Thursday, 4 February 2016
Questions without Notice
Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area
My question is to Senator Birmingham, the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment. Minister, I draw your attention to the numerous fires currently burning within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, all or most of which started over three weeks ago now. Given that we have already lost over 12,000 hectares which have been burned inside the World Heritage area, including fragile alpine ecosystems and Gondwanan species which are not fire adapted and which in the whole world exist only in very small parts of Tasmania, and given Commonwealth government research shows that the World Heritage area contains outstanding natural and cultural heritage values and delivers more than $1.2 billion every year in economic benefit to Tasmania, not to mention well over 5,000 Tasmanian jobs, why did it take two weeks after the fires started for the Commonwealth government to activate Emergency Management Australia provisions?
I can advise the Senate that as at 3 February some 69 fires remain active and 43 are currently uncontained or uncontrolled. Across Tasmania it is estimated that some 102,700 hectares have been burnt, which includes approximately 18,464 hectares of the Tasmanian World Heritage area. However—and I heard Senator Colbeck's comments before about not overstating this—it is important to state that that is approximately 1.16 per cent of the Tasmanian World Heritage area. If Senator McKim cares about tourism to his home state, it is very important, of course, to emphasise to people that the Tasmanian World Heritage areas are overwhelmingly intact and open for business. The Minister for the Environment has spoken with the Tasmanian minister, Mr Groom, about the bushfires and the action being taken by the Tasmanian government. As is appropriate and customary, Minister Keenan in the Commonwealth and Emergency Management Australia have been closely engaged from the outset.
Contrary to what the senator had to say, the Commonwealth responded immediately to the emergency and has been supporting Tasmania the entire time. The Australian government is providing $14.8 million nationally annually to increase aerial firefighting capability and the Prime Minister has already offered another half million dollars to extend this capability. All the states and territories, as well as New Zealand, have provided assistance in relation to these fires. Some 148 interstate and New Zealand firefighters have been operating throughout the state. In addition, 150 remote area firefighting specialists have been deployed by the Tasmania Fire Service, the Parks and Wildlife Service and Forestry Tasmania. (Time expired)
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I just point out that the information around the two-week delay was provided to me directly by Minister Hunt by letter last week. Minister, has the Tasmanian government formally requested that the Commonwealth provide extra financial, mechanical or human resources to fight these fires? If so, precisely when, how and by whom was this assistance requested? Will you commit to immediately sending more resources to try and limit the damage to this priceless national and global treasure?
I would have thought that in discussions between Commonwealth ministers and state ministers formal requests could indeed be made. If Senator McKim would rather I took it on notice, that is what I will do.
Senator Heffernan, that is not a point of order; that is a debating point. I mentioned earlier in the week, at the commencement of the session, that points of order should be taken seriously and appropriately. Senator Heffernan, that was not a serious and appropriate point of order.
Does the government accept scientific evidence that global warming means that bushfires will become increasingly common in south-east Australia and many other parts of the country, even in areas where fires are not part of the natural ecology? Will the government commission an independent inquiry to assess the response to these fires and the impacts of global warming and resultant increased fire risk in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area? (Time expired)
Let me try to deal with some of Senator McKim's questions. In relation to looking at adaptation to climate change matters, as my colleague Senator Sinodinos said in his answer in relation to the reconfiguration of CSIRO resources, there is indeed a reconfiguration within the CSIRO that is shifting from looking at whether or not climate change is happening to certain issues around the response to it, perhaps such as this one. I would again emphasise to the chamber that the Commonwealth has significantly escalated its response under the arrangements set up between the Commonwealth and all the states and territories and New Zealand for handling these types of emergencies—
Mr President, I have a point of order. The second part of my question went specifically to whether the government will commission an independent inquiry. It is a yes or no answer. Given that he has 20 seconds left, I would ask you to draw the minister's attention to that part of the question.
Mr President, on the point of order: it would of course help if Senator McKim were to address these sorts of questions to the minister who actually has portfolio responsibility for those matters, who is Senator Brandis.
Honourable senators interjecting —
I happen to consider the CSIRO to be independent and I happen to consider that their ongoing research work is indeed very independent and very important. It is quite appropriate as an outfit to have a look at matters in relation to climate change adaptation. But I do want to assure all Tasmanians that the Commonwealth is giving the maximum possible assistance to Tasmania. (Time expired)