The victims of Australia’s worst fire season in recent memory deserve answers for what went wrong and solutions to ensure future fire seasons are managed more effectively to limit loss of life, property, wildlife and habitat.
The best way to deliver that is a thorough, considered, evidence-based inquiry that carefully examines the information presented to it and makes recommendations in that spirit.
We note that this committee’s inquiry is occurring alongside the context of multiple State and Territory reviews and inquiries, including a Royal Commission into Australia’s Natural Disaster Arrangements. A constructive Senate inquiry has the potential to add to this body of knowledge.
However, gratuitous partisanship and point scoring will do nothing to recover the lives and livelihoods lost and will not contribute anything useful for combating this ongoing threat.
There are many good recommendations and much thoughtful discussion of the issues a fire-prone continent faces in the interim majority report. But it is let down by the needless partisanship and unnecessary asides. Sadly, the useful content in the report may be overshadowed by the political score-settling also contained within it. The report also does not adequately represent the current state of Australia’s fire preparation, response and recovery arrangements.
Coalition Senators hope the final report reflects a more bipartisan approach.
Coalition Senators recognise that, within the federation, States and Territories are primarily responsible in responding to, mitigating, and preparing for the impacts of natural disasters. Any support from the Commonwealth government is designed to complement these arrangements and support our State and Territory governments in fulfilling these responsibilities. The Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements is currently examining these arrangements and is due to hand down its recommendations at the end of October 2020. Any findings of this committee will need to be considered in context of these recommendations.
In preparing for the 2019–20 season, Coalition Senators note that the Commonwealth government through Emergency Management Australia worked with our State and Territory counterparts to assist them in their bushfire preparation and readiness. This included briefings with every State and Territory government regarding seasonal risk and disaster risk; briefings with sector and industry groups; the readiness of government mechanisms including the Crisis Coordination Centre; along with engagement with Defence.
Further, Coalition Senators note that the Commonwealth government approved every request for support from State and Territory governments throughout the Black Summer. This included the mobilisation of ADF personnel and assets, along with activations of disaster recovery funding arrangements. Recognising the unprecedented impact of the fires, the Commonwealth established the National Bushfire Recovery Agency to enable over $2 billion in funding to aide Australians in their recovery.
The committee has received a large range of evidence from several government entities and community stakeholder groups, and has paid particular attention to bushfire risk reduction, mitigation and preparedness. Coalition Senators note that mitigation, prevention and preparedness efforts can take a number of forms, including:
land and vegetation management, including land use planning; and
hazard reduction including the reduction of fuel loads via burning or mechanical clearing.
To this end, Coalition Senators note the following:
That the Commonwealth has announced $88 million in funding to transition the current Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC into a new, world leading natural hazards research centre. Emergency Management Australia is currently engaging with the sector and the current Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC to ensure this new centre meets industry and government needs.
That, in order to obtain data on hazard reduction efforts, the Commonwealth wrote to States and Territories requesting their fuel load reduction targets, and what was actually achieved.
That only the NSW government replied to this request so far.
A large volume of evidence was provided to the committee by Greg Mullins, Chair of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action. Coalition Senators wish to recognise the expertise, lived experience and service of all of our former emergency service leaders.
However, Coalition Senators wish to note that Mr Mullins was never refused a meeting with members of the Government. The request to meet the Prime Minister was referred to the Ministers responsible, being the Minister for Emergency Management, David Littleproud MP, and the Minister for Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor MP. An invitation to meet with Minister Littleproud and Minister Taylor was initially accepted by Mr Mullins. Mr Mullins subsequently rejected the invitation, and then accepted again. Eventually, a meeting was held on 3 December 2019. Assertions that the Commonwealth refused to meet with Emergency Leaders for Climate Action are untrue.
Emergency Leaders for Climate Action has also provided evidence that EMA does not have direct access to the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, or the Prime Minister. Again, this is untrue. Throughout the lead‑up to the 2019–20 black summer, and during these events, EMA was in direct contact with both the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the office of the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister himself. This involved briefings by the Director General of Emergency Management Australia directly to the Prime Minister, and direct briefings to the Home Affairs Deputy Secretary and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Deputy Secretary, who co-chair the Australian Government Crisis Committee and the National Crisis Committee.
Emergency Leaders for Climate Action also provided evidence that Australia’s National Firefighting Capability is insufficient. Coalition Senators note that Mr Mullins, Chair of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, is not currently a member of AFAC or NAFC. Further, Coalition Senators note that Minister Littleproud wrote to AFAC on 17 November, asking for confirmation whether or not AFAC had sufficient resources for the season. Coalition Senators note that Mr Stuart Ellis, CEO of AFAC confirmed sufficient resources were in hand, and that if further resources were required a request would be made. In early January 2020, a request was made for funding for further Large Air Tanker support. NAFC was provided immediate funding for four large air tankers.
The interim report has made recommendations regarding the operational make up of Australia’s aerial firefighting fleet. Coalition Senators wish to note that this is not a decision for Government. Those operational decisions are made by NAFC which is under the authority of the fire chiefs from each State and Territory. These operational experts are best placed to make operational decisions regarding our aerial arrangements, not politicians.
The committee has also heard evidence from the insurance industry, with a particular focus on government actions to support mitigation measures. To this end, Coalition Senators note that the Commonwealth has led States and Territories to agree on a national action plan to implement the National Risk Reduction Framework, which enables $260 million in joint funding to be provided for risk reduction and mitigation activities across Australia.
Coalition Senators recognise the importance of supporting victims' recovery from natural disasters financially, but that this must be balanced with personal responsibility and any potential insurance disincentives. To that end, Coalition Senators note that the 2014 Productivity Report into Natural Disaster Funding Arrangements recommended that the rates of the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment and the Disaster Recovery Allowance be lowered as they can inadvertently create a disincentive for insurance. Coalition Senators note the Government has not lowered these payment rates but increased the disaster recovery funding payment for children to assist in education costs as a result of the Black Summer.
Coalition Senators note the extensive evidence presented that supports the conclusion that funding of emergency services via insurance levies creates an inequity; that only those responsible property owners that properly insure contribute towards the cost of providing the entire community with these essential services. A more equitable approach amortising the cost of emergency services through alternative funding means provides a range of benefits, including by providing lower premiums, increased funding and certainty of funding streams for emergency services. Coalition Senators consider it prudent to remove emergency services levies on insurance.
Australia’s funding for recovery from natural disasters is governed by the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements. Coalition Senators acknowledge unintended inequities in how disaster assistance is delivered, with it varying between each State and Territory. Coalition Senators therefore note that Minister Littleproud has commissioned a review into the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements with the states and territories.
Coalition Senators acknowledge the importance of communications in both preparation and response to natural disasters, including bushfires. The Committee received a large volume of evidence regarding emergency messaging, warning systems and emergency service communications. Coalition Senators note the government has already committed $261 million in joint State and Commonwealth funding over five years for risk reduction activities through the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework. Separate to this, the Commonwealth is investing:
$88.1 million for a new world class, disaster resilience research centre;
over $6.2 million on the next generation of Australia’s Fire Danger Rating system in order to deliver more accurate and local risk messaging;
$2 million to ensure that the Commonwealth’s component of the national telephone-based warning system, Emergency Alert, is available; and
$8 million towards the development of a Public Safety Mobile Broadband Capability. State Governments are providing a total of $2.5 million.
Coalition Senators commend the ABC, and indeed all Australian media organisations, for the hard work that they do covering natural disasters and keeping local communities informed during events such as the 2019–20 bushfires.
Coalition Senators reject the assertion in the majority report that funding has been cut to the ABC.
The ABC’s primary source of revenue is funding from government, which is allocated in three-year periods. The current triennium runs from 1 July 2019 – 30 June 2022. Revenue from other independent sources is derived primarily from commercial activities.
Table 2.1.1: Budgeted Expenses for Outcome 1 in the ABC’s 2020-21 Portfolio Budget statement outlines the ABC’s funding over the current triennium:
As can be seen in the table above, revenue from government for General Operational Activities and Transmission and Distribution Services and total funding rises each and every year of the current triennium.
Coalition Senators note that the Commonwealth Government has not considered ABC funding for the next triennium. As such, numbers in the budget papers for the next funding triennium do not in any way reflect how much money the ABC will receive in those years.
Coalition Senators agree with recommendation 1 in principle, noting that the NBRA already works closely with all stakeholders to understand and report on use of funding and that it does not have the legislative remit to compel.
Coalition Senators note that the review led by Minister Littleproud is currently considering this issue.
Coalition Senators agree with recommendation 3 in principle, pending advice from Emergency Management Australia, which is required to access the fund. The fund complements the Government’s existing suite of arrangements helping Australia prepare for disasters, including strategic work being undertaken to reduce disaster risk, in line with the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework. Coalition Senators highlight the Commonwealth funding referred to in paragraph 1.21.
Coalition Senators disagree with recommendation 4, noting that the Productivity Commission Report into Natural Disaster Funding Arrangements recommended lowering rates of Disaster Recovery Payments and the Disaster Recovery allowance. There is a fine line between supporting Australians in crisis and inadvertently providing a disincentive for insurance and personal responsibility.
Coalition Senators disagree with recommendation 5. The function of hazard reduction is a state responsibility shared with land holders. The Government has already announced over $88m for ongoing research.
While Coalition Senators strongly support research into the health impacts of bushfires, we note the government is already providing record levels of funding for medical research through the Medical Research Future Fund, and that funding for academic researchers is also available through the Australian Research Council.
Coalition Senators note the unprecedented advances made in the delivery of Telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic and record investment in Telehealth of $2.4 billion in the 2020-21 budget.
Coalition Senators disagree with the proposal in recommendation 8. It is not the role of the Commonwealth government to determine the make-up of Australia’s aerial firefighting fleet. Those operational decisions are made by NAFC which is under the authority of the fire chiefs from each State and Territory. These operational experts are best placed to make operational decisions regarding our aerial arrangements. It is noted that the Commonwealth has actioned each funding request made by NAFC, either directly or providing equivalent funding.
Instead of another review, Coalition Senators recommend the State and Territory governments that currently rely on funding for part or all of their emergency service costs via levies imposed on insurance premiums should, as a matter of priority, follow Victoria’s lead by removing these levies when it was recommended to do so by the Black Saturday Royal Commission, and investigate alternative funding sources.
Coalition Senators believe it is entirely appropriate that APRA has suspended its consideration of all non-urgent matters in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Regulators should be focused on assisting businesses to get through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and creating jobs as we emerge from it. Any work which does not contribute to that objective should not be prioritised.
Coalition Senators agree with recommendation 11 in principle.
Coalition Senators reject recommendation 12 that the government provide the ABC with discrete funding for its ABC emergency broadcast services. The ABC is provided with over $1 billion per annum, and because its funding is guaranteed in three-year blocks, it enjoys more financial certainty than any other media organisation in the nation. The ABC is adequately funded to provide the news coverage of emergencies that Australians expect.
Should it feel that its news coverage of emergencies is lacking, Coalition Senators encourage the ABC to repurpose funds from other parts of the organisation to ensure that it provides a level of news coverage during emergencies that Australians expect.
Coalition Senators agree with recommendation 13 in principle.
Senator James PatersonSenator Paul Scarr