10 February 2021
Ms TRISH DOYLE (Blue Mountains) (18:19): I prepared this speech for my excellent local independent media on New Year's Eve 2020. This time last year I attended sombre yet angst-ridden morning briefings at the Blue Mountains fire control centre. The calm voices that described the plans belied the fear of the intensity of unpredictable raging fires. It was very hot and very dry. The State was burning and worse was to come. Residents were on high alert and had high anxiety. In the lead-up to the 2019-20 bushfire season, the New South Wales and Commonwealth governments received endless warnings from experts about what could unfold. They knew that we were in drought, the land was dry, the water supply would be challenging and the summer would be hot—potentially one of the hottest on record—but they monumentally failed to respond to those warnings. They failed to listen and prepare, and they failed to protect our State from what was ahead.
Despite the warnings, the bushfire season began with fewer people and resources than normal. Within the RFS, after an imposed "productivity savings" spill, there were almost 200 vacancies and Fire and Rescue NSW was drastically short of firefighters—it currently requires an additional 500 across the State. Both agencies had faced funding cuts on the ground that were hidden behind big one-off budget items. The National Parks and Wildlife Service staff numbers and budget had been slashed, leaving it depleted of resources. On 13 November 2019 in the Parliament I warned that the situation was dire, but I was shouted down by the Premier and Minister Elliott. I was told that I was being dramatic, alarmist and political. I was told rudely and ignorantly that I knew nothing, yet the Government's line that the State had never been better resourced was political spin.
The neoliberal focus has always been on privatisation and cuts. It is about reducing jobs and relying more and more on an army of unpaid labour, in this case RFS volunteers. Heroic though they are, they need to be resourced and supported. As the fire season unfolded, the funding shortfalls within our firefighting agencies gained national attention. I hoped that out of all of this heartbreak and devastation perhaps this Government would adequately fund our emergency services. I had hoped that they would invest in more uniforms, better PPE, safer trucks with better protections, more appliances in brigades outside the city stations, better training, better communications systems, better inter-agency coordination and planning, more firefighters, upgraded and inclusive stations, effective and sovereign aerial firefighting capabilities, and recovery and mental health support for emergency services personnel given what they had been through and will continue to endure as the start and end dates of our fire seasons become blurred. None of this has happened.
The Government makes announcements about shiny new things. It can talk the talk but it doesn't walk the walk. When you are dealing with fires, a government's words and plans after the fact do not mean much; listening to firefighters on the ground and then taking real and meaningful action does. For all those firies who feel forgotten or unheard; for those struggling with memories of a year ago; for those who suffered horrendous experiences, were left scarred, shattered, and eventually cynical and disappointed with Government promises and meaningless words in reports and inquiries and royal commissions; and for the firies who believe that nothing ever changes, this statement is for you. I remember.
The boots on the ground are suspicious at least and scathing at worst of the higher-ups. They are ropable that these shysters shop around a narrative about firies being heroes but fail to respect, resource and protect them. I thank the mighty Fire Brigade Employees Union for consistently and strongly advocating every day for and with their members. I thank all the RFS brigade members and the Rural Fire Service Association at a local level for their honesty and service. Many of those workers are traumatised, despondent and have lost faith in the Government.
Some firefighters did not come home after the Black Summer fires. Others almost did not make it when their trucks, which were not fit for purpose, burnt to the ground. My 21-year-old son was one of those who had prepared to die. When the old brake lines melted, rendering his truck inoperable and immobilised in the midst of a fire inferno, and without a halo system in place those workers thought it was the end. They prepared for the end. I can only imagine how horrific that was. As I have before and will again, I pay tribute to and thank all of our firefighters. They have not been forgotten due to the COVID pandemic and never will be.
We need politicians who speak up and act for workers and who champion their rights. It is time to act on the ugly truth of a Coalition government that lies. Last year we saw Government members slapping each other on the back for investing $192 million over five years to equip the State's firefighters. That is not enough and they continue to pork-barrel based on politics instead of need. Our firefighters deserve better; we expect them to protect our lives, our homes and our environment every day, not just during a catastrophic bushfire. For me, this is personal.