It is a pleasure to rise this morning and speak on the Emergency Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, which amends several acts, including the Country Fire Authority Act 1958, the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Act 1958, the Victoria State Emergency Service Act 2005, the Emergency Management Act 1986, the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority Act 2004, the Forests Act 1958 and the Summary Offences Act 1966.
It will become clear why so many acts are being amended, because this an attempt to get a whole-of-government approach to what is a whole-of-government necessity: dealing with the emergencies our state is constantly being afflicted by.
After some of the most horrific and damaging natural disasters in recent history, including Black Saturday just over three years ago as well as storm and flooding events in the last two years, Victorians are well aware of the perils of living in the many areas of Victoria that are susceptible to natural disasters. As I stand here this morning to speak on this bill, we are also well aware that there are a number of communities and individuals being affected by floods.
Driving into Parliament this morning most of the radio stations I listened to were interviewing various people who were preparing for evacuations and were describing what events were taking place and the prospect of leaving their places of residence and having to go to the emergency relief centres that are being set up — I know one has been set up in Shepparton — or being able to go and stay with family and friends in other towns. It is quite apt that this piece of legislation is before us this morning.
In my electorate of Western Victoria Region we have also experienced the devastating impact of natural disasters. They have taken lives, and they have also destroyed many properties. The Ash Wednesday fires in western Victoria were not all that long ago. Some 47 people perished in that dreadful incident. In 1967 there were also bushfires around Lara in which 17 people were killed; a lot of them were trying to escape along the Princes Highway.
We had fires in Linton, which is 33 kilometres west of Ballarat, where five men, all volunteers from the Geelong West CFA (Country Fire Authority), died. There is a memorial for those five brave men in West Park in Geelong West as a constant reminder for people in the region. It was only last year that Horsham, Dimboola and the surrounding regions were hit by floods that also affected significant parts of the north-west.
The point I make is that Victoria is very susceptible, and increasingly so, to natural disasters, particularly floods and bushfires. It is no surprise that governments have an absolute and unqualified responsibility to bring together legislation that makes the work of our emergency service providers more efficient, whether it be in the areas of equipment, powers or processes, to keep Victoria and Victorians safe in the event of emergencies. Before going to the details of the bill, reiterate the point that it is the absolute responsibility of a government to protect its citizens from natural disasters, particularly, in many areas of the state, bushfires.
We are taking a positive step today in ensuring the speedy passage of the bill through the house, but it is just one step in the process.
There are many practical and on-ground actions and initiatives that this government is simply not putting in place because it is obsessed with costcutting. Unfortunately there are significant areas of inaction. I will point to a couple. Firstly, when this government was in opposition it criticised the previous Labor government for dragging its heels in establishing bushfire refuges, yet in the lead-up to this year’s fire season not one fire refuge had been built by this coalition. Of the 52 high-risk bushfire zones, only 26 had neighbourhood safer places. As I understand it, the Baillieu government was telling local councils that it wanted more neighbourhood safer places, but it was prepared to pay for only one-third of the costs when rural and regional councils were already struggling with the cost-shifting that had been placed on them.
Then there was the report released on 24 January that revealed that fire authorities were struggling to meet the prescribed burning targets which had been set to prepare Victoria against bushfires. The Baillieu government also postponed Fire Action Week, which was quite distressing. We needed that fire awareness week much earlier than when it was held, because early preparation is absolutely critical walking into the bushfire season. Then there was the refusal to fund a third Elvis aircrane, which was a specific request by the fire authorities.
The government did all that as well as failing to fund the much-needed CFA fire station upgrades all around the state. It is my understanding that the current government promised to upgrade 250 CFA stations. However, the reality is that only 60 have been funded.
While I stand to speak on this bill, which the opposition will not oppose, there are many practical initiatives like those I have just mentioned that I believe the Baillieu government has simply failed at, and it needs to pick up its game.
I turn now to the specifics of the bill. Its purposes are fairly straightforward.
It supports an all-hazards, all-agencies approach to emergency responses; it increases penalties and creates offences for actions that prevent fire services from promptly responding to emergencies; it extends immunity provisions in fire services legislation to interstate and international firefighters; it creates further appropriate powers for the CFA chief officer, the metropolitan fire and emergency service chief officer and senior sergeants; it removes the distinction between urban and rural brigades; it extends the injury compensation scheme to members of the forest industry brigades; it clarifies that the Victoria State Emergency Service may engage in fundraising activities; and it protects the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s networked emergency organisation from liability when carrying out fire management activities under the Forestry Act 1958.
As I said, this bill legislates for an-all hazards, all-agencies approach to the delivery of emergency services to protect and support the people of Victoria in times of emergency. It is essential that emergency services agencies are given the best opportunity to deal with the emergency situations that confront us. The bill increases the powers of the CFA chief officer, the metropolitan fire and emergency service chief officer and senior sergeants to respond more appropriately to emergency situations. For example, the CFA chief officer will have the power to close roads where smoke is impairing visibility for drivers. As I said, the bill extends the injury compensation scheme to members of the forest industry brigades, it gives the metropolitan fire and emergency service chief officer the ability to delegate the power to issue prevention notices and it also gives senior sergeants the power to declare emergency areas on their own authority.
As I mentioned in relation to the purposes of the bill, there is also the ability to increase penalties, and this is something the opposition fully supports. It is essential that emergency service teams are given every opportunity to respond to emergency situations, including with the use of fire indicator panels.
As members of the house would be aware, it is often the case that our emergency service teams call on interstate and sometimes international emergency service personnel to help fight bushfires in Victoria, just as our members go interstate or overseas to assist other jurisdictions — for example, they have answered calls from New South Wales and Queensland. The bill addresses the immunity provisions so that those firefighters who come from overseas and interstate are covered in Victoria.
In conclusion, whilst the opposition supports this bill, it notes that this is just one step in arming our emergency services teams with the weaponry needed to combat the effects of natural disasters and respond to emergency situations to protect all Victorians. It is disappointing to see that the government has failed to deliver many of the aspects that are required to meet this task. Whilst it has been doing some work, we believe that substantially more funding needs to be allocated and efforts need to be made to ensure that Victorians are protected a lot more quickly.
I also need to touch on the issue of Friskville, which is in my electorate.
I note that the government has indicated that this is a serious issue that does need addressing. But, as far as I am aware, whilst the government has said the right words, nothing at all has been done to address this important issue. That is an indication of what else is happening in this area in terms of the government’s attitude and its response.
Since this government has been elected, it has had two fire seasons under its belt. It must have learnt quite a bit during those two periods. I take this opportunity to stress to the government that it needs to step up to the mark much more quickly and put resources into those agencies, services and stations that are now wanting.