Quarter of federal environment staff could be sacked

AFTER a scathing report on its compliance activities over the past 14 years, the Federal Environment Department is now facing staff cuts of up to 25% over the next three years.

Officials made the admission during a Senate committee hearing on an audit report on its compliance activities two weeks ago in Canberra.

The Australian National Audit Office report found previous staff cuts had created a "passive approach" to compliance and monitoring of major projects like mines across the country.

But officials told the Senate committee the department had, since realising there were problems in 2010, increased its compliance division from 10 staff to 24.

Part of the problem identified by the audit was that staff was taken up with too much administrative work, and not enough monitoring and compliance investigations.

But compliance division assistant secretary Shane Gaddes told the committee a recent restructure had "better align(ed) it with risk".

He said now there were 12 staff dedicated to administration, and another 12 dedicated to "active monitoring" including site inspections and audits of major projects.

However, as part of the Abbott government's "one stop shop" approvals process, officials revealed the department was preparing to lose a quarter of its staff overall.

Department deputy secretary Malcolm Thompson said as part of "reallocating responsibilities" the department would by "reducing numbers by about 25%" over the next three years.

He said the cuts would be across all divisions of the department.

"The risk-based approach we are taking to compliance now is a very useful way to target those areas of compliance, those companies and those projects that we are most concerned about," he said.

However, while the staff cuts were expected across the board, officials could not provide the committee with specific estimates of how many would likely go from the compliance division.