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Alongside the scale and intensity of Australia’s bushfires, one thing that stands out is the bravery and commitment of the firefighters. Hundreds of stories are circulating about firefighters going above and beyond to save lives and protect homes.
Tragically at least four firefighters have died already this season. We all hope no one else loses their life defending local communities.
These people are rightly recognised as the salt of the earth. Ordinary people have been trying to show their appreciation by collectively donating tens of millions of dollars to rural firefighting services. Comedian Celeste Barber’s online fundraiser has alone raised more than $50 million!
The question of funding allocated to firefighting services has become an important topic of debate, especially as it becomes clear that, because of climate change, bushfire seasons are becoming longer, hotter, dryer and much more difficult to manage.
The matter of funding was also highlighted when it was widely reported that many local firefighting units were crowdfunding to pay for personal protective equipment, as well as food and water for those in the field.
The vast bulk of the people fighting Australia’s fires are doing so on a volunteer basis. Many have sacrificed a great deal, taking weeks, or months, away from their paid jobs. It’s been reported that many regularly work 12-hour days, often hundreds of kilometres away from their family.
Under pressure, the government has agreed to compensate some of these people, but others will remain thousands of dollars out of pocket. It’s an issue that’s only going get worse and many people are asking if having a largely volunteer firefighting force is enough given the emergency we now face.
Firefighting services in Australia are generally split between metropolitan brigades that cover the major cities and rural brigades that cover most regional areas. The metropolitan brigades are staffed by paid career firefighters, while the rural brigades generally have a small paid staff complemented by a large volunteer base.
New South Wales for example has the world’s largest volunteer firefighting organisation with more than 72,000 unpaid members. A paid career staff of about 900 oversee operations and the management of the organisation.
In December Scott Morrison originally rejected calls for more support for firefighters, saying that they “want to be there”. Morrison also rejected the idea that rural firefighting services need more full-time career staff. The government claim that shifting to a paid model would cut across the community spirit that exists.
There is no doubt that most of the volunteers sacrifice their time, and often lose money, out of a sense of solidarity and commitment to their communities. And many do see what they do as a community service. The do so selflessly and without an expectation that they get anything in return.
But this itself is not an argument to reject calls for a more permanent firefighting force. No one wants to cut across community spirit, but we do need to look at the scale of the problem we face and what resources are needed to combat it.
All respected experts agree that we need more funding and resources. Part of that has to include many more people who make it their career to fight and mitigate fires.
At the moment many rural volunteer brigades are stretched and could benefit from being supplemented with full-time staff. A declining rural population is having an impact on the brigade’s ability to recruit, and high levels of casualisation puts limits on many people’s ability to volunteer for anything at all.
The truth is that the main reason governments and many employers oppose a shift towards more full-time career staff is because it will cost them money. They take advantage of people’s good nature, and play on the genuine community spirit that exists to make an argument to limit spending.
Some opponents of an expanded full-time firefighting apparatus argue that a large volunteer base is actually the best way to fight fires. They say that the need for staff varies, and that local people have important local knowledge that can be utilised in emergency situations.
No doubt local knowledge is important but there is no reason why paid staff couldn’t be located in local areas. The question of varying needs for human resources is again a question of funding. Governments want to limit their wages bill, and businesses want to limit their tax bill, but in this case, it means putting communities at risk.
It’s true that during many parts of the year fires are not burning continuously, but in the off-season paid firefighters could be involved in hazard reduction, forest management, property auditing, the development of evacuation plans and community education.
Each state would need thousands of new full-time workers to carry out these tasks. That work should be seen as vital, and as such attract decent wages and good conditions just as other public sector jobs do.
During peak fire times even more paid staff could be brought in. This already happens in places like Victoria, where many firefighters that work for Forest Fire Management are employed on a seasonal basis.
During the worst of times, when firefighters are stretched, it may be necessary to rely on some sort of auxiliary civilian force. But this work is very different to volunteering at the local footy club, a lot of training is required and people are needed to attend fires at short notice.
At the moment most volunteer firefighters do not have access to emergency service leave. If the government was serious it would include unlimited emergency service leave in the National Employment Standards, and implement a scheme to ensure that people’s wages are paid for by the government for as long as is necessary.
That way people could leave their paid work during an emergency situation without fearing losing their jobs or not being able to pay their mortgages. This would be an evolution of the current set up, ensuring that resourcing matches needs.
At the moment the government pays the Army Reserve for training and deployments, and also gives them tax breaks. They should do the same for the people that are defending communities during bushfires.
Tax big business
All this would indeed cost billions of dollars but it could be paid for by levying taxes on big businesses, especially the big polluters who are the main contributors to climate change. At the moment we have the absurd situation where hundreds of big businesses across the country pay no, or very little, tax.
Andrew Forrest for example, vigorously opposed a tax on mining super-profits and his companies are known as master tax avoiders. He also has questionable views about climate change and has promoted right-wing conspiracies claiming that arson is a major contributor to bushfires.
During the current fire crisis however, he has received much publicity after he announced a $70 million contribution.
$50 million of that money is tied to a specific private project to design a “national blueprint” for disaster resilience. $10 million will go to his own foundation to assemble a volunteer army to work on relief projects, while only $10 million will go to charities to assist those most in need. Why should an individual make decisions of this nature?
What we need is for these big companies to pay significantly more tax, and for decisions about how and where funds are distributed to be made democratically on a collective basis.
That we are forced to rely on the crumbs handed out by billionaires speaks volumes about how rigged the current system is. The bushfire crisis shows that we desperately need a system that is fit for purpose, a system that uses the wealth we create to look after the needs of people and the environment.
By Anthony Main