Bushfire laws to enable electronic tracking of arsonists during SA fire danger season

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Arsonists convicted of lighting bushfires could soon have their movements electronically tracked in South Australia, where proposed laws giving police expanded powers to crack down on firebugs are set to go before parliament in coming days.

Under the legislation, police would have the power to seek court orders compelling offenders guilty of starting bushfires to wear electronic ankle bracelets for the duration of the state’s fire danger season.

The legislation was pledged by Labor earlier this year as an election commitment, and will go before SA parliament’s upper house this week.

Police already keep watch on suspected arsonists through existing measures such as Operation Mandrake, which includes provisions for increased patrols through high-risk bushfire areas.

But Attorney-General Kyam Maher said the legislation would provide additional safeguards by boosting surveillance of those who present the “greatest risk” to the community.

“For the first time, once these laws pass, police will be able to apply to electronically monitor those who have been convicted in the past of setting bushfires,” Mr Maher said.

“It will be the police who make the assessment about the risk that someone who’s been convicted of this offence will pose, and it will be the court that decides on the evidence presented to them whether to make this order or not.

“If they make such an order, it applies indefinitely for the fire danger season.”

Fire engulfs a property on Kangaroo Island during the bushfire crisis.
Extreme weather and arson have been blamed for several major bushfires in SA in recent years.(Supplied: David Harris)

During the 2017-18 fire danger season, SA Police reportedly monitored more than 200 firebugs across South Australia through existing means — but not every arsonist would necessarily be subjected to the new laws.

“It’s a handful of people each year who face these charges and are sentenced, so the numbers won’t be massive but it will be targeted directly at those who pose the most risk,” Mr Maher said.

“An offender is at liberty, under the legislation, to apply in the future to have that order taken off them but, unless that happens, it applies for every fire danger season.”

Barrister says bill raises unanswered questions

South Australia’s fire danger season starts today in several districts, and gradually extends to the rest of the state over the next few weeks.

Police and Emergency Services Minister Joe Szakacs said electronic monitoring was a “simple but effective” way of preventing “fires being lit in the first place”.

“We have 15,000 [firefighting] volunteers across our state who protect our community every single day,” he said.

“Any tools that we can give our police to better monitor and better track firebugs, the safer our community will be.”

Blackened vineyards on a hillside in the Adelaide Hills.
SA’s fire danger season begins today in several districts, before extending to the rest of the state in coming weeks.(Supplied: Tilbrook Estate)

The SA opposition said it had not seen the bill, and has not yet formed a position, meaning it would potentially need crossbench support in the upper house.

Adelaide barrister James Marcus said there were unanswered questions about how the new measures would be applied.

“As we’ve seen in recent years, the threat posed by fires, particularly bushfires, to the community is a serious one,” he said.

“On the other hand, we need to be mindful of issues in particular concerning civil liberties of the people who will be subject to such monitoring. Who will be subject to monitoring? On what basis?

“Not all arsonists are firebugs.

“A person guilty of setting fire to a rubbish bin by flicking a cigarette into it on the street — they may well be guilty of arson, but is that the type of person who would then be subject to monitoring?”

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