STATE EMERGENCY AND RESCUE MANAGEMENT (AMENDMENT) BILL
BUSH FIRES (AMENDMENT) BILL
Debate resumed from 14 April.
(Liverpool) [8.25]: In leading for the Opposition on these bills I wish to indicate that there will be no division or amendment. As indicated by the Minister in his second reading speech, the main bill deals with three main provisions. The first provision relates to the protection of employment of volunteers engaged in a declared emergency. Anyone who has had experience of emergencies within the State, in particular, being mindful of the terrible bushfire crisis in our State earlier this year, will welcome this provision. I am particularly pleased that the provisions will cover not only members of bushfire brigades but also, as was pointed out by the Minister, the State Emergency Service, volunteer rescue associations, Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol, Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Association and volunteer fire brigade officers. That is most appropriate. I am sure that all members of the community who have seen members of those organisations in action during an emergency or who are aware of the great work undertaken by those officers will be pleased that they are to be covered under this legislation. It is a pity that the provision was required. It follows indications from some employers that they were not prepared to play their part in meeting community need at a time of crisis.
The maximum pecuniary penalty applicable to employers who choose to disregard the new provision will be $3,000, but the most important provision is that the court will be able to direct an employer to reinstate a dismissed employee and to reimburse any salary or wages lost if there is victimisation. It is very important that members of the community unfamiliar with the work done by the organisations to which I have referred understand that these legislative provisions apply to a declared emergency only. Too often the community generally fails to recognise the tremendous amount of effort that goes into the activities of members of those organisations in training, in works associated with emergencies that are not a declared emergency as such and, in particular, the way in which many officers become involved in a host of activities that really are not emergencies. I am aware, as I am sure are other honourable members, of occasions when a person's home might be threatened by a tree that has a major problem or has died. Members of one or more of the organisations to which I have referred often go out to provide assistance, either at no cost or in return for a nominal donation to their activities.
It is a great pity that so many members of the community wishing to pursue some enjoyable activity do so ill prepared and ill equipped, thereby placing members of volunteer organisations in a terribly dangerous position when they have to carry out a rescue - in many cases when someone has been injured or has been lost. Everyone says it is wonderful when the CareFlight helicopter goes into a dangerous situation - possibly one involving strong winds - and hovers above while someone is sent down on a winch line to rescue an injured person. But do they realise the tremendous skill involved in piloting a helicopter under such dangerous circumstances and the danger faced by those undertaking rescue activities?
Recent experience has shown the provisions to be much needed. The legislation will be welcomed by all who have a sense of community spirit. It is my view that in the unfortunate event that the provisions relating to job protection have to be utilised - if the provision itself is not a sufficient deterrent to errant employers - the Opposition would be happy to move or to support a strengthening of the provisions to ensure that just as service on a jury is recognised as a valuable and important part of a citizen's role as a member of the community so too is the invaluable work done by members of rescue organisations.
I refer to the extension of the limitation of time from six months to two years. For most misdemeanours the statutory limitation of time within which to lay an information is six months. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule. For example, the former Labor Government introduced a provision to extend the limitation of time for the offence of bribery. I accept the argument that the nature of the offence and the difficulty with detection of the people responsible require that the provision be extended from six months to two years. The Opposition does not see any difficulty with that change and therefore supports it.
People might find an opportunity to disagree with certain components of the final matter. In his second reading speech the Minister identifies, as does the bill, the changes to the penalties to be imposed for offences involving the setting of fire to another person's land or property or allowing fire to escape from property so as to cause damage to another person's land or property. In monetary terms the increase is from a pecuniary penalty of $5,000 to $100,000, and there is an increase in the gaol component from 12 months' imprisonment to five years' imprisonment. An offender may be liable to both fine and imprisonment. Of course, an opportunity exists to argue about the quantum of the
pecuniary maximum penalty.
In the aftermath of the recent bushfire crisis the Opposition said that it would seek to enact a similar provision to that which exists in certain environmental legislation. The Opposition does not seek to do that in regard to this bill so as to ensure that it proceeds smoothly through the House. That is a clear indication to the broader community of the bipartisan approach taken by the Parliament on this particular aspect. Too often members of Parliament and members of the community fail to understand that it really does not matter what penalties the legislature provides. It is not the penalties per se that will act as the deterrent; the real deterrent is the likelihood of being detected.
One difficulty with arson, in my view, is that not enough is done to detect the people involved in the commission of this dreadful crime of deliberately setting fires. Whether it involves the death or injury of a person, in which case obviously the crime of manslaughter or even murder can be contemplated, the mere fact of lighting the fire, which sometimes results in an awesome and uncontrollable disaster, can lead to a situation similar to that which we experienced earlier in the year in which vast amounts of property were damaged.
It does not matter whether the destruction of a home, a workplace, or a holiday facility such as a caravan, or the destruction of unique bushland is involved, as recently occurred in a number of places in New South Wales, the impact of the deliberately lit fire falls on the community. Of course, parkland can regenerate, but in the course of a fire animals, birds and other things die; and the opportunity is lost for people to carry out improvements to the things that existed prior to the fire because so much time will be spent on restoration work to the parkland, et cetera.
I have resided in the last street of the city of Penrith, at the foot of the mountains, for more than 20 years. I have seen the effect of fire, the December 1977 awesome fires and the more recent fires. In my capacity as shadow minister, but, more important, in my capacity as Minister, I have had the opportunity to see shocking fires and their aftermath, as the Minister for Police and Minister for Emergency Services and the honourable member for Monaro did prior to entering Parliament. I am sure we do not disagree. It is important that more thought be given to the way this dreadful crime can be detected.
The opportunity for detection has been raised. That may involve the use of a wide variety of community people. Fires ravaged areas of the Blue Mountains, national parks, country areas of the State, and areas that until now have not been acknowledged as bushland, suburbs on the lower North Shore and other urban areas to the south of Sydney. It is important that members of the community play their role in detecting people responsible for these cursed fires.
I cannot think of many worse crimes. I recall the terrible situation in 1983 at Grays Point when I was a Minister when some firefighters were trapped and died, and others were injured. That terrible situation was repeated in the most recent fires when firefighters and others died. The effects of a bushfire that starts accidentally can never be eliminated. There are many ways that fires can start. However, as a community we can most certainly attempt to eliminate fires that are started deliberately. In my view, people who deliberately start a fire are not entitled to sympathy. I hope the community will not think the penalty increase will have some magical effect.
Each and every one of us should be involved in reporting to the authorities any suspicious actions. Another important facet is that the authorities will respond. If members of the authorities, people involved in a range of activities, council inspectors, or people flying aeroplanes for enjoyment or as part of a commercial operation see something, they should notify the appropriate authorities. In that way we may be able to have some impact on controlling the devastation. The Opposition welcomes the changes. The select committee is due to hold its first meeting on Thursday. The Opposition did not believe this was an appropriate matter to refer to the committee, but that should not prevent the committee at some point in its deliberations, after hearing evidence, making a suggestion that these provisions be parallel to provisions of other Acts.
I look forward to the work of the committee. The Minister said that this was the first of a number of measures. We should approach the task in an appropriate bipartisan fashion, with a joint will to introduce provisions that will have the effect of reducing fires and enhancing the ability of those who give of themselves so freely in fighting fires. If we do that, we will come up with a better system. I do not say that by way of criticism but so that we will always strive to enhance what we already have. I look forward to the committee's work and I look forward to the enactment of this legislation.
(Monaro) [8.39]: I also support these cognate bills. I was pleased to hear the Opposition spokesman for police and emergency services extend his support for the bill. Across the Parliament we jointly represent the interests of 85,000 volunteer bush firefighters, several thousand State Emergency Service workers and other emergency services members. The volunteer has been described by me but I do not think there is an appropriate collection of words to describe the volunteers in the New South Wales volunteer bush fire brigades and other emergency services. Their dedication and total commitment to the role they perform as volunteers are beyond words. Those of us who have had the benefit of working with them in emergencies will understand that the qualifications they have attained through training and their individual professionalism are the direct result of their dedication and commitment to the job. They are determined to perform in the very best way that the standard operating procedures and training system will allow.
In recent years - particularly in the last five, six, or maybe 10 years - there has been a dramatic change in the expectations of the community in relation to bushfire services and the ability of this group of people to perform to the increased standards set. There has been a dramatic change in the type of equipment provided; in the standard of protective clothing required; and in the high technology involved in communications. There also has been a general awareness of the need to protect life and property above all else. Honourable members will be aware that the traditional firefighters of the past were generally drawn from landholders, farmers and foresters - people who, of necessity, protected the land. They were not then drawn from the vast range of people who are currently involved with bush fire brigades throughout New South Wales.
In the past if a fire broke out in the mountains quite often it was the task of a farmer to jump on his horse with a rake, a box of matches, and a wet bag and ride up into the hills to do his darnedest to put the fire out. This was done without the benefit of communications. It was a somewhat haphazard arrangement but it seemed to work. It was done at considerably less cost than firefighting is done today. However, we now have a more densely populated landscape in New South Wales, increased levels of vegetation in many areas, and a new ethic in the environment movement that requires more attention to be paid to the protection of the environment. The result is an increase in fuel and therefore an increase in the intensity of bushfires.
The proposed legislation is, in the first instance, designed to protect the interests of those very professional people who, having developed this range of skills, become part of a team - and a vital part of that team - in the event of a major emergency. I believe it is necessary that the legislation be passed in order to protect the team and allow the skills of every individual who has undertaken this comprehensive training course to be available in times of emergency. These days, firefighters and emergency services personnel come from a variety of occupations - doctors, lawyers, farmers, foresters, bar attendants - and bar persons - and a range of other occupations representative of the entire community.
In the electorate of Monaro, a large number of public servants have placed themselves on the volunteer list and make themselves available, as do many people involved in private enterprise. Their training involves the operation of complicated radio networks; high technology pumping systems; the operation of meteorological stations; satellite imagery; high tech aerial support - in the form of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft; aerial reconnaissance; three-dimensional maps; and other things not heard of two decades ago. Training, therefore, has become imperative in the formation of bushfire brigades and it is vital that the skills acquired by each individual in the volunteer services is available in the event of an emergency.
Similarly, each member is a vital link in the chain of command that exists in each of those services. They are, after all, paramilitary organisations; they represent a rank structure and each person plays an important role in fulfilling the operational needs of a particular unit. Therefore, it is essential that each person be available in the event of a major emergency. I refer to one of the lesser known emergency services in the State rescue groups, the cave rescue service. Those honourable members who have had something to do with a major disaster or a major emergency involving a cave rescue would appreciate that the team is put together and trained as a team. Despite their cross-training, each individual specialises in a particular area. Those who have had the opportunity to navigate underground in complete darkness know that it is an experience in itself. Therefore, those who are qualified in aspects of cave rescue need to be available in the event of a major emergency.
Honourable members may have noticed that I have gone out of my way to portray the image of a highly trained, professional rescue service person and firefighter. The reason I did so was to highlight the fact that on all occasions involving a major emergency such people should be available. The Opposition spokesman for police and emergency services, the Minister, and others have already said that this is really the first stage of a somewhat comprehensive package to be put forward by the Government. It will no doubt flow on from the Cabinet subcommittee, the coroner's report and the parliamentary select committee proposed by the Opposition spokesman for police and emergency services. Hopefully, I will be nominated as chairman of that committee. I look forward to working with the Opposition on a bipartisan basis for the benefit of all those covered by the proposed legislation.
The State Emergency and Rescue Management (Amendment) Bill will introduce employment protection for volunteer members of emergency services organisations. That is the nub of the bill. Honourable members will recognise that those firefighters and other emergency service personnel involved in the January bushfires - and indeed, bushfires in the past - need to have their employment status protected. One can only wonder at the social lepers who would seek to take advantage of such a crisis to sack people simply for having joined their comrades in protecting the lives and property of the people of New South Wales. The amendments will provide a means of protecting the livelihoods of those volunteers, many of whom risk their lives to protect the community. I believe that if we are not going to pay them, the very least we can do is to make sure they have a job to go to when their services are no longer required.
During past decades volunteers have received a great deal of support from employers in the wider community. The standard of co-operation that has existed in the main in these circumstances between employers and employees should not be diminished in any way. For the several decades that I have been involved in volunteer services, I have been aware that
employers have contributed far beyond the call of duty. Not only have they allowed staff members to perform volunteer firefighting and other services, they have also provided plant and equipment to assist the volunteers in the performance of their duties. The provisions of the bill will become operative only in the event of the Premier declaring a major emergency. That is necessary to give the emergency a certain status and to highlight to employers the division between emergencies that can be considered to be events of a lesser status and those which can be regarded as severe conflagrations or other emergencies requiring the attendance of all volunteers involved. [Extension of time agreed to
I note that the bill has been modelled on the Jury Act, which protects the employment of persons while performing jury duty. Honourable members know that potential jurors are given plenty of notice to attend to carry out their duties, whereas no notice is given of a major bushfire or similar emergency. Depending upon the operational procedures of his or her unit a volunteer will drop tools and head for the nearest vehicle, radio or whatever the operational procedures require, and then travel to the rendezvous point, where the volunteer will join his or her colleagues and travel to the emergency. In many instances employees may not have sufficient time to consult their employers. The passage of this legislation will result in a need for a major process of education for employers across the State to make them aware of their obligations. Similarly, the bushfire services will need to conduct specific training exercises to notify volunteers of their obligations to their employers. That is an important aspect of the legislation. I am sure the Opposition will agree that the Government needs to encourage and foster the excellent relationship that has existed in the past between employers, employee-volunteers, so that the cordial relationship and sense of community duty among employers will continue well into the future.
As the spokesman for the Opposition, the honourable member for Liverpool, has said, the provisions of these cognate bills are not limited to bushfires. They are relevant to most major emergencies, whether they be floods, storms, earthquakes, major accidents such as the bus smashes on the North Coast or, of course, bushfires. It should be pointed out also - and this will flow on from the education process that bushfire services will need to conduct - that firefighters must be made fully aware that the provisions of this Act do not extend to training exercises, hazard reduction, small grass fires, minor accidents or any such lesser incidents they might be required to attend. The education process is vital to maintain the necessary degree of co-operation between employer and employee.
The bill provides for increases in the penalties for the deliberate lighting of bushfires. I am aware of instances where persons have been brought before the courts charged with having deliberately lit fires that have caused major destruction in the community, and I have always believed that the existing penalties fell well short of what could be considered reasonable punishment for such serious offences. I am delighted to support the provisions of the bill that increase such penalties. The current maximum period of six months' imprisonment and the minimal monetary fines are totally inadequate. The penalties introduced by the bill come much closer to what could be regarded as reasonable.
It is all very well for the bill to provide for increased penalties. However, when the legislation is passed, the judiciary will have to comply with the wishes of the people and the Parliament by imposing the maximum penalties where appropriate. The judiciary should not let people charged with these offences off the hook by imposing only minimum monetary fines. The judiciary should impose penalties which will have some effect and act as deterrents to others who might consider that they can threaten lives and property across the State in this way. The tragic bushfires during January undoubtedly caused considerable hardship and anxiety to many people. However, they also brought to light particular circumstances and legal aspects, such as the matters dealt with by legislation before the House, that probably should have been brought before the Parliament years ago. However, it was not previously considered that they were needed.
As the honourable member for Liverpool said, it is regrettable that these measures had to be brought before the House. I would like the three different arms of investigation of the past fires and future fire management in this State to have a great deal more input from firefighters on the ground, those who are the consumers of our policies and legislation. We should comply with some of the requests they have been making for the past two or three generations. I am pleased to support the bills. They are symbolic of the Government acting with the bipartisan support of the Opposition. The legislation is tangible evidence that the Parliament of New South Wales recognises the bravery, courage and absolute professionalism of the emergency service volunteers of this State and that it is doing something to protect their interests.
(Georges River - Minister for Police, and Minister for Emergency Services) [8.59], in reply: I thank the honourable member for Liverpool and the honourable member for Monaro for their valuable contributions to this debate. The contribution of the honourable member for Monaro is particularly appropriate, bearing in mind that for many years he has performed his duties as a fire control officer in a most competent and outstanding manner. It is fitting that this House has seen fit to appoint him as chairman of the Select Committee on Bushfires. I am sure he will make an extremely valuable and incisive contribution to what will happen for our volunteer firefighters in the years ahead. I particularly thank the honourable member for Liverpool for his contribution and for his bipartisan approach. It was tremendous to hear him make the commitment that legislation to enhance the ability of firefighters to perform more competently will be introduced on a bipartisan basis. I congratulate him
on that approach. In January 1994 police and emergency services personnel performed in the most brilliant manner. The job they did was nothing short of outstanding. They are truly heroes who deserve our admiration, our respect and our support. I commend the bills to the House.
Motion agreed to.
Bills read a second time and passed through remaining stages.