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Doorstop Interview: Launch Australian Bushfire & Climate Plan; bushfire preparedness; Government’s failure to spend disaster mitigation funds

September 02, 2020

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
DOORSTOP INTERVIEW
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
WEDNESDAY, 2 SEPTEMBER 2020
 
SUBJECTS: Launch Australian Bushfire & Climate Plan; bushfire preparedness; Government’s failure to spend disaster mitigation funds.
 
HELEN HAINES, INDEPENDENT MEMBER FOR INDI: Thanks everyone for coming out this morning. Today’s a really important day. Today in the Parliament I will be tabling the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action and Climate Council Australian Bushfire and Climate Plan. This is an important report and plan that needs to be brought to the attention of our Parliament, of our Nation and especially of our government. 33 retired former Emergency and Fire Chiefs together with people from all disciplines: farmers, scientists, veterinarians, Indigenous leaders; everyday people who’ve been affected by the tragic bushfire season that came before us, got together at a summit and worked together to come forward with a plan for us to address global warming and the crisis that that creates for emergency services, bushfires and this nation.
 
It’s one year ago on Sunday, September the 6th when Australia started to burn last year, one year ago, and already fires have started again in Australia. We cannot forget what happened over the summer and this plan is something that will help us prepare for the future. It talks about response, it talks about readiness, it talks about recovery. There are 165 recommendations in this report. A clear one that really spoke to me was about the establishment of permanent community resilience hubs. In my electorate of Indi which was badly affected by the Black Summer bushfires, mental health of people trying to recover from those bushfires has been a key problem and it will be an ongoing problem. I know from the community of Kinglake, which I also represent, which suffered from tragic fires in Black Saturday ten years ago, post traumatic stress disorder is an ongoing issue in that community. So community resilience hubs is a key recommendation in this report that I think is a very very important one.
 
In my electorate of Indi, we know that the CSIRO are predicting a 44% increase in severe fire days coming into the next thirty years. 44% increase – imagine that after the summer that we’ve just had. So today I am really realy determined that the Parliament listens to these retired former Emergency Services leaders. We didn’t listen to them one year ago, we must listen to them now. And I have with me Parliamentary colleagues who’ve all experienced bushfires in their regions, and Parliamentary colleagues who were not able to be with us today. So I’m going to ask them to speak now because we do need to work together, we do need to be united in this Parliament to address the key driver of catastrophic bushfires, and that’s climate change. 
 
KRISTY MCBAIN, MEMBER FOR EDEN-MONARO: Thank you Helen, and thank you for inviting myself and my colleagues here to be part of this today. Yesterday marked the start of bushfire season amongst much of the Eden-Monaro electorate. Today, the second day of the bushfire season there is a high fire danger, already on the coast. We need to work together, we need to come together, not only as a party, but as a group of individual Parliamentarians to represent our communities and push for more action. Bushfire resilience, bushfire mitigation and bushfire recovery are key items that need to be done in our communities to make them safe for the future. It is really important that we start to work together and we understand the trauma that so many of our communities have gone through. It is very important that we now listen to some of the recommendations put forward in this report.
 
In the area of Eden-Monaro we know that more land managers could be put in place. In forestry, in our national parks, in our farmlands, in our estuaries. Those jobs put back into the regions not only help add to the economic drivers of regional economies, but they also manage risk for all those people that live within the Eden-Monaro electorate.
 
FIONA PHILLIPS, MEMBER FOR GILMORE: Hi everyone, I’m Fiona Phillips, the Federal Member for Gilmore on the NSW South Coast and like many of my colleagues here, my electorate was really decimated by the summer bushfires which of course ranged for so long. Look one of the things that I just want to talk about today is what my communities are telling me, and that is that they are really worried about this upcoming bushfire season that has started again yesterday in my areas. They are really worried about how do we prepare for future bushfires.  Where once people would have been talking about potholes and roads, now the number one issue is how do I have power backup, how do I have telecommunications backup, how do I have disability access in my local community evacuation centre so that we never have to experience some of the things we experienced last summer. We know that people were absolutely terrified where they were going through a fire where they lost communication with loved ones, and we know there are some simple things that could be done to help prepare, to help mitigate and that’s what we should be spending our money on, in terms of prevention and mitigation.  The Government should be doing absolutely everything possible.  I certainly commend this report. We need to help our communities prepare. Thank you.
 
SUSAN TEMPLEMAN, MEMBER FOR MACQUARIE:  I’m Susan Templeman, the Member for Macquarie and of course what we know is that the government has been in my electorate [INAUDIBLE] the largest fire the world has seen in a single [INAUDIBLE]. So we’re living with the aftermath of that and this report gives some really practical ways forward.  There are two areas that I want to touch on, and one is the mental health of firefighters, making sure that they’re prepared and supported through what we know are going to be more longer and longer bushfire seasons. The second area is on rebuilds and insurance. Right now in the Hawksbury out of the 20 homes that were destroyed only two people have applied and gone through the pre-DA process. So coming up to nine or ten months on there is not much rebuilding happening. And one of the key reasons for that is underinsurance. I know because I lost my house in 2013 and we were severely underinsured, as were the 200 other families in the Blue Mountains who suffered that fire. So this report looks at insurance and for many years I’ve been calling for the Federal Government to play a role with the insurers in making sure insurance is affordable and in making sure that when people do start to rebuild, they’re covered enough to rebuild or relocate. And they also need to be rewarded if they build [INAUDIBLE] to their home, retro-fit or put in all those fire-saving measures. So they’re the sorts of things that are really practical things in this report and I am urging the government to pay close attention to it, along with the other reports that are there. Now I am going to hand to my Shadow Minister.
 
MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT:  Thanks very much Susan. Murray Watt, Labor Shadow Minister for Disaster and Emergency Management. Can I thank Helen very much for organising today’s event? As you can see this is a cross-party event and members from all parties and independents have been invited to participate today because we really think that making sure that our communities are prepared for bushfires and other disasters is something that really is above politics. It’s something that all of our communities, no matter how they vote, have an interest in and it doesn’t matter how you voted last year, if you were living in the wrong place at the wrong time you were affected by these terrible bushfires.
 
I also welcome this report from the ex-fire chiefs. You can’t really expect to get any better advice than from people who have been managing these kind of bushfires throughout their entire careers. I think the whole community was disappointed last year that the Prime Minister refused to meet with these ex-fire chiefs to listen to their advice. And we certainly hope that leading up to this bushfire season, the Prime Minister, the Government and all parties will listen to this excellent report that we’ve seen from the ex-fire chiefs.  As has already been mentioned, yesterday the bushfire season started in New South Wales. In my home state of Queensland we’ve got bushfires happening right now and on the outskirts of Darwin, they’ve got bushfires happening right now.  So this is a challenge that is with us already. This is not something that’s necessarily going to be waiting until December or January.  This is happening right now, and that’s why we do need the Government to take on board these excellent suggestions from our ex-fire chiefs. 
 
Just to focus on one thing that’s been highlighted in this report, that’s the issue of disaster mitigation. There’s a whole range of recommendations in this report but one of the really important and practical things that governments can do is invest in mitigation, to ensure that when bushfires and other disasters hit, the damage is not as serious as it otherwise might be. You can be investing in flood levees, you can be investing in fire breaks, you can be investing in evacuation centres and a bit over a year ago the Opposition worked with the Government to create a new Emergency Response Fund. That’s a $200 million per year fund to invest in disaster recovery and mitigation. We were very disappointed that when we got to the end of the financial year, 30th of June this year, not a single dollar had been spent by the Government out of this $200 million fund that we worked with the Government to establish. And I’m very concerned that we’re going to get to this bushfire season, with floods and cyclones as well, and we will have missed the opportunity to use that fund to invest in some of those mitigation measures that would avoid some of the damage that we’ve seen in the past to communities. So, I really do hope that the Government listens to these recommendations, uses some of its existing funds to make sure that we’re a lot better prepared for this season than we were for last season.
 
JOURNALIST: [INAUDIBLE]
 
WATT:  Look I don’t know that you can ever be fully prepared for disaster seasons because the climate that we’re living in is becoming so variable. I mean, last year we saw unprecedented bushfires hit parts of the country that had never really had them before. But what you can do is invest and make sure that you are as prepared as possible.  And I think again we saw last year that that preparation work had not been done, we didn’t have the aerial firefighting equipment in place that we needed, we were asking volunteers to work far, far longer than they should have needed to, and we didn’t invest in those mitigation strategies that would have reduced the damage. So there’s no excuses heading into this disaster season. We’ve seen what happens when we don’t prepare adequately, there are all sorts of warnings now coming through to the Government from ex-fire chiefs, from Members of Parliament, we had the interim Royal Commission report this week. The Government can’t say this time that it isn’t prepared; it’s got the advice it needs and it should act on it now.
 
JOURNALIST: [INAUDIBLE]?
 
MCBAIN: There is not a person, a business or an industry that has not been impacted by the Black Summer bushfires in Eden-Monaro. People are rightly anxious about this season. Whist we have seen some rain it hasn’t taken away the anxiety that many people across Eden-Monaro are feeling and if you look at the vulnerability maps, it shows still that Eden-Monaro is highly vulnerable to fire during this season. The mental health, the resilience of our communities is really being tested, but the mental health in our communities has deteriorated. I mean you can’t say that it hasn’t. It is very difficult at the moment, I guess we’ve had accumulative disasters and accumulative impact of those disasters takes a toll on people and communities and we need to start action. What people want to see is action. They want to know that Governments of all levels, of all persuasions are there to make sure that these people are going to be ok into the future. They want action and they want it now.
 
TEMPLEMAN: Can I add to that. I’ve noticed already on Twitter and on Facebook members of my community expressing anxiety about the upcoming season and part of that is that we haven’t seen anything different on the ground. We haven’t seen a lot of recovery money flow through, we haven’t seen a lot of rebuilding, we haven’t seen anything that would suggest to us that it’s going to be different if there’s a big fire than the last one was.  So until people see things on the ground, they are rightly going to be anxious and worried.  It’s great to have reports like this, the Royal Commission, the New South Wales inquiry, but nothing’s actually changed yet and that’s what people need to see, they really need to see change.
 
PHILLIPS: I just want to add to that, my community obviously had the bushfires, we’ve had three disaster declared floods on top of that, and a pandemic, and that has taken a real toll on people in my community. I’ve visited areas where they’ve had the bushfires, and then the flood has come up, and then the flood has come up again. We’ve seen tourists turned away, tourists come back and turned away again, and that has really taken a toll on many of our small business owners, our workers and people. You know we’ve got the bushfire season that’s just started again.  But this is very raw and very real for many people. We have to learn the lessons that we’ve seen, and as I say it’s happened in our areas, but disasters like this could happen in any area. So it’s really important that we learn the lessons, and as a Government, improve.
 
HAINES: I think we have to take on board that we’ve been given advice, not only by experts, retired emergency services personnel, but we’ve been given advice by the CSIRO, we’ve been given advice by scientists all over the world that with a heating planet we are going to see more frequent natural disasters such as what we saw over our summer here in Australia. It’s a key message from this report, at every stage we need to be doing the things we know we must do now, we need to learn the lessons from the last summer, and from every Royal Commission into bushfires that has gone before it. But fundamentally, we need to be reducing our emissions, we need to be responding to a warming climate, we need to understand that the impacts that’s having on natural disasters, and on human health, and we’ve talked a lot this morning about mental health.  A bushfire season such as what we’ve had not only tragically meant we’ve had significant loss of life in this country from the fires themselves, but from the aftermath as well. Until we truly acknowledge that we need to seriously reduce our emissions across the world, and here in Australia in particular with good policy, bipartisan policy, until such a time that we’ve come out of our corners and come together such as what we’ve done today to say, “yes we have learned the lessons.” We now have a precedented fire season.  Unprecedented last year, it’s now precedented, and we must act.  Excellent recommendations in this report, I sincerely hope they will be taken seriously.  Thanks everyone.
 
ENDS

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