Bushfires royal commission implementation monitor: report 2013

19 November 2013

I rise to speak on the bushfires royal commission implementation monitor's annual report 2013. When 173 people died as a result of the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 we stood together as a community and grieved. We all shook our heads in shock at the terrible devastation - at the 5000 people injured and 2029 homes lost.
The bushfires royal commission made recommendations, and the then Leader of the Opposition, the Honourable Ted Baillieu, committed to adopting all of them even before he had seen them. He repeated that commitment as Premier, and our current Premier has continued with that line, but disgracefully it has not happened.
The vital ingredient in fire mitigation is prescribed burning - back-burning, if you like.
This is carried out by the Department of Environment and Primary Industries and Parks Victoria, but there are not enough people to do the job, and those who carry it out are not properly equipped. The royal commission's recommended target of tripling prescribed burns to 5 per cent of public land is moving further and further into the distance. The Napthine government's latest budget promised increased planned burning and the removal of trees damaged by bushfires. By the way, those trees are sometimes called widow-makers, because they can drop without warning - yet another hazard for our forest firefighters.
The existing public sector forest firefighting force would have to double or even triple its productivity to meet those targets. It is not good enough to continue to set minimum targets if there are not the resources to enable them meet those targets.
It is not good enough to continue to set minimal targets if you do not have the resources to meet them. The state government likes the idea of contracting. The Department of Environment and Primary Industries has said that contractors should provide value for money, but it is a problem when senior public servants think cheap contractors should replace full-time forest firefighters.
Not long ago we had over 400 full-time field forest firefighters, of whom 177 were employed by the Brumby government as a result of one of the recommendations from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Guess what? That number has disappeared. We are now almost down to 200 out of the more than 400 field forest firefighters we had three years ago. If we are fair dinkum about meeting targets and implementing all the recommendations from the royal commission, we need to get back to the right number of firefighters, which we had not long ago. Forest firefighters put their lives on the line day in and day out, and we should remember that we lost two brave firefighters earlier this year.
They do not get the recognition they deserve, and I refer to the equipment and training and even the full-time resources.
Members in the house should know that forest firefighters are not recognised as emergency services personnel and therefore they do not qualify for the Emergency Services and State Super fund. Metropolitan Fire Brigade and Country Fire Authority personnel and others are classed as emergency services personnel, and rightly so, yet I cannot believe that the forest firefighters are not. They are in charge of protecting lives and do a magnificent job year in, year out. These men and women provide an essential service and they should be acknowledged for that. They should have access to the Emergency Services and State Super fund. They should be properly resourced and equipped and not be replaced by contractors.
I have often heard it said that the definition of insanity is to continue to do what you have done in the past and to expect a different outcome. We need change, and we need it now. It is time we recognised these people and treated them as emergency services personnel.