Government slammed over Environment Ministry job cuts for putting 'tax cuts ahead of the environment'

Job cuts at the Ministry for the Environment show the Government is putting its tax cuts "ahead of the environment", according to one union.

It comes as the ministry asked for voluntary redundancies on Monday, as part of the Government asking all ministries to cut spending by 7.5 percent - looking to find $1.5 billion per annum in savings.

The number of employees impacted remains unclear but it could see hundreds of workers at the ministry - among other Government agencies - lose their jobs.

"While the impact of the savings exercise on our work programme and jobs won't be clear until after Budget 2024 on 30 May, we know our organisation will need to reduce in size," the ministry's deputy of secretary business transformation and services Laura Dixon said.

"Staff have been told redundancies are likely," she added, in an online statement seeking expressions of interest for voluntary redundancy. 

Staff will be able to express interest in voluntary redundancy by April 19, before a "likely" formal change proposal and consultation process later in the year.

"We have no specific target in mind and our executive leadership team, Te Pūrengi, retains full discretion over whether to accept any EOI [expressions of interest]," Dixon said.

"We acknowledge this is a challenging time for our people. Our goal is to keep them informed and supported throughout the upcoming change."

Environment Minister Penny Simmonds told Newshub she was advised last week of plans by the Ministry for the Environment to invite expressions of interest from staff for voluntary redundancy.

Simmonds said it was an operational matter and that she had no expectations on how many staff will take up this option. 

However, the Public Service Association Te Pūkenga Here Tikanga Mahi (PSA) national secretary Duane Leo is concerned the Government's cost-cutting will put New Zealand at risk when it comes to managing environmental challenges.

"Every day the Government's priorities are becoming clearer and clearer - today it's decided to put tax cuts ahead of the environment," he said.

"Climate change is with us; our freshwater is being degraded and our unique biodiversity is under threat, yet the Government thinks it makes sense to cut jobs and funding for this ministry?

"At a time of unprecedented environmental challenges, it should be a priority to keep investing in the very agency dealing with these."

Leo said the PSA supported voluntary redundancies as it allowed workers to control their own futures – it was something members had asked for when knowing cuts were coming.

But he added that the union did not support the Government's cost-cutting drive.

"The Ministry provides advice on environmental and climate issues, ensures policies and regulations are fit for purpose and monitors and reports on the state of the environment," Leo said.

"This is a vitally important role - particularly as extreme storm events become more frequent. In 2002 there were just two local states of emergencies declared - in 2023 this had soared to 18."

Leo said Cyclone Gabrielle was a good example, noting how in the aftermath the ministry provided important advice on dealing with storm waste, on contamination from flooding and how regions could prepare to adapt to future events.

"The Government is well aware of its critical role. In the official briefing to the new [Environment] Minister [Penny Simmonds], the ministry warned that the environment was 'under significant pressure' and that effort was needed to 'if the prosperity and wellbeing of New Zealanders is to be maintained’.

"This is just another example of the short-sighted and shallow thinking of this Government, again showing how poorly it is grappling with the serious and complex challenges we face.

"This random and rushed cost-cutting crusade will have very real consequences for the environment we all love, and for future generations of Kiwis who are relying on us to wisely manage our environment today."