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Changes to the control of game-hunting in Victoria may be giving shooters the upper hand. By Max Opray.

Napthine government considers the economic impact of game-hunting

Victorian duck-hunters face protesters.
Credit: Emanuele Colombo

As the final shots of the duck-hunting season cracked across the wetlands of Western Victoria on June 9, the state’s agriculture minister, Peter Walsh, was firing off the first salvo in a hunt decidedly more political in nature. 

For the Napthine government, the debate has been dominated for far too long by anti-hunting activists and their emotive descriptions of bloodied ducks thrashing and drowning in the water, of hunters massacring endangered species in defiance of regulations, and of the threats stray bullets pose to bird and human life. 

It was time to reframe the conversation – it was time to talk about money.

With this in mind, Walsh trumpeted the release of a government-commissioned report into the economic impact of game-hunting, an analysis that concluded hunters spend $439 million yearly in Victoria on their forays into the wild. 

The report drew on a survey of about 1000 game-hunting licence holders who hunt not just ducks, but deer, quail and pest species as well.

Put together by RMCG, EconSearch and DBM Consultants, the analysis of the economic impact of hunting in 2013 accounted for every dollar spent by hunters, from filling up the tank on the way to the bush right through to paying the taxidermist after a successful kill.

The authors were careful to note, however, that if game-hunting were no longer an option, the economy would likely not be substantially affected, given participants would spend similar amounts of money on alternative outdoor activities such as camping and fishing.

Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber was being only slightly disingenuous in his response to the report when he said that if people went on a camping trip instead of a hunting trip, all the economy would miss out on was the expenditure on bullets. 

What really set tongues wagging from Walsh’s announcement, however, was his highlighting of a secondary component of the report based on interviews with professional hunting guides who suggested Victoria had the potential to become a global destination for big-spending trophy hunters. 

“The Victorian Coalition government values the significant social and cultural benefits game-hunting provides to our state, and we also see opportunities for the sector to develop high-value, niche tourism experiences that could attract interstate and international visitors and, in turn, further boost regional economies,” Walsh said.

The media took the statement and ran, and by the next day outlets from The Australian through to the ABC were excitedly reporting on a multimillion-dollar Victorian government plan to transform the state into a lucrative game park for big-spending overseas clients.

A spokesperson for the minister advised The Saturday Paper the state government had no such plan, and Walsh was merely noting that the private hunting sector could further expand to become an even bigger economic force if it made the right moves.

According to the more anecdotal components of the report, foreign clients typically spend a great deal more than local hunters, forking out up to $10,000 a trip on high-end add-ons such as professional guides.

Nevertheless, their numbers are almost negligible: of more than 46,000 game-hunters licensed to hunt in Victoria, only 4065 interstate hunters were granted licences in 2013, and just 43 were international residents, indicating most of the $439 million generated by the game-hunting industry is simply money being circulated within Victoria’s economy, as opposed to an injection of cash from elsewhere. 

The hunting guides interviewed in the report identified sambar deer, prized for being a difficult animal to hunt, as the big hope for attracting more substantial numbers of international game-hunters to Victoria.

Away from the west Victorian wetlands the ducks call home, the sambar are dispersed throughout the eastern and northern regions of the state. They don’t just inhabit a different geographical space: the hunting politics are strangely inverted for this species, with conservationists wanting the deer classified as a pest and the hunters lobbying to keep the animal protected, to ensure healthy numbers come hunting season.

The difference is the birds in the west, such as the freckled duck, are native and threatened, while the sambar deer was introduced to Australia by hunters in the mid-19th century. Like rabbits and foxes, sambar are wreaking havoc on local ecosystems, with current hunting levels nowhere near sufficient to keep their population stable, yet they are not classified as a pest species.

While the situation raises interesting questions as to how conservationists can declare the hunting of one kind of animal unacceptably inhumane yet endorse the same treatment of other species for the greater good, what it shows more than anything is the sheer power of the hunting lobby in Victoria. They don’t just decide what animals can get hunted, they also choose what animals can’t be. 

It seems a little strange that they wield so much influence. Less than 1 per cent of the Victorian population is involved in game-hunting, and the last official poll on duck-hunting by Morgan in 2007 showed three-quarters of the state’s population wanted it banned. Yet supporting hunters is one of the key planks of the Napthine government’s platform. 

Already significant changes have been made, shifting responsibility for game-hunting from the environment minister’s portfolio to the agriculture minister’s, and opening up hunting to children as young as 12. The release of the economic impact report is merely the start of Walsh’s latest flurry of activity on the issue, with the document paving the way for the implementation of a $17.6 million investment program into game management, a number unlikely to fluster casual observers given the money the industry is reported to be bringing in.

Also coming is a new Game Management Authority, to start work on July 1, which the Napthine government says will be responsible for licensing, education, compliance, enforcement activities and the promotion of responsible game-hunting. It will mirror a similar but troubled council in New South Wales.

Laurie Levy, campaign director of the Coalition Against Duck Shooting, said the authority is inherently compromised.

“Basically it’s based on the NSW Game Council, which was abolished because there was so much conflict of interest – a council run by shooters for shooters,” he said.

Levy alleged the state government has populated every level of the Department of Environment and Primary Industries with hunters, efforts that are all part of the National Party’s ideological mission. He said Walsh – deputy leader of the Nationals in Victoria – had been working since the 2010 election to expand hunting into a sector as big as fishing, but that it wasn’t working.

As an example of Walsh’s priorities, Levy cited the handling of the Box Flat incident in 2013, where between 100 and 150 shooters were either party to or witnessed the indiscriminate slaughter of more than 1000 waterbirds.

The offence took place within Walsh’s seat of Swan Hill. Several offences were committed, some of which attract prison sentences, yet to date no one has been charged. “They’ve always been the shooters’ party, we’re under no illusions about that,” Levy said.

Walsh’s office said it did not accept claims that the government was overly influenced by the interests of game-hunters. Whether it will be populated by shooters or not, one of the key functions of the Game Management Authority is to introduce a more comprehensive education system for hunters on what they can shoot and how they can do it safely.

The move is in line with the conclusions of the economic impact of hunting report: “Hunting’s ‘social licence’ depends on the perception that the safety of hunters and the public is not put at risk by hunting,” the report said. “A hunting-related accident would threaten the social licence under which hunting operates and for that reason, it is important that hunters are adequately trained to minimise the risk of an accident occurring.”

The enhanced education systems might be borne more out of industry self-preservation than the preservation of others, but if there is one thing conservationists and hunters can surely agree upon, it is that if a 12-year-old is allowed to go hunting, it is best they know which way to point the gun.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "Open season". Subscribe here.

Max Opray
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist.