BUSH FIRE SERVICES FUNDING
The Hon. ELISABETH KIRKBY: My question is directed to the Minister for Energy, and Minister for Local Government and Co-operatives, representing the Minister for Police, and Minister for Emergency Services. Is the Government aware that the Insurance Council of Australia is concerned at the delay in the release of the report of Mr Ken Robson into the funding arrangements for firefighting services, and his recommendations concerning potential alternative funding systems being available for public examination and debate? Is it a fact that the increase in the funding of the Department of Bush Fire Services accords with an agreement to fund an urgently needed re-equipment program by the legislated increase in the contribution rate from 50 per cent to 73.7 per cent? Is it also a fact that the increase in the New South Wales Fire Brigades budget may require further review of the fire service levy applied by insurance companies to fire and household insurance? Will the Minister ask his Cabinet colleague to release the Robson report as a public document, to allow proper and informed debate on the equity of continuing with the current method of funding the firefighting services in New South Wales? If not, why not?
The DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. D. J. Gay): Order! Before I ask the Minister for Energy, and Minister for Local Government and Co-operatives to reply, I remind members that detailed and lengthy questions seeking detailed responses should be placed on notice. I leave it to the discretion of the Minister as to whether he wishes to respond.
The Hon. ELISABETH KIRKBY: I gave the Minister prior notice.
The Hon. E. P. PICKERING: Late last year, Mr Ken Robson, the former New South Wales Auditor-General, was engaged to conduct a review of the funding arrangements for the State's fire services. It represented a proud history in this regard because I suspect that every Minister for police and emergency services, for as far back as one could recall, has in one form or another conducted a review of the funding of fire services in New South Wales. As most honourable members would know, both fire services are funded by a levy on local government, the insurance industry and consolidated revenue, and different percentages and formulas have applied over time. It is fair to say that there has for many years been a considerable amount of agitation on the part the insurance industry - which believes it is inappropriate to, as it were, tax the insurance industry to pay for fire services - for a better formula to be devised. Equally, local government sees it as a burden on councils in terms of administering the payment.
However, it is easy to want a better formula, but difficult to devise one, especially as the existing system provides an efficient means for raising the revenue to fund the fire brigades with very little concern for what might be called bad debt. Other States that have embarked upon alternative methods of raising funds have incurred very substantial bad debt problems and very significant problems associated with administering their systems. Mr Robson has conducted a review, and a report has been received. I am advised by my ministerial colleague that it is his intention to refer the report to the select committee established to inquire into bush fire services in New South Wales. That is consistent with Mr Robson's terms of reference.
The honourable member drew attention in her question to the fact that, during the last part of my administration, there was a change in the ratio of payments for fire services, in terms of the contribution from local government and the insurance industry. Today, the insurance industry contributes 73.7 per cent of the funding, local government contributes 12.3 per cent and the State Government contributes 14 per cent. That change meant a significant increase in the proportion funded by the insurance industry, which in my view at the time was appropriate, in that it more correctly reflected a user-pays concept with regard to the funding of a very important community service.
The Hon. Judith Walker: Provided the building is insured.
The Hon. E. P. PICKERING: No system is perfect, but it is clear that the insurance industry more closely reflects the infrastructure in society which is more at risk from bushfires than any other parameter that might be used to determine how the necessary funds should be raised. It would be remiss of me, however, not to take the opportunity to draw attention to the history of the funding of the bush fire brigades movement in New South Wales during the administration of the present Government. I recall that, when the Government came to office, one of the things that concerned me more than any other as Minister for Police and Emergency Services, was the state of the New South Wales bush fire brigades system. This was drawn to my attention in some fairly forceful ways.
Firstly, honourable members will recall that not long before, New South Wales had experienced the tragedy of the Grays Point fire in which a number of firemen were killed. Indeed, a family friend was very severely burned in the fire and has suffered the most horrific permanent damage to his body, which is just absolutely appalling. I was very conscious from that of the fact that there were obvious deficiencies in the system. Secondly, I well recall my own son joining the fire brigades at that time and, having gone down to his local fire station, he was issued with a pair of overalls and a pair of boots and was expected to go out and fight fires. There was no training at all for this young man or, I suppose, for hundreds of other young men. Under those circumstances it was not difficult to work out how young men were being killed in bushfires, if there was inadequate training to prepare them for the task.
There was a great need not only for a massive increase in the infrastructure to support the fire brigades but a great need for training. I am proud to say that in the years that I was the Minister I took a very special interest in that movement. One of the proudest moments of my life was to be associated with the New South Wales bush fire brigade movement. I found, universally throughout the State, thousands of young men and women giving a service to the community which was beyond all expectations - a fantastic service. They ought to be appropriately supported by the Crown. I draw to the attention of the House that when the coalition came to office in 1988, the 1987-88 budget for the New South Wales bush fire brigade was about $15 million. Last year that budget was $50.72 million; in other words, it has increased by 237 per cent during this Government's administration. In my last budget I increased the bush fire bridge budget by 38 per cent compared with the previous year.
If the Government had not increased this budget, one wonders what would have happened in New South Wales when the bushfires descended upon the State last year. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent on equipping the bush fire brigade. However, there is still a need for more money. The young men and women who went out to fight those fires were much better trained and equipped for that task than they would have been if they had to face those same fires in 1988. If ever an organisation had been prevailed upon it was the New South Wales bush fire brigade. Everyone expected that they would go out and do the job. The Labor Government had not given that organisation the level of financial support that it deserved. One of my proudest achievements in public life was to give due recognition to the bush fire brigade. I am proud to have worked alongside those thousands of marvellous volunteers.
Last year, the New South Wales bush fire brigade purchased 83 new tankers and 174 additional vehicles; 118 new stations were built; $1.8 million was spent on communication; $14 million was spent on general equipment; $9.2 million was spent on maintenance and repairs; and $1.5 million was spent on workers compensation and insurance. The Government's record with this organisation has been good. I certainly support the view that we have not completed the task; there is a need to further address problems, one of which is communications. During my administration, we examined the concept of putting the fire brigades, police and ambulance services on the one radio communication network so that in time of extreme emergency there could be an interchangeability of communications, and I am sure that will occur.
If ever an organisation ought to be commended for what it has done it is the New South Wales bush fire brigade movement, which is completely comprised of volunteers, with a small professional support staff. I did not intend to suggest earlier that Mr Robson had asked for his report to be referred to the select committee. I made it clear that that had been the intention of the Minister all along, and it still is. I wish the select committee all the best. Many Ministers have considered these problems and tried to come up with a better solution, but so far no-one has.