Member for Agricultural Region Hon Rick Mazza MLC put the motion below on the notice paper of the Upper House of the Western Australian State Parliament some time ago and it has finally made its way to the top of the list.
Hon Rick Mazza gave notice that at the next sitting of the house he would move —
That this house —
(a) supports the creation of an independent rural fire service consistent with the recommendations of the Euan Ferguson report;
(b) funds the new RFS by a proportion of the emergency services levy;
(c) treats the ESL the same as other sources of state revenue and collected by the Department of Finance;
(d) enables the Department of Finance to remit funding to Department of Fire and Emergency Services and the RFS as per operational and budgetary requirements; and
(e) directs the Standing Committee on Public Administration to inquire into the implementation of an independent rural fire service and report to the Legislative Council within 12 months of the referral.
Motions on Notice are usually debated for 120 minutes every Wednesday of each sitting week and each one may occupy a maximum of 240 minutes (4 hours) in total. This means the debate is often split over more than one sitting week. In this case, the debate was started on 16 May 2018, carried over to the next sitting Wednesday (13 June) and will conclude during the final sitting week before the long winter break in the last week of June.
The mover of the motion, Hon Rick Mazza, opened the debate with an excellent summary of the recent history of Western Australia’s Emergency Services as well as a very clear explanation of the Special Inquiry into the 2016 Waroona Fires (Ferguson Report) and why the member believes the Parliament should support his motion. Mr Mazza made references to both the positive and negative aspects of what the government has delivered in regard to the recommendations of the Ferguson Report which mostly align with the view of the Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades (AVBFB).
When he stood up again on Wednesday this week to recap and conclude his comments, Mr Mazza quite succinctly identified four main points he wanted the House to focus on:
“The first one is the emergency services levy, the second is the cultural differences between the Department of Fire and Emergency Services’ career firefighters and the volunteers, the third is the minister’s claim that everybody is happy with the new rural fire division, and the fourth is the fire summit and the need for an inquiry.”
The member continued:
“With regard to the ESL, we have been told that it will raise about $128 million to go towards the rural fire division. The media that has been put out by the government suggests that around $28 will be raised from metropolitan households and about $17 across the four regional categories to fund the new division. Something that has not really been covered is the cost to commercial and industrial owners. The increase in the ESL levy was gazetted on 29 May, which shows that for commercial and industrial properties in category 1, the cap will be increased from $225 000 to $245 000. The $168 000 for vacant land in category 2 will increase to $183 000—an increase of $15 000. There is the potential for commercial and industrial landholders to pay up to another $20 000 a year in the ESL, which is a significant amount of money. That has not been reported or put out there by the government. It is not just $28 and $17; it could be up to $20 000.
The media put out by the government also said that the ESL had to be raised to fund the rural fire division. Some notes that were given to me on a slide from Treasury in a briefing I had on the state budget suggest that not all of that $128.5 million that is being raised will go to the rural fire division. There has not been transparency in this. The media release stated it was to fund the rural fire division. We are finding that $80.3 million of the $128.5 million is going to the rural fire division. It is broken down into $34.6 million for bushfire mitigation, $15 million from royalties for regions, $18.1 million to establish the Bushfire Centre of Excellence and $15 million for the bushfire risk management planning program. The balance of the money—$19.5 million—is being used for 38 volunteer and marine rescue service groups. I do not think anybody begrudges the volunteer marine rescue service groups getting more funding; there is no doubt that they play a vital role in the rescue of mariners in the state.
However, there should have been some transparency about where this money was going. There is $8.7 million for crew cab protection measures. That may be for the rural fire division but it is more likely to be for some Department of Fire and Emergency Services appliances. There is $8 million to replace ageing volunteer fire stations across the state. That is fair enough. There is $8 million to replace the Kensington career fire and rescue station. That $8 million is going direct to DFES career fire stations. Therefore, not all the money that is raised from the emergency services levy is specifically for the rural fire division.
The motion refers to the need for a separate department to manage the ESL fund. Recommendation 17 of the Ferguson report stated that that should be reviewed. The Economic Regulation Authority’s report also recommended that that be reviewed. Recommendation 6 states —
The Department of Treasury should undertake a review of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services’ structure, resources and administration costs to determine whether services are efficiently delivered.
I do not think that has taken place.”
On the Member’s second point of the cultural differences between services, Mr Mazza said:
“Another key point is the cultural differences between DFES firefighters and volunteer firefighters. I do not take anything away from career firefighters. They do a magnificent job in urban firefighting and rescue. That is not the argument at all. However, there is a big difference between the culture of urban firefighters and that of volunteers. There are 26 000 volunteer firefighters across the state, and in some cases they do not relate well to the command and control structure within DFES.”
He then progressed to highlight that Emergency Services Minister Fran Logan has inaccurately portrayed that everyone is happy with the government’s decision:
“The Minister for Fire and Emergency Services has said that everybody is happy about the new rural fire division. In response to a question without notice asked in the other place by the member for Murray–Wellington, the minister said that he was satisfied that everybody was happy. However, that is not totally the case.”
“The AVBFB is not comfortable with the new rural fire division. Many of the comments made to me…were that AVBFB had no input into the development and restructure of the RFD, and the RFD does not undertake operational activities. The AVBFB feels that as a stakeholder, it has not been properly heard. Other stakeholders also believe they have not been properly heard.”
His final key point was about the Bushfire Mitigation Summit and need for the Parliament to hold an inquiry into a Rural Fire Service:
“The comment has been made that the fire summit was in some way stakeholder consultation. However, I was at that summit, as were Hon Tim Clifford, and also Hon Colin de Grussa, who is away on urgent parliamentary business. The Minister for Environment was also at that summit…To my mind, that summit was certainly not consultation. In fact I think the ERA report stipulates that that is the case.
The idea of inquiring into this is to ensure that all the stakeholders, including the volunteer brigades, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia and WAFarmers, have the chance to put forward their case about what shape they believe an independent rural fire service should take, and to point out some of the deficiencies in the RFD.
I commend the motion to the house, and I look forward to the debate. I hope we are able to reach agreement on this motion, and that that will provide a forum and a platform for stakeholders to have a voice and input into how bushfires should be tackled in this state. I know a lot of that would be in collaboration with DFES. I feel at this point we have a half-baked rural fire division that needs further investigation and stakeholder input. There also needs to be more scrutiny of how ESL funds are being raised.”
The next speaker was the Shadow Minister, Hon Dr Steve Thomas who explained and expanded on his interpretation of Recommendation 15 of the Ferguson Report and how other State’s operate. Dr Thomas made a number of remarks about both the positive and negative aspects of the Rural Fire Division including this telling comment early in his speech:
“On Friday, 13 April 2018, this year—it is 13 June today, so two months ago—the Minister for Emergency Services and the Premier announced the rural fire division. The headline of the media release at the time was “Rural Fire Division to drive new era of enhanced bushfire management”. The first issue is in the name, because it got changed from “rural fire service” to “rural fire division”. Members might not think that is important, but it will be fairly soon, because “rural fire service” indicates a body that might provide services in the way of operations. A rural fire division could simply be a policy arm, a backroom office of the existing Department of Fire and Emergency Services, so it was a very clever little act, in my view, to surreptitiously change the name from “rural fire service”, which raised expectations of people in uniform and protective gear fighting fires, to “rural fire division”, which raises the spectre of, I guess, people still mostly in uniform, but also of some in suits and ties sitting in an office in Darlington…”
“The media release starts out by stating that the McGowan government will invest significant dollars towards fire and emergency services. It will, that is very true, and some of that investment is welcome; we agree with that.
But this is interesting. The press release states —
The Rural Fire Division, one of four command structures in the revamped Department of Fire and Emergency Services, will recognise the expertise and experience of Western Australia’s bushfire volunteers and enable volunteers to have greater input into bushfire management.
It is interesting that of the four command structures in the new DFES structure, the rural fire division is one division. Do members know what one of the other divisions is called? It is called operations. So, operations in the Department of Fire and Emergency Services is a separate division in the structure of DFES from the rural fire division. The rural fire division does not yet officially conduct operations—I will come to that in a little while. The minister acknowledged this in the next line of his press release, which states —
Importantly, the Rural Fire Division does not change the operational and management structure of Bush Fire Brigades which will remain with local governments.
The press release does not state that the operational structure of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services will not change….The new DFES structure has operations completely separate from the rural fire division. Operations will still be broken down into metro and country. The rural fire division will not actually fight fires. I have to say that a lot of volunteer firefighters around the state were a little surprised to learn that the rural fire division, for which they had been waiting for an enormously long time, will not actually fight fires. What was announced was not a rural fire service, but effectively a planning and policy arm of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services to deal with bushfire preparedness and bushfire planning completely separate from the operations of DFES when it fights fires. It was a furphy. The government’s announcement of a rural fire division was supposed to keep everybody quiet; it was smoke and mirrors. It was not quite what the government was trying to announce. In my view, it was quite deceptive. I think the minister in announcing this service should have been more up-front with that process because after the announcement, a lot of people in the volunteer firefighting community had the impression that a rural fire service existed and it would be a new avenue or management for them to fight fires, but it is not. It is an advisory service. It is effectively a bureaucratic arm.
I have quoted before the original recommendations of the “Report of the Special Inquiry into the January 2016 Waroona Fire”, which states —
In creating the Rural Fire Service, the State Government to consider whether back office and corporate support services could be effectively provided by an existing Department, such as the Department of Fire and Emergency Services or the Department of Parks and Wildlife.
The rural fire division as announced by the minister and the government on 13 April is a back office and corporate services sector. The very things that the special inquirer recommended should be put in an existing department are the very things that the government has announced as a rural fire division. It is astounding. Why did the government not come out and simply say that the rural fire division is effectively a back office corporate support service? It is a planning service…When the rural fire division is put together, who will do the operations, because the rural fire division does not operate anything? In fact, the minister confirmed this in a series of answers to questions. I thought this was immensely interesting. On 8 May, after the announcement, I asked the Minister for Environment representing the Minister for Emergency Services—an excellent fellow and minister who has to read out the answers that the Minister for Emergency Services unfortunately provides him—whether the announced rural fire division would manage bushfires. He answered —
The vast majority of bushfires are managed at a local level. This will continue …
I asked —
(2) If the rural fire division will not manage bushfires, what precisely will its role be?
The minister replied —
(2) The rural fire division will lead the reform of the rural fire sector to improve bushfire management outcomes for Western Australian communities, including greater collaboration and interoperability…between sector stakeholders and volunteers. Supported by unprecedented investment, it will also enhance bushfire mitigation and facilitate decentralisation of bushfire management planning and decision-making.
I also asked —
(3) Will the rural fire division manage the supply of equipment …
The minister replied —
(3) The rural fire division will not manage the supply of equipment …
The Liberal Member for South West then pondered the role of the Rural Fire Division and questioned the Minister’s answers to Parliamentary Questions he had asked:
In May, I was still trying to work out what the rural fire service is likely to do. We have also asked whether the government thinks that recommendation 15 has been fully delivered. The government basically said that the rural fire division meets the intent of recommendation 15. I thought that was very interesting. I asked whether recommendation 15 has been delivered. Again, I got one of those very good Yes Minister answers. It was very, very carefully worded.
On 9 May, I received the answer —
…The rural fire division meets the intent of recommendation 15 …
It does not necessarily meet recommendation 15. It does not state that an independent rural fire service has been created. It states that the government has decided that the intent of the special inquirer was a bit more along the lines of the government’s proposal and agenda rather than necessarily what the inquirer actually stated in his report. I dispute whether that is an accurate response from the minister. I wonder whether further inquiry might decide that this is a very misleading statement, because to state in this response that the rural fire division meets the intent of recommendation 15, in my view, absolutely flies in the face of discussion in that same report.
On page 257 of that same report it states in relation to the structure —
In the Special Inquiry’s view, it is difficult to envisage a structure within DFES, other than a sub-department acting with relative autonomy and independence that can deliver rural fire services across the spectrum of prevention, preparedness and response in a more effective way than is currently the case.
I do not necessarily agree that we have to have a completely independent body. I am not convinced that two commissioners—one city and one rural—is necessarily the best answer. However, it is absolutely certain that what was presented by the government is so far from the recommendations of the Ferguson inquiry as to be an absolute nonsense.
The Hon Dr Thomas then moved on to the Emergency Services Levy (ESL):
The other thing the government announced at the same time was an increase in the emergency services levy. The government has put up taxes on all landholders. That additional revenue will provide some reasonably good outcomes. What was not announced at the time is that $100-odd million will be raised out of this…
The rural fire division, which is not a rural service that fights bushfires or provides equipment for people who fight bushfires, is actually a $13 million administrative arm. I am intrigued. The argument the government had was that it could not put in a genuine rural fire service because it would cost too much. I think a figure of $400 million got chucked around, which was absolute nonsense, because that was $400 million to pay all the volunteers like they were full-time fire people. This is $3.2 million a year….A budget of $3.2 million a year for the rural fire division is not a huge lot of money.
The rural fire division is obviously not a firefighting unit, because that could not be managed for $3.2 million a year. I was a bit intrigued to see what the rural fire division would actually do. Just recently, on 16 May, I asked the minister —
How many full-time equivalent staff will be employed in the rural fire division of DFES in 2018–19 and 2019–20?
The minister replied —
In 2018–19, there will be 32 full-time equivalent staff. In 2019–20, there will be 32 FTE plus additional FTE, who are yet to be approved as part of the Bushfire Centre of Excellence.
The budget for the rural fire division is $3.2 million a year, which is basically going to employ 32 people at an average price of $100 000 a person. I do not know what else it is likely to try to do with that budget, but I would have thought it would be pretty hard to employ 32 FTEs and then do anything else on a budget of $3.2 million. That is not going to buy many fire hoses or a lot of equipment, because effectively the service is employing 32 people. It is nice to have that capacity, but those 32 people are not going to be fighting bushfires.
The member then spoke about the location of the Bushfire Centre of Excellence and what the Opposition may have done regarding the Ferguson Report had it not lost government. The Hon Dr Steve Thomas then concluded with this very succinct statement:
“Let me conclude on this key point. The announcement on 13 April was not the announcement of a rural fire service. It was the announcement of 32 FTEs in a policy and backroom support network that will do some very good things in planning and support administration, but it will not fight bushfires and it will not support the people who do.”
The lead speaker for the One Nation Party Hon Colin Tincknell MLC then took to the floor and spoke about how the need for a solution to the different cultures of DFES and Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades was evident to him from “the moment” he put his name down to run for Parliament in the South West region.
The Honourable Member gave a brief background to his remarks and then said:
“It has been two years since the Ferguson report. We have had an election since then and we understand some of the delay. A government media statement in April announced that $80 million will be allocated to a new division, as Hon Dr Steve Thomas pointed out, not to a separate fire service. We found out that it will be funded by an additional levy, also known as another tax, to be paid by both metropolitan and rural residents to fund the service and other rural fire prevention, preparedness and response measures. We do not have a separate rural fire service, yet there is an extra tax or levy—members can call it what they wish.”
Mr Tincknell continued to explain some of the issues his party has with the government’s response to the Ferguson Report, including the lack of foresight in not creating an independant RFS as recommended by the Inquiry:
“It is crucial that firefighters are involved who have local knowledge of the area. An independent rural fire service will ensure that rural towns are better prepared and able to respond to bushfires in local areas. It goes without saying that I support this motion. In New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria, whether we call them commissioners, officers or CEOs, they are separate. They run independently from the other organisations.
We need two separate operations—one rural, and one for everything else.”
The Hon Mr Tincknell concluded his contribution with this poignant statement:
“To finish off, I get regular updates from the volunteer bush fire brigades. One of the things that has worried them, and this was highlighted in the Euan Ferguson report, is the personal attacks and the anti–bushfire volunteer culture. I really do not understand that. We understand that fighting fires in the metropolitan area and large regional towns is different from fighting bushfires. That is the reason the Ferguson report clearly indicated the need for a separate rural fire service. We will be supporting the motion. As Hon Dr Steve Thomas has mentioned, it is good timing that this motion is now before the house. It is an important issue for this house to debate, and we offer Hon Rick Mazza our full support.”
Disappointingly, the Greens lead speaker on this issue Hon Tim Clifford MLC then rose to inform the House that the Greens would not support the Motion. Mr Clifford said:
“…we believe there has been enough scrutiny of where we are headed with the reforms. We have already had the Keelty and Ferguson reports, and the Economic Regulation Authority’s emergency services levy review, and setting up another committee would just be kicking the can down the road.”
The Honourable member for East Metropolitan region then confirmed that the Ferguson Report was quite correct in identifying the chasm between DFES and Bush Fire Volunteers and that this very issue is a genuine problem for the women and men who donate their time and skills to protect our state:
“Going forward, we need to ensure that the Department of Fire and Emergency Services and the volunteers do not work in silos. From what I understand from speaking to a lot of people, this has been a hotly contested issue.”
Mr Clifford then confirmed the Greens’ election promise and explained that the Party can’t support this motion because of the reputed cost of its promise – despite this motion proposing to allow proper consideration of exactly how much it would cost:
Leading into the last election, the Greens supported the creation of an independent rural fire service, and our position is still that if the funding and resources were there, we would support it.”
And continued by suggesting that the basic problem identified by the Ferguson Report that no single agency can successfully balance the two vastly different cultures was nothing more than a lack of willingness of individuals to “work together”:
“we need to ensure that these people work together, because shooting across the table at each other is not going to help anyone… I was in the Army Reserve, and we always used to chat about the full-timers and our role in the scheme of things. Some of the sentiment I get from the regional volunteers is the same sort of “us and them” feeling.”
Mr Clifford then argued that:
“This will only work if the government follows through with providing enough resources to the division and keeps the communication lines open.”
And ended with what seems to be a confused view of the history of Western Australia’s emergency service volunteers and a statement that ignores the recommendations of the inquiries and reviews the Member said were why a Parliamentary inquiry is unnecessary:
Considering the division that has existed over the past few years since the establishment of the regional volunteers, it is time that we work together to get everyone to provide what should be provided; that is, the protection of lives and property of people in the regions.
The final contribution to the debate so far was from the Greens Member for the South West Region, Hon Diane Evers. The Honourable member made a number of very supportive comments, for which the AVBFB thanks her, but as a secondary speaker for the Party who made no suggestion that she might “cross the floor” and vote differently to her Party, there was little new content presented.
The debate is set to resume (and conclude) in 2 weeks’ time with only the Nationals and Liberal Democrats yet to address the House.
We will keep our members posted about this extremely important motion and the content and votes of your elected representatives in the Members of our State Parliament.