Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Finance and Public Administration References Committee; Government Response to Report
In respect of the government's response to the Finance and Public Administration References Committee's interim report Lessons to be learned in relation to the Australian bushfire season 2019-20, I move:
That the Senate take note of the document.
There were 13 very reasonable, sensible recommendations that our committee put together in this interim report, and the government has seen fit to support only three of them. There was one that was supported in principle and the rest were merely noted. There are some critical ones that the government has only noted, and I wish to speak to them, but firstly I will talk about one of the three the government does support—that is, the need to streamline application processes for disaster recovery funding arrangements, the need to harmonise eligibility criteria and the need to remove impediments to applying for betterment and mitigation initiatives. I'm glad that the government saw fit to support this one, because it is the bottom line. Our committee is still receiving evidence of the difficulty people have in getting support, of the multiple layers of bureaucracy that they still need to go through to get support. It is a complete maze that people find so difficult to navigate through. We have to do better to support communities.
Last week I had the privilege of travelling through East Gippsland, which, of course, was drastically, dramatically and tragically affected by the 2019-20 Black Summer fires. Over 80 per cent of the forests of East Gippsland were burnt. All my adult life I've visited areas of southern Australia that have been affected by bushfires. If you're used to travelling through bushfire affected areas you know you drive along the highway through an area that has been burnt and then you move into areas that haven't been burnt. The experience I had last week was very different to that. I just kept on driving through burnt areas; everywhere I went the forest was burnt. There were only tiny bits of forest that weren't burnt. I think we really need to take note of the scale of the impact of these fires and to be aware that these fires will become more intense, more frequent and more extreme as time goes on, due to the climate crisis. We are facing hotter and dryer conditions. We've got to get really serious and really clever about how we respond to these fires.
First of all, of course, we need to tackle the climate crisis. We need to reduce our carbon pollution. We need to get out of burning coal, gas and oil. I urge the government to take that on board. I know they're not going to do it in the budget tonight, but they need to; otherwise, they are climate deniers, and they are putting our community at risk.
Last week I saw the impacts of the climate crisis. I saw that the fires that had swept through were hotter, more intense and more extensive. I met with representatives from MADRA, the Mallacoota and District Recovery Association, which is working across the Mallacoota community to work out what needs to happen in terms of recovery—what they can learn, what they can pass on to other communities. There are a couple of key things that are needed if we're going to genuinely make it easier for people to recover from bushfires. The core thing is to have a community led response, to empower communities, to resource communities, to build community connectedness and community resilience. Having experienced the fires, of course, the Mallacoota community are really aware of what needs to happen.
MADRA has been set up as an elected committee from right across the Mallacoota area. They had an election that was overseen by the Victorian Electoral Commission. Eighty-seven per cent of eligible residents in the Mallacoota area voted for their representative on the committee, so you've got a committee which has now been set up in Mallacoota which is very representative of the local community. The key thing that they are doing is bringing the community together. It's educating the community. It's supporting the community. This is the sort of work that needs to be done right across the country—not just in communities that have just been affected by fire but, basically, way beforehand. The Mallacoota residents knew that, if there had been work to build that community resilience before the fires, they would have been in a much better place after the fires.
Essentially, a model of what's needed—what this government needs to take on board and what we as Australians need to take on board—is building that community led response, bringing together community members and bringing together Indigenous members of our community, the First Nations, with their knowledge about fire. It's bringing together the ecological knowledge of the impact of fire, how fires are changing under climate change and how fires are specific to particular different ecological forest types across the country. It's bringing together answers to these questions: What are the assets that we need to be protecting? How are we going to be protecting them? What is the value of doing planned burns? It was also very evident from my trip last week that just going out and burning more forest won't make people safe. People are fearful. People want to be told that they are going be safe. Unfortunately, in the hotter, drier, climate crisis-fuelled climate that we're under, we can't promise that the people of Mallacoota and other communities at risk from fire are going to be safe. All we can do is to say that we will do what we can to make you safer, but it's got to be a sophisticated response—not just going out and burning and pretending to people that that is making them safe, because the evidence from the Black Summer fires is that that's not the way to do it. Yes, there is a role for hazard reduction burning, but it has got to be done in a sophisticated way. It's got to be done in a way that is supported by science. It's got to be done with a clear understanding of what you are achieving by doing that hazard reduction burning. At the moment, that's not what's going on around the country.
One of the other recommendations that the government has only noted was recommendation 7, which was for better mental health support. The recommendation states:
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.
Sadly, the government only noted this recommendation. They didn't commit to doing that. They said they recognise the need for continued mental health support and providing funding, but it's very clear, again from my trip last week, that the funding that is currently being provided and the support for people with mental health issues, as they are still dealing with the trauma of those fires, is not meeting the need. In particular I spoke to a mental health nurse who worked out of Orbost who was servicing communities in very remote areas of East Gippsland—in Bendoc, Tubbut, Goongerah and Bonang. Her work is only one day a week, and there is no ongoing certainty about the funding for her mental health outreach. She has tried to get support for ongoing bush nursing to provide the health support and the mental health support to these remote communities and has been currently knocked back. So again, clearly, governments at both a state and federal level need to be listening to the community and genuinely engaging with the needs of the communities and then actually implementing them. Rather than having the top-down approach that the government knows best—'This is what we're going to do, and we're going to hold on to the power; we're going to do what's good for you, community'—we need to be supporting and facilitating communities to come together and work with government in a genuine way to actually work out the best way forward.
Finally, I want to go to one of the other recommendations that the government said they support: to fund mitigation projects through the Emergency Response Fund. I thought, 'That's great, they're funding mitigation projects.' What does it mean to fund mitigation in the case of bushfires? To me, mitigation means: what are we going to be doing to reduce the risk of fires? It's very clear. The lesson from the Black Summer fires is that we need to tackle our climate crisis, and we need to tackle it urgently.