Natural disasters are part of life in this country. We cannot control them, but we can make every effort to mitigate them. Unfortunately it seems that we are locked into a cycle where climate change is playing a major role.
The question is by how much, not if, in relation to global temperatures rising. As a consequence of climate change, there will be more extreme fire weather days over the next 40 or more years. Conversely there will also be an increase in extreme rainfall events, which means we will be facing more natural disasters of greater intensity.
This bill helps to prepare Victoria for this kind of future. It is about keeping our community safe as our emergency services react to fast-moving, complex and dangerous situations.
These amendments are part of the Andrews Labor government’s commitment to practical, effective and incremental reforms to Victoria’s emergency management systems. The reforms will be implemented in a staged approach so that the government can make continual improvements to our systems with minimal disruption to our emergency services.
The bill builds on the recommendations of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and the Emergency Management Act 2013, which was a substantial reform in how Victoria responded to disasters.
There are three key aspects of this bill. First, it puts a statutory requirement on agencies with a role or responsibility under the State Emergency Response Plan to act in accordance with that plan. The State Emergency Response Plan sets out the arrangements for responding to all major emergencies in Victoria. These could be major fires, floods, tsunamis, exotic animal diseases or essential service disruptions, to name a few. Currently it is implicit that agencies will fulfil their roles and responsibilities according to the plan. By making agencies’ roles explicit, the role of the plan in disaster management will be strengthened and this should ensure more cohesive and coordinated responses to disasters by making emergency management arrangements as clear as possible.
I should note that the plan provides a framework within which to operate and is not prescriptive in relation to operating procedures. That said, it is vital that the emergency management commissioner has the organisational tools to respond to unforeseen and complex situations in a flexible manner. The bill does this by empowering the emergency management commissioner to change the plan in urgent circumstances if necessary to protect life or property.
Secondly, the bill refines the powers of the inspector-general for emergency management. The inspector-general is responsible for continuous improvement in emergency management. With the likelihood of bigger and more frequent natural disasters, it is important that we are always looking to review and improve all emergency management systems, processes and activities. The bill gives the inspector-general greater information-gathering capabilities to inform system-wide reviews and reports.
The bill also recognises and supports the inspector-general in the monitoring of the government’s implementation of the Victorian bushfires royal commission recommendations. This is extremely important. It keeps the government informed and focused.
Finally, the bill creates new powers for the Victoria State Emergency Service (SES). Currently, the SES’s powers are framed in general terms and rely on the consent of property holders. Whilst charged with being the primary agency that deals with floods and storms, the SES does not currently have the statutory powers it needs to keep communities safe. It does not have the power to enter properties and undertake emergency works, such as building levees or removing debris.
These shortcomings were noted by former Chief Commissioner of Police Neil Comrie in his review of the 2010–11 flood warnings and response. This bill addresses these issues by giving the SES the power to enter land or premises in urgent circumstances. The SES will obviously seek consent wherever possible, but the amendment ensures that it can do its work unimpaired if consent is unobtainable — for instance, if the property holder is away.
The bill also gives the SES the power to construct, alter and remove a levee. Once again, this power will only be used for the protection of life and property. This amendment will give the SES the power to take steps to reduce overall harm to a community facing a flood. The best thing to do in these situations is work with local communities, businesses and agencies, which the SES has a long and proud history of doing. It will continue to rely on the best information available to inform itself to make the best decisions for the communities it is protecting. These new powers will be implemented with sufficient time for the SES to develop supporting operational procedures, train its members and engage with the community.
This bill, as other speakers have said this afternoon, builds on the existing emergency management framework in an incremental and sensible manner. It provides enhanced flexibility, openness and accountability to the state Emergency Services Plan. It seeks to continue building on the good work done in this place on the back of the terrible 2009 bushfires, and the reforms have been welcomed. The SES chief officer of operations, Mr Trevor White, according to the Herald Sun of 5 August:
… welcomed the proposed change, and pointed to emergencies within the past decade when the powers were needed.
As our climate changes and emergencies become larger and more complex, we must be prepared. Reducing the loss of life and property in disasters is the goal of the State Emergency Response Plan. These amendments are sensible and practicable improvements to Victoria’s disaster response to the State Emergency Response Plan, and I do commend the bill to the house.
In closing, I also add my voice to the thanks to those in the community who are volunteers as well as to those who are paid and salaried members of the emergency services and fire brigades for their commitment and continuing efforts to keep us all safe. I thank all those who have the calling to be so special and who make sure our communities are looked after — not just in times of emergencies and disasters but also when they are out there making sure that the systems are in place to ensure that we are safe in the unfortunate circumstances of flood or bushfire. Like many others in this chamber this afternoon I commend the bill to the house, and in doing so I thank all those who work so hard to make sure that our lives and our properties are protected.