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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 8540

Senator WILLIAMS (2:38 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Attorney-General, Senator Wong. I refer to a statement by the Attorney-General in which he outlined the government’s preparations for the bushfire season. Can the minister tell the Senate which projects under the government’s Natural Disaster Resilience Program have been implemented and how these projects will help make national parks in New South Wales less prone to bushfire outbreaks this summer?

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) —I thank the senator for his question. I know he has a keen interest in these issues and has made a number of contributions to the Senate on these issues. In relation to the New South Wales issue, I am not sure I can provide that information today, Senator. But I can indicate some of the work that has been undertaken by the federal government to support states and territories to prepare for and to respond to bushfires. Obviously, the states and territories have primary responsibility for dealing with natural disasters, although the Commonwealth stand ready to assist in any way we can.

I am advised that the Commonwealth has committed over $26 million to assist the states and territories to develop a national telephony based emergency warning system. The Commonwealth has also, through the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management, supported an endorsement of a national catastrophic natural disaster plan and a national work plan to reduce bushfire arson. In relation to the former, this is a plan which outlines contingency arrangements for the Commonwealth and for other governments to assist a jurisdiction affected by a catastrophic disaster that overwhelms that jurisdiction’s ability to respond. This is the first time that such a plan has been agreed in Australia and it meets key recommendations of the 2005 Review of Australia’s ability to respond to and recover from catastrophic disasters. The Commonwealth, through this council, has also endorsed a national work plan to reduce bushfire arson, which includes the development of a strategy on best practices to reduce bushfire arson.

The Commonwealth is also conducting a trial of bushfire detection technology, including the FireWatch system, promoted by the member for McEwen, to determine if these new technologies can offer a cost-effective way of detecting fires in Australian conditions. In September, the Attorney-General chaired an extraordinary meeting of the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management— (Time expired)

Senator WILLIAMS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Will the minister indicate how many of the 780 national parks and reserves in New South Wales have undergone controlled burn-offs in the past 12 months to reduce fuel levels and how this program will be affected by the New South Wales government’s decision to lay off over 200 parks and wildlife staff at a time when the state is facing a horror fire season?

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) —Everyone in this place and, I would suggest, in all parliaments—state and territory—would be deeply concerned about the preparation for bushfires and about the dangers that bushfires pose to many Australians. I would respectfully suggest to the Senate that that probably is a question more properly addressed to the New South Wales government. I would have thought that the management of national parks within New South Wales would have been a matter for the New South Wales government. I am happy to see if I can obtain further information, Senator, but I do not have any information on the specifics of burn-off or other aspects of the management of New South Wales national parks. I can say that, in relation to the matter I was raising, which was— (Time expired)

Senator WILLIAMS —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. What action will the Rudd government take to ensure grazing is allowed in national parks, when it is a proven method of hazard reduction and lessens the devastating impacts of fires such as those that claimed so many lives in Victoria on Black Saturday?

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) —As I was saying, with respect to the management of national parks, my understanding is—and I am happy to be corrected, Senator, and I will certainly take advice on this—that the management of national parks within New South Wales would be a matter for the New South Wales government. Obviously the federal government is working with the states. This includes the meeting of the ministerial council to which I referred which endorsed a new national framework for scaled advice and warnings, including a new fire danger rating of ‘catastrophic’—code red. Regrettably, we have already seen that warning level reached this year. The Bureau of Meteorology has incorporated this new rating into its bushfire, weather and warning systems and services. In fact, these ‘catastrophic’ fire danger warnings were issued in parts of South Australia and New South Wales just last week. The Commonwealth also provides direct assistance to states and territories, including under Australian emergency management arrangements— (Time expired)