Victoria's climate of uncertainty

The Victorian Government’s drive to cut 3,600 public servants is already having a major impact on environmental policy and programs as managers are instructed to shed staff. The cuts are to be achieved by a combination of a recruitment freeze, non-renewal of fixed term contracts and offering voluntary redundancy packages.

The announced target represents 10 per cent of the core public service. The exemption of large groups of ‘front line’ staff has magnified the impact on those staff involved in policy, research and administrative support.

Dubbed the ‘Sustainable Government’ initiative, the staff cuts are ironically going to have a devastating impact on the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE).

It is understood the Department stands to lose 400 of its 2,836 (full time equivalent) staff – a cut of 14 per cent.

The degree of reduction in staffing has severe repercussions for the Department’s core responsibilities, with work on climate change and renewable energy coming to a halt. Some 355 DSE staff are on fixed term contracts and face a very uncertain future – despite most of their external funding being secure.

Last Monday, the Secretary of the Department, Greg Wilson emailed staff acknowledging the considerable uncertainty due to the lack of any specific information about which positions are to be exempted as front line. He described it as an “unsettling period.”

Mr Wilson told staff: “The Senior Executive Team [is] currently investigating ways in which we can meet the Victorian Government’s objectives whilst ensuring skills critical to operational needs are maintained and service delivery is not impacted.”

Policy units within the Department are coming under enormous pressure to justify their existence and those related to climate change and renewable energy are under particular duress.

Work on climate change policy has come to a virtual standstill. Not a single report has been released on climate change by the Baillieu Government. All of the 65 reports listed on the Victorian Government Climate Change website were published prior to the change of government in 2010.

Premier Baillieu has retained nominal responsibility for the Office of Climate Change in his Department. However its output has reduced to zero with not a single entry on the DPC website since October 2010 and no available information on the current staffing levels.

Even talking about climate change issues remains a highly sensitive subject for the Victorian Government – caught between its past statements and the Federal Opposition's total war on the carbon price. It has been reported that speechwriters for Energy Minister Michael O'Brien have been instructed to avoid using the term ‘climate change’ in any speech. Energy policy is only couched in terms of energy security and affordability.

The outcome of the Review of the Climate Change Act announced by environment minister Ryan Smith in October 2011 has yet to be tabled in Parliament, but it is expected to result in the government ditching its past bipartisan commitment to a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2020, under pressure from Tony Abbott.

Smith has failed to meet his first Ministerial obligation under the Act, which required him to prepare a detailed analysis of the emissions data and the outlook for Victoria by December 31 2011.

He has thereby broken the commitment that he made in the media release when launching the review of the Climate Change that:

“While the review is underway, it will be business as usual and the provisions of the Climate Change Act will remain operational."

At the same time, Sustainability Victoria, the body responsible for managing the $120 million a year Climate Communities fund, is expected to find out today the outcome of a lengthy review of its future. Its 147 staff face a very uncertain future.

According to a report leaked to The Age the changes will be dramatic, with virtually all renewable energy and climate change programs being axed. The $106 million over 4 years allocated by the Brumby Government from the landfill levy is to be redirected to industry subsidies – reverting to the policy adopted by the Kennett Government in 1993.

At the same time, Parks Victoria is being forced to dramatically reduce staffing as long running EBA negotiations remain unresolved. The authority apparently has a $20 million deficit due to increased fire fighting activity and reduced funding.

Union sources are particularly concerned about a reduction in staffing for fuel reduction burning in both DSE and Parks Victoria. The Department is dependent on pulling office-based staff into the field for bushfire work and over the last year has boosted the proportion of staff trained for these roles to over 70 per cent.

This comes at the same time as the government comes under pressure for failing to meet its targets to reduce fuel in the most populated regions of the state. Those who manage to hold onto a job may find themselves despatched to the country for fire duty more frequently. If fuel reduction burning is protected by being designated a ‘front line service’, the pressure on the policy groups and park operations staff will intensify.

Andrew Herington is a Melbourne freelance writer who previously worked as a Ministerial Adviser in the Brumby Government.

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