Highlights – Public Hearing for the Inquiry into Budget Estimates 2015-16

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.

Emergency Services

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

Content Sharing

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One Reply to “Highlights – Public Hearing for the Inquiry into Budget Estimates 2015-16”

  1. This announcement of $361M for the ‘bonfire empire brass and braid’ is a scandal of monumental proportions particularly when you consider our NSW native lands have been locked up for Kyoto carbon trading city smoke off set, cheap soot free city water at the environments expense, city bushwalking industry for the exclusives including recruits of the affluent academic elite at the cost of our once beautiful fire safe forests, national water and food supplies.

    These same political activists that destroy our public lands confiscated, to be locked up denied essential timely ecoservices have also destroyed farmers capacity to manage their native vegetation to keep it biodiverse and fire safe. Kyoto owes the NSW and Queensland farming community over $5 Billion a year since 1990 with interest on carbon off sets. Subsidising Bob Hawke’s mineral boom digging holes in farms and communities for little return. Who cares about that or the accelerating bushfire liability needing $361+M a year to attempt to out pace the fuel build up. Basically out paced. Kyoto outlaws grazing, clearing, logging to protect native forests from incineration while Kyoto high fliers trip around the world, off sets for the affluent.

    International treaties such as Kyoto are signed off on behalf of Australians by bureaucrat beneficiaries environmental lobby within government and academic ranks, building the bonfire empire at the cost of the Australian people and the environment.

    Policies of no cool fire, no graze, no selective logging in the man made thing called ‘wilderness’ where city based autocrats adopt “do nothing” management, but watch the fuel loads build ever higher. Flammable scrub and weeds build under ‘industrial strength fire suppression’ policies bought for $361M annually on 9% interest. In the universities, teams of researchers contemplate how biodiversity reacts to incineration! More $Ms in futility and propaganda.

    The inside rail locking up native forests denied selective thinning back to fire safe biodiverse entities has been sacrificed while a monopoly plantation timber investors cream ‘Kyoto reafforestation’ incentives for the few friends of such as the green exPremier Bob Carr political lobby group patron, among others in the social set that have snatched their retirement benefits off the working poor and absconded leaving our national assets naked, unprotected by legislation after the vote catching gimmicks of “salvation” for ultimate cremation in the future. A massive political hoax that continues its legacy.

    The gross state product of NSW is $400B annually and $60B is insurance and finance. In the old days volunteer fire fighters managed fire risk and fire insurance was about timely benign fuel management by grazing (livestock, dingo safe wildlife) all year, all seasons, smoke free, cost recovery conservation that also fed and clothed people, earned export income. Similarly selective logging, hazard reduction largely smoke free, all season, every year, took one tree a hectare each year for 50 years by which time more had grown to replace the open fire safe forest of about 50 trees a hectare. The creeks flowed clean sweet water supported frogs, fish…..There was no need for glass skyscrapers to house insurance brokers hedging on bushfire, flood, accident, policy failure no ones allowed to try and plan against, actively manage the risk. The people forced to pay insurance premiums for engineered inevitability of disaster and no guarantees of successful claims or claims ever covering the loss or damage from man made inferno incinerating off millions of years worth of soil, lifetimes or generations of built assets vaporised. Somethings ‘$’ can never compensate for.

    What of the fire liability generated by plantations of exotic tree monocultures for paper and a house every generation, crams in 2000 trees per hectare, fire affected abandoned national park wilderness crams in 7000+ trees and shrubs per hectare maximising the bonfire and stops the water flowing by over stocked vegetation and bonfire. Minimising the water yield for streams, fisheries, irrigators, cities and towns. Burn off the forests with unstoppable fire and climate change is delivered defined as ‘Kyoto neutral’ if it was a lightening strike igniting man made fuels in the over grown thing called wilderness. Bob Debus the other part of the 2 Bob NSW Government, is currently spending more $Ms with his 3600 kilometre “biodiversity” bushfire dingo corridor Adelaide to Cape Yolk. More of the same policies that burnt Canberra down in 2003 when Bob was Minister for Environment, Emergency Services and Attorney General NSW moving on then to Canberra and Federal Minister Homeland Security! RFS Commissioner Koperberg taking over Blue/Green Mountains MP. 2004 Jeff Angel total environment and Keith Muir colong foundation for wilderness were given and order of Australia for “services to conservation” by incineration obstructing fire mitigation strategies securing water, food, biodiversity.

    The best of luck putting out fires with the $361M a year budget in fire suppression. Without fuel management graze, cool fire, selective thinning we might all head for Madagascar next fire season. The outrageous budget would be bad enough even if fuel management of 5% of hazards were reduced humanely annually with all the green tape, media hype, chest beating and tickertape flag waving went on misdirecting even 10% of the budget. No one else on NSW has organised life so they might work 10 days a year if it is suitable to cool burn even then!!! Ring up the lobby group to complain about the smoke. The plight of the hypothetical endangered lizard that starved decades ago in ecological collapse and over growth. Cool burns, they were conducted for 60000 years by stone age people, bare footed children with candle bark. Biodiversity thrived. Budget and insurance $0.

    The disillusionment and despair of rural NSW with their out of tough city centric governance and academic advice is growing by the moment as any doubt is being removed by such as this latest announcement by Minister Elliot still on the wrong tram.

    Noeline Franklin
    Analyst.

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