Purcell asks for quick resolution for farmers affected by St Patrick's Day fires

Mr PURCELL (Western Victoria) (12:12:16) — My question is to the Minister for Agriculture, Minister Pulford. It is now approaching three months since the devastating south-west fires on St Patrick's Day, and while media attention has moved on, the 50 or so farmers who were impacted, some of whom I met with last week, are concerned that the compensation due to them from Powercor will be held up in a tedious class action which will only benefit the legal firms. Both fires were certainly the fault of Powercor, but history tells us that insurers will drag out any settlement for years to reduce the resolve of farmers and minimise payments. So my question is: Minister, does the government have any process to ensure a quick resolution for farmers affected by these fires?

Ms PULFORD (Minister for Agriculture) (12:13:02) — I thank Mr Purcell for his question and for his concern for farmers who have been affected by the St Patrick's Day fires in south-western Victoria. This was an extraordinary event with almost unprecedented levels of wind and fires that behaved very dangerously and erratically and that sprung up in the middle of the night, posing real risk to the community. The fire-affected area had lost on-farm assets of a total value of just shy of $55 million. Indeed two peat fires continued to burn until reasonably recently. Mr Purcell's observation is absolutely right — the media caravan has moved on — but the clean-up and recovery work continues. Indeed the firefighting effort continued for quite some time as well, but the peat fires are now finally extinguished. This was posing further risk in terms of some property owners quite close to those fires needing to be able to go to and be safe in their workplaces that close to ongoing fire activity. In total 295 properties have been impacted, and nearly 3000 livestock were lost across the region.

Mr Purcell's question goes to legal settlements, the activity of insurers and some broad things that are perhaps beyond the remit of my responsibility. I will make some comments on that in a minute, but I just wanted to say that the immediate response was incredibly fast and incredibly effective, and there are a lot of people to thank for that, including the leadership in the local government areas. I do not particularly want to single out one above all others. I think Corangamite shire was perhaps the hardest hit, and Jo Beard and Andrew Mason and their teams provided great leadership. I know Adam Jenkins from the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF), the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria group, was certainly working around the clock to provide support to the community, as were many, many other people, including many that I have met and that Ms Tierney met when we visited the area shortly after the fires — and no doubt Mr Purcell knows them well.

The effort to restore power was sensational. In about the same amount of time it took for people to have the idea that they needed generators and for people to start organising generators, power was restored to all properties. That was really important, particularly for the dairy farms. I take the opportunity to pay some tribute to the team from Agriculture Victoria. They were in the first instance responding to immediate animal welfare concerns — not pleasant work by any measure — and more recently have been working with people on a one-on-one basis to re-establish pastures and get that farm productivity up and running. There are a couple of things that we did in those very early days as well — some funding for Look Over the Farm Gate and funding to the VFF to organise the fodder drive. That has now ended, but over 250 farmers participated in that. So there was a lot of activity very, very quickly, and indeed many of the people — as is always the case, I guess, with something like this — providing support to the community were also impacted on their own properties and at home.

Mr Purcell's question does go to a very complex area of litigation and insurance claims, which in turn goes to questions that are perhaps rightly resolved by the courts around the identification of fault, if indeed there is fault to be attributed. These things do need to run their course. Frustratingly, they can take some time. While I do not have anything in particular to announce on behalf of the government in terms of any direct measure that would respond to that — and I am conscious that the President is giving me a little leeway here — what I would say is that everything within our control we have done as quickly as is humanly possible, and I think that the learnings from earlier events have certainly taught all others involved in litigation around these matters about the benefits of expediting matters.