This speech was given on 21/11/2013 in the NSW Upper House. You can read the full debate online here.

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE [12.04 p.m.]: The Greens support the Rural Fires Amendment Bill 2013. This bill has been introduced following the fire disaster experienced across the State, but most particularly in the Blue Mountains in the past few months. A great deal of property was lost as a result of enormous fires that happened extraordinarily early in the season. Having had time to reflect on what happened—that is, an enormous fire so early in the season before planned hazard reduction could be undertaken—it is an enormous credit to the State’s fire management systems, particularly given that there was no loss of life. Even though entire townships at different points looked as though they might be engulfed by the fires, people on the ground from the Rural Fire Service, New South Wales Fire Brigades, the Office of Environment and Heritage and others coordinated the firefighting effort using the established systems. Given that, it can only be said that we have world-class management systems in New South Wales.

Those systems can be improved, examined and fine-tuned, which is what this bill does. However, enormous credit is due to the thousands of people who managed that fire emergency. Generations of local knowledge, State knowledge and institutional knowledge has been utilised to develop the systems we now have. I commend their work and the generations of collaborative thought that have gone into the system we have in place today. This bill makes amendments to the Rural Fires Act 1997 to implement a number of recommendations made in the Independent Hazard Reduction Audit Panel’s report. Schedule 1 [1] adds an objective to the Act of providing for the protection of infrastructure and environmental, cultural, agricultural and community assets from damage arising from fires. It is a sensible addition. Schedule 1 [3] expands the functions of the NSW Rural Fire Service to implement that objective.

Schedule 1 [5] provides additional powers to rural fire brigade officers to allow them to pull down, shore up or remove structures or parts of structures if a person or property is or is likely to be endangered by a fire or other emergency. Schedule 1 [6] provides that the owner of the property in question must pay any cost incurred in the exercise of this new power, unless the commissioner waives such costs. A new power is created for the commissioner, with consent, to take and use without cost water on a property for the purpose of training or demonstrations by a rural fire brigade. Schedule 1 [8] creates a new offence for a person who obstructs or hinders a volunteer firefighter or who incites another to do so. The maximum penalty is 50 penalty units, which is $5,500, or imprisonment for a maximum of two years, or both.

Schedule 1 [10] amends section 54 of the Act to allow the commissioner to direct a bushfire management committee to amend a draft bushfire risk management plan. It is not clear in what circumstances the commissioner would exercise this power, and no guidance is provided in the bill. This change is designed to implement recommendation 3 of the audit panel report, which states that the commissioner should have the power to quality assure bushfire risk management plans by directing committees to amend their plan if it is inadequate. The Greens have assumed that that power has been included in the bill to implement that recommendation and seeks confirmation from the Minister that that is the intent.

Schedule 1 [12] provides that a bushfire hazard reduction notice is not necessary for the establishment or maintenance of a fire trail where the identity of the owner or occupier of land cannot be ascertained. Schedule 1 [13] relates to proposed section 73 (1) (d), which allows the commissioner to carry out hazard reduction work on land if notice is served on the owner or occupier specifying the details of the hazard reduction work to be carried out and where after seven days the identity and location of the owner and occupier cannot be ascertained. When The Greens originally saw that provision we asked for further clarification from the Government about whether or not efforts could start on day one and if no-one was found seven days later the hazard reduction work could proceed.We understand that is not the case; that in fact the seven days would start after a whole series of initial efforts had been made to contact the owner. It is with that comfort and assurance that The Greens not only do not object to that provision but, indeed, support it. Schedule 1 [15] makes it a requirement that public authorities report to the commissioner regarding hazard reduction work within one month after the end of the financial year, rather than the current three months. Schedule 1 [16] provides that the report must include information about whether any planned hazard reduction activities did not occur. That is a very sensible provision. At the moment, there can be a detailed plan and program for hazard reduction work.However, if the work has not been able to be carried out for one reason or another then there is no provision that requires the commissioner to be notified about that in a timely fashion so that he has some centralised knowledge about where hazard reduction work has or has not been done. The Greens believe that that timely reporting is important. Schedule 1 [20] inserts a new higher level offence of discarding a lighted tobacco product, match or any incandescent material on a total fire ban day. The relevant penalty has been increased to 100 penalty units. The Greens do not normally bang the law-and-order drum, but in terms of the thoughtless activity of throwing out of a car a lit cigarette, a match or whatever other incandescent materials are envisaged in the regulations—The Hon. Michael Gallacher: Fireworks.

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: Yes, throwing fireworks or a candle or anything out of a car on a total fire ban day. If ever there were a circumstance that should trigger the law come down on someone like a tonne of bricks, it is that circumstance.

The Hon. Michael Gallacher: Are you asking for a mandatory sentence?

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: I am not actually asking for a mandatory sentence. In fact, despite my statement about a tonne of bricks, on mature reflection I probably would oppose that as a penalty as well. The concept of treating that as a very serious offence, and significantly increasing the penalty, is very much supported by The Greens. In fact, I think it would be supported by 99.9 per cent of the community. Schedule 1 [23] changes the duration of bushfire hazard reduction certificates to operate for a period of three years from the date they are endorsed, rather than the current 12 months. This applies to hazard reduction work which is carried out regularly and which has a low impact on the environment and biodiversity.There was some initial concern about how that would operate. Again, further information has been provided, both in a crossbench briefing and otherwise from the Government, and The Greens are comfortable that that is a sensible administrative provision. We have regulations in place for a purpose—not only for repeated reporting. The regulations and the reporting are in place to ensure that we get the balance right between the environment and protecting community assets, property and people. Given the nature of these certificates, and the relatively low-impact work that they relate to, The Greens believe it would be far preferable if the Rural Fire Service and its administrative officers were to get those certificates right in the first place and then get out and do the hazard reduction work, rather than chase their tails getting yearly renewals of fairly standard certificates. It is in light of that that we support the amendment.Schedule 1 [24] adds the Environment Protection Authority to the list of organisations whose recommendations must be considered when making draft codes. I am surprised that the Environment Protection Authority is not already on that list. This is a very sensible amendment. Schedule 2.1 amends the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 to provide exclusions from the operation of section 118A of that Act for bushfire hazard reduction work. We understand that has the strong support of the Office of Environment and Heritage and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and that those bodies believe there are sufficient protections in place to ensure that there will be no significant impact on some of the most precious environmental assets of this State. It is because those protections are in place that The Greens accept the Government’s rationale for presenting the amendment to the House.

The Independent Hazard Reduction Audit Panel is comprised of the chief executive officer of the Ministry for Police, the Commissioner of Police, the president of the NSW Rural Fire Service Association, the vice-president of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association and two other eminent persons from New South Wales and Victoria. The panel developed a discussion paper, called for submissions and held public meetings. The final report included 18 recommendations, and the Government has committed to implementing them. This bill implements the first eight recommendations, all of which relate to amending the Act. This is another case of good process being adopted: careful consultation, careful consideration and then a measured legislative response. We commend the Government for acting the way it has.

The Greens support this legislation, which makes sensible amendments to the operation of the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales. We have been advised that the National Parks and Wildlife Service also supports these proposed amendments. The Greens “are committed to an effective and scientifically based approach to hazard reduction, which takes into account the needs of both the human and natural environments”. The Greens support hazard reduction. Appropriate hazard reduction activities, including controlled burns, are an important land management tool to protect properties and lives. Many of the powers proposed to be created by this bill are powers that most of us would have assumed the Rural Fire Service already had. That includes the power to make agreements with landowners to use water on their property free of charge for training or demonstration purposes. Indeed, that is probably a right that any statutory authority has at common law. But providing that as a clear statutory provision has a certain attraction, and we understand why the Government has implemented that recommendation.

The Legislation Review Committee raised a minor concern about the potential impost on a person of being required to pay the cost incurred by rural fire brigade officers pulling down, shoring up or removing structures or part of structures. Given that the person who potentially will be subject of the cost impost will generally be the one who benefits from the work of the Rural Fire Service, and that there is the fall-back of the discretion for the commissioner to waive payment if this is determined to be appropriate on balance, The Greens note the concerns of the Legislation Review Committee but nevertheless support this provision in the bill. We support the bill.