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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 8608


Mr BARTLETT (3:02 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government. Can the minister advise the House of the current bushfire situation in Australia? What funding has the federal government contributed for the Erickson helitankers to tackle the fire menace?


Mr TUCKEY (Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government) —As some would have read in the media, the bushfires throughout Australia this year are of great seriousness and are causing very major damage as we speak. In fact, some 3,000 volunteer and professional firefighters are fighting 102 fires in New South Wales alone, and there are significant fires in the Gold Coast hinterland and on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Already, some 36 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales alone. A major contributor to the protection of homes was best identified in an article in today's Sydney Morning Herald which refers to Southern Highlands historian Marie Chalker, who was luckier than some others mentioned. The article states:

All that saved her Aylmerton home was a last-minute dousing by a heli-tanker.

`I just said a prayer and then Elvis appeared and emptied its load,' she said.

The fact that those particular helicopters were there and are so effective at saving people's homes in what is professionally called the forest-urban interface is very much due to the contribution and initiative of the Howard government. An inquiry recommended that some of these aircraft be imported. It was found that, with the very early commencement of the fire season, they needed to be airfreighted in, and they were. Not only did the Howard government make an original offer to meet half the sea freight and leasing costs to have this equipment in Australia; we were quick to offer 50 per cent of the airfreight costs as well. These particular aircraft are now making a great contribution—in fact, they commenced work on 17 October and one of the first areas where they set about protecting people's property was in the Blue Mountains, in part of the member for Macquarie's electorate. He of course is very conscious of the benefits this is bringing to his constituents.

All that said, we should not for a moment ignore the contribution of the men and women and their terrestrial equipment that is at the very front of these fires; in fact, they are the people who must do their best. There are issues relating to that which must be addressed in the future. There has been a clear inadequacy in roads for those people to get in and address these fires, and that is one of the reasons why we need more aerial assets. But the fact of life is that there also has to be proper forest management. In fact, as was put to the select committee of the New South Wales parliament, the National Parks and Wildlife Service had reduced their hazard reduction by 60 per cent over seven years and as a result lost 750,000 hectares of their forest reserves to fire, compared to the 2,000 hectares which was all that was lost in state forests where appropriate hazard reduction of about 100,000 hectares a year had been practised continuously. So these are pretty important issues.

Those on the other side of the House have also said a lot about the Commonwealth's role. There have been all sorts of suggestions and questions to the Deputy Prime Minister. It was of some interest to me, therefore, that on 22 October the Queensland Premier had the following to say, as recorded in Hansard on page 3828:

Queensland has been participating in a project to develop a national aerial firefighting strategy. The project commenced as a result of concerns arising from the New South Wales bushfires in late 2001 and early 2002. The Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. John Anderson, wrote to the New South Wales Premier offering assistance to coordinate the development of a joint proposal amongst the states and territories on cost-effective options for improving Australia's aerial firefighting capacity.

Now, that is not an example of offers, as has been reported, to buy four helicopters and do other sorts of things. In fact, it identifies that the Commonwealth took a leading role.

In response to that, we were challenged on the last day of sitting in the previous session with, `Why don't we have a summit?' That challenge of course came from the opposition. They have had a lot of summits: there was the economic summit, there was the tax summit and there was the ALP rules summit, and they all had no effect. I thought I could identify some of the speakers that might be present. We could have the member for Werriwa tell us how effective a coastguard might be in putting out coastal fires; he says it will fix everything else. The member for Rankin could give a speech on how, under the Kyoto principles, you could sell all those charcoal credits after the fires. The member for Fremantle could tell us about the importance of recollections in getting yourself out of a fire.