BFF RESPONSE TO THE ERA CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS ON THE ESL ISSUE
The Bushfire Front strongly supports the review of the ESL funds by the ERA. We have long thought that these funds were not being used to the best advantage for bushfire management in rural WA. In particular, we have been concerned that far too little was spent on mitigation activities, especially fuel reduction.
We are appalled to see, in the ERA description of the administration of the ESL, that DFES is unable to provide the detailed expenditure data that is necessary for the review. The Government should direct the agency to overhaul its financial management system, as a matter of urgency, so that it can provide accurate information on the costs of every activity it undertakes. Given this inept financial management it is all the more surprising that DFES has been allowed to be the arbiter of its own level of funding as well as having complete control over where the funds are spent, with no accountability to anyone. It is unconscionable that this situation can be allowed to continue.
The meagre expenditure data in Figure 2 provided by DFES is most illuminating. That over half the $3323 million raised by the ESL was devoted to “employment expenses” without any further detail is a very serious matter. Since the recent SEMC Strategic Bushfire Stocktake identified excessive salary levels and chronic inefficiencies in the allocation of salaries, it would appear DFES has not been subject to the usual type of controls expected in a Government agency. It is very strange that they can only use a “theoretical model” to determine the proportion directed to prevention services. We assume that the Government is taking steps to remedy the shortcomings referred to above.
The remainder of our submission will address the Questions posed by the ERA.
Question 1. How should funding be allocated across prevention, preparedness, response and recovery activities?
It is likely that the balance between these different aspects will vary over time, according to priorities based on a State-wide risk assessment. However, in the short term, the high fuel loads existing in the south west region mean that a significant part of the ESL funding should be directed to establishing the resources needed to rectify the situation. This may require a reduction in the annual provision for bushfire response for a limited period. There may well be opportunities for improved efficiency in the use of fire response funds, especially in the frequency of use of water bombers.
Question 2. What should the ERA consider in assessing whether the current method for setting the ESL is appropriate for current and future needs?
The prime considerations should be : (a) a basis of costed work programs that have clear and achievable objectives based on the State-wide risk assessment (b) transparency in the ESL setting process (c) accountability from all recipients of ESL funds
Question 3. What emergency service expenditures should be funded by the ESL?
The BFF does not advocate any significant change in the scope of activities funded by the ESL, apart from the necessary increase in funding for fuel load mitigation and maintenance of the RFS. It is important that the level of capability for urban fire fighting and maritime rescue are not diminished. The efficiency of delivery of those services is, however, a critical issue.
Question 4. How are expenditures on emergency services likely to change in the future?
If the RFS can be made effective, i.e., completely divorced from DFES, and given adequate human and other resources, then we can anticipate that future expenditures for bushfire suppression will decline. This will act as a brake on future increases in the level of the ESL. Actual costs of salaries and fuel, etc, will rise so, increases should be in line with inflation.
Question 5. How could the method for setting the ESL be improved?
BFF believes there is too much potential for a conflict of interest if the level is basically set by DFES. An appropriate body to do this would be the SEMC, if the SEMC is made responsible directly to Premier and Cabinet. For this function, the membership of the SEMC may need review. Collection of the ESL fees by local government appears to be an efficient and economical process.
Question 6. What information should be made public about the administration and distribution of the ESL funding?
The funding body (SEMC in our proposals) should publish its fund allocation each year and monitor agency progress toward their objectives, as well as their efficiency in use of the funds.
Question 7. What processes should be put in place to ensure accountability in the expenditure of ESL funding?
All recipients of ESL funding must have clearly set out work programs, or clearly defined service functions, as the basis for that funding, and be required to report annually, and publicly, on how well the programs were achieved.
Question 8. Which agency should be tasked with distributing funding from the ESL?
Following on from our proposal that the SEMC should set the ESL, we believe that body should set overall priorities for funding among the relevant agencies and should distribute the funds accordingly.
Question 9. If a rural fire service is established, should it be funded from the ESL?
The BFF strongly believes that a rural fire service should be funded from the ESL, and moreover, that all regional monies raised from the ESL should be available for its activities, otherwise it is inequitable that regional areas should subsidise urban activities. RFS activities would encompass support for dedicated fire crews in local government areas, fuel reduction burning by brigades or contractors, provision of training, supply of appropriate equipment, provision of rural communication facilities and liaison with DPAW. As one of the principal functions of a rural fire service will be strong promotion of fuel reduction, it is essential that a significant proportion of its resources should be directed to that end. As a general guideline, a figure of 20 percent of the RFS budget should be devoted to fuel management.
Question 10. How much would a rural fire service cost, and what effect would it have on ESL rates?
It is difficult to estimate how much a RFS would cost as the Government has not yet released its ideas on the structure of the proposed agency. However, as a first approximation, all ESL funds from regional sources should be available to be returned to regions in the form of funding for the RFS, which is about $35 million. a year.