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Monday, 26 October 2009
Page: 7038

Senator BACK (6:05 PM) —I also rise to speak this evening on the comments made by the honourable Attorney-General. Others have referred to preparation, response and recovery; I just wish to speak of the first of the cornerstones of emergency response, and that is the question of prevention. I want to pick up, if I may, on a comment made by Senator Fielding, and that relates particularly to fuel reduction. We all know there are three main causes of fire: you have got to have ignition, you have got to have air and you must have fuel. The only comments that the minister actually made about prevention were in relation to arson, which of course is a means of ignition. He is quite right—50 per cent or more of fires in the bush are probably caused by people. But the point I wish to emphasise is that of fuel reduction, because if the fuel is not there in the first place to allow the sort of conflagration we saw in the Victorian fires—and we have seen it in others—then you do not get the severity of the fires themselves.

Prevention is far and away the most cost-effective method of attacking wildfires. It is the most neglected in bushfire management in Australia. As Senator Fielding said a moment ago, it is regrettable that none of the recommendations of the interim report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission addresses fuel reduction, because it is in that area that we actually have the scope to achieve something. Equally, it is in that area that I believe the scope exists for the Commonwealth government to take a leadership role. To give you some statistics, very briefly, experts in the field—and that is led by CSIRO, departments of conservation and land management, and other land managers—would say for most southern eucalypt forests that you would need somewhere between seven and eight per cent of the forest burnt each year to achieve some sort of protection for communities. In Victoria, that figure is now down to less than a half of one per cent. Therefore, we regret-tably saw almost an inevitability in February of this year.

Prevention is an area that has the most urgent need for government attention. Land management, under our Constitution, is the responsibility of the states and we all know the role that local government, volunteer brigades and others play in protecting communities. But there is a very necessary role for the Commonwealth in developing a national bushfire policy to which all states and local governments can have input but which must be driven by the Com-monwealth. People would say, ‘Where does the role for the Commonwealth come?’ It comes in the enor-mous amount of expenditure. It is a regrettable fact that there is an argument that says that the more the Commonwealth throws into the response and recovery phase, the more it may appear to be rewarding failure, because had the circumstances not developed in the first place of the levels of fuel that we are seeing in the forests and seeing in our rural communities and those at risk we would not actually be suffering the problem. In the few moments I have to conclude, I simply say that Aboriginal communities over 30,000 years have led us in the way to go. Had they not led us that way, we would not actually have the forests that we have today. I fully support the role of the Commonwealth in national bushfire policy.

Debate adjourned.