Chipping away for facts in forestry departures

Losing one Cabinet minister could be regarded as a misfortune, Sir Humphrey Appleby once mused to his boss, who was worried about also having to sack another. And then, after one of those perfect Yes, Prime Minister pauses, the wily bureaucrat added: “To lose both looks like carelessness.”

So how does this sage political observation — stolen as it was from Oscar Wilde — translate to a State Government agency that loses three of its top people in one sweep?

The Forest Products Commission might not be the beating heart of the Barnett administration but it manages billions of dollars of timber assets on crown land in WA, earning about $115 million annually.

Quietly, at the end of last year, the FPC lost its general manager just 13 months into a five-year contract, its highly regarded chairman and one of its most experienced commissioners, a leading figure in the timber industry for more than four decades.

Forestry Minister Mia Davies was delighted when former managing director of Elders Forestry Vince Erasmus, previously South Africa’s principal forester for 10 years — was employed to head the commission in 2014.

But Davies has refused to answer parliamentary questions about why Erasmus left abruptly in December after insurmountable problems dealing with her office. Unsettled by details gleaned through freedom of information laws and government stonewalling of further efforts to uncover what has happened, Opposition Leader Mark McGowan has asked Public Sector Commissioner Mal Wauchope to investigate.

FPC chairman Bob Fisher, a former WA agent-general in London, and Stuart Morgan, a former head of the State Energy Commission and Westralian Forest Industries, left the board over the Erasmus resignation, both after serving just one term when two is the norm.

In a partly-redacted letter dated September 29, Fisher tells Davies that his board is unanimous that Erasmus’ resignation “is not in the best interests of the FPC or the WA timber and forest industry”. But it’s another letter he wrote to Davies’ then chief of staff Nicole O’Keefe about how the resignation would be announced that outs problems in the minister’s office as the core of the issue.

“Finally Nicole, I was completely confused by your question in last night’s telephone discussion when you asked why the board had not accepted the minister’s offer to put more support around Vince to assist him better service her office,” Fisher wrote in the letter obtained under FoI .

“No such offer was even made to me or to the best of my knowledge to any other commissioner.

“On reflection, I do not believe that additional support would solve the problems which Vince has experienced in dealing with the minister’s office.”

McGowan has seized on “problems in the working relationship” in his letter to Wauchope calling for an inquiry. “I believe the integrity and effectiveness of the FPC has been compromised by the departure of Mr Erasmus and, to be blunt, by the involvement of the minister and her office in how Mr Erasmus managed the agency,” McGowan wrote.

Also embarrassing for the minister is the revelation of her personal direction that the announcement to FPC staff and stakeholders of the resignation not include a significant paragraph written by Fisher.

It is the paragraph from the chairman’s letter saying the board was unanimous that Erasmus’ departure was not in anyone’s best interests.

The only reason for Davies to seek to suppress that sentiment was that it would put a public spotlight on whatever issues Erasmus had with her office. McGowan appealed against the Government’s decision to redact part of Fisher’s letter to Davies, and this week it was overturned.

Initially suppressed was Fisher’s notification to the minister that he did not want to be reconsidered for reappointment “given the circumstances outlined earlier in this correspondence”.

The man who previously ran the disparate State departments of Industrial and Regional Development and Family and Children’s Services had clearly had enough. Why those paragraphs were redacted, other than to save the minister further public embarrassment, remains a puzzle.

But the issue is now out in the open and shines a light on persistent muttering in Government circles about problems between Davies’ office and other agencies in her water and sport portfolios.

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Chipping away for facts in forestry departures – newspaper