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Confusion after NSW drought boss sacked

Friday, 8th November, 2019

Former Drought Coordinator Jock Laurie, whose sacking is being slammed by local MPs. Former Drought Coordinator Jock Laurie, whose sacking is being slammed by local MPs.

By Callum Marshall

The sacking of the state’s Drought Coordinator, Jock Laurie, has been slammed by local MP Roy Butler and the Shadow Minister for Primary Industries, Jenny Aitchison.

Questions remain as to why Mr Laurie was dumped in favour of starting up a new office dedicated to drought.

News reports have claimed that the sacking blindsided members of cabinet, including the Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Yesterday, The Australian reported that Water Minister Melinda Pavey was responsible for the decision and that the Premier was only alerted to this through news reports.

Speaking to the BDT yesterday, Mr Butler said he’d been getting calls from people from all over the Barwon electorate, wanting him to fight for Mr Laurie’s reinstatement.

“Jock was a fairly genuine guy,” Mr Butler said.

“He used to get out and talk to people, and not just major communities; he’d go everywhere,” he said. “He’d show up in Menindee, Tilpa, Louth. 

“The role that he was in was gathering information about what was happening on the ground and taking that unbiased information back to government.

“I think most people believe that he was doing that job pretty well.

“So this is a bit of a surprise. I think there’s going to be more to it.”

Mr Laurie is expected to finish today. He was appointed in December last year by then-Primary Industries Minister, Niall Blair.

Mr Laurie has declined to comment on any of the reports given he’s still a public service employee.

“I’m hoping he gets to the other end of that, and once he’s no longer working for government, we can actually find out what went on,” said Mr Butler.

Mr Butler said he did not support the state government’s move towards an Office of Drought Response.

“This idea of creating a drought response bureaucracy concerns me because what that says to me is it’s going to take longer and longer to get anything done,” he said.

“I know there’s a lot of people who don’t have time to wait.”

Mr Butler said he’d also be working to make sure that any documents Mr Laurie produced during his time in the role were publicly released.

“There’s a couple of ways we can do that,” he said.

“One of the best ways, depending on where those documents fit, is through what’s called a SO52, or Standing Order 52, through the Legislative Council, where we can request those documents and government can argue why they don’t want to give them up.

“But essentially it comes down to a vote and they more than likely will have to give them up.”

Ms Aitchison said that, through conversations she’d been having with others, Mr Laurie’s assessments of the water situation compared to Ms Pavey’s could be a significant reason for his sacking.

“My understanding is that he was perhaps not painting the picture of the water situation in New South Wales as being in control to the same degree that the Minister wanted that to happen,” she said.

“It’s very hard to conjecture about it but what we do know, he’s been a farmer for a very long time, the government’s had him in place as the Land and Water Commissioner for a very long time.

“I’ve heard that (John) Barilaro (Deputy Premier) has said that he wasn’t pushed from the Land and Water Commissioner (role.)

“He was sacked as Drought Coordinator but he decided of his own volition to leave the Land and Water Commissioner role. 

“That may be because of comments in The Land, that he wanted to tell his story when he’s no longer a public sector employee. 

“And also because, if you know that your Minister sacked you on the one hand you know she’s not going to listen to you on the other. 

“So what’s the point of being there?”

Ms Aitchison said there had to be a clearer direction from government about how to deal with the drought.

“The Office of Drought Response is not up and running, it’s not been established and here we are rudderless - no captain in charge while the government continues to change and move the deck chairs of their leaders in these areas,” she said.

“We’ve got to just get back to having a clear direction from government on how they’re going to deal with this. And they need to start acting, not just moving.”

The BDT contacted Minister Pavey and NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall, the other half of the old Primary Industries portfolio, for comment.

In reply, a spokesperson for Mr Marshall sent a statement from Mr Barilaro announcing the Office of Drought Response.

“The Office of Drought Response will bring together all resources of government to support families, businesses and farmers, ensuring the NSW Government is doing everything in its power to make sure our regional communities make it through this drought,” said the statement.

“The Office of Drought Response will be based in the Office of the Coordinator-General within the Department of Planning, Industry & Environment and provide robust governance of drought related water and land use issues.”

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