Senate debates

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Matters of Public Importance

Australian Bushfires

4:47 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | Hansard source

Australians are rightly devastated by the loss of life and property that they've witnessed over the past few months as a result of the bushfire crisis around the nation. More than a billion animals have perished in the fires and our nation has been subjected to a wide range of catastrophic impact. Our koala and other animal populations in many areas have been absolutely decimated. It's heartbreaking, I think many of us would agree, to cast your eyes over the images of our fire ravished landscapes that, prior to these bushfires, were stunning rainforest and bushland. Many senators have seen it firsthand around their own state, as I have.

Labor called on the government to convene a meeting of state and territory environment ministers and commence a national ecological audit. Such an audit, Labor believes, is absolutely critical to identifying the losses, delivering meaningful recovery and guarding against further extinctions. I note, for example, in that context, that 50 per cent or thereabouts of the Stirling Range—the Stirling Range National Park in Western Australia is a globally recognised biodiversity hotspot—was burnt by fire last November. That was even before summer had formally started. I firmly believe that the government is not acting with enough urgency in addressing this issue. Importantly, restoring animal populations and the ecosystem in fire affected areas will take careful management and commitment from government.

I'm probably not about to start taking advice on environmental management from the Greens political party, but I will say that the Morrison government has been extremely slow to act on the ecological crisis that our environment faces in the wake of this devastation, just as the government has been slow to act on all fronts during the bushfire crisis. Obfuscation of responsibility to the states in this regard is simply not good enough. This is a national emergency, a national disaster, and it requires a national response. The government has provided additional funding for wildlife recovery, and Labor welcomed that at the time. However, that announcement runs exactly counter to the government's record in the environmental space. We've seen funding cut to the environment department by some 40 per cent. Adding insult to injury, they've waited vast amounts of time between the announcements and the actual expenditure of these funds. The Morrison government failed to implement recovery plans for threatened species, with estimates that fewer than 40 per cent have a national recovery plan. And our government is, frankly, clueless about whether existing plans are even being implemented. So how can we trust the government to say they want to get active in the recovery of threatened species in the context of the bushfire if they can't even address whether they are upholding their responsibilities to the existing plans for threatened species that are in place? We know that in 2018 the government also cut the biosecurity and conservation division of the environment department by nearly a third.

The government can and should act immediately and decisively, mobilising more Australian land and species management specialists to intervene in this ecological crisis. On that note, like many senators here—certainly those of us in the Labor Party—we have a lot of contact with our local grassroots land management organisations, where volunteers and scientific experts and ecologists come together to do land and habitat restoration. Have I heard about any kind of call-out to those networks from the Commonwealth government to, for example, boost NRM funding in the context of the bushfires? No. No, I haven't heard that at all.

This motion by the Greens also highlights many rural and regional areas where strong forestry industries have also been impacted by the fires. Many of these communities rely heavily on forestry as a source of income, employment and economic development. Communities are now working out how they're going to rebuild and how they will be relying, frankly, on support from state and federal governments because their forestry jobs simply don't exist. We need real assessments to be undertaken of the full extent of this damage to both native and plantation forests. With proper assessments, communities and industry will be able to work together to rebuild. I'd like to call on the Greens to also consider, when putting forward such motions, the thousands of forestry workers across the country who will be grappling with a significant amount of uncertainty and anxiety about the immediate future of their work, not to mention dealing with the loss of property and the environment around them. I call on the Greens to show better judgement when it comes to making insensitive political statements, as we've returned to parliament at the beginning of this year.

Forestry workers and the forestry industry want a sustainable forestry sector. Labor supports the Regional Forestry Agreements, which ensure that Australia's native forests are managed sustainably. But what we've seen under the Morrison government is the failure to implement a long-term forestry plan, and, in the context of a disaster like this, we have to look at the intersecting sustainability of our natural environment and our forestry industries. Prior to the bushfires, the industry was calling for a plan to ensure that a billion new plantation trees were planted by 2030. The industry knows it needs a sustainable, long-term supply of timber and has been crying out for this government to implement a plan to that end. If this industry is to continue to provide jobs and economic benefits to remote and regional communities, this is a plan that the Morrison government must get behind. We need meaningful action and support for the forestry industry as a matter of urgency if Australia is to continue to have a sustainable forestry sector—or, frankly, under the current circumstances, a significant forestry sector at all, if our forestry is so vulnerable to bushfire disasters such as we've seen over the past few months. The government's been consistently slow to act over these last months, and we call on them to turn that around today. In addition, I'm calling on the Greens to be sympathetic to the workers in industries that have been targeted with no consideration given to the employment and income outcomes that are so important to them.

In concluding my remarks on this MPI, as we reflect on a real need for leadership to protect and restore Australia's fire damaged landscapes, we should, when talking about reforestation, native forests and logging, also be making sure that we take into account the needs of forestry workers when we look at our replantation and reforestation agenda. In addition, we certainly understand that the funding of wildlife and habitat recovery is urgent, and one of the things I think the government should be doing is resourcing the NRMs nationally, particularly those that have strong grassroots community networks.

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