Bush fire Royal Commission - 2SM interview

November 03, 2020






SUBJECT: Final report of National Natural Disaster Response Royal Commission.

MARCUS PAUL, HOST: The Federal Member for Macquarie is Susan Templeman, she’s with us on the program, good morning Susan.


PAUL: Thank you so much. Now I, it’s the first time I’ve spoken to you publicly and I hadn’t realised that you lost your home back in 2013 during the bushfires in the Blue Mountains?

TEMPLEMAN: Yeah, look we’ve just had the seventh anniversary in the Winmalee and Mount Victoria communities marking that bushfire. And you know, it feels like the summer bushfires were a long time ago but they still feel very fresh in my community because we obviously had Gospers fire, which was the largest fire the world has ever seen from a single ignition point. And we still very much feel like it was only yesterday that the air was full of smoke that lasted obviously for months. So, while COVID has created even more complications, the memory of bushfires is very, very fresh.

PAUL: Well absolutely, particularly for those communities mostly affected by it, and of course I meant no disrespect when I said it feels like a long time away …

TEMPLEMAN: Oh no, no, but you’re right. I mean, we’re working really hard to make sure on the national agenda that these communities aren’t forgotten.

PAUL: No, well absolutely, and you speak of the Gospers Mountain fire. I mean, I live – I was living – very close, out Warragamba way, to the big fire that went through there. I mean there were homes lost less than three kilometres from where I was living and it was scary times, and had there not been a sudden shift in the wind direction, then we could have been in a little trouble up around Silverdale, Warragamba as well, like we were back in early 2000. I mean it’s just incredible, and what can we do about it? I mean what ultimately has this commission found into natural disasters that we need to improve on to, I mean, we’re always going to have bushfires in this country of ours. It’s part and parcel, we are a land of, you know, fires, droughts and floods and all the rest of it. What can we do?

TEMPLEMAN: Yeah, well look I think what was really good to see in the report was the recognition that in fact we had failed to do some of the things that could have been done, that the government had failed to prepare for a big bushfire. Really, this report showed that it failed to respond in the best possible way to it. It was slow to recognise the enormity of the catastrophe I think, and we saw plenty of evidence of that, and slow to call out agencies like the Australian Defence Force in any numbers to help respond to it. And then the third bit is the slow to recover, and the recovery has felt exceptionally slow out in my community, and it would be the same all over Greater Sydney and I know it’s the same on the South Coast and even on the North Coast, because remember this time last year there’d been a couple of months of fires up on the North Coast by now. So it’s a really comprehensive report.

The big thing that underpins it is the recognition that yes, we’ve always had fires, but that the natural disasters are going to get deeper, bigger, more frequent. That they’re going to be – and it says – more complex, more unpredictable, more difficult to manage than anything we’ve seen before. And it isn’t just talking bushfires, it’s talking cyclones, you know, tsunamis, floods, all the different catastrophes that changes in the climate will make more extreme. So that underpins everything this report talks about. But it says the Australian Government should be doing much more before, during and after.

PAUL: Look, one of the things that I’ve got in the notes here from your office is in relation to the use of the Australian Defence Force. Now, during the bushfire crisis of last summer, I spent a bit of time out in the Hawkesbury. I was house sitting for my sister of all things, and I would drive past Richmond RAAF base each and every day to come into work here in the city. And I would see that there were, you know, the big 737s and the Nancy – oh I can’t remember what it was called – the Angels from the Sky. A couple of them, that’s where they were based and taking off and re-fuelling and getting their supply of retardant and all the rest of it. But I mean, is that something we can look at in the future, maybe housing permanently an air response to national disasters at Richmond, at the RAAF base?

TEMPLEMAN: Yeah, you’re thinking exactly as I am. It was an incredible hive of activity there, and really comforting to see the planes coming and going. That’s certainly one bit of aircraft noise you don’t mind in the middle of a bushfire. And I do think the Royal Commission recommends that we beef up the fleet that is permanently based to tackle these disasters, and I can’t think of a better place than the Richmond RAAF base for that to be based – easy access north and south. It would be the, at the epicentre really of the area that covers the bushfires appearing. The other thing of course is, we need to be training up the pilots to fly those planes. Right now we tend to import all of that expertise but the Royal Commission talks about having a homegrown fleet with homegrown pilots and operators. So that is a really positive recommendation, and one that obviously requires cooperation with the states as many of these do, but it needs leadership from the Federal Government on that one. I mean, I think the RAAF base was a great example of the Defence Force playing a role but the Royal Commission notes that there is greater capacity for Defence Force personnel to be involved. And one of the things I saw – which obviously should have - all of this should have been talked about long before we got the biggest bushfire we’ve ever seen – and that is how we support the Rural Fire Service volunteers to clear fire trails. Now, they’re an ageing volunteer workforce and the younger, very physically fit Defence Force personnel could be just a great addition to the person power that’s needed to get out and do really labour-intensive work on those fire trails.

PAUL: Well that’s right. I’ve always been an advocate for, you know in peacetime which we effectively are thank goodness, why wouldn’t we be using the Australian Defence Force, who we’re already paying anyway, and using their expertise, their manpower, their muscle power if you like, to do all of the hard work? I mean, I know they were eventually called in, but I think they should be fire ready at all times. So that’s very important. Also, I noticed the issue is about communications. Now it’s very difficult to fight any natural national disaster without communication. Black spots in mobile phone areas are a problem, is that right?

TEMPLEMAN: Yeah, there’s two aspects to the communication. There’s the way the emergency services personnel communicate with each other, and the Royal Commission makes a whole range of recommendations about improving their ability to communicate, but the other one is about mobile phone towers going out of action because power gets cut off. There’s recommendations about keeping the power on and having back up to that. We have that problem up on the Bells Line of Road at Bilpin where the mobile phone tower meant that hundreds of people had no communication because their land lines went as well. But the other bit is the mobile black spots, where there simply is no mobile coverage, and with NBN now, the minute your electricity goes, you lose not just your internet but your phone line, and when you don’t have mobile coverage you’ve got nothing. There doesn’t seem to be a lot in the Royal Commission on my first read of it, and I’m going to be asking questions about that, about the attention that needs to be paid to pick up those mobile black spots. My community, you know the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury, there are mobile phone black spots all over the place and that really puts people’s lives at danger. And I think the government is failing to recognise that.

PAUL: Alright Susan great to have you on the program, we’ll talk more on this, and good luck. I know you’re going to be challenging a few issues, but overall I would hope the Federal Government will implement all of the recommendations from this Royal Commission into national natural disaster arrangements.

TEMPLEMAN: Absolutely and you know the big question – and your conversation earlier with Andrew Leigh – the transparency around the recovery efforts, that’s the other thing we need to keep an eye on.

PAUL: Well said, OK thank you for coming on.

TEMPLEMAN: Thanks Marcus.