October 29, 2013  |  Second Reading

Emergency Management Bill 2013

Mr HOWARD (Ballarat East) — I am pleased to contribute to the debate on the Emergency Management Bill 2013. As we have heard from previous speakers, the legislation flows from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, which determined that there was a need for an overall coordinator for issues associated with bushfires. Following advice from the royal commission a fire services commissioner was appointed. Appropriately it has been considered that we should look more broadly at emergency management across the state and deal with not only bushfires but also other types of emergencies.

Bushfires have been prevalent in and are an ever-present threat to a large part of my electorate of Ballarat East. A couple of years ago we had a fire in the Musk area, which put Daylesford under threat. The area around the Wombat State Forest, Daylesford, Hepburn Springs, Musk and Trentham is always considered to be under threat, but then so are the areas of Mount Clear and Mount Helen in the urban areas of Ballarat. Heading south in my electorate towards the Enfield Forest and the Anakie ranges, where Steiglitz and other towns are situated, fires are a great concern.

In 2009 and 2010 floods were an issue of concern around the state. They also affected my electorate, particularly the Creswick area.

It is clear that we need to look at emergency management more broadly and ensure that we have the best approach in place. This government worked on putting together a green paper and then a white paper, which we know came out last year. It is a little disappointing, and perhaps a mark of this government, that those opposite move at a very slow pace when working through these issues. It is disappointing that it is nearly November 2013 and we have only now got a bill before us that establishes the role of emergency management commissioner, the State Crisis and Resilience Council, Emergency Management Victoria and the position of inspector-general for emergency management. A number of new positions have been created to streamline the way emergencies can be managed and monitored.

While the aim of this bill is sound, I want to direct my attention to the issue of this government being slow in its response to emergency management and also to some of the issues associated with the bushfires royal commission.

For example, I am concerned that we have seen a lot of funding — $66 million — slashed from the Country Fire Authority (CFA) budget, which puts us under greater than normal threat. The slashing of staff numbers at the Victorian Bushfire Information Line in Ballarat is also of concern to me. It affects all of Victoria, but it also affects those staff who were employed in Ballarat.

Last week I was in Kyneton undertaking community consultations, and some of the people who came to see me expressed their concern about timber clearance and gorse management on roadsides. This is something I am hearing more and more about from my constituents. While this government is proud to say it has been managing undergrowth through a burning program across the state in line with the recommendations of the bushfires royal commission, it has not taken up the advice from a range of other bodies, such as the University of Melbourne, which says that we need to look more carefully at the way we go about treating our undergrowth and burning off to ensure that we target areas of concern.

Such areas are around our towns. Rather than saying we are treating 5 per cent of the state’s forests by burning through the off-season, we want to ensure that we undertake the work in a strategic way to ensure that we reduce the fire risk in areas around towns. This is not happening.

Regarding sirens, the people of Trentham in particular expressed their desire to see reinstated the siren that had previously been in their town. While the government has agreed there will be a siren pilot program to advise people of fire threats in their area, the community education and training program that should accompany it is still to get under way. As I said, Mount Clear and Mount Helen are areas of great concern. There is a lot of housing in those areas. For a number of years there have been threats of fire in that region. The former government, and this government before it came to office promised, a new fire station in Mount Clear and Mount Helen to ensure that fire in that area can be addressed more quickly.

Although the government has finally announced a new fire station at Mount Helen, it has been very slow to make this happen. We still only have a sign at the site, and another bushfire season will have gone by this summer without the fire station having been built. I am very concerned about that. I want to see this government getting more serious about responding quickly to these issues in relation to its white papers and consultation and also in responding to the recommendations of the bushfires royal commission and really working through the issues to make this state safer.