The devastating Victorian bushfires of February 2009 have been described as Australia’s worst natural disaster, and it certainly was that in terms of the catastrophic loss of life and the extreme damage to property.
The impact of the bushfires will continue to be felt as the recovery and rebuilding process continues and the thoughts of all Members of this Parliament continue to remain with the communities that have been so terribly affected.
I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of my colleagues, the Minister for Families, Housing and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and the Parliamentary Secretary for Bushfire Reconstruction, who continue to work with the Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, the Victorian Government, the Red Cross Appeal Fund Advisory Panel and affected communities, in the rebuilding process.
From the outset, the Commonwealth has worked cooperatively with Victoria to provide every necessary support to communities in responding to, and recovering from the bushfires. This has involved the hard work of several Commonwealth Government agencies.
Commonwealth assets were made available under the Commonwealth Disaster Plan, including for example, Australian Defence Force personnel and equipment, and Centrelink workers to assist bushfire victims in accessing financial assistance measures.
To date, the Rudd Government has committed nearly $400 million in response, recovery and reconstruction measures following the devastating Victorian bushfires, and we will continue to provide support and assistance as schools, homes, businesses and communities are rebuilt.
In the aftermath of the bushfires, the Victorian Government established a Royal Commission to investigate the causes of, preparation for, responses to, and the impact of the fires.
On 17 August 2009, the Commission released its Interim Report with recommendations focusing on the protection of human life and reforms that can be implemented prior to the coming bushfire season.
In that context, it is appropriate that I outline for the House the Government’s response to recommendations made by the Commission with primary relevance to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth’s response was provided to the Commission on 31 August 2009.
I will also outline actions by the Commonwealth relevant to a number of recommendations the Royal Commission made regarding Victorian Government responsibilities.
Development of National Emergency Warning System (NEWS)
A key initiative referred to by the Royal Commission is the development of a national telephone based emergency warning system.
The Commonwealth is already assisting the States and Territories to develop a national telephone-based emergency warning system and to conduct research to improve the technology.
The Rudd Government has invested $15 million to assist the States and Territories to establish a National Emergency Warning System (NEWS) to deliver emergency warnings to landline and mobile telephones based on billing address.
The tender process is being managed by Victoria on behalf of all States and Territories.
The Rudd Government has also invested over $10 million to create a Location-Based Number Store (LBNS) to provide secure access for State and Territory warning systems to telephone numbers based on their billing address.
The National Emergency Warning System is being developed to be operational by the next bushfire season, in line with the Interim Report’s recommendations.
It is important to remember, however, that the development of a national telephone based warning system is designed to complement and augment existing measures such as radio alerts and warning signals, as no one method of warning can or should ever be relied upon in the event of a disaster or emergency.
Delivery of Emergency Warnings Based on the Physical Location of the Handset
In addition, the Royal Commission has asked the Australian Government, the Victorian Government and the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to consider whether it is technically possible to implement a national warning system that can reach mobile phones based on their physical location, as opposed to their owners’ billing address. The Royal Commission asked these parties to determine whether it is technically possible to implement these measures for the 2009-2010 bushfire season.
The Government recognises the importance of tailoring the delivery of emergency warnings, based on the location of a mobile handset, which is why we support the intent of the Royal Commission’s recommendation.
The Commonwealth has already taken action to implement the Royal Commission’s recommendation.
In April, the Commonwealth committed, through COAG, to fund further research into a capability to deliver warnings based on the location of a mobile telephone. At the meeting, it was agreed that:
- the Commonwealth will fund the research to establish the feasibility of developing a national location based mobile telephone warning capability;
- the work will be coordinated through a Working Group with the States;
- following an evaluation of the feasibility of the capability and further scoping of the likely costs, consideration of possible funding will be required.
To implement this agreement:
- the Commonwealth has committed $1.35 million to Victoria, as the jurisdiction with responsibility for managing this stage of the program, to identify a technical solution that will work across all carrier networks.
- Victoria has made a Request for Information (RFI) from industry, on behalf of all States and Territories, on the capability to send warning messages to mobile telephones based on handset location. The RFI closes on 28 October 2009.
In addition to the COAG agreement, the Commonwealth will:
- consult with Victoria on the feasibility of deploying an interim solution to deliver warnings to mobile telephones on the basis of the location of the handset for the 2009-10 bushfire season;
- by December 2009, participate with the States and Territories in the evaluation of responses to the RFI; and
- assist in the development of any proposals for the extension of the Emergency Warning System to deliver location based warnings to mobile phones for consideration by COAG in early 2010.
Annual Pre-Season Briefings
The Commission also recommends briefings be provided at least once per year regarding arrangements available to support States and Territories during disasters and emergencies, including bushfires.
As such, my Department has organised a national pre-season briefing, to be held in Canberra on 25 September 2009.
The briefing will focus on bushfires and other hazards, and will involve key Commonwealth, State and Territory agencies and representatives.
The Commonwealth will ensure that these pre-season briefings are held annually for all jurisdictions.
Facilitating Discussions between Commonwealth, State and Territory Agencies
In addition to the annual briefings, the Commission recommends that the Commonwealth facilitates discussions between its agencies and State and Territory fire services, to identify ways in which Commonwealth assets can be applied more rapidly and effectively during extremely dangerous bushfires.
The Commonwealth, through Emergency Management Australia, has already commenced these discussions and will continue them on an ongoing basis.
Options for Fire Danger Indices and Ratings
The Commission also made recommendations concerning fire danger descriptions and called for the Australasian Fire Authorities and Emergency Services Council (AFAC) and the Bureau of Meteorology to collaborate with researchers in exploring additional and more sophisticated fire ratings and descriptions.
These recommendations will be implemented by the next bushfire season.
A National Bushfire Warnings Task Force has already been established to finalise a national fire warnings model by 1 October 2009. The Bureau of Meteorology will also incorporate a new scale of fire danger ratings into its weather and warning services and will also include Fire Danger Index values on its website.
By the 2009-10 bushfire season, Victorian weather forecasts and warnings will include the new fire index values, descriptions, and action statements.
In addition to recommendations directly affecting the Commonwealth, the Government is also taking action in areas addressed by other key recommendations of the Report.
The Commission makes a number of recommendations with respect to increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the Emergency (Triple Zero) Call Service processes, involving the initial call referral from Telstra to the State and Territory emergency service organisations, and the subsequent handling by those organisations.
In May, I invited State and Territory Emergency Management Ministers to consider measures to improve aspects of Triple Zero system, including arrangements for managing a surge in calls during a major disaster, at the next meeting of the Ministerial Council. This issue will also be discussed at our upcoming meeting in September.
This work is being conducted in cooperation with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which has operational oversight of Triple Zero, and the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE).
Addressing Bushfire Arson
As stated in the AIC report ‘Using crime prevention to reduce deliberate bushfires in Australia’, approximately half of all vegetation fires – some 20,000 to 30,000 each year – are deliberately lit, and arson in all forms costs the Australian community $1.6 billion annually.
The Commonwealth has initiated a number of measures to tackle arson within our community.
In March, a National Forum on the Reduction of Deliberate Bushfires in Australia was convened, brining together for the first time key agencies and experts across jurisdictions to identify areas for action and ensure better coordination between police, fire and emergency services to engage in targeted prevention programs and share information in investigating crimes.
As a result of this, I will be presenting a draft National Bushfire Arson Strategy to the September meeting of Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management (MCPEM), with a view to finalisation in November.
My Department has also drafted new model penalties for bushfire arson, which impose penalties of up to 25 years for lighting a fire which leads to death and 15 years for a fire which leads to serious injury.
These offences were presented to the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG) in April.
The Department is also helping to facilitate the development of better education and training tools, with relevant organisations such as the Australian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) and the National Institute of Forensic Science.
Clarity in National Disaster Arrangements
A strong theme in the Royal Commission’s Interim Report is the complexity of current disaster arrangements across Australia, and the need for greater clarity in responsibilities and procedures.
As such, a coordinated response to risk assessment, prevention, preparedness, response and recovery is required at all levels.
To this end, the November meeting of the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management (MCPEM) will consider a National Catastrophic Natural Disaster Plan that will aim to provide clarity on the coordination of arrangements across jurisdictions for managing the consequences of natural disasters.
The meeting will also consider a Disaster Resilience Framework that will provide strategic direction to guide national policy in range of sectors, including the emergency management sector.
Through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), the Commonwealth is also working with State, Territory and local Governments to ensure that jurisdictions take full advantage of the lessons learnt from the tragedy of the Victorian Bushfires to maintain an efficient and responsive disaster response and recovery framework for the future.
The Royal Commission is to be commended for its work to date.
We are actively working to implement relevant recommendations of the Commission’s Interim Report.
The Commonwealth will continue to assist Victoria to ensure measures are in place, to the best extent possible, to help communities protect themselves in future bushfire seasons.
The Government also remains committed to cooperating with and assisting the Royal Commission to the greatest extent possible in anticipation of their final report in July next year.
I thank the House for its attention.