Over the past few years the NSW Government has embarked on a significant reduction in staff levels of the NPWS to achieve budgetary savings.
The latest annual report for the Office of Environment and Heritage (which includes NPWS) shows the cost of staff redundancies was nearly $19 million in 2015 and $10.5 million in 2016.
At the end of 2016, in the latest move to reduce staff levels, it has been announced that senior staffing levels within the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service will be reduced from 14 Regional Managers to 8, with many experienced staff being encouraged to take redundancy.
Most of these Managers have 20-30 years experience, and a number have indicated they will leave the Service and not recontest the new positions.
At the same time as they are reducing costs by staff reductions, the NPWS is searching for commercial revenue opportunities to profit from their unique and special assets, particularly around Sydney Harbour. These sites would include Goat and Shark Island in Sydney Harbour, the Scheyville National Park near Windsor, and Middle Head, with its rich heritage of historic military fortifications. The Service has described Middle Head as a “superb lookout spot in Sydney Harbour National Park” able to be used for “commercial and public events such as live performances, festivals and product launches.”
The danger to many is that the commercialization of these Parks will put heritage and conservation priorities at risk as well significantly damage the natural environment, the very reason National Parks were established in the first instance.
Clearly, the Parks and in turn the Government have a financial problem. It has over 850 reserves and parks, and thousands of degrading heritage sites. The current funding level is insufficient to manage and conserve these assets.
But if commercialization comes at the cost of conservation and heritage management and restricted public access, then the policy will be a failure.
Traditionally, most government agencies are entirely ill equipped to operate in a commercial manner. Decision making is inflexible, and there will be an ongoing need for capital expenditure. Commercial operators will require roads and parking area, toilets, electricity, water and sewerage systems, maybe jetties. The cost squeeze will worsen, and some bright MP will ultimately come up with bright idea of selling the Parks, especially around Sydney Harbour.
Governments have to recognize and acknowledge that some things in life are ‘public goods’ and can only survive with public funding. In the current economic climate with the ‘free marketers’ in control, that seems an impossible position.