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Kelvin Thomson on defending public land (Speech to PPLVic AGM 11 Nov 2017)

The driving force behind the Protectors of Public Lands, Julianne Bell, passed away on Friday January 27 this year. Julianne was an indefatigable and tireless campaigner for the protection of Melbourne’s public open spaces. She was most well-known as the defender of Royal Park against any and all who would seek to diminish it for their own purposes, and she told me that she was most proud of her role in stopping the East-West Link, a Freeway which would carve up Royal Park in an outrageous act of environmental vandalism. She was the driving force behind this organisation and used it to defend public open spaces far and wide from all manner of threats – the Carlton Gardens, the Catani Gardens, the Exhibition Gardens, the Rogers Memorial Reserve and many others too numerous to mention – no public open space was too far away or too small to merit her attention.

Julianne worked closely with me on the problems caused by Rapid Population growth for the world in general and for Melbourne in particular. She understood that it is people, it is us, who are responsible for environmental damage, and was prepared to cut through the vanity that prevents many of us from acknowledging this. She had worked in the Immigration Department, and told me a number of times about the propensity for migration agents to tell fibs on applications, and the trouble an understaffed Department had in verifying claims and uncovering rorts.

Julianne was not always easy to work with, and she was very hard line. I did think when she was telling me about the evils of the Flower Show in the Exhibition Gardens that perhaps she could lighten up! But she grasped, better I think than anyone else I have ever met, that our public open spaces are constantly in danger from people or organisations or businesses who want to use them for a private benefit, at the cost of the value of the open space asset itself.

She understood and loved the heritage of Marvellous Melbourne, the legacy of beautiful parks and open spaces which Melbourne’s founders bequeathed us, and she was relentless in her defence of them. If Julianne had not been standing guard over them these past decades, they might well look rather different, and Melbourne might well have been on its way to becoming a soulless concrete jungle, like so many other cities around the world.

Over the years various Premiers and Lord Mayors have basked in reflected glory as Melbourne was declared the World’s Most Liveable City. But this title owes, in my view, a fair bit more to Julianne’s work than to theirs. If we are to keep that honour, we will need people to draw inspiration from Julianne, take over her life’s work, and themselves become Protectors of Public Lands.
After Julianne’s death Rose Iser suggested there be a memorial to her in Royal Park. I said I agree. But not too big. Julianne would not approve. I am very pleased that the City of Melbourne has got this right, in its acknowledgment of her at Walmsley House.

The evidence about the physical and mental health benefits of public open space and exposure to nature continues to mount. A study led by The University of Queensland and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions suggests people might need a minimum dose of nature. The research concludes that people who visit parks for 30 minutes or more each week are much less likely to have high blood pressure or poor mental health than those who don’t.

Researcher Dr. Danielle Shanahan says, “if everyone visited their local parks for half an hour each week there would be 7% fewer cases of depression and 9% fewer cases of high blood pressure”. ”Our children especially benefit from spending more time outdoors. Kids who grow up experiencing natural environments may benefit developmentally and have a heightened awareness as adults than those who don’t”.

The United States Natural Academy of Sciences did a study, reported in February this year, which found that increased urbanisation closely correlates with increased instances of depression and other mental illness. Given this correlation I am astonished that we continue to build high rise towers and continue to encourage people to live in large cities, where traffic congestion, cheek by jowl living and fierce competition for jobs and advancement make us less satisfied and more stressed.

Until our civic leaders and planners come to their senses about this, the Study suggests there is something people can do to help their mental health and wellbeing. They say that getting outdoors and bushwalking, disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature, can help. The research indicates that bushwalking can reduce mental fatigue and improve problem solving. Exposing children with ADHD to green outdoor activities reduced their ADHD symptoms significantly. The results suggest that nature exposure can benefit anyone who has a difficult time paying attention or exhibits compulsive behaviour.

Researchers from the University of British Colombia have found memory benefits for women over 70 coming from aerobic exercise. And the Natural Academy of Science researchers found people walking in nature had decreased obsessive or negative thoughts, by a significant margin, whereas people who walked in an urban environment did not. They concluded that bushwalking can lead people away from the negative thoughts that can lead to depression and anxiety.

So we shouldn’t just hang on to our public open space and vegetation for the birds and plants and animals – we should do ourselves a favour and hang on to it for ourselves.

I can’t speak to you about these matters without saying how disappointed I am with the failure of the modern left in politics around the world and environmental groups in particular to come to grips with the real drivers of our twenty-first century failure to successfully tackle inequality and environmental degradation.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has been particularly disappointing. The October edition of their Magazine Habitat sought to do some big picture thinking, with an extensive article titled “The 10 drivers damaging our living world”. It listed what it called “Persistent Human Population Growth” at number 7. While at least it got a mention, the ACF quickly moves on, and there is no action by the ACF to do anything about it.

In fact, rapid population growth is the Number 1 driver of damage to our environment. The article cites as Number 1 “The dominant view of Free Markets, Individualism and Technological Progress”. No doubt this is a real problem, but why is this view dominant in the first place? A key driver of its political success is that around the world the left and environment groups espouse open borders and refuse to talk about population, leaving a massive political vacuum into which populist right figures like Donald Trump. Nigel Farrage, Marine Le Pen etc march. In Queensland at present One Nation is outpolling the Greens.

Coming in at Number 2 in the article is “Undervaluing Nature, including as a result of the increasing disconnection from Nature”. Once again, this is a real problem, but why is it a problem? The answer is increasing urbanisation, and the left and environment groups do little to speak out against increasing urbanisation. Indeed they often support increasing densification – dual occupancies, multi-unit developments, and high rise - claiming, incorrectly, that this is a more efficient and environmentally appropriate way to live.

Coming in at Number 3 in the article is “The Endless Pursuit of Economic Growth through Unrestrained Free Markets”. Again, I agree that this is real problem. But the only reason we really need economic growth is on account of our rapid population growth. If we have population growth, we must have economic growth otherwise we’ll all be manifestly poorer. But if we had a more stable population we could maintain our prosperity without being fixated on economic growth. This is how things used to work, and work they did.

And Number 9 on the list of drivers is “Governments and Market Institutions that Ignore Environmental Degradation”. Once again, true enough. But governments presiding over rapidly growing populations spend most of their time and energy dealing with the problems this creates. It’s all about infrastructure. The present State Government is going hard on the level crossing removal program (which by the way Rosemary West from Green Wedges tells me could damage the Edithvale Wetlands) and on things like the City Link Widening Project. There is a crowding out effect. They don’t have much time to put into saving the Orange-Bellied Parrot. In a stable population Governments would have much more capacity to tackle environmental degradation.

In my view, until the left in general and environmental groups in particular are prepared to call a spade a spade, and stop indulging themselves and the rest of us in this vanity that we have about ourselves as a species – the problem couldn’t possibly be us – then protecting our public lands and open spaces will continue to be a battle.

Now I realise at this point I am in real danger of depressing the crap out of you, and having you go home spend the rest of the year watching TV, instead of inspiring you to get out there and do something. But Julianne Bell did take on, fight and win battles, and I will mention to you two that are going on right now that can be won, and need to be won.

The first is in Fawkner, part of my former electorate of Wills, where VicRoads is the owner of land adjacent to the Merri Creek. For many years they wanted to build a Freeway through there, but strong community campaigns and excellent leadership by their political representatives at the time prevented that.

Now VicRoads want to sell a significant parcel of that land, and Moreland Council is not prepared to pay the price they are asking. This land, as part of the Merri Creek valley, has real environmental and open space value, and should not be sold off for housing. I can assure you that if it were in Balwyn or Camberwell and proposed to be sold off all hell would break loose. Fawkner residents should not be treated as second class citizens, and the land should remain as public open space. Indeed it is adjacent to the former NuFarm Factory, which used to make the chemicals used in Agent Orange. Any housing development on this site will involve dubious clearances from planning and environmental authorities.

I have seen this kind of issue many times over the years, and been involved in the successful resolution of a number of them. It involves the State Government body substantially reducing the money it is seeking, and stop trying to make a financial windfall, and the Council being willing to pay a reduced amount, so that honour is satisfied all round. But it requires a lot of effort to get to this point. Fawkner Residents Association leader Joe Perri is doing a great job trying to prevent this selloff, and I hope some people will be willing to support him in protecting these public lands. His phone number is 0412 112 545, and his email is joe.perri@gmail.com.

Of course Julianne Bell knew that our public lands not only need to be protected against people who want to sell them off, but also against those who would appropriate them for a private benefit. This is the issue on the beaches between Port Fairy and Warrnambool, where commercial horse trainers have been licenced to use the beaches of the Belfast Coastal Reserve. This is prime habitat for the endangered Hooded Plover. I find it remarkable that Governments can put a great deal of effort into protecting the Hooded Plover, then undo it all by allowing throughbred racehorses to charge up and down the beach!

The horses churn up the sand, disturb the chicks and adult nesting birds, crush eggs and damage protective fencing. They also risk the safety and enjoyment of joggers, swimmers, surfers, anglers, birdwatchers and other beachgoers. Horses are for courses, not for beaches. The campaign to stop beaches being turned into racetracks is being run by the Victorian National Parks Association, phone 9347 5188 or email vnpa@vnpa.org.au, and by the Belfast Coastal Reserve Action Group, email bcrag@fastmail.com. One of their key people is Killarney resident Shane Howard, lead singer of the Goanna Band.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon. Julianne Bell would be delighted to see you here carrying on this incredibly important work.