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Monday, 26 October 2009
Page: 7032


Senator RONALDSON (5:39 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

On behalf of the opposition, I want to thank the minister for this paper. Obviously, as a Victorian, I am acutely aware of the dangers of bushfires. Indeed, I have fought them and I know the damage they can inflict. In fact, in Victoria the greatest threat of natural disaster comes from bushfires. In my speech today I have drawn extensively from an excellent speech given by the Hon. Fran Bailey MP, the federal member for McEwen, to the Combined Emergency Services 31st annual conference on Saturday 24 October entitled ‘Dealing with disaster: Victoria fires 2009’. As I said, I have drawn extensively from that speech for my comments today.

Since 1851, some 815 people Australia-wide have been recorded as having died in bushfires. Significantly, 561 of those deaths—more than two-thirds—have occurred in Victoria. Most recently of course we faced the horrific Black Saturday fire in February this year. I think people like to think that fires of this magnitude will never happen again. I go back to 1851 and the Black Thursday fires. I think people would have been saying that then, and nothing has changed. Put simply, unless we change the way we do things, it will happen again. But it appears, quite frankly, that the attitude of almost every government since 1851 has been to put its head in the sand and hope that things will not be as bad next time. Hope is not a policy option.

After the Canberra bushfires, the then coalition government established a bipartisan parliamentary panel. It was arguably the most comprehensive examination of bushfires ever conducted. The committee’s report made three key recommendations: (1) early warnings save lives; (2) local knowledge matters; and (3) hazard reduction is vital. While these might sound as if they are stating the obvious, time and again these fundamental points have been downplayed or ignored. Only last weekend, my colleague the member for McEwen made exactly those points at the conference I referred to earlier.

In the ministerial statement there was a section on prevention, but it was with some disappointment that I looked through the minister’s statement and found that there was no mention of hazard reduction. Under ‘prevention’ there is great talk about greater penalties for arson. The coalition welcomes and supports those moves as far as they go. But you cannot criminalise a lightning strike. You cannot criminalise a branch falling against a power pole. If you are serious about prevention—and I mean really serious—then you need to have a substantial program of hazard reduction. In McEwen, the seat hardest hit by those Black Saturday fires, some fire access routes were barred with padlocked gates and signposted as conservation zones. We all believe in conservation, but for tens of thousands of years Aboriginal Australians judiciously used fire to clear out dangerous undergrowth. Why are we afraid to do the same? Preventing the build-up of fuel load was the No. 1 submission of all those received by the Black Saturday royal commission.

I will just deviate briefly to indicate that I support the moves by the Victorian state government in relation to allowing landowners to clear around their homes. That is long overdue. But there is already push back from some of the local government councils, who are potentially responsible for this occurring again. Even in the Dandenongs my understanding is that if you did not have trees and bushes up against your walls you were breaching by-laws. That is extraordinary.

I want to go back to the fuel load question. It does not have to be just burning. I am informed—and again this came from Mrs Bailey—that in Portugal volunteers use heavy equipment and hand clearing to clear roadsides to a minimum of 10 metres and—this will interest Senator Brown and his colleagues who are here today—that this happens even in World Heritage areas.

I will go back to preparedness and response. We welcome the government’s promises relating to preparedness and response contained in the minister’s statement. Interaction between all levels of government and the emergency services, both paid and volunteer, is critical as we head into this year’s fire season. People need to know what is happening. One of the great tragedies of the Black Saturday fires is that lives were lost because people had no access to timely information. Stay or go can only work if you know what you are staying to face. A system of uniform and early fire detection is a national challenge which we must all meet. I note, however, that the Commonwealth is providing $15 million for the establishment and operation of a national emergency warning system. This is being trialled in Victoria. It will not reach mobile phones, yet the Western Australian system, State Alert, can already deliver a warning by landline, fax, email and mobile phones and can drill down to a specific address. It has been tested. It works. It has been offered to the Victorian government for free, so why has this offer not been accepted? Why are we spending $15 million reinventing the wheel?

I now want to turn to recovery. Bushfires have occurred and bushfires will come again. Helping communities to recover from the losses is an essential role for governments, but we are concerned about the top-down emphasis in the minister’s paper. We would prefer to see a more bottom-up approach. Around the world, a greater emphasis is being placed on organised community action and control in determining the nature of the response to the disaster in the community. It is their house; it is their street; it is their town; it is their community. It is local people who are best placed to identify their immediate and long-term needs following a bushfire disaster. Metaphorically, local communities are crying out, ‘Give us the tools and we will do the job.’

I will now defer to my colleague Senator Brandis for the remainder of the time available.