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Criminal Law Consolidation (Bushfires) Amendment Bill

9 June 2021

The Hon. J.A. DARLEY (17:04): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Criminal Law Consolidation (Bushfires) Amendment Bill 2021 has been passed in the other place. This bill seeks to amend the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935, section 85B—Special provision for causing a bushfire. This amendment seeks to raise the penalty for bushfire arson to at least be aligned with the general arson provisions.

During the second reading debate in the other place, the sentiments of the bill were supported, but the argument was put that the bill unnecessarily duplicated provisions that already existed in the general arson provisions. The argument revolved around two sections: section 85B, which created a specific offence for causing a bushfire, and section 85 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935, which already makes it an offence for a person to either intentionally or recklessly damage property—for example, a building or motor vehicle—by fire or explosives without lawful excuse.

The maximum penalty is life imprisonment for the latter; however, once the argument of creating a specific offence of arson causing a bushfire was made some years ago, matching the penalties to those of general arson is compelling.

Arson-lit bushfires cause a devastating impact on the communities affected. Additional to the risk to life, the loss of homes, property and stock and the damage to agriculture and the impact on remnant vegetation and native animal habitat, the intended trauma produced makes wildfires among the worst disasters to afflict our communities. There are the physical scars to our land, the vast environmental devastation, the economic cost to communities and businesses, the mental exhaustion and post-traumatic stress on our emergency responders and, at times, the tragic loss of life.

The areas affected in our state are vast, covering much of the settled regions from Eyre Peninsula through to Yorke Peninsula, the Adelaide Hills to Kangaroo Island, and the South-East. To know that bushfires can be started deliberately by arson adds to the bewilderment and trauma. With separate section 85B relating to arson causing bushfires, it makes sense that the penalties align with general arson to property. This bill seeks to raise the penalty for bushfire arson of 20 years to match the maximum penalty of life imprisonment for general arson.

In the 2019-20 bushfire season, 10 people were reported or arrested for intentionally or recklessly causing a bushfire. The cost of bushfires to our community is far too great for us not to act to try to reduce the number and further condemn this behaviour. Our community's resources are used to extinguish these fires: the water, the fuel, the volunteer first responders, the paid first responders and the cost of emergency responders, air support, the clean-up and the associated social costs.

The economic impact of Australia's 2019-20 bushfire season was reported to exceed $4.4 billion across the nation. This is why the bill contains provisions that, if an arsonist is found guilty of the bushfire arson offence and has the means to pay for the costs of recovery and repair, the court should require the defendant to pay compensation for the injury, loss or damage that results from that fire. Through this amendment, hopefully some of the costs can be recouped that are worn by us all.

I recognise that this bill is only one small measure in the wider social threat that firebugs pose to us all. It is a relief to know of the work of SA Police checking people who have been identified as a risk under Operation Nomad, as well as the SES volunteers who patrol our fire-prone areas on catastrophic bushfire days. I ask you, elected members: what else can we do to further extend this program and prevent these fires? How can we seek to further understand and address the psychological triggers and signs that lead to arson and work with individuals to help individuals who have, at times, this predisposition to ensure that they are not a danger not only to the community but to themselves?

Along with the deterrents of penalties, monitoring by police and SES patrols, the police minister has been asked to investigate the installing of CCTV cameras along main roads throughout bushfire-prone areas to increase still further the certainty of detection and to assist SAPOL to gather evidence against perpetrators so discovered.

I know that the efforts and risks that CFS and SES volunteers across the state undertake on our behalf are truly valued and appreciated by our community and parliament. I hope by submitting this bill to the council today that it may add to all the measures necessary to prevent unnecessary bushfires. I commend the bill to the council.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. D.G.E. Hood.