Bushfires Amendment Bill

Bills, In Parliament, Speeches

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 8 September 2021.)

The Hon. E.S. BOURKE (17:24): I rise to indicate that the opposition supports the Fire and Emergency Services (Bushfires) Amendment Bill, brought to this place by the Hon. John Darley. This bill seeks to amend the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 and makes amendments to the Emergency Management Act 2004. This bill has been introduced by the Hon. John Darley to further protect communities vulnerable to the devastation of out-of-control bushfires. The bill seeks to do this by adding bushfire monitoring technology and a statewide plan for prescribed burns on public and private land.

There is a sense of urgency to this bill, given that the first bushfire of the season has already occurred on the second day of spring of this year. It is the view of the opposition that we must see every tool at our disposal to prevent bushfires, particularly to avoid the devastation of bushfires that we have seen, like Cudlee Creek and Kangaroo Island. Those dreadful fires led to the comprehensive review of the former federal police commissioner, Mike Keelty OAM.

While prescribed burning has been shown to reduce the intensity and destruction of wildlife and property in the event of a bushfire, even when prescribed burns are managed well they are inherently high risk and require significant resources and have a cost to local government. Prescribed burning on private land is further complicated by a confusing application process and a need to develop a complex operational burn plan.

The Keelty review identified many shortcomings in our state’s bushfire preparedness, including confusion about landowners’ access to information, which would allow them to adequately protect their land or fully understand burning operations on public land. The opposition supports the Hon. John Darley in his genuine effort to introduce more transparency into the State Bushfire Management Plan, and to give the public and the parliament more information on an annual basis to ensure that everything possible is being done to prevent bushfires.

As previously noted by the Hon. John Darley, a 2016 Burning on Private Land Project noted that without professional support landowners are unlikely to conduct strategic burns and instead are likely to opt for mechanical land clearances, compromising environmental assets, or to undertake no hazard reduction activities at all. This is especially concerning, considering that almost 40 per cent of land requiring operational burns in the Mount Lofty Ranges are on private land.

This bill essentially enhances the requirements of the State Bushfire Management Plan and subsequently expands the annual reporting requirements of the State Bushfire Coordination Committee. The State Bushfire Management Plan is required, but is not limited, to:

set out the principles to be applied to achieving appropriate levels of hazard reduction for bushfire management;

outline strategies to achieve the statewide coordination and integration of bushfire management activities;

set standards or requirements that must be applied or observed in the preparation and implementation of the bushfire management area plan; and

include or address the other matters prescribed by the regulations or specified by the minister after consultation with the chief officer of the South Australian CFS.

The role of the State Bushfire Coordination Committee is to provide a coordination and assurance function for bushfire management in the state. The committee is based upon collaboration and has no power to direct the wide range of government and non-government stakeholders included in its membership.

The South Australian CFS is required to provide executive support to the State Bushfire Coordination Committee and the South Australian CFS Chief Executive Officer, who is the ex officio chair, but the State Bushfire Coordination Committee is not a committee of the South Australian CFS, it is a state government committee appointed by the Governor. Further to that, section of 71E of the Fire and Emergency Act states:

(1) The State Bushfire Coordination Committee must, on or before 31 August in each year, provide to the minister a report on activities of the State Bushfire Coordination Committee and each bushfire management committee during the preceding financial year (and need not provide a report under the Public Sector Act 2009).

(2) The Minister must, within 12 sitting days after receiving a report under this section, have copies of the report laid before both Houses of Parliament.

So the Hon. John Darley’s bill and the amendments filed by the Hon. John Darley do two things which will enhance transparency and community understanding going into each bushfire season. Firstly, the bill creates a provision for a statewide plan for coordinating prescribed burns within the State Bushfire Management Plan. It is important to note that the bill is not prescriptive but merely provides that such a plan should exist so that the public have at least a rough idea of what is planned. It must be reported to the parliament within the annual report of the State Bushfire Coordination Committee.

Prescribed burns are largely the responsibility of the Department for Environment and Water, and of course they already publish burns on a regular basis. This bill merely formalises this process in the State Bushfire Management Plan. As I said, it is not prescriptive. Should the pattern of burns or the methods and how they are described change, they can be updated in the committee’s annual report.

Secondly, the bill creates a provision to allow the State Bushfire Coordination Committee to report to parliament on the use of any fire monitoring and detection cameras and other technologies, and the use of any police monitoring technologies as part of Operation Nomad within the annual report of the State Bushfire Coordination Committee.

Again, my understanding is that this is not prescriptive. It simply anticipates, quite reasonably, that firefighting authorities will adopt this new technology over time and allows the annual reporting process to inform the public and the parliament of these developments. Of course, if the government intends to amend this bill in any way, we will listen to any sensible ideas that are put forward and consider those between the houses.

I hope we all want the same thing here: to prevent bushfires and ensure that firefighters and the broader community have all the information they need to make informed decisions and keep each other safe. I thank the Hon. John Darley for the work he has done to bring this bill together and for working with members to coordinate this bill. Any increases to the safety and management of necessary operational burns should be welcomed by the parliament and this bill seeks to do just that. The opposition will support this bill and the amendments currently filed by the Hon. John Darley.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:32): Bushfires have long been a regular occurrence in our country, there is no doubt about that. They are so common that many native plant species have adapted to require scarification from hot temperatures in order for their seeds to germinate. This is far from a new phenomenon that we are grappling with. What has changed of course is the severity—the increasing severity and scale of these fires—and the ever-shrinking window we have to prepare for them due to climate change.

This bill seeks to enhance some of the measures we take to help us prepare and protect ourselves from these inevitable fires. Prescribed burning, while certainly not the only measure, is an extremely important and valuable tool to be used in reducing the severity of bushfires and one that has been used in various forms for so many thousands of years by Indigenous communities. However, much like any tool, it must be used effectively in order to have the best outcome. There have been concerns raised not only about the underutilisation of prescribed burning by private landowners due to a lack of knowledge of how to safely conduct them but also with burns being carried out in areas that are not critical to protecting our communities.

For prescribed burning to work as effectively as it can, it must be undertaken on both public and private land and in areas where it will have the most benefit. As the Hon. John Darley mentioned in his second reading explanation, using this method effectively requires a large commitment of human resources, physical assets and relevant expertise, which can be costly and therefore not accessible to many people or councils.

The Greens have long supported prescribed burning when it is used appropriately. The topic of prescribed burns is often a tricky one to navigate but it is not something we can afford to toss into the too hard basket, nor is it something we can rely completely upon due to the small amount of time when conditions are ideal to carry out burns safely. The Greens believe there is much to learn from the traditional custodians of this land and we should be listening to those communities about their various cultural fire practices.

Further, we must ensure that communities are educated and that they are trained and provided with the resources they need to adequately prepare for a bushfire, especially those who live in the higher risk areas; that new and existing buildings and spaces in high-risk areas are fireproofed as much as possible and that existing buildings and spaces are too; and that both our country and our metropolitan fire services receive the funding they need to be appropriately equipped and trained while still having the capacity to continuously recruit more workers.

There is no silver bullet with regard to bushfire safety and we must ensure that we are continuously reassessing our toolbox so that we are basing our approach on the best available science, whilst balancing competing social, economic and environmental factors. This bill also seeks to introduce bushfire monitoring and detection cameras. These cameras are intended to help provide for the early detection of fires, which can be crucial and aid in identifying arsonists. This could be a game changer in protecting people, environment and country, as well as property.

Although I support this, I would like to put on the record that we have some concerns that have been raised in enshrining this system in our law without trialling it first and placing this responsibility on the already strained State Bushfire Coordination Committee. This committee has an extremely important and difficult task to undertake and we should be doing all we can to ensure that they are able to carry out their duties efficiently, and not overloading them.

We have seen time and time again the absolute devastation that bushfires can cause, and I am sure the terrifying and heartbreaking images from the 2019-20 bushfire season are still fresh in our minds, as is the memory of that choking smoke. Unfortunately, this of course is only the beginning. As the sixth IPCC report highlighted, extreme fire days are becoming more common. The fire seasons are becoming longer, and the intensity, frequency and duration of fire weather events are projected to increase throughout our nation.

This bill is a step in the right direction, but these measures must be accompanied by serious, immediate and long-term climate action at every level of government—state, federal and local. Some governments are acting appropriately and taking this risk seriously, but others are dragging their feet, risking all of our futures for power or for money. If we truly want to protect people, environment and property from bushfires, then we need to address climate change. Otherwise, that hellscape that was the 2019-20 bushfire season is likely to become an increasing reality.

The Hon. S.G. WADE (Minister for Health and Wellbeing) (17:37): I rise on behalf of the government to speak on the Fire and Emergency Services (Bushfires) Amendment Bill 2021 and indicate that the government will not be supporting the bill. The bill has two distinct aims. Firstly, it aims to require annual reporting to parliament and planning of prescribed burns. Secondly—and I understand this has changed substantially from the initial bill—the bill requires annual reporting to parliament on the developments in emerging technologies insofar as they relate to bushfires.

In respect of the first element of the bill, reporting on the planning and execution of prescribed burns already occurs publicly and is a collaborative effort between the Department for Environment and Water, the CFS, ForestrySA and SA Water. DEW publishes an interactive map, which details the proposed locations of prescribed burns, which updates as they are executed.

Currently, in addition to the inaugural State Bushfire Management Plan, which the Marshall government delivered as part of its $97.5 million response to the Keelty review, the State Bushfire Coordination Committee oversees nine bushfire management areas, which produce bushfire management area plans. The State Bushfire Management Plan is a five-year plan. Bushfire management area plans are generally developed to guide a period ranging from four to 10 years. Mr Darley’s bill would require the State Bushfire Management Plan to be updated on an annual basis to include the statewide prescribed burns plan.

The State Bushfire Management Plan sets out the statewide principles and strategy in respect of hazard reduction, whilst the area plans identify risk locations within their respective areas. These locations are published online, with an accompanying treatment register. Under this bill, the requirement for an annual statewide prescribed burns plan would require the five-year State Bushfire Management Plan to be updated on an annual basis, which would have significant resourcing implications.

In respect to annual reporting to parliament, as part of our response to the Keelty review the Marshall government amended the Fire and Emergency Act 2005 to require the State Bushfire Coordination Committee to provide an annual report to the minister for tabling in parliament. This report includes reports from each bushfire management area. The Department for Environment and Water annual report also reports on the conduct of prescribed burns. The government does not see the value in establishing an annual review of a plan when the information is already publicly available.

In respect to the second element of the bill, the government is of the view that the intention of the bill was to deal with deliberately lit bushfires; however, as amended, the bill seems to require broader reporting on the development of technologies. South Australia Police have raised particular concerns should a requirement for annual reporting on technologies used to prevent bushfires be enacted.

As members can appreciate, SAPOL undertakes a range of activities to prevent deliberately lit bushfires through Operation Nomad. This includes the use of surveillance technology. The publication of these activities and technologies used may compromise the effectiveness of Operation Nomad. I am also aware of concerns held by the CFS in respect to both elements of the bill which would provide the State Bushfire Coordination Committee with the power to essentially direct operational agencies. This is a step the government is not willing to support.

Given the already comprehensive publicly available information on the planning and execution of prescribed burns, the concerns raised by SAPOL, and the concerns raised by the CFS, the government will not be supporting this bill.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.