Monday, 8 February 2016
I rise to speak and reflect on some of the commentary that has been made, tragically, about the fires that have occurred in Tasmania over the last month—thankfully, we have had some rain since then—particularly the calls from Greens senator Nick McKim, with echoes from some of his cohort, like Jeff Law from the Conservation Trust, and the voice of Vica Bayley, who is the Campaign Manager for the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, for an inquiry into the Tasmania Fire Service and, in turn, the Tasmanian government and in, in turn, interestingly enough, the federal government, and what responsibility they have in respect of the way that those fires in the Tasmanian wilderness World Heritage area were managed. I note also the comments in recent days by the Tasmania Fire Service chief Gavin Freeman. I welcome the fact that he, in the cold, hard light of day, has said, 'Let's not over-egg this; let's not over-reach here. Let's make sure. If need be, we will go through, but let's make sure we do the job that is required first of all, and that is to put out the fires.'
I place on the record that during that terrible week or so I had briefings from the Tasmanian Fire Service and I saw competent, well-resourced people supported by volunteers in local communities who were doing an excellent job and that there were the available resources, as required, from other state fire services and from overseas.
The Commonwealth government does not have any firefighting equipment but it has access to a whole range of aircraft and personnel through the state departments who were mobilised as and when the Tasmanian Fire Service saw fit.
Senator McKim and many of his colleagues are pointing to climate change. It is quite possible. Let's say that they are right and that the effects of climate change have exacerbated the impact of the fires in Tasmania over the last month or so. The question then would be: what are we going to do about it? I believe as do others—locking up Tasmania, remembering that half of Tasmania is either Wilderness World Heritage Area, national parks or formal reserves of some sort, so this is the question.
Indeed, the media has got on board. I note an article by Rosita Gallasch from The Examiner on 7 February titled 'Tourism chances going up in smoke' and that little was done at a state and federal level. This is the sort of reporting that leaves many Tasmanians wondering what is going on. It was quite frightening to see that Rosita Gallasch refers to the fact that there is less than two per cent, under 14,000 hectares, of ancient rainforest. Most of this area occurred in light sclerophyll forests that have been working forests for many years until they were locked up in recent times. They were working eucalyptus forests that, once they got onto the plateau, were in alpine areas. It would be a tragedy, if the wonderful pencil pines and King Billy pines in the alpine areas of my state were damaged by fire, but to suggest they were in rainforests, again, is over-egging the omelette.
In order to get a perspective, we need to look and learn from what history can tell us about our state and managing the landscape in Tasmania. Scientists tell us that it is quite likely that, if the state had not been inhabited by humans for the tens of thousands of years that has been the case, a lot of Tasmania's landmass would be covered in rainforest. This is not the case today. Why? It is because of the way Aboriginal tribes managed the land.
Aboriginal tribes lived here in harmony with the landscape for tens of thousands of years. They did not have dangerous, damaging wildfires. How did they do it? Is there anything to be learned from their practices? This is the question that I pose tonight. Scientists believe that when humans first came to Tasmania, as occurred across the whole of Australia and in other countries such as New Zealand, they brought and they used fire, resulting across much of the landscape in a narrower range of biodiversity than had previously existed. The species that remained comprised those who could tolerate or thrive on fire, and of course eucalypts are the standing example. So strong was the use of fire that in 1800 there was less forest in Tasmania than there was in 1860. So strong was the practice of using fire by the Tasmanian Aborigines that, even as tragically they were being hunted down in the state's north-east in those times, they were still lighting fires. Their fires effectively gave away their location, and the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines who lived on the island were rounded up in what was a terrible history.
Professor Bill Gammage has studied the way Australia was being managed when white settlers first arrived. His research led him to write in his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, thatnearly the whole of the Australian landmass was actively managed primarily by using fire. If his research is correct, this is of fundamental importance to us and our environment, because it means that simply leaving areas of natural landscape unmanaged will not work.
Here in Tasmania we have a wonderful solar energy collecting machine, one that we cannot stop, that collects vast amounts of solar energy—read tens of thousands of tonnes every day of every year—and stores it in the form of woody biomass. It is arguable that, today, the Tasmanian landscape, as a general statement, contains vastly more flammable fuels than was the case in 1803. According to the professor, the out-of-control, extremely hot wildfires, the ones that do great damage to the environment as well as infrastructure and people, simply did not occur when the Aboriginal tribes managed the land.
If the professor's research is right, then, as a state, we have three choices. The first is to leave what is currently in reserves and parks and a lot of our forests as they are at present, essentially unmanaged. Scientists are warning that the question is not whether the state will burn, but when this will occur. If this is correct, fires like those this year, and the Dunalley fire in recent times, will be a regular occurrence, with the attendant triple bottom line damage, environmental, social and economic. The second is to emulate what Professor Gammage has reported the Aboriginal tribes did—that is, constant land management, primarily by burning. This would presumably result in there being smoke in the air for more days than many would prefer. The third is to do what it is now understood other jurisdictions have started to do—ones that have trodden the path Tasmania is heading down; that of locking up large areas of natural landscape and leaving it unmanaged, resulting in catastrophic wild fires. These jurisdictions have apparently now fundamentally changed their policy and started to actively manage their landscape by removing some of the accumulating biomass, not preventing wild fires but rendering such fires controllable, with such action providing positive triple bottom line outcomes, environmental, social and economic.
The phenomenon of climate change may well have played a part this year, given the occurrence of dry lightning caused wild fires on the central plateau. But it is the eucalypt and other lower elevation landscapes where the fuel accumulation is occurring. Such a climate change phenomenon, if shown to be correct, will only heighten the risk of wild fires elsewhere. There is of course the use of mechanical removal of biomass, which occurred in Tasmania for over 100 years. But this is increasingly being stopped by the ideological positions of some of those opposed to that sort of thing. If Professor Gammage is found to be correct, then we in Tasmania have to revisit our current policies and agreements regarding the management of our parks, reserves, wilderness areas and our forests more broadly. Remember, Tasmania is half covered with forests, most of which are highly flammable.
The 2013 extension of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area was in working forests. The people who are advocating for these things, aided and abetted by the previous government, are not conservationists; they are protectionists—the Tasmanian government and, indeed, the Commonwealth with the responsibilities that we have, UNESCO, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, with policies that were advocated by zealots, radical greens. There is no place for this in Tasmania. Lives will be put at risk, as will places in our state that are special. I have been there. I have been a bushwalker all my life. Those places that are special will come under threat. We need to significantly look at the way we manage our state if we are going to see those special areas retained.