12 February 2020

Australian Bushfires - Matter of Public Importance

I rise to speak on this matter of public importance. I agree with a small part of what Senator Henderson said, in that I do think parts of this motion are insensitive to people going through something very, very difficult and an industry going through something very, very difficult. We know that these fires that have occurred across Australia—including in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia—and impacted many rural and regional areas that have very strong forestry industries. These communities are now working on how they will rebuild, and federal and state governments will have a critical role to play in ensuring that these communities are able to recover. The management of both native and plantation forests must be properly assessed over the coming weeks and months. That is an important job which must take place. In this context, the motion put forward is disappointing and insensitive at a time when many of these communities are dealing with the loss of their homes, their jobs and their environment.

We know that the forestry industry wants a sustainable and productive forestry sector. Forestry workers themselves have a vested interest in both native and plantation forests. Labor supports the regional forestry agreements which ensure that Australia's native forests are managed in a sustainable way and that the management of native forests maintains regional environmental, heritage and social values. However, the Senate must also note that the Morrison government has failed to properly implement a long-term forestry plan. The forestry industry needs supply of the timber resource and, before the fires, had wanted a plan which would ensure one billion new plantation trees were planted by 2030. This plan has obviously been impacted by the fires. We need to see the Morrison government provide meaningful action and support to this industry as a matter of urgency if we are to continue to have a sustainable forestry sector.

The other part of the motion, which deals with the impact of these fires on wildlife and habitat, is something I want to speak to also. The impact of these fires on our native wildlife, especially in my home state of South Australia, has been absolutely horrific. On Kangaroo Island, 300,000 hectares were burnt. That is 68 per cent of the entire island. I'm not sure how many senators in this chamber have been to Kangaroo Island or are familiar with it, but 68 per cent is basically from one end almost to the other. Penneshaw was okay, obviously, but the Flinders Chase National Park was almost completely destroyed. The visitor centre there is gone. A national park which was filled with native wildlife and fauna has been completely destroyed by these fires. We know that, of these species, the Ligurian honey beehives were one of the most impacted. We lost 6,000 of these beehives and 10,000 were damaged. We know that the impact on native wildlife, habitat and the national park was severe. And it was a similar story in the Adelaide Hills with the Cudlee Creek fire, which claimed 25,000 hectares. It also claimed vineyards and farms, but obviously had an impact on native wildlife in the Adelaide Hills as well.

Overall, we know that one billion animals have perished in this national disaster. Australians have been shocked by the images of these animals which they've seen—dead and injured wildlife, as well as farm stock. It's been absolutely heartbreaking. One of the things I had the opportunity to do in the aftermath of these fires was to deliver to one of the hospitals in Adelaide which was helping some of the koalas which had been impacted by the fires. It was absolutely heartbreaking: koalas with paws burnt white which had been forced out of their native habitat because it had burned. And that's not to mention all the koalas that we lost in those fires and the damage which has been done to the native koala population on Kangaroo Island. That's a population which is extremely important because it's one of the healthiest koala populations in Australia.

They're unique because they're one of the last remaining koala populations which are free of chlamydia, which is a disease prevalent across the mainland populations. It causes blindness, infertility and death. There is a lot of work and research being undertaken into koalas in the eastern states of Australia which have this disease and its impact on those populations. That's why the sustainability and survival of the koala population on Kangaroo Island is so important, because these are healthy koalas. They're healthy and they've been thriving. But reports now tell us that as few as 5,000 koalas remain on Kangaroo Island after these devastating bushfires. The Wildlife, Ecosystems and Habitat Bushfire Recovery Taskforce chairwoman has stated that, based on the destroyed vegetation, only 5,000 to 10,000 koalas are believed to have survived, compared with 50,000 to 60,000 before the December and January fires. So we're looking at just 10 per cent of that population of koalas left on Kangaroo Island—a population so important and central to our national koala population. It's very significant.

And that is not the only species which has been affected on Kangaroo Island. The worst affected animal is said to be the dunnart, an endangered, mouse-like marsupial which finds its home on Kangaroo Island. It's one of 49 species, including 47 plants and one spider, which are believed to have had at least 80 per cent of their species within the fire affected areas. Another icon of Kangaroo Island which is found solely on the island is the glossy black-cockatoo, and they're also said to have had their habitat ravaged in the bushfires. The Department for Environment and Water estimates that 75 per cent of South Australia's endangered glossy black-cockatoo population lived within the 210,000 hectares burnt in the recent bushfires. Before the fires on Kangaroo Island, the island was estimated to have 370 glossy black-cockatoos. Now, since the fires, we know that 59 per cent of all known glossy black-cockatoo feeding habitat, used by about 75 per cent of the population, has been burnt. And 74 per cent of all known nests, not to mention 93 artificial nest boxes, were within those fire affected areas on the island. That just gives the sense of the destruction on KI—how far it spread and how wide the impact was on these species.

It's devastatingly sad, and it's devastatingly sad to the people on the island, who know that these native species—the fauna on their island—are such a critical part of what makes that island unique and special, not just for the residents who live there but also for tourists and our tourism economy. I think that Kangaroo Island is one of the most remarkable places in the world. You can experience Australian wildlife and its native habitat, but, dreadfully, it has almost been wiped out by these fires. That's not to say there are no unaffected parts of the island; there are still great things to see, and I would urge people to still go to Kangaroo Island, to Penneshaw and other parts of the island, where they can still enjoy and look at this wildlife. But it does tell us that we need a serious plan to make sure that we're doing everything we can to protect the wildlife that is left and that we need to make sure we have appropriate plans in place to protect the wildlife into the future. I don't get the sense from this government that that has been one of their priorities, but I hope we see change on this. I get that sense because we've had reported cuts from this government to biodiversity and conservation within the environment department. That's not the sign of a government committed to protecting our native species and our native fauna.

We need this government to act now, decisively, by immediately mobilising more Australian scientists and land and species management specialists to intervene in what can only be called an ecological crisis. They must immediately explain to Australians how they will urgently act to preserve native species—not way down the track, but today. What are they doing today? What can be done now to protect these native animals? What can be done today?

This is an issue of huge importance to people in my home state of South Australia. We care about our native animals, we care about what it means to Kangaroo Island and we are desperate to see the government take meaningful action to protect this wildlife and to address this ecological crisis. It's important not just to those who love these animals and love what it means, who believe in ensuring faunal protection, but to our tourism, to our broader economic recovery and to the environment. I urge the government to take immediate action on this matter.