Senate debates

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Matters of Public Importance

Australian Bushfires

4:34 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak to this matter of public importance with a sense of urgency and determination because this parliament has a significant task in front of it. The bushfires that have ripped through our East Coast have been devastating, and we have to respond quickly and comprehensively. Business as usual is not okay.

Since colonisation, Australia has been stripped of so much of its original vegetation. The landscape is now different, but there's still so much that we can learn from our First Peoples and their ongoing custodianship. We need to listen to them as we recover and restore these landscapes.

The task ahead requires real leadership in the national interest, not in the interests of a few greedy industries that are in the pockets of the major parties. Communities, land and nature must come first. Our native forests and the birds, the animals and the other wildlife that live in them have taken a huge hit with these fires. The exact scale of the destruction won't be known for some time, but we know it has been massive. For example, in my home state of Victoria, in the region of East Gippsland, 80 per cent of the forest has been burnt, and this is the part of the state that is more than two-thirds forested. If we're going to maximise the recovery and the revegetation of these forests, we need to make sure that we are not causing even more damage.

It's astounding that the native forest logging industry is proposing to go into these fire damaged forests to loot them and to log them. It's even more astounding that the federal and state governments are potentially going to agree. This is being dressed up as somehow making the best of this bad situation, or somehow making country roads safer. Let's be clear: after a fire, more logging and land clearing will make a bad situation worse. The safety task is separate. Of course we need to make sure that happens, but that's a very different proposal to getting in and looting them, with almost all of the wood coming out then going off to be turned into woodchips and exported overseas. We need to leave these trees where they are to maximise regeneration and regrowth, and to give wildlife a fighting chance to have some shelter and food. From koalas to quolls, from fish to the forest birds that live in these forests, they are going to have another hit on their wellbeing and, indeed, potentially their very survival if the loggers are allowed in.

The Morrison government have to take a lead here. It's the government's responsibility to act in the national interest when it comes to our threatened plant and wildlife species. This isn't just a matter for the states. The federal government oversees forest management and logging through the regional forest agreements. They have a critical role to play when it comes to management of our native forests and protecting our precious animals and birds. You must say no to this looting, this so-called salvage logging, and make sure that restoration and recovery are put first. Business as usual is not appropriate. We have to change our practices fast, and not just repeat past mistakes. Logging makes our forests more fire prone. Logging and land clearing destroy precious carbon sinks, which are a frontline defence to the climate crisis. The government needs to get its head out of the sand and listen to the science. It must end the logging of our precious native forests because that logging is actually setting us up for more devastating fires, droughts and heatwaves.

There are actions we need to take right now, and I call on the Prime Minister, the environment minister and the ministers responsible for agriculture, for mining and for forestry—Senator Duniam!—to wake up and listen to communities, listen to scientists, listen to wildlife carers and listen to First Nations people. You can no longer be setting policy for the industries and the interests of the last century. If you do that, you are sentencing our water, our wildlife, our forests and our regional communities to more fire, more floods and more destruction. There's a group of expert ecologists and researchers representing seven major universities who put out a report in January via the Threatened Species Recovery Hub laying out their blueprint for the conservation response to this summer's devastating fires. We must listen to the science, and I call upon the government to listen to the science.

This blueprint gives excellent guidance. It says we must act during the catastrophe to minimise biodiversity losses by including key biodiversity sites as assets that need protecting and using fire control mechanisms that have the least detrimental impacts on biodiversity. We must rescue injured wildlife and ensure short-term provision of food and water. We then need a rapid assessment of biodiversity loss. We have to prioritise species, sites and actions for response and make sure that recovery is properly managed. We then have to identify and respond to compounding threats, including drought and heatwaves. These are likely to continue and to be more extreme in the climate emergency that we're facing. We need to locate and protect refuge areas where unburnt patches are providing shelter and food for species. They say that communication is key. We need information exchange among responsible agencies and between them and the broader community. We also need coordination of resources between relevant agencies and NGOs. They need support to be targeting their work more effectively and strategically. And we need monitoring and research so that we can more precisely quantify and publicly report on the extent of the loss, the effectiveness of management responses, the pace and extent of recovery, and the ecological transitions and environment changes after the fires.

Then, in the light of these fires and in the light of climate change, we may need to reconsider our long-established conservation objectives. Long-term management actions must be planned for as well as the short-term responses. Then we need to implement and properly resource those actions. They say that the links with social and economic responses need to be inbuilt and that we need to ensure that a 'caring for carers' strategy is in place, because this is a tough task for those individuals committed to wildlife recovery. Any reviews and inquiries need to keep the values and losses for nature in their sights. Finally, we need to prepare for future catastrophes and use lessons from this disaster to inform our response to possible events of this scale that may happen again.

So, Prime Minister, now is the time to listen and act. Listen to the science. Listen to the wildlife carers, the farmers, the fire chiefs and the scientists. Prime Minister, you've set up an expert panel to work with your Threatened Species Commissioner. You must implement real actions out of this, not just use it as greenwash. The task is big, but it is vital, and it is absolutely vital that the government rise to that task.

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