Parks Australia reshuffles management after no-confidence declaration

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday August 26, 2020

Saltwater crocodile in Kakadu National Park. Adobe

Three federal public servants responsible for Australia’s national parks have resigned.

Parks Australia director of national parks James Findlay reportedly informed staff of his departure on Tuesday, describing it as a “very difficult decision”.

The agency’s assistant secretary, Kakadu and strategic priorities branch, Brant Smith, and Kakadu park manager Russell Gueho have also stepped down and will take on other roles within the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.

Deputy secretary James Larsen will act in Findlay’s role and will oversee the appointment of interim replacements for Smith and Gueho.

The reshuffle is an attempt to rebuild Parks Australia’s relationship with the traditional owners of Kakadu, according to ABC News.

Earlier this month, it was reported that Findlay and Smith had stepped aside from their positions on the Kakadu Board of Management — and Gueho from his role as park manager — following a no-confidence motion declared by the Kakadu National Park traditional owners.

Parks Australia assistant secretary Dr Judy West had stepped up to represent the agency on the Kakadu Board of Management, while Gueho was to be replaced by acting manager Scott Suridge. At the time, an agency spokesperson had said the three public servants would continue in their other roles.

The board membership includes Indigenous representatives nominated by the traditional owners of the park, the National Parks director and assistant secretary, a member from the Northern Territory government, and tourism and nature conservation representatives.

The board had said the traditional owner board members had “lost all faith, confidence and trust in the ability of the park manager, assistant secretary, and director of national parks to effectively manage Kakadu”, and the relationship between the office of the director and the board had “broken down to the extent that it is irretrievable”.

Correspondence from park rangers to the board last month singled out the three bureaucrats, citing a “deliberate” lack of communication with rangers and traditional owners, and alleging they had not properly handled a 2019 chopper crash. The letter also raised concerns over fire mismanagement which led to the destruction of significant sites, including the Nourlangie Safari Camp at Anlarr.

Last week federal environment minister Sussan Ley visited the NT to consult with the traditional owners, the board, and the Northern Land Council.

She has thanked Findlay for his “contribution to the long-term infrastructure planning that will benefit Commonwealth parks and traditional owners for decades to come”.

Findlay took on the director role in 2018. Prior to that, he was most recently chief executive officer and commissioner at the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.

Smith has held a number of senior government roles including in biosecurity, quarantine, public sector innovation, agriculture and environmental advice to cabinet, Indigenous employment, economic development and environmental issues, risk and assurance, and program management in Indigenous Affairs.

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