Auditor-General investigates Parks Victoria and archeologist Ben Gunn

The Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) has published a scathing review into Park Victoria’s procurement process in regards to assessing Aboriginal rock art sites at rock climbing areas in the Grampians and Arapiles by the archeologist Robert (Ben) Gunn and Parks Victoria staff member Jake Goodes. These two key players in the climbing bans are not named in the report but we are very happy to name them here. We knew this was suss all along and it’s good to see this has actually caught the attention of the government department responsible for checking how “effectively public sector agencies are providing services and using public money“.

Read the report here – Managing Conflicts of Interest in Procurement. Chapter 5 is the relevant chapter. We will also publish screenshots of the entire document at bottom of this page. This is a pretty simple report to digest – make sure you read it. This is the “snapshot” from the report:

Background

Between May 2016 and June 2020 Parks Victoria entered into eight short-term contracts with an archaeological surveyor to assess and record Aboriginal rock art sites at selected locations. The total value of the contracts was $199 260 including GST.

We received a referral that alleged that Parks Victoria:

  • did not use a competitive tender process to appoint the surveyor, even though this is its policy
  • possibly split up the contracts to avoid scrutiny.

Who and what we examined

We considered whether Parks Victoria followed relevant procurement procedures when engaging the surveyor. This included examining Parks Victoria’s decision to exempt itself from following some standard procedures.

We did not examine the surveyor, nor do we make any findings about the quality or suitability of their work.

Conclusion

Parks Victoria used a series of short-term contracts to engage the archaeological surveyor. It says this was to manage the scope of the surveyor’s work and not to avoid scrutiny. Nothing has come to our attention that contradicts this assertion.

However, Parks Victoria did not fully follow its own procedures when it contracted the surveyor. It obtained exemptions to engage the surveyor without a competitive process but gave conflicting advice about the level of expertise the contractor needed. Parks Victoria also did not manage a conflict of interest when its contract manager and the surveyor co-authored two papers during the same period.

Short-term contracts hide the true cost

The VAGO report reveals that the archeologist [Ben Gunn] was paid by Parks Victoria as a contractor via several short contracts. The contracts were signed without any sort of competitive tender process under the assumption that he was the only person qualified for this work. This process completely eliminated any chance of other archeologists advising Parks Victoria on the impacts of rock climbing at archeological sites. By splitting contracts it also potentially hid the true cost to the tax payer of Ben Gunn’s work. According to this VAGO report he made more than $132,000 in a five month period from just three contracts.

Unfortunately for rock climbers Ben Gunn is very anti-climber and his bias is clear as day when reading his reports. Often they mistake tourist graffiti and vandalism for climbing impacts, and at worst mistake natural geology for climbers chalk. Even when these mistakes have been pointed out by experts such as geologists, Parks Victoria refuses to admit there has been a problem. “Evidence” collected by Ben Gunn has been sent to the highest levels of government – including senior ministers, top bureaucrats, Traditional Owner groups and also to the media. Ben Gunn continues to do contract archeological work for Parks Victoria at rock climbing areas including Arapiles – and we imagine he has made thousands more from the public purse – despite the criticism directed towards the quality of his work. Has Parks Victoria considered anyone else? This guy is making a mint from dragging this out as long as possible.

Conflict of Interest? Yes there was.

“The Parks Victoria staff member who initiated and managed the four most recent contracts (between March 2018 and June 2020) had co-authored two academic papers with the surveyor during 2019 and 2020. This represents, at the least, a perceived conflict of interest. The Parks Victoria staff member’s working relationship with the surveyor could have influenced the decisions to engage them as a sole supplier.”

This Parks Victoria staff member is Jake Goodes, and the academic papers include the widely discredited Rock Art and Rock Climbing – An Escalating Conflict. Jake Goodes also presented this work in a public event with co-author Benn Gun at the Rock Art Symposium 2019 as detailed in our previous article titled An Escalating Conflict – Archeologists Anti Climber Bias? At the time it seemed dodgy that someone who was a Parks Victoria employee was working hand in hand with the person employed to make so called “independent” decisions about closing down rock climbing areas. At least we now know it was officially dodgy.

We were unaware that Jake Goodes was actually the person directly responsible for hiring Benn Gunn (the four contacts he signed off on were at the alleged cost to the public of $160 980 remember!). We can only surmise that by hiring your friend and the same guy again and again you can be assured that there wouldn’t be any internal “conflict” in opinions and management decisions regarding their long held views that closing down the vast majority of climbing in the Grampians is the way of the future.

937 days and counting

Will this Auditor-General’s report have any effect on the current closures and long awaited new management plan to the Grampians? That is probably doubtful, but it may give climbers a better chance in future assessments that there will be a fair and transparent process. Saying that, we have heard very little from Parks Victoria in the 10 months since they published their draft management plan (yes, it has been almost year!). It has also been over 900 days since Parks Victoria first announced the extensive SPA bans, by Xmas this year 1000 days will have passed with no movement what so ever in reopening any closed sites. We would like to say its a snail’s pace of progress – but maybe the snail has died sometime in the last year and no-one noticed?

The VAGO report was instigated after a formal complaint sent to them by ACAV in September 2020. It just goes to show it is worth writing those complaint letters – eventually someone takes notice.

If you are new to this site – don’t forget to read some of the 60+ articles we have published about this drawn out affair. They include some cracking Freedom of Information reveals over the last couple of years.

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