AUSTRALIA – In a first for New South Wales, the Government will mandate the appointment of three Aboriginal positions to the state’s top bushfire planning committee.
The changes were included in the Bushfires Legislation Amendment Bill that passed through Parliament this week.
The decision will see positions created for a member of the NSW Local Aboriginal Land Council, a traditional owner and a cultural burning expect on the Bush Fire Coordinating Committee.
The Committee includes Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers and representatives from the state’s other lead emergency departments.
The Government originally proposed a position only for the Land Council, but opposition amendments enabled the additional positions for traditional owners and cultural burning experts.
Advocates and experts in cultural burning were key to securing the positions.
Wiradjuri man, cultural burning practitioner and University of New England academic Shaun Hooper helped advise politicians working on the bill and said the changes would help provide a strong voice for Aboriginal people in the bushfire planning process.
Mr Hooper, who is also a member of the Rural Fire Service and fire behaviour analyst, said the changes went further than the recommendations made in the NSW bushfire inquiry.
“The Government has taken it a step further and increased the opportunity for the variety of Aboriginal voices better representing the community,” he said.
He said the result was the culmination of a lot of work to help recognise the importance of cultural burning.
“NSW’s vegetation and even Australia’s vegetation and landscapes are products of extreme amounts of time Aboriginal people have invested in burning and caring for country,” he said.
“Now giving Aboriginal people the capacity to engage in that sort of management practice, we may never be able to get back to 200 years ago, but we can start to turn that around in the longer term.”
Vanessa Cavanagh is a Bundjalung and Woonarua woman and practitioner of cultural burning based in the Illawarra, she provided evidence to both the NSW bushfire inquiry and the royal commission about the important role of women and children in cultural burning practices.
“The news is fantastic. Look, it is really important that we have Indigenous people staggered across all levels of government at these decision-making tables,” she said.
NSW Aboriginal Land Council chair Anne Dennis said the bushfires last Christmas were devastating for Aboriginal communities.
“Homes and community facilities were lost, our country was ravaged and countless native animals were killed,” she said.
“Unfortunately, Aboriginal input was not sought in the bushfire planning, despite our knowledge of land management practices, including cultural burning, that can benefit the whole community.
“Now NSWALC’s membership of the State Bush Fire Coordinating Committee will ensure that Local Aboriginal Land Councils and Aboriginal communities are included in emergency management planning, that Aboriginal people feel safe and welcome at evacuation and recovery centres, and that our expertise in cultural burning and wider land management is utilised.”
Opposition spokesman for Aboriginal affairs David Harris said it was a powerful change.
“For the first time, instead, Aboriginal people being consulted on policy. They will actually be at the table developing that policy,” he said.
He said he also hoped it would provide opportunities for Aboriginal people to gain employment through government programs.
Aboriginal leaders will play a role in advising the NSW Government’s main bushfire management committee
Local Aboriginal Land Councils, Traditional Owners and cultural burning experts will be involved
It’s also hoped the changes will lead to more Aboriginal people gaining employment through government programs