Fire and Emergency Services (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill | SPEECH


Second Reading

The Hon. D.C. VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN (Stuart—Minister for Energy and Mining) (17:36): This is a very important issue. Let me be really clear: rural communities, whether they be people who live in towns or people who live on farms, would be lost without the CFS. Equally, the CFS would be lost without rural communities, without the support of people who live in small towns or on farms. We country MPs all know that there is a very strong, important and helpful overlap on this issue. There are many farmers who are CFS volunteers and, vice versa, many CFS volunteers who are farmers. It goes without saying.

Our government wants to make sure that we get this exactly right. I commend the Minister for Emergency Services for his approach to this. He has brought forward legislation for consideration and consultation which, in fairness, has been years in the making. He also now suggests that we establish a committee to look into it a little more deeply, and I think that is exactly the right thing to do. It does not actually matter where this lands as long as we get it right. We need to have a situation that ensures that rural communities, homes, farms, the environment and other assets are made as safe as possible. We need to harness the skills and energy of as many people and organisations as possible in the right way so that we can achieve exactly that.

I would like to clear up a few things. The code of conduct that is in at the moment, which I remember very well was brought in approximately 10 years ago, is very important. It is very good. I remember what a positive step forward it was when it was brought in. I also remember how it was not easy to bring it in. There were people who had concerns, but it was a very positive, good step. That code has worked well for us for 10 years or so. Of course, it needs to evolve, improve and get better over time as circumstances change, but that code has worked very well for us.

As a government, we are not trying to throw out the code or take away the responsibilities that exist in it at the moment. One of the reasons that code was brought in is that typically fire ban days as determined by the CFS go from midnight to midnight. They also cover very large regions, very large chunks of the state. So it is not right to think that one midnight to midnight fire ban—and let’s just stay away from catastrophic and all the rest; just call it a ban for the purpose of this contribution—in a huge region would be exactly right to determine whether you should or should not be reaping in a particular paddock in a smaller part of that region where circumstances might be quite different. It is not at all reasonable to think that in a midnight to midnight fire ban you would not be safe to be reaping up until 10 or 11 in the morning, or it would not be safe to go back to work at nine or 10 at night.

They are the sorts of things we want to work with constructively. They are the sorts of things that the code of conduct has contributed to enormously. As a government, we are trying to see what is the next phase of improvement that we can work through. Nobody is suggesting that any CFS volunteer could just bang on the door of a header and tell that header operator that he must stop reaping right then and there; that would be crazy. It is not what the minister is suggesting and it is not what our government wants to suggest.

Our government knows that, overwhelmingly, farmers are very responsible for a range of reasons: because they are generally responsible people anyway, all the way through to the fact that if a farmer or an employee of a farming business starts a fire with their header on their paddock, the very first thing that is going to go up in smoke is that year’s income, let alone the fact that they do not want to start a fire on anybody else’s farm that spreads in any other way. There are 100 reasons why farmers have more incentive than anybody else not to start a fire on their property. We recognise that. We respect that.

What we want to do, though, is see if there is a responsible way to enhance the protections of the broader community so that, if by chance there is somebody working at a time when perhaps they should not, there is another layer of opportunity to give that person a message to say, ‘Look, you just really need to rethink this. Hypothetically, you are going to stop at 10, but the reality is that you probably should have stopped a 9 o’clock in the morning today.’ We just want another responsible way of sharing that information.

It is not about sending CFS volunteers who are able to just throw their weight around in any inappropriate way. It is not about suggesting that the overwhelming majority of farmers do not know how to make these decisions for themselves. It is about trying to put a system in place that is as safe as possible and has the opportunity to cater to as many possible situations that might arise as humanly possible. The reality is that if the system we have right now is 90 per cent right, our government and the minister want to make it 95 per cent right. We are just doing everything we possibly can to protect the communities. We are not saying that the first 90 per cent is in any way wrong: we are just saying that we would like to tweak it and make it a bit better again.

To send this off to a committee to investigate these things and to take evidence from stakeholder groups that have genuine information to share is a very sensible thing to do. I support that wholeheartedly. Let me just finish where I started. On this issue, we all need each other. I live in a very small town of about 200 people, 300 kilometres north of Adelaide. I am a CFS volunteer. Most of my friends are farmers around town. This is trying to get the best for both. Farmers would be lost without having the CFS to call on, and, do you know what? The CFS would be lost if there were not farm firefighting vehicles that typically get to rural fires quicker than the CFS anyway.

We are in this together. We need to make sure that we use our combined resources the very best way that we possibly can, without inhibiting positive judgements and decisions and business operations—particularly reaping—but just trying to find another way to give some additional protection if and when it is required. I strongly endorse the approach that the minister is taking and I hope that this parliament supports our desire to ask a committee to investigate this thoroughly for the benefit of everybody who may be negatively impacted by a fire in a regional area.