STATE EMERGENCY SERVICE AMENDMENT BILL 2009
Agreement in Principle
Debate resumed from 17 June 2009.
Mr ANTHONY ROBERTS
(Lane Cove) [10.27 a.m.]: Opposition members have always been great supporters of the State Emergency Service. In fact, many have been involved at various times in their careers as members of that wonderful organisation, and I am pleased to speak on the State Emergency Service Amendment Bill 2009. Whilst the Opposition does not oppose the bill, it will attempt in the other place to amend the clause that seeks to preclude State Emergency Service controllers or deputy controllers from being councillors within local government. Those wonderful local government councillors, who are leaders in their community and who also participate in the State Emergency Service, should have the opportunity to bring their leadership skills in those roles to their local State Emergency Service units.
The purposes of the bill are to change the title of the head of the State Emergency Service from Director General of the State Emergency Service to the Commissioner of the State Emergency Service, and to change the title of the deputy director general to deputy commissioner; to provide that the State Emergency Service is to act as the combat agency in respect of tsunamis, and is to coordinate the evacuation and welfare of affected communities; and to preclude councillors, within the meaning of the Local Government Act 1993, from being appointed as the controller of a State Emergency Service unit or as the controller of all State Emergency Service units in a local government area.
The bill amends the State Emergency Service Act 1989, No. 164. Schedules 1 , ,  and  give effect to the objects set out in paragraph (a) of the overview; schedule 1  gives effect to the object set out in paragraph (b) of the overview; schedule 1  provides that notes in the principal Act do not form part of that Act; schedule 1  provides that the emergency powers that the State Emergency Service [SES] has in relation to floods, storms and emergencies, which the State Emergency Operations Controller directs the State Emergency Service to deal with, apply also in relation to tsunamis; schedules 1  to  give effect to the object set out in paragraph (c) of the overview; schedule 1  enables savings and transitional regulations to be consequent on the enactment of the proposed Act; and schedule 1  inserts specific savings and transitional provisions consequent on the enactment of the proposed Act.
Among other things, the provisions make it clear that the amendments precluding councillors from being appointed as unit controllers or local controllers do not affect the appointment of councillors who are also unit controllers or local controllers on the commencement of the proposed amendments. Schedule 2.1 amends the Public Finance and Audit Act 1983, schedule 2.2 amends the Public Sector Employment and Management Act 2002, and schedule 2.3 amends the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989. The first amendment is designed to bring the leadership of the State Emergency Service in line with other emergency services and agencies by replacing the title of "director general" with that of "commissioner", and that is appropriate. With respect to the second amendment, in New South Wales the State Emergency Service was designated as a combat agency responsible for tsunamis, which is legislated in this bill as a logical extension of its expertise in flood planning and response. That is a sensible measure, particularly in view of the State Emergency Service's combat experience in dealing with floods.
The third amendment relates to the role of the SES local and other unit controllers or their deputies. The new funding model for the SES, as detailed in the State Revenue and Other Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Act 2008, now means that local government contributes to the overall funding of the SES. The Government argues that this change means that the service's relationship with councils requires a high degree of transparency and separation of powers. This will not affect existing controllers who are councillors; only people from this point on will be affected. While the Opposition agrees that the amendments that relate to tsunamis and SES operational management are sensible, overdue, and will allow for greater transparency and local government contributions in line with arrangements for the Rural Fire Service, prohibiting councillors from being SES controllers limits the roles of volunteers in the community.
I note that a mayor—the honourable member for Cabramatta—is in the Chamber at present. Councillors play a significant and important role in communities, particularly in rural communities. Quite often these communities are small and do not have the wealth of resources, skills and knowledge that one would find in the city. To preclude someone who knows their district and has strong leadership skills from being a controller or deputy controller in an SES unit is ridiculous. It would deprive the SES of a valuable resource that is called upon in times of crisis. It is the equivalent of not allowing a surgeon to practise in a hospital because that surgeon has a relationship with another hospital, despite the fact that a patient is in dire need of his or her services.
Members who travel around New South Wales will know that many fine people who are involved in local government are also involved in their Rural Fire Service, the State Emergency Service, volunteer rescue services and myriad associations. I am led to believe the reason for this amendment is the possible conflict involving a city council not far from this place that is controlled and dominated by the Labor Party. I understand that that issue has been dealt with, but why preclude councillors in the rest of New South Wales who conduct their business in an open, transparent and ethical manner from being active in protecting their community during times of crisis? I ask the Minister to accept an amendment that the Opposition will move in the upper House and not to preclude these wonderful leaders, who have considerable knowledge of their districts, from serving their communities further in times of crisis. Members who travel beyond Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong and into rural and regional areas will realise that a local councillor may have served on his shire council for 25 years—
Mr Steve Whan:
Mr ANTHONY ROBERTS:
Or her, thank you. The Minister has entered the debate—which I welcome—and I hope to get his support on this issue. Such councillors know the location of bridges that could be washed out and where people live. They know what precedes, what happens during and what happens after periods of storm or drought. They know the area and their local people; they are in leadership roles. The Government has demonstrated how it is out of touch with rural and regional New South Wales by trying to prohibit, through legislation, volunteers who already give their time serving on their councils taking leadership roles within their State Emergency Service units.
I ask the Minister, whose electorate is in regional New South Wales, to consider his local area and the wonderful work his councillors do, particularly in relation to emergency services, and seek to amend the bill. One conflict not far from this place should not affect the highly ethical standards demonstrated by councillors in leadership roles in their local emergency organisations over many years. On behalf of the shadow Minister, the Hon. Melinda Pavey—who is doing a remarkable job in this portfolio—I point out that the Government must address issues outside Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong.
The Opposition supports volunteers and local leaders across New South Wales taking on leadership roles during emergencies through their various State Emergency Service or Rural Fire Service units. The Opposition has consulted extensively on the bill with the State Emergency Service Volunteers Association, particularly David Lane and his team. I pay tribute to them for the work they do and for their leadership. They do not oppose the bill but they support an amendment with respect to councillors not being able to be SES controllers or deputy controllers. They estimate that more than half a dozen, and up to 18, controllers or deputy controllers in New South Wales are also councillors.
Mr Steve Whan:
Mr ANTHONY ROBERTS:
There are eight. I thank the Minister for that clarification. He has more resources at his disposal than the good people of the State Emergency Service Volunteers Association—I will come to that point later—and certainly the Opposition. Through this amendment the Minister is saying that eight people out there are acting in an unethical or possibly compromised way when dealing with their SES units and councils. On behalf of the Coalition I thank those eight people who are controllers and councillors in New South Wales. The Government has launched a direct attack on the wonderful work they do, the leadership they show, and their commitment to the safety of their local community.
I also thank the Minister for Emergency Services for pointing out his condemnation, by the very nature of the amending bill, not only of those eight people but also of future generations who will follow those councillors and who wish to act as controllers and protect the community. The Minister is condemning those people by suggesting that they are unethical and untrustworthy in carrying out their jobs in protecting their local community. That is the issue with this bill. It shows how out of touch the Government is when it comes to rural and regional New South Wales.
Mr Daryl Maguire:
It is appalling.
Mr ANTHONY ROBERTS:
As the member for Wagga Wagga said, it is appalling.
Mr Steve Whan:
Should the same apply to the RFS too?
Mr ANTHONY ROBERTS:
The Rural Fire Service?
Mr Steve Whan:
Mr ANTHONY ROBERTS:
That is not part of this bill. However, in respect of any person who is prepared to put up their hand and volunteer, irrespective of where they are from, I say that if they are ethical and honest, they should be able to hold those positions.
Mr Steve Whan:
Mr ANTHONY ROBERTS:
The Minister hmms. By this bill precluding someone from showing the same leadership in an emergency as they show in their role on a local shire or council, the Government is launching another attack on local government and the people of rural and regional New South Wales who stand up for their communities in times of crisis. This is another display of the Government's lack of commitment to the 10,000 New South Wales State Emergency Service volunteers who constitute 232 State Emergency Service units. While the Coalition has no problems with some parts of the bill, I respectfully ask the Minister to think about people who show leadership in their local communities in their day-to-day management of community affairs and during times of crisis. I reiterate that the Coalition supports New South Wales volunteers. While the Coalition will not oppose the bill, we will move amendments in the other place.
Mr NICK LALICH
(Cabramatta) [10.41 a.m.]: I support the State Emergency Service Amendment Bill 2009. The amendments outlined in the bill provide welcome additional legislative recognition of the responsibilities of one of our finest emergency services, the State Emergency Service [SES]. It is probably fair to say that before the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, Australia generally underestimated the potential risk of a tsunami to our shores. Despite this, the State Emergency Service was already of the view that a tsunami was a hazard so unique in its risk factors that special planning was essential to provide a coordinated and effective response to protect the lives of people in this State.
That belief was put into action when the State Emergency Management Committee designated the State Emergency Service as the combat agency for tsunamis and the organisation began to draft the New South Wales tsunami plan. The plan was somewhat hampered at this time by no specific source of tsunami warnings being available for Australia. Information from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii served Australian needs only in a general way. Warning capability has now been provided with the establishment of the Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre operated by the Bureau of Meteorology and Geoscience Australia.
The New South Wales State Emergency Service has been a keen participant in the Australian Tsunami Working Group over the past four years, developing and enhancing its own expertise in this field. The State Emergency Service also worked with other government and non-government agencies during that time through a series of briefings, training exercises and educational programs to build awareness of the State's tsunami risk and enhance our preparedness and response capabilities. Because of this commitment, we are fortunate to now be in the position of being well advanced in our tsunami planning. It is appropriate that this expertise and work is given legislative recognition.
The bill before the House provides support for the State Emergency Service's important roles and responsibilities, should the worst occur and our coastline become impacted by a tsunami. The other amending provisions of the bill will modernise the State Emergency Service and bring it into line with our other emergency services, particularly the New South Wales Fire Brigades and the Rural Fire Service. Replacing the title "director general" with "commissioner" more accurately and appropriately conveys the operational, rather than administrative, focus of the State Emergency Service and its leader. I note that this formalises in legislation the title already accorded the State Emergency Service commissioner under the Public Sector Employment and Management (Departmental Amalgamations) Order 2009 issued in July this year.
The third amendment outlined in this bill in relation to the role of State Emergency Service local and unit controllers or their deputies is a sensible move to increase transparency between the service and local government, which contributes significant funding to the organisation. The crux of this legislation is that the funding provided by local government to the State Emergency Service precludes the appointment of elected councillors or mayors to administer the State Emergency Service. However, that does not preclude them from being part of emergency responses during crises, from volunteering to fight bushfires or from helping people after a tsunami hits, should such a catastrophe occur—and let us pray to God that it never does.
The new funding system announced in last year's State mini-budget now means that local government contributes to overall funding of the State Emergency Service, just as it contributes to the funding of our fire services along with the insurance industry and the State Government. For the purpose of providing transparency and maintaining the separation of powers, this amending bill provides that elected councillors will not be eligible to be appointed as local controllers, unit controllers or their deputies. Any local or unit controller or their deputies who are elected to a local council will cease their role as State Emergency Service controller or deputy three months after their election takes effect. This move is also consistent with the State's other major volunteer agency, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
Mr Steve Whan:
You know more than the Opposition spokesperson.
Mr NICK LALICH:
I thank the Minister. However, it must be noted that this amendment does not apply retrospectively; rather, it concerns all future appointments of local government councillors and State Emergency Service controllers or deputy controllers. I commend the bill to the House.
Mr FRANK TERENZINI
(Maitland) [10.46 a.m.]: I proudly support the State Emergency Service Amendment Bill 2009 and anything related to the State Emergency Service's efforts, professionalism and the help that it gives the community. The bill contains sensible administrative reforms to give legislative effect to the State Emergency Service's responsibilities for tsunami planning and response, and to bring the service's structure into line with the other emergency services. As other speakers have outlined already, the State Emergency Service has recognised expertise in flood management, and we are fortunate to be able to capitalise on that knowledge in relation to a tsunami risk.
The State Emergency Service has been working closely with the Commonwealth Government to build a tsunami planning and response capability. Recent exercises such as Ausnami have affirmed that the State Emergency Service has the capacity to plan for and respond quickly to the threat of a tsunami. The aim of that national exercise was to test the effectiveness of the warning system's communications for delivering and managing tsunami warnings. Its success shows that the State Emergency Service is able to work effectively with other key agencies, including Geoscience Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Attorney General's Department and other States' emergency management agencies.
The exercise simulated a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in the Pacific affecting the east coast of Australia and a similar earthquake off Indonesia impacting on Western Australia, South Australia and a number of islands. The desktop and discussion test involved all levels of the State Emergency Service, the State's network of emergency management committees and a range of other key agencies, including New South Wales Maritime, port authorities, rescue services and Surf Life Saving Australia. The Federal Attorney-General has reported that the tests affirmed that in the event of a tsunami the Australian Government is ready to protect the Australian community. The exercise confirmed the capability of the warning system to detect and verify tsunami threats from earthquakes, the timely provision of information to affected jurisdictions and relevant government agencies, and that warnings could be issued within 30 minutes of an underwater earthquake.
Members of the New South Wales community can again be assured that in the unlikely event of a tsunami affecting the coastline, the State Emergency Service has the capacity to respond to such major natural disasters with professionalism and efficiency. All members of this House, without doubt, fully appreciate the work performed by our emergency services personnel. Indeed, perhaps more than any other topic debated in this House, we speak about the acknowledgement we are all too willing to give of our emergency services personnel. Most of them are volunteers who put their safety at risk and who, at all hours, are prepared to leave their homes and families in order to rescue and protect others in our community. No topic has taken up as much time of this House as the appreciation we have shown for their efforts.
In my electorate of Maitland I regularly visit the fire brigades, State Emergency Service units and Rural Fire Service units, and I continually see the increasing amount of professionalism that is being shown by these outfits. Every unit I have visited contains a group of volunteers who are totally dedicated to their job and to serving our community. Indeed, tomorrow afternoon I will visit the Louth Park Rural Fire Service to hand over some new chainsaws and to see how the work is progressing. Those events are always very encouraging, because the personnel are all too ready to show off their immaculately prepared and presented Rural Fire Service units, which I have seen in action. Of course, I refer to the great events of June 2007 when all our emergency services came together to protect us in the Hunter Valley.
There can be no doubt about the efficiency, professionalism, commitment and dedication of these volunteers and professional emergency services officers. I had the great pleasure—courtesy of the Minister for Emergency Services, who is in the Chamber—of officially opening the Raymond Terrace Fire Brigade, in the seat of Port Stephens, where again we saw on display the great professionalism of the emergency services personnel. It is consistent with the Government's commitment to ensuring our community is protected by making sure that we have state-of-the-art, fully equipped local fire stations. That was a very good day.
There can be no doubt about the world-class effectiveness of our emergency services. The bill represents further reforms to enable those emergency services to better protect the community in case of emergency and—God forbid—tsunami, should one occur. I welcome the reforms introduced in the bill, particularly those relating to the leadership of the State Emergency Service and the roles of local and unit controllers. It is appropriate that the State Emergency Service reflect the structure of our other major emergency services—New South Wales Fire Brigades and the Rural Fire Service—by changing its leader's rank and title from "director general" to "commissioner".
Likewise, the amendment to prevent elected local councillors from holding positions as State Emergency Service local or unit controllers or their deputies is a sensible step; it is similar to the caveats on the equivalent positions in the Rural Fire Service. Preventing the perception of a conflict of interest between these two roles and providing a proper separation of powers is a transparent safeguard. The bill is a sensible step; it demonstrates the degree of cooperation between the various levels of government and the way in which we are taking a coordinated approach. I commend the bill to the House.
Mr ANDREW CONSTANCE
(Bega) [10.53 a.m.]: I wish to make a brief contribution to the debate on the State Emergency Service Amendment Bill 2009. In doing so I acknowledge and pay tribute to the State Emergency Service volunteers and professional emergency services personnel in the Far South Coast region, who do a fantastic job. Certainly the Minister for Emergency Services will be aware that in Batemans Bay we are seeing an expansion of the State Emergency Service and the development of its new headquarters in conjunction with council and the State Government, which is very pleasing.
The bill makes a lot of sense, except for one component regarding the relationship between local government and the State Emergency Service and the prohibition on State Emergency Service controllers or deputy controllers also being councillors. Before I speak about that aspect of the bill I should recognise that during the winter recess we almost experienced a tsunami event on the Far South Coast. I must say that the warnings and the approach to those warnings, both in terms of the Bureau of Meteorology website and the media, during the early stages of that emergency is something the Minister needs to look at. There was a degree of confusion. As I understand it, the initial warnings were quite strident but eased off in the course of the evening. In the end, we were lucky we did not experience any form of tsunami event. However, the initial warnings that I saw on the Bureau of Meteorology website suggested it was time for people to leave their homes and go to higher ground—which some did. Certainly some people in the low-lying areas around Batehaven, in Batemans Bay, took that course of action.
Again the State Emergency Service personnel were on a watching brief. It was incredible that some people felt the need to go down by the Clyde River to observe the tsunami—to wait for the wave! One would think that when a tsunami warning was issued the last place people would want to sit to observe events would be on the edge of the water! There was some talk that police had to move people on. The bill ensures that the State Emergency Service is designated as the combat agency responsible for tsunamis, which is a logical extension of its role with regard to flood planning and response.
The first amendment is designed to bring the leadership of the State Emergency Service in line with other emergency services by replacing the title of director general with that of commissioner. I think it goes without saying that everyone welcomes that change. The third amendment outlined in the bill relates to the prohibition on councillors being appointed as controllers. It is a concern that current councillors can remain in the position but councillors in the future cannot hold the roles of controller or deputy controller. There are means for councillors to vacate council functions should they have a conflict of interest. It is not as though councillors who are deputy controllers or controllers of State Emergency Service units will somehow be able to hide their involvement with the State Emergency Service and with council. If there are issues to do with budgetary considerations or priorities within council concerning the State Emergency Service, it is logical and fairly obvious that councillors who hold those positions should vacate their council functions and not be involved in any discussions concerning State Emergency Service decisions that might need to be made by local government.
I believe that to deny people in this way is rather heavy handed. It is like saying that if a person is a member of Rotary and Rotary maintains a Rotary park in a local government area, the person cannot be on council. We need to be able to continue to capture the good work of those who serve the State Emergency Service in controller and deputy controller positions whilst not denying their involvement in local government. Some members of this House are also members of the Rural Fire Service, the State Emergency Service, and other emergency services. If we are to expect these standards of councillors, we should expect them of ourselves also. I am a patron of the surf life saving movement on the Far South Coast. Does that mean that I should not be able to sit in Parliament because legislation may come into this place that could have an effect on the surf life saving movement?
I am aware that the surf life saving movement does not want its own legislation. However, I simply make the point that if we are to expect these standards of councillors, we should also expect them of ourselves. Thus it must be apparent and obvious to everyone that that amendment is unworkable. I think there is the potential for a conflict of interest should a person participate in debate at a council level concerning State Emergency Service issues. There must be mechanisms to remove that conflict of interest by ensuring that people step away when the matter comes up for discussion. General managers are well placed to ensure that that happens. I ask the Minister to reconsider the Government's position on this amendment. It comes across as a little heavy handed by the Government, and in some ways it makes us look hypocritical, given that some members of this House volunteer in various emergency service organisations throughout the State.
Mr MATT BROWN
(Kiama) [11.00 a.m.]: I am pleased to support the State Emergency Service Amendment Bill 2009. I am sure all members of this Parliament will join me in stating up front that the State Emergency Service [SES], together with its volunteers, is one of this State's finest assets and one of this country's most professional volunteer organisations. At the outset I thank the movement as a whole and all those who work so diligently in my electorate for their professionalism. They continually impress me and the visitors I bring to their organisations with their dedication and the quality of the equipment they use. The people of New South Wales know that whenever a storm, flood or other emergency strikes their community they can rely on the volunteers of the State Emergency Service to come to their assistance. As well as flood response, the service's expertise in flood response planning, preparedness and education is also widely recognised.
In fact, last year the service won international recognition for an innovative online tool it has had staff develop to help businesses manage the impact of floods on their operations and finances. The service took second place in the technology and innovation category of the prestigious International Association of Emergency Managers awards. Given that flooding results in an average of $128 million of damage annually to the New South Wales community, we are fortunate that the service is a world leader in public safety when it comes to flooding. So it is obvious that the service's tsunami planning, preparedness and response responsibilities are based on a solid foundation of expertise. While the organisation's flood and storm roles have been set out in the State Emergency Service Act, it is appropriate that this bill now amends the Act to reflect this additional, and vital, tsunami responsibility.
Like, I am sure, all members, I hope that this expertise is never needed but we cannot let that hope prevent our being prepared for the worst. Every natural disaster that strikes—whether flood, storm or bushfire—reinforces the key lesson of the importance of planning and preparedness. These are fundamental to the work of all our emergency services, and this bill is a reassurance that this message in terms of this potential risk to our community's safety and wellbeing has been heeded. I welcome the reform introduced in this bill to the leadership of the service. Indeed, it is entirely fitting that, in keeping with the heads of our other emergency services, the leader of the service holds the rank and title of commissioner rather than that of director general. Often in the past I have made the mistake of referring to the head as commissioner, and I am pleased that I will not be making that mistake once this bill has been passed.
As other speakers, including the Minister, have noted, this is recognition of the organisation's operational, rather than administrative, purpose. And it is an important recognition to make. Likewise, the amendment to prevent elected local councillors from holding positions as SES local or unit controllers is a sensible step. However, it is important that elected leaders are able to get involved in community organisations as volunteers, and this bill does not prevent that. It is wise to prevent even the perception of any conflict of interest between these two roles by providing for a proper separation of powers. This will be to the benefit of everyone involved. As the Minister rightly said, it is not retrospective. It is not a witch-hunt. It will simply ensure the corporate governance of those two organisations remains at arm's length, and that will provide a greater degree of confidence to the community. I commend the bill to the House.
Mr MALCOLM KERR
(Cronulla) [11.04 a.m.]: I will simply add to what has been said by members on this side of the House. I am pleased that the member for Kiama will not make the mistake and that he will, in good faith, be able to call the commissioner "the commissioner" once the bill is passed. I place on record my appreciation for the great services provided by the emergency services in my area. A number of natural disasters have occurred in my area: hail storms and storms during which trees fell on properties. The work of the State Emergency Service meant that property damage was avoided and people were rescued. People in the State Emergency Service—many of them volunteer on a part-time basis; they make themselves freely available in their spare time—put themselves in harm's way to assist their fellow citizens. Once again, I convey the appreciation of my community for their selfless determination to protect the property of their fellow citizens, and their efforts often have the result that any injuries that befall their fellow citizens are minimised.
Mr THOMAS GEORGE
(Lismore) [11.06 a.m.]: The object to the State Emergency Service Amendment Bill 2009 is to amend the State Emergency Service Act 1989, the principal Act, to change the title of the head of the State Emergency Service [SES] from the Director General of the State Emergency Service to the Commissioner of the State Emergency Service and to change the title of the Deputy Director General to Deputy Commissioner; to provide that the SES is to act as the combat agency in respect of tsunamis and is to coordinate the evacuation and welfare of affected communities; and to preclude councillors, within the meaning of the Local Government Act 1993, from being appointed as the controller of an SES unit or as the controller of all SES units in a local government area.
As my colleagues have said, we are concerned about the provisions in the bill that preclude councillors from being appointed as the controller of an SES unit or the controller of all SES units in a local government area. Many communities in rural and regional areas—I am sure the Minister is well aware of this—are not big and there are few people to pick from. Usually the local councillor is the backbone of the local community; hence he is probably leading the SES unit for that area. Most members of this House realise that if one wants a job done one must give it to a busy person; one never gives the job to the person who is unavailable or doing nothing. However, I am concerned that that will be the case. In some areas this provision may cause a downgrading of the position. The Minister might comment further on this. All members of this House appreciate the work done by the SES and all other volunteer organisations in our community. Sadly, Lismore is used to disasters. I wonder whether I have become the Minister for disasters. In 2001 we had an horrific storm at Casino. Again, the SES and the Rural Fire Service, together with all the other services—
Mr Malcolm Kerr:
Every Cabinet Minister is a Minister for disasters.
Mr THOMAS GEORGE:
Yes. The workers were from not only within the Richmond Tweed SES but from all around the State. The local community was very grateful. The area had major floods in 2005, 2006 and 2008 and major hailstorms in early and late 2007. Prior to the 2007 hailstorm it suffered major fires in the Bundjalung National Park. The volunteers of local State Emergency Service branches give a continuation of service for which every member of this House appreciates. I will restrict my comments to the State Emergency Service Amendment Bill 2009. In August the Richmond Tweed SES called for more volunteers, having realised that as a result of the recent storm and floods they were short of approximately 30 volunteers. I support that call and ask anyone who is interested in joining their local SES to inspect the premises and obtain information about becoming part of the SES. I support the controller at Richmond Tweed SES, Scott Hanckel, and Darren Winkler, and encourage people throughout the State to become part of this very valuable organisation. I have pleasure in supporting the State Emergency Service Amendment Bill 2009.
Mr STEVE WHAN
(Monaro—Minister for Emergency Services, and Minister for Small Business) [11.10 a.m.], in reply: I thank all members for their contributions to debate on the State Emergency Service Amendment Bill 2009. This is an important bill for the State Emergency Service, a service that is vitally important to the people of New South Wales, who greatly appreciate the work of their volunteers in emergencies, as all speakers in this debate have said. The headquarters of the SES is in the electorate of the member for Wollongong, who also appreciates the efforts and thoroughly supports the SES. Everyone in the community values the work of volunteers. On a number of occasions in this House I have thanked volunteers for their efforts during particular events demanding the attention of the SES, and will continue to do so.
The new role for the State Emergency Service as a tsunami agency is important. There has been a lot of planning since the terrible recent tsunamis in Asia and around the Indian Ocean. Tsunami warning systems are also new, and obviously we have a lot to learn about how to deal with tsunamis. The United States of America is also planning how to deal with tsunamis and how to educate people about them. This important role deserves to be formalised in the tasks of the SES. The change of name of the head of the service to commissioner is appropriate, and I am pleased that all members have agreed to the change.
The member for Cabramatta is aware that the Rural Fire Service and the State Emergency Service have the same provisions in relation to controllers—something of which the shadow Minister was obviously not aware. He thanked his local branch. The member for Maitland described the tsunami exercises undertaken recently and talked about his very close relationship with volunteers in his electorate, which is very much appreciated. The member for Kiama has been an active and strong supporter of the service over many years. The member for Cronulla highlighted the storm work done by the service in his electorate. I have seen the member for Lismore far too often in his electorate in recent months because of various floods. I know he has a day-to-day working relationship with the service when those events occur. It was good to hear of the appreciation of all members who spoke in this debate of the work done by the State Emergency Service in their areas, something on which every other member in this House would agree.
I will address a number of matters raised by the member for Bega. He also paid tribute to SES volunteers and to the staff on the South Coast and particularly the good work that is happening at Batemans Bay. He referred to a recent warning about a tsunami. I acknowledge that it is early days in relation to making judgements about warnings of tsunamis. A reasonably sizeable earthquake occurred under the sea off New Zealand. As the warning systems are fairly new it was a bit difficult for the Bureau of Meteorology, a Federal agency not controlled by this State, to make a judgement on the size of the tsunami. When a tsunami is travelling across the sea, from my understanding—I am not a scientist or an expert—it has a wide apex and becomes obvious only when it hits shallow water.
I take on board the comments of the member for Bega about the warning that was issued in that case. From memory, the tsunami ended up being a mere 30 centimetres high, and it did not have a big impact on the South Coast of New South Wales. I acknowledge that some people moved as a result of the warning from the Bureau of Meteorology. It recommended that people on Lord Howe Island move a kilometre inland, despite the island being only a few hundred metres wide! I am sure such problems will be sorted out. The Bureau of Meteorology will become more familiar with the tsunami warning system for the Pacific Ocean. Its work is fantastic but it will take a while to improve the level of forecasting.
The former shadow Minister, the member for Lane Cove, acting for the shadow Minister in the other place, got carried away when he said that the provision in this bill for councillors not to be controllers showed that the Minister thought they were all unethical. That is obviously not the case. The Government appreciates all the work done by people, including the eight councillors, as well as controllers or deputy controllers. A grandfathering clause is included so that the councillors do not have to resign their positions. The member for Bega also referred to a number of other volunteer positions that people occupy as well as holding offices in State Parliament. The advice provided to me showed that controllers have delegation to spend money allocated by councils. It was felt that it was best, in the interests of probity and consistency, to separate those roles. It may be that it is a minor issue as huge amounts of money are not involved, but the Government was provided with advice on this matter that the separation was desirable in the interests of probity.
When I very rudely interjected on the shadow Minister I challenged him to say whether he felt the same requirements should apply to the Rural Fire Service [RFS]. It became very clear that he had no idea that this is an existing provision for controllers in the Rural Fire Service. Apparently he was unaware that Rural Fire Service controllers have the same provision already in place for exactly the same reason. The State Emergency Service has recently come under the same funding arrangement as the Rural Fire Service. The State Emergency Service has advised me that that is why it felt it was in the best interests of probity to move to the same position as the Rural Fire Service. We heard the ranting of the shadow Minister today, saying with a little excitement that we are insulting all the people who are controllers. Clearly we are not; we are trying to make sure that we avoid anything in the future that could be seen as a conflict of interest.
I listened yesterday with great interest to the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of The Nationals, who raved about how they were going to bring a clean government. They have criticised us for, they say, not following recommendations about probity in the past, which is not true. But at the first test—yes, on a small issue—of a measure designed to guarantee probity, they will move an amendment to try to take it out. That is symbolic of what the Opposition is all about: it says anything in public but in practice does not deliver. Yesterday the Premier reminded us that there are still 11 members sitting on the Opposition benches who voted against the Wood royal commission—the only party that has had any member of Parliament found to be corrupt by the Independent Commission Against Corruption and that gave us Robert Askin.
The debate was generally very polite with great support for State Emergency Service volunteers. The shadow Minister then did a song and dance claiming that this is an outrageous measure and an insult to controllers. I assure controllers that there is no reflection on them personally. The Government is simply following advice in relation to ensuring the probity of people who have the delegation to spend money. It is not something that I feel hugely strongly about but I felt it was sensible to take the advice I was provided with. If the Opposition wants to move an amendment in the upper House, so be it. We will be interested to see the Opposition's foreshadowed attempt in the upper House to vote down, at its first chance, a probity measure in a piece of legislation.
I acknowledge the support of members on both sides of the House for the other two clauses in the bill and, more importantly, for their overwhelming support of the efforts of State Emergency Service volunteers. The Government works very hard to ensure that the State Emergency Service has a funding base that enables it to provide the resources that volunteers need. We are doing work at the moment to try to boost support and training for our volunteers and we continue to improve their resources and equipment. They do a fantastic job in our community. Once again I put on record, as Minister, my thanks and admiration for their efforts, and the thanks of everybody in this place. I commend the bill to the House.
Question—That this bill be now agreed to in principle—put and resolved in the affirmative.
Motion agreed to.
Bill agreed to in principle.
Passing of the Bill
Bill declared passed and transmitted to the Legislative Council with a message seeking its concurrence in the bill.