What is Budget Estimates?
Each year Government ministers and senior public servants attend an annual Budget Estimates inquiry to answer questions about the expenditure, performance and effectiveness of their departments.
Budget Estimates is a key process for government accountability and transparency. The Budget Estimates inquiries involve detailed questioning by members of the Legislative Council on the decisions, actions and advice of ministers and public servants.
The Budget Estimates inquiries are conducted by the Legislative Council’s six General Purpose Standing Committees.
On Friday 4 September 2015, the Committee met to examine the proposed expenditure for the portfolio known as Emergency Service (along with Corrections and Veterans Affairs).
The Hon. David Elliott, Minister for Corrections, Minister for Emergency Services, and Minister for Veterans Affairs was in attendance.
Committee Members are The Hon. P. Green (Chair), The Hon. L. Amato (Deputy Chair), The Hon. D. Mookhey, The Hon. C. E. Cusack, The Hon. G. J. Donnelly, Mr D. Shoebridge, The Hon. E. Wong and The Hon. S. G. Farlow.
Also in attendance was Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner, NSW Rural Fire Service and Rob Rogers, Deputy Commissioner, NSW Rural Fire Service.
Funding ($361 million)
Chair: The Federal Government has announced $2.2 million in funding over three years to enhance bushfire mitigation in New South Wales as part of the Commonwealth’s National Bushfire Mitigation Program. Will the Government match that funding amount and, if so, where and how will the money be spent?
Mr David Elliott: I will pass to Commissioner Fitzsimmons on that, but I will make some preliminary opening remarks. I am very confident in the three level of funding going to our Emergency Services portfolio.
It is a record spend. In the three or four months that I have been the Minister, I have certainly seen that they are good custodians of our money, particularly since the majority of them – and this is unique to Australia – are volunteers. There are great custodians of our money.
The NSW Rural Fire Service budget for the next financial year is $361 million, which is an increase of 8.6 per cent – that is a $29 million increase on the previous year’s allocation in real terms.
Of course the allocation has to go towards hazard reduction. You will have seen in the press this week that, as part of delivering on our election commitments, $9.8 million has gone to the large air tankers and the appropriately named very large air tankers – those are the technical terms, Mr Chair!
They will be used for combining fast-moving and dangerous bushfires. Commissioner Fitzsimmons may want to make some supplementary remarks.
Mr Fitzsimmons: We do work closely with the Commonwealth in matching funding and programs to assist with mitigation.
We enjoy still more than $30 million per annum being distributed across New South Wales to priority hazard reduction programs. They are identified and prioritised at the local level by each of the local bushfire management committees across New South Wales. So there are local risk profiles and local risk assessments, and local treatment options and priorities. Through that process involving more than 60 local committees, typically based on local government areas or a collection of local government areas – they identify the body of work that needs to be done in the mitigation and hazard reduction program.
It can include mechanical works such as trittering, slashing, grading and those sorts of things. It can also include fire trail maintenance and construction activity. It can also include the construction of firebreaks.
It can be prescribed burning and other programs such as community engagement and education to facilitate the provision of those priority works right across the different local areas around the State.
We report on that annually. It is captured through the land management agencies and the fire agencies working together at that level. What I mean by that is that local government, private activity, State government lands bodies work with the Commonwealth; and obviously the fire services assist in a lot of the prescribed burning activities. We have seen increasingly in recent years mitigation moneys also being spent on seeing a demonstrable increase in hazard reduction completion rates through the use of specialist resources that otherwise would not be available to them to assist local committees.
That may be not only out-of-area crews, fire trucks and those sorts of things but also aircraft to help look at aerial ignition patterns and control the spread of fires and their intensity.
Relocation of the Rural Fire Service headquarters
The Hon. Greg Donnelly: I move onto the issue of Rural Fire Service headquarters. I understand that the current lease expires in 2018?
Mr David Elliott: Yes.
The Hon. Greg Donnelly: Do we have the actual month of when that expires?
Mr Fitzsimmons: The current lease expires in November 2018.
Mr Fitzsimmons: We sought to have a much longer term extension of the current lease. We were looking for a 10-year extension, if I recall correctly.
The Hon. Greg Donnelly: In light of comments made by the Rural Fire Service, the Lidcombe site was always considered a long-term home for you. I will not put a specific date but are we talking roughly at least a couple of decades—a long-term home?
Mr Fitzsimmons: I would agree. It was a multi-million dollar investment. It was purpose-built. It was done with the collaboration of many constituent players and key agencies, and particularly given the infrastructure redundancy available in that proximity.
The Hon. Greg Donnelly: Minister, I put this to you. We have a lease that is to expire relatively soon.
Mr David Elliott: A lease signed by Tony Kelly.
The Hon. Greg Donnelly: The clock is ticking down. And you know that this is a very significant matter, yet you have not even contemplated the possibility of speaking to the owners for an extension of the lease.
Mr David Elliott: I do not know what motivated Tony Kelly to sign that contract. I will take the question on notice.
The Hon. Greg Donnelly: I will now move to a question about planning for the new Rural Fire Service premises. Can you take us to the line item in the budget papers that outlines the money set aside for the new Rural Fire Service headquarters?
Mr David Elliott: I will allow the Commissioner to answer that.
Mr Fitzsimmons: There is no line item set aside for head office relocation. As a matter of fact, we are working at the moment with Government Properties. We are doing facilities analysis, location analysis and all the sorts of things that would be expected of government agencies in determining new construction building locations.
The Hon. Greg Donnelly: Has an approximate budget been calculated for this relocation exercise?
Mr Fitzsimmons: Not specifically but I think it is fair to say that a replacement building of the sort that we are in now would be in the order of $30 million or $35 million.
The Hon. Greg Donnelly: Is there an expectation or a plan that has been settled that it is going to be moved outside the Sydney metropolitan area?
Mr Fitzsimmons: Not that I am aware of.
The Hon. Greg Donnelly: Are you saying that it could be in Sydney or moved to regional New South Wales?
Mr Fitzsimmons: The ultimate decision is clearly a decision of government but all the indications are and the location analysis is that it ought to be geographically located as close to where it is now in order to provide the full functionality of a headquarters and state-operational centre for bushfire coordination.
The Hon. Greg Donnelly: Can I put to you that if in fact you are able to stay in the premises where you are currently located, would that be an ideal situation for you?
Mr Fitzsimmons: It would be a sensible solution, yes.
Note: Readers – you can post your comments to this debate using the comments option (below)
10 50 Vegetation Clearing Entitlement Scheme
Chair: I am wondering if you have a comment about the recent changes to the 10/50 law.
Given the fact that the type of underscrubbing that it tries to encourage, changing that law may have an impact on future fuel loads.
What does that mean for New South Wales in terms of this coming summer’s fire situation?
Mr Fitzsimmons: The provisions of the 10/50 were a tool to facilitate private landholders being able to undertake preparatory works in and around their property with vegetation management or clearing close to their homes and within the prescribed 10/50 period.
It is but a part of the broader practice of risk management, hazard reduction and associated treatments to prepare for fire seasons and help mitigate the impact of fires against that risk to communities.
Chair: Commissioner, has 10/50 been an effective tool for fire mitigation throughout New South Wales?
Mr Fitzsimmons: The 10/50 provisions were certainly a response to lots of feedback from the community that they felt impeded.
It was quite cumbersome to get clear advice and guidance on what they could or could not do, particularly close to homes.
The 10/50 provisions provided for a streamlined process that gave those living in the most high-risk areas the ability to remove vegetation and to thin out vegetation within close proximity to their home or other specified assets.
As you would be aware, we have had lots of community feedback on the initial rollout of the program.
The Government, through the Rural Fire Service, sought to have the review bought forward, and that was very public. There were more than 3,500 submissions made to that review. We captured the fundamental elements, all those elements, in that review.
It resulted in some 30 recommendations being made for adjustments to the scheme to mitigate against instances where people were exploiting the system or misusing the system against its original intent. In particular a lot of environmental controls around sensitive habitats and endangered species were captured in the scheme.
We worked very closely with the office of environment and heritage and the department of planning to ensure that we had the right elements factored into the 10/50 review. Codes of practice and things like that have been adjusted to accommodate that.
Chair: Would you be of the view that it has struck the right balance now after that review?
Mr Fitzsimmons: Certainly the review has, in my view, sought to address all the feedback that came in. It was a very comprehensive review. We have planned over the coming weeks and months a number of forums, particularly with local government.
We will be going around the State and inviting along local governments in particular. They typically manage tree preservation orders and often are responsible for enforcement of certain provisions.
Note: The transcript can be downloaded HERE