The future of ‘The People’s Island’: when will public debate begin?

Written by Convenor July 17 2012  •

We’ve got used to seeing press reports about proposed developments on Rottnest Island that reflect decisions made without public debate. “The West Australian” newspaper appears to print whatever it is told by the Minister or the RIA chairman with no questioning of whether a specific proposal is economically sound and/or in line with what traditional island visitors want. How this can be classed as ‘journalism’ boggles the imagination. Efforts to have the newspaper ask a few relevant questions have failed miserably.
Using Parliament to get answers:
Fortunately, questions can be asked in Parliament. Some have been answered already [not always satisfactorily]; others are awaiting a response. If we want to curb the more extreme proposals, the ones that ignore the Rottnest Island Act and fly in the face of what is in keeping with Rottnest as a low-key holiday destination, we must all contact our politicians and leave them in no doubt as to what we think and what we want. We must also use whatever media will listen, including radio stations and community newspapers.
One substantive answer we did get to a question asked recently in Parliament was in relation to the utility costs for Rottnest Island businesses. Did you know that all the island businesses are subsidised for the costs of water, power, waste management and the like? Furthermore, this subsidy is likely to continue for several more years. Why should this be? What justification can there be for it? Many of these businesses have extraordinarily long leases, have little or no competition, and have become, it seems, very influential stakeholders on the island. Meanwhile, consumers on the mainland now face massive increases in bills for power and other facilities.
An example of how decisions are made:
Questions to the Minister about the announced upgrade of the Rottnest golf course and country club have not yet been answered appropriately. The proposed expenditure of at least $1m on this venture is likely to be very much higher if the project goes ahead. How can such an expensive and speculative venture, which involves leasing the upgraded facility to a private operator, be a realistic money-maker for the RIA or of benefit to the ordinary island user? The business plan for the venture shows that the RIA will not break even until the “seventh year of a ten year leasing arrangement”. Take note that the only people asked to comment on the golf course proposal outside the RIA and the Minister were members of the Rottnest Country Club - a classic example of what the RIA regards as “public opinion”. Note also that this project was not budgeted for in the Rottnest Island Management Plan. It was announced before any environmental considerations, and has not yet been assessed as meeting the stringent standards necessary to ensure there are no harmful effects of using chemically treated waste water which will mix with existing ground water and drain off into the nearby lakes. Most organisations would undoubtedly find such project planning as entirely unsound.
The Rottnest Society’s stance on development:
The Rottnest Society has, on more than one occasion, been accused of “being against any development” on the island. That is certainly not true. We are, however, against inappropriate development. A lowkey eco-lodge [as suggested by the Task Force in 2004] did sound like a good idea; a luxury hotel at Longreach Bay did not. More affordable accommodation in the style that already exists is actively supported by us; more expensive serviced accommodation is not. This does not find favour with the Minister and his appointed Rottnest Island Authority because they are interested only in higher-end tourism. For many years, successive WA governments did not promote Rottnest as a ‘tourist icon’. More recently that has changed. One outcome of this has been an obsession with trying to have as many tourists visit the island in winter as do in summer. Hence the advent of developments like an upgraded golf course, hosting business conferences, providing more quality serviced accommodation, etc. One can understand the importance of this to business operators dependent on high turnover. There is, however, no escaping the fact that Perth has become quite an expensive city to visit and not so Rottnest Society Newsletter July 2012 3 many tourists come in our winter with an eye to spending time on Rottnest. There are plenty of golfing opportunities on the mainland as well as other city attractions and facilities. Conversely, what does and always will attract true “island lovers” to a lowkey Rottnest is its isolation once you leave the settlement area. Even in the height of summer you can cycle out and find a beach or cove where you may well be the only one there. You can walk, fish, swim, watch birds or just sit and enjoy the freedom of it all. It is a true adventure island – the sort you read about when you were a child- and it is all accessible and worthy of exploration. Without this the island would be not worth the trip. Many of us who go to Rottnest regularly and have taken international visitors with us will report that the most common response they make is “whatever you do, don’t let anyone ever change it”.
The need for transparency:
The most disappointing thing about the planning and management of Rottnest in the last few years has been the lack of transparency. There is virtually no opportunity for public involvement in debate. The first anyone learns about a proposed development is via a statement in the newspaper by the Minister or the Chairperson of the RIA. The proposed development is presented as a fait accompli. Attempts to get further details are often fruitless. Claims that further information is “commercial in confidence” are routinely made. The RIA has received several reports impacting on proposals for development which are of great public interest. Some of the reports are many months old but have still not been released. Included among them are the following:

  • Climate Change
  • Economic modelling
  • Sustainability
  • Island values

It is difficult to see why such reports must be kept under wraps. A couple of months ago, TNS Research completed a survey of stakeholders and visitors who were asked questions about what they liked about Rottnest and what changes they might want to see. A request by us for the report or a summary of its findings received the inevitable “commercial in confidence” response from the RIA. What on earth could need hiding about what people said in answer to the questions asked in the survey?
Now do you see what needs debating?

Eric Moxham