Feb 4, 2020

Condolences – Australian Bushfires – Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (12:27): I thank the Prime Minister for agreeing to the proposal for today to be devoted to this important motion of condolence and commemoration. I honour the families of those who have lost loved ones, who are joining us here today. We are united in shock and in sadness: lives lost, dreams shattered, homes destroyed, communities devastated, native animals pushed to extinction, livelihoods gone up in flames. So much of our country has been consumed by fire, and yet amongst this terrible loss we have seen bravery, we have seen courage and we have seen resilience. We have seen our fellow Australians up against the inferno. We have seen our fellow Australians on the beach in unimaginable scenes, huddled together in midday darkness with nowhere to turn but the sea, a horrific illustration that this was anything but business as usual. It was the impact of our changing climate tragically played out before us, those who were directly affected but also those who were far away from the flames but who could see, smell and, indeed, touch its fallout. We do yet not know fully what we have lost because we are still losing it. It’s not over. Australia is still burning. It’s significant that in the past some of our worst fires have been after the date on which we commemorate this motion.

On the weekend, the fires burnt their way into yet another month on the calendar. This catastrophic fire season, which stretches right back across summer but began in spring, has taken so much. It has taken lives and it has taken loved ones. For those who’ve been lost and those who have lost partners, family or friends it has stolen the future. For many who have seen their homes and the physical, sentimental accumulations of lifetimes go up in flames it has robbed the past. It has hit the economy, but just how greatly is something we cannot yet piece together. It has hit our society. It has taken a toll on mental health, and we will be feeling the reverberations for some time yet. It has taken so much of our unique wildlife that it’s going to take us a while to even measure the full scale of the calamity.

But through it all we’ve seen our brave firefighters. They do not want to be there but they feel compelled. They feel a powerful sense of duty. They feel driven by the overwhelming notion that when it comes to defending their communities, their country and their fellow Australians their contribution matters, their contribution counts and their contribution can make a difference. We’ve been humbled by the arrival of so many foreign firefighters who’ve come not to defend their homes but in the name of humanity and in the name of friendship, and we’ve been amazed by the crews on the planes and helicopters attacking the fire from above. As we have been reminded so tragically, it is a dangerous task. We are awed by all of them, by their courage and their sacrifice. It is an awe that has taken on a terrible sense of regularity, but the awe never feels just routine. Our brave women and men who get into those trucks and those aircraft have no illusions about what they’re up against, and yet they keep going. Day after day, week after week, month after month they head back into these hellscapes. They live with moments of fear. They live with long stretches of boredom. They live with exhaustion and moments of adrenaline. They witness suffering, both human and animal. Those who haven’t experienced the fires directly get glimpses of it through video footage of fire trucks dwarfed by ember storm and fireball. Even when it’s shrunk onto the small screen and viewed from the safety of our homes and workplaces it is simply terrifying—the devastating impact of a changing climate seen around the world and felt, touched and smelt by Australians hundreds of kilometres from the fires.

We offer our deepest gratitude to their families, who are also put through it again and again and again. We cannot doubt how proud these families are of the firefighter in their midst. Indeed, as I’ve travelled around the country, that is the sense that I get: in the morning tea hosted by the Prime Minister this morning, these extraordinary family members, in mourning of their loved ones but proud of their wonderful contribution to their fellow Australians and the sacrifice that they have made.

Alongside the professionals, so many of our firefighters are volunteers. I’ve met them around the country. One of the things that strike you when you meet them is just what extraordinary Australians they are. I met people in Bilpin in December, on Christmas Eve, including one gentleman who’d begun fighting fires in Tenterfield, in northern New South Wales, in September. I met a firefighter, Mike, in Cudlee Creek in the Adelaide Hills. When I said to him: ‘How long have you been going here for? Have you had a break at all?’ He said he’d been going for a couple of weeks: ‘Just a couple of weeks here.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s pretty tough.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, but before then,’ and he went on to outline he’d been on the Hawkesbury and he’d been on the north coast of New South Wales. When I was with Susan Templeman on Australia Day in the Blue Mountains we went to Glenbrook. There the head of the local Rural Fire Service, who we were chatting with, said, ‘Not all of the brigade are here today because some of them went off to Moruya yesterday.’ These are men and women who have been fighting fires for months, protecting their own homes and yet going to help their fellow Australians. I met people in Nowra and in the Hawkesbury who were there protecting other communities but were worried about what was happening where they lived. In the meantime, while they’d travelled to another destination, the fires had then been brought much closer to their own homes. But they stayed, protecting strangers’ homes—quite remarkable.

It is important—and I support very much the proposal—that we honour these Australians with appropriate recognition into the future. When our brave volunteers keep giving us so much, over such a long time, at such a cost to themselves, I believe it is time to consider expressing our gratitude in a more practical way in the future. It is not sustainable for people to not receive an income over such a long period of time—and I’m pleased that that was recognised during this crisis. But we do need to, in any assessment, look at what the changing climate and the changing expectations of future events mean for the way we structure our response.

Through this bushfire crisis it has been an honour, and very humbling, to engage directly with people in these affected communities. Firefighters, volunteers, small business owners, defence personnel, local government, men, women, girls and boys—I’ve listened to their stories and heard their practical suggestions. Throughout this crisis Labor has been constructive in forwarding proposals for national coordination, for resources and support for our firefighters, including our volunteers in affected communities. And I acknowledge the fact that Minister Littleproud has returned every call and has responded to every request that I have made—which has been pretty regular, it’s got to be said—working with our shadow minister, Murray Watt.

We are guided by a single thought: that as Australians we’re all in this together; working together is our only way forward. I have every confidence that, as Australians, that is what we will do. That is who we are. We have been tested in so many ways. It will not surprise anyone that the toughest of times has brought out the very best in Australians. I’ve been humbled by it as I’ve travelled through the fire zones. It is what so many of us across Australia have seen; indeed, it is what so many have lived through. Neighbour helping neighbour, friend helping friend, stranger helping stranger, humans comforting animals—through the long hell of this bushfire season, we have held each other. We have lent each other our shoulders. We have pushed through. Communities have pulled together.

We must acknowledge the crucial work that has been done by the ABC, a proud national institution, in keeping communities informed and up to date in what is often a dangerous and fast-changing environment. To say our national broadcaster has been indispensable is simply an understatement. Likewise, we must acknowledge the vital and tireless efforts of the personnel from our parks and forest management bodies. We also thank all of our maritime workers and defence personnel who’ve thrown themselves into the effort. We have done everything in our power to hold on to hope. And just as we have seen hope rewarded, we have seen it defeated. As this season of fire has reminded us, none of us is invincible. Each death leaves a terrible hole in a community. Each death is the cruellest of blows to a family, one that inflicts a hurt that may one day soften but will never fade. We feel each one of them in our hearts. As a nation, we have lost our own. We have also lost those who crossed the sea to help us. We embrace them as our own. We think of the tragically growing list of names.

Each one of those names belonged to a human being who was the centre of a universe. Each one a name that no-one will answer to anymore. But we hold onto them. Among those we have lost are Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer, firefighters and also young fathers. I got to meet Geoffrey’s son, Harvey, before—a wonderful young boy—and Andrew’s daughter, Charlotte. They were born just days apart. Our hearts break to see children so small and so young attending their fathers’ funerals.

Firefighter Samuel McPaul: his child is due in May and will only ever know him second hand. His wife, Megan, will never see him holding their baby. She’ll never see him give his first fatherly kiss. They will not share the first steps, the first words, the first birthday or the first day at school. But that baby will grow up knowing they are the child of an amazing man and one who we’re all proud of.

Bill Slade, a veteran firefighter, who picked up his first fire hose in 1979, was a husband, a father and a proud member of the Australian Workers Union. He fought fires on Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday before he threw himself into what would prove to be his final fight in the East Gippsland blaze. His heartbroken wife, Carol, said via a relative: ‘I will miss him. I will miss the great times we had yet to come.’

Dick Lang and his son Clayton Lang: Dick was a pioneering bush pilot and a safari operator; Clayton was a talented plastic and reconstructive surgeon. Father and son had been fighting the fires on Kangaroo Island for two days when they lost the fight. You will not be forgotten.

The three Americans lost in the crash of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules air tanker were Captain McBeth, Paul Clyde Hudson and flight engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr. They came for us. We talk about friendship between nations—this was that friendship, expressed at the profoundest level.

Father and son Robert and Patrick Salway stayed to defend their home in Cobargo and their precious hard-earned farming equipment. Patrick’s wife, Renee, wrote, ‘We are broken.’ Our hearts embrace Patrick and Renee’s young son, who will grow up with a father who lives on in memory and in the stories told by those who knew him and loved him.

There have been so many. We mourn each and every one of them. As the fires finally leave, communities are left to deal with the aftermath—physical, financial and perhaps, most importantly, emotional. Then there is wildlife that, having miraculously survived the inferno, is left in desperate need of the second miracle—namely, finding food and shelter amid the desolation.

So what now? Yes, fire is part of who we are; our recorded history is heavy with its grim poetry: Ash Wednesday, Black Friday, Red Tuesday, Black Saturday. But we are at a turning point. This is not business as usual. This is not even fire as usual. We can no longer fall back on the poetry of Dorothea Mackellar and comfort ourselves with the thought that it’s always been like this, that this is the price we pay for living on a beautiful but sometimes harsh and unforgiving continent, nor can we soften reality with the fiction that we had no way of predicting this. We have no choice but to turn to face the harsh new reality. The scale and intensity of the fires has been unprecedented.

But the responses to the fire from our fellow Australians have been completely as expected. There has been toughness, resilience, generosity, and, amazingly, through it all there has been a sense of humour. All of these qualities have been put to the test during this time of fire, and Australians have shown their true character. In this time of upheaval, the only certainty we have is that they will be tested again. We must be ready.

I pay my respects to all those today who have lost loved ones. I pay my respects also, to those who are still suffering physically and mentally and say that we, as a parliament, will provide every assistance—and I’m sure that we can all agree on that. In conclusion, I also pay tribute to all those extraordinary men and women who, in the face of incredible danger to themselves, have put their fellow Australians, their communities and their nation before their own interests. We thank you. We praise you. We honour you.