Mr SOUTHWICK (Caulfield) — It is my pleasure to rise to speak on the Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2014. This bill aims to enhance fire prevention and suppression activities, support the management of emergency communication service contracts, clarify the role of municipal councils in relation to community fire refuges and ensure that the Country Fire Authority (CFA) board forms a representative, skill‑based body that continues to recognise the CFA as essentially a volunteer‑based emergency services group.
I say at the outset that I am glad the opposition in most instances supports what we as a government are trying to do here. We have introduced huge reforms when it comes to emergency management, including the introduction of the Emergency Management Act 2013, which was debated in this house and passed and will come into play in July this year. We have also appointed the first emergency management commissioner, Craig Lapsley, who was the fire services commissioner and will take over that very important role. We have transformed emergency management to ensure that we have an all‑hazards, all‑agencies approach to emergencies. When we look at situations such as fire it does not matter what uniform you are wearing, everybody gets involved and everybody participates to ensure that the community is safe, people are safe and assets are protected.
It is very disappointing that the member for Williamstown, as enthusiastic as he may be following his recent appointment as the shadow minister for this portfolio, has looked at a fundamental element within this bill that covers the use of forestry industry brigades in fire prevention and suppression activities outside of plantation areas and proposed that they not be recognised explicitly within this bill. That is very important, and I would hope that the opposition would come to grips with and understand why we need to do this. The reason we need to recognise that forestry industry brigades have a responsibility and a need to undertake their work outside their plantations is that there is fundamentally one very important thing when it comes to these brigades — they have important assets in these plantations and they need to protect them.
Fires do not respect boundaries, as we all know. It is very hard to determine a particular area in which a fire may start and stop. Therefore it is important that these brigades are given the opportunity to operate outside the immediate boundaries of their plantations. That is what this bill is about. It is very simple. It is nothing more. There is no hidden agenda in this bill. There is no attempt to outsource the fire services. There is absolutely nothing in this whatsoever.
If members look at the activities the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) has carried out over the previous financial year and look at the budget of $33.7 million in extra funding provided to DEPI to achieve planned burning targets of 260 000 hectares and 270 000 hectares in 2013–14, they will see that with both these planned burns combined, a record amount of areas underwent planned burning as a result of a lot of work that was done by the agency and a lot of support from all the partners in this. We need to understand that it was a fundamental recommendation of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission to do this work. That is what these planned burns have been doing, and that is why we have been doing these planned burns. It is important for that to continue.
Another thing the opposition fails to understand is that DEPI uses specialist contractors to maintain and build the 55 000 kilometres of tracks in parks and forests and boundaries as part of this work. It uses specialist agencies anyway. Why does it use these resources even though it is resourced with 3000 staff at the ready and 600 project firefighters? It is again because we have weather conditions which affect plans that are then sometimes unable to be carried out. We need to ensure that we are actually reaching those targets. DEPI understands that, we understand it as a government, and most importantly the people who live in these areas understand it. They know that we need to protect their homes and their lives, and that is why we are getting on with the job and doing what we are doing.
It is disappointing that the opposition is scoring political points and saying, ‘We think what is happening here is that the government has a hidden agenda, and that is to outsource burning and to outsource the whole process when it comes to protecting resources’. Let me say this: the CFA has said this is what needs to happen and the forestry industry brigades themselves have said this is what needs to happen to protect our assets — in fact for 12 months they have been calling for these changes to the CFA act to ensure that they can protect their assets. This is not a hidden plan or agenda by the government. It is a call from the industry and key stakeholders saying, ‘Government, get on and do something about this’. Guess what? We are getting on and doing something about it. We are following on from the responses, from the outcry of people in the community that they want to ensure that their assets, homes and lives are protected.
I add that we have also had a response to this from Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, from the volunteer representatives themselves. They are certainly vocal when it comes to what they think is right and wrong. The volunteers said this is important as part of the overall aims and objectives and strategy — that when it comes to planned burning, when it comes to protecting homes, lives and families, this is what we need to do. It is absolute bunkum we have heard from the shadow minister, the member for Williamstown, in proposing such a ridiculous amendment to the bill we are debating today.
In my last few minutes I will talk about the important changes we are proposing here. We need to recognise the work the CFA board has done in the past but also the work that is going to be done in the future. Let us just say that the CFA has a responsibility. With a total budget in the 2014 budget of $473 million and a commitment of $448 million, it is representing the management of big assets. It has a big job to do, and we need specialists on the board to provide expertise so that it is able to run those assets and create efficiencies within the CFA in the best possible way.
I commend the minister on the work he has done in the reform here to ensure that the CFA continues to be the very best it can be and leads the way when it comes to fighting fires. The CFA has done a fantastic job, CFA volunteers continue to do a fantastic job and the bill will ensure that they continue to do a fantastic job into the future.
On fire refuges, it is very important that we work with councils, use the expertise of our emergency management commissioner and ensure that we designate where these refuges are with the latest information, with understanding, with local intelligence but also with the intelligence of our fire services and our emergency management experts. That is what this bill is about. It ensures that when it comes to designating community refuges we have the very best procedures instead of what is the case at the moment under the CFA act, under which regulations are not prescribed as part of all this.
The last part of the bill ensures that the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) is empowered to be able to run the telecommunications network when it comes to the emergency alert system. It is very important that ESTA, which is at the forefront of this, is using the latest technology. With the rollout of so much we have done, particularly after the last fire season, it is important that the experts are responsible for that. That is what this bill does. It ensures that ESTA is the responsible authority when it comes to communications in the case of emergency. This is a good bill that goes to the core of what we are trying to do in emergency management, which is to ensure that we have the best and that we work together in an all‑hazards, all‑agency response to fight emergencies. It is disappointing that we do not have the support of the opposition, because this is serious stuff. I commend the bill to the house.