Yes Minister.

Forty years ago today, on 4 May 1983, the Minister for Forests, Rod Mackenzie, announced in Parliament the State Government’s intention to “shake up” the forest service.

The Forests Commission Victoria (FCV), and its predecessor the State Forests Department (SFD), had been stable and relatively autonomous authorities responsible for management and protection from bushfire of Victoria’s public forests for over 75 years.

A year earlier in April 1982, John Cain had been elected Premier of Victoria and replaced Liberal leader Lindsay Thomson as the first Labor State Premier after 27 years of unbroken conservative government.

The new Cain Government had formulated a range of ideas while in opposition and was keen to get busy. The reforms were to include radical changes to the operation of the State public service including a move to greater central and budget control by adopting a departmental model rather than independent commissions. Other organisations like the MMBW and the Victorian Railways were also in their sights.

A few months after the announcement, on 1 September 1983, the Forests Commission lost its discrete identity when it was merged into the newly formed Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands (CFL) along with the Crown Lands and Survey Department, National Park Service, Soil Conservation Authority and Fisheries and Wildlife Service.

The subsequent amalgamation and restructure were a protracted and disruptive process over the next three years. Many experienced forestry and firefighting staff chose to leave, while others saw it as a career opportunity to diversify, but most just had to “suck-it-up” or end up in the redeployment pool.

There was a short period of stability, but then the tempo of change seemed to accelerate, with many more departmental restructures occurring over the subsequent four decades. I can count nine major departmental name changes including…

  1. Department of Conservation Forests and Lands (CFL) – 1983
  2. Department of Conservation and Environment (DCE) – 1990
  3. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (CNR) – 1992
  4. Department of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE) – 1996
  5. Department of Primary Industries (DPI) – 2002
  6. Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) – 2002
  7. Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) – 2012
  8. Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) – 2014
  9. Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) – 2023

In 1983, some 70–80% of all CFL personnel were located outside Melbourne, but over time, and with each successive budget and staff cut, the balance shifted with the number of regional offices in country Victoria radically falling from an initial eighteen down to six.

The demise of regional influence also corresponded with greater centralisation of decision making in head office combined with, what seemed, an exponential growth of media and ministerial advisors.  

There were further splits and amalgamations with Agriculture and Planning, first moving in, and then moving out of the department, as well as the formation of the Victorian Plantation Corporation (VPC) in 1993, Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) in 1994, Parks Victoria in 1996 and VicForests later in 2004. 

Moreover, the department experienced no less than 7 State Premiers (both Liberal and Labor), 15 Government Ministers, 13 Director-Generals / Secretaries and 9 Chief Fire Officers, all of whom wrought their own changes which added to the organisational precariousness.

I’m not 100% certain of some of the dates, and in later years the expanding mega-department had multiple portfolios and multiple Ministers, so I may well have missed someone.

I also can’t remember exactly how many other minor internal changes and convoluted job titles have been inflicted but I seem to have accumulated a large collection of name tags and business cards.

It was sometimes very difficult to remain buoyant while getting used to yet another tongue twister acronym. Staff also became the butt of so many tiresome jokes like…

  • CNR = Constant Name Review,
  • DSE = Dept of Sparks & Embers or Dept of Scorched Earth
  • NRE = No Rational Explanation
  • And now we have the unfortunately named DEECA heads.

But for most bushies all the corporate branding was lost on them because as far as they were concerned, I still worked for “The Forestry”.

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.”

Caius Pteronius – Roman Consul, AD 66

FCV Stucture. C 1970. Source: Dale Young.
I seem to have accumulated a large collection of name tags and business cards.

2 thoughts on “Yes Minister.

  1. Peter,
    Disappointing in the utmost having a major impact on national productivity over time and ineffective use of resources, especially considering “efforts” of the current govt.

    Its amazing such a long run of a liberal govt and now the opposite in Vic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My most polite version of a comment, is “Commemorating 40 years of stuffed-up forest management !! But wait…it’s actually getting worse!”
    Heaven help us all when those magnificent men (and a few ladies, too) and their logging machines, are not out and about, watching, waiting and anticipating, the next bushfire season.

    Liked by 1 person

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