The New South Wales deputy premier and the agriculture minister both say the National Parks and Wildlife Service did not do enough in the lead-up to the bushfire season, but the public sector union says the government has “crippled” the agency with budget cuts and restructuring.
Deputy Premier and NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro told The Australian the NPWS had failed to carry out enough backburning.
At state and federal level, members of the Coalition have rejected any suggestion of a link between bushfire risk and climate change as an attempt to politicise the current bushfires and their tragic consequences, while fuelling the questionable belief that hazard reduction burning has been limited in response to environmentalist concerns.
“We need to do more hazard reduction, [burning] in national parks to manage the fuel load,” Barilaro said on Tuesday. “Everyone knows that this is a real issue and I’ve got the guts to say it.”
Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall made similar claims, stating that “lack of good quality local management has contributed” to the fires that are currently devastating NSW.
But staff cuts and restructures have seen the NPWS lose more than a third of its fire-trained workers, according to Public Service Association acting general secretary Troy Wright.
“As our members are on the frontline fighting these fires to save lives and properties, the Nationals are tastelessly blaming them for the threat,” he said in an emailed statement.
“It is the Nationals who hold the purse string. Rather than funding the NPWS properly so that they can undertake strategic reductions, they have crippled them with massive budget cuts and devastating restructures.”
In 2011, there were 289 parks and wildlife rangers, including 28 senior rangers. By 2018, there were no senior rangers, and only 193 rangers.
The PSA also noted that the previous cohort of 50 area managers charged with planning hazard reduction burns had also been cut down to 37, as part of a massive restructure in 2017. The changes saw 778 parks and wildlife jobs altered, downgraded, moved, or deleted.
“The loss of expertise is irreplaceable. Area managers with 30 years’ experience have left roles and not been replaced,” Wright said.
“Parks are being managed by NPWS, which is operating on a skeleton staff. That will always be a risky proposition, but on days like today it can be lethal. The restructure has meant workers are expected to manage twice the workload, and this has no doubt contributed to many resignations.”
The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment this year informed the union that there would be further cuts to the Environment, Energy and Science Division — which governs the NPWS — in February 2020.
The state Environment Minister Matt Kean appeared to defend the parks and wildlife workers, following the union’s rejoinder to the Nationals leader.
“I can’t believe on a day where we should all be pulling together to protect our community, some people want to politicise these fires,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“I’m not going to have the incredibly dedicated hardworking team in national parks be used as scapegoats when they’re out there risking their lives for the people of this state.”
It is not clear to whom his remarks are directed.