NSW government removes Jock Laurie from drought coordinator role

Anne Davies
Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

In the midst of one of the worst droughts in history, the New South Wales government has jettisoned its drought co-ordinator, Jock Laurie, the former head of the National Farmers’ Federation, after less than a year in the role.

Laurie, who was the land and water commissioner when he was appointed drought co-ordinator, was tasked with leading the second phase of the government’s emergency drought response. This has included working with regional councils to secure their water supplies in the face of a prolonged dry period.

The deputy NSW premier, John Barilaro, said on Tuesday the government was establishing a dedicated office of drought response that would enable increased support for regional communities.

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That was why the position of drought co-ordinator would cease as of Friday, he said. “State drought co-ordinator Jock Laurie played an important role in helping to lead the immediate response to the drought on behalf of farmers,” Barilaro said.

The decision comes as Barilaro has threatened to walk away from the Murray-Darling basin plan, and as the water minister, Melinda Pavey, has been highly critical of some towns and their response to the drought, notably Dubbo, which last week announced a relaxation of stringent water restrictions.

It is understood Laurie had been warning for some weeks about the dire situation in the northern basin faced by farmers and towns on the Lower Darling River. But the government only introduced a temporary restriction on pumping in the Barwon-Darling on Monday.

Without an embargo, irrigators who hold high security water rights can continue to extract water when flows occur.

Laurie was appointed to the role by the former primary industries and water minister Niall Blair. Blair described him as a “true friend of our farmers” who would “oversee the implementation of the government’s drought relief measures to make sure the right assistance is reaching those most in need”.

But relations with the new ministers, Pavey and the agriculture minister, Adam Marshall, were not nearly as cordial.

Laurie stepped down as National Farmers’ Federation president in 2013 to run for the National party in the state seat of Northern Tablelands in 2013.

He was pipped by Marshall in the preselection, who went on to win the seat after it was vacated by independent Richard Torbay.

As agriculture minister, Marshall is now one of the ministers responsible for the NSW government’s drought response.

Comment has been sought from both Marshall and Pavey.

Laurie refused to comment to the Land, saying he still was employed by the government. The Guardian has also sought comment.