As the gun smoke clears over the Game Council shootout, the Shooters and Fishers Party and Barry O’Farrell’s NSW government are still standing, perhaps suffering the odd flesh wound, but neither close to being nailed into a pine box. While the Game Council has gone (for the time being), state forest hunting is set to resume and there will be hunting in national parks, albeit under a heavily regulated and monitored model that ensures its demise.
After all the grand statements, threats, arguments, media and Greens hysteria, and political manoeuvring, where do NSW hunters now stand? Well, we’re pretty much where we were back in July before this whole thing blew up with the only change that we mail our R licence applications to a different address, which makes you wonder what the hell just happened.
On the face of it, the whole thing was an act of political bastardry. The SFP had gone in to bat for O’Farrell to help him privatise the state’s electricity assets, and he promised to open up some national parks for hunting and, at the very least, keep them in the loop on an upcoming review of the Game Council.
The SFP was expecting a favourable outcome from the review. It had not only successfully managed hunting in the state forests, but had promoted hunting and seen a significant growth in the sport.
What followed has the SFP convinced that O’Farrell’s agenda all along has been to nobble its growing public support and influence in the Upper House with the overarching intention of what Robert Borsak described as a “scorched earth policy”.
“O’Farrell doesn’t want anyone to own a gun,” he said. “He doesn’t see any validity in our culture or our sport.”
If that’s true then he was fairly blatant about how he went about trying to achieve that. O’Farrell hired senior public servant Steve Dunn to carry out that review, vetoing the SFP’s preferred auditor in favour of the man who is now under investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption for suspicious dealings with the Obeid family.
Then suddenly the Game Council had no access to the internal government infrastructure that it relied on to operate and shortly after that, O’Farrell made the public announcement that it was dead in the water and that hunting on public land was suspended forthwith. Not even a curtesy phone call to Brown.
The Dunn report’s one key finding was that the Game Council was governing and regulating a sport it was also successfully promoting. This was considered to be a conflict of interest, although it could be argued that taking a cavalier approach to safety and regulation would have a negative impact on encouraging city folk to get out into the sticks and embrace the hunting culture.
In other words, it was in the Game Council’s interest to ensure state forest hunting was safe in order for it to attract newcomers.
Steve Dunn didn’t see it that way.
“The Game Council has not been able to resolve the inherent conflict of interest associated with its functions to both represent the interests of hunters and to regulate their activities,” he said in his report, and the Greens and anti-gun media leapt all over it, describing the report as “damning” and “highly critical” of a “broken” organisation.
It was enough for O’Farrell to shut it down completely – not try to fix it or work through whatever issues the Dunn report had found.
“The Game Council was both the promoter and operator in relation to hunting activities across New South Wales, as well as the regulator,” he told the ABC. “And what it made the point was that posed an unacceptable risk to government of that continuing, and by government they meant the community and the public.”
The SFP’s Robert Brown, who had created the Game Council, seethed on the ABC that all bets were off with the O’Farrell government, which the party had previously agreed to support in the Upper House on what he described as a gentlemen’s agreement. This meant that no matter the legislation coming through the Legislative Council, the SFP would support the government – a handy ally against the strong left-wing Greens faction.
“We’ll consider each piece of legislation on its merits now,” he said. “There is no ongoing gentlemen’s agreement any more.
“The Shooters and Fishers Party has always made the open public assertion that we’ll support the government of the day only in so far as they continue to look after or, shall I say, not harass or not try and legislate against the interest of our constituents.
“Well, what happened the other day with the Game Council clearly was, was not in the interest of our constituents. We believe that for some unknown reason it was politically motivated.”
Hypothetically, if a government had an agenda to shut something down, it would not be politically wise to do so without justification. It would need to either find or manufacture some suitable reason and give it credence by having it come from an ‘independent’ source, before beating it up in the press to gather public support.
Whether or not that scenario can be applied in this case hinges on the question: what would the O’Farrell government gain from closing down the Game Council?
The SFP has no doubt that the Game Council was seen to be increasing its constituency. With already a solid foothold in the Upper House, the SFP was in danger of becoming even more popular and influential, especially with the backlash against rabid Green policy.
“The Game Council was seen as being an engine for growth of our sport in the state, which of course it was,” said Borsak. “We created it to be that. If you look at the growth of licencees you can see why they’re shitting themselves.
“(O’Farrell’s) aim is to sideline us in the next election and increase his vote in the Upper House so that he can control it in his own right with the Christian Democrats. If that happens we can kiss our arses goodbye for the next four years.”
But if the SFP had agreed to support the government of the day, wouldn’t it be in O’Farrell’s interest to keep them on side? Perhaps it was the demand for hunting in national parks that was the SFP’s bridge too far. The political backlash stirred up by the Greens and National Parks and Wildlife Service was so enormous that it’s not hard to imagine Coalition powerbrokers going into damage control.
The original request was to open up national parks to hunters who for seven years had proved a safe and effective tool against feral animals in state forests.
“We wanted national parks to be opened up under the same model as state forests because it gives people in the city somewhere to go hunting,” Borsak said. “What the Greens and this government worried about is that this is the start of an agenda to create more access into what is essentially alienated Crown land.”
Which it is. The SFP’s core mandate is to protect, encourage and celebrate hunting, fishing and other recreation on all our public land in complete opposition to the Greens policy of locking it away.
Well, it got them so worried that the government did a lot of fiddling with the original plan to come up with a new model that would see experienced and skilled hunters subjected to lengthy and expensive safety courses before being escorted around by NPWS staff who have no hunting background.
“It’s not hunting – it’s not culturally what we’re all about,” said Borsak.
In Parliament a couple of weeks ago, Robert Brown said the model was designed to fail.
“National parks cull hunts by recreational hunters will be rolled out in 12 national parks under onerous and unrealistic conditions that are practically guaranteed to result in failure,” he said.
“Why set up the process for failure? Why even go there? Why condemn an activity that has proven successful over seven years and instead adopt the model that is guaranteed to fail?
“If Dunn’s report is accurate, those who qualified for and purchased an R-licence in anticipation of being able to hunt on public land have seen the Government remove their ability to conduct their chosen legal and ethical pursuit for no valid reason.
“The report is the reason quoted – foundations of straw, foundations of sand. This report is an abomination.”
Brown was addressing the Upper House during the debate on the Game and Feral Animal Control Amendment Bill on October 16 that would implement many of Dunn’s recommendations including the abolition of the Game Council. It was an intriguing moment in hunting politics with the Greens demanding even more restrictions but getting none and voting for the Bill anyway.
Naturally the opposition opposed it, as did the SFP. But what if the Greens hadn’t supported the Bill (after all, it would see the return of hunting in state forests and introduced in national parks, and the numerous amendments they tried to impose were all chucked out) and it was defeated? The government would probably have continued its suspension of all hunting in state forests, which meant the Game Council would survive, but would have nowhere for it to operate, rendering it useless.
It was a neat political trick that effectively brought the SFP to heel, and created something of an anomaly for the two Roberts who thundered and interjected their thoughts on the Dunn report and the amendments it fathered. Did they really want the Bill they so passionately spoke against to fall over?
The Greens actually did them a huge political favour. By ensuring the Bill was passed, they saved the SFP from having to make a decision about whether or not to cross the floor in order to save hunting in state forests. It would have been a cold victory to have a Game Council but nowhere to hunt.
So here we are. Hunting is set to resume in December after the final risk assessment (yet another after the lengthy assessments carried out in 2003 and 2006 before a single shot was fired in a state forest), R licences are still valid and all that’s really changed is that the Department of Primary Industries now does the job of the Game Council. It was a mighty gun fight, with apparently little shift in the order of things.
However, it’s not over, “not by a long chalk”, said Borsak, and Steve Dunn’s implication in the Obeid scandal has given the SFP fresh ammunition.
“His report has to be tainted and so tainted that we’ll be seeking an apology from the O’Farrell Government and the reinstatement of the Game Council,” Borsak added.
We just can’t wait to see that.