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Tuesday, 14 May 2013
Page: 2494

Senator BACK (Western AustraliaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (17:29): by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the response by the Victorian Minister for Police and Emergency Services and Minister for Bushfire Response, Mr Wells, on the Country Fire Authority in Victoria.

I congratulate the President, in fact, for communicating with the minister. I can only endorse his comments in regards to the Country Fire Authority in Victoria, but I extend endorsement to all of Australasia's fire authorities. I had the privilege of being the chief executive officer of the Bush Fires Board of Western Australia in the 1990s and, as a result, Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council. I recall, at that time, Mr Len Foster as being the chief executive of the CFA in Victoria. He lent me, personally, and our agency an enormous amount of support. In fact, I was incredibly impressed and gratified with the level of support across state and territory borders and from our colleagues in New Zealand. If there was one thing that Len Foster taught me, it was to never ever confuse volunteerism and professionalism. I recall at that time the CFA having about 70,000 in the numbers, of whom about 10 per cent were paid and the balance were volunteers. Len Foster impressed upon me that there is no difference between the calibre, quality and skill level of appropriately trained, equipped and resourced people, regardless of whether they are volunteers or paid officers. I certainly applied that philosophy in my own leadership and management of the Bush Fires Board in WA. It was therefore a moment of great distress to me when I picked up the newspaper in Western Australia, along with a good deal of radio media, to see what appeared to be criticism of volunteers by the firefighters union. In fact, I spoke on radio to try and allay those concerns and suggest strongly to the firefighters union that they correct what appeared to be a circumstance in which they were criticising volunteers because of an 'inherent lack of ability'. I would point out that about 95 per cent of the landmass of Australia is protected by volunteers. When it comes to fire and other emergency services the absolute focus has to be on adequate training, equipment, clothing and provisioning of all.

I also want to address the issue of the fuel levels which we now see building up in so many areas of Australia, particularly in the Mediterranean climates in the southern part of the country. Whilst I do not want to pre-empt the outcomes of the Tasmanian fire inquiry I urge all of my colleagues to be vigilant wherever you can to ensure that state agencies take carefully and seriously the responsibility to reduce fuel levels. Whilst is true that hail, cyclones and other natural disasters cannot be foreseen or prevented, bushfires can in fact be addressed if we look at the one overwhelming thing that we can control—that is, fuel levels. We cannot control oxygen levels, nor can we usually control the type of ignition. What we can do, particularly in our Australian bushfire environment, is control the amount of fuel on the forest floor.

I go back to the devastating bushfires in February 2009 in Victoria. In Western Australia, eucalypt forests dominate. As a result of the severe fires in WA in 1961 and 1962, which devastated the town of Dwellingup, we led the world in science and research in this area. We would say that five to eight tonnes of fuel on the forest floor in a eucalypt forest is an upper level of danger. In the Victorian situation, there was 80 to 100 tonnes of fuel per hectare, and that is unacceptable. A document by a gentleman by the name of Roger Underwood was made public the other day. Mr Underwood is a highly experienced forester. He is chairman of a group that is called upon often, including in two inquiries by former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty—such is this man's experience. He drew the attention of the minister and the commissioner in Western Australia to the devastatingly high levels of fuel on the floors of our karri forests in the deep south of WA in the Pemberton region. Nobody is better qualified than Roger Underwood to make those comments and those observations because he was the head of the forestry department in that area throughout his career.

When Cyclone Alby went through southern and Western Australia in, I think, the early 1980s, the excellence of the foresters at that time preserved communities of people which otherwise would have been devastated by fires. That was simply because they kept fuel loads under control through fuel reduction. Again I congratulate the President on his letter. I certainly compliment the Country Fire Authority, but, at the same time, I join it with other agencies in the fire and emergency services area and speak again of the value of volunteers and volunteerism in a week when volunteerism is being accoladed in this country.

Question agreed to.