After 60 years, will the Coast Guard sink or swim?
CENTRAL Queensland boaties are outraged that a plan to dismantle the volunteer Coast Guard could already be under way, despite the Queensland Government being yet to ratify the review in question.
In documents obtained by The Morning Bulletin, sources claimed that Queensland Fire and Emergency Services had begun to coerce existing Coast Guard volunteers into complying with anticipated outcomes of its Blue Water Review, by stripping local flotillas of funding and other assets.
The original concept for a state-owned entity was put forward by retired Navy officer, Cdr Campbell Darcy, last January, and led to a Blue Water Review Working Group which met 10 times during 2019.
It involved members of both the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard - which has flotillas in Rockhampton, Yeppoon and Keppel Sands - and the Volunteer Marine Rescue, as well as representatives from the police, ambulance service, Maritime Safety and QFES.
Despite their titles' similarity, the VMRAQ - which operates in more than 20 locations including Mackay and Gladstone - is not related to the proposed, tentatively titled Marine Rescue Services entity.
Coast Guard sources say the proposal will impose a "loss of identity, heritage and history" on community members who have built the Coast Guard since its inception in 1961, without making a "scrap of difference" to public welfare. They said planning was underway for original organisations to become co-ordinated in their "collective resistance to the new Queensland Government-controlled entity".
Another source who spoke with The Morning Bulletin said similar mergers in New South Wales and Western Australia were producing unfavourable outcomes.
A document forthcoming from the working group's Gladstone meeting in June said that "numerous rank and file members" of both volunteer organisations identified a range of issues "creating a less than optimal service to the boating public and an operating environment that had risks for the public, volunteers and Government".
But sources said there was inadequate representation on behalf of, or consultation with the general membership, especially outside Queensland's south-east corner
The draft Concept of Operations document continues, "While both organisations generally worked well together having two service providers meant major sponsorship opportunities were lost, purchasing power through efficiencies of scale and equipment commonality were missed, and from the boating public's perspective the system was disjointed,"
"Crucially, the sector when viewed from a perspective of providing state-wide capability was seen to be on an unsustainable trajectory due to financial pressures and diminishing volunteer capability."
In the minutes from its May meeting in Townsville, QFES' acting executive director, Troy Davies said the group's task involved working "under a fast timeline", to provide "a broad picture of what the sector would look like" by the end of June 2020.
However, notes about the May meeting, which have been published on the QFES website, reveal participants had many concerns - about funding, assets, autonomy, timeframes, costs, staffing and "volunteer confidence" - to which the working group could not respond at that time.
"There is a feeling of distrust in the government taking control of the Coast Guard and, if that happens, there may be volunteers who walk away," said an unnamed participant.
Another said the review "felt sudden and out of nowhere for some".
A QFES spokesperson told The Morning Bulletin on Thursday that "the Blue Water Review working group has finalised its vision for the volunteer marine sector and Queensland Fire and Emergency Services is presenting these findings to Government for consideration. No decision has yet been made."
Yet sources point to the employment of a Director and a Principal Policy Officer as evidence the QFES is forging ahead with plans to merge existing volunteer services under a State Government banner.
A QFES spokesperson acknowledged the appointment of a Blue Water Review Director "whose role is to support the review through the current phase".
"Once a decision is made by government, QFES will undertake significant stakeholder engagement across the sector and ensure this outcome is communicated."
The QFES spokesperson also stated that the Queensland Government "recognises and appreciates" the important role of the volunteer marine sector.
"The Government, through QFES, has strongly supported the sector throughout the current review process, including increasing funding to the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Association and the Volunteer Marine Rescue Association.
"Approximately $2.3 million has been allocated under service agreements with AVCGA and VMRAQ for the period 1 July 2019 and 31 December 2019, which includes a $600,000 increase to cover insurance costs.
"This is a significant increase on previous funding and allows volunteers to invest more money at a local level instead of on insurance costs."
But sources said that handing subscriptions over to the new entity would threaten the Coast Guard's not-for-profit status, which raises the question whether current volunteers would be replaced by commercially rated masters and crew.
Existing Coast Guard members who wished to transition over to the new Marine Rescue Service might be required to give up their vessels and buildings, although it is understood many such buildings stand on land owned by local councils.
It is alleged QFES will pressure such landowners not to renew Coast Guard land-based and seabed leases, and will withhold future funding unless flotillas comply with the new scheme.
A QFES spokesperson refuted that claim, stating that "AVCGA and flotillas are responsible for negotiating lease agreements".
Historically, service and funding agreements between QFES and the Coast Guard spanned a two-year period, but that was reportedly reduced to six months prior to December 2019.
Sources said the fact the Coast Guard was currently operating under a service agreement without commensuration - effectively, continuing their operations without funding from the State Government - is a sure sign the volunteer organisation's days are numbered.
The QFES responded that it was "committed to ensuring the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Association had the necessary support to operate its marine rescue services.
"An additional $300,000 was allocated to AVCGA to assist frontline flotillas with insurance costs for the 2019-20 financial year," a spokesperson said.
"The intent of this additional funding was to relieve some of the fundraising burden felt by volunteers in 2019.
"AVCGA has accepted an extension of their current agreement, whilst they review the 2020 Agreement.
"QFES is awaiting AVCGA feedback to finalise the new 2020 one-year agreement, to maintain funding to benefit AVCGA and its volunteers."
Documents obtained by The Morning Bulletin list concerns, which the QFES has denied/refuted, such as:
• The QFES will fund the new Marine Rescue Service by taking over subscriptions from the individual Coast Guard flotillas;
• QFES will charge boaties (260,000 in number) an 'opt out' $60 donation to the MRS, or they will pay a levy on their registration;
• The public will be charged new fees for "simple assists" such as towing;
• The new service model will put at risk the Coast Guard's "not for profit" status, meaning volunteers can't serve as skippers or crew;
• The move will destroy the heritage of community trust in and identity with the Coast guard, built over successive generations of community support and volunteering; • QFES will withdraw funding and accreditation for flotillas which don't "come across";
• Under the single entity model, local units would have to fundraise for better and more equipment; and • That the sole purpose of the Working Group was to give "veiled legitimacy" to QFES' original plans