THE wait for an announcement on a rural bush fire service in WA continues as the State government considers the recommendations of the Economic Regulation Authority’s (ERA) final report into the emergency services levy, tabled in parliament last week.
All sides of the debate have had their say in recent months after former Victorian Country Fire Authority chief officer Euan Ferguson issued a report into the Yarloop fire which destroyed much of the town almost two years ago.
The Ferguson report highlighted the need for the service to prevent further disasters affecting the State.
Despite the pros and cons of a rural bush fire service, the State government said economic pressures would dictate the outcome in the immediate future.
It was estimated a rural bush fire service could cost anywhere between $4 million to $500m, depending on the structure, staffing and services provided.
The ERA’s report received a swift reaction from the Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades WA (AVBFB), WAFarmers and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA (PGA).
WAFarmers has been encouraged by the report and urged the government to accept the recommendations, while the AVBFB had a mixed response.
WAFarmers executive policy officer Grady Powell said “in 2015-16 the ESL generated $323m”.
“Disappointingly it seems easily identifiable that these funds were not being distributed across the entire State,” Mr Powell said.
“Reportedly only $36m has been allocated through grants to local government and volunteer marine rescue.”
WAFarmers hoped that the independent organisation being recommended in the report would restore confidence and equity within the ESL framework.
Mr Powell said by having an impartial third party oversee the ESL, there was increased scope for the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES), the State Emergency Services, Volunteer Marine Rescue and, if introduced, a Rural Fire Service to garner their fair share of the available funding.
“Having an independent body oversee the ESL will reinstate transparency and accountability with the fund,” Mr Powell said.
“This will minimise any wastage, while ensuring more funding is reaching the ground to improve mitigation activities, preparedness, response abilities and recovery efforts by all emergency service bodies.”
WAFarmers is encouraging the government to implement the ERA’s recommendations in as timely a manner as possible and has also called on the government to outline how it planned to implement a Rural Fire Service.
“As we enter a new fire season – only two years after the devastating Esperance and Waroona fires – the community needs to know that change is underway,” Mr Powell said.
“The system we have been working with is broken and to attract confidence and increase public safety, changes need to be made.
“We encourage the government to implement the ERA’s recommendations swiftly and announce its plans to introduce a Rural Fire Service so the regional and rural community can move forward knowing that past constraints and fundamental flaws in the system are addressed and will not be revisited.”
The AVBFB welcomed the final report and supported many of its recommendations and opposed others.
AVBFB president Dave Gossage said the ESL’s oversight and transparency had been major points of contention within and between the various emergency services for some time and the publication of the report would generate important dialogue that could improve the situation.
“Operating on the tiny budget we have, we haven’t yet had the resources to analyse all the detail of the 316-page report,” Mr Gossage said.
“There are many recommendations that we fully support, some we will reserve judgement on until we have had the ability to thoroughly interpret the detail and others that we clearly won’t back.”
AVBFB will publish a full response to the final report but outlined some of the key recommendations it would most likely support and not support in order to assist the government formulate its response.
“After being attacked and undermined by the past government for taking the role of canary-in-the-coal-mine on many issues that have since come to bear, we have been working very hard to re-establish an open, trusting relationship with the McGowan government,” Mr Gossage said.
“It is therefore refreshing to see Treasurer Ben Wyatt’s statement reasserting Emergency Services Minister Fran Logan’s commitment to work collaboratively with the AVBFB to improve the transparency and oversight of the very important ESL.
“There are a number of serious and complex legacy issues of the previous leadership that need to be addressed – and some of them need to happen quickly.
“However, it is critical the government understands that while it remains open, inclusive and consultative with us, it has our 100 per cent support for taking all the time it needs to fix all the challenges we face, including the structure of the ESL and Rural Fire Service.”
PGA Private Property Rights and Resources Committee chairman and representative on the State Bushfires Consultative Committee, Gary Peacock, re-emphasised the PGA’s submission into the report saying that the association agreed in general terms with the Ferguson report but highlighted that “local knowledge and local ownership of fire management was critical to successful fire management in rural and remote areas”.
Mr Peacock said it was important to remember the record of rural local governments and volunteer rural fire brigades which had successfully managed fires for decades, with minimal funding and equipment.
He said individual farmers, rural communities, PGA members’ business and domestic assets were constantly under threat from fire and active participation in fire management was an integral element of farming operations.
“Managing fire-related risks on and surrounding their farming properties is part of a farmer’s job description,” Mr Peacock said.
“Farmers may not be ‘volunteer’ fire-fighters, but are competent bushfire fighters as part of their profession.”
The PGA is concerned about government interventions that do, or could potentially, undermine subsidiarity, self-interest, volunteerism and civil society.
The PGA is also concerned that external interventions, including WA government policies, legislation, regulations and funds, build on and support all the elements of local preparedness and not erode or undermine them.
The PGA supports the Bush Fires Act, the Fire and Emergency Act and the Fire Brigades Act.
The PGA was concerned that since its establishment in 2003, the ESL had dramatically increased, but effectiveness of activities receiving ESL funding appeared to have diminished.
Between 2007-08 and 2016-17 the ESL increased from $181.4m to $322.9m (a 78 per cent increase in 2016-17 dollars).
“You would think that with the increase in levy that we would have better fire-fighting capabilities but during this period WA has experienced a number of significant bush fire events, such as Waroona, Esperance, Margaret River and Perth Hills, resulting in extensive damage to property, environment and tragically loss of life,” Mr Peacock said.
“This clearly indicates that there is a decoupling between the basis for setting the ESL, its allocation and subsequent performance.”
The PGA believes a comprehensive independent audit of the fire and emergency risks and the capacity to manage those risks across WA is essential, given the numerous vested interests involved in the managing of fire and emergency risks.
“An audit is essential if we are to differentiate between needs and wants and, in particular, the capacity now and in the future to meet actual needs,” Mr Peacock said.
“It is PGA’s view that the possibility of being able to access public funds through the ESL has a tendency to encourage organisations to seek funding for wants rather than needs, thereby placing upward pressure on the ESL setting.”
The Nationals WA Emergency Services spokesman Colin de Grussa welcomed the findings of the ERA’s review of the ESL.
He said a key recommendation of the review was to establish an independent advisory body to advise government on how the ESL should be charged, collected and allocated.
Mr de Grussa said the recommendation would alleviate any conflict between DFES managing ESL funds while also being a major recipient.
“It is widely viewed that there is a conflict of interest in the way the levy is allocated and I’m pleased the review recommended a sensible solution to this issue,” Mr de Grussa said.
“The review also recommended that a proportion of the department’s corporate services costs should be funded by general government revenues, rather than the ESL, which I agree with.
“The ESL should be mostly spent on emergency prevention, preparedness and response activities that benefit the entire community, not administration.”
Liberal Party spokesman for emergency services Ken Baston said the party supported the recommendations of the ERA report “in principle” and it was on the right track.
“It needs some fine-tuning,” Mr Baston said.
Mr Baston also thought it was “a little crazy” to say a rural fire service would cost anywhere between $4-$500m when “no one had come up with what it should look like”.
Mr Logan was considering the recommendations of the report and would not comment at this stage.