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Bushfire Preparedness

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Tags: Bushfires, Climate Change, AFAC review

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, if I was looking for any assurance as a member of the public listening to the minister's response to this motion before us today on the webcam, I would not have found it in his words. That is because the minister continues to read a shopping list of the sort of activities, year in, year out, any fire service of any calibre would be doing as its basic bread and butter activity.

The point he fails to come to is that he has not put a detailed response to the letter the Greens wrote on the specific AFAC recommendations as to the specific detail of what the Government's response has been. The best he has been able to do is to speak in some generality to each of the recommendations. The bottom line is, there have been three and a half years, this Government and now this minister have failed to act on the Tony Press 2016 review or the AFAC review. It was released in August this year, but it restated many of the recommendations from the prior Tony Press review that this Government has failed to do anything about.

The Government has had more than enough time - five and a half years in Government - to take action on this issue, but here we are in the middle of a fire season, which people with expertise in this area in southern Tasmania are saying is looking like a fire season that will last for five to six months. Compare that to the fire season this minister is reading a shopping list of preparations for, which, typically, might have gone for six weeks in the normal past. It is concerning that the minister keeps talking about normal, as though that word means anything anymore. There is no normal. Throw it out.

We have a climate-changed future that is the present. It is not the future anymore. Today, we have climate heating. We have respected firefighters - not like the Liberal politicians in this room who are clearly not on the front line, who clearly are not listening to people who are fighting fires on the front line across Australia today - grab any one of those people, men or women, and they will tell you that we are in climate-heating, supercharged fire extremes.

Mr Shelton - I reject that. I have two sons -

Dr WOODRUFF - You reject that. Okay, well, there you go. This is the minister who rejects -

Mr SHELTON - Point of order, Madam Speaker. The member is trying to conflate what I said. I said that I have two sons -

Dr Woodruff - This is a debate and I have a right as a member not to be shut down on a nonsense point of order that does not exist.

Madam SPEAKER - Sorry, he is speaking, Dr Woodruff, and I am hearing the -

Mr SHELTON - The member was indicating that I have no idea. I had two sons fighting fires in last year's bushfire season, so do not come at me saying that I do not know what is going on.

Madam SPEAKER - Would you like a retraction or an apology? It is not a point of order, otherwise.

Dr WOODRUFF - Madam Speaker, could I make my point to you?

Madam SPEAKER - I will seek clarification. He has made his point, let us move on.

Dr WOODRUFF - There are people like Greg Mullins, the former New South Wales fire commissioner, like Mike Brown, who the minister talked about in his second reading speech, who make it very clear that firefighters standing on the end of hoses around Australia today, and in Tasmania in October and in April and any day between now and who knows when, know that the fire regime has changed. They know it is because of climate heating. They understand that the bell curve of heating is lifting and what that means is that we will have, like Mike Brown says, events that were once in 100 years may now occur every two or three years.

This is the truth so there is no normal and the minister keeps talking about it and it is deeply concerning because he is clearly denying the reality of climate heating or he does not understand it. Either way, it is concerning to have a minister responsible for firefighting capability in this state who does not accept that fire behaviour has changed. It is more intense. It is more frequent. End of story. That is all that we need to know.

It is frightening and it causes great anxiety in people living in communities around Tasmania that we are not sufficiently preparing for this changed fire behaviour. Sufficiently prepared means considering that $ 70 million, which is a figure the minister pulled out of the air, what the minister referred to might -

Mr Shelton - I did not pull it out of the air.

Dr WOODRUFF - I have not seen any facts about how much it would cost to build the centre the minister is talking about. We are talking about recommendation 9, to construct a purpose-built state control centre facility for emergent management in Tasmania -

Mr Shelton - That is what is cost for the same in Queensland in 2010.

Madam SPEAKER - Does anyone mind talking through the Speaker, please?

Dr WOODRUFF - My point is that $70 million is something this minister dismissed as an impossibly expensive proposition. I ask the minister -

Mr Shelton - I did not dismiss it.

Madam SPEAKER - Excuse me. If we are going to have this conversation, you can both go outside.

Dr WOODRUFF - I believe I am talking, as is my right, and the minister is interrupting me. I am not inciting him.

Madam SPEAKER - I was going to say that I think you are inciting him. Please, minister, do not be incited.

Dr WOODRUFF - That is his problem, if he does not like to hear the truth. This is a Government that is prepared to put $270 million into building a prison in Westbury in the north that no-one in that community wants, and which the Greens have repeatedly pointed out is a waste of money that could be better spent in other parts of the correction system where it is so desperately needed, or it could be spent on a state control centre facility for emergency management.

It is about how the Government decides on its priorities. Clearly, it has decided it is more important to whip up fear and division in the community and to have a tough-on-crime, warondrugs approach against all the evidence of effectiveness, against all the evidence of effectiveness, against all the evidence of community safety. This is the same Liberal Government that was prepared to sell out this state and weaken our firearm laws before the last election, secretly, just so it could buy some votes from the firearm lobby.

This is a government that has a track record for doing whatever it takes to stay in government. Let us not forget, this is the same Liberal Party that used money from the pokies industry to get themselves elected last March. This is a government that is not prepared to put what Tasmania really needs first. What we need now is a minister and a government that accepts that climate heating is happening, is causing extreme anxiety amongst many people in the community because the Government is not taking the actions that are required to respond, to prepare ourselves, to reduce our emissions. It is quite clear that since 2016 and the Tony Press review, this Government has failed to act on the recommendations to expand our remote area firefighting capability.

The minister and the Government have had three and a half years, and there has been no action in this area. A month ago, the firefighters union made it very clear that we are undertrained and unprepared for the remote area teams from Tasmania Fire Service.

Where we are today? We do not know, but it is clear that there has been no expansion of that capacity. That expansion was recommended, and there has been no action on expansion. There has also been a huge strain on volunteers. People who are volunteer firefighters in the community get so little resourcing and support relative to what is required. They do amazing work, they do it for free, and they do it because they care about their community. These are the people who need more support, and that means more education, more training, more equipment, more support, and thank you and gratitude. They just need more, basically. The people the minister is talking about need more support; instead, we saw no expansion of the Government's budget in this area. No expansion of the resourcing for remote area teams; no money towards a firefighting central control centre facility.

I found the minister's response to recommendation 7 deeply concerning. Recommendation 7 of the AFAC review, which the minister assures us is underway, says that the fire service, Parks and Wildlife Service and Forestry Tasmania should jointly reach a decision on whether a winch- capable remote area firefighting capability should be maintained in Tasmania, which agency should be responsible for that program, and how a winch-capable remote area firefighting capability can be safely trained and kept current. If the decision is taken not to maintain the capability in the state, then those organisations should identify how the gap incapability that this represents should be filled in future fire seasons.

Madam Speaker, I get no comfort from the minister's words, 'Do not worry about that, we will rely on people from interstate. We will deploy people from interstate.' Okay, what if they are all busy, because at the moment we have fires across most states in Australia? We have just seen the whole of New South Wales fighting fires for months now. I am not comforted by a minister who thinks we can just push this off and continue to avoid the need to have our own state resources in this area.

It is clear that in order to support townships, in order to protect communities, we must have good remote firefighting rapid response. We must have good fuel reduction, and we must have more money towards volunteer support. These are the things which report after report have pointed to, and the Government has not acted on them. We are again in a fire season. We have a minister who seems to think it is normal, and that a 'shopping list' response to what was done last year, the year before, and the year before that, would be sufficient.

It is pretty clear, from all the firefighters who have stood in front of the media - Greg Mullins and the other 22 senior firefighting chiefs from different states around Australia - calling for recognition from the federal and state governments that it is climate heating which is driving the changes in fire behaviour that are so dangerous, that create the mega- fires that we really have to accept; it requires a different response.

A different response means advance action, but it especially means more resources. This is fundamentally a question of the Liberal Party's priorities in choosing to focus resources into supporting businesses, supporting developments in publicly owned places, putting ludicrous amounts of money into building a northern prison that would be much better spent directed towards a state fire-control emergency centre.

These are the sorts of decisions which we say are wrong. The minister firstly needs to make a statement to this place about his understanding that climate heating is changing fire behaviour, and then from that reassure Tasmanians that he is going to respond now - not next year, and not later on, and not after writing more reports - with the extra resources to support volunteers to provide us with the remote area capability response we need, so we can be as best prepared as we can for this season.