Senate debates

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Matters of Public Importance

Australian Bushfires

4:03 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that as at 8.30 am today 22 proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by me by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Urquhart:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The failure, once again, of the Morrison Government to listen to experts and prepare for disaster season, by refusing to spend a cent from their $4 billion Emergency Response Fund and refusing to commit to developing a national aerial firefighting fleet.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:04 pm

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

Over the last few decades, Tasmania has experienced a long-term drying trend that has been characterised by a 10 to 20 per cent reduction in cool seasonal rainfall. An upward trend in bushfire occurrence has also been occurring since the 1930s. The total area burned has tripled since the 1960s. In 2015, the state had its driest-ever spring on record, which goes back for the last 140 years, and the hottest October on record, prompting an early start to the fire permit period. In 2016, a total of 229 vegetation fires were recorded from 13 January to 15 March, burning a total area of 124,742 hectares with a combined perimeter of 1,260 kilometres in largely remote, rugged and inaccessible areas. About 20,125 hectares, or 1.27 per cent, of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area was affected by these fires, including about 1,466 hectares, or 1.8 per cent, of threatened and sensitive vegetation communities, some of which may not ever recover. Other sensitive areas that were also affected by the fires include Aboriginal and historic heritage areas. In 2019, almost all of Tasmania recorded accumulated monthly forest fire danger indices—FFDI—in the highest 10 per cent of historical values for December 2019, and much of the eastern half of the state recorded its highest ever December forest fire danger indices on 30 December. Several locations recorded temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s that day, with several experiencing a temperature record for December.

Tasmania registered 406 lightning strikes that ignited dozens of bushfires that day, including a fire south of Pelham, in the upper Derwent Valley, 45 kilometres north-west of Hobart. In extreme fire weather conditions, the fire spread rapidly south-east in dry forest and grasslands towards the rural communities of Elderslie and Broadmarsh. Professor David MJS Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science and director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania, wrote in his submission to the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council review of the management of Tasmanian bushfires during the 2018-19 fire season:

The 2018-2019 Tasmanian bushfire season conforms to a global trend of longer duration, geographically larger, and economically, environmentally, and socially more disruptive wildfire events. The 2019 fire season also fitted an emerging syndrome of lightning-ignited bushfires in western Tasmania. The Tasmanian bushfire season can be understood as an expression of the 'Anthropocene', a new trajectory for the Earth System induced by anthropogenic climate change, compounded by other factors such as land use and fire regime changes. Bushfires in the Anthropocene have a trajectory that tracks away from historical norms towards more extreme events. The increased frequency of abnormal fires will significantly reduce our ability to reliably ensure clean air, supply potable water, store carbon, and conserve soils.

The emergence of 'Anthropocene bushfires' raises profound questions for fire management and community safety, and requires the development of new fire management practices to protect human life, property and infrastructure, to conserve heritage and biodiversity, to manage conservation areas and national parks, and to sustain yields from forestry landscapes and hydroelectrical catchments. Anthropocene bushfires demand a recalibration of socio-political expectations around the capacity, effectiveness and financial costs of firefighting and fire prevention approaches, methods and practices.

That's just in Tasmania, and just in the last 14 years.

Australia-wide, this last bushfire season was a horror one. The stories are still very raw: 33 lives lost; thousands of homes destroyed; many families still without proper shelter; hundreds of businesses destroyed; natural values gone, many forever; and whole species of native Australian flora and fauna most likely wiped out. Some of them will never recover. Over 17 million hectares were burned across New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, the ACT, Western Australia and South Australia.

We all know that the government were unprepared last bushfire season; it was quite evident. And the consequences were disastrous. To take just one example from the last catastrophic bushfire season: the use of the Australian defence forces. The Prime Minister's failures around defence were some of the most public. Let's not forget when the Prime Minister posted a polished video advertising that the government were deploying defence reservists to assist in bushfire areas. Unfortunately, he prioritised his shiny announcement video over informing Shane Fitzsimmons, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner, who found out about the massive influx of resources through the media. Mr Fitzsimmons said of the stunt:

All I can say is I wasn't aware of it, I found out about it via the media reports … It is fair to say it was disappointing and some surprise to hear about these things through public announcements. In the middle of what was one of our worst days this season with the second-highest number of concurrent emergency warning fires ever in the history of NSW.

Then we come to the aerial firefighting capacity. For years leading up to the last bushfire season, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre pleaded with the federal government to increase their annual funding, warning that bushfire seasons were only getting more intense. For years they were ignored, until last season when, finally, funding arrived. It came months after the bushfires had already begun. The federal government then announced the same funding three times—because we all know they love announcements.

I can appreciate that the government is taking some action to address their failures from last bushfire season—what happened last year can never, ever be allowed to happen again—but it's simply not enough. Unfortunately, we also know that the government are, once again, putting announcements over delivery in the lead-up to this natural disaster season, which is leaving us unprepared. In recent days Australia has experienced an extreme heatwave. Dozens of fires are now burning across the country. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC has predicted above-normal fire potential across New South Wales and Western Australia throughout December 2020 until February 2021. The Bureau of Meteorology has predicted a higher than average chance of cyclones in northern Australia, predicting also that the cyclone season will start earlier and be more intense.

And so I come to the government's Emergency Response Fund. Eighteen months ago the Prime Minister announced a $4 billion emergency response fund designed to help fund response, recovery and resilience measures in the lead-up to and following natural disasters. Eighteen months on, and not a single cent has been spent from that fund—not a single cent; not one project amount, not one job created and not one community protected. Once again, we bear witness to this Prime Minister's apparent addiction to the photo-op but not the follow-up.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements recently recommended that the federal government develop an Australian based aerial firefighting capability. It noted that Australia needs a sovereign aerial fleet, as we will not be able to continue relying on overseas support for much longer. This is, in large part, due to the fact that fire seasons globally are starting to overlap. The government have rejected this recommendation. They have said they are comfortable with the current arrangement. This was repeated by Minister Ruston in question time today in response to a question from Senator Chisholm. These arrangements have seen situations where a tiny state like Tasmania has spent $40 million on aircraft in the 2018-19 fire season alone, with contracts often having to be negotiated at the last minute and at the highest possible prices. The royal commission also noted that last year there were instances where requests for aerial assistance were not met because the aircraft were simply not available. The federal government are happy to announce the same funding three times, but they are not actually delivering the resources that Australian communities need and will continue to need over this warm summer season that, as I speak, we are starting to encounter.

4:14 pm

Photo of Jim MolanJim Molan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the government, I rise to address the MPI raised in the name of Senator Urquhart—but I think that by strings, pulleys and mirrors Senator Watt was, in fact, talking.

To begin, I make four points. The first point is that Labor still have no idea what they're talking about in respect of the Emergency Response Fund—absolutely no idea what they're talking about—and they're ignoring the facts. The second point I make is that they have no idea about aerial firefighting—absolutely no idea at all. The third point I make is that they would not have a clue, in accordance with their MPI, what an expert is. And the fourth point I make is that we have prepared very well for the 2021 disaster season.

Like Senator Urquhart and Senator Watt, I am no expert. As a commercial helicopter pilot, I flew firebombing helicopter droppings for years and I put water on active fires. I did this up until a few years ago. I was also a director of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, NAFC, as it's called, along with each and every one of the commissioners of the state and territory rural fire services, and I did that for about three years. In case Labor doesn't know, the NAFC is the organisation that leases and manages the national aerial firefighting fleet, which is funded by the Commonwealth. That funding was doubled recently and that funding is merely the start of the process for funding the national fleet of aerial firefighting aircraft. This is the fleet, of course, that Labor are trying to convince us to develop. I also gave evidence at the royal commission into the 2009 Victorian fires and I spent about 22 days at the South Coast fires, as well as six days fighting fires throughout the ACT and the Queanbeyan-Palerang local government area.

Unlike Labor's ideological climate-change activist ex-commissioners of the rural fire services, who they like to quote—and I'm very surprised that you didn't quote them this time—I would like to raise a few points and to mount an informed and practical vantage point from which to do it. Let me develop the points I made initially: you still, as a party and as individuals, have no idea—

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Molan, I remind you to make your remarks through the chair.

Photo of Jim MolanJim Molan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President, I certainly will. The Labor Party still have no idea what they're voting on when they talk about the Emergency Response Fund. Those opposite would rather politicise the issue of rural firefighting by making totally wrong and illogical claims about the Emergency Response Fund. To begin with, that fund was voted for by the Labor Party. They agreed with the establishment of this fund. They should have known about it—if they don't know about it, it would be very interesting to understand why they don't know about it—because the Emergency Response Fund cannot be accessed until advice is received that money from that fund is required and all other funding sources have been depleted. That's its purpose and that's what you voted for and that's what you agreed to. The ERF allows for $150 million each financial year to fund emergency response and recovery following natural disasters and—and this is the kicker—when the government determines that existing recovery programs are insufficient to meet the scale of the response required. You agreed to it. In addition, $50 million each financial year would be available from the fund to build resilience to and to prepare for or reduce the risk of future natural disasters when the government determines that funding over and above its existing suite of arrangements is required. You voted for it and you agreed to it.

Why haven't we accessed the $150 million that I've just listed? It's quite simple: the government has established the $2 billion Bushfire Recovery Fund. Some electorates, including the one I live in, which is represented by an ALP member, have received more than the total $150 million allowable under the ERF. So it's an interesting situation, and I guess the question is: why haven't we accessed the $50 million for mitigation?

Well, the government is already spending over $260 million in joint funding with state and territory jurisdictions on resilience and on mitigation activity. Of course the minister will always consider advice from Emergency Management Australia with regard to accessing the fund, if that is required, and, if so, what it should be spent on.

Of course we're preparing for the 2021 disaster season. I won't go into the detail at this stage; others will, and it was gone through in great detail by the minister and by others in the take note debate today. Just let me mention Defence; Services Australia; Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements changes; communications—and all in a COVID environment. And there's the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, and, of course, a royal commission. This is what preparation is about, and this is what Labor should look at in order to understand preparation.

Labor's claim that we should be developing a national aerial firefighting fleet is totally misplaced, because the fleet's there. What a disgrace their claim is to the years of work by good people, and the financing by good governments, to produce a national aerial firefighting fleet. It's a bizarre claim. Go to a fire just about anywhere, and look up. If you see an aircraft, as you invariably will, it will be part of our national fleet. If you don't see an aircraft, it's probably because you can't see through the smoke or it's night time.

In each of the years that I was a director of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, we had a minimum of roughly 100 aircraft in the national aerial firefighting fleet, from the roughly $11 million to $12 million that was, at that time, being provided by the Commonwealth government. There are vast additional costs to this: the $11 million or $12 million just starts the leasing process, with the additional costs paid for by the states and territories.

That $11 million has now become $24 million—some development! It's a bit like Labor's claims that health and the ABC's budget have been reduced. Compared to the minimum of, roughly, 100 aircraft when I was a director, guess how many will be actually leased this year? Guess how many can be deployed? If needed, 158 aircraft, in total, are available—some development, I reckon: double the money, and a significant increase in the number of aircraft. And, of those 158 aircraft, 128 aircraft are Australian based, owned and registered. I heard Senator Watt saying something today about him having been recently briefed or being about to be briefed on aspects of this. It must have continually slipped his mind.

And what about the royal commission? We've heard Senator Urquhart quoting the royal commission's recommendations, 8.1, 8.2 and 8.3. On 8.2, research and evaluation: we are doing it. On 8.3, support and development: of course we're doing it. On 8.1: we have already done it.

I would prefer, in the few seconds I've got left, to move away from ideological climate change ex-commissioners and find some knowledgeable experts, and that is what I would recommend the Labor Party do. The Commonwealth is not and should not be going to get into aerial firefighting—except to coordinate and to fund, and that is what they do.

So we reject entirely the proposition in today's MPI. My colleagues will further argue the case on all of those points.

4:24 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the MPI. I do note that Senator Urquhart talked about a long-term trend in the fire seasons, which are becoming worse and longer in duration. That is all very, very clear. I think everyone accepts that.

I want to talk about a static problem, a static issue, because, for as long as I can remember, looking at the aerial firefighting service, we've seen a fire season commence and then we've seen a whole bunch of very sophisticated, very capable aircraft or helicopters fly in from overseas. They fly in from overseas and they deliver this firefighting capability. That might sound good—we are leasing these aircraft rather than purchasing them—but the reality is that we have a long-term need. The other reality is that we are paying a huge premium, particularly in circumstances as the load varies for some of these aircraft. But what people need to understand is that, when you see the fire trucks racing towards the fire, there is a money truck racing towards the ports—a big truckload of taxpayers' money that is going to the ports of Australia and getting shipped off overseas. That's what's happening. The only thing that stops these trucks from rolling onto the ferries to head off overseas is that there's a Future Submarine project truck in front of them or a Watergate truck in front of them. We ship all our money off overseas.

Let me tell you what the tragedy here is. I know a number of Australian business men, people who work in the aviation industry, who would love to stand up an aerial firefighting capability. But, because the contracts that are issued by the Commonwealth are so short, if they go to their bank and say they would like to purchase a helicopter or a large aerial tanker the bank looks at them and says, 'Sorry, you have only got a two-year contract.' The Commonwealth knows that this is going to go on year after year after year. Simply extending the contract term to a reasonable time frame would permit these Australian companies to invest, with the support of banks. But no, we don't do that. We trickle out money on a short-term basis. That absolutely favours the overseas entities. They have made the investment. They have contracts in their home jurisdictions. That's a fundamental problem we need to look at. This problem could be solved. By simply changing the length of the contract terms, we would have more Australians investing in capability that resides here. And when other jurisdictions overseas are having fires we'd be sending them overseas and they would be bringing money back to Australia. That's what needs to be happening, and that's what's missing here.

This is the responsibility of the federal government. We heard Senator Molan say that the funding comes from federal government coffers. We recognise that this is a national process, yet we hide behind the fact that we are getting the states to look at these things individually. In actual fact, we are trying to create national emergency laws. The ADF does a fantastic job weighing in on that. We have CASA. We have federal funding going to the aerial firefighting service. We need to take charge of this. We need to have a sovereign aerial firefighting capability—and it's not too hard to do. I've given the answer in my contribution today: just a tweak of a few contract terms and the problem would be solved. Australian business men and women would then stand up the capability here. Every time we issue a short-term contract for an aerial firefighting service, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face. We have to fix this.

4:29 pm

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

Watching Senator Molan's contribution, I finally grasped why this government has been unable to act in the interests of Australians in regional areas. He is fixed in the past, stuck in his views, unable to recognise that times have changed, that the climate has changed, that the requirements for the effective management of country have changed, that the requirements for effective firefighting have so fundamentally changed. The only response from Senator Molan is the same as the response from the Prime Minister: it's to bluster, it's to obfuscate, it's to point the finger at somebody else. It's never: 'Take charge, take responsibility and act.'

There are many communities this week who are beginning their one-year commemoration of the bushfire season coming to them. People in Braidwood are doing that today. For people in Braidwood the fires started this week 12 months ago, but they went all the way through to February—some people having their properties burnt out multiple times. What those communities want to hear is not bluster, not ideology, not politicisation, not pointing the finger at the states, and not someone saying, 'I don't hold a hose, mate'. What they want to see is action, leadership and effective coordination from the Commonwealth.

The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC outlook for December to February notes that while the east coast has experienced wetter than average conditions since last summer, normal fire conditions still persist because of long-term dryness. Half of New South Wales west of the Dividing Range will experience above-normal fire conditions this summer. While the ideal conditions for cropping and pasture growth are great news for our farmers, they create the ideal conditions in mid to late summer for very dangerous, fast-moving grassfires. The ACT and southern Monaro will experience similar conditions. Drought conditions persist in southern Western Australia. As summer progresses the South West, the Swan Coastal Plain and parts of the Wheatbelt and Esperance Plains will experience higher than normal fire potential. Nowhere in the country will experience below normal fire potential. What does 'normal' mean? Normal means that, somewhere in Australia over the coming summer, people will lose their homes to fire, businesses will be destroyed and, in the worst cases, lives will be lost.

The summer of 1974-75 was a normal fire season and 117 million hectares burned. The summer of 1984-85 was a normal fire season: in New South Wales alone 3½ million hectares burned, 40,000 head of sheep and cattle perished, and four people were killed. The summers of 1993-94 and also 1998-99 were normal: in all, 19 people were killed and scores of houses were burned to the ground. The summer of 2002-03 was a normal fire season: four people perished and 488 homes were burned to the ground right here in Canberra. The summer of 2008-09 was a normal fire season and 173 people died on Black Saturday, 7 February 2009. The summer of 2015-16 was a normal fire season. It was the most destructive season since 2008-09. Nine people were killed, nearly 1,000 buildings were destroyed and the fires had a catastrophic impact on Tasmania's World Heritage areas. The summer of 2013-14 was a normal season, but the alarm bells were well and truly ringing this time. It was in only October 2013 when two people died in the Blue Mountains, 208 homes were destroyed and 86,000 hectares, including World Heritage areas, burned. These are the 'normal' seasons that are becoming increasingly infrequent; above-normal fire conditions are the new normal. How much more unnecessary death and destruction will there have to be before this government gets out of its Hawaii state of mind? There is almost nobody outside the Morrison government who doesn't think that Australia should have its own national, sovereign, aerial firefighting fleet. Go to the main street of Braidwood, the pub in Cobargo, a supermarket in Taree or the Rural Fire Service in Nowra and try to find a single person who doesn't think—doesn't know!—that Scott Morrison's job isn't to produce television ads glorifying action and trying to obscure the fact that he got caught out refusing to come back from his overseas holiday while houses were being burnt out and the country needed whatever leadership he was capable of providing. And you won't find a soul who doesn't think that we need a national, sovereign aerial firefighting fleet.

As in every case where the issue is about the government's responsibility to keep Australians safe, the Morrison government think it's the states' responsibility. You can hear them up in the back rows there; whenever these issues become uncomfortable they point to the states. Well, I can tell you that bushfire fighting is a national emergency, a national crisis, and it requires national leadership and a national response. Apparently for Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, the government has no role to play other than to offer paltry, late, inadequate funding announcements with no follow-up, just spin. It took 12 hours for the Prime Minister's office to produce a slick social media ad at the height of the crisis, when the Prime Minister was trying to run from his responsibility. All of this year it's been 'clear as' that a national, sovereign air fleet is required, yet there's been no action from the Commonwealth government.

The Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry into last summer's bushfires has heard compelling evidence that a national aerial firefighting fleet must be a high priority of the national government. The Prime Minister himself gave support for the proposition when, on 4 January this year, he said:

… what we need are water bombers that meet the technical and specific requirements of the deployment in Australia. It's not a matter of just trying to hustle up some planes from somewhere around the world. What you need is the precise asset to deal with the situation in Australia.

That's what he said, but they were just more empty words; there was no delivery. That's exactly what a national aerial firefighting fleet would do—it would meet our specific technical requirements; it would be there all of the time as a precise asset to deal with the situation in Australia. But, of course, all that people in regional Australia have had from this Prime Minister is empty words and avoidance.

Rather than each state and territory sourcing its own aerial firefighting fleet, it would be far more efficient and effective to build a national capability for all Australians—one that's capable of moving between the states and territories over the course of a bushfire season, one that's capable of responding early to fires that historically have been left to burn out of control in wilderness areas, because those areas are inaccessible, and have then turned into frightening, devastating fires like the one that enveloped the community of Cobargo a little less than 12 months ago.

This is a government without a strategy for anything. It's a government that points the finger and bludges off the states and territories. It is never capable of doing its job and exercising its responsibility in the interests of all Australians. You lot are never capable of doing anything but pointing the finger at everybody else.

4:39 pm

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What we heard then from Senator Ayres was a masterclass in deflection. Can I say that the behaviour of the Labor Party in the past 12 months, in their response to the bushfire crisis last year, has been quite tawdry. I well remember the worst bushfires in my lifetime, which were actually in 2009, when 180 Victorians were killed on Black Saturday, six times the number of people who died last summer—with due respect to everyone who passed away. Throughout that year, when the Rudd government was in power, there was no partisanship from the coalition to make out that it was the Rudd government's fault for the loss of those lives. Yet, this year, we've had a nonstop barrage of blame from the Labor Party, as though Scott Morrison actually lit those fires himself. That is disgusting and tawdry behaviour from politicians who represent the people and should know better. I didn't hear one solution offered by Senator Ayres in that speech. It was all smear and innuendo, which is the modus operandi of the Labor Party. Bushfires and emergency management shouldn't be used as a football to score political points.

Senator Ayres' comments that the government believed that we had no role to play are an absolute insult to the Australian Army and military who participated so bravely through those bushfires in logistics, coordination, communication and helping people resettle. I really think Senator Ayres should apologise to the Australian military. The Australian government was more than willing to get the military involved, despite what Senator Ayres says. I think last year had a particular uniqueness, to the extent that the fires were widespread. There is no doubt that, when you have a national emergency like that, the Army should be involved. Talking about the fires, I notice Senator Ayres didn't mention the Black Friday of 1939 or the bushfires of the 1850s that burnt one-quarter of Victoria. So there was a bit of selective picking there as well.

But we have to get to the heart of the problem here. That, of course, is the state governments and their woeful management of their responsibilities. First of all, let's just have a look at the emergency services. Who's responsible for emergency services? The state governments are. And who's been cutting funding to emergency services for the last 20 years? It's the state governments. It doesn't help when we have retired bureaucrats, who were in that fire and emergency role in New South Wales, coming out and slagging off the government when this particular bureaucrat himself was actually head of the New South Wales Fire Brigade from 2003 to 2017. A lot of this stuff happened under his watch, and yet he was more than willing to come out when the bushfires were on and blame everyone else.

The second thing is—and this is something that's very close to my heart—the poor land management undertaken by states over the last 20 or 30 years, where farmers and, in particular, state governments have not managed their national parks properly. I know two areas in Queensland—one just near where I currently live. There are a lot of national parks there, and the parks are full of lantana. It is infested with weeds because the state governments won't get in there and clean it up. We have got a real lantana problem in our national parks in Queensland. The other thing we've got in Queensland is an actual lack of hazard reduction burning on overgrowth. We've got a big national park next to our property in Western Queensland, and it's just full of pests. Pigs come through. Goats come through. There are feral cats and wild dogs. It's not being looked after. And this is becoming more and more of a concern, because the land used by agriculture has dropped from 500 million acres in 1976 to 390 million acres today. A lot of that land is being either locked up or converted to national parks. Out in south-western Queensland, this particular part of Australia is punching way above its weight in earning carbon credits. That is, unfortunately, to the detriment of great towns like Quilpie and Charleville that are losing constituents in their shires because the Mulga is being locked up for carbon farming. That means that we're going to have more and more undergrowth, we're going to have more and more feral pests, because the farmers aren't there managing them, and we're going to have a much greater fire hazard. This is the price that is paid, as usual, by regional Queensland and the regional parts of Australia. They are the ones whose livelihoods suffer in order to fulfil the green dream. Unfortunately, one of these days, if it ever goes off out there, it's going to go on. So state governments have to do more hazard reduction.

The other part that state governments have failed to manage properly is zoning approvals. State governments will approve housing commission blocks in both flood and fire zones. It's becoming a very bad problem. I know in Townsville in the floods last year houses were wiped out, because they were built in flood zones, and I know that a lot of houses today are unfortunately being built among the gum trees. Where I live, I go the back way through Samford Conservation Park. There are houses in there that are literally amongst the gum trees. It's like if this seat were a house and every one of these seats around it were the trees. If there's ever a fire, I don't know how these people are going to get out. Why they are allowed to live there is beyond me. It worries me a lot.

The fourth failure by state governments is the fact they have all sold their state government insurance offices. If you ever wonder why we can't get insurance in North Queensland, it's because the state government sold the State Government Insurance Office. I think we can probably all remember the SGIOs in various different states. They were there to provide insurance when the private sector wouldn't. The neoliberals in the Labor Party—and I admit we have a few in the Liberal Party, but, believe it or not, in Queensland it was all done by Labor—flogged all that off to the private sector. So insurance there is another problem as well.

Rather than continue to peddle hysteria, what we need to do is look at preventive measures. Apart from the measures I have just talked about, one of the other things we need to do is stop planting eucalypt trees. It's hard to imagine, but Landcare love to go around and plant eucalypt trees. The last thing we need in this country are any more eucalypt trees. There are plenty of other Australian natives you can plant that aren't full of eucalyptus oil such that when you light a fire they are going to explode. So that is something I think we need to address. I have actually written a letter to the environment minister today, asking her to address that issue, because I think that's very important.

In concluding, the other thing I think we have to look at is this. The cause of that Victorian bushfire in 2009 was actually determined to be a fallen transmission line. Part of the clean, green dream is to have more renewable energy and, of course, that is going to require $100 million to be spent to build all the transmission lines to get the energy from all the disparate energy generation into the cities. More transmission lines is going to mean a much greater fire hazard because not only can you have fallen transmission lines but also those big towers are lightning conductors. So it's kind of ironic that we have the Left over here saying that we have to do something about fire while they actually want to increase the risk of fires by having more and more transmission lines. So I hope they've taken into account the cost of putting this stuff underground. I hope these transmission lines that we build for all these renewable power stations aren't going to be through towers, because that would increase the fire risk.

Then there are solar panels. We know there are a lot of shoddy, dodgy imported solar panels. I have an article here where a Victorian firefighter has discussed the fact that a large number of fires today are caused by shoddy solar panels on houses. So these guys need to take a good hard look in the mirror and come up with some solutions for a change— (Time expired)

4:49 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

One thing I do agree with Senator Rennick on is that we need to take a lot more preventive actions around fire and fire risk. The most important thing we can do is act on climate change. I was very surprised that the Liberal Party would put up a speaker like Senator Jim Molan today, who is on record as being a climate sceptic or climate denier—whatever you want to call it. It just shows why we are in such a mess. While we have a government who refuses to take climate change seriously, we are never going to solve this problem.

I remember the day in 2016 that Senator McKim and I launched our double dissolution election campaign in Tasmania with a policy for the Australian government to buy water bombers. We did that because Tasmania had had a horrendous summer of fires in 2016. Senator McKim had initiated a Senate inquiry to look at those fires and the responses. It was made public knowledge in that inquiry that we couldn't get aerial water bombers when we needed them in Tasmania. In 2016, we had 145 separate fires that burned for over 63 days, destroying 126,800 hectares of mostly remote vegetation, 19,800 hectares of which was in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. In 2018-19 the bushfires burned for 100 days, destroying 210,000 hectares of mostly remote vegetation, 95,000 hectares of which was in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. These are the only forests in the world that are World Heritage protected. Some of them had vegetation that was thousands of years old that had never seen fire in their time as living, breathing plants on this planet. Both of these catastrophic fire events began with dry lightning strikes. Increasingly, rare dry lightning strikes have caused a lot of damage, not just in Tasmania, but elsewhere—another thing linked directly by the BoM to our changing climate. The year 2016 was, at the time, the hottest Tasmanian summer on record and the driest spring on record. The year 2019 was again the hottest summer on record, which eclipsed 2016, following, again, the driest spring on record.

We also initiated a Senate inquiry looking at the implications of climate change on Australia's national security. We took significant evidence right around this country on why climate change is the biggest threat to this country's national security and what we needed to do about it. We had a very productive discussion on buying our own fleet of aerial water bombers. The Greens worked this policy up. We took it to the 2019 election, just like we did in 2016. And I commend Labor for adopting another Greens policy. We see it all the time, and it's great. Sometimes I think our role in here is to get the Labor Party on board, and we succeeded with that. I hope we actually now get the aerial water-bombing fleet that we so desperately need in this country.

Very quickly, what we learnt in our Senate inquiry is that, with overlapping fire seasons around the world, we cannot rely on bringing planes in from overseas. We pay an exorbitant amount of money to lease these aircraft. We have no control over when they get here or when they're used. We should have our own fleet, even if it has to be housed in the RAAF. It doesn't really matter. We need to own these. They should be owned by the Australian taxpayer. They should be on standby for Australians. And everybody has seen that. The royal commission has recently reflected that. There's no reason that we don't have our own aerial firefighting fleet, except for ideology, both an ideology around privatising and outsourcing everything in this country to the private sector to make a big buck and the ideology we have seen on display today—disgusting, almost hard to believe—from a government that actually puts up climate deniers in this chamber to talk about preparedness and readiness for extreme weather events and the risks to Australians from wildfire.

4:54 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I don't know about everybody else, but I love summer. I can remember the feeling of Christmas coming and singing a beautiful hymn at my Catholic school in the lead-up to Christmas. The words were written by John Wheeler and the music was by William G James:

The north wind is tossing the leaves,

the red dust is over the town,

the sparrows are under the eaves

and the grass in the paddock is brown,

as we pick lift up our voices and sing

to the Christ-child the heavenly King.

Well, I'll tell you what we're not going to get for Christmas. We're going to get the heat but we're not going to get the protection that Australians deserve. And we're not going to get it, even though it was recommended to this government, because Mr Morrison is a phony.

He'll be there for all the photos, but when it comes to delivering the things that really matter he is a man constantly missing in action. There is plenty of announcement, but when communities across this country will be looking to the sky and praying for aerial firefighting support, there will be none because Mr Morrison decided that we didn't need it. That's the sort of Prime Minister that we have—a man who ignores the experts, a man who ignores the evidence and a man who treats Australians with contempt. I guarantee that there will be Australians this year who are standing in their street and fighting for their community, fighting to save their own houses and the houses of the community that they serve through their firefighting efforts. They will be looking skyward for a missing-in-action aerial firefighting fleet, and there can be only one person who has to be held accountable for that. It is the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison.

We've heard all the announcements. There was such a hope amongst Australians, after we saw the terrible fires of last summer, that when there was an announcement by our Prime Minister of $4 million for the Emergency Response Fund we all thought, 'Oh, how wonderful that our taxpayer dollars are going to help people in the community—our fellow Australians who really need the help.' But Mr Morrison hasn't spent any of that money. There's a long way between announcement and delivery with this government, and they're failing us every single day.

On the beautiful Central Coast, where I live, there was a huge effort—an heroic effort—by Rural Fire Service volunteers who fought the Three Mile fire. I was up in Mangrove Mountain recently and I know that the connectivity issues that plagued their capacity to save that community are still happening today because Mr Morrison doesn't think it's worth investing in proper connectivity for fire services and for that community. How can this Prime Minister pretend to stand up for bushfire affected communities when he cannot provide them with even the most basic infrastructure? There is a lack of telecommunications capacity in this 21st century—in the year 2020. This is putting lives at risk, the lives of both the residents of those areas that will be attacked by bushfires and those who want to serve our community by fighting the fires that will always come when those hot winds blow.

For years, leading up to the last bushfire season, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre has pleaded with the federal government to increase their annual funding, warning that bushfire seasons were only going to get more intense. And they were right. This is not a new request of the government, this is a longstanding request, but all this government has offered to our brave service workers is sophistry and spin. I can tell you that when Christmas comes around this year, Mr Morrison—the Prime Minister who had to hire an empathy consultant for nearly $200,000 so that he could learn to sympathise with drought affected farmers—will be calling on those pretend skills once again.

He's so dodgy—so dodgy!—that you cannot trust a word that comes out of his mouth. And when fire hits our communities across this country this summer, remember the man who has ignored pleas for an aerial firefighting fleet for years. Remember the man who is sending us into debt to the tune of $1 trillion but who couldn't find enough money to provide aerial firefighting. That's who Scott Morrison is, and no announcement regime and no amount of sophistry will be able to pull the wool over the Australian people's eyes indefinitely.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator O'Neill. It is perilously close to 5 pm, when the first speech is scheduled. I thank Senator Van for his understanding and we'll get back to the MPI after this event.