Australia — Tasmania’s Attorney-General wants to combat arson by creating new laws that would force arsonists to pay for the cost of fighting the bushfires they light.
The state is still recovering from its worst bushfire season in 45 years, with more than 400 houses and shacks destroyed last summer.
Attorney-General Brian Wightman says offenders must be held accountable.
“This will empower courts to order a convicted offender to reimburse the state for costs incurred in responding to fires lit by arsonists,” he said.
“And what’s very important is that we send a very strong deterrent and a very strong message to the people of Tasmania to say that if you light a fire and it does cause significant damage then you may have to pay.”
The Tasmania Fire Service has welcomed the move, saying it spent $18 million fighting bushfires last summer.
“It’s something else that will increase the consequences for anyone considering engaging in the act of arson,” Tasmania Fire Service chief officer Mike Brown said.
“Whether that has much impact on the person that might be anticipating lighting a fire with some kind of malicious intent I don’t know, but clearly the consequences will be much higher for the individual.
“If that makes an impact and that helps reduce the incidence of arson, well, of course we’ve got to support it.”
Mental health issues common among arsonists
But bushfire researcher Dr Janet Stanley is unsure if the fines will deter firebugs.
Dr Stanley, who is the chief research officer at the Australian Bushfire Arson Prevention Initiative at Monash University, says many arsonists would not be able to pay.
“Often they’re males who are troubled, not engaged with society, low self-esteem, often a low intellectual capacity,” she said.
“They’re not the sort of person with actually the resources to pay for the huge damage of bushfires or indeed any arson.”
Mr Wightman’s plan is based on a recommendation made by the state’s Sentencing Advisory Council.
The Advisory Council prepared a report on arson, saying that as many as a third of all fire starters have a major mental illness.
Greg Barns from the Australian Lawyers Alliance is opposed to the idea of making arsonists pay for fire fighting.
“A number of people who are convicted of arson are suffering with mental illness and it’s very unfair to make those people suffer for the rest of their lives financially, but thirdly these sorts of orders are enormous,” he said.
“There are very, very few multimillionaires who go out lighting bushfires deliberately, if any, and the compensation order would never be met.
“So it’s really just political window-dressing and the Attorney would be better off looking at the reasons as to why people commit arson and putting services and resources into those areas.”
Mr Wightman is yet to say whether he thinks mentally ill arsonists should pay for the cost of fighting the fires they start.