House debates

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Victorian Bushfires

2:00 pm

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the Prime Minister from making a statement on the first anniversary of the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires, at 2 pm, and the Leader of the Opposition and other Members to be able to make a contribution.

Question agreed to.

Photo of Kevin RuddKevin Rudd (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

A year ago this Sunday, Australia’s worst natural disaster tore through Victoria. It also tore through the hearts of Australia. The firestorm that swept through Victorian forests, fields and towns on 7 February 2009 caused unspeakable tragedy and loss for thousands of Australians. The Black Saturday bushfires were catastrophic in their scale and in their impact—173 Australians lost their lives and more than 800 others were injured, some with horrific burns; more than 1,800 homes were destroyed; and more than 15,000 people registered as affected by the fires at relief centres and other official areas in the days after the firestorm.

This weekend people around Australia will be remembering the events of one year ago. On Sunday, I will be attending a special memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne to mark this first anniversary. We in this place all remember towns like Kinglake, Flowerdale, Marysville, Kilmore, Strathewen, Wandong and Whittlesea. We remember those who lost everything—family, friends, homes, livelihoods. We remember those who are still recovering from injuries suffered that day, who are still rebuilding their homes and who are still rebuilding their lives, and those who are battling painful and traumatic memories. We also remember the bravery and the heroism of the firefighters and other volunteers, many of whom battled to save their neighbours’ properties while their own homes burned to the ground; the courage of people like Peter Thorneycroft, a local tradesman who climbed on the roof of the Kinglake National Park Hotel as a fire roared around it and, armed only with a hose, doused cinders and hot ash for an hour to keep safe the 20 women and children sheltering inside—absolute courage. We remember the skill and dedication of the paramedics, the doctors and the nurses who treated the injuries—the horrific injuries.

This was a tragedy that shook our entire nation. This was a tragedy that shook our entire people. In the hours and days after this catastrophe, all Australians rallied behind those who had lost much. Farmers from around the nation, already battling drought, sent hay to feed the livestock struggling to survive in burnt-out paddocks. Donations of clothes and food flooded in, driven by truckies who simply got into their rigs and drove for hours—and in some case days, sometimes right across the country—to help their fellow Australians. And $318 million was donated to the Red Cross Victorian Bushfire Recovery Fund.

The survivors in these devastated communities showed extraordinary courage and resilience. Sporting clubs and school halls became emergency relief centres—reuniting families and providing a bed and roof to those with no home, food and clothes, to those who escaped the inferno with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

Government departments and agencies swung into action to deal with the complex, immediate and unprecedented needs of thousands of people: Centrelink; the Department of Human Services; the Department of Defence; the Army; the Australia tax office; the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs; the Attorney-General’s Department; the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations; the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts; and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. These dedicated public servants worked long and hard to help traumatised people who had been left without access to money and without even basic forms of identification—people who needed immediate practical help like emergency cash payments as well as support and counselling. On behalf of the House, I would like to thank all those Australians and all those Australian government officials and Victorian government officials who put their shoulder to the wheel in the sustained relief and recovery effort.

James, a 70-year-old survivor from Marysville, called his local call centre to express his and his wife’s thanks and gratitude for their support. He said, ‘Even though we had lost everything, you people make me proud to be an Australian.’ These public servants worked alongside non-government organisations like the Australian Red Cross, St Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army, Oxfam, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, VicRelief Foodbank, the Victorian Farmers Federation and the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement. Local businesses helped where they could in whatever practical ways that they could, like the local pharmacy in Yea, which donated its fax machine to Centrelink staff to help them process claim forms more quickly.

The government acknowledges the many volunteers, both paid and unpaid, and those who continue to provide assistance and support throughout the reconstruction and recovery process. Many firefighters, emergency services personnel and community volunteers work tirelessly to assist communities. Their acts of kindness, compassion and bravery have kept many people going in the face of this adversity.

The work continues today. As of 11 January, 3,053 fire affected properties had been cleaned up—that is, we are advised, 99 per cent of the affected properties. Nearly 1,000 building permits have been issued by the bushfire affected councils. Thirty community recovery committees have contributed to local rebuilding needs and priorities. Temporary villages continue to run at Marysville, Kinglake and Flowerdale and temporary accommodation remains available at Whittlesea.

The Australian government is continuing to work closely with the Victorian government, local government, communities, businesses and non-government organisations to help the reconstruction and recovery of these communities. The Australian government has committed more than $455 million to the relief, recovery and reconstruction effort. We continue to support these efforts alongside the Victorian government and the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority. We provided $52.3 million towards the authority’s reconstruction plan entitled Rebuilding Together—A Statewide Plan for Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery. Local governments have also played a critical and integral role in supporting their communities during an overwhelming time of sadness and loss.

As well as being an important influence on the direction of the recovery process, the Australian government is committed to applying the lessons of this tragic event. We remain committed to assisting the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.

One year on, we pause to remember and we pause to reflect. We congratulate those who are rebuilding and we acknowledge those who are still wrestling with the agonising decision of whether to stay and rebuild or whether to move away. As we mark the first anniversary of Black Saturday, I urge all Australians to keep in their thoughts and in their prayers all those who have been and continue to be affected by these fires. On behalf of the Australian government and the Australian parliament, I say to those people: our thoughts and our prayers and our sympathies are with you all.

2:09 pm

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Speaker, I wish to associate the opposition with the eloquent words of the Prime Minister to commemorate the first anniversary of Black Saturday. Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, is the worst peacetime disaster in Australian history—173 people lost their lives, including 38 in Kinglake, 34 in Marysville and 27 in Strathewen. There were 2,029 homes destroyed, 2,439 buildings destroyed and 59 commercial premises lost. This was loss on an unimaginable scale.

Following the tragedy, as the news slowly emerged, Australians were successively shocked, saddened and ultimately bewildered at the scale of the devastation and the realisation that death could stalk even the most peaceful and idyllic Australian landscapes. There was that deep but hard to express grief at people’s almost unthinkable loss, and then, with volunteer fire brigades from around Australia sending fresh teams to the front, with hundreds of thousands of people sending goods and money to those who had escaped with their lives but little else, and with the whole nation sending its prayers, there was a quiet pride in the way our country had faced the fury of nature at its most extreme and responded to the tragedy.

All levels of government promised to do everything in their power to restore as far as possible normal life, and these promises, which were sincerely given, I am happy to say have been efficiently kept. I commend everyone professionally involved in the relief efforts. In rebuilding their lives, the members of these communities have shown the best of the Australian spirit and in our solidarity with them I think we have deepened our sense of collective humanity.

We honour the memory of those lost, we salute the courage of those living and we resolve to learn the lessons of that terrible day. Mr Speaker, I now defer to the members representing the communities most affected.

2:11 pm

Photo of Fran BaileyFran Bailey (McEwen, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This weekend our nation will pause and it will reflect and it will honour the 173 men, women and children who lost their lives a year ago on Black Saturday. This weekend will be a particularly tough weekend for many of the communities in my electorate. We still have large numbers of people who are very severely traumatised. Some people will want to gather and will want to exchange stories; some will be quietly introspective. There will be lots of tears; there will be lots of laughter as well. And, Mr Speaker, there will be lots of hugs.

I think all of those people would want me today to once again express and acknowledge the thanks of so many that have already been referred to. The Prime Minister referred to the countless numbers of public servants, including for example the Centrelink manager who, after going off duty, then went and volunteered to do some fencing. I can give hundreds of stories like that. There are the thousands and thousands of Australians who donated money, goods and services; the thousands of volunteers who travelled long distances simply to lend a helping hand. Those efforts have been absolutely magnificent in themselves but, most importantly, they have shown the people of my communities that they were not on their own; that Australians everywhere were with them.

This weekend also provides us with an opportunity to focus on the future, and never before has it been so important to harness the energy, the commitment, the tenacity, the resilience and the sheer willpower of these people in so many of our devastated communities and to allow them to direct the rebuilding of their own communities. I thank the House.

2:14 pm

Photo of Steve GibbonsSteve Gibbons (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the member for McEwen. I am pleased to say that the recovery effort in relation to the Bendigo fires is proceeding very, very well, thanks to the cooperation between the three tiers of government—Commonwealth, state and local—and is well advanced. I guess, compared to the area looked after by the member for McEwen, we got off relatively lightly in Bendigo. We lost some 61 homes and, unfortunately, one life. We had another fire just out of Bendigo at the same time, where there were another 11 or 12 homes demolished and there was the loss of countless numbers of livestock, fences et cetera.

As we approach the anniversary, it is worthwhile again thanking those who performed so magnificently during those fires. The City of Greater Bendigo’s disaster relief plan worked perfectly. Bendigo is a major regional centre, and all of these agencies were able to be on tap at 6 am the next day. They did so well. ABC Radio also played a superb role, keeping people informed. It all went extremely well, considering it was the worst disaster in Bendigo’s history. Unfortunately, the fires were deliberately lit. As some of you would know, two young boys were charged just a few days ago with lighting those fires—and that matter will take its course. I would like to again associate myself with the comments of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the member for McEwen.

2:15 pm

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On Jon Faine’s ABC morning program on the bushfire recovery, months after the fires: a woman’s voice. She had lost her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren to the Black Saturday fires. The unveiled tears flooded the airways of the ABC. Her unbridled grief called a halt to all other thoughts as we entered into her daily pain, her broken heart and her immense loss. As her story unfolded, tears fell freely as I stood locked into the moment, a life exposed for every listener to hear and feel.

Each of us carries such burdens of tragedy in our own way. Some choose life and strike out with renewed hope; others change and are diminished by their experience. For me, there is no condemnation as to how you may cope. Our task is to understand that grief has different forms and, having not stood in the shoes of the grieving, allow for time, however long, to heal, restore and mend.

2:17 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I join with the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the member for McEwen, the member for Bendigo, the member for McMillan and also with the member for Casey, who spoke very well this morning in the Main Committee and expressed his sentiments on the 12-month anniversary. There is not much I can add after the member for McMillan’s comments—and I congratulate you, Russell, for the way that you have conducted yourself over the past 12 months. It has been an emotionally raw time for a lot of us—and, if it is raw for us, imagine what it is like for the people involved.

To Bill Shorten, the minister in charge of the bushfire reconstruction: I thank you for your efforts—in particular, for always being able to help the people of Gippsland in a very bipartisan way. On behalf of my community, where we lost 11 lives, 175 homes in the area of Callignee, Traralgon South and Koornalla and 20 homes the previous week in Boolarra, I want to put on the record how very thankful they are for the support they have received from this place. We received many comments from my community as a result of the way this place behaved after the bushfires. There were so many positive comments on the way the parliament of Australia conducted itself in that week and the months that have followed. They are very grateful for the support they have received.

There is one other message for me to pass on on behalf of my community, and that is: do not forget that there is still a long way to go with the recovery process. While the bush will recover, the regrowth is there now and homes are being built, people will recover at very different speeds. Long after the scars on the landscape have recovered, the scars will still be there for them both physically and mentally. So they will need our support for many years ahead. We must never forget them and we must learn from the experience that we have been through in these past 12 months. I thank the House for the opportunity today.

2:19 pm

Photo of Bill ShortenBill Shorten (Maribyrnong, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children's Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the other members of parliament who have spoken. It is a long way back from 7 February last year. Many people have lived eternities of regret in just one year, sifting memories from the ashes and recalling faces that are now gone. The things that we remember having shared are the substance of love, and when those things are gone then, indeed, love itself is threatened unless we jointly remember and jointly restore what we can.

The towns and the farms are still there, as are the roads, the yards, the hills and the creeks where people played and grew up. Many people have experienced circumstances beyond nightmare which one would hope never to experience. A long rebuild has followed so far after a fire that took everything—the family photos, the war medals, the books that were passed down from the parents to the children, the backyard trees that seemed so big when you were so little, the horse that ran off into the flames and never came back and the pet dog which was so hurt that it had to be put down. The long return from such a day can be hard beyond bearing for those who have lost property. In fact, when you lose property in a fire you realise how closely and deeply it is linked to the memories that make us who we are. But there are those for whom it was even worse in the days after the fire—those who waited weeks for the release from the coroner of perhaps the remains of a child or a father, and those too-long delayed funerals, and those who were kept away for days on end from those black and smouldering crime scenes, which were their family homes, only to return to find that there was nothing left.

Many of these people carry burdens of their own and they are dealing with their own losses. Many have coped with the aftermath of the fire by turning their loss into a desire to rebuild and to help others heal. They have had leadership thrust upon them and they have coped with this admirably. Some of the leadership that we have seen in the communities is not flashy or the barking of orders; it is just the quiet gesture of carrying on and putting one foot in front of the other. The work that is being done by the local community recovery committees deserves particular mention and recognition. It has been essential in ensuring that the spirit and the essence of communities remain—as has the work of Premier John Brumby and Christine Nixon, the chair of the reconstruction authority.

Rebuilding has been a slow process, and I think that we all wish that it was happening quicker. But, as we travel around the fire-affected communities, we can see that good things are happening—from the radio station at Kinglake to the first sods being turned at the new learning hub at Marysville. The neighbours’ faces do help. Their decision, his and hers, to rebuild, to stay, to confer and to share the memories has been important. Fundamentally, communities help here. The idea of community helps—the idea that no one of us is an island and the place we stand on is common ground.

As we approach this Sunday, we cannot replace the people who are not here or take back the memories of 7 February last year, but we can support the people who are there and their efforts to rebuild. We cannot bring back a lot of things and we cannot expunge regret, but we can embrace with feeling what remains and we can build with hope on those burnt foundations at the first anniversary. A way of life is being rebuilt which still has joy in it, with neighbourhood and comradeship, with a shared kindness which we all appreciate in all our homes and communities. That process, that rescue, that restoration, is well begun and it will continue past the anniversary.

2:22 pm

Photo of Sophie MirabellaSophie Mirabella (Indi, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to associate myself with the comments made already and to remind the House that, although there were many Australians who suffered in rural and regional Victoria, there were so many generous Australians from right around the country. They were generous not just in donating money but in donating their time and their services—firefighters, emergency workers and the like—and I would like to thank them as well.

What we saw was something that we often see in Australia in a time of need and that is that those Australians with the least to give give the most. All you had to do was look at the cars parked outside the CFA sheds to see that people gave of their time. They dropped their jobs and left their families to assist.

My only plea on behalf of people in my part of Victoria, north-east Victoria, is that governments at all levels, when they are looking at fire mitigation and the management of crown land—not only in the reconstruction stages—actually listen to the people who live in those areas, who live amongst those national parks, who know how to manage those areas and who know how to fight fires. Do not ignore local country people. They know what they are doing and, in future bushfire disasters and the like, we need to take that local knowledge into account.

2:24 pm

Photo of John ForrestJohn Forrest (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, want to associate myself with the remarks being made by members. The Horsham Remlaw Road fire was by no means anywhere near as extensive as the fires that have been described by other members, but the impact was much the same. Nine dwellings—nine homes with all their memorabilia and museums of fond memories—were destroyed, and the identification with other parts of rural Victoria, with such massive losses of life, has made it very real. There will be commemorative functions at Haven this weekend. Haven was the suburb of the city of Horsham which took the brunt of the Remlaw Road fire.

There are a lot of people that I would like to thank, including the Prime Minister, who showed an interest in that fire and made sure that the people of Wimmera were not left out of the considerations and expressions of empathy and support. I, too, would like to thank the member for Maribyrnong for his visits and the assistance he provided. There is an organisation that needs to be thanked, too, that has not been mentioned yet, which is the Insurance Council of Australia. There were immense problems associated with insurance, but they formed a task force and all of those problems have been resolved.

The only remaining dilemma for the people of the city of Horsham is the replacement of their famous golf club. It was, sadly, underinsured and completely destroyed. It was as if a bombshell had hit it. I am hopeful that, between the state and federal governments, we might still find a way to assist that community and restore that magnificent facility. It has an enormous international reputation and the community itself has got right behind that golf club, recognising its community significance, as has the international golfing community. Even the University of Ballarat has provided a building to be utilised as a club room, but it is by no means adequate. That remains about the only undone business from the Remlaw Road fire.

I will be looking forward to the opportunity of sharing in the commemorative functions in Haven. To all of those people involved, I express my special appreciation.

2:26 pm

Photo of Judi MoylanJudi Moylan (Pearce, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to endorse the sentiments of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and my colleagues in this place and to say that, in the lead-up to New Year, the town of Toodyay was also threatened with a fire. It destroyed 38 homes and one person was burned. Fortunately, no-one lost their lives, but I know that the people of Toodyay would like me to express their thanks today to the people of Victoria, because there was an instant response of offers of help, donations, goods and people who flew from Victoria to Toodyay to practically assist the people of Toodyay. So, I know the people of Toodyay would want me to pass on their thanks and to let the people of Victoria know that they will be thinking about them this weekend on the anniversary of the events of last year.

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The House, through its quiet attention to the remarks of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the member for McEwen, the member for Bendigo, the member for McMillan, the member for Gippsland, the Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and the members for Indi, Mallee and Pearce, has shown its support for the sentiments expressed. The solemn reflection is also indicative that the remarks that were made 12 months ago in this House have been reconfirmed and that our thoughts for those that suffered in the bushfires and suffer in further natural events are still here and that they will continue into the full rehabilitation and reconstruction. I thank the House.