By Andrew Clennell, NSW Political Editor and Emily Ritchie, Reporter – 13th November 2019.
A fierce feud has ignited between NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro and the Public Service Association following revelations the number of rangers, who perform hazard reduction burns, has been cut by a third since the Coalition came to power in 2011.
The Public Service Association has accused Mr Barilaro of gross hypocrisy after the Deputy Premier blamed the department for contributing to the state’s catastrophic fire conditions by failing to carry out extensive hazard reduction in the lead-up to bushfire season, labelling his comments “worse than an insult”.
Apart from last financial year, the National Parks and Wildlife Service has not met its annual hazard reduction target of 135,000ha since 2016.
PSA industrial manager Nathan Bradshaw blamed the failure to meet targets on severe cuts to staffing levels, saying that since 2011, the department’s 289 rangers, including 28 senior rangers, had been trimmed to 193.
Following a restructure in 2017, the NPWS’s number of area managers was cut from 50 to 37, he said.
Mr Bradshaw said the Office of Environment and Heritage’s budget had been further depleted by $80m this year, and the NPWS was absorbing part of the cut.
He said the cutbacks had directly affected the department’s ability to operate efficiently.
In 2012-13, the NPWS was involved in 208,000ha of hazard reduction; in 2016-17, that was just 88,136ha, and just 95,589ha in 2017-18. However, the government said the amount of hazard reduction had increased in 2018-19, with “NPWS undertaking 137,500ha of prescribed burns, which is above its target of 135,000ha”.
In The Australian on Tuesday, Mr Barilaro laid part of the blame for the severity of the fires on a failure by National Parks staff to do hazard reduction burns.
“We need to do more hazard reduction (burning) in national parks to manage the fuel load. Everyone knows this is a real issue and I’ve got the guts to say it,” he said.
He was backed by Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall: “I fully support more backburning operation in national parks. Surely we have learnt in the last few months we need to do more to reduce fuel loads in the parks. Also trust farmers, who are neighbours of parks to help as well … limited grazing of stock in some areas of national parks would help, too.”
However, Mr Bradshaw said he had rangers in his office who had told him resources were so thinly spread “they said all they’re doing is hazard reduction burns”.
“They say they’re not (able to be) doing the conservation works.
“It’s very (insulting) to say they haven’t done enough of these burns, but the conditions have to be right to do hazard reductions. It comes down to cuts. It’s Barilaro’s own government that has cut the rangers and National Parks.
“To blame National Parks is worse than an insult.”
The opposition said on Tuesday there had been $121m in cuts and underspends at the Office of Environment and Heritage in 2016-17 and 2017-18 with $80m worth of savings in the department this year, including $45m in savings found and $35m to come.
To meet budget cuts and restructuring in 2017-18, it said, 778 National Parks jobs were altered, downgraded, shifted or cut, with “senior rangers” cut altogether.
“This is not a policy problem, it’s a resourcing problem,” said opposition environment spokeswoman Kate Washington. “The Premier and the Treasurer have cut the National Parks budget, and senior specialist staff have had to be sacked. There simply aren’t enough rangers on the ground to get the job done.”
Environment Minister Matt Kean contested the cuts argument, saying NPWS had 1655 full-time staff in October 2019, up 144 since 2017. “Since 2011, the NSW government increased the number of firefighters in the NPWS from 1050 to 1226,” he said.
“Currently, NPWS has about 400 staff fighting fires. NPWS undertakes 75 per cent of all hazard reduction in the state.”
Former deputy prime minister and New England MP Barnaby Joyce went on a tirade over hazard reduction on Tuesday, saying “bureaucracy” was preventing people from protecting their homes in the bushfires, after he drew criticism earlier for claiming on Sky News that two people who died in the NSW bushfires were “most likely” Greens supporters so he would not be “attacking them”.
Mr Joyce had criticised the party for linking climate change to the unprecedented fires. While protecting his property in the New England area from fires on Tuesday afternoon, he said the Greens’ opposition to backburning and land clearing was unacceptable.
“We’ve got to get on top of this crap where there’s all this bureaucracy that stands in the way of people keeping their place safe,” he told Sydney’s 2GB radio. “We’re just absolutely sick of people who have nothing to do with our bloody life telling us what to do! It’s not pretend for us, this is our life, we actually live this shit.”