Bushfire arson amendments - second reading speech

Please see my amendment here

Today I rise to speak to the Criminal Law Consolidation (Bushfires) Amendment Bill 2021. This bill seeks to amend the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935, section 85B - Special provision for causing a bushfire.

Mr Speaker, as you know, through your community as I do through mine, arson-lit bushfires are a horrific act causing unimaginable consequences for the communities we represent. As many in the house are aware, just over a week ago on 24 January, several bushfires tore through the Adelaide Hills area, including the Cherry Gardens and Scott Creek communities. A number of other communities as far as Echunga and my electorate became watch and act zones for a frightening number of hours on that Sunday night.

Sadly, it has been identified that at least one potential act of deliberately lit arson may have ignited approximately six fires, which merged to form a larger bushfire, which destroyed over 2,700 hectares, two homes, dozens of properties and buildings, which resulted in an inconceivable impact on our native animals and environment.

V‚Äčisiting the bushfire site and animal rescue centres firsthand, as I know many of you have, is utterly devastating, to see how fires can completely destroy land, lives and homes.

We all know too well of the tragedy that is left behind in the wake of bushfires and we are only today realising the impacts of the Cudlee Creek bushfires as well as the Kangaroo Island and Yorke Peninsula bushfires that burnt through South Australia at the start of last year.

Our cousins over in the West at the moment are going through their own bushfires where almost 70 homes have been lost. I know, from talking with my constituents who are friends of the lady who lost her house in Bradbury, the devastation that that bushfire and the loss of her home has had on her and her community. To know that that fire, at least in part, was started by arson is a terrible thing.

There are physical scars imprinted by the ash that lies bare on our land. There is vast environmental devastation from a bushfire, the economic cost to communities and businesses, the mental exhaustion and post-traumatic stress on our emergency responders and, at times, the sad, sad loss of life as we saw on Kangaroo Island last year.

Knowing the devastation of a bushfire under any circumstances, to know that a bushfire can be started deliberately by arson is something I cannot comprehend and so many of the community cannot as well. It is even harder to comprehend that someone who intentionally starts a bushfire that can ravish communities faces a penalty of 20 years' imprisonment when someone who is guilty of general arson to, say, property or a motor vehicle faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

As part of this amendment, I hope we, as a parliament, can raise the penalty for bushfire arson to at least be aligned with the general arson provisions. This amendment also brings our laws to the same maximum sentence that the Western Australian parliament has under their Criminal Code Act Compilation Act 1913. New South Wales and Tasmania have maximum sentences of 21 years' imprisonment. This amendment is certainly in line with other jurisdictions across the nation.

Last bushfire season, 10 people were reported or arrested for intentionally or recklessly causing a bushfire between September 2019 and January 2020. The cost of bushfires to our community is far, far too great for us to not act to try to reduce this number and further condemn this behaviour. Our taxpayer-funded resources are used to extinguish these fires: the water, the fuel, the volunteer first responders, the paid first responders, the cost of emergency responders, air support, the clean-up and the associated social costs on our community.

It has been reported that the economic impact of Australia's 2019-20 bushfire season is set to exceed $4.4 billion across the nation. That is an incredible statistic. That is why I am also moving in this amendment that if an arsonist is found guilty of the bushfire arson offence and has the means to pay for the costs of recovery and repair, the court should require the defendant to pay compensation for injury, loss or damage that results from that fire. I hope, through this amendment, we can start to recoup some of the costs sadly worn by all of us.

I recognise this bill is only one small measure in the wider social threat that firebugs pose upon us all. Speaking with SES and CFS volunteers over the weekend, I acknowledge the work that is currently being done through the Nomad program. We are forever grateful to the SA Police for their work of checking on people who have been identified as a risk under operation Nomad, as well as the SES volunteers who patrol fire-prone areas on catastrophic bushfire days.

I ask you, the elected members, what else can we do to further extend this program and prevent these fires? How can we better collaborate with our renowned universities to further understand the psychological triggers and signs that lead to arson, and work with individuals to help individuals who have, at times, this predisposition, to ensure not only that they are not a danger to the community but to themselves. One bushfire is one too many and sadly this year there has already been one too many arson-lit bushfires.

A constituent wrote to me last week describing the sheer stress and horror she has experienced escaping from a handful of fires over the 25 years that she has lived in the Adelaide Hills. She has recalled several of the fires being intentionally lit by firebugs. She encouraged this bill and my campaign against what she has labelled 'domestic terrorism'.

‚ÄčI could not have articulated the act of intentionally lighting bushfires more succinctly. I believe that the firebugs who conduct these unimaginable and intentional acts of terrorism should face the maximum penalties.

I hope both sides of parliament can recognise the importance of this legislation, and in this debate ensure passage through the house of these amended provisions. We are only halfway through the bushfire season, and several members from my community have approached my office about the urgency of this legislation being passed. I know that many of our electorates are also in bushfire zones, and even those who are not feel the impact of fires on our communities.

Finally, on behalf of the electorate of Waite, I extend my sincere and most heartfelt and profound gratitude to the hardworking and courageous emergency volunteers who again put their lives on the line to protect our communities and to fight the flames over that Australia Day long weekend. The CFS is a fantastic organisation in my community as they are in your community, Mr Speaker. On that Sunday, every single truck, bar one, was out fighting the bushfire. That truck that was in the station was the only pumper across my community, stretching all the way to West Terrace, all the way to the beach and all the way to O'Halloran Hill. It was also covering the MFS capability that afternoon, because every MFS truck was up in Cherry Gardens fighting that fire.

The CFS volunteers on the ground and the MFS personnel who went out there fighting that fire in a way there is nothing more Australian than volunteering as a CFS firefighter over the Australia Day long weekend, if I say so myself. Last Friday night, I dropped around to a couple of the CFS stations with the federal member for Boothby, Nicolle Flint, just to have a chat to the crews. Talking to them on the Friday, they just took it in their stride. I remember we rolled into Blackwood CFS and, as we rolled in, they were on parade, all in their yellow uniforms, getting ready for Friday night's training as they do, having just been out on the fire front five days earlier. That is true dedication and service.

It was great to join with my community in thanking our local Sturt group CFS and SES members on Saturday just gone for a fundraising barbecue, and a big thanks to Drakes Blackwood and Slape and Sons for donating some beautiful snags, and Wagon Wheels and The Gourmet on Main for donating produce to the cause. It was really an opportunity for the community to say thank you, to donate and I know both the SES and the CFS raised quite a lot of money on Saturday to ask questions about volunteering and, most pressingly, to spread bushfire awareness.

Bushfire prevention is everyone's responsibility, and I would encourage all members of the community to make sure that they have completed their five-minute action plan and know what to do in the event of a bushfire. I hope through raising this debate today that we do all we can as a community to prevent unnecessary bushfires. I commend the bill to the house.