Jan 26, 2020







By this point on the calendar, we’re usually thinking back on the festive season.

Under normal circumstances we’d be looking back ona Christmas that, hopefully, gave ustime with our families and loved ones.

Maybe a few weeks into the year we’d even have a bit of time to reflect on how our New Year’s resolutions are going.

Which ones are going well, which ones are struggling a bit, and which ones, to be frank, were doomed from the start.

Through it all, we’ve hopefully had a chance to commune with a little corner of this country we are lucky enough to call home.

Home through the lottery of birth.

Or home through choice – because you looked to Australia and saw yourself here as part of the picture with the rest of us.

And for some, home through necessity because you were escaping war or persecution – like so many who have found refuge here before you.

Normally, summer recharges our batteries and gives us a chance to reflect on what Australia means to us.

But this hasn’t been a normal summer.

Australia has been burning, and it is still burning.

This summer has been a season of calamity.

So much of our country has been consumed by fire. We’ve seen communities devastated and livelihoods shattered.

We’ve seen our fellow Australians up against the inferno, or huddled together on the beach in midday darkness, with nowhere to go but the sea.

Indeed, so many of us have seen it all too close up – not least here in the Blue Mountains.

We’ve seen mass evacuations.

We’ve seen our cities shrouded in smoke. We’ve felt it in our eyes and in our lungs.

We‘ve seen so much of the natural heritage that makes our country unique incinerated without mercy. Here in the Blue Mountains, at least 80 per cent of the World Heritage area has been burnt.

Beneath smoke-choked skies and a bloodshot sun, one thing has become clear: we are at a turning point.

Australia Day, which is what has brought us together today, is an especially fitting time to talk about turning points in the life of this continent.

Turn your mind away from the fires for a moment.

Try to imagine January 26, 1788, when the fleet under Arthur Phillip’s command reached the end of its long voyage from England.

Life could never be the same again.

Not for those watching from the shore, the latest in this continent’s unbroken line of generations stretching back over so many millennia – the world’s oldest continuing culture.

Not for the new arrivals – representatives of what they thought of as the Old World, sent here to a world far older.

Both, in their own ways, brought face to face with the unknown.

As two worlds came together that day, a series of collisions was set in train.

There would be fear and courage.

Arrogance and humility.

The failure of communication, the tragic triumph of brutality.

Desperation. Resistance. Loss.

As a new society slowly and unsteadily rose to its feet, a mosaic of ancient societies was brought to its knees.

Yet, there was persistence and survival.

And somehow out of this emerged Australia.

A nation that would eventually become the envy of the world in so many ways, if not a perfect one.

A great nation that must still find a way to spread its greatness to even more of our citizens.

A nation that can reach for something higher – because we have it within ourselves to do it.

A nation that can stand alongside, and with,the ancient nations.

And we can do it – together.

We’ve done it before.

Think about our proud history of successes:

The billion people who’ve lived on this continent and managed the land for more than65,000 years.

The immigration that has shaped us and enriched us.

The multiculturalism that has made us broader and stronger.

A health system that stands in stark contrast to the inequality in so many other nations.

An education system that – at its best –provides opportunity and improvement to all, regardless of the circumstances into which they are born.

An economy resilient enough to withstand the forces that have felled so many others.

An environment that is filled with natural wonders so different to the rest of the world it has been called a separate creation.

These all add up to a nation that others want to come to.

A nation that others want to choose as their new home.

To our record of proud successes we should add:

An indigenous Voice to Parliament enshrined in our Constitution.

Progress on truth-telling, particularly on this day.

The making of agreements.

These would be crucial steps forward on the road to reconciliation.

And perhaps more fundamentally, it would be a powerful expression of one of that great Australian instinct: the fair go.

We cannot pretend our history began on this day in 1788.

We cannot deny the trauma that accompanied the birth of modern Australia.

But a Voice and truth-telling would take us farther from that and bring us closer together as a nation.

It is only together that we can achieve our full potential as a nation.

And it is only together that we can truly face the challenges of the future.

And there will be many challenges.

Not least the one that burns before us still.

That is a challenge we have to address now.

Yes, we have had fires before. As Australians, we are hardly strangers to the catastrophe of flame.

We’ve seen it before.

The courage. The devastation.

The lucky escapes and the terrible losses.

The smoke finally clearing to reveal the ruins.

The communities left to deal with the aftermath – physical, financial and emotional.

The wildlife that, having miraculously survived the inferno, is desperately in need of the second miracle – namely, finding food and shelter amid the desolation.

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 as I said, we are at a turning point.

This is not business as usual.

This is not even fire as usual.

We can no longer comfort ourselves with the poetry of Dorothea Mackellar and the thought that it’s always been like this.

That this is the price we pay for living on a beautiful but unforgiving continent.

Nor can we soften reality with the fiction that we had no way of predicting this.

We have had expert warnings – some from months ago, some from years ago, even a decade ago – that our fire seasons would become longer and more intense, exacerbated by the forces of climate change.

The same forces that are already displacing people from their homes.

These predictions have been born out.

For months now we have seen our continent ablaze. We have even seen places that should be strangers to flame turned to ash.

But while the scale and intensity of the fires has been unprecedented, some of the responses have been anything but.

It will have come as no surprise to any of us that the worst of circumstances has brought out the best in Australians.

I’ve seen it seen as I’ve travelled through the fire zones.

It is what you have lived through here in the Blue Mountains.

Neighbour helping neighbour.

Friend helping friend.

Stranger helping stranger.

Human comforting animal.

And the firefighters and emergency workers putting themselves so selflessly into harm’s way.

Again. And again. And again.

Over weeks, over months.

We can only express our awe and our gratitude.

We hear the stories of bravery and desperation.

Of our fellow Australians thrown into that cruellest of dilemmas – whether to stay or to go.

We hear of those who stayed until their hope was rewarded or, tragically, until hope ran out.

We mourn them. We will not forget them.

Then there are those who evacuated, but were then left to wait, not knowing if their home had been spared in the terrible lottery of fire.

Through it all, we have held each other.

We have lent each other our shoulders.

We have pushed through.

These are all qualities we celebrate on this day.

Toughness. Resilience. Generosity.

And somehow, despite it all, a sense of humour.

We are just one island continent.

However, the smoke from our fires has drifted so far, it has gone right around the world and, at last, returned to our shores.

Smoke from our fires has encircled the planet.

If you want a picture of a truly global problem this is it.

But we are Australians.

And as Australians we can take pride in the knowledge that one thing we have never done through history is to shy away from playing our part in tackling challenges that spread far beyond our shores.

In terms of population we may be small, but we’re not afraid to punch above our weight.

We know our contribution counts. We know it matters.

As we gather here on Australia Day, surrounded by the challenges of the present, we acknowledge the past, particularly those who suffered as result of the arrival of the First Fleet on this day in 1788.

We look ahead to building a better future.

And we will do it together, as Australians.