‘Get the trees back’: NSW minister wanted ‘clearance zone’ around highways after bushfires | New South Wales politics
The New South Wales transport minister, Andrew Constance, demanded the now-sacked head of his department create an 80-metre “clearance zone” around highways after the 2019-20 bushfires, an order Labor says could have resulted in countless trees being felled if followed.
During the state’s budget estimates hearings on Thursday, Constance confirmed he had issued the directive to the former department head, Rodd Staples, following last summer’s bushfire crisis.
The directive, which was later tabled, instructed Staples to create the zone stretching 40 metres on either side of state-managed highways.
“I am writing to instruct you in your role as secretary for Transport for NSW to establish a ‘clearance zone’ around all state-managed highways, by ensuring trees within 40 metres either side cannot obstruct vital road access,” Constance wrote.
He pointed to two examples where fallen trees led to delays after the fires, including in January 2020 following blazes on the state’s south coast, where Constance is a local MP. He wrote that “many evacuees [were] waiting for over 10 hours to evacuate due to fallen trees and spot fires causing delays”.
“Many were required to sleep in their cars, tired and hungry, many with small children – waiting for the road to reopen.”
The correspondence shows Staples, who received an $800,000 payout after he was sacked earlier this month, refused the request. In his reply, he said the department would have “limited power” to enact it under the law.
During Thursday’s hearing, Constance said he had issued the directive because he had wanted to prevent “kilometres of traffic buildup when a wildfire might hit them and we lose hundreds of Australians”.
“I wanted the trees [cut] back quickly because all the fauna had gone, the flora had been changed and it was an appropriate time to get those trees back,” Constance told the hearing.
“Because let me tell you, after that event when lives were put at risk in the way they were put at risk, my expectation is that we get the trees back from our highways because I’m sick of people dying, running off the roads hitting trees, I’m sick to death of a major event like that where trees fell down on roadways for weeks, I’m sick to the stomach to think that we couldn’t even get diesel fuel into our fire tankers because the highways were closed because the trees were down all over it. It was a disgrace.”
Under questioning from Labor’s finance spokesman, Daniel Mookhey, the minister denied Staples’ refusal to follow the request was behind his mysterious sacking, which came without reason six weeks after a reportedly positive performance review with the premier, Gladys Berejiklian. Instead, he told the hearing Staples had been forced out because he wanted the department to move in a different direction.
However, he added he “didn’t find it particularly acceptable” when Staples rejected the instruction.
Pressed by Mookhey on whether he had sought advice on how many trees would be felled as part of the direction, Constance answered that the point of the directive was to “get the trees back at all cost”.
Following the hearing, Mookhey said the directive could have meant millions of trees were destroyed.
“It was wrong for the minister to effectively order his department to destroy millions of trees through massive broad-based land clearing,” he said. “It reeks of an abuse of power to then fire the secretary after he warned the order might have been illegal.”