The best way of getting fire-devastated communities back on their feet would be to create special economic zones exempt from taxes, charges and regulations.
In the weeks and months ahead many people will be making many suggestions on what we should do to recover from the devastating bushfires. That’s as it should be. Now is the not the time for a hands-off approach from federal, state and local governments.
An important lesson from the 2009 Victorian bushfires is that a significant barrier to the economic and social recovery of affected communities was red tape.
In the wake of those fires, which destroyed even more homes than have been lost in the past month, home owners were left waiting for years for permission from local and state government to rebuild their houses.
Eventually, in 2014 the Victorian government removed some of the planning red tape it had imposed only a few years earlier during its initial reaction to the bushfires. It’s an encouraging sign that Andrew Colvin, the former Australian Federal Police commissioner appointed to lead the new National Bushfire Recovery Agency, has publicly acknowledged the potential of red tape to delay recovery.
If the agency wanted to be truly innovative, it could urge the state and federal governments to establish special economic zones in affected areas. Businesses in such zones could be exempted from particular government taxes, charges and regulations.
This idea isn’t as radical as it sounds. In Victoria the Andrews Labor government did something similar three years ago when the Hazelwood coal-powered plant in the Latrobe Valley closed. An “economic growth zone” was established to encourage businesses to invest in the area, with incentives such as reduced rates on stamp duty. Premier Daniel Andrews pledged to cut red tape in the zone, so that planning decisions could be made more quickly.
The only question is why it takes something like the closure of a power station, with the loss of 750 jobs, or a tragedy such as the bushfires for government to recognise the barrier red tape poses to community development.
There are also some things that should not happen in the wake of the latest bushfires.
As much as the Greens might wish otherwise, the ability to analyse and discuss the causes and consequences of the fires must not be curtailed. According to Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Australia is now experiencing “climate fires” and “the time for debate is over”.
Such a statement is misconceived, because it wrongly assumes there has been a debate about the relationship between climate change, land management and the bushfires.
The federal government doesn’t need to set up another royal commission. Since the royal commission established by the Victorian government after the 1939 bushfires, there have been something like 18 major inquiries into bushfires in Australia, and nearly all of them have come to exactly the same conclusion.
Active management of public land through measures such as controlled burning and hazard reduction is essential to manage the risk of bushfires. None of this is new.
Bill Gammage’s 2011 book The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines made Australia describes how Indigenous Australians managed the land for thousands of years.
The Biggest Estate won numerous prizes including the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History, the Queensland Literary Awards prize for best work of history, and the non-fiction prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
About 19 per cent of Australia’s land mass is subject to conservation and environmental restrictions; 2.07 per cent of that land mass is classed as a Category Ia area (strict nature reserve) according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which means there can be no human disturbance in it except for scientific and educational purposes. A further 4.96 per cent of Australia’s land area comprises national parks.
The approach that prevails across all levels of government in this country in relation to the management of public land is that it should be all but put beyond human use. So, for example, in NSW it is even illegal to collect deadwood and fallen trees without a permit.
It is these kinds of attitudes to land management in Australia that need to be reviewed as we look to recover from, and prevent a repeat of, the devastating bushfires.