Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation, Senator the Hon. Eric Abetz. I note that today is the 40th anniversary of the 1967 bushfires in Tasmania, which took a terrible toll on life, liberty and property in our home state of Tasmania. Will the minister update the Senate on the current bushfire season and, in particular, will the minister outline to the Senate the impact that these bushfires are having on greenhouse gas emissions and upon water resources, and what actions can be taken to alleviate these impacts?
Senator Barnett is correct: today is the 40th anniversary of the devastating 1967 bushfires in Tasmania which killed 62 people and destroyed 1,400 homes. As somebody who lived through that—I remember being a primary school child at the time—it was a very serious event and it is something that is entrenched in the mind of every Tasmanian who lived through it. Although we can be thankful that we have not seen the likes of such fires in Tasmania since, we have seen similar events in other states, including Ash Wednesday in Victoria in 1983 and the 2003 Canberra bushfires. And just a few short months ago in Tasmania we saw homes destroyed on Tasmania’s east coast—and just this week in Western Australia too. Indeed, this bushfire season is shaping up to be one of our nation’s worst. Already well over one million hectares of forest has been burnt in Victoria, along with hundreds and thousands more burnt in New South Wales, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia, with often devastating effects on both life and property.
But I was asked specifically about the impact of these fires on greenhouse gas emissions and upon water resources. The effect is real and it is significant. Best available estimates suggest that so far this bushfire season more than 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide have been emitted into the atmosphere. The 2003 bushfires, which burnt some three million hectares, emitted an amazing 130 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That is more greenhouse gas emitted than from all the cars on Australia’s roads in one year. In fact, it is second only to power generation in terms of CO emissions in this country. As for the effect on water resources, we only need to look at the same 2003 bushfires, which burnt much of the Murray-Darling catchment. As a result of the forest regrowth from these fires, there is now an estimated 430 billion litres less water in the Murray-Darling than there otherwise would be. That is some 20 per cent of the total inflows for the river.
Numerous inquiries, including the report immediately after the Canberra bushfires, have found that these bushfires are being exacerbated by state government mismanagement of our forests and our forest reserves. So let me make this challenge. Those on the other side like to make a lot of noise about climate change and water security, and I note that the Leader of the Opposition has announced he will be holding a climate change summit, no doubt with his state Labor colleagues. I simply say to the Leader of the Opposition: if he is genuinely serious about reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, a very good starting place would be to convince his state Labor colleagues to ensure that they manage their national parks properly by reducing the fuel load in them to spare the sorts of catastrophes that we experienced in Tasmania in 1967, in Victoria in 1983 and in Canberra in 2003. That is a real, sensible, practical solution that Mr Rudd might be able to deliver, for the benefit of the people of Australia, through his state Labor colleagues.