11 November 2020
Ms TRISH DOYLE (Blue Mountains) (19:59:00): As the shadow Minister for Emergency Services, I speak on behalf of the Opposition to the Bushfires Legislation Amendment Bill 2020. The bill is a major disappointment and falls short of the level of transparency and accountability expected in this place but it is exactly what we have come to expect from the Minister for Emergency Services. I am not entirely surprised. The bill comes from a Government that promises the world and delivers zilch. The final report of the New South Wales independent bushfire inquiry was handed down on 31 July 2020. It was based on almost 2,000 submissions and was compiled by two great minds in New South Wales: former New South Wales police Deputy Commissioner Dave Owens and Professor Mary O'Kane, AC. I have no doubt in my mind that the report was drafted with the best of intentions and with the people of this great State in mind.
On 30 January 2020 the Premier announced an inquiry into the 2019-20 bushfire season to make recommendations in relation to bushfire preparedness and response and to report by the 31 July 2020—ahead of the 2021 bushfire season. As we know, the bushfire danger period commenced on 1 August in some local government areas in the northern parts of the State and on 1 September in 21 other areas. The statutory period across the State saw the bushfire danger period in New South Wales commencing on 1 October each year. Yet here we are in November debating legislation that should have been brought to this House many months ago.
When the report was handed down, it contained 76 recommendations, that is, 76 failings of this Government. At the end of August the Government indicated that it would accept all recommendations in the report and the Minister indicated at the time that he would give six weeks to plot a time line for the rollout of those recommendations. We are well past the six-week mark and the Government is still yet to realise any such time line. What we did get was a flashy announcement and a media release where the Minister announced 120 new trucks to be rolled out before the end of the financial year.
We know from documents tabled at the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements that 76 firefighting appliances and 52 support vehicles were destroyed in the last bushfire season. That is a total of 128 RFS and foreign rescue appliances destroyed. The vast majority were replaced by insurance—eight short, Minister, but it goes further than that. The Minister also boasted about the refurbishment of 70 vehicles. The RFS operates over 6,000 vehicles and the refurbishment of 70 represents an upgrade of less than 1.2 per cent of that fleet and substantially less if one includes the Fire and Rescue NSW fleet. The Minister has essentially dressed up an insurance claim as an increased firefighting capability, and that is just not the case. I am not entirely surprised.
We have a Minister that has a 737 large air tanker that could in theory deploy 70 firefighters anywhere in the State. Unfortunately, the theory is far from the reality. We have a large air tanker that has reduced fire‑retardant capability and capacity to fit 70 seats—which are not certified by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority [CASA] to have passengers in them. That is not an isolated case. The Minister for Emergency Services also announced the refit of two ex-military Black Hawk helicopters, which would be great to move firefighters across the fireground. When did the Minister start making investigations with CASA about whether or not they were suitable? They started making inquiries three months after that announcement. Again, CASA has advised that those aircraft are not certified to transport civilian firefighters.
In the interests of the State of New South Wales, I do hope that we can work through those certification issues. The simple fact is that we have a Minister who is addicted to announcements and allergic to delivery. I suggest that this is why the public is yet to see a time line for the rollout of those important 76 recommendations, along with funding and investment attached to each of those recommendations. One does not need to read too far past the first recommendation in the report, which states:
That, in order to ensure recommendations accepted by the Government are implemented in a timely and transparent manner, Government establish a central accountability mechanism to track implementation of recommendations from bush fire-related reviews and inquiries and consider expanding this to other policy areas.
In the interests of transparency, the Government must commit to tabling a quarterly report on the status of those recommendations. That is not unheard of or onerous. In fact, the final status report to theSpecial Commission of Inquiry into the 2005 Waterfall Rail Accident Report was tabled just yesterday. It is important to note that.
The bill purports to amend the Rural Fires Act 1997 and other legislation in response to the final report of the New South Wales bushfire inquiry. Having read the report with great interest and having read the legislation before the House, it is hard, if not impossible, to understand how the two are related or how some of the provisions in the bill were arrived at. I have already noted recommendation 1 and I also note that the commitment to transparent reporting is totally absent from the bill. Let us turn to the first substantive issue that the bill addresses, that is, industry brigades. The term "industry brigade" is not defined in the Act and nor does the bill offer a definition. The industry brigade is a relatively new and novel concept. The existing legislation states at section 15 (3):
A rural fire brigade may be formed on the initiative of the local authority or local authorities concerned or on the request of any interested person.
It is hard to understand why that provision exists but new section 33AA of the amending bill does offer some insight by allowing the "reimbursement of expenditure incurred by industry brigades". That very much looks like the establishment of private firefighting forces at the taxpayer's expense. I invite the Minister to clarify exactly how they will work in practice. It is very hard to understand what has been proposed. This is largely because the Minister has failed to consult in the development of the bill and he is now seeking to ram it through the Parliament.
I was briefed on the bill late last night, after the second reading by the Minister, by which time the bill was public knowledge. I thank the Minister's adviser for his time and also the Deputy Commissioner of the RFS. I was briefed after the second read—very disappointing. Since then I have discussed the bill with a number of stakeholders and have discovered that they have been entirely blindsided by the Minister's approach. I am advised by the Fire Brigade Employees Union and the Public Service Association, which both represent our firefighting and hazard reduction staff, that they have not been consulted. I am advised that the Fire Services Joint Standing Committee in this State, which was established by an Act of this Parliament in 1998 and reporting to the Minister for Police and Emergency Services, has not been consulted.
The lack of consultation is as negligent as it is dangerous. I ask the Minister to answer the question about his consultation with the other major firefighting agency that will be impacted by the bill. Minister, did you consult with the Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner on the bill? I think people will be surprised by the answer. The Fire Services Joint Standing Committee is a six‑member committee comprising the Commissioner of the New South Wales fire brigades, the Commissioner of the NSW RFS, a member of staff of the New South Wales fire brigades nominated from time to time by the Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW, a member of the NSW RFS nominated from time to time by the Commissioner of the NSW RFS, a person appointed by the Minister on the recommendation of the Fire Brigade Employee's Union, and a person appointed by the Minister on the recommendation of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service Association.
They are key stakeholders, one would say, and they have not been consulted. The functions of that committee include developing and submitting to the Minister strategic plans for the delivery of comprehensive, balanced and coordinated urban and rural fire services at the interface of fire district boundaries and rural fire district boundaries, and developing and submitting to the Minister implementation strategies to minimise duplication and maximise compatibility between the services of the New South Wales fire brigades and the services of the NSW Rural Fire Service.
These issues came up in the report and in the recommendations. People have spoken to me about these issues for the past year as I have travelled around New South Wales. Firefighters and the communities that they protect are angry and upset, and many are traumatised, by the lack of compatibility of many of the systems within our fire agencies. It is imperative that the first piece of legislation that is pushed through this place after the Black Summer should involve consultation with that committee and each of the agencies that plays a role. People are shocked and very angry.
Other functions of the Fire Services Joint Standing Committee are to report to the Minister on any matter referred to the committee by the Minister and, if it considers it appropriate, to make recommendations and to perform a range of other tasks as conferred or imposed on the committee by or under this or any other Act. This is a very important committee in the grand scheme of keeping people safe in this State. I understand the Fire Services Joint Standing Committee is meeting tomorrow. The question is why the Minister did not consult with the committee on this bill beforehand. I move briefly to the essence of the matters that will be raised in this place as amendments. I foreshadow that I will be moving four amendments and there will probably be double that moved in the other place. The process has been scandalous.
The four amendments I will be moving relate to the composition of the Bush Fire Coordinating Committee, the rural boundary clearing code and the need for extra protections and a progress report. I note that a motion has been moved in the Legislative Council relating to a ministerial progress report around the NSW Bushfire Inquiry and that it report to both Houses of Parliament quarterly. This piece of legislation, as I have mentioned, has been rammed through Parliament without consultation. This legislation does not address the NSW Bushfire Inquiry report or its recommendations. I now turn to the feedback I have received from a number of concerned residents and groups around our State.
The Independent Bushfire Group, which comprises many former and current firefighters across a range of agencies, warned today that this Bushfires Legislation Amendment Bill will not mitigate fire risk. It has called on the Government to focus on implementing the New South Wales inquiry report rather than this bill. The group says:
The NSW bushfire inquiry report was released on 31 July, more than 100 days ago, but much of it remains unaddressed. With just one-day notice—
we see an ineffective measure introduced for debate in Parliament and without the all-important clearing code being available for MPs to consider.
I note the concerns of the Independent Bushfire Group, which made a substantial and very sensible submission to the bushfire inquiry. I want to note that in this House and inHansard. The group goes on:
The NSW Bushfire Inquiry presented 76 recommendations to the Government. Introducing a new power for landowners to clear 25m from their property boundary was not one of them.
That was not in the recommendations. It continues:
The measure has no sound basis or evidence to support the idea that bushland near rural boundaries is the problem that needs to be fixed.
The NSW Inquiry report said that a risk based approach should be applied rigorously across the State, informed by the best research on risk reduction …
Clearing along rural boundaries may have no relation to assets or their fire risk mitigation.
It goes on to say:
Property boundaries are historical "lines on maps" that zig-zag all over the landscape with no recognition of topography, vegetation or fire risk. Asset protection measures need to be focused close to assets for maximum benefit. We need a coherent, evidence based plan for managing risk like the Inquiry recommended.
It finishes by saying:
In our escalating fire climate, this debate is a distraction from the more important measures that are not being addressed, such as an action plan to implement the full vision created by the NSW Inquiry and their recommendations. Further, volunteer fire fighters would benefit from a thorough analysis of last year's fires so we can do more of what worked well last year and less of what didn't work as a first step to creating a learning culture in the bushfire community.
Those statements come from bushfire firefighters. The Nature Conservation Council and the National Parks Association of NSW refer to the NSW Independent Bushfire Inquiry and the Commonwealth Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements and note that the final reports of both have been released and both recommend ways to improve bushfire planning, improve operational and risk management processes and develop better emergency response mechanisms. Those reports are comprehensive, as the National Parks Association and the Nature Conservation Council notes. Both find that the 2019-20 bushfires across south‑east Australia were driven by extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change. The extent and intensity of the fires was not due to fuel loads alone. The reports also conclude that the benefits of fuel management significantly decline as fire weather conditions deteriorate. This is particularly so on severe and extreme fire danger days, when most lives and built assets are lost in bushfires.
The Nature Conservation Council and the National Parks Association of NSW also rightly point out that the New South Wales Government has yet to explain how it will implement the 76 considered and detailed recommendations from the bushfire inquiry report. The proposed land clearing rule change is not one of those recommendations and is not evidence‑based bushfire risk management. They say:
To amend the Rural Fires Act 1997 with the object to protect life, property and the environment we call for:
Background paper from the NSW RFS involving consultation with the Bush Fire Coordinating Committee which justifies the need for this initiative;
Public consultation on the draft code prior to First Reading Speech;
Draft code to be finalised and jointly signed off by the Minister for the Environment and Minister for Emergency Services prior to assent of any legislative change.
They make some good points. Last year as I travelled round the State I met a senior firefighter who has been lauded with awards from the current Premier of this State and previous Premiers. He is a man of high intellect, immeasurable experience and calm. His wisdom is spoken of by people all over the State. He has managed many critical incidents over the decades. He said to me today, "Where is the science to support the methodology, direction and claims in this bill? Can I remind the people of this House making these decisions for the benefit of those of us on the front line that fires can spot many kilometres ahead of the fire front, so 25 metres will simply impact on the loss of vegetation for all time, not just when a fire event occurs." He says:
There should be no exemptions granted that will impact on cultural heritage sites, both Aboriginal and European. This [bill] is outrageous!
He goes on to say:
The Bio-diversity Conservation Act is there for a good reason. We cannot keep losing species due to the destruction of the land and bush. There should be no exemptions allowing land clearing where identified threatened species are protected and known.
The entire thrust of the [bill's] amendments are without scientific basis and lack oversight concerning the wholistic management of bushfire prevention.
He said he is disappointed because he feels that the Liberals and The Nationals "would no doubt like concrete pavement everywhere". He said, with some despair, "I tell you that if the Federal Government and, for that matter, the State governments took climate change seriously we would not be looking down a loaded double-barrelled bushfire gun." Experts all say that this bill does not offer the answer, and the recommendations contained in the independent NSW Bushfire Inquiry do not point to the need for broadscale land clearing.
There were numerous examples during the last fire season where traditional firefighting practices did not work. In fact, in some cases they made the situation worse for communities and the firefighters trying to protect them. We need to listen to our firefighters and I do not think we have in this bill. The Fire Brigade Employees Union and the Public Services Association are angry beyond words. They say, "We are two of your key stakeholders in hazard reduction and professional firefighting and we have had no consultation on this bill until you, Trish, as the shadow for emergency services brought this to our attention late last night." They say:
This rushed legislation will lead to confusion and confusion on a fire-ground can lead to deaths.
Recommendation[s] out of last year's bushfires are about interoperability and lines of communication.
This legislation does NOTHING to address that.
I wanted to make sure that when I came into this place I represented a range of views. Some of my colleagues will speak further to some of those views that have been shared with us today. Many people—the farmers, for instance—are angry about elements of the bill and were not consulted. I have mentioned a number of environment groups and the views of firefighters and a range of communities. I foreshadow that the Opposition will move in the other place a selection of amendments which will insert a provision for a statutory review to take place as soon as possible; limit the rural boundary vegetation clearing; amend some of the provisions around the rural boundary clearing code—because not all private landholders and farmers believe that clearing the land of trees will stop bushfires; some of them actually understand the science—and, most importantly, insert the reporting mechanism that requires the Minister to report to Parliament on progress towards implementing all 76 of the recommendations.
The people of New South Wales expect nothing less than a quarterly update and report to both Houses of Parliament. A range of people have also asked me to seek some changes to the composition of the membership of the Bush Fire Coordinating Committee to include different agencies. There are many disappointed people in the State today, not just because of the lack of consultation but because they do not think this legislation, the first since the mega-fires, addresses what it needed to. Whilst personally and as the shadow Minister I am uncomfortable with this position, the Opposition has arrived at the decision not to oppose the bill but to move several amendments that substantially change the bill.