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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 36

Senator FERGUSON (2:48 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation, Senator Ian Macdonald. Will the minister outline to the Senate the actions that the Howard government is taking to minimise the impact of bushfire events in this country such as those that occurred on Eyre Peninsula in my home state of South Australia last month? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) —As one who comes from the land in rural and regional South Australia, Senator Ferguson would be well aware that bushfires are indelibly part of the Australian landscape and they have been that way, of course, for thousands of years. They are a natural disaster. But I think we all acknowledge that the severity of the bushfires is ultimately the result of land management issues and land use decisions made by people. Senator Ferguson would also be well aware of the tragedy that occurred on 11 January on the Eyre Peninsula, as he mentioned. It was a fire that cost the lives of nine Australians, and 82,700 hectares of farmland were burnt and destroyed.

On behalf of the government and indeed, I am sure, the Parliament of Australia, I want to extend condolences to the families of those mourning the loss of loved ones on the Eyre Peninsula. I think also that all senators would join me in commending the volunteer bush firefighters who put their lives at risk to save the lives and property of others. There were so many people who helped at that time and who deserve commendation. I mention in particular the 9th Brigade of the Australian military forces—people we are all very proud about for many reasons. They again did a marvellous job. Those reservists in our defence forces, along with many other volunteers, were very much involved in the clean-up operations.

The Eyre Peninsula bushfires, like the Canberra bushfires in January a couple of years ago and many before that, provide an opportunity for the government and land managers to learn from the experiences to try and reduce the risk of similar events occurring in the future. I am proud to say that the Howard government has taken a leading role in looking for better management options. You will recall that we set up the Nairn inquiry into bushfires. We were also instrumental in getting the COAG inquiry going. Primary responsibility for bushfires, of course, is a matter for state and territory governments, but the Howard government has led the way, contributing some $16½ million to the National Aerial Firefighting Centre and $24 million to assist local communities to better prepare for bushfires with fire trail construction, maintenance of signage, bushfire research and bushfire awareness and preparedness initiatives. All governments should consider and implement the recommendations of the Nairn inquiry and the COAG inquiry to ensure that the chances of these devastating bushfires occurring in the future are significantly reduced. I certainly do commend to the state governments the recommendations of the Nairn inquiry, which took over 500 submissions, most of them from volunteer firefighters.

It is with some regret that I mention that volunteer firefighters are today protesting outside the Supreme Court of the ACT because the ACT government is trying to shut down the inquiry into the Canberra region bushfires of a couple of years ago. That is quite unprecedented. In fact, I am surprised that Senator Brown has not asked a question on this. The ACT government is trying to shut down its own inquiry, to go against the decisions of its own inquiry. One wonders why the ACT government is doing that. I support these volunteers. The ACT government is taking this step to protect itself from the adverse findings of its management during the Canberra firestorm. State governments are primarily responsible for the day-to-day management of public lands, including national parks, and this is one of the problems. State governments love the kudos of locking up production forests into reserves, but they never put enough money into their management, and as a result we have these firestorms. (Time expired)