I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a short contribution in relation to the Electricity Safety Amendment (Bushfire Mitigation Civil Penalties Scheme) Bill 2017.
This is a bill which relates primarily to enforcement of bushfire mitigation requirements for electricity distribution companies.
I note that it follows on from recommendation 27 of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.
Given what we now know about how the Black Saturday bushfires started, recommendation 27 is of critical importance. To paraphrase, it is the recommendation for the progressive replacement of all single-wire powerlines in Victoria with aerial-bundled cable, underground cabling or other technology that delivers greatly reduced bushfire risk. It further recommends that this task be undertaken within 10 years and continue to roll out in areas with lower bushfire risks as lines reach their use-by dates.
Black Saturday is certainly etched in my memory also. As the day wore on I was shocked to feel the heat that was outside. It felt ominous, and of course we had had warnings days before. We stayed inside and we had ABC Radio 774 on. It was chilling to start hearing the news of the fires that had started, and of course it was not until much later that the understanding of the devastation that had occurred to our neighbouring communities came to us. As the final figures came in over the following days and weeks it was shocking to realise that 173 people had lost their lives in those fires. It was also particularly shocking to much later find out — from information supplied by the royal commission — that powerlines were responsible for 159 of the lives that were lost. There were also 2000 homes lost, and $4.4 billion in property damage was suffered by Victorians at that time.
As time passes and to some extent we put the horror of that behind us, it is easy sometimes to forget the importance of fulfilling recommendations, but I am very pleased to see that this house has over a number of years consistently rolled out the recommendations of the royal commission, and these are some of the last recommendations being fulfilled now.
Bushfires are very much a part of the Australian landscape. Where I live, in my electorate, we had the Wunghnu bushfires only two or three years ago. They were fast grassfires of an entirely different nature to the Black Saturday bushfires, which went through large forested areas. But we also have forest in my electorate, and that is the Barmah National Park, and people in my electorate talk to me often about their fear of fire in that park because of the lack of attention to it. I have heard the member for Gippsland East talk about controlled burning and about the need to keep our forest areas cleaned up a bit and to look after them when we can to avoid the intensity and ferocity of fire that can occur if we do not attend to them in that way.
We have a Country Fire Authority (CFA) unit in Barmah and in Nathalia, and they would be the first to be called in if our national park at Barmah caught on fire. It is 70 000 acres of forest land, and on hot, dry days it is just a tinderbox. I would like to acknowledge our CFA volunteers throughout the state, and particularly my area, for the enormous amount of effort and work they put into so willingly protecting our local communities.
The powerlines are just a part of what needs to be done, though, and it is the controlled burning, it is the cleaning of our forest floors and it is the chopping down of saplings that are unnecessarily growing that are also important. While on the one hand we have removed logging from our forests and we have removed cattle from our forests, that was done on the understanding that other protective works would be done and that we would be turning these areas into very valuable tourism opportunities. That actually has not happened, and I would urge the government to consider the resourcing of Parks Victoria to actually undertake a lot of the work that the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council had anticipated would happen when it did its report some time ago. This is important, but so many other areas of fire mitigation are too. I commend the bill to the house.