Bath response to Victorian Auditor General Report – Reducing Bushfire Risks

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (19:51): I would like to make some comments in relation to the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office Reducing Bushfire Risks October 2020 report, and in doing so can I commend the Auditor-General. As usual it is a very thorough report and most interesting to me and to members of my constituency.

The Victorian Auditor-General’s report issued a fairly damning audit of certain aspects of the government’s planned burn program. We in East Gippsland and Gippsland as a whole know the importance of fuel reduction burns and the importance of taking that fuel load away from areas of high priority and those closest to communities and around public assets. Now, this report outlines the very unfortunate situation that the current government has shown that just 43 per cent of planned priority burns occurred last year. Now, those are those burns around assets and towns and communities. What we saw from the tragic fires in East Gippsland is that where those burns occurred—and specifically around the town of Nowa Nowa, to the north-west of Nowa Nowa there were priority burns or preparatory burns conducted and as the flames came down from the north-west heading south-east they got to those preparatory burns—that really thwarted that transference, that travel, of those huge bushfires and protected and saved the town of Nowa Nowa. So there are clear, demonstrated outcomes when these burns occur, but unfortunately the government has only produced 43 per cent of the planned burns.

Now, the Auditor-General’s report also talks to 30 per cent of normal burns as well being achieved. What I noticed when travelling to Club Terrace just a few days or probably the week after the fires ripped through there and really gutted the town and took out a lot of infrastructure, homes and the general store was that on the way in to Club Terrace there had been unfortunately some fairly hot preparatory burns in the previous year. But what we noticed going in—there were certainly green shoots coming back from that—is it was a haven for animals and birds. Listening to stories from the locals, they found local animals and native animals that had actually been able to escape into those spaces, so it shows the very important need for these preparatory burns. Now, unfortunately the government again has taken its eye off the ball in terms of preparatory burns. There was through the bushfire royal commission a set target of 5 per cent over the year or a 20 per cent rolling target over four years to be burnt, but the government turned away from that to its own Safer Together residual risk outcomes. We have seen really it has been a flawed system. It may be well intentioned, but it has certainly been a flawed system.

One of the key findings in this report speaks to the need to work with cultural burns, and it is something that I am very passionate about. The government looked at this Auditor-General’s finding and made the comment that they are thwarted due to climate change, which means that bushfire seasons are extended and that there can no longer be these conducted planned burns. Well, that is if you are looking with Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning eyes and Western eyes. Speaking to some people who I value very dearly for their knowledge and expertise in this area—the Victor Steffensens of the world, the Uncle Davids and various others—they talk about looking at a different way of doing this and going back to those traditional Indigenous burning techniques, a window where we do not look through Western eyes but we look through the Indigenous eyes at those ancient techniques of picking the right time to burn with the indicators of grass, terrain and certain trees. These are the opportunities that the government really needs to get in and support. The Nationals support it. The Liberals and Nationals came to an election commitment in the past election to propose this, and we continue to endorse this very important technique to support life, property and survival in these highly bushfire-prone areas.