The embattled minister, who was last week singled out for scathing criticism in the final report of River Murray Royal Commissioner Bret Walker, appeared on ABC Radio Adelaide this morning, and was quizzed about revelations in InDaily last week that his department was facing a major overhaul, including staff and budget cuts.
A bulletin to departmental staff from chief executive John Schutz last week told employees to “consider these three key shifts for our agency”, citing a series of dot-points, the first of which stated: “We are an economic development agency.”
Speirs initially appeared to attack InDaily’s reporting on radio today, calling it “complete nonsense” and arguing that “the term ‘primarily an economic development agency’ was just wrong” because “for several years there has been a division within the department called the Environmental Sustainable Development Division and that division continues”.
“Under the previous government they set out a worthwhile plan to look at ways to activate existing infrastructure and opportunities within national parks and we’re going to continue that path,” he said.
But he then appeared to backtrack when asked about his chief executive’s edict that the department is transitioning to “an economic development agency”.
“Absolutely, and we should be – we’re the state’s largest holder of land,” Speirs agreed.
However, he then also agreed with interviewer David Bevan’s suggestion that the department’s primary stated purpose should be “looking after the environment”.
“Probably should be,” the minister said.
Asked whether Schutz got it wrong with his characterisation of the agency’s primary purpose, Speirs said: “I don’t want to criticise that on public radio, but absolutely – the environment should come first and foremost.”
However, he added that “when we talk about the economic opportunities with our environment, it’s following something that people have been talking about for many years – the idea [of] using our environment to draw tourists to South Australia.”
“What I’ve been very clear [about] with my department is if there are any economic outcomes occurring within national parks, conservation parks, there has to be an exact line of sight between that and environmental outcomes,” he said.
“I think the people who I work within the Environment Department, Mr Schutz included, know that the environment comes first.”
However, that assurance didn’t satisfy Greens MLC Mark Parnell, who has set up a petition, which has garnered almost 1000 supporters so far, calling on the minister to reverse the cuts to his department.
He said creating economic outcomes from existing environmental assets was “not the issue”.
“The issue is that the first dot-point [of the CE’s priorities for the new department] is ‘we’re an economic development agency’,” he said.
“The minister walking away from that gives me no comfort at all… what would give me comfort – and if he wants to be known as one of the better environment ministers of the modern era – he needs to reverse the funding cuts and make it very clear the number one priority of the agency is conservation.
“But from where I sit it’s disappointment in every direction.”
Insiders have told InDaily there is widespread unrest within the department about Schutz’s edict.
It’s understood the proposed restructure has also seen a shift in the department’s executive from three women and three men to only one woman out of six executive directors, which has also prompted some internal angst.
Schutz, who did not respond to calls from InDaily today, told his staff they would be working with “less [sic] staff and smaller budgets”, which “will require us to do things differently, and will profoundly affect how we operate as an agency, including potential reduction or ceasing of functions”.
Speirs has been in the political spotlight since last week’s royal commission report saw him strongly criticised for “capitulating to the interests of the current Commonwealth Government, and those of Victoria and New South Wales”.
It was prompted by his agreeing to new criteria proposed by the upstream states that would veto new water-saving projects unless their proponents could prove they wouldn’t reduce the overall productive capacity of an irrigation area, directly increase the price of water or cause rural job losses.
Walker called the move “not merely ill-advised [but] so contrary to the interests of South Australians that the decision… is almost certainly a breach… of the South Australian Ministerial Code of Conduct”.
“No Minister acting reasonably could consider these changes to the criteria to be anything but totally antipathetic to the interests of South Australia, and the South Australian environment,” Walker wrote.
Speirs hit back at the commissioner’s comments today, saying: “I don’t agree with the commissioner at all… I actually view his commentary as extremely personally hurtful.”
Claiming that he’d been denied “appropriate procedural fairness”, Speirs described the comments as “misguided” and “an afterthought… inserted in as commentary, not as a finding”.
“There are many items within the commissioner’s report which are based on anecdote and hyperbole, and while there are lots of things in the report which should be seriously considered, there are things that are quite incorrect in my view,” he said.
“No-one says that the Royal Commissioner is beyond reproach.”
Labor insiders are considering calling for a new parliamentary inquiry into the local findings of the royal commission, and believe Speirs’ response today skirts close to criticising the commissioner who, under law, has “the same protection and immunities as a judge of the Supreme Court”.
Speirs told ABC: “When I got to the [negotiating] table, there had been a lot of noise, a lot of screaming, a lot of shouting from the previous government – but no water.”
“It was a stalemate and I was faced with the situation: do we want more of the same… or do we actually want to sit down, take the politics out of the plan, work with the Victorian Labor Party, the New South Wales National Party, Labor in the ACT and Queensland, come together, build relationships and deliver water – and I think I’ve done that.”
However, he conceded the new criteria represented a “political compromise”, saying “that’s what negotiation has to be”.
Speirs refused to say whether he received specific written advice from his department that he should agree to the compromise, saying: “It’s a moving feast… negotiation is an art.”
“They certainly said, ‘this is okay, we can work with this’ – my department absolutely endorsed us negotiating on that criteria,” he said.
“These were discussions in the lead-up to the event, they were largely verbal. We were working in a room in Canberra on the day… there’s lots of back and forth, in and out of different rooms and we were able to come up with a set of criteria which are fair and which will deliver water into the river.”
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