Minister Rob Stokes. Image: The Fifth Estate

OPINION: It’s still early days but it’s a move that could well signal a new era for climate change, the environment and sustainability in New South Wales.

The word environment has been brought back – almost sheepishly – into the fold of the state government’s mega planning cluster, now named the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.

Also good news is that all the environment-related outfits will have a co-ordinator general of environment, energy and science, Anissa Levy, who has come from Infrastructure NSW where she was deputy chief executive officer and has also had stints with the EPA as acting chair and CEO and with Transport for NSW.

Even better is that a range of environment-related programs and policy areas, separated for several years, are now again co-located within the same family of responsibilities.

Waste, for instance, was domiciled in the Environmental Protection Authority; energy storage and batteries in planning; NABERS in the Office of Environment and Heritage. Now they can work together again.

Heading up the whole cluster is Rob Stokes who still engenders warm cuddly memories from his time as planning minister, before being stupidly – but also perhaps cynically – dumped. (Who wants a really well-informed minister making logical decisions when there are powerful vested interests at stake?)

So, good that he’s back.

Heading up the department at the executive level is Jim Betts brought across from his prior role as CEO of Infrastructure NSW. It seems this man can (so far at least) do no wrong. He’s wowed the staff with his straight talking straight shootin’ manner.

It’s early days and the job of integrating more than 3000 staff from the now defunct OEH into a new structure that could well encompass overall more than 10,000 – and possibly up to 20,000 – staff will take its time, but so far there are no signs of mass sackings or the dreaded “spill and fill” that normally takes place as part of the ructions of big change.

Betts reportedly told a big meeting this week that this strange practice of spilling positions and forcing everyone to reapply for their own jobs was wasteful – in terms of time and taxpayers money.

Oh, and horrible for everyone to boot. You could almost hear the sighs of relief from Glebe. Betts seems to be down to earth (or so we understand) which is a welcome change to the usually rarefied behaviour of other departmental secretaries. Pity we won’t get a chance to see for ourselves at the members only lunch he will speak at for Consult Australia on 13th of this month.

Let’s hope the bromance with these new leaders lasts the distance and there isn’t a nasty surprise at the end for the many dedicated and impassioned staff we’ve come across over the years in environment related departments, in particular. After all, politics is politics and often, cometh the downturn cometh the cuts.

Regardless of the professional and personal ructions such big shifts in department structures must entail, Ms Levy’s co-ordination role is clearly welcome.

We note that her portfolio includes science. Thank goodness because science has been relegated to the back burner and pretty well obliterated by the people who run the federal government’s anti climate change agenda and who have contaminated other conservative governments with the same troglodyte thinking.

It’s good to see a strong state like NSW with a Liberal government bucking the trend and staking its ground.

Who will lead the country on climate and sustainability now?

NSW will now be able to properly and on a comparable platform challenge the supremacy of Victoria on sustainability. We hear its program on energy efficiency for its publicly owned buildings is not just strong but ambitious (and yes, looking at you Vic). Hopefully we’ll have time soon to bring more news on that.

Queensland, of course, is mired deep in mines – everything from thermal and metallurgical coal to the rare earths useful in making batteries, such as scandium, cobalt and copper.

Speaking to a senior political spokesman in Brisbane on Tuesday we heard clearly that there would be no diminution of metallurgical coal, which is used as an input in steel making, but that Adani, with its thermal coal is more questionable. Even the proposed job numbers of 1000 are dodgy because if that many people were employed it would be one of the most labour intensive jobs anywhere.

So all smoke and mirrors there – poor folk attacking the Stop Adani convoy are being taken for a bigger ride than the convoy.

(See Mick Daley’s blow by blow (literally at times) account of what really happened on the convoy, down to the vitriolic attacks from locals along the route all concerned about their coal jobs and coal economy. The job of government is to provide a future and a strategy for how to get there. It needs imagination.)

In NSW it looks like the newly re-elected government might just feel strong enough, for now anyway, to push back on those who want to take us all down the rabbit hole again.

The intention seems to be pro-climate/pro sustainability. On the surface it looks like a refreshed, reinvigorated premier Gladys Berejiklian has seized a stronger leadership position on these issues because she intends to stay put for another few terms yet by, finally, giving the people what they want.

Sources close to the government say Berijiklian is running cabinet meetings with renewed professional vigour and a new sense of purpose, after proving herself in the recent polls. We can only help that is enough to fend off the old dinosaurs waiting in the wings.

But watch out NSW govt, the people have spoken and expect action now. You need to deliver it.

Other changes

Other personnel changes reported on the weekend in The SMH include Alex O’Mara’s appointment to deputy secretary of place design and public spaces.Ms O’Mara has held several senior positions with the NSW government, including as deputy secretary for arts, screen and culture division and executive director of resources and industry policy. She has also been a NSW representative the Australian Building Codes board and NSW Commissioner of the NSW Queensland Border Rivers Commission.

Sarah Hill, chief executive of the Greater Sydney Commission, will become deputy secretary of the new agency in a move intended to foster a more collaborative relationship between the GSC and the department.

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  1. I like the idea of Rob Stokes being responsible for Planning, Industry and Environment. Perhaps it should follow the thought process though to implementation and be called the Department of Environment, Planning and Industry. We seriously need Industry and Planning to have ecological perspectives and put Environment first in running NSW.

    Why? In the real world the formula for the triple bottom line is clear – NoEnvironment=NoEconomy=NoSociety. The 4.6 billion year old environment supports the 250 year old Economy but is being irreversibly destroyed by Society and Economy. Environment and Climate are two sides of the same coin of Survival- critical biological infrastructure is the only re-generative infrastructure and needs much more of the budget spent on it .

    Stokes is one of the few to “get” the huge ecological constraints on the triple bottom line…seeing the country is just 230 years old and still has a little original native forest left which is generally described as “posh,leafy,nimby”. Stokes knows that the environment sets hard limits on land-use planning – but he has to rub shoulders with the Property Council and Planning Institute who wouldn’t understand it if it was explained to them! Well it doesn’t seem like it anyway!

    However, he is also up against a wall of ecologically naïve cabinet colleagues. This is the Government who, judging from the type of legislations they got through in the last term, are of the firm belief that “The Economy is the Life-Support of the Planet”. The very MBA styled Treasurer and commerce / business politicians just don’t get it that Environment needs much more money spent on it to support the other two (Society and Economy).

    So I wish Robert Stokes well and thank the Fifth Estate for being one of the few media outlets to examine our common future from an ecological perspective. With such help maybe the Premier will listen to Rob rather than Dom!

  2. Hi Tina,
    Good reporting , thank you.
    Its good to know The Fifth Estate has its finger on the pulse.

    I saw an article by Michael West that I thought may interest you.

    It was interesting that tax collected by mining coal ( Glencore) is zero. So what else can they give besides balance of trade figures. You can export as much coal as you want but if the Australian people make nothing then what’s the point.
    I dare say Adani will pay no tax either if they go ahead.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. FifthEstate – this is all good momentum but we need to advocate for some clear measurable targets for construction. The general discussion is great for a group hug, but if you cant measure it you can’t manage it. Last week FifthEstate published my article calling for a Peak Embodied Carbon day to be set for July 1st 2020. There are many beneficial downstream benefits that could provide a transformative enabling platform for an industry that has lost its way. Rob Stokes would make an excellent modern Ian Kiernan in this context – A Clean up Construction’ campaign would create an enduring legacy to improve the future Built-World and be a demonstrable marker at the next election (4-years to get this plan implemented). That could leverage NSW to be able to shift the conversation from the lousy state of the construction industry to NSW being ‘The State of Construction’ in Australia. That would be impact!