Australian Bushfires & Covid-19

2 September 2020

The year 2020 has been devastating for Australia. Between the bushfires and the pandemic, we have very much been tried and tested. We've had to rise to challenges that we've never had before. For the most part, we've done so successfully. But there have been many mistakes along the way—mistakes that we need to acknowledge and mistakes that we need to learn from. One such lesson is the importance of preparedness.

Arguably, the current lockdown in Victoria could have been avoided if that state had employed more contact tracers before the crisis or if it had scaled up its contact-tracing teams faster. The Victorian government could argue that they weren't needed before COVID, which is quite a reasonable point, but it also shows that the value of preparedness was underrated before the pandemic and that we need to adapt our thinking to be ready for the next crisis, because there will be another crisis.

Another example comes from the bushfires that swept the country before the pandemic struck. At the end of last year and again at the start of this year, I asked ministers in this chamber if we had adequate firefighting aircraft. Both times, I was assured that we did. Well, the immense scope of the bushfires showed that that claim was false and this too has been borne out by two very recent reports—in fact, in the last two weeks. The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements reported that the Commonwealth's approach to procuring firefighting aircraft was very much inadequate and it needs to be reassessed. Similarly, the New South Wales bushfire inquiry found a lack of aircraft hampered firefighting, including the essential task of extinguishing new fires before they grew and before they spread out of control.

As with the Victorian case, I don't necessarily blame the government for this. I don't believe anyone anticipated the scale of the bushfires which confronted us last summer, but we must acknowledge that we had insufficient firefighting assets and we need to incorporate this lesson into our preparedness for future bushfire seasons. There are signs that the coming summer will not be as bad as last year, which is good news. Much of the fuel that has been building up over the last few years has fortunately now been consumed. Rainfall throughout the winter has reduced what fuel remains on the ground, and there are signs, at least at this point, that a La Nina event may mean a wetter summer—way wetter—than we experienced last year. So we may be spared another bushfire crisis but just 'may'. I do worry that this will make us complacent. I worry it will provide an excuse for investments in preparedness to be deferred.

Both the royal commission and the New South Wales inquiry made the point that fire seasons around the world are growing longer and are far more intense. Northern and southern seasons are converging and they will soon overlap. The current business model for firefighting aircraft involves them being used in places like Canada, Greece and the United States during the northern summer, particularly July and August. Then, of course, they are transported to the southern countries, like Australia, during the southern summer. But recently, we've seen Californian wildfires persist later into the year and we've seen Australian bushfires start much earlier in the year. This means that firefighting aircraft are increasingly needed in two distant places at exactly the same time. As these aircraft are typically owned by private entities, they're leased out on contracts. When countries invest more money in preparedness, they will be able to contract for more aircraft and will be better protected when fires break out.

We very much need to think seriously about a strategy for ensuring access to firefighting aircraft in a world where they are increasingly sought after. There are several options available to the government. The first option is to continue with the current model. This model has state agencies contracting their own aircraft, and the Commonwealth funding additional shared aircraft through the National Aerial Firefighting Centre. This is the approach that the royal commission found to be inadequate. I share that view. It is clearly not working. The government has committed more money to the NAFC and has indexed the funding to provide them with some certainty. That is a good thing, but it's not enough. We need to very seriously consider the alternatives that are available.

The second option is that the government procure its own aerial firefighting fleet. This would not be a fleet that is flown into Australia when the contract begins, regardless of when we actually need the aircraft. It would be a fleet that is owned and based in Australia, a fleet that would provide Australians with an assurance that the government actually had the resources it needs to protect Australians in times of need. Obviously this is an option that I support. I do understand that the capital costs of a firefighting fleet will be substantial, but the costs of the current approach are way more substantial. Those costs are borne not just by the federal budget but by every individual Australian whose home or business has been lost, sometimes unnecessarily, to bushfires.

The third option is one recommended by the New South Wales inquiry, which suggested that the Commonwealth trial the feasibility of retrofitting RAAF C-130 aircraft with modular airborne firefighting systems. This would mean that our existing C-130 aircraft could be converted to firefighting aircraft at relatively short notice. It would provide us with what is called aviation surge capacity, something that was lacking in the last bushfire season. When I raised this question yesterday in question time, the minister responded by saying that the RAAF pilots are not qualified or certified to fight bushfires. Now, I don't doubt the truth of what she says, but: so what? Senator Reynolds has spoken highly about the skill and professionalism of RAAF pilots. I am certain that they have the skills and the ability to be trained in piloting firefighting aircraft, and I suspect that many of them would welcome the opportunity to serve their country during a time of disaster and contribute to protecting homes and livelihoods, just as they would during times of war and conflict.

The challenge of preparedness is that it's hard to tell the difference between efficient expenditure and waste. Paying for insurance can feel like a waste of money—until you need it. Spending money on bushfire or pandemic preparedness might have looked like a waste a year ago, but now we all wish governments had been better prepared. The simple fact is that we weren't as prepared for 2020 as we could have been. Being prepared wouldn't have stopped the fires. It wouldn't have prevented COVID-19 from reaching Australian shores. But it could have lessened the impact; there is no doubt about that. We need to learn that lesson, and in two, three or maybe four years time, when a natural disaster hasn't struck and a firefighting fleet or a pandemic stockpile starts to look like a waste of money, we need to remember that 2020 was a year of devastation. There will be other years of devastation, but if we learn the right lessons the next one won't have to look as bad as 2020 has been.

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