Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 October 2020


Finance and Public Administration References Committee; Report

6:34 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the interim report of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee Lessons to be learned in relation to the Australian bushfire season 2019-20, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee. I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.

6:35 pm

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

I rise to speak on the interim report of the inquiry of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee into the Australian bushfires. It seems like a lifetime ago that the bushfires had such a devastating impact, but it wasn't even a full year ago. We had people wearing masks not because of COVID-19 but because the smoke was so bad. We saw heartbreaking pictures of people evacuated off beaches as the flames roared, and it's been such a hard year for so many since then. Over 30 people lost their lives and more than 3,000 homes were destroyed in the six months of the 'black summer' fires. In addition, it's estimated that there were 417 excess deaths because of bushfire smoke exposure, and over 4,000 hospitalisations and emergency department presentations for cardiovascular problems, respiratory problems and asthma because of bushfire smoke. I extend my sympathies to the families and friends of those who tragically passed away, those who were injured or traumatised or lost their homes or livelihoods and those whose health was affected by the fires. I also note that there were over three billion animals killed in these fires. The Worldwide Fund for Nature described it as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history.

These fires were supercharged by our climate crisis. Despite the devastation we saw in the fires, the Liberal Party is refusing to address the climate emergency. In the midst of a pandemic, a devastating economic downturn and a climate emergency, the Liberal Party is still trying the same old tired ideological approaches. So this interim report into the bushfires is very timely. It presents the evidence that we've heard to date. It presents 13 recommendations, drawing on evidence that the committee has heard. It's important that the government act urgently, before the coming summer, because there are things that the government can do right away that will make a difference for future bushfire summers.

The Greens support the recommendations outlined in this report, but in my comments I want to focus on what wasn't in the recommendations but has been included in our additional comments—that is, the need for urgent action on our climate crisis. The committee received ample overwhelming evidence, very clear and sobering evidence, about how our climate emergency is having a terrible impact on fire conditions. The Climate Council of Australia wrote:

Climate change was the driver of the record-breaking extreme weather conditions that led to the catastrophic bushfires. Any remaining doubt on the clear causal linkages between climate change and worsening bushfire seasons driven by extreme weather needs to be comprehensively refuted in the Inquiry Report.

Just to state the obvious, we know that Australia's actions contribute massively to the climate emergency. The Liberal-National government have done the bidding of their fossil fuel donors and consistently blocked, repealed and undermined action on the climate crisis. If future generations look back they'll ask, 'Why didn't we act earlier?' The answer will be the fossil fuel lobby and their shills sitting in the Liberal party room.

Because of the undermining of meaningful action, Australia is still worsening the climate emergency. We are the fifth-biggest miner of fossil fuels, behind China, the USA, Russia and Saudi Arabia. For every Australian, this country mines 57 tonnes of fossil fuel carbon every year, 10 times greater than the world average. So it's disappointing, given the overwhelming evidence that was presented to the inquiry, that the Labor-majority committee didn't see its way clear to make a recommendation about the urgent need to reduce our carbon pollution to zero as soon as possible. We are completely out of time for half-measures. This is an emergency. We do not have time to wait. It's not a matter of waiting for evidence. The moment is here and the time is now. We need to act urgently to reduce our carbon pollution and meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement. If we act now, we'll still be facing the impacts of the warming that's already baked in, but we can prevent the future warming that is going to make fire seasons much, much worse.

To address the climate emergency, there are two things that we have to do. We must declare a climate emergency. We, the Greens, have introduced the Climate Emergency Declaration Bill 2020, and the parliament should pass that bill. That is one of our additional recommendations in this interim report. More than that, we should enact a green new deal, a government-led plan of massive investment and action to build a clean economy and a caring society. Under a green new deal, the government would take the lead in creating new jobs and industries, getting to zero emissions as quickly as possible and delivering universal services to make sure that no-one's left behind—exactly what the government did not do in last night's budget. Last night's budget was such a missed opportunity. The Liberal Party like to pretend that the reason they're not acting on our climate crisis is some imagined cost, and the Labor Party say that they can't act at the speed and scale needed because they're worried about jobs in mining and burning coal and gas. But, of course, we know that upsetting the big fossil fuel companies that donate to both parties is the main reason that they're not acting.

So it's very clear. If we are to avoid increased, more extreme fire conditions in future years, if we are to avoid a future where last summer's desperate fires are just a taste of what is to come, we need to act on our climate crisis and we need to act now.

6:42 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the bushfire interim report. It's been a privilege to chair the committee that has dealt with this and to work with the secretariat and the other senators who have participated in the work of the inquiry.

Of course, the committee conducting the bushfires inquiry is doing its work in the shadow of the 'black summer', the 2019-20 bushfire season. The Prime Minister and this government failed to prepare for the 2019-20 bushfire season. We knew it at the time. The warnings weren't just private warnings to the government; they were public warnings to the government from public institutions that understood the magnitude of the bushfire risk that was posed right across the Australian continent. Of course, at this very moment in the Northern Hemisphere, bushfires are raging across the United States, and the continuing escalation of bushfire threat around the globe intensifies the challenge for Australia. We knew it at the time. The Commonwealth government, the Morrison government, should have known it at the time and should have taken steps to prepare bushfire communities. Ultimately, we saw the tragic consequences, and the evidence submitted to the inquiry has confirmed that all over again.

I want to thank those organisations and individuals that have made submissions to the inquiry, many of whom we've heard oral evidence from. Despite what some senators in this place say about the role of the CSIRO and the other key credible scientific institutions in Australia, the scientific experts have said conclusively once again—just in case people needed reminding—that rising emissions have contributed to a changing climate, which has meant increasing drought conditions, longer fire seasons, drier fuel, less opportunity for hazard reduction and more intense risks of more dangerous and bigger bushfires right across the Australian continent. Australia is uniquely vulnerable to this kind of climate risk.

That's why there's no shirking the responsibility here. The idea that the Commonwealth government doesn't hold a hose should be completely dispelled, not just by this inquiry but by the other inquiries, including the royal commission, that are doing their work. The recommendations handed down in the interim report are especially focused on ensuring, firstly, that the government recognises its responsibility—doesn't shirk it and doesn't point at the states—in terms of bushfire mitigation, adaptation and doing the work to secure the safety of Australians in bushfire communities.

We must urgently invest in resilience and mitigation works to keep bushfire communities safe. We must raise the rate of the Australian government's disaster recovery payment to assist survivors to recover. We must build a sovereign aerial firefighting fleet so that we can cope with longer and more intense fire seasons but also eliminate bushfires in remote parts of the country that are inaccessible for our professional and volunteer firefighters—eliminating those fires before they become the giant conflagrations that have threatened communities, particularly on the east coast of Australia. We should reverse the cuts to the ABC and particularly safeguard their emergency broadcasting funding. And we must invest in hardening the transmission sites that have been so crucial to keeping bushfire communities safe.

There is disagreement, I think, amongst the senators on the committee about some elements of the issues that confront us. But I do have to say that there has been agreement across all members of the committee that the work of the bushfire Senate committee is important work. It's important that we continue to engage in that careful work of sifting through the evidence and the material that is supplied to us so that there isn't this sloganeering about hazard reduction on the one hand and climate change on the other, as if they are two things that we cannot deal with at the same time.

Many of the recommendations in the interim report are intended to be enacted immediately. We can't leave these communities behind like they were last year. We're seeing the same failure to prepare that we saw last year, when the Prime Minister and his government ignored warning after warning from the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC, the opposition, their own departments and dozens of former fire chiefs. It can't be allowed to happen again. Key recommendations include recommendation 3 and following:

…that, as a matter of priority, the Commonwealth Government release funding for mitigation projects through the Emergency Response Fund.

Recommendation 4

2.141 The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government review, with a view to increase, the rate of the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment and the Disaster Recovery Allowance as a matter of priority.

…   …   …

Recommendation 7

4.95 The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government make the Better Access Bushfire Recovery initiative and the Better Access Bushfire Recovery Telehealth initiative permanent mental health support services, with both initiatives properly funded over the forward estimates.

I can't tell you, from visiting bushfire communities, just how crucial extending those initiatives is. And, finally:

Recommendation 8

6.59 The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government develop a business case to progress the establishment of a permanent, sovereign aerial firefighting fleet, …

We just can't have any uncertainty in the context of overlapping Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere bushfire seasons—that uncertainty of being unable to deliver sovereign aeroplane bushfire fighting capability.

The committee notes in this report that this is just the interim report. It's by no means exhaustive, and it's intended to catalogue the evidence and make recommendations that deal with bushfire preparedness and the lessons learned from last summer. There is much more work to be done.

When travel restrictions are relaxed the committee will visit bushfire affected regions to examine the progress and effectiveness of the recovery that we know will be long and arduous for many communities. I'm deeply sorry that, because of the public health restrictions, we weren't able to conduct that work over the course of the last six months. It would have been of immense benefit to the committee's work but I think also of some benefit to those communities to have the parliament out there in their communities, listening carefully to them about their experiences.

We will examine the ongoing impacts of the fires on the physical and mental health of people directly impacted by the fires and those exposed to hazardous levels of bushfire smoke. There is a lot of emerging evidence of the impact on people and communities and, recently, of the impact on pregnant women and their unborn children from exposure to hazardous levels of bushfire smoke.

In a rapidly changing climate appropriate hazard reduction regimes are becoming increasingly problematic. Evidence presented to the inquiry so far indicates that historical methods of hazard reduction are increasingly problematic. For example, there are just fewer days in the year when hazard reduction work can occur safely. It is true that state governments have cut the capacity of National Parks and Wildlife and State Forests to do some of that work. There is much more work and investment required and further research. In the meantime, the committee will continue to engage in a thoughtful way with experts in the field.

We're very concerned about evidence that insurance in fire prone areas is becoming increasingly expensive and could become unavailable unless strong mitigation is undertaken. We're concerned by the effect of the increasing frequency and severity of climate-change-driven natural disasters on the financial stability of the insurance industry and the apparent preparedness to make policyholders carry the burden through increased premiums. For that reason, we've made recommendations relating to APRA's supervision of the industry and monitoring of the natural perils component of insurance premiums by the ACCC.

Finally, I thank the committee secretariat for their assistance and their hard work in the conduct of the inquiry so far, particularly in the challenging circumstances presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.