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Q & A with PSA general secretary Stewart Little

Geoff Helisma Independent: Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis says the current 37 fulltime equivalent employees (FTE) will remain in the Clarence Valley; what is the PSA’s take on this statement?  Stewart Little: A head count of current staff across the Clarence Valley shows that there are 42.6 FTE staff employed, with an additional three positions that are currently vacant. The proposal that we have from the [OEH] reduces that number to 35, with another three positions that are described as being located at either Grafton or Coffs Harbour. I: If FTE numbers remain static, how is that a bad outcome for the valley and people who visit our national parks?  SL: Along with a loss of between seven and nine positions, a majority of positions are being downgraded. This means the loss of highly skilled, experienced staff [who] have the skills to coordinate the response to fires, manage our local national parks and help landholders deal with wild pigs and dogs. Some of these staff will be replaced by entry level, unskilled positions. I: Further, he says no office or depot will close; is that right? SL: At this stage the PSA has not been notified of any office closures in the Clarence Valley. I: What’s the problem then?  SL: The loss of specialist, highly skilled staff will mean more danger from bushfires and feral animals, as well as a loss of amenity for tourists visiting the beautiful national parks in our region. For example, there are currently four pest management officers working from Coffs Harbour to the Tweed. These people are dedicated to working with the community and primary producers to implement strategies to reduce feral animals, as well as in our national parks. These four positions will be replaced by a single officer required to do the same work across the area, [which] will severely impact pest management strategies across the whole north coast. I: Why isn’t it a good idea to restructure in a way that brings new blood into the service, given that park programs director Michael Wright says that over 40 per cent of NPWS employees are over 50?  SL: It takes about two decades to properly train and get the experience to be a fire control officer. This is someone who can respond to a fire and make sure that the right fire-fighting strategies, people and equipment are in place to control and put out a bushfire. If the government wanted fresh blood they could easily ensure that younger staff where brought on and mentored by experienced staff rather than this slash and burn approach. I: Mr Gulaptis says: “Our National Parks are to be enjoyed by the public of NSW and it’s sad and disappointing when the PSA Union overlooks this fact for political point scoring.” How will the public’s enjoyment of the valley’s national parks be compromised by the restructure?  SL: There will be [fewer] experienced staff available to ensure that roads are properly maintained, that the public is safe from bushfires and that feral animals are kept under control I: The government says it needs to create more field-based positions; notwithstanding that OEH Parks Programs executive director Michael Wright admits there will be no staff increase in the Clarence Valley?  SL: The PSA would always support an increase in the number of staff to look after our national parks, but to replace highly skilled, experienced staff with entry level, low skilled positions will not be a good thing for the management of our parks. I: The PSA says that the service’s fire-fighting ability will be negatively affected, but the department says there will be no reduction – more like an “opportunity to increase our capacity” to fight fires in the field; who’s telling the truth? And what will that mean for the Clarence Valley?  SL: The PSA is telling the truth. It will mean the loss of significant fire-fighting ability in the Clarence Valley. There are always ‘opportunities to increase capacity’; these changes, however, will lead to a significant decrease in capacity.