December 8, 2023

The New South Wales government has quietly cut dozens of environmental roles, including Indigenous officers, and delayed a plan to reward farmers to protect nature – moves described by critics as “hypocritical” and a “significant backward step”.

The cuts were revealed in a “change management plan”, obtained by Guardian Australia, and affect about 28 existing staff and 38 roles in total. They follow last month’s budget, the first by the Minns Labor government since its election in March.

All community engagement staff in the biodiversity, conservation and science directorate not funded by specific programs will go, including at least seven Indigenous officers.

The 10-year, $206.2m nature positive farming program, intended by the former Perrottet government to commence on 1 July this year, will also be deferred four years, or until after the 2027 election. The program was intended to support farmers to introduce more sustainable practices including reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“While the overall outcome for the [Environment and Heritage Group] is very strong, we have had to contribute some savings as part of a whole-of-government approach to restoring the budget,” Atticus Fleming, acting coordinator of the group, saids in an email to staff. “As a result, despite taking every possible step to minimise the impact on staff, funding for a small number of roles will cease.”

The environment minister, Penny Sharpe, said the government “had to make tough decisions” after inheriting record debt and $7bn of unfunded programs.

Within the Environment and Heritage Group, 85 staff were due to lose their jobs this past June because the previous government had defunded them. These jobs were retained and funded, Sharpe said, adding that she had secured another 58 frontline staff for national parks and created 31 new biodiversity and conservation positions.

“No one wants to lose good, dedicated people and the department are consulting with those employees to seek to redeploy them into suitable existing funded roles” elsewhere in the group, she said.

However, the opposition environment spokesperson, James Griffin, and the Nationals leader, Dugald Saunders, said the decision to postpone the farming program was “an absolute disgrace”.

“The NSW Labor government have sneakily deferred a world-class conservation program that incentivised farmers and private land holders to deliver improved biodiversity outcomes on land,” they said. “The hypocrisy of this is staggering. For a government that claimed for years to care about improved land management and biodiversity, to now defer a program for four years is absurd.”

The government had also boasted Sydney’s hosting next year of the first global nature positive summit but now would have “nothing to say” at the event, they said.

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Economist Ken Henry told Guardian Australia last month that governments were risking “at least 50% of GDP” unless they made the environment a top priority.

His review of the state’s biodiversity conservation law made 58 recommendations, including prioritising the environment above competing land uses such as forestry, mining and agriculture, and giving the department more resources. The need to boost Indigenous involvement was also important.

“The involvement of Aboriginal people in program design and on-ground implementation is not well developed,” Henry’s report said. “There is a need to recognise the intrinsic relationship between biodiversity and Aboriginal culture, and embed Aboriginal participation at all levels – advisory, decision-making, implementation and delivery.”

One government staffer said the funding cuts amounted to “a huge setback for those ambitions of Ken Henry”.

The “callous deletion” of the engagement staff “totally jeopardised the progress being made” in building connections with Indigenous communities.

The impression left was, “You walk in our communities, you say you want to work with us, you steal our knowledge and then you leave before [the program’s] implemented”, the staffer said.

Sue Higginson, the NSW Greens environment spokesperson, said the government had delivered “an austerity budget, and once again the environment suffers”.

The loss of Indigenous staff also contradicted the government’s commitment to Indigenous truth-telling and treaty, and was “a significant backward step”, Higginson said.

“The lack of transparency is really concerning,” she added. “They promised they would be a more open, more accountable and more honest government.

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