The Pillars, popular with an ever-ballooning number of increasingly aggressive visitors, cannot be fenced until possibly June – and the fence may not protect fully the fragile site from all further erosion and despoliation because cliff-jumping enthusiasts claim they can, and threaten they will, enter the site from the sea.

pillars mt-martha-cliff-diving-sea-beach-ocean-sun-summer-4But, until a fence can go up in May-June, local police and Mornington Peninsula Shire will do their best to save the area from more damage.

That might be a tall order.

It was, however, conceded that the site could be closed almost immediately, using powers exercised by the state’s Aboriginal Affairs Ministry, according to Mr David Bergin, shire executive manager of planning services, at the special council meeting held on 24 January to deal with the issue.

Mr Bergin was responding to Red Hill ward councillor David Gill, who had asked what powers the shire had to ban access to the Mt Martha coastal site. It was a state government matter, Cr Gill was told. The shire had written to the environment minister, Mr Bergin said.

Cr Gill pressed the point: could the shire also write to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs?

Cr Hugh Fraser (Nepean ward) asked whether, considering the urgency of The Pillars problem, the shire had “picked up the phone” to talk to a minister. The problems had grown over the past two summer seasons, with more and more people coming, Cr Fraser said.

Mayor Bev Colomb answered the question on behalf of staff. It would be nice to be able just to ring a minister, she observed. A rather defeatist attitude, Bandicoot thought.

Councillors were presented with four options to deal with the matter:

One: Continue with the “harm reduction” approach.

Two: Fence the site.

Three: Fence the site and hire an extra shire officer “to promote awareness and educate any visitors on the need to close The Pillars for safety/ environmental/ cultural heritage reasons”.

(Bandicoot feels such an officer would need formidable persuasive powers to deal with the illegal-parking, rubbish-strewing aggressive visitors whom local residents have endured in recent weeks; perhaps two officers or even a squad would be more appropriate.)

Four: Hand back to the state government responsibility for the Mt Martha foreshore.

pillars-buttsShire CEO Carl Cowie, asked by Cr Gill for the cost to the shire of The Pillars problem, said the figures he had calculated ranged from $80,000 up to $280,000, depending on the decision councillors made. There would be ongoing costs, too, he said. And Option 3 would be the most expensive.

Councillors voted 10-1 for option 3, with Cr Gill the sole dissenter. They approved fencing the site and hiring an officer to effectively turn visitors away. The vote also approved devising a “communication and media plan”. To reach who – the reading public or the social media crowd? (Pictured – rock pool with a difference.)

Councillors also instructed staff to write to relevant ministers, including the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, “to seek their direction and advice on putting in place legal processes to prohibit public access to The Pillars”.

Further it was resolved that if the shire resolution was not supported by the state government, it “commences the process of handing back the Committee of Management responsibility … for the Pillars section of the Mount Martha foreshore … as detailed in Option 4 of the report”.

(See full details at mornpen.vic.gov.au/About-Us/About-Our-Council/Council-Meetings/CouncilCommittee-Meeting-Agendas-and-Minutes and click on 24 Jan 2017 Special Meeting.)

A critical question arises regarding protection of The Pillars, with its Aboriginal middens, possible artefacts and other sensitive heritage considerations: why did not the shire act far earlier than January 2017 to take protective measures?

The Pillars problem started a full year ago. The shire was concerned about the growing number of visitors. Why did it sit on its hands for 12 months? It knew (or surely should have known) that the ministry for Aboriginal Affairs had the power to impose virtually an instant shut-down of The Pillars site. Why did it not explore back then having a contingency plan ready to go with a simple phone call?

The slow bureaucratic process now set in motion by councillor vote, which has left the site open and vulnerable, could have been headed off by councillors who knew (or should have remembered) shire correspondence now a year old, which expressed the shire’s concern over the growing crowds congregating at The Pillars.

Three of the current councillors (Antonella Celi of Seawinds ward, Hugh Fraser of Nepean ward and particularly Bev Colomb, whose Briars ward includes The Pillars) were in office a year ago and were briefed in writing about the concerns.

It might have been good politics and image polishing for Cr Celi to have moved the motion to protect The Pillars – with staff needing to act swiftly to modify key points of the Celi original – but it was a year late, and now with a wait of four months or so until the fence can be built.

pillars-rubbishOn that matter, Bandicoot might be optimistic in hoping a senior shire executive picked up a phone the morning after the meeting and rang a minister, preferably for Aboriginal Affairs, to plead for an immediate order to protect the site that very day.

Ministers of the Crown are not so lofty that they always get their people to talk to your people on a politically and socially sensitive issue – especially when a senior shire officer or two might well have ministers’ mobile phone numbers readily at hand. (Pictured – a day’s rubbish locals collected.)

But for now, let’s return to the council meeting and listen in.

Councillors were told that The Pillars area was being patrolled six times a day, yielding “a number of infringements but not addressing numbers, traffic congestion and concerns [about] offensive behaviour [or] the value of amenity and personal safety our local residents are seeing diminished”.

Residents were assured rubbish would continue to be cleaned up and notices about closure of The Pillars could be attached to bollards along the roadside – although how the bollards could have been placed without a now-required Cultural Heritage Management Plan (for the Aboriginal cultural items) was not mentioned.

In speaking to her motion, Cr Celi conceded that “Over the last year or so we had realised that there was more people frequenting The Pillars and we needed to understand the pattern and the nature of how it was going to be used so we gave the users the benefit of the doubt over the last year.

“But as it’s been proven, and the local community can attest to, that benevolent action towards the users and the accessibility to the Pillars didn’t go quite the way we planned.”

(“Benevolent action” indeed! “Complacent neglect”, perhaps.)

Council could now “give some comfort and certainty to the community that council has listened and that we will take the appropriate action to remediate the issues that everyone’s been faced with, especially over the summer season”.

pillars-pure blondeIt reminded Bandicoot of a federal minister nicknamed His Oiliness who, under intense pressure in the House of Reps for having stayed seated on his hands on a crucial matter, finally blurted out that “in due course, the Government acted promptly”. Order was finally restored after gales of laughter and witty interjections.

Briars ward councillors Rosie Clark (“I think we do have to do something quite drastic like this to keep the pristine Bay we’ve got”) and Sam Hearn (he had jumped from The Pillars in his youth and as a happy couple had wedding photos taken there) backed building a fence. (Pictured – tidily packed, unbroken; was it too much like hard work to take them away?)

Cr Hearn offered the view that “We need to act in the short term decisively but in the long term wisely”, pointing out that parts of the motion “explore what Cr Gill is suggesting [i.e. a total ban] … in this digital world The Pillars has moved from a local site to a global one”.

To close, let the energetically vocal but often prolix Cr Celi put her case, in her own words:

“The motion gives a proper, clear, way and direction and instruction for officers to actually carry through a systematic process with DELWP *, with the Victorian Government and Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, to actually go through that right process to make sure that we can get this prohibition right in the first instance.

“As soon as possible that fence will be up to create that initial barrier to really change the perception that The Pillars is just not accessible to everyone and anyone at any time to come down there and destroy our amenity on the Mornington Peninsula and we demand more respect from people who visit our municipality, that they just can’t come along and just destroy our amenities, our cultural heritage values and our coastline like this.”

Hear! er, Hear!

Oh! one last thing. The fence will be temporary, “with outcomes [of its effect] reviewed through a report to Council after a trial period of two years”. After which it might be removed, so in due course the entire process can start again. Social media will waste no time getting the word out. Will the shire’s “communication and media plan” need to be wheeled out again? 

* The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning


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