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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23725

Mrs GASH (11:41 AM) —I would like to thank my colleague the member for Wannon for giving me some of his time to speak to this report. As a member of the House of Representatives Select Committee on the recent Australian bushfires, I have found the inquiry interesting, unsettling, inspiring and awesome. Firstly, I thank the people from my own electorate for attending the hearing in Nowra and for being determined to make submissions. I know they did so in spite of their fear of repercussions, and it was extremely difficult for some who had been warned off by the state based volunteer agencies. The submission from Shoalhaven City Council was excellent. I was impressed by the honesty and integrity of all the submissions provided from my electorate.

Special thanks go to the committee members and the secretariat for coming to the Shoalhaven. I especially thank the chair, Gary Nairn, for treading carefully in an extremely difficult job. He has my utmost admiration for his patience and perseverance. There were times when I had to walk out, when it took three-quarters of an hour to decide on a sentence that ultimately made no difference to the outcome. It was done just to placate a member of the committee who, in most cases, did not even attend the inquiry hearings.

What I would like to highlight is that this kind of committee is where the real work goes on in parliament. It is there that the debate occurs and friendships are made and lost—none of which you see on TV. On sitting days we the members sit in committees, discussing ideas, researching topics, reading reports and working together to find cooperative resolutions for the good governance of this country. Often there is a need for an inquiry like this one. Hearings entail a lot of travel and time out of the non-sitting weeks—which would normally be spent tending to your own electorates—doing research, reading transcripts, listening to submissions and deliberating on the various points made. Then we write the draft report and try hard to broker consensus amongst the committee members on the final report recommendations. All this is on top of the normal workload.

Given our efforts and given what was a genuine attempt to make this a national, bipartisan approach, it was disappointing that the various state agencies chose not to participate, saying that they did not have the staff available. It was interesting to note that they actually did have staff at most of the hearings, just sitting in the audience, listening to the submissions and taking notes. To me, that meant that the respective state representatives were told not to participate and not to speak out on what they must have known was a matter of national interest.

How can we in all governments, in a bipartisan fashion, come up with better services for all Australians when those service delivery agencies are prohibited from participating? One has to ask why. Whilst listening to the submissions from the Shoalhaven on bushfires, it became very obvious that our volunteers set particularly high standards and display excellent leadership and cooperation. What became apparent in nearly all the submissions was the need for better communications from the top level to those working on the ground and between agencies. For instance, there needs to be better cooperation on police roadblocks, evacuation determinations and notification of the general public about those decisions.

This is also something I observed when doing some volunteering in the headquarters during both the 2001 and the 2002 fires. However, on the matter of communication, I particularly would like to thank radio 2ST and our local ABC for their continual updating of information during the recent fires. I congratulate all local media for producing the stories and the record of the people and events in the days after the fires.

During the on-site inquiries, it became obvious that evacuation procedures are different between regions, especially the way decisions are made about who shall and who shall not go. Sometimes these decisions were made by people without the training or local experience in bushfires, which did not make sense to those who had to carry out the orders. The fact that houses did indeed burn down does not prove, after the fact, that evacuation was the right thing to do. In Tasmania it was obvious, after seeing where some of the houses were built—amidst forests and on the edge of gorges—that a well-prepared house whose occupants remain with the house through the passing of the fire front will have a far greater chance of remaining intact.

The fact is that most houses burn after the fire front has passed, not during the initial fire attack. Well-educated and prepared owners can usually prevent their houses from becoming fully involved in fire. As stated earlier, this preparation was very evident in Tasmania. There the fire authorities and volunteers have done an excellent job. With the help of volunteers, every householder is trained in fire safety and how to prepare their home for the fire season. They are assisted to purchase the right equipment and are trained regularly in how to use it and what to do in times of fire.

The report showed clearly that firebreaks at the urban interface need to be standardised and enforced. There should be no national park without a firebreak of at least 200 metres right around it—inside the national park boundary. The same goes for state forests and any other publicly held land. Governments should not load residents with the risk that fire, particularly in national parks and wilderness, poses. In fact, authority and relevant funding should be given to local government to enforce this, and any gazetting of such an area should include funding to provide and maintain these breaks. Without the funding, governments—not the residents or their insurance companies—should bear the brunt of the cost of any fire that begins in or travels through national parks and wilderness areas. Hazard reduction should have priority over pollution concerns, and no longer should we hear that burning did not take place because people did not like the smoke. Any hazard reduction needs to be regularly performed in a strategic and patterned way that does not leave the landscape totally charred but provides a measure of protection in all but the most extreme circumstances.

I understand that many land management agencies are increasing their hazard reduction programs and that weather determines if they can be completed. However, the tales from the volunteer bushfire brigades regularly highlighted the drop in the number and the extent of hazard reductions that they could perform because of extensive red tape, bureaucratic delays and excessive requirements. Brigades are required to write plans and submit them for approval to a committee of five to seven land and risk management agencies. These committees can then prescribe the type of hazard reduction and make any requirements of the brigade, which are legally binding if acted on. For instance, one brigade told us of performing no hazard reductions at all because of these requirements. In an area of one- to two-metre high scrub amongst 20- to 30-metre high gums, the committee determined that the flame height of any hazard reduction burn should be no higher than 60 centimetres and that, if the brigade could not guarantee that flame height, the area should be cleared by hand.

Here we had a band of volunteers who are skilled in cool burns in this area, and are equipped to do them, being asked to clear an area by hand—something for which they were not trained, had no equipment, did not have the fitness and would not be insured. Needless to say, the hazard reduction did not happen but, boy, did that area burn well when the bushfire came through in the summer. Now the whole landscape is totally blackened, right in the middle of an area that depends on tourism. This story is repeated again and again, and many of the volunteer bushfire brigades that previously carried out the bulk of hazard reduction, particularly in New South Wales, are doing less than 10 per cent of the hazard reduction they previously completed. This is one of the major areas where the system is falling down. Our recommendations, whilst numerous, prove there is much room for improvement. I urge all parties to come forward and work together in the best interests of the Australian community.

It has become obvious to me that many people who set guidelines do so for bureaucratic ease of management, and it is time that volunteers had a far greater hand in setting the guidelines. These are life and death matters and have nothing to do with political or empire building. We need to do what works. Some submissions said that payments to volunteers might bring change, but the majority have shown us that volunteers are just that—volunteering and proud of it. We need to use them wisely and sparingly and to provide them with equipment, technology initiatives and advantages to better fight fires and to put them out faster.

To this end, perhaps it is time we put more emphasis on using technology to provide greater realism and intensity in training. This would assist paid and volunteer workers in areas that have been lucky enough not to see major bushfires for some time. For volunteers, it may be more appreciated if governments at all levels look at exemptions from rates or taxes to assist with the cost of volunteering. One recommendation is to exempt volunteers from the fire levy on their insurance in the years that they are actively engaged in volunteering. We also need to look at the costs borne by self-employed volunteers and by small businesses supporting their workers in the volunteer effort.

In my opinion, it is time for the Commonwealth to take a greater role, providing national standards for such things as communications, training levels of competency, interoperability issues and the like, all of which have been identified as having detrimental impacts on the effectiveness of emergency service agencies and on the more severe campaign fires. This could be done through Emergency Management Australia, a federal agency that already coordinates the call-up of interstate and overseas assistance.

In concluding the report, I take some political mileage and state that we in the Shoalhaven in the Gilmore electorate, in conjunction with the local council and a range of defence contractors with the required skills, have come up with a suggestion for an emergency incident training centre that is based on using the latest virtual technology to make the best use of information about and vision of real fires from the area. The work is ongoing and, once fully developed, logistic and incident management training will be provided to volunteers from any type of emergency service at low or no cost and at times to suit them. I would hope that the federal government would be able to assist this worthwhile project. Just last Saturday, we opened the new facility—the emergency operations centre—funded through a special rate levy by the Shoalhaven City Council in order to have the state-of-the-art equipment. It is a far cry from working in the old centre, in dark, poky, noisy and cramped conditions.

Last, but certainly not least, the catering at emergencies in the Shoalhaven is legendary, with local businesses, service clubs and hundreds of volunteers working with the catering brigade to ensure that everyone gets a good feed often enough to keep them working and to have them coming back the next day refreshed. I certainly commend Mary Reeves and her team. Finally, thanks again to members of the committee secretariat for their steady work, patience and perseverance as they trod what was often a diplomatic line amongst the worst of the political nonsense that surrounded our research. Again, I applaud and extend my sincere appreciation to the member for Eden-Monaro, who was chair of this committee.