Barnett takes heat out of fires
Barnett takes heat out of fires
06 October 2016
published by https://au.news.yahoo.com
Australia Colin Barnett is fond of reminding us that he has been Liberal leader or deputy leader at every State election since 1993 and his eye for the contest was again on display last week when responding to the Waroona fire inquiry.
Bushfires are a sleeper political issue during winter, especially one as long as this, but can reignite at a moments notice and have the potential to play a perennial role in WA elections, which are fixed for the second Saturday in March every four years.
Should another major campaign fire get out of control this summer, there will be considerable interest in the Governments response to the January disaster which all but razed the historic town of Yarloop and killed two people.
Euan Fergusons official report on that blaze was released in June, containing the headline recommendation for a rural fire service to handle all aspects of bushfire management outside the metropolitan area.
It found that the new entity could either be a separate bureaucracy or a sub-department of the existing Department of Fire and Emergency Services.
Barnett was handed the Ferguson report in April, allowing plenty of time to decide whether it should be one or the other, but he strategically deferred that decision last week.
While frustrating for the emergency services sector, which had been awaiting an answer on that key question, the move effectively neutralises Barnetts exposure to the issue for the election.
He can go into the forthcoming campaign boasting that the Government has accepted all Fergusons 17 recommendations, in contrast to Labor which has no clear position on a rural fire service.
Critically, the Government avoids a damaging spat with bushfire volunteers, whose clout was on display during the Federal election campaign in Victoria in April over the United Firefighters Unions influence over that States Country Fire Service.
WAs Association of Volunteer Bushfire Brigades is firmly in favour of a separate rural fire service and has threatened not to participate in any new entity controlled by DFES.
Barnetts deferral also allowed him to postpone the commitment of any money to the new service another win heading into a campaign that will be fought in a tight fiscal straitjacket.
But drill down into the politics, and the policy, of a standalone rural bushfire service and the likelihood is it wont happen.
A separate agency with a whole new bureaucracy, hierarchy, headquarters, regional offices and payroll will cost tens of millions of dollars to get off the ground and involve legislation.
Given the Government hasnt managed to introduce separate legislation amalgamating WAs three emergency services Acts after four years, its questionable how much appetite it has for another round of drafting.
Barnett and Emergency Services Minister Joe Francis a member of his local Jandakot brigade will also be able to point out that volunteers are not united on the issue.
Emergency Services is a fiendishly complicated and fragmented sector and in the rush to balance competing views, government and the media often only allocate one voice to the vollies.
That space is dominated by the AVBFB, led by president Dave Gossage, who is known for his strident criticism of DFES and the UFU.
The AVBFB claims to represent 22,000 of WAs 26,000 emergency services volunteers but this is questioned by many in the sector who note it considers all brigades to be members without a registration process.
Other volunteer organisations see things differently.
The Emergency Services Volunteers Association, which represents units attending not only bushfires but also other natural disasters and hazards, would be content with a bushfire sub-department of DFES, preferring money to be spent on mitigation rather than bureaucracy.
The Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service, which attends bushfires but exists mainly to tackle structure fires in townships, is dead against a rural bushfire service, arguing it will be divisive.
Its important to note that the ESVA and the VFRS are under the DFES umbrella while the AVBFB comes under the auspices of local government.
Barnett expressly declared last week he expected volunteer brigades to switch to the new rural fire service, regardless of whether it is standalone or a sub-department.
Gossage has previously indicated some volunteer brigades would want to remain under local government so as not to break the nexus with their communities.
Unless this position is abandoned, this is another out for the Government.
Why set up a separate bushfire bureaucracy when the very people calling for it, the brigades, wont necessarily be part of it?
Finally, in the fine print of the Ferguson report is a curious recommendation that the chief of the new rural bushfire service standalone or sub-department report to the Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner in an emergency.
Again, why spend money bolstering the independence of the rural service via a separate bureaucracy if its chief reports to DFES during operations anyway?
The question could fall to Labor, which has scant enthusiasm for a separate service. The Labor-affiliated UFU vehemently denies that career firefighters lack bushfire expertise, pointing out they attend 80 per cent of fires around the State, and will no doubt lean on the party.
But for Barnett and the Liberals, it was fortunate they were given a lot of wriggle room on how to set up the new entity. It will allow the adoption of the cheaper, easier option while still claiming to be staying true to Ferguson.
Just dont expect them to admit that this side of the election.