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Tuesday, 8 December 2020
Page: 7122


Senator WONG (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (19:38): I rise to speak on the Defence Legislation Amendment (Enhancement of Defence Force Response to Emergencies) Bill 2020. It's a bill that arises out of the call-out of the 3,000 Australian Defence Force personnel during the Black Summer bushfires. The ADF reviewed the event post this call-out, sought what lessons there were to be learnt and worked out where things could have been done better. The result is this legislation. It is to the credit of Defence that it has reviewed the contribution to the 2019-20 bushfire effort in this way and has proposed these measures as a result. The bill represents a modest set of changes that improve the process of calling out the ADF Reserves, which Labor will support.

I want to add my voice to thank the ADF personnel who were engaged in the bushfires. During my visits to both the Adelaide Hills, the Cudlee Creek fire, and Kangaroo Island, people were most appreciative of their presence.

Let's be clear. Mr Morrison cannot blame the absence of this legislation for his catastrophic failure of leadership during the 2019-20 black summer bushfires, because that summer wasn't without warning. Scientists have been telling us for years that climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather events and natural disasters. Unfortunately, their predictions are true. When I was minister for climate change I told this place, on 26 November 2009:

… we are also likely to see an increase in very extreme fire weather days. That is one of the effects of climate change that was documented again by the Bushfire CRC, the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO in 2007, when they said that very extreme fire weather days now occur on average once every two to 11 years at most sites, by 2020 they may occur twice as often and by 2050 they may occur four to five times as often. And this is science that is two years old.

That's what I said in 2009.

In government we funded the climate change adaptation program, a $126 million program at that point, which was designed to help Australians better understand and manage the risks as a consequence of climate change, including extreme weather events and bushfires. But the Morrison government didn't want to understand, because then it would have had to have acted. In 2019 the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre published a 'severe' bushfire outlook for last summer, and that was ignored by the Morrison government too. Immediately after the federal election last year, in May 2019, retired fire chiefs from around Australia warned that the 2019-20 summer would be particularly dangerous. They sought to meet with the Morrison government, and the government refused. On 22 November 2019 the Leader of the Opposition wrote to the PM and asked him to convene the Council of Australian Governments in order to discuss the impending bushfire season and the severity that was being presented. The Morrison government did not listen to that request either. Nor did it act upon it.

You see, warnings could have been listened to and action could have been taken. Action could have been taken by the government in the lead up to the 2019-20 bushfire season. It had promised an emergency relief fund—$200 million every year—which was ready to provide funding that could have been used to reduce risk, but not a cent was delivered. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre was asking for more funding back in September 2019, but nothing was delivered. With this bill the Morrison government wants people to believe that the main problem with last summer's bushfires was that defence reservists couldn't be called out fast enough. But you know the much bigger problem is the refusal of Mr Morrison to listen and his refusal to act despite warning after warning after warning. His derelict response then was: 'I don't hold a hose, mate.' He cannot now point to this bill and say, 'Because I didn't have this last summer, I wasn't able to act.' Mr Morrison's failure to take responsibility and his failure to lead have nothing to do with the absence of this legislation at that time. The fact is that when Australia most needed national leadership Mr Morrison was absent. Even today, entering another summer bushfire season, Mr Morrison still hasn't delivered a cent from this $4 billion Disaster Resilience and Recovery Fund and still has not acquired a national aerial firefighting fleet. Last week, as bushfires burned, he was holed up in the Lodge with his official photographer doing daggy-dad quarantine photo ops and posing in board shorts and spinning on his new exercise bike. Mr Morrison spins while Australia burns.

For decades the ADF has supported Australians in their time of greatest need and has done so magnificently. When states and territories have asked for assistance the Australian Defence Force has been there, providing confidence and relief. In the case of the summer bushfires this assistance was being provided before 4 January 2020, when the formal call-out occurred. Instead of summoning the courage to stare down the climate change denialists in his own party to end the climate wars, to act on the climate change that Australians can see, feel and smell, Mr Morrison is trying to hide behind the courage of the ADF. You see, as valiant as they are, our defence forces cannot solve this problem alone. Adapting to a changing climate and avoiding the worst of climate change—averting the worst of climate change—is not the Defence Force's job. It's the leader of the country's job. It's the Prime Minister's job. What Australia needs from Mr Morrison is a recognition that our climate is changing and bushfire risk is increasing. Australians need him to deliver on bushfire preparedness. They need him to deliver on resources like aerial bombers to fight fires. Australians need Mr Morrison to take action to avoid the worst impacts of unchecked climate change.

A key measure in this bill is to align the immunities that are held by the ADF with the immunities held by civil emergency response agencies in moments of crisis. When it was first introduced, concerns were raised about these provisions. Following inquiry by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee and a request by our shadow defence minister, amendments have been made to the explanatory memorandum. As a consequence, there is now a firm statement that all references in the bill's provisions to assistance in relation to a natural disaster or other emergency relate only to Defence assistance to the civil community and thus, as a consequence, does not authorise the use force or other coercive powers. There is also a confirmation the proposed immunity provisions apply only to individual Defence members and not to the Commonwealth, so there is still an avenue for remedy should a member of the public suffer loss or damage as a result of assistance rendered by Defence. It is also explicit that immunity is not automatic for both foreign and domestic forces. Given that, we do recognise the government's efforts to address the concerns raised during the course of the examination of this bill by parliament. However, no legislation will make up for the lack of leadership from a Prime Minister who is interested only in announcements and photo ops rather than the leadership needed to deliver on bushfire preparedness for Australians.