Firefighters' group that disputes climate link to bushfires has close ties to Shooters party

Christopher Knaus
<span>Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

A small volunteer firefighting association that disputes the link between climate change and the current bushfires has close ties to the New South Wales Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party and diverted thousands of dollars from its meagre finances to bankroll a bid by its president to run as an SFF candidate in the NSW election.

The Volunteer Fire Fighters Association has been quoted extensively in the media during the bushfire crisis, particularly on Sky News and in the Australian, downplaying the links to climate change, attacking the group of ex-fire and emergency chiefs who have called for climate action, and placing blame for the fires chiefly on a lack of hazard reduction burning and poor land management.

The VFFA, which splintered from NSW’s main volunteer firefighting representative body in 2004, has repeatedly refused to say how many members it has, and recently drew the ire of the RFS commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, who called it a “highly politically-charged” group with unclear motivations that had failed to reveal “who they claim to represent, how many they represent, and how they operate”.

The Guardian can now reveal the group’s close links to the SFF party, whose leader Robert Borsak frequently disputes that humans are causing climate change and similarly blames the fires on a lack of hazard reduction burning.

Related: Explainer: how effective is bushfire hazard reduction on Australia's fires?

Last year the VFFA president, Mick Holton, launched a failed election campaign to represent the Shooters in the seat of Monaro in NSW parliament.

VFFA meeting minutes and financial records show the association set aside $10,000 from its small pool of funds to bankroll Holton’s election campaign.

In August 2018, the VFFA resolved that: “A donation of $10,000.00 be made available as required for Mick Holton to be used for his 2019 state election campaign to be paid into an election account. An expenditure report is to be furnished outlining all costings of the donation with regular reports. The executive is to ensure it complies with the VFFA Constitution and electoral campaign guidelines.”

The $10,000 was a significant sum for the VFFA. Its total revenue for 2017-18 was just $23,000, including $1,945 in donations.

Holton told the Guardian his SFF election campaign ended up using only $2,240.74 of VFFA money.

Asked whether it was appropriate to use VFFA money to fund his election bid, Holton said: “Donated money was not used, the VFFA earns $10,000 with each edition of our magazine through advertising sales.”

Groups like the VFFA are regulated in NSW by the Office of Fair Trading. The office said there was no prohibition on associations making political donations, but noted the law required individuals to take steps to disclose their interests and prohibited an association from “providing a pecuniary gain for its members”.

“Fair Trading is reviewing the information provided to determine whether any further action is required,” a spokeswoman said. “If necessary, further action and enquiries will be made as per established procedures.”

Holton denied any suggestion that the VFFA’s views on the fires were influenced by its associations with the SFF party.

“No, SFFP support was sought by the VFFA just as it has been sought of other parties,” he said. “It just so happens that the SFFP has assisted more than the others.

“I have at times congratulated the Greens on some changes to their policies and an interest in Indigenous land management practices.”

Holton’s candidacy is not the only link between the two organisations.

VFFA meeting minutes state that the group has enjoyed “immense support” from Borsak.

Borsak and then Shooters MP Robert Brown have both spoken at VFFA events, according to the minutes.

The VFFA registered itself as a third-party campaigner during the NSW election and declared the $2,000 in donations to the SFF party.

Holton said the money was used for a truck sign, banner, T-shirts, a gazebo, awning, table cloth and other campaign material.

Does climate change cause bushfires?

The link between rising greenhouse gas emissions and increased bushfire risk is complex but, according to major science agencies, clear. Climate change does not create bushfires, but it can and does make them worse. A number of factors contribute to bushfire risk, including temperature, fuel load, dryness, wind speed and humidity. 

What is the evidence on rising temperatures?

The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO say Australia has warmed by 1C since 1910 and temperatures will increase in the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is extremely likely increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases since the mid-20th century is the main reason it is getting hotter. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards research centre says the variability of normal events sits on top of that. Warmer weather increases the number of days each year on which there is high or extreme bushfire risk.

What other effects do carbon emissions have?

Dry fuel load - the amount of forest and scrub available to burn - has been linked to rising emissions. Under the right conditions, carbon dioxide acts as a kind of fertiliser that increases plant growth. 

So is climate change making everything dryer?

Dryness is more complicated. Complex computer models have not found a consistent climate change signal linked to rising CO2 in the decline in rain that has produced the current eastern Australian drought. But higher temperatures accelerate evaporation. They also extend the growing season for vegetation in many regions, leading to greater transpiration (the process by which water is drawn from the soil and evaporated from plant leaves and flowers). The result is that soils, vegetation and the air may be drier than they would have been with the same amount of rainfall in the past.

What do recent weather patterns show?

The year coming into the 2019-20 summer has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. Above average temperatures now occur most years and 2019 has been the fifth driest start to the year on record, and the driest since 1970.

Greg Mullins, the former Fire and Rescue NSW chief and current Climate Council member who is leading calls for stronger climate action, said the VFFA was entitled to express its opinions. But he said it became problematic when the group started expounding certain political views while purporting to be a large representative body of firefighters.

“Everybody is entitled to an individual opinion on any issue,” Mullins told the Guardian. “But where an organisation is used as a vehicle for personal political views … then that’s quite dangerous, particularly when they purport to represent the most trusted people in our community, but appear to have only a small membership base.

“I have personal friends who are members of the organisation but I’m quite dismayed at some of the official, what I assume to be official, statements by their president, who seems to believe that the panacea for everything is burning, when it’s a far more complex issue.”

Holton said he had great respect for Mullins, but that he did not agree with him on climate change.

“We don’t agree that climate change is to be blamed for these big fires,” he said. “We are worried that big fuel loads will indeed further impact upon climate change as mega amounts of carbon are unlocked by big fires. Indigenous land management is the key to reducing the impact upon climate by big fires.”

Borsak said the Shooters party initially linked up with the VFFA largely because it wanted to understand firefighting issues but neither the RFS or Rural Fire Service Association would speak to it.

Borsak said there was nothing untoward about the VFFA donating money to Holton’s NSW election campaign.

“They didn’t donate us anything. In the end, I think the association donated $2,000-odd to Mick’s campaign, which happened to relate to him campaigning as a candidate for Shooters, Farmers, Fishers in Queanbeyan,” he said. “There’s nothing cynical about it. There’s nothing cloak-and-dagger, it’s all there in black and white.

Related: Craig Kelly interview: Piers Morgan calls MP 'disgraceful' for denying climate link to bushfires

“That somehow it’s immoral for the VFFA to donate money to one of our candidates who happens to be one of them… I could trot out a thousand examples of people doing the same thing,” he said. “If the National party do it with someone taking money from the NSW Farmers, that’s not different?”

The largest representative volunteer firefighting body, the Rural Fire Service Association, said the VFFA should disclose its membership numbers.

“They have a right to exist,” the RFSA president, Brian McDonough, told the Guardian. “We wish they would disclose how many legitimate members they have. And really, that’s all we can say about them.”

The RFSA says it represents more than 70,000 volunteer firefighters.

Holton said the VFFA had “many thousands” of firefighters but would not give a specific figure.

“We don’t have anywhere near the volunteers that the RFSA has on their books, but we have many thousands,” he said.