Feb 22, 2011

Condolences – Australian natural disasters

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler—Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) (6.25 pm)—I rise this day to speak on the motion and add my voice to those in this House of Representatives who have acknowledged the tragedy and loss experienced by so many Australians this summer. I speak primarily not as the Leader of the House, nor as the federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and nor as the member for Grayndler. I speak today from the heart as a fellow Australian who simply cannot imagine what it is like to endure what so many Australians have been forced to endure over this terrible summer of tragedy.

The floods in southern Queensland included the devastating wave of water that took so many lives in the Lockyer Valley. The devastation then moved through the towns and farmlands of Victoria. Cyclone Yasi then blasted Far North Queensland, wrecking towns, destroying homes and ruining livelihoods. Then there were the bushfires of the West. The summer of 2011 will be recalled as the season where nature did not relent, when the nation watched and suffered and asked when it would all end. And, of course, for those who lost a child, a husband, a parent or a friend, the summer of 2011 will really never go away.

The statistics never reveal the human pain, so I am going to tell just one story. One of the enduring images of the floods was of a mum, a dad and a young boy sitting on the roof of a four-wheel-drive as it was carried down by the roaring waters that coursed through the Lockyer Valley, near Toowoomba. Their plight was caught by the news team in the helicopters overhead and was pictured on the front page of the Australian and broadcast around the world. That family was James and Jenny Perry and their son, eight-year-old Teddy. The family had just moved to Queensland so that James could take up the position of senior steward at the Toowoomba and regional racetrack after a number of years in Korea, where he had established a very successful career in the racing industry.

Remarkably, Jenny was saved by passing rescuers, who waded 50 metres through the wild current to reach her. Downstream, another rescuer plucked Teddy from the waters. He had been clinging to a hay feeder. Tragically, his dad, James Perry, has never been seen again. A memorial service was held for him recently in Sydney, where his family have returned to start rebuilding their lives. The country has lost a fine Australian. A man, from all reports, of great integrity, decency and honour.

I tell this story because my good friend and Labor Party colleague, the former Premier of New South Wales, Nathan Rees, had just spent Christmas with the Perrys at their home and then returned when the floods hit. Nathan Rees is now helping to administer the James Perry Trust to raise funds to help his family find their feet again.

The story of the Perry family is one of so many tragedies this summer. You ask yourself, ‘Has anything good come from all this loss?’ Of course, it has. Each day our television showed us the best of humanity—the teams of volunteers with their buckets and mops, the selfless rescuers whose bravery saved so many families from certain death and the personal initiative of Australians in the suburbs and towns who have passed around the hat, have held fundraisers or have packed up a bundle of clothes and sheets and toys to send to those who have been left with nothing.

In my electorate of Grayndler we held our own fundraiser on 31 January in Steel Park in Marrickville. It was a barbecue at which around 200 locals turned up. We raised close to $2½ thousand. I give special thanks to the Sydney Turkish Islamic Culture and Mosque Association in my electorate, which passed over a cheque for $1,500 for the relief appeal. My thanks also go to Marrickville resident Hellen McGlade. Hellen was so affected by the human tragedy of the floods that she felt compelled to do something. So throughout the recent Sydney heatwave she, her mum and 40 neighbours doorknocked the local neighbourhood collecting fresh linen, toys, clothes and household goods. She said they had set aside a couple of hours but was so overwhelmed by the response that she is still receiving donated goods from the neighbourhood—from people so grateful for a way to help their fellow Australians. Hellen works for Hewlett Packard, which is covering the cost of delivering the many packing boxes filled with goods, and I thank that company for its effort.

As transport minister I have had a busy summer watching our precious roads and rail lines face nature’s force. We have had to slow the progress of some of our large road and rail projects to help fund the national rebuilding program. But I am delighted at the speed at which the damaged roads have been repaired. I personally thank the 2,000 workers who have worked around the clock to get Queensland moving again. Around 70 per cent of Queensland’s roads were badly affected. Some 150 major roads were cut. We have put together a $5.6 billion package to help with the recovery. This includes a $2 billion up-front payment to Queensland to help with the rebuilding effort. In Victoria we are still assessing the damage.

These disasters have tested us, but out of the human misery we have united as a nation and shown how powerful we can be as a force of good to help people we have never met but who our hearts go out to, knowing that they would do the same for us. So while we continue to mourn those who have gone, we look ahead to what we can do. Let us heed Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s call and book our Queensland holidays and help the mums, dads and many, many small business operators whose livelihoods depend on tourism. Let us heed the Prime Minister’s call on the weekend for people of all ages to get behind the rebuilding effort. We need an army of skilled workers and an army of apprentices to join the front line to rebuild the homes, the roads, the bridges and many other building structures ruined by the floodwaters. Of course, the Gillard government has a series of incentive programs in place to encourage new apprentices. Let us help the people of Queensland to repair their lives and look forward to the future with hope. And let us all go forward knowing with confidence that when the nation is hit by disaster the rest of Australia does not sit idle; we pitch in. That is us; that is who Australians are. In these worst of times we have seen the best of Australian humanity. I commend the condolence motion to the House.