Nov 25, 2019

Statements on Indulgence – Australian Bushfires – Monday, 25 November 2019

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (14:22): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement to the parliament. I also thank Minister Littleproud, the minister for emergency services, who has made a number of phone calls to me, and has worked cooperatively with Labor’s shadow minister, Senator Murray Watt, on these issues in what have been difficult weeks.

I would like to begin by remembering those Australians who have lost their lives in these fires: Julie Fletcher, Barry Parsons, Vivian Chaplain and George Nole. Four Australians who have lost their lives is four too many. We cannot know what it was like for them the moment that hope ran out. Our hearts break for them and for those that they have left behind. We think of everyone who has wrestled with that most awful of dilemmas, whether to stay and fight fires or to go. We think of those who have lost their homes and all the comforts and memories that were held between those familiar, cherished walls. Everything that adds up to the sense of place that centres each one of us, all of it gone in moments.

But just as we have seen the worst, we’ve also seen the best of our great country and our magnificent people. I travelled recently to some of the fire affected parts of New South Wales, including to Lismore, Casino, Nimbin and Ballina. I spoke to the Rural Fire Service, I spoke to firefighters and I spoke to people who were impacted, people who had been displaced from their homes.

I was at the briefing in Casino in particular. It was very good. We invited along the local member, Kevin Hogan, who came with his wife, Karen; the member for Richmond, Justine Elliot; the state member for Lismore, Janelle Saffin, a former member of this place; and the mayor of Richmond Valley, Robert Mustow. We got a comprehensive briefing there about what was going on in those communities on the ground. I also got to introduce my fellow parliamentarians to my cousin, Shirley Smith, who lives by herself in Rappville and who was affected by the first fire that went through and devastated the whole community—so she has experienced it very much firsthand for a long period of time. She was able to come and thank people who’d helped to save her property. There was a real issue for her, as a horse owner, and for that entire community on the ground. Many people who were displaced in Rappville—I think it’s in the electorate of the member for Page—haven’t yet gone back to their homes. Some of them are still literally living in tents under these extraordinary circumstances.

So it’s been a calamity. But we’ve seen communities pulling together—neighbours helping neighbours, friends helping friends, strangers helping strangers—extraordinary sights of human beings helping koalas and other animals, just going into danger in order to protect native wildlife, and extraordinary firefighters and emergency workers putting themselves so selflessly in harm’s way, whether it be on the ground or in the air. They have courage in such abundance that we can only express our awe and our gratitude.

In each place that I visited, I asked if there was anything practical on the ground that could be done. While I was in the town hall in Nimbin, they were essentially using that space to feed the firefighters who had come in from Victoria and from other places that had helped out. They said that they had lots of food coming in but nowhere to keep it overnight, with the heat, so they asked for some practical assistance. I rang someone I know who’s a member of the Woolworths board. Within hours, the head of Woolworths Supermarkets, Claire Peters, was on the phone and within 24 hours a truck delivered three fridges, three freezers, a pallet of water and a $1,000 voucher. This is a time where, whether it be volunteers in the community or businesses, we all pitch in together as a nation, and that has happened. I know that stories like that have happened right around the country.

As the fires rage on, we try to soften the blow by telling ourselves what we always do—that this is Australia, and this is the price we pay for living on such a beautiful but harsh continent. We know that there have always been natural disasters in this nation, but we also know that this isn’t just fire as usual, because experts are lining up to tell us that climate change does mean longer and more intense fire seasons. We are seeing places that should be strongest flame incinerated before our eyes. I have certainly approached these issues, and Labor has approached these issues, in a bipartisan spirit, and I know that any practical requests that we have put forward have been well received by the government. We know that the immediate priority is of course protecting life and protecting property. We also know that we are so grateful to emergency service personnel and volunteers. But the fire season is starting earlier and finishing later, and our emergency leaders agree that extreme weather events in Australia will only increase in their severity and their frequency. That’s why I’ve written to the Prime Minister, constructively, to say that we need to continue to examine our preparedness for natural disasters.

I’ve suggested calling a meeting of the Council of Australian Governments that is due to look at some practical measures such as steps towards a new national strategy for disaster preparedness; ensuring emergency services and national park services are appropriately funded at state and federal levels; expanding the capacity of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre and providing appropriate funding; investing in research on natural disaster response, recovery and mitigation; and message as required to attract, retain and appropriately reward volunteers and to enable businesses to support their staff who choose to volunteer. There are many of these volunteers now who have been absent from their work for many, many months. We perhaps need to consider measures such as leave for those volunteers so that it’s not a choice between staying with the commitment they have to helping their fellow Australians and losing their employment.

There is developing an action plan around climate adaptation and bringing forward the disaster mitigation funding in recognition of the immediate dangers and impending disaster season. We don’t have the luxury of time and we should consider these issues not in a way that creates rancour, as some of the unfortunate debate has in recent weeks. It needs to be considered in a sober way, a way that considers the way forward based upon the facts and based upon the scientific advice that we’re receiving.

I’ll finish with the words of Queenslander Denise Welch, just one of our fellow Australians left to ponder the smoke and ash of the dream that she shared with her husband, Tony. She said:

All of our friends, a lot of them are in the same boat as us, so we just hug each other I guess, that’s all we can do.

There’s been a lot of hugging in recent weeks. We wish it weren’t so. But out of that have come some amazing stories of the courage and resilience of the people of this great nation.