The Law’s An Ass – Part 2

Following on from Part 1, inane legislation was also enacted in Victoria last year that equally makes no real sense, achieves little of significance and which most certainly didn’t consider the unintended consequences. To wit, the state government decided to impose fees in previously free camping areas and increase fees in existing fee-based camping areas in national and other parks. In addition, the entire management process that has been adopted for booking camp sites is, by all accounts, government process at its worst. The changes have commenced and the intent is to expand this to the majority of public land. This has clearly made some very happy:

VicParks, which represents private camp and holiday park operators, is in favour of the fee hike. “…it puts the government parks on a level playing field with our parks.”

A level playing field, the reality - Gippsland Victoria

A level playing field, the reality – Gippsland Victoria

A level playing field, the reality - Gippsland Victoria

A level playing field, the reality – Gippsland Victoria

What beggars belief is the extent of the fee rise and the nature of the fees, which make some hotel stays looks cheap by comparison. The fees are certainly significantly higher than many caravan parks that provide full facilities and, seriously, why should national parks be on a level playing field with commercially operated caravan and camping grounds? Workers, ratepayers, motorists and likely many others already contribute to the sustainment (especially roads) of national and other parks through taxes, and while there is a case for charges at some of the highly popular parks that are major tourist destinations and where modern facilities are expected, to charge for plots of dirt in the middle of nowhere is simply robbery. Commercial operators have been in business for decades with the knowledge that national and state parks ostensibly provide free camping as part of the national estate, and that’s something that should not be altered.

Camping at half the price - Neerim South Caravan Park, Neerim South Victoria

Camping at half the price – Neerim South Caravan Park, Neerim South Victoria

But what also adds insult to injury is the fact that fees are being imposed for camp sites that provide no facilities whatsoever (bring in and take out everything), and that some smaller campsites are being closed and campers being forced into increasingly communal and crowded campgrounds (Goulburn River), which defeats the point of getting away from the crowds in the first place. Additionally, when you’re at a caravan park and the like, you expect and receive proper park management at all times. Unruly guests are appropriately dealt with, facilities are properly maintained for health and safety, rubbish is appropriately collected and other services provided. So when national parks charge fees and at rates that exceed that of caravan parks, yet provide none of the commensurate facilities and services, something has gone seriously wrong.

Basic camping and getting away from the maddening crowds (note the well maintained lawns) - Barkly River Victoria

Basic camping and getting away from the maddening crowds (note the well maintained lawns) – Barkly River Victoria

The other thing that these fees do (one of the unintended consequences) is that it makes the less well off reluctant to enjoy camping like they perhaps did in the past. Camping actually becomes a wealthier persons activity at even the most basic level. I have seen many times a couple or small family arrive at a campsite in nothing more than an older car, with a tent and the most basic of camping gear. The equipment has cost them little and been paid off over the years, the trip has been relatively inexpensive and their needs have been modest. Imagine finding out that you now have to pay ~$34 per day (or more) for your camping experience on a plot of dirt, with at best a pit toilet, which in 2013 was free or low cost. You pay by credit card in advance and, if you’re unlucky, the site that you thought was booked exclusively for you may already have a group there when you arrive. There’s no way for you to dispute ownership, because the parks service doesn’t actually manage the sites on a constant basis, if at all, as they do at caravan parks. Unfortunately, from anecdotal evidence, this has already been a sad discovery for some and try getting a refund for a camping site you couldn’t use.

Bush camping, becoming a thing of the past? - Goulburn River Victoria

Bush camping, becoming a thing of the past? – Goulburn River Victoria

Bush Christmases Past - Goulburn River Victoria

Bush Christmases Past – Goulburn River Victoria

The other sad thing is that it’s been reported that the state government doesn’t actually expect to make much money from the additional fees, it’s the fines associated with not booking sites where the revenue will be amassed. No doubt, fines will be vigilantly enforced and collected, but will the other associated aspects that the fees are supposed to cater for be followed through with the same vigilance? The government statements have been carefully worded to say that camping fees will go towards the parks, but what about the fines? I’d suggest that one would be very naïve to think that the fees and especially the fines would go towards enhancing camping services and facilities across the board, to equal that of caravan or camping parks, in order to create a level playing field. The ‘promise’ might be there, but Treasury and their cache of Consolidated Revenue may have a different view.

Quality camping facilities (bush couch and foot rest) - Barkly River Victoria

Quality camping facilities (bush couch and foot rest) – Barkly River Victoria

Predictably, other unintended consequences are already having an effect, as regular campers and caravaners are now avoiding locations that impose fees, and onerous and unreliable booking processes. An example is the Mt Cole camping ground, which forms part of the Mount Buangor State Park, that was reportedly completely empty during this year’s Melbourne Cup Weekend. The news has also spread across Australia and tourists are baulking at the charges, considering that they can get better services and locations in other states, for low cost or even for free. There is an army of caravaners and others travelling throughout Australia all year round who bring revenue to the states and all that these fees will achieve is to kill the Golden Goose, the tourists that bring money to Victoria and especially to regional towns and the like.

Free campsites? Scratch Victoria - (source: On The Road Publishing)

Free campsites? Scratch Victoria – (source: On The Road Publishing)

Some may rightfully point out that most states impose fees for national parks access, such as yearly parks passes or variations, and that’s quite true; however, that concept hasn’t even been offered. It’s one of the many criticisms raised by regular caravaners and campers that I’ve spoken to and something they would support if a wider fee system was necessary. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are still many free camping sites available in other states, even with parks passes.

As a final note, one shining light in all of this is that the government that saw fit to proceed with this malarkey has now been ousted and perhaps some sanity may prevail. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Update. Apparently the new government has scrapped the fees for basic camping sites in national and state parks. Excellent! I don’t know what bloody mindedness the Liberals had when they introduced this, but all those that love the bush and camping are saying good riddance to them and their stupid ideas. Kudos to Labor for making a sane decision.