EMERGENCY SERVICES LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2011

 I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Emergency Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, and in doing so I join with the many other members of this house to pay my deepest respects to those individuals, families and communities that suffered so much as a result of the Black Saturday bushfires and honour the work of the emergency services personnel who battled so bravely during those dark hours. Three years on, many communities in Victoria are still grappling with the extraordinary toll of those horrific events, and during this anniversary week all members of this house have been united in restating our compassion for and commitment to those affected.

This week also serves as a timely reminder of the absolutely critical role emergency services workers play in protecting our community. Thousands of paid and volunteer emergency services workers dedicate their time and skill and often risk their lives to serve our community every single day.

Therefore it is vital that the frameworks that support emergency services workers, the organisations they represent and the communities they serve are of the highest order.

As we debate the contents of this particular bill, which cover a range of matters relating to emergency services personnel and their organisations and the safety of our community, it is important that we consider this legislation in the broader context of the government activity — or lack thereof — in these areas. As our lead speaker so ably pointed out, there have been a range of clear and manifest failures of this government since it took office some 14 months ago. The member for Yan Yean set out those issues most articulately, despite what I must say was a range of extremely unedifying and nonsensical jeers and giggles from those opposite, which only serve to remind us all that many on the government benches simply do not give these issues the respect and seriousness they deserve. We would ask them to perhaps reflect on their performance today.

As we have heard, the purpose of this bill is to modernise some outdated provisions, make resultant amendments and increase selected penalty provisions.

The bill creates several new offences for actions that prevent fire services from rapidly responding to emergencies, including damaging, interfering with or resetting fire indicator panels. We understand that this is a growing problem. The wiping of data from those panels can lead to problems in the future. Clearly, knowingly making a false report of fire activity is a waste of time and resources and can divert attention away from real emergencies to invented ones. Those penalties are appropriate.

The bill also empowers the CFA (Country Fire Authority) chief officer to close off traffic from roads that are impaired by smoke, and it gives a greater range of sergeants and other officials the power to declare emergency areas on their own authority for the purpose of excluding the public. Again, these are important steps to provide clear responses in what are inherently chaotic and distressing situations.

As we have heard, the bill extends immunity provisions in the fire services legislation to interstate and international firefighters and extends access to injury compensation schemes. This acknowledges the practice that has occurred for many years. Victoria has a proud history of providing a helping hand to other jurisdictions, both domestic and international, when they experience emergency events, and we have also been very lucky to welcome the support of domestic and international emergency services personnel to our own home when we have experienced the dramas and devastation of bushfires and other natural events. The bill’s provisions are important, as they reflect existing practice and ensure that these important and helpful arrangements continue.

Responding properly and efficiently to emergency events is absolutely critical to maximising the safety and security of people and property. However, such response by the government is not limited to the immediate callout of emergency services personnel.

Governments are required to stand with affected communities throughout an emergency event and its aftermath. As we have heard from the lead speaker for the opposition, this government has been glacially slow to respond to the devastating effects of the weather events on Christmas Day, which wreaked absolute havoc in the north and the west. There is extensive and devastating damage. Families remain out of their homes, which has been the case for weeks. They face very bleak months ahead before they can return. They are distressed and despairing, and this government’s failure to stand with those communities has been very stark.

The government has been asleep at the wheel in relation to the emergency alert systems not working as they should and in particular the situation that occurred during the Strathewen fire, which the member for Yan Yean set out in her speech. This is clearly not good enough.

We reiterate the calls for an independent investigation into what took place in those failures, because dealing with emergency events and looking after our emergency services personnel and organisations is about putting your money where your mouth is and appropriately resourcing those services and that infrastructure in times of need. It is about ensuring that responses are made when emergency services organisations are asking for other resources, such as Elvis, and ensuring that those resources are made available quickly. It is about funding appropriate CFA stations, and we note the absolute disparity between Labor’s commitment regarding 250 new CFA stations, the paucity of stations that has been on offer from this government and the way in which it has identified those areas of serious risk. We note in particular that the government’s decision not to build fire stations in areas such as Mount Helen poses a direct risk.

As has been said, Labor does not oppose this bill.

I will conclude my remarks shortly to allow time for those on this side of the house who also take these issues extremely seriously and really want to contribute to this debate. On its current form we will be closely watching this government not just on how it implements these changes but also on its continued role in emergency service responses and management. To date the cogs have been turning ever so slowly. The community deserves better, and we will be holding this government to account.

Hansard, 2012