• Peter Dunne is the Minister of Internal Affairs
The Fire and Emergency New Zealand Act, which Parliament passed last week by a large margin, brings together our patchwork of fire services into a unified national fire and emergency service.
The legislation establishes a new organisation, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, and will ensure that firefighters have the protections, resources, and mandate they need to respond to any kind of emergency - be it fire, flood, or motor vehicle crash. Fire and Emergency will be our premier emergency response service, with a bigger brief than the traditional role of putting our fires.
Our firefighters currently have no legal mandate to carry out urban search and rescue in response to earthquakes, despite earning great praise from the United Nations and others for doing just that following the Canterbury quake. The legislation and the new organisation will put that right.
In his piece titled "Fire service reform will create new problems", Mac McKenna of the Taxpayers' Union is highly critical of the reforms on grounds of cost. He argues that centralising our fire services will bring higher costs, and that the long-established system of funding the service through a levy on insurance is unfair.
To address Mr McKenna's second point first. Early in the review process leading to this reform, government considered a range of funding options. Thought was given to funding fire and emergency services through a local property tax. This was not pursued, however, as many properties are exempt from rates. Further, the insurance levy has the great benefit of being a long-standing arrangement in this country. Because 95 per cent or more of houses in New Zealand are insured, "free riding" is not a big problem for us.
We will have a more transparent levy system as a result of this legislation.
Levy rates will be consulted on and reviewed every three years. Transparency will extend to how the amount of levy collected on different kinds of property relates to the costs of activities and responses associated with that type of property. So, for example, the public will be able to see that the levy collected on motor vehicles will cover the costs of responding to motor vehicle incidents - no more, no less.
I accept that the current levy system is somewhat of a blunt instrument in terms of the way it treats lower-risk and high-risk property. We are seeking to address this through regulation, without making the system overly complex. Over time I expect to see a more nuanced system which recognises that lower-risk property should attract a lower rate of levy, and vice versa.
Regarding the cost of reform, this is not simply tinkering around the edges. This is one of the most significant public sector reforms in years, amalgamating dozens of fire organisations and hundreds of local brigades into a new national body with a broad new mandate for critical fire and emergency services. It is about ensuring that every brigade, large or small, volunteer or career-staffed, is well trained and equipped, and that every New Zealander can feel confident they are getting the best possible fire and emergency response in their area.
For this kind of reform to succeed, the process needs to be adequately funded.
The reforms will shore up support for and recruitment of volunteer firefighters who are critical to the service and the resilience of communities.
Over 80 per cent of New Zealand's 14,000 fire and emergency workers are volunteers. The new legislation brings volunteers into a new professional relationship with the central entity.
The ongoing costs of rural fire, estimated at up to $30 million per annum, will now be funded from levy rather out of rates. The reforms will also address historic under-investment in rural fire - where, we should not forget, the greatest economic risk lies for New Zealand Inc.
Efficiencies and economies of scale will be found over time. I expect FENZ expenditure to be higher than usual for the next three years, and thereafter we expect to see efficiencies.
However we are not rushing to cut costs on day one, as Mr McKenna would like to see. Change needs to be evolutionary to give time to new initiatives to bed in, for cultural issues within different organisations to be addressed, and critically to ensure there is no interruption of frontline services.
Mr McKenna and those of similar ilk miss the point about the breadth and scale of this reform. Sadly, they seem unwilling to make any attempt to learn.