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Monday, 16 November 2009
Page: 11774

Mr HUNT (9:30 PM) —Earlier today, I addressed the Main Committee and made reference to the fact that the township of Rye was threatened by inadequate fire protection on land owned by the Victorian government. As we approach the summer season it is time to pause, reflect and examine fire protection and management in Victoria. It is a state which has been all too badly seared over this last year.

Only this last week there was a fire at Point Nepean, which was caused by a fire lit on the third day of a heatwave, in one of the state’s windiest areas—an area which contained unexploded ordnance. It is an area known to the minister. It was the subject of a ministerial visit only a few months ago—I was there at the time—but we now see it was not subject to any ministerial control, as demonstrated by the way in which a bushfire was allowed to be lit by public hands in the middle of a heatwave.

Against that background I want to make three strong, clear points about what I believe to be systemic failures in bushfire management and protection in Victoria. First, there have been years of inadequate action on vitally needed fuel reduction. There has been fuel reduction in that time but it has been inadequate, though not at the behest of the fire authorities—local or state. They have sought permission and responsibility for fuel reduction and they have sought the right to conduct fuel reduction but they have been denied by ministerial fiat within the Victorian state government. That is unacceptable, it is undesirable and it is, and has been, plainly and dangerously wrong. It was not a failure by our firefighters, who have urged action, but a systemic political failure at the state government level due to an ideology which rejected fuel reduction on the premise that it was an assault on the environment. That policy was environmentally wrong and has been a grave error.

The second systemic error is that the state government has been consciously and deliberately silent in defending its Country Fire Authority members, volunteers and processes through the royal commission process. I believe that the CFA in Victoria is the finest group of volunteers and professional firefighters in the world. Are there lessons to be learned from Black Saturday? Of course. But I know that in the days leading up to Black Saturday, on Black Saturday itself and in the weeks following the tragic fires, all arms of the CFA and the state and federal authorities performed magnificently—I share that praise across all authorities. It leaves me quietly ashamed, therefore, that state ministers have failed to stand up for the CFA during the royal commission process. We saw that again today where evidence was led against the CFA. We have not had the defence of the volunteers or the fire authorities that we would expect. It has been a shameful process in which ministerial responsibility has been absent and ministers should take responsibility if there were any failings. But on Black Saturday itself and in the days leading up to and following it we should be thankful for that which was done by the volunteers and the CFA. As to the tsunami of the fire itself, on that day, in that place, I do not believe our firefighters could have performed more heroically.

That leads me to my third point, which is that there must be clear ministerial parameters for genuine fuel reduction programs. In that process, the state government minister in charge of the Department of Sustainability and the Environment, the Victorian Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, must explain why he authorised burning off not during the course of the year but on the hottest day since Black Saturday, on the third day of a heatwave, in an area renowned for windy conditions. This is a time for ministerial responsibility. It is a time when the volunteers look to their ministers for leadership, guidance and responsibility, not a time when they want to see responsibility passed down the chain of command. The difficult times are when leadership and responsibility are required and I urge that of the Victorian government. (Time expired)