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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23732


Mr NAIRN (12:07 PM) —by leave—As I moved the original motion, I appreciate the granting of leave to speak again without closing the debate. This is a landmark report. The contribution made by so many of my colleagues who have spoken in this debate on the report indicates its relevance and importance. I want to begin by following the remarks I made in tabling the report early in November by thanking everyone who has contributed further to the debate in the Main Committee last week and today. Primarily, I thank all my colleagues who served on the select committee. The former minister, the member for O'Connor, made a very valuable contribution to the debate last week, as did each of my colleagues. I thank them all for their work on the committee, which was very difficult. There was a lot of work in a very short period of time to get through the inquiry. Many of them were very diligent, and none was more diligent than the member for Corangamite. He missed very little—a minuscule amount—of the hearings, inspections and report consideration and I appreciated his very strong support and the good counsel I received from him at various times. As a number of people have said, getting through this inquiry and producing the report probably tested a lot of people's patience—and it certainly tested mine—but as a result of that strong support from my colleagues, and particularly from the member for Corangamite, we were able to make it through.

The two sides of the parliament—the opposition and the government—actually agreed to all 59 recommendations. The only dissenting part of the report came from the member for Cunningham. But, if you read the member for Cunningham's dissenting report, you find there was not really much dissent at all. In fact I think, in relation to part of what he was trying to dissent from, he may have misinterpreted some of the report and some of the recommendations. I do not think his dissent was all that great, particularly if you take into account the report that the committee commissioned from Nic Gellie on putting forward some planning for fuel reduction. I think a lot of the aspects that the member for Cunningham raised in his dissenting report were well covered in that report by Mr Gellie.

I should commend Nic Gellie on that report, which was also done in a very short period of time. He was frustrated, like the committee, unfortunately, by some of the state agencies who did not want to participate. I think at one stage he was trying to get some base data from Victoria to include in his report—base data that had in fact been used in public documentation during the regional forest agreement process—and the Victorian authorities refused to give it to him. Because they had copyright on it, we could not actually get it back through the Commonwealth either. It was a very small-minded thing that those Victorian authorities did. Somebody should ask the question: do they really want to see some assistance and have matters go forward so we do not have a disaster, or do they just want to play politics? I think the way in which the political people in Victoria, New South Wales and to some extent the ACT directed their authorities not to cooperate indicates what they might be about in real terms.

In the additional comments that I have been able to make today I would like to sum up what we have heard and, in particular, to look at the reaction to the report. The reactions from some of the state governments, particularly New South Wales and Victoria, were both predictable and unfortunate. They were predictable in that they did not cooperate with the inquiry, they did not give evidence, they did not put in submissions and, as the member for Gilmore and the member for Corangamite rightly said, they claimed they did not have the personnel but they had the personnel to come along to all the hearings and take copious notes, so clearly they did. It was predictable that they would come out and knock the report, even though their political colleagues in the federal parliament supported the report and supported all 59 recommendations. So I do not think they gave it too much thought and I do not think they read the report before they commented.

In fact, in New South Wales the Minister for Rural Affairs, Minister for Local Government, Minister for Emergency Services and Minister assisting the Minister for Natural Resources, Tony Kelly, along with the Minister for the Environment and Attorney General, Bob Debus, put out a joint press release. It was a 2½ page press release of absolute political attack on the committee, on me and, I guess, on their own Labor colleagues in the federal parliament, because they were part of the committee. But it was absolute nonsense that they went on with. They clearly had not read the report before they put that out.

One of the most disturbing aspects was that, in the middle of a very highly political press release from two New South Wales ministers, there is reference to and comment from two senior public servants in that state: the Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Phil Koperberg; and the Deputy Director General of the Department of Environment and Conservation, Dr Tony Fleming. I think it is a disgrace to bring those senior public servants into a political press release that is making comment on and rubbishing our inquiry. It is absolutely outrageous, and I think it is a demonstration of the arrogance of the current New South Wales government and the head-in-the-sand attitude that they have taken to this particular report, which was so comprehensive.

Basically, it is the words of the people on the ground. I get pretty passionate about this report, I have to say, because I sat through every single word of evidence and went through all of the 500-odd submissions, and I know exactly how the people on the ground feel. They feel angry. They feel a bit deserted because their local knowledge is not being taken up and not being used. They feel that the other people who are sitting in offices up in Sydney, Rose Hill and places like that, or down in Victoria, do not really understand what is happening on the ground. The ministers and public servants in those agencies who refuse to take a role in this carry on—in the way that this press release shows—at their peril, because the volunteers will not stand for it.

A number of volunteers I have spoken to since the report came out say: `At long last we've got a government that has been prepared to listen to us and to take up what we have said. Don't worry if the state agencies rubbish the report, because it gives us something.' It is almost like a bible for them now. It gives them something to go and hit those agencies over the head with and say: `Look, these are the things we should be doing. This is the fuel reduction we should be doing. These are the fire trails we should be maintaining and that we should not be blocking off. This is the expertise and the local knowledge you should be listening to.' They will use this report, and they will use it for a long time to come. I think certain people might regret their actions in the longer term.

Some of the other feedback and comments have been very supportive of the report. The Victorian Farmers Federation said:

At last there is a Government document that proposes some real and practical changes to improve the safety and conditions of rural and regional communities.

The contrast between this report and the Victorian inquiry report could not be more marked.

The recommendations of the report, aptly titled A nation charred, is evidence that federal politicians have listened to the concerns of farmers and rural Victorians who were devastated by bushfires last summer.

In contrast to the Victorian report, the federal inquiry has recommended increased fuel reduction burning and public reporting of the achievements of fuel reduction burn targets.

They also go on to say:

The recommendation to abolish the fire services levy tax on rural insurance and replace it with an equitable rate on property is wholeheartedly supported by the Victorian Farmers Federation ...

It is interesting that the Victorian minister Andre Haermeyer—who when the inquiry started said that we, federal politicians, were not qualified to conduct such an inquiry; that is the stupid comment he made then—when commenting on the recommendation to take the fire levy off insurance and just apply it to rates, because it would be much more equitable, said, `That is a new tax; it is a poll tax.' What a stupid reaction! Interestingly, the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales more recently has come out and said exactly that: it should be taken off insurance and applied to rates. So they have already taken it up, even though they did not give any credit to the report.

I also noticed the other day that Bob Carr and Koperberg were glowing about additional resources for rapid responses to fires. These are commando type firefighters whom they will drop in behind the lines, and this will allow a rapid response. Koperberg was the guy who came out saying: `Rapid response? Do you want to risk my firefighters?' He obviously had not read the report either. Now, a few weeks later, when he thinks the report is forgotten, they come out and say: `Yes, we are doing this. We are going to have more firefighters in a rapid response situation.' I do not care if they do not give credit to the report; I guess the main thing is that they do continue to act on it.

I have a few other concerns, though. I know a number of the volunteers who gave evidence were spoken to during the inquiry to try and prevent them from giving evidence. I will be watching very closely to make sure that those brigades whose volunteers did come out and assist the inquiry by giving their evidence and their local knowledge are not targeted in any negative way by the bureaucracy as a result of that assistance. I will be watching very closely because there are some issues already about what might be happening to some of their budgets, and we will be taking careful note.

During our inquiry, or towards the end of it, the New South Wales coroner's inquiry came out, and everybody—everybody to a single person, outside the New South Wales bureaucracy—was absolutely staggered by its findings. The inquiry took only 22 submissions and it held hearings for about a day and a half. It primarily heard only from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Rural Fire Service. Surprise, surprise, on the day that the coroner brought down his findings—I assume that a coroner's findings would not be known by anybody else until they were released in the court—the head of the Rural Fire Service, Phil Koperberg, and the head of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Brian Gilligan, just happened to be in Queanbeyan, ready to stand in front of the cameras and receive the so-called praise because the coroner's report said, `No, they did everything wonderfully.' Nobody else believes that. I have real concerns about the process of that coroner's inquiry. If anybody looked at it closely, they would as well.

The ACT coroner's inquiry is still continuing. We have already seen reports of evidence given in that inquiry. I think this will be a crucial inquiry as well as a follow-up. We were unable to get evidence from ACT authorities because the government of the ACT would not allow it. There is much to come out of that coroner's report, because there are certainly many concerning things that occurred during that period here in the ACT—many things that we have talked about before. The key things were fuel reduction, rapid response, fire trails and communication. They all need to be addressed. The COAG inquiry can pick up on this report and move on without going over the ground again. But people need to understand that if these things are not done, we will have the devastation that we saw last summer.

I drove through Namadgi National Park on my way back from Adaminaby last Saturday. The devastation that is still there is unbelievable. The hills to the south of Tharwa—they are east-facing hills, so the fire would have come over from the west and gone downhill, so it would have been cooler—are absolutely devastated. There is not a single thing happening there almost 12 months later. As Phil Cheney said, it could take over 200 years to get some of those forests back. I want people to understand that and make sure that it never happens again. The recommendations that our committee has made, if they are taken up by all state authorities, will be the best we can possibly do to avoid that circumstance ever happening again. You will not stop fires but you can reduce the intensity. If you have rapid response, if you have fuel reduction being done properly and if you have fire trails opened you certainly can avoid such devastation in future. We cannot let it happen again.

Debate (on motion by Ms Jann McFarlane) adjourned.