Mr FITZGIBBON: I begin by thanking the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy for undertaking this inquiry into flying fox management in the eastern states.
In particular, I thank the chair, the member for Mallee, and the deputy chair, the member for Shortland, and indeed the minister, who was supportive of me in my quest to have this inquiry undertaken. I also thank all those witnesses, including expert witnesses, that gave their time to present to the committee.
I sought this inquiry because I have communities in my electorate—and I am sure other members of the House have shared these experiences—literally under siege. People have to put with terrible smells and terrible noise. People cannot hang clothes on the clothes line and no longer have family and friends visit because there is nowhere to park the car, and the car, of course, is under threat from the droppings of the flying foxes. We had a situation in Cessnock where people were starting to take the law into their own hands. The situation was at one point so bad that they were trying to burn down the habitat of the flying foxes. We had firemen come to the scene to extinguish that fire, and they themselves were concerned, like local residents, about their own personal health and wellbeing.
It is not just Cessnock. In Singleton we had a terrible problem in a place called Burdekin Park, the park in which the cenotaph stands. We just had a very solemn and important debate about our various operations in the military sphere. Burdekin Park was the place where we used to hold solemn services like Anzac Day services but have been unable to do so for some six years now. Such was the extent to which the flying foxes had taken over Burdekin Park. In Blackalls Park on the western side of Lake Macquarie, we had up to 100,000 flying foxes living right in amongst houses.
During the last election campaign, I travelled to the seat of Paterson with the now member, Meryl Swanson, to talk with the local community about the situation in Raymond Terrace.
The problem, of course, is finding a solution. The starting point is to acknowledge that the numbers of the various subspecies of flying fox, including the grey-headed flying fox, are in decline and that they do play a very important role in our ecology, pollinating much of the native flora that is so important to our environment. On the other side of the equation, as I have said, they are causing terrible, horrible situations in local communities.
I did hope that the parliamentary inquiry, with expert witnesses, might throw up some solutions and answers to the difficult questions—answers that neither I, local communities, state governments nor local governments have been able to find. I did not go into this inquiry with high expectations, because I knew how difficult a question it was, but I did hope that something, a solution, that no-one had thought of before might come out of the inquiry. That, sadly, was not the case.
First of all, I should say the inquiry confirmed everything that I have said—that is, that the numbers are in decline, that they are a critical species to the environment and that they are a terrible scourge on our local communities. All of those points were absolutely confirmed, but magic answers were not found. However, some helpful recommendations have been made, including a certainty in funding for research and data. You cannot fix a problem if you do not understand the problem, and research and ongoing data is critical to understanding this problem.
Second, there is a recommendation there to deal with the complexities of the overlapping responsibilities of Commonwealth and state governments. It is one of the great wonders of our Federation. We see this not just on this issue but on just about every issue we tackle in this place: the complex situation where you have a dual responsibility across state and Commonwealth jurisdictions. The committee has made a recommendation about a establishing a COAG group that would work to try to at least minimise those complexities, to lower the bar, and to make it easier for both local and state governments to deal with these issues.
There is also a recommendation about helping local councils deal with the problem. Councils are always the first port of call for members of the local community when they are facing such a significant problem, but the fact is the councils have neither the resources nor the tools to adequately respond to this community problem. They need help, and I am pleased that the committee recognised that and have made at least some recommendations about giving those councils the tools they require to act on behalf of the community.
Fourth—and these are not exhaustive. I will not have the time to go through all the recommendations, but the fourth key point was a recommendation on greater community education about flying foxes and the role they play in our ecology in our environment. The reality—
Mr Christensen interjecting—
Mr FITZGIBBON: I hear the member for Dawson, I am sure, out of the greatest respect, challenging the idea that the flying foxes play an important role in the ecology and in the environment. I would appeal to the member, on what I thought was going to be very much a bipartisan debate, to reflect on that interjection before he speaks—if he is speaking on this matter. I know he still wants to have a debate about climate change, but there are some things that just fall in the category of fact. It is a fact that the flying foxes do play an important role pollinating so much of the native flora in this country, which, in turn, plays a significant role in various food chains. This is incontestable, Member for Dawson. Please do not make this problem any harder by challenging that.
If you want to get the shotgun out and shoot them all, get up and say so, but there will not be too any experts around the country, member for Dawson, who will back you up on that.
When I was trying to help my local community, Mr Deputy Speaker, there were times when I felt like getting the shotgun out; I can tell you. I have talked about my concern about communities taking the law into their own hands, and I was actually fearful that one day someone would decide to take up arms. The extension of my fear was that there would be someone taking up arms at one end of the habitat and someone taking up arms at the other end of the habitat. This is where we have a responsible role to play—I say to the member for Dawson—in making sure that we maintain civil order and let the authorities, as best they can, deal with these issues.
I welcome the recommendations but also make the point that, while my expectations were not high, I am disappointed that the committee was unable to find a way of making more substantial recommendations. As meritorious as the recommendations are, for my people living in Singleton, Cessnock and Blackalls Park next season, probably next spring, these recommendations will make no difference whatsoever. These recommendations, particularly the recommendation that seeks to deal with the complexities of Commonwealth and state jurisdiction, might help over a period of time but they are not going to provide any immediate relief. Members of this place and members in state parliaments need to ready themselves for these events occurring on a regular basis, the potential for civil disobedience, and a point where, as legislators, we may need a more aggressive approach. Of course, displacement is part of that. We saw evidence that displacement is rarely successful over the medium to long term, so it may be that we will be revisiting this question, and we will need to work with other levels of government to find something more substantial to deal with what is a very serious problem for local communities.