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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 8548

Senator BACK (3:11 PM) —I also rise to take note of answers given by Senator Wong. It is pleasing that Senator Polley made the point for Commonwealth federal intervention, simply because we see an absolute abrogation of responsibility by the New South Wales government. In fact, the New South Wales government seems totally irrelevant. What we do see, unfortunately, as was stated by my colleague Senator Williams, is that that state has absolutely no influence, control or activity at all—they do at the operational level; they have a very effective rural fire service. Why is it that the Commonwealth needs to take a role? Simply because of the enormous expenditure that the Commonwealth now has to often undertake in regards to response and recovery. In other words, what we have seen this year particularly is the Commonwealth rewarding failure. That is the reason why there has to be activity and why Senator Williams is absolutely correct.

Only the other day, the dean of agriculture and a member of the bushfires CRC in New South Wales, Professor Mark Adams, lamented his state’s and the country’s poor preparedness. Have a look at that statistics in New South Wales. This year, a lousy 23,000 hectares have been burned in prescribed or fuel reduction burns. At least last year it was 60,000 hectares. Even the Victorians, who do very little at all, burned 154,000 hectares this year in fuel reduction burning.

This chamber should not need reminding that there are three key elements to fires and bushfires. The first is fuel, the second is a source of ignition and the third is oxygen. We cannot do much about the oxygen. We know that there are many sources of ignition, including lightning and men, women and children. But we can do something about fuel. In particular, we must undertake fuel reduction. As Senator Williams has already explained and I will not repeat, grazing by animals has been a time honoured means of fuel reduction. Fuel reduction burning in the cool time of the year is the preferred method and naturally there are attempts to clear vegetation.

Prior to the last bushfire season we saw something regrettable in Victoria. In 2004, a resident of Reedy Creek, Liam Sheahan, was fined some $50,000 for removing trees around his property and then he had to pay $50,000 more to battle the Mitchell Shire Council because he was in fact reducing fuel levels. Guess whose home was the only one in a two-kilometre area to survive the bushfires last year? We all know the answer: it was Mr Liam Sheehan’s home.

Aborigines have shown us for 30,000 years the value of fuel reduction burning in a mosaic pattern. Indeed, had they not done carried out that burning, we would not have had the forests that we have today, because they would have been subject to the same level of burning that we saw in Victoria this year. Incidentally, speaking of emissions, that fire alone produced greenhouse gases equivalent to Australia’s entire industry for one year. That was from one fire on one day. The shame of it, of course, is that we know the value of fuel reduction burning. The CSIRO-led Project Vesta in the mid- to late 1990s confirmed what we already knew and added to that information.

In my home state of Western Australia, we regard seven to eight per cent of the forest being burnt annually as the minimum that should be undertaken to protect the community. We know that the figure in Victoria is less than a half of one per cent, as against that seven to eight per cent ideal, and the figures I have seen for New South Wales would put it at a fraction of one per cent. How regrettable that is. We will always have fire in the mediterranean, eucalypt dominated bush of Australia. We will either have low intensity, cool season, controlled burns called fuel reduction burns or we will have uncontrolled hot season conflagrations like we have had.

I conclude with an acronym I have explained here before: DEAD—disaster, enquiry, apathy, further disaster. If we do nothing, we will have further disasters.