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TWWHA fires adjournment speech

Speeches in Parliament
Nick McKim 3 Feb 2016

Tasmania has so many beautiful places but one of its most breathtakingly spectacular places is the Walls of Jerusalem inside the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The clifftop walk in the walls—where you walk along an alpine plateau between King David's Peak and Solomon's Throne —is so beautiful and so other worldly.

You can look down and see the sparkling lakes and the beautiful tarns nestled amongst alpine meadows and cushion plants. Then of course the great pencil pine forests of Dixon's Kingdom, snug under Solomon's Throne, are ethereal, almost magical—true places of wonder. But as I stand here this evening the walls—with their fragile alpine ecosystems and their Gondwanan species which in the whole world only exist in very small parts of Tasmania—are under threat from fire.

These ecosystems are not fire adapted. They have not seen fire for many hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. If they are burned, they will likely never recover. And it is not just the walls that are under threat.

The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area currently has over a dozen fires burning within it. We have already lost to fire in the last three weeks over 12,000 hectares inside the World Heritage area alone and around Tasmania over 70 fires are still burning.

Most were started by dry lightning strikes on 13 January this year. Many of these fires have threatened lives and communities and, as usual, our professional and volunteer firefighters have performed—and continue to perform as we speak —magnificently, but the events of the last three weeks have raised significant questions about the way the Commonwealth and state governments have responded to and have planned for fire events in wilderness areas.

The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is the heart of our beautiful island. For so many of us it is the heart of what it means to be Tasmanian. It is part of what defines us and it nurtures our spirits just to know it is there. But it also has economic value.

A Commonwealth government report in 2009 found that the World Heritage area in Tasmania delivers more than $1.2 billion every year in direct and indirect economic benefit to Tasmania and over 5,300 jobs rely on the World Heritage area.

We know from Tourism Tasmania research that wilderness is by some margin the most important factor that influences people's decision to visit Tasmania, and we are now attracting over a million tourists every year to our beautiful archipelago. The wilderness is at the core of our lucrative clean, green brand and it adds value to many of the world-class products we are rightfully so proud of creating in Tasmania.

It mitigates global warming by sequestering carbon in all its complex layers. It stores water that we use to drink and to generate electricity. In short, it is too precious and too valuable to lose.

We need to fight with all that we have to save these places that are currently under terrible threat.

Our firefighters need and deserve the resources to allow them to properly do their job, and it is the Commonwealth government which urgently needs to step up to the plate here. It has agreed to the World Heritage convention, which binds it to responsibly manage the Tasmanian wilderness.

It has the resources to act and the responsibility to show leadership. But these fires were burning for nearly two weeks before we heard as much as a peep out of a Turnbull government minister.

I ask the Senate: if the Opera House were on fire, would we quietly let it burn? The answer of course is no. You would have politicians elbowing each other out of the way to get in front of the cameras and demand more resources, but somehow, because it is wilderness and it has become the political plaything of the old-style political parties, we have heard nothing but silence for far too long.

As it became apparent that the Commonwealth government's response to the crisis was inadequate, I wrote to Minister Greg Hunt on Monday, 25 January. I received a reply in the evening of Thursday, 28 January.

Minister Hunt's reply is basically a confession of inadequacy and an effective admission that he was asleep at the wheel. On his own evidence it was nearly two weeks after these fires started on 13 January that he awoke from his slumber and activated Emergency Management Australia provisions—nearly two weeks while the World Heritage area that is his responsibility as minister to look after had some of its most precious ecosystems destroyed by fire.

Our climate has changed and it continues to change at an alarming pace. We should be preparing and planning for conditions that we have seen this month and last month in Tasmania to become the new normal.

Here is Dr Andrew Dowdy, research scientist from the Bureau of Meteorology, who said on ABC local radio last week: "We've found that there's a good chance that there'll be more dry lightning in South Eastern Australia in summer in the future with climate change."

It is clear that we need to be prepared for hotter, drier conditions and increased fire threat right across the entire state of Tasmania, as well as much of the rest of the country. We need more firefighters, and the resources to support them. We need more rapid response capacity, including aerial assets, to provide decisive, rapid responses on the ground and in the air as soon as we know these fires are burning.

We need plans in place, appropriate modelling software, and dedicated financial, human and mechanical resources that can swiftly be made available. While welcome action has now been taken against some of these fires, and more is apparently planned, we did not do anywhere near enough early enough to respond to this crisis.

We missed a critical window for action soon after the fires started, because critical to reducing damage from these fires is to act quickly, before the fires become too big to stop without drenching rains.

We need two things to come out of this debate. Firstly, we need all the available resources of our country—aerial and human resources from all over Australia—down in Tasmania now to defend these national treasures. Secondly, we need a truly independent inquiry once the current fires are out or under effective control—not to allocate blame, but to ensure that we do better next time.

Remote area firefighting is difficult, dangerous and resource intensive, but we are stewards of one of the world's great wilderness areas. As those stewards, why should we not aspire to be among the best in the world at protecting it from fire?

This is not an either/or argument between protecting lives and property or defending wilderness areas. Funding for fighting fires is not a zero-sum game. The financial resources are here to do both; it is the political will that is lacking. We cannot be fatalistic about this, throw our hands in the air and say, 'Oh well; it's just nature taking its course.' It is not nature taking its course, because our greenhouse gas emissions are turning nature on her head.

We are the temporary stewards of ancient life forms and ecosystems found nowhere else on the planet. We can do far, far better than what we have seen in the last three weeks. The question is: do we have the political will?

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