When a local council in Victoria, Australia introduced a ban on dogs on a local beach, dog owners were outraged. This issue quickly became a contentious one, with the council having to drop its original plan and start over with a community engagement process for a more participatory consultation.
Problems and Purpose
Bass Coast Shire Council introduced a ban on dogs on Inverloch beaches for the summer of 2014, to run from 8am to 8pm. This prompted an outcry from dog owners. Nine petitions were put to the council and they received a high level of feedback and outrage on the issue including 700 items of correspondence and repeated questions at council meetings (MosaicLab 2013).
In response to the outcry, the council was forced to shelve its plan and return to the drawing board (LaTrobe Valley Express 2014). This time, the council pledged to improve its consultation and engagement process and engaged MosaicLab, a collective of participatory practitioners, to implement a community engagement process on this issue. The question to be answered was:
How do we allow for the fair and equitable use of our beaches by all users while taking into account amenity, environmental issues and safety concerns?
The council limited the scope of the engagement process so that from the outset it was clear which elements the community could and could not influence (MosaicLab 2014). Whilst people could influence
- Where dogs can be off leash on Council controlled beaches
- The dates, times and locations in which the beach is shared between the different users
They were not able to influence the following elements:
- Dogs must be on a leash in public places unless otherwise agreed (that is, if an off leash area has been provided)
- The beaches are a shared space and the needs of all users are provided for in some way (options/opportunity for all users)
- The environment must be taken in to account
- Safety must be taken into account
- Domestic Animals Act and the Domestic Animals Management Plan
- All groups are respected in the engagement process and the full range of views are to be considered
- Any resultant orders must be simple, clear and enforceable
Background History and Context
Bass Shire Council's Domestic Animal Management Plan 2012-2016 was passed by council in July 2012. Amongst other issues, dogs on beaches was identified as a key area of concern and nuisance. Furthermore, the plan showed that that only a minority of residents were satisfied with the off leash areas for dogs.
The council's decision to ban all dogs on the beaches came in December 2013 and caused an outcry amongst dog ownners. The council received a lot of negative traffic in response to the decision and was ultimately forced to scrap its initial decision. Following this, In March 2014 the council embarked on a community engagement process to try and settle the issue and resolve what had become a controversial topic with strong viewpoints on either side.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The dogs on Inverloch beach engagement process was initiated by Bass Coast Shire Council, and organised and facilitated by an independent collective of community engagement practitioners, MosaicLab. The Domestic Animal Management Advisory Committee (DAMAC) was established by the council and was involved throughout the process. DAMAC will also be responsible for implementation of recommendations.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The engagement process was open to the local community and stakeholder groups to participate. During Stage 1, practitioners identified stakeholder groups. Stage 1 of the engagement was also used to recruit participants for Stage 2. There was no random or stratified selection process.
Methods and Tools Used
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The engagement plan involved two key stages. The first stage was intended to get a grasp of the various viewpoints in the community and to encourage people to become involved in the second stage of the process which involved more deliberative, collaborative community meetings to draw up recommendations to council. The following outline is taken from MosaicLab's report to the council on the engagement process:
- Submissions and petitions received from October 2013 to date (this step was largely prior to the commencement of the formal engagement process).
- 2. Open public workshop held on 22 September 2014 (during the school holidays) at which 180 - 200 people attended.
- 3. Two drop in sessions held on the evening on October 8 and morning of October 9 for people who were out of town during the school holidays or who would not be willing to attend a pubic meeting. Approximately 50 people attended.
- 4. Interviews (both face to face and on the phone) with local people and community groups who have an interest in the beach or who may have members with an interest in the beach were held during the period September 10 to October 9.
- Twenty-one (21) specific community groups or organisations were listed in stakeholder list in the community engagement plan. The consultants were successful in interviewing 14 of the 21 groups listed. This included organisations with a direct interest such as the Surf Club, Yacht Club, South Gippsland Conservation Society and other key organisations in the town such as the local primary school. During the interview with the primary school principal, she invited the consultants to undertake a discussion activity with the school children. This activity was undertaken on 16 October 2014 in the presence of the principal and teachers and the information from the process was provided to participants at meeting #2.
Following Stage 1, a review of the process so far was conducted to gauge potential levels of participation for the collaborative meetings in Stage 2. Stage 2 comprised three meetings designed to compile recommendations for the council. Due to the controversy and strong viewpoints on all sides, the aim was not to achieve consensus or unianimity on recommendations, but to 'be able to come up with a recommendation that meets enough of the needs of each group that they will be able to ‘live with’ the recommendation. A non-negotiable of council was that the needs of all users, the environment and safety be considered' (MosaicLab 2014, p3). No formal voting procedure was employed as any resulting solution 'would not be acceptable to those who ‘lost’ the vote' (MosaicLab 2014).
Stage 2 meetings encompassed the following steps:
- Discussion of the various perspectives held by community members (stage 1 output report) - understanding each other viewpoints (meeting 1)
- Coming up with initial ideas (meeting 1)
- Using the ideas to come up with an overall solution (options) in pairs and then a small group - lead to 10 options (meeting 2)
- First discussion of these options - without resolution (meeting 2)
- Options themed by consultants at the request of the group (between meeting 2 & 3)
- Discussion and development of recommendations (meeting 3)
Attendance during the meeting varied, with 22 people attending all three and 42, 46 and 44 attending each respective meeting (MosaicLab 2014 p4).
The full plan for the community engagement process is available from the Bass Shire Council website along with other reports relating to dogs on Inverloch beaches.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Following the three collaborative meetings, MosaicLab compiled a community report comprising 14 recommendations for the council encompassing the following themes:
- facilities for dogs (eg poo bins)
- information provision
- establishing an inland dog park
- identifying on leash/off leash areas
- people-only areas
- protecting local birdlife
The council responded to the community recommendations on 19 November 2014 and accepted them in part. There are no current updates indicated on the council website. The council's final decision was to ban dogs on three Inverloch beaches during summertime.
Local media covered the engagement process and highlighted the opportunity for community members to have their say. Following Stage 1, where there was a public meeting attended by up to 200 people, an attendee wrote about their experience of the meeting. This person was critical of the council's decisions on restriction and report their feeling that 'it's amazing how many people can attend the same meeting and yet hear vastly different things'. On the one hand, this could be an indication of how strongly people felt about this issue - that they were unable to see the validity of alternative viewpoints. On the other, it could be that during the meeting one viewpoint was favoured or received more 'airtime' than others.
Following the conclusion of the engagement process, another news outlet reported that the council had chosen to impose the summer dog restrictions on three beaches depsite the point that DAMAC had recommended only two. The blog post provides a range of reactions from community members and the council. Whilst the majority of councillors were enthused about the community consultation process:
“The community is to be congratulated for its participation in the process,” Cr Brown said.
“I’d like to thank all workshop attendees for the valuable and respectful exchange of diverse opinions.
“Almost 200 people attended a public meeting, with 40 to 50 people attending each of the three open sessions that followed"
It is clear that not everyone was happy about the final decision because the restrictions appeared to be stricter than the community report's recommendations.
In December 2015 the South Gippsland Sentinel Times reported that the summer restrictions would be in place for the second year running, criticising the council's rules for dogs on Inverloch beaches as too complex. It is worth noting that this is the same outlet that was critical of the Stage 1 public meeting and from a look at its website appears to have consistently opposed dog bans in Inverloch.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
It is clear that the issue of dogs on Inverloch beaches was a divisive issue for the community. Arguably, the community engagement has not changed this; local media outlets continued to slam the council throughout the process and negative reporting was still seen in 2015. It appears that at least some of the negativity towards the dog restrictions is driven by a libertarian streak - resentment of regulation and 'a list of regulations as long as your arm is posted telling you what you can't do'.
This may well be one of those issues where people are so divided that it is difficult to resolve. MosaicLab acknowledged the divisiveness of the issue and seem to have built this consideration into their planning, as outlined above. However, much of the negativity appears to relate to the point that the council amended the community's recommendations so it could be that the 'problem' is with the council rather than the process. In addition, the narrow scope of the community's influence (see above) could have caused further frustrations if the community felt that it did not have much of an opportunity to influence broader issues - particularly as the question presented is quite broad, yet the community influence was limited to relatively technical issues.
MosaicLab (2013) Working with outrage: dogs on Inverloch beach [online], available at: http://www.mosaiclab.com.au/our-projects/#WorkingWithOutage
MosaicLab (2014) Community Engagement: Dogs on Inverloch Beaches Consultant’s Report to Council on the Community Engagement Process [pdf], available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20170228023041/https://www.basscoast.vic.gov.au/getmedia/e1b13bf4-d3e5-4b9b-af58-25a6a234aab1/2012_08_20_Domestic_Animal_Management_Plan_2012-2016.pdf
Bass Coast Shire Council's site includes links to reports related to the community engagement: http://www.basscoast.vic.gov.au/Services/Animals/Domestic_Animal_Managem...