Senate debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2023

Matters of Urgency


4:40 pm

Photo of Dorinda CoxDorinda Cox (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator David Pocock has submitted a proposal under standing order 75 today:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today I propose to move "That in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

In the face of heightened bushfire risk and with firefighters at capacity, there is an urgent need for substantial and new federal government investment in technologies such as water gliders and drones for early detection of bushfires."

Is consideration of the proposal supported?

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

With the concurrence of the Senate, the clerks will set the clock in line with the informal arrangements made by the whips.

4:41 pm

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

In the face of heightened bushfire risk and with firefighters at capacity, there is an urgent need for substantial and new federal government investment in technologies such as water gliders and drones for early detection of bushfires.

Today I bring an urgency motion about bushfire preparedness. We have now heard on multiple occasions from experts in this field, from firefighters, from forest ecologists and from bushfire survivors about the need for Australia to step up our bushfire preparedness. When it comes to stopping bushfires, we know that every second counts. The sooner we identify and address fires, the better our chance of avoiding things like the terrifying pyrocumulonimbus clouds that have become a regular occurrence with increasing climate extremes. These clouds are generated by the rising heat of megafires and can influence weather around them. They can create their own lightning and wind, even lighting and driving further fires. As many Australians have seen with their own eyes, they are utterly terrifying and devastating for people and property. We need to invest to be better able to monitor fires and ensure we are getting to them as soon as possible.

Thankfully we have some of the brightest minds in the country working on solutions to this. ANU researchers have built an automated algorithm that can detect smoke. Cameras running the algorithm could be mounted on fire towers and programmed to send alerts to emergency services when smoke is sighted. The ANU and a Sydney firm, Carbonix, are developing long-range drones that can fly over secluded landscapes day and night to detect bushfires early. A lightning storm can have thousands of strikes, so it would take a long time to act on all of those, but, if we can narrow it to tens of strikes using the new AI algorithms, we will have a better shot at stopping catastrophic bushfires. In collaboration with the ANU, the OzFuel satellite mission uses novel infrared technology to pick up what types of vegetation are more prone to catching fire. If we can identify areas at the highest risk, we can give firefighters more time and create the highest chance of being successful.

Autonomous GPS targeted gliders—which, built at full scale, could each carry 500 litres of water and saturate specific targets such as trees ignited by a dry lightning strike—could be built using dense cardboard and off-the-shelf avionic components at a low cost, around $500 each, and be launched from a high-flying cargo aircraft, decelerating by parachute and splitting open to disperse and mist the water right over the burning target. We're only talking about tens of millions of dollars here to support our brave firefighters, who are at capacity. Many of them have been getting back from the Northern Hemisphere fire season and are already fighting fires across the country here—and it looks to only get worse this year. If El Nino persists it could be catastrophic next year. We must step up. We have the resources to do this. For a country that is spending the lowest amount on research and development, as a percentage of GDP, in its history, it is urgent that the government steps up and puts money into funding these cutting-edge technologies to assist firefighters and communities who are being impacted by fires.

There are, of course, other things that this parliament needs to do when it comes to mitigation and reducing emissions, such as looking at things like native forest logging and how that increases the likelihood of forests igniting and burning. But we have an opportunity for this government to invest in cutting-edge research and technology that, once developed, could become a huge export industry as well as helping our firefighters and communities across the country as we enter uncharted territory when it comes to the climate.

4:46 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party, Shadow Minister for Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this urgency motion today, and I thank Senator Pocock for bringing this issue to the attention of the chamber. It is absolutely true that there are indications from weather professionals, emergency management professionals and even recent events that we face heightened bushfire risk this season and very possibly continuing increased risk for seasons to come. We absolutely need to get smarter in how we deal with these increasing disasters. I want to acknowledge that there are currently around 70 bushfires burning, as we speak, around the state of New South Wales. Sadly, overnight there was the loss of the life of one of our volunteer firefighters.

From my travels with the Senate Select Committee on Australia's Disaster Resilience, I have seen where looking at new technology and best practice internationally leads to better outcome in cities like Townsville, where they've got their bespoke and high-tech emergency management hub. I've seen what they're doing to also engage with the community to have early response preparedness. The proposition put forward today by Senator Pocock is to invest in the best technologies available in the face of the heightened bushfire risk. ANU professor David Lindenmayer spoke at an event this morning on bushfire preparedness, and he has previously written on the changing nature of bushfires and the imperative for Australia to embrace new technologies that will identify early fire areas and use technologies that can respond more quickly than the current traditional methods of ground crews and large aerial tankers.

Today's forum recognised the importance of rapid responses to fires, particularly in light of research that suggests that extreme fire risk is 10 times greater than it was when most baby boomers were born. This has been backed up by other experts such as Greg Mullins, the former New South Wales Commissioner of Fire and Rescue, who has over 50 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter. We know that—as welcome as the large fire bombers are, especially when a fire is out of control and has taken hold—the reality is early detection, better communication, better preparedness and the use of new technologies would seem to be the key to better outcomes for land, property, stock and human lives.

One thing I want to bring to the attention of the Senate is, as Senator Pocock quite rightly said, that the new technologies could cost maybe tens of millions of dollars. Currently, there is a fund—the Disaster Ready Fund—which provides $200 million a year in grants for disaster readiness and risk reduction. But, in the first round of funding from the Albanese government—announced in June this year—I must say that I was somewhat underwhelmed at the lost opportunity to deliver real change.

Instead of looking at new technologies, such as those that Senator David Pocock has identified in this motion, we've funded removing willow trees from a riverbank or building climate-resilient visitor infrastructure in the ACT. I don't see how they will significantly reduce risks. I've spoken to the Insurance Council of Australia, who have over the last couple of years prepared numerous reports on the financial costs of disasters in Australia and on how we can reduce the risk. We need to look at the disaster reduction fund and look at how we spend that money so that we are actually reducing the real risk faced by Australians.

As this urgency motion suggests, such technology being proposed involves, yes, a substantial early investment, but it needs a sound business case that would need to be developed and that would reduce risk. Natural disasters impact every community at every level—local, state and federal. We need to be open to new technologies that make a difference and can detect fires earlier. I thank Senator Pocock.

4:51 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Right now bushfires are raging in nearly every Australian state and territory, and we're only halfway into spring. Tragically, bushfires are killing people, destroying property and ravaging fragile ecosystems rich in natural and cultural values. After three consecutive La Nina years, followed by what looks today likely to be a strong El Nino year, things are tragically likely to only get worse.

I want to be a very clear that the Greens have absolute faith in Australia's professional and volunteer firefighters and disaster responders, and we thank them for risking their lives to help keep us safe, but the Greens have very little faith in the level of resources that these highly skilled people are being provided with and the support that they need to do their jobs under the threat of increasing fires and floods, driven by a changing climate.

Disasters are national emergencies, and they demand national responses. The Greens believe Australia needs and deserves a dedicated national disaster response unit, and we've taken this policy to the last two federal elections. A national disaster response unit would allow a flexible and rapid response to disasters such as fires, particularly remote area fires, and floods. Such a unit could have its own dedicated aerial firefighting fleet of fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft to provide direct firefighting capacity and highly trained responders trained in remote area firefighting and flood rescue. Taken together, this would constitute a national, specialised remote disaster response capability that could be stationed and deployed rapidly across the country as needed.

The way you stop bushfires from destroying ecologies, destroying infrastructure, destroying homes and destroying lives at mass scale is to detect them early, hit them hard and hit them fast. If the Albanese government was serious about making this country safer from bushfires, it would stop green-lighting new coal, gas and native forest logging projects. That is what a government genuinely committed to making us safe from disasters would put in place.

As the Victorian Assistant Chief Fire Officer, Mick Tisbury, has said, 'There are no climate sceptics at the end of a fire hose.' But, what do you get from this government? A proposal to spend $370 billion on the AUKUS submarine killing machines that will make Australia less safe. But they won't spend anything like what is necessary to actually save lives from disasters like remote area fires, fires on the edges of our cities and floods right around this country that are being increased in number and scale by the breakdown of our climate and the catastrophe that this planet's climate is going through as we stand here and debate this today.

The other thing that this government needs to do is stop native forest logging, because, firstly, native forest logging actually makes fires more likely and worse. It makes them burn hotter and faster. And, secondly, the way that regime of native forest logging is conducted, certainly in my home state of Tasmania, which is a CBS strategy—clear-fell, burn and sow—it's the burn bit that's the problem, colleagues, because I have lost count of how many of these so-called regeneration burns have broken their boundaries over the years and started mass bushfires. It is institutionalised pyromania. That's what we are facing.

This government has got to get serious about building a disaster response capability in this country. It's got to be prepared to invest even a small percentage of what it invests into killing machines into actually responding to disasters that are killing Australians. It's got to stop approving new coal and gas projects, and it's got to end native forest logging.

4:56 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this matter of public importance regarding bushfire preparedness. Since the Black Summer bushfires, two-thirds of Australians have been impacted by natural disasters, some more than once. We know that, due to climate change, disasters will become increasingly frequent and intense, which is why the Albanese government is taking significant steps to build our resilience and response capabilities.

To name just a few, we've legislated much more ambitious emission reduction targets and ended the coalition climate wars. We've implemented 12 of the 15 federal recommendations from the bushfire royal commission, with the remainder well underway. We've created one unified national emergency management agency, NEMA. We've established the Disaster Ready Fund, which will invest $1 billion in disaster mitigation over the next five years, with matching funding from all other levels of government. We've delivered a new Australian fire danger rating system. We are upgrading our national flood gauge warning system and developing a new cell broadcast national messaging system to improve how we track and get informed about disasters. And we're building the first ever National Emergency Management Stockpile to supplement the stockpiles states and local government areas have on emergency housing, water purification equipment and other key goods. These are just some of the steps and investments this government has made in improving our disaster preparedness.

As Special Envoy for Disaster Recovery, I regularly travel to disaster impacted communities around the country, speaking to individuals who are dealing with the impacts of natural hazards that have turned into humanitarian disasters. During these visits, I've been struck by the innovation of local communities and the many positive examples of projects that are building resilience across Australia.

In May, I had the privilege of meeting the Adelaide Hills Community Resilience Team and learning about their work. The Community Resilience Team is responsible for delivering the Towards Community Led Emergency Resilience initiative, a project which is increasing community capacity, leadership and sustainability for bushfire events. That project supports communities to prepare for bushfires and other emergencies, taking learnings from bushfire events that have affected the Adelaide Hills district, in particular Sampson Flat, Cudlee Creek and Cherry Gardens. This important initiative was funded by the Australian government through the Black Summer Bushfire Recovery Grants Program and Preparing Australian Communities grants. I was pleased to learn that the team received the Resilient Australia Local Government Award at the South Australian Resilient Australia Awards earlier this month. Congratulations to Miranda, Megan, Sophie, Vanessa and Pia for your outstanding work.

Another example is Young Change Agents, a national, non-profit social enterprise founded in 2016. It runs programs following disasters that empower youth when they need it most, giving them back some control over how the situation is affecting them and helping them to make a difference in the community. Children and young people are often overlooked when we talk about community preparedness, despite being one of the most vulnerable and psychologically impacted demographics during disasters.

The Select Committee on Australia's Disaster Resilience travelled to the Northern Rivers in June. We had the privilege of meeting Jali Tan Costello, a member of Young Change Agents, from Lismore. Jali became involved in the Young Change Agents program following the major flooding in 2022 that devastated large areas of the community. Jali shared her story with us, some of which I'll now read:

Last year my community and school experienced a catastrophic disaster that saw devastation throughout the district. After three days of being trapped on our property due to a landslide, I was able to help my family clear out my grandparents' home. This was physically productive; however, I was left feeling frustrated and disconnected from helping my broader community. However, programs of Young Change Agents offered me important opportunities to reconnect, activate my resilience and find purpose in my learning. As a class, our opinion was valued. We instigated change and our impact was far-reaching.

Jali's story demonstrates the critical importance of engaging our children and young people in disaster risk reduction and recovery.

While I could talk for hours about many different programs, I look forward to tracking the ongoing progress of these projects and to finding out more about future initiatives.

5:01 pm

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of Senator David Pocock's matter of urgency. As the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Australia's Disaster Resilience, I have learnt a lot—I'm sure we all have on that committee—in the past year about what our communities need to protect them in this bushfire season. As of Tuesday 12 September, the committee had received over 138 submissions from organisations and everyday Australians, and we thank them dearly for that. Many of them are still coping with the impacts of the Black Saturday bushfires. Some of them are still living in tents and caravans.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services told the committee that the capacity of local governments to respond to natural disasters like bushfires is falling and that communities need more help from state governments and the Commonwealth. When a community is impacted by a fire it is the local government—the councils—that are on the front line. They are responsible for the evacuation centres and for most of the local roads, and they are often the ones left to do the clean-up. A large number of submissions pointed to the lack of resourcing to local governments and said that councils need to be better resourced and that they need to be consulted. Local councils don't have much say in the equipment they are given by state and federal governments, but they have to carry the cost of the maintenance, so, even if they get new fire trucks or water gliders or drones, they have to maintain them—and not only that; they have to hire and pay staff to operate the equipment. Many of these councils simply do not have the money to do that.

Mr Graeme Kelly, the General Secretary of the United Services Union, told the committee that Commonwealth funding to local councils has been decreasing since 1975. The 2021 National state of the assets report from the Australian Local Government Association, or ALGA, found that local government buildings and facilities were in extremely poor condition. ALGA has estimated that flood damage to council roads in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia alone is expected to be at least $3.8 billion. Councils collect less than four per cent of national taxation. ALGA is calling for financial assistance grants to be restored to at least one per cent of Commonwealth taxation revenue. That doesn't seem like a big ask, does it?

Just a month ago a community in Tasmania was cut off by a raging bushfire. Like a lot of communities down there, Coles Bay has just one road in and out. We need new technologies and we need funding at a grassroots level so our councils can do everything that they possibly can to prepare, warn and protect our communities because, like I have already said, they are the front line.

This September was the driest in our history. June to August 2023 were the hottest months on earth ever recorded. Our bushfire season has already started, and in August the CEO of the Australian Fire Authorities Council, Rob Webb, urged all Australians to plan and prepare for this year's bushfire season. The government needs to take that advice, too, and give our councils what they need to protect their communities. You need to do that. They are on starvation— (Time expired)

5:04 pm

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd also like to speak on Senator Pocock's motion on the need for greater investment in technology to assist Australian communities fighting bushfires. I thank Senator Pocock for bringing this very important issue to the Senate's attention. Australia was given an unwelcome reminder of the risk and impact of bushfires just a couple of weeks ago in my home state, Victoria, where out-of-control fires threatened lives and many homes in Gippsland. Fires caused power outages, destroyed at least one home and triggered several evacuations.

Communities in Gippsland are, sadly, all too familiar and aware of the threat that bushfires pose after the devastating Black Summer fires in 2019-20. These bushfires should have served as a stark warning to governments about the need for greater investment in bushfire preparedness. Let's also not forget the $4 billion emergency response fund that was set up under the coalition. At the time the $4 billion fund may have looked a good number on a media release, but sadly, three years after being established, the emergency response fund had not actually spent one single dollar on disaster mitigation projects.

In the Albanese government's first 12 months the government has paid out more than $2.7 billion in recovery and resilience programs and payments to support individuals and communities impacted by natural disasters, which of course include bushfires. This isn't just about the immediate effect of protecting Australian communities from natural disasters. It is also smart fiscal policy, because we know that every dollar spent on disaster risk reduction gives an estimated $9.60 return on our investment. This makes sense: mitigating disasters doesn't just save lives and property; it also reduces the size and cost of the recovery.

The government has also taken the significant step of creating one unified National Emergency Management Agency. Under the leadership of the Coordinator-General, we are also building the first ever national emergency stockpile to supplement state, territory and local resources of emergency housing, water, purification equipment and other necessities. In terms of immediate relief for communities impacted by bushfires, just last week the Minister for Emergency Management, Senator Watt, along with his Victorian state counterpart minister, Jaclyn Symes, announced the availability of funds to eight Victorian communities under the jointly funded Commonwealth-state disaster recovery funding arrangements. These funds enable councils to undertake a range of relief and recovery activities, such as the establishment and operation of relief centres. The support also provides funding for counter-disaster operations carried out by councils to make residential properties safe, and emergency works to urgently restore transport infrastructure and the reconstruction of essential public assets like roads, bridges and footpaths.

In terms of the specific technology referred to in the motion, the government invests $30.8 million every year in aerial firefighting. It has requested the National Aerial Firefighting Centre to undertake research on what is the best practice for the mix of aircraft and technology. It's also worth highlighting that there is no single system or capability that addresses fire detection or suppression. The states and territories have the primary responsibility for raising and maintaining capability for emergency management and fire response. The Australian government determines what is required to support the states and territories. So it's important that we listen to the experts on the ground and our partners in the state and territory governments on what technologies will be most effective for managing bushfires.

The use of remotely piloted aircrafts for emergency management is a rapidly evolving area, and an assessment has been undertaken of emerging technologies to support the application of remotely piloted aircrafts. This is another example of how the Albanese government is working with our state and territory partners to boost investment in disaster resilience. This is the collaborative approach that we will continue to take as we face difficult conditions this summer.

5:09 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party, Shadow Minister for Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

ONALD () (): I rise because of this excellent motion that has been brought forward by Senator Pocock to address the very important issue of bushfires in this country. However, I want to speak with regard to the other parts of the country, the big, open parts of the country, particularly in northern Australia, where we are overlooking the very basic, commonsense approaches that are so important, like the rural fire brigades. The national highway to the Northern Territory has been cut several times due to bushfires just recently, and the threat of fires starting in national parks and spreading to grazing land and homes is very real.

In September this year, a bushfire came out of the Littleton National Park near Croydon in North Queensland and spread to an adjoining cattle property. It burned a 30,000-acre paddock, and, while a proper assessment is yet to be made, it's almost certain there would be a number of calves lost and a great deal of fencing and other repairs required. This is the second time in three years that this property has been lost to fire spreading from the national park, and that is because there is no firebreak. Worse is that, in June, National Parks were approached by a private citizen with an offer to bulldoze a firebreak along the park boundary, but this was denied because National Parks did not have a budget to provide. Furthermore, National Parks said they could only use their contracted machinery from Atherton, even though there was suitable machinery available locally. There is no common sense, no flexibility and no grasp on the reality of what will save lives and save ecosystems. Australia's horrific experience with bushfires means we should have more experience at vegetation management, but Labor is certainly asleep at the wheel. I can tell you that, in Queensland, the Queensland government's neglect is putting lives at risk.

Question agreed to.