The following excerpt is from a speech made in the Upper House of Parliament by the Hon Dr Steve Thomas yesterday:
Hon Dr STEVE THOMAS: Page 138 of budget paper No 3 is about the Minister for Emergency Services. It behoves us to stop there for a little while and discuss some of the critical issues in emergency services. There are a few good things for emergency services. I note that the royalties for regions budget continues the process of investing in fuel reduction burning and fire management. In fact, the government has put some dollars into local government to boost its capacity to have emergency management plans. I was the lead speaker for the opposition in 2005, in that other place that shall not be named, when the Emergency Management Bill was debated, so I have a fair bit of knowledge of this matter.
I will tell members more about it. We have quite a bit to get through here. The Emergency Management Bill was a good piece of legislation, and the opposition of the time supported it, although it dealt with some fairly technical issues. The Emergency Management Act requires local governments to come up with emergency management plans. When bush fires, most likely, and occasionally flooding occurs, it is the shire’s responsibility to work out how it manages that process. Unfortunately, at the time of the Emergency Management Act, particularly when we were still debating what the emergency services levy should be set at and what it should be spent on, there were not a lot of resources to go with it. In many cases, local government lacked the capacity to develop adequate emergency management plans. Emergency management plans should be available to be read by the constituents of every local government. In all the local governments I visit in the south west, the first thing I do while waiting for the important person to become available is look at all the documents. I usually find good pamphlets on weed control and getting on with neighbours, but I am always on the lookout for the emergency management plan, which is actually pretty important. A lot of councils do not yet have them, and this is a resourcing issue. I was therefore quite pleased to see some investment in the emergency management planning process, because I think it is absolutely critical in fire management.
This brings me to one of those critical questions in the budget. I cannot find anything in the budget related to the reviews and the proposals for a rural fire service. I cannot find any mention of what the government intends to do about a rural fire service, and certainly no mention of funding for it. That is missing in this budget, so I would be particularly intrigued to know about it. Let us put aside for one minute the various suggestions and reports that it would cost $400 million to develop a rural fire service, which it probably would if every volunteer were paid every time they were involved in some sort of response. That, in my view, would completely undermine the volunteer system and would actually be quite devastating for Western Australia. Let us not talk about the $400 million cost, because obviously that would have to be added to the debt, and we know the government does not have a strategy to get rid of that debt, so we cannot do that. We have to develop a fire control strategy it is not so expensive, but also recognises the need to reinforce and support rural fire service volunteers who are critical to fire management. The government is never going to be able to pay for all the fire management and mitigation processes that need to be done in Western Australia. I understand that the government has now been talking to stakeholder groups about the capacity to effectively have a rural fire service component of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services. We need to look at that fairly critically; I am not necessarily saying that the opposition would automatically support it, but it is worth investigating. I suggest to the government that a deputy commissioner of emergency services be dedicated to supporting rural fire services, which would still be managed in conjunction with local governments, and coordinated by regional fire managers, as is currently the case. This would be a fairly simple and cost efficient way of responding to the issues.
We have to empower and support volunteers who feel disempowered and unsupported, particularly on the fire scene in many cases. In rural areas, local fire brigades belt up to fires and the argument from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services is that our vollies are often a little bit gung-ho and they throw themselves into situations that they perhaps should not. Do members know what? That is exactly what vollies tend to do because it is their community and they are very keen to protect the assets of their community. They are very, very keen to protect their homes, their families and their businesses. Perhaps they are a little bit gung-ho but let us respect that rather than have volunteers sit somewhere, unable to participate because they do not have approval to do so, as happened at a number of fires. Let us invest a little money those volunteers doing some joint training with the professionals. Let us have a representative at the assistant commissioner level to support and encourage volunteers, and encourage interaction between the volunteers, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services and what was the Department of Parks and Wildlife. DPaW was an acronym I could get my tongue around but the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions—DBCA—is much more difficult; the minister will have to come up with better acronyms! That one is really murderous. The department of D–B–C–A; it is hard. A new acronym is required but do not do that and then pay millions of dollars to change all the signage again, because that is very complicated. We need better communication and coordination between those three groups. The volunteers in particular are immensely supported in their local communities but they do not necessarily feel supported by the institutions, which is the first area we need to work on. It is not universal; it does not happen in all areas. In some of the areas that I represent, the volunteers, the Department of Fire and Emergency
Services and the department of conservation crews all work together remarkably well. Down at the capes sort of end of my electorate, at the western end, the interaction and the support for each other is immensely good.
That is why, when we go into this debate about fire and emergency services, those groups are fairly happy with the status quo; they have a good working relationship between those three groups. However, in other areas, that does not work as well, so some investment is required to make it work better. Given the Keelty and Ferguson reports, and ad nauseam debate in Parliament about fire and emergency services, I am surprised that there is no response in the budget to how it might be managed. It may be coming by a ministerial announcement in the not-too-distant future; we can hope.
An opposition member: Royalties for regions!
Hon Dr STEVE THOMAS: It might well be. Considering that this is about building relationships in regional areas, it might be an appropriate expenditure for royalties for regions. However, the reality is that there is probably no greater risk area for fire management than the hills of metropolitan Perth. That mixture of population, housing, undergrowth and forestry makes it an immensely dangerous area. At some point, there will be another significant fire and lots of houses will burn, particularly those houses that have vegetation right up to their edges and, in some cases, partly in the middle of them. Where that occurs, fire is an inevitability. We will not prevent every fire from now on so, at some point, a fair swathe of the hill country will burn, but it is not just the hill country. Dunsborough is a beautiful spot but the combination of hills, houses and bushland means that there is an immensely high fire risk. I had a friend—bless him; he has now passed away—who name was Lindsay. He worked very hard for the Dunsborough Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade. He was a lovely, lovely man; I loved him to bits. He was high up in his local bush fire brigade but when I went to his wake, I walked down the driveway of his house and saw it was surrounded by trees and shrubbery; it was almost semi-forest. I thought: we just do not mention that bit. Bless him—he has moved on now—but when a local fire brigade officer has probably one of the most at-risk houses I have ever seen, there is an issue. We have to have a better response to fire management and we have to do that by using better tools. At some future point in Parliament—not in this debate—I want to talk in more detail about how we might manage that. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the budget does not deal with the government’s response to the reviews and reports or what it intends to do about fire management.
I would have thought it would require some significant spending, even if it was going to add only additional support services to the Department of Fire and Emergency Services. An assistant commissioner and some extra support people who might talk—if that is the minimalist model, which I suspect is ultimately what we might end up with—will still have a budgetary impact. More particularly, I suspect that if we look at more joint training for fire service areas, there will again be a budgetary requirement above and beyond just the minimalist level. It is disappointing that it is not in the budget at the moment. There are other things in the budget that I know the government has stated will come in time, and we can only hope that this is one that might come in the next budget in nine months, because I think it will be important.