Mike Baird’s reputation as a penny pincher on Macquarie Street is legendary and one developed before he took the top job.
But it seems not even beloved school camps are safe from his government’s privatisation push.
The NSW government is considering privatising the operation of sports and recreation centres that have initiated generations of Sydney schoolchildren into the outdoors.
For up to 70 years, the “sport and rec” camps have been an integral initiation into NSW schools and the outdoors. Bushwalking, orienteering, archery, abseiling and evading so many spiders who inhabited cabin walls.
The government denies plans are so advanced. It says options are being investigated and has noted that it would not sell any land, merely the right to operate the centres, which would likely go to an NGO.
But the problem in the government eyes is the centres are too costly. Last year they ran at a $2.6 million loss, though the government notes their management is improving.
“How much profit should we be expected to make from the education sector, particularly physical education at a time of rising obesity and diabetes,” said Anne Gardiner the general secretary of the Public Service Association.
Critics argue public health and outdoor activity is a public good that requires expenditure at a time of high investment in elite sport and when children are spending increasing amounts of time watching various screens.
“These cater for lower socio-economic kids; private schools have their own,” said Associate Professor Tonia Gray from the University of Western Sydney, an expert in children’s activity and public health. “It’s an investment in their [health]. We don’t expect National Parks to make money.”
Labor frontbencher Lynda Voltz said the government was coming close to “putting a price on the great outdoors”.
“This government is determined to sell everything in this state and Sport and Recreation camps are just the next item on its hit list,” she said.
Fewer than 70,000 NSW school children take camps or excursions to the 11 centres, which are built around areas such as the state’s North Coast, Snowy Mountains and South Coast.
Nearly 120,000 members of the community use the halls each year, including for sporting events.
“The Office of Sport is investigating service delivery model improvements for Sport and Recreation Centres across NSW,” a spokeswoman for Sports Minister Stuart Ayres said. The government said it would not sell any land and was considering major upgrades of some facilities including a water jump ramp at Jindabyne.
Attendance at the centres is up 15 per cent year-on-year and 95 per cent of those surveyed would recommend the centres to a friend.
Ms Gardiner argued NGO or any non-government management would be pressured to cut services offered or vulnerable to later corporate take overs.