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February 26, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11.28 am)
— I join the member for Corio in his support of the Telecommunications Amendment (Integrated Public Number Database)Bill 2009 and acknowledge that the coalition wishes to cooperate with the government to secure the passage of the legislation as soon as possible. We have all been struck by the images of disaster and the impact of the bushfires across Victoria. We have had some impassioned speeches from members of all sides as they have reflected on the significance of this event where more than 2,000 homes were lost and more than 200 people perished.

Many people have spoken in the aftermath of this epic tragedy about the speed and the magnitude of these fires and the lack of warning they had of the fire front approaching them. I think it is important that we as members of parliament do whatever we can to facilitate this bill as soon as possible. I do not see it as a silver bullet or a solution to all the problems we face in relation to the future management and prevention of bushfires, but it is another tool we will be able to use to hopefully reduce the impact of these bushfires in the future, particularly the impact on human lives.

The bill does not particularly canvass the proposal of the early warning system, but it is freely acknowledged that it is seen as an important first step in ensuring that state and territory emergency services providers have access to the information that they require to develop the telephone based warning system. The bill amends the Telecommunications Act 1997 to allow access by an emergency management person, as authorised by the Attorney-General, to information contained in the integrated public number database. It is believed that this will help to facilitate the communication of warnings in emergency situations, such as the bushfires which we have just experienced.

Prior to the 2007 federal election I understand the coalition put the issue of an early warning system on the COAG agenda. Emergency agencies have argued for a national system, although differences between the states and territories over a period of time have delayed the establishment of such a system. I think it is a sign of the goodwill of political leaders on all sides that they have put aside any partisanship on this issue and are moving forward in a manner which I believe is both constructive and which will have some practical outcomes for the communities which have been affected not only by these bushfires but by the reality that there will be bushfires in the future, which will threaten our homes and our lives.

A number of technical issues remain outstanding with the database. I will not go into the details now; I think the member for Corio has covered them well. The circumstances under which the IPND can be accessed for a warning will be determined, as I said, by the Attorney-General. It is anticipated that ‘an emergency’ will be defined under existing state and territory legislation. The bill also provides measures to protect personal in formation contained in the database, including that subscriber names may not be disclosed by the authorised user or by secondary disclosure.

These are important considerations with a system of this magnitude. I endorse the position put by the bill that criminal penalties of up to two years imprisonment will apply for misuse of the data, consistent with existing provisions of the Telecommunications Act. Regardless of the passage of the bill, the coalition does note that the regulations will permit state and territory access to the necessary information immediately, and that is as it should be. In relation to the broader significance of this bill as a precursor to an early warning system, I would like to make a few comments and feed back to the House some of the information I have received from the fire front and from people at community meetings. Typical feedback I have received is an email from a family in Drouin West in the neighbouring seat of McMillan.

The family wrote to me and, without divulging the family’s name, I will quote from the email:

I find the need to write to you expressing concern over the lack of warnings available to residents, especially rural residents. Normally, I am at home with my 4 children, and my husband is at work. When I am at home I do not normally have the radio on as I am busy with the children. For the same reason the television is not on. Except for the fact that a neighbor, who normally has no contact with us, bothered to pick up a phone, because they had a member of the family in the CFA and had early warning, there is no way I would know of the danger until it was too late. I’m sure you can understand, that with 4 children (two with a disability), I do not have the luxury of looking out the window to see if there is a fire coming and on this particular day the smoke was going up, before being taken away so even that was not a clue at the time I needed to evacuate. Smoke was of course an issue as the fire became closer but by then it would have been too late to leave.

The email goes on:

There needs to be a faster and more efficient communication system. One that covers the deaf and blind, the elderly, the disabled, the stay-at-home parents, the farmers out in the paddock … everyone. Please, let this be dealt with urgently.

That is very much feedback from the fire ground, if you like, of a mother. It is probably very typical of a situation in a rural community. She was flat out on that day, 7 February. She had no chance of monitoring the situation and probably had no real inkling of the impending danger in the Drouin West area. I have had similar comments from people in the Gippsland community, that they simply did not feel the imminent danger of the fire front and that it was not until the wind changed they realised they might be in a spot of bother. By then, for some, it was too late. Many did flee and successfully got away from the fire front. The commentary from this mother really reflects the situation we are faced with, where there is an expectation in the community that there will be action on these issues. We need to be mindful that, with that expectation, there is an element of residents becoming more aware—education focused, perhaps—of the circumstances they are living in.

We have seen a rapid increase in the number of people relocating to the tree change areas and the sea-change areas of my electorate in particular. We welcome them with open arms. But we need to ensure that if they have come from a suburban environment they are well aware of the challenges and the potential threats of bushfires during the summer season. We need to be mindful of that in the future. I have spoken briefly about the technical aspects of this bill, but I think the practical applications of any early warning system will need very careful consideration by all concerned in the implementation phase. It must not be seen as a single solution to the problem. At best, it will be a minor part of a much bigger problem.

There are three elements which contribute to these major fire events: a point of ignition, hot windy days and fuel. Quite simply, we will always have points of ignition, whether it be from idiots who light fires, from accidental activity on a farm or from a lightning strike. Similarly, we will always have hot and windy days where the fire risk is off the scale. We cannot do anything about those two circumstances; they are part of the great country we live in. But the one area we can have an impact on is the fuel. We can have a direct impact on the level of fuel and the degree of the intensity of the fires when they do occur. I fear that we have talked a lot about this issue for many years—decades in fact—and have failed to grapple with it properly. The common-sense approach, and the practical feedback from people on the ground, is that we must do more fuel-reduction burning. I have heard many impassioned speeches from members of parliament, but also from residents and emergency services agencies, saying there needs to be a greater prescribed-burning regime, and I refer specifically to the Victorian situation.

The high-fuel fires, on extreme weather days, are simply impossible for us to defend. We must do more to reduce the intensity of these fires and buy more time for people. By the time we implement an early warning system, I fear that the horse will have already bolted. Once the fire has started, we are really playing catch-up from then on. The opportunity for us is at the beginning of the process, by reducing the amount of fuel in the environment. From a Victorian perspective, the chief fire officer, Ewan Waller, is someone who I regard as a personal friend but also hold in the very highest esteem professionally for his career and the contribution he has made to the Victorian public service. I feel a great deal of empathy for Ewan in his position as the chief fire officer responsible for the prescribed burning regime in that I do not think we are providing him with the resources required to carry out the job that is expected of him. Over the past decade in Victoria we have seen a pitiful attempt to reduce the fuel load. We have only burnt in the magnitude of 30,000 to 40,000 hectares per year.

I must acknowledge, however, that there has been an increase in the past 12 months to something in excess of 100,000 hectares, which is getting closer to the community expectation of this agency in terms of its fuel reduction effort. I believe we must provide more resources to the agency and to Mr Waller for the work he does to ensure that he can burn on a larger number of days. I completely reject the argument being put that there are so few days on which we can burn safely in Victoria. I believe that there would be far more days on which we could burn if we put resources on the ground to assist in that process. We are going to need to accept that there is an element of risk. If you are burning more frequently, if you are pushing the envelope, so to speak, there will be occasions when there will be escapes, and we need to be tolerant of that and we need to raise the community’s understanding that it is for the good of the community that we have these prescribed burns to reduce the level of fuel in the environment and that it is in their own interests, for the protection of their properties and their families in the future.

That is the feedback that I am receiving from residents on the ground. It has been a constant message for many years, and I believe there are opportunities for us to provide more resources to the agencies and also to engage more with our local CFA brigades in the off season. I fear that we rely on these men and women of the Country Fire Authority in a crisis situation but we do not really assist them or engage with them during the off season, when I believe they are equally as important. It may be an anathema to a lot of people, but there may be opportunities to provide some training wage, some sort of subsidy, to the CFA directly to the volunteers involved if they are doing this prescribed burning work.

There is an expectation due to a strong sense of duty within our CFA volunteers that it is purely a voluntary service. We have a small army of people in Victoria. There are, I think, about 58,000CFA volunteers who have the skills. They have been trained up, they have the practical knowledge, they have fought on many fire fronts and they also have skills that we could be using during the fire off season on preventative measures. There may be opportunities for employment associated with that. This would not tarnish their reputation at all as the heroes of our bushfires in terms of their voluntary commitment.

However, I think if we are going to expect these agencies to make commitments to these long-campaign fires, it is unrealistic to expect the business community to be relieving their volunteers for all of this work and to expect our volunteers to carry the high significant personal and economic costs. I think there are opportunities to improve the resourcing of our prescribed burning campaigns in conjunction with the trained staff we have within the CFA. In any case, we have a significant problem with the ageing nature of our CFA volunteer workforce, and we need to do more to encourage young people to be involved in the future.

I am sure that the royal commission in Victoria will consider these and many other issues, including the merits of the early warning system which is the substance, I believe, of the bill which is before us today. Just as I referred to the practical issues involved with prevention of bushfires, I believe there are going to be a lot of practical issues that need to be considered as part of our discussion of the early warning system. As I referred to earlier in relation to the correspondent from the seat of McMillan, I do support in principle that there should be better information flow in this emergency situation. That is a key concern for people. They need to know what is going on, and it becomes very difficult for people once the emergency starts.

From the Gippsland experience, one of the critical aspects of the last bushfires was that we lost access to our regional ABC radio. It was not across the whole electorate, but in certain patches the transmission went down when the tower at Mount Tassie was exposed to the fire front. As our emergency services broadcaster, we had become accustomed to listening to the ABC as a first point of information. When that transmission tower came under attack, a lot of people were without direct information on the fire front. The telephone based early warning system would complement the ABC emergency services broadcast process, but it would also be exposed to similar threats in making sure that the message gets out to the people who need it the most.

Unfortunately a lot of our rural and regional areas are in quite rugged terrain and the mobile phone coverage, for example, can be patchy at best. So there will be issues there in making sure that the people who need the message the most actually receive it. There are going to be practical measures that I am sure will need to be fully discussed in the implementation phase. The timing of the warning is something that I think will need a great deal of reflection by those who are charged with the management of any system which is introduced. We are going to need a situation in which someone who is close to the fire front will be informing the incident control centre, which can be difficult.

There will be issues about who makes the decisions about when to send out a warning and when it is too late to be advising people to leave. They will be significant points of discussion as we move forward with this issue. We need to avoid, of course, the situation of the last-minute rush which proved so fatal in so many of our communities, but I believe it is going to be a very heavy burden of responsibility to fall on someone’s shoulders in relation to these practical issues of who makes those calls in relation to the time to leave and giving information to people about the best course of action. So I do support the early warning system in principle but I think the protocols for the use of any type of system will need to be established very early—and we do not want to be overplaying this as a solution to the bushfire crisis.

Just as people do not expect to have a fire tanker at their door, they must not expect a text message giving them precise information on the time to leave and the road to take to safely escape. We cannot create a situation where people become dependent on information which may not even come in some circumstances and is beyond the control of the emergency incident control centres. I do believe that an early management system does have the potential to save some lives and, if it saves any lives, it is well worth doing. But it should be part of a suite of much bigger reforms.

As I said earlier, once the fire has started we are actually playing catch up from that point onwards. The information and the warnings that are delivered during an event are always going to be important but they must never replace the practical and common-sense steps that we all need to take in terms of preparing our properties, reducing the fuel loads and keeping our roads clear in the event of fires. As I flagged in the condolence motion a week or so ago, the issue of leaving early or defending a well prepared home is going to be one of the pivotal questions as we go forward in our hopes to minimise the impact of bushfires and prevent the loss of life.

I think the experience of the past couple of weeks in Victoria has given our community a very harsh dose of reality in terms of our capacity to deal with these fires in situations where we have had such a long build-up of dry weather and fuel in the forest floor, and I think we have run the risk of underestimating the potential of these fires and perhaps overestimating our own capacity to deal with them on days when the fire scale is completely out of all proportion to what we normally expect. It has given us all a very good sense of perspective of what is important in our lives. We have already seen, with the current fires occurring in Victoria as we speak, that there seems to be more of a readiness for people to leave early, to pack the few possessions they want and to acknowledge that their lives are more important than staying to defend their property.

I think we are going to see more of that in the future, and we are going to need to accommodate those people if they do make the decision to leave early. There will be people leaving enmasse from some of these suburban hinterland areas. There is a real balancing act to be managed here in that in certain circumstances I am very confident of people’s capacity to defend their properties if they stay and defend, but on days like we had on 7 February I doubt that anyone could manage to defend a property if they faced the full front of the fire. I have spoken in the past about the need for a national database of every known firebug, with strict reporting provisions which would require these people to report any change of address and subject them to high levels of scrutiny and police surveillance if required.

It is an issue that I feel very strongly about, and it would allow authorities to keep a check on these people during the days of extreme danger when firebugs tend to be at their worst. The most serious offenders could even be required to report to authorities on days of total fire ban. It is very hard for our fire authorities to manage lightning strikes and the accidental ignition of fires, let alone the constant threat of criminal activity during the fire danger period.

I have written to the Prime Minister and sought his support for this practical measure which I believe could help to reduce the incidence of deliberately lit fires in the future. Again, it is not a silver bullet. It is just another tool to help our emergency services personnel, particularly to help our police detect these offenders and keep an eye on them on days when I fear they are at their worst. You can say a prayer for the emergency services personnel in Victoria faced with the conditions that are expected tomorrow. They will require all the good fortune we can wish upon them. We would rather see an inch of rain than the conditions that are heading their way tomorrow.

As I said at the outset, the coalition wishes to cooperate with the government in relation to this bill. A telephone based early warning system, I believe, has the potential to assist our communities to remain safe in these emergency situations. Allowing access by an emergency management person to information contained in the Integrated Public Number Database is a positive move but it should not distract us from the hard work, the practical work that is required to prevent these bushfires and minimise their impact in the future.

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