The Hon. IAN WEST [10.16 p.m.]: I wish to raise in some detail National State Emergency Service Awareness Week, which was held between 9 and 16 November. The State Emergency Service [SES] has more than 230 units across New South Wales and more than 7,000 volunteers. The New South Wales budget provided almost $30 million for the SES this year to appropriately equip it and pay the wages of a few paid staff. This year's budget also included a subsidy to cover the service's operating costs, thereby taking the pressure off volunteers to raise funds for their local units. The SES is the principal combat agency for flood and storms in New South Wales, as stipulated in the State Emergency Service Act 1989. Each year floods cost the State an average of $150 million in damages—more than any other disaster or hazard. However, our regional colleagues would be quick to remind me at this stressful time of drought that that is not an imminent problem. The SES also has responsibility for providing general rescue operations and assistance to other emergency services such as the police, fire and ambulance services. The excellent effort during the Thredbo landslide in 1997 is a good example of the SES co-operating with those other agencies.
The SES was first established in 1955 as the State Emergency Service and Civil Defence Organisation by the McGirr Labor Government in response to serious flooding and because some were concerned about the threat of nuclear war during the cold war years. If such an attack occurred, the SES would provide civil defence. It is interesting to note that fact in light of current international events. Naturally, there would be a significant role for the SES should the State be subjected to an unthinkable terrorist attack. In 1972 the SES was afforded its own Act extending statutory protection to the volunteer members of the organisation. However, it was still recognised that war remained at the top of the order of priority of action. It is no coincidence that the evacuation plans now used for floods are effective—they are based on evacuation plans to be implemented in the event of a tactical strike.
On a lighter note, it is important to stress that the SES has a special relationship with the community. As a volunteer organisation, it is part of the community, especially in rural and regional areas. SES units have valuable local knowledge because of the community members who form them. It is important and appropriate to be grateful and appreciative to those women and men for the time and effort and the risks they take on our behalf. Indeed, their assistance should be recognised for saving the State money and resources in responding to emergencies. The April 1999 hailstorm in Sydney was by far the biggest event in terms of damage caused and assistance provided by the SES. The damage bill for that storm was estimated at $2.2 billion. There were more than 40,000 calls for assistance and the cleanup lasted longer than six months. The assistance of the SES in that operation undoubtedly helped thousands of people and saved millions of dollars.
Employers should be encouraged to support their employees if they are involved in the SES by being flexible and accommodating about work. I can think of few better definitions of corporate responsibility than companies embracing their employees' requests for volunteer leave to serve in the SES. Indeed, I was appalled to see last March that the Prime Minister John Howard rejected requests from Premier Carr to extend ex gratia payments covering income lost to SES volunteers who assisted with the bushfire emergency that lasted 23 days from Christmas Day last year. Although bushfire service volunteers received payments, SES volunteers did not. These people sacrificed Christmas, New Year and paid leave to assist in that emergency, but that was how the Prime Minister of Australia decided to see out the 2001 Year of the Volunteer. Naturally, the union covering these volunteers—the State Emergency Service Volunteer Association—was also disgusted by the Prime Minister's double standards. Fortunately, the majority of people in New South Wales recognise of importance of the SES and the selfless manner in which those men and women volunteer their time to provide the community with assistance in floods, storms, fires and other natural disasters. Hopefully the SES will not be required to assist in any disasters caused by human hand. I commend the SES and its good works.