croajingalong, and having had its pristine foreshore registered with the National Trust of Australia, Chris Smyth, the Marine Campaign Coordinator for the Australian Conservation Foundation, stated: “How the Victorian Government acts on Bastion Point will be a real test of its commitment to coastal and marine protection. Under the Council’s proposal, Bastion Point would be transformed from a natural icon into an industrial zone, with its scenic and wilderness coast values ripped apart.”  Nature writer Bob Brown has echoed this sentiment, saying, “If Bastion Point, with its curl of waves, is to be smashed, there’s little chance for any of the other remaining little headlands, coves, or fish nurseries in the world.”

While the scope of this piece cannot distill all of the convoluted twists and turns that happened from the time of the initial proposal in ’89 to November 2013 (please see for explicit details), when excavators and bulldozers began burying the beach at Bastion Point, this article will attempt to lay out some of the main events and figures in the most succinct manner possible.  Suffice to say, what ensued was politics at its worst – while politicians and development proponents employed nepotistic good-old-boy back-scratching to ensure a foregone conclusion to what was supposed to have been a democratic procedure, coastal conservationists and other concerned citizens were continually rebuffed by bureaucratic hurdles and simply being locked out of substantive decision-making processes.

According to Leo op den Brouw, former shire councilman and former president of the Mallacoota Boardriders, the restructuring of several smaller shires into a single larger shire gave development proponents the political opportunity to try to reignite their development proposal, which had stagnated for years at the local council level.  Independent MP Craig Ingram, an abalone license holder, submitted the plans in Parliament on behalf of the pro-3b lobby.  As one of only a few swing votes in a divided Parliament between the Labor and Liberal parties, Ingram knew how influential his vote was in breaking parliamentary stalemates, and leveraged his position to ensure the development of 3b in exchange for his voting loyalty with the Labor Party.

Planning Minister Justin Madden, an ex-AFL star who has earned a reputation for playing just as dirty with a tie on as he did on the pitch, convened an independent panel of experts in 2007 to weigh the development proposal options.  This panel held public hearings wherein nearly 90% of all public submissions presented (487 in total) were against Option 3b and in favor of something more small scale and less environmentally degrading.  The panel produced an exhaustive 180-page report that resoundingly refuted the Option 3b development on the grounds of economics (the current ramp costs $50,000 annually to operate, while 3b would cost $6 million to build and hundreds of thousands to operate annually due to ongoing dredging), aesthetics (a significant negative visual impact on the wilderness landscape), safety, and, most importantly, overwhelming community consensus for a lower impact option.  In fact, the Save Bastion Point Campaign had cooperated with the Boating Industry Association of Victoria (BIAV) to create an alternative low-impact proposal, which became the only option that the panel recommended for development.  Madden held these findings in private until he produced his own response in 2009, which directly disputed the panel’s recommendations, insisting that ‘safety considerations’ were not appropriately weighed by the panel.

The panel’s concerns, echoed by the BIAV, were about the placement and height of the breakwall, which would essentially blind boaters to incoming broadside swells, other boats, and other potential resource users, such as surfers.  Madden, disregarding these objections, chose to focus solely on the risks associated with beachgoers at play near the ramp location – despite the fact that an accident between a surfer or swimmer and a boater at Bastion Point has never been reported.  Many skeptics of Option 3b believe that the ‘improved’ ocean access will actually make Bastion Point more dangerous by encouraging inexperienced boaters to make use of the often unpredictable waters.  Abalone diver Dave Allan has gone so far as to say, “You’re going to drown people without a doubt.”  Despite this outcry, by making use of the executive privilege established for the office of the Planning Minister per the Environmental Effects Act (EEA) of 1978, which mandates an environmental impact study but also allows the Planning Minister to override these findings at his discretion, Madden dismissed his own expert panel’s recommendations and gave the Option 3b development his blessing to move forward.

Astonished and outraged, the Friends of Mallacoota filed an appeal to the Supreme Court – the first time in Victorian history that such an action has been taken against a Planning Minister by a community organization.  The case was heard in May 2010, and although the court decided in favor of Madden on the basis of the way in which the statutes are written, the presiding judge, Justice Osborn, questioned Madden’s logic, if not his motives.  Law scholar Taylor Wonhoff explains:

Justice Osborn stated, “the panel’s reasons for its factual conclusions are far more replete . . . than the [M]inister’s reasons.” He also said that building a breakwater to solve safety issues between boats, swimmers, and surfers was akin to “ . . . using a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” and that the Minister “doesn’t . . . give very good reasons if any for rejecting the panel’s conclusions about safety . . . ” Justice Osborn implied that the vagueness of the EEA gives such great deference to the Minister that he may legally take whatever action he desires, so long as he can create any justification for it—regardless of that rationale’s prudence.

Wonhoff has used the whole debacle as a case study entitled, “Victoria’s Window Dressing: How the Environment Effects Act 1978 Failed at Bastion Point,” published in the 2011 Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal, to prove that the EEA is ineffective because it fails to adequately define “environment,” instead allowing the acting Planning Minister to redefine what “environment” entails and comprises based on the minister’s personal and professional whims.  For the activists in the Save Bastion Point Campaign, the fact that what constitutes the “environment,” important as it is, is not governed by Parliament, but by the Planning Minister alone, has been a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

Leo op den Brouw poignantly expressed the frustration that he and his colleagues in the Save Bastion Point Campaign have been struggling through: “This has completely undermined my faith in justice and democracy.  At any juncture in this process, our campaign has come out very clearly on top, all the findings have been against development proceeding, and so on, yet we see that parliamentary members and ministers are able to override very clear recommendations by experts in their field … You feel like you’ve had a major kick in the guts when you think you’re doing the right thing, following all the processes and they just shit on you from a very high altitude.”  A powerful sentiment from the former shire councilman.

This sense of disillusionment is not unwarranted.  The Save Bastion Point organization, comprised of 8-10 core members, with an email outreach list of over 1,600 supporters and the backing of the majority of the Mallacoota community, has led an exceptional campaign against the 3b development on all levels – from organizational to ethical.  Through benefit surf contests, concerts, and other rallies the campaign raised over $120,000 and was recently awarded Campaign of the Year by Surfrider Foundation Australia.  Dr James Thyer, who heads up the Melbourne contingent of SBP and who accepted the award on its behalf said, “It’s great to be recognized for our attempts to preserve the Bastion Point headland.  Its just such a shame that the East Gippsland Shire Council refused to listen to the community and Government Inquiries and Review Panels that said a lower impact solution to boat launching at Bastion Point was not only possible, it was cheaper, less damaging to the environment, aboriginal cultural heritage and surfbreak, and would have equal or better boating performance than the large scale beach road and breakwater that the Council is currently constructing.”

Gavin Comstock, Global Operations Manager at Save The Waves, explains, “It’s really a tough one to wrap your head around … This is a campaign that’s gone on for an incredibly long time and taken a lot of resources, and time and energy from the people of Mallacoota.  It’s a great example in my eyes of what you’d like to see for coastal advocacy on a grass-roots level – a town that’s rallied around its natural resources, waves included, and wants to be part of a planning process and exhausted every civic option available, yet somehow, nothing came of it.”

Although Option 3b was rejected by a state appointed independent panel; an interdepartmental panel; the Department of Sustainability and Environment; and the Boating Industry Association of Victoria - as well as nearly 90% of all public submissions made to these panels - the pro-development lobby in Mallacoota, led by businessman John Rudge, made a simple three-tiered argument:

1) safer ocean access;
2) increased recreational fishing tourism; and
3) ease of use for the abalone industry.

Examining this argument may yield answers as to why this development was able to proceed against such a strong community outpouring.  The first tier, safer ocean access, has been dismissed (as has been previously mentioned) because of the design of the breakwater, which will blind boaters to incoming broadside swells and other marine traffic.  The second tier, increased recreational fishing tourism, seems to be a manufactured claim.  Activists from Save Bastion Point staked out the boat ramp every day for a year, counting boats, and found that there is virtually zero recreational interest seven months of the year, as there isn’t much of a bite over the winter.  Planning Minister Justin Madden used sales figures from the boating industry to show a long-term trend towards increased recreational vessel sizes for the whole of Victoria, not any substantive evidence from the Bastion Point fishing community, to make his point that the minor upgrade option was “not viable.” 

The third tier, ease of use for the abalone industry is where things get a bit interesting.  The abalone industry commenced in Victoria in 1962, and licenses were sold from anywhere from $2-$10, as abalone was by no means a coveted resource at the time, and most license holders were surfers, divers, or other coastal dwellers harvesting for subsistence.  Today, Victoria now provides over 12% of the worlds production of wild caught abalone, with Mallacoota being one of the largest landing sites in Australia.  Of the $75 million dollar abalone catch that Victoria exports annually, about $18 million comes from Mallacoota.  Friedrich Glasbrenner, chief executive of Australian Abalone Exporters, calls Victoria the “abalone capital of the world,” stating that about 80% of the world’s abalone goes through Melbourne production facilities.  There are 71 Abalone Fishery Access Licences (AFAL) in Victoria, and those $2-$10 investments from the ‘60s are now worth approximately $5-$8 million dollars, a piece.  Most license holders are able to catch their annual quota (a variable tonnage that is determined by a government minister, but usually around a market value of $1 million), in fewer than 50 days – a pace of about $20,000 a day.  Victorian fisheries officers jokingly refer to themselves as security guards for 71 multi-millionaires.

John Rudge has deep, long-standing ties with the abalone industry.  Rudge was an original abalone license holder in Victoria, and sold it early on for a few thousand dollars, with which he bought the local inn and watering hole in Mallacoota.  Residents still joke that in a township of drunks, he somehow managed to go bankrupt.  Rudge got back into the abalone business through aquaculture, or abalone farming, which is a relatively new business in Victoria, dating to 2002.  He originally tried to put an abalone hatchery in Bastion Point and was denied, so he moved his operation to Portland, Western Victoria, where he is a co-owner of Coastal Sea Farms, which his son Tim manages (Rudge’s other son, Johno, is an abalone diver and surfer in Mallacoota, who declined to comment for this story).  Coastal Sea Farms is part of an industrial collaboration of nine of the largest abalone aquaculture farms in Australia, known collectively as AUSAB.  AUSAB boasts on their website that their output is “steadily growing and will shortly exceed 500 tonnes” annually.  They also tout that their “farms are located on the shores of the cool and pristine Great Southern Ocean, renowned for its clear waters and clean environment.” [It should be noted that another AUSAB farm, Southern Marine Mariculture, the neighboring farm just east of Coastal Sea Farms, is responsible for the 2006 abalone virus outbreak that killed up to 95% of all abalone along 100 kilometers of the southwest coast, from Port Fairy to Cape Otway, decimating the industry.  License holders and aquaculture farmers then sued the Victorian government to try to recover damages – this suit was eventually dismissed.]

Rudge was a member of a committee that appointed Don Healy, owner of Prestige Foods International (a major food exporter), to take charge of the Environmental Effects Statement (EES) for the Option 3b proponents.  Although Healy worked as a consultant for Coastal Sea Farms, Rudge maintains he has no links to Healy or any conflict of interest in the 3b project.  Whoever conducts the EES is, in theory, supposed to be a neutral third-party, and Healey’s obvious interest in the abalone industry, and his subsequent intimidating method of dealing with activists from Save Bastion Point and the Surfrider Foundation, has caused government oversight committees to criticize his appointment – but Healey’s EES still stands as one of the crucial documents from which the entire legal battle over Bastion Point was waged.

In a television interview with ABC News, Rudge shrugs off allegations of corruption.  “People can have their ideas, but there’s no conspiracies going on here.  What conspiracy?  People invent all sorts of stories, but this is all about safety.  About having a facility that’s up-to-date, and something our town can be proud of.  We think that once it’s built, everyone will settle down, everyone will see what it is.  It is after all a boat ramp, it’s not a major port.”  Whether it is his uneasy chuckle after asking “What conspiracy?” or the baseball cap embroidered Lexus in gold lettering that he is wearing, Rudge comes across as either disingenuous or incapable of empathy.

The abalone industry of Victoria makes much of the contributions that their business enables them to return to the community – not just in the form of jobs, but in cost recovery and royalty payments.  Over the past ten years, the industry has paid $25 million dollars in royalties and $45 million dollars in cost recovery.  These figures are nothing to sneeze at, but if you consider that the industry made approximately $750 million dollars during that decade, the numbers quickly become relative, and the percentage of profit actually returned to the people of Victoria comes in at a scant 0.09%.  It is these figures that make spending $6 million dollars on a development project (plus an additional $2 million dollars in associated fees and costs before a shovel ever hit the sand!) that the vast majority of the residents of Mallacoota have no desire for so unbelievable.  Tim Baker points out, “It’s a huge expense for a fairly small local council with a relatively small population.  The other argument people were saying, even those who weren’t vehemently against it were saying there’s other stuff we need more than this – we need a library, a public swimming pool – you know, regional Australia is really hard up for basic services and infrastructure.”

The story of Bastion Point defies easy definition.  It is not a story of big industry versus small town.  Again, the abalone industry supplies most of the jobs in Mallacoota, and many of the divers employed by license holders are also surfers, Johno Rudge among them, and although some may be ambivalent about Option 3b, the vast majority say that this project is overkill, and that the breakwall will not only destroy the wave at Bastion Point, but is, in and of it itself, a danger to the ocean-going community.  There are no clear big winners (excepting GPM Marine Constructions who were awarded the $6.5 million dollar contract) – abalone license holders will still be restricted by the government-imposed TAC (total allowable catch), and the cap on abalone license holders will remain at 71.  Will abalone harvesters be able to get in and out of the water with greater ease – yes.  But for a group of blokes that only have 40-50 working days a year, should this have been a priority, over and above the preservation of the wilderness coast of Mallacoota?  At what point does convenience simply cost too much?

This unfortunately seems to be a case of political personas and personal egos whom feel that any development is a good development; that any breaking ground ceremony will be a great photo-op for their next campaign.  And for the state-level government in Victoria, the noise made by a few beach bums in Bastion Point is too insignificant for them to even bother with.  As protesters are now being arrested for trespassing on the beach while the excavators continue to bury the foreshore with rubble for the new coast road, and as the charges will soon be set to blow up a large portion of reef and rock habitat, Bastion Point will join the list of other lost waves which serve as somber reminders of the true costs of ‘progress.’

For the activists in the Save Bastion Point Campaign, and the residents of Mallacoota in general, the destruction of Bastion Point has left them reeling.  Julie Parker explains, “This place is so special to us.  We have ashes spread of our loved ones on the rocks, we have memories of bringing our kids here when we first had them, it’s more than just a beach to us – it’s a playground, it’s a university, it’s a chapel...  So to see it destroyed with such blatant disregard, it really cuts deep.”

But they are not all doom and gloom.  Although she has given up her routine daily walks to the beach since the construction equipment arrived, Jenny Mason, coordinator of the Save Bastion Point Campaign, instead chooses to view the time that they were able to stall the development as a victory of its own.  “How would we feel if we hadn’t tried?  It just would’ve been awful.  It would’ve been built ten years ago if we hadn’t tried.”  Think of the generation of children who were able to enjoy the unspoiled natural beauty of Bastion Point thanks to the stubborn determination of a handful of activists that acted as catalysts for their entire community.

Photos & Words by Vanessa Janss

They will not abandon their beach.  They continue to fight, even as construction continues.  And perhaps the greatest bit of wisdom in this ordeal has been proferred by 77-year-old activist June Drake, who reveals, “Even though we’ve got to this point, it’s been quite a remarkable thing, and just an overwhelming feeling of support from everywhere. … You dig in there, and you really do believe you’re right, and I do believe we’re right.  It’s a special place, most people want it to remain special.  There was an alternative which was overridden by politicians, and [so you] just pick yourself up and prepare for the next battle, and never give-in.  Does that make sense?”

It does June.  It does.

For more information, please visit:

Save Bastion Point Campaign Website