Thursday, 14 February 2013
Statements on Indulgence
I thank the House for the opportunity to make a few short remarks about the natural disasters not just in my home state of Queensland but right across the country. Once again over the recent summer months, Australia has felt the full impact of natural disasters, from flooding rains to storms and cyclones, fires and—believe it or not—droughts in some parts of the country. We have seen those bushfires in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, and we have also seen flooding up and down the coast of Queensland and New South Wales, particularly around Bundaberg. We should all spare a thought for the people of Bundaberg, who have been very hard hit by the devastation and flooding associated with ex-tropical cyclone Oswald. Tragically, along with the loss of property and possessions, people lost their lives, and this is something that we can never forget. We ought to work as hard as possible to try to mitigate these natural disasters as best as we can.
My electorate of Oxley was very badly effected in 2011, and I spoke in this House about the extent of that devastation, as did other people. Homes and businesses from Goodna and Gailes to River Hills, Westlake and Jindalee in the west of Brisbane were also heavily affected. No-one in the western corridor went without being touched in some particular way by what took place in 2011.
But what we saw come out of that was this fantastic and unique thing we call the Aussie spirit. It shone through with the immediate clean-up in the aftermath and the much talked about mud army that we now so lovingly know. Something that I also think is uniquely Australian is the way that, without needing to be corralled, Australians just seem to gravitate together to help their neighbour and to help their friends. It is curious that in my electorate, where there are a lot of migrants and people from overseas, they were just so motivated to help others, but they said that in their own country no-one would come out and help. So it is this unique Australian thing, and all of these people from overseas were saying that here in Australia they too felt like they were part of this and part of this Aussie spirit. It was a wonderful thing to see.
Even so, rebuilding was slow. It sometimes is a very slow process, but we are all in there—the federal government, the state governments and local councils of every colour and creed—rebuilding people's lives, their businesses and their homes. So it was with a lot of anxiousness that over this summer in 2013 we again watched natural disasters, flooding rains, extreme winds and mini tornados come to our state and to our country. Of course, every flood is different, and this one in 2013 was different from the one in 2011. We were better prepared this time, and I want to pay tribute to and record my gratitude for all of those volunteers: the SES, the firemen, the emergency services personnel, the police, the council officers and workers, state government bureaucrats and Commonwealth government officers who all pitched in being much more prepared and much more ready to make a contribution because we did learn the lessons from not so long ago. It was fantastic to see that happen. We were very fortunate in the western corridor in and around Ipswich. The river came up a long way, but very fortunately, due to a whole range of reasons—as I said, every flood is different—we managed to escape the worst and almost no homes were touched in Ipswich. A few businesses did suffer some minor damage but were well prepared for it. That is fantastic news, and again, that amazing Aussie spirit shone through.
I want to congratulate all of the volunteers in my electorate who, through just a simple tweet or Facebook message, were out in droves turning up with trailers, trucks and utes saying: 'Where do you need us? Where can we go and help?' It was really fantastic for that to happen. We also saw, at places like the Centenary Rowing Club, Centenary Meals on Wheels and Jindalee Bowls Club, that they were very scared and very shaken by what was happening, but very lucky this time around. I also want to highlight the mental anguish and some of the difficulties people have had rebuilding their own state of mind and capacity to absorb these sorts of disasters from the last flood. We do thank God that it did not happen to them a second time—I am just not sure how they would have coped.
We also saw this time around people losing power for extended periods not because of the floods directly but because they became isolated and winds tore down power poles, cutting them off from the rest of society either through losing their home phone—lucky we all have mobiles—or losing power to the house as well. I just want to thank all the people who helped, all of those emergency service workers. Hopefully we do not need that Aussie spirit again too soon, but it is comforting to know that it is there and that we will always all pitch in together. Thank you.
The Riverina, as with so many regions, during a particularly testing summer, found itself at the mercy of natural disasters. Bushfires in early January brought national attention to the plight of affected Riverina people as they fought valiantly to protect themselves, livestock, homes and farms. But for the exceptional efforts of professional fire-fighters, ably assisted by hundreds of enthusiastic and efficient volunteers as well as those who pitched in to save their own properties, the damage could have been far more extensive. As it was, more than 3,305 hectares of prime agricultural land was razed, including about 38 kilometres of fencing, 924 head of sheep, hundreds of bales of hay, some sheds and machinery. Mercifully, there was only one reported injury, with a volunteer hospitalised with serious but not life-threatening injuries after an excavator overturned while building a firebreak.
These Riverina fires could well have been deadly. Weather conditions, described officially as catastrophic, had the potential to exact a dreadful toll on lives and livelihoods. In such situations, things are never helped by senseless idiots who deliberately light fires. On 19 January it was reported in Wagga Wagga that there had been 18 suspicious scrub fires lit and seven trees set alight locally in the previous 18 days. No punishment presently legislated by states is ever severe enough for arsonists. This is not a debate for this place, but I am in favour of firebugs being made to assist clean-up operation. Further, the view that arsonists should be forced to watch as burnt but alive animals are euthanised has merit. It sounds harsh, perhaps a little old-school, but let us not mess around with people who show such flagrant disregard for others in their communities and an inhumane indifference to animals which suffer from their actions. In truth, they ought to have their noses rubbed in the ashes. The time for namby-pamby, kid-gloves treatment of arsonists—no matter what age—is over, and state parliaments must ensure penalties fit the crimes. The community expects and demands nothing less.
A coalition government from 14 September would end the nanny state mentality federally. State governments need to do the same, and soon. There were many hotspots across the Riverina, including, but not limited to, Alfredtown, Big Springs, Corby Hill Road north of Narrandera, Mates Gully Road, Oura, Tarcutta, Tumbarumba and Yenda. The importance of regular, controlled burn-offs in national parks and the like must be re-examined. We must reduce the fuel load to avoid the sorts of tragedies in regions most at risk. We cannot simply shut the gate on protected forest and leave them to become a tinderbox overrun by pests and weeds, as some conservationists would want.
Further, with widespread flooding again devastating parts of Australia, particularly south-east Queensland during January—and certainly in your area of the electorate of Maranoa, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott—I again raise my concerns about the lack of commitment to the construction of more dams. More and better embankments and levees to protect urban areas are also a must. I know the frustration, inconvenience and panic caused when Wagga Wagga's entire central business district was evacuated on the night of 5 March last year. Even though the city did not go under, it was a sensible move by Murrumbidgee State Emergency Service controller, James McTavish, for, as it turned out, a few more centimetres of river level and much of Wagga Wagga would have been washed away. Despite criticism from some who should have been wiser and more cautious with their words, it was far better to be safe than sorry. I was pleased to see Mr McTavish deservedly acknowledged with an Emergency Services Medal in this year's Australia Day honours. Wagga Wagga City Council and the state government are presently grappling with the financial burden of flood-proofing by way of strengthening, lengthening and heightening the levee bank.
Work on the main levee safeguarding Wagga Wagga began in 1960 and was completed in 1962, giving protection for a one-in-one-hundred-year event.
Australia is a country of droughts, fires and flooding rains but we are smart people and we should be doing more to help ourselves from natural disasters which have occurred since ancient times, not as a result of impending climate doom as some would have people believe.
Ungarie was also hard hit, again, unfortunately by the devastating forces of during January. This poor village cannot take a trick. On the afternoon of the 21st, a wild storm ripped through the town, unroofing buildings and causing millions of dollars of damage. I immediately wrote to the then federal Minister for Emergency Management, Nicola Roxon, and have since resent the letter to her successor, Mark Dreyfus, to bring Ungarie's plight to the federal government's attention should a request for help come from the New South Wales government.
As many members in this House would be aware, Ungarie was devastated by the awful widespread flooding which occurred in south-west New South Wales in March 2012. Ms Roxon was very supportive of the people in that community last year by providing special financial assistance for which Ungarie residents and I were most appreciative.
Rural Fire Service Bland-Temora's Superintendent Steve Holden said the lightning strikes from the recent storm front started five fires in the Bland-Temora area but firefighters were quick to respond. Again, I praise the quick response of our emergency service personnel.
As opposition leader Tony Abbott himself, a volunteer firefighter, said just last Tuesday—a week ago:
… the worst of Mother Nature tends to bring out the best of human nature right around our country, as tens of thousands of Australians rise to the challenges of the natural environment they face.
One such local champion sacrificed his own property to save that of his neighbour. Adjungbilly farmer Tony Engel did not even know the name of neighbour who allowed the Rural Fire Service to burn 180 hectares to contain the Cobbler Road fire burning west of Yass. This particular blaze, which began on 8 January, burnt almost 14,000 hectares with thousands of stock perishing in the flames and the smoke, leaving little behind.
With any natural disaster, lessons must be learnt to protect lives and properties for the future, but Mr Engel was just so thankful that his unknown neighbour came to his help. Mr Engel is a retired Commonwealth Bank executive and he has owned his property, Cascade, for eight years but moved there permanently only last year. He joined the Adjungbilly Rural Fire Service brigade and was greatly impressed by the work of firefighters. He said:
I am absolutely stunned by the co-operation and generous spirit of country folk and the RFS in actively working together against bushfires.
This community, as all rural communities have, have fought fires for many years and have a wealth of on-the-ground experience—especially the fire captain of the Adjungbilly brigade, Bill Kingwell, whose quiet resolve during this fire was very reassuring to my wife and I.
That sort of comment resonated throughout Australia, whether it was the fires in Tasmania, Victoria or New South Wales; or the floods in my friend the member for Parkes's electorate, or indeed south-east Queensland.
As I said, we need to learn the lessons of these absolute disasters. When these disasters occur, we need to be ready and prepared much better the next time. Insurance companies have an important role to play. Rural, regional and remote communities benefited from the former coalition government's commitment to ensure access to modern telecommunications services with targeted and strategic assistance as part of its communications fund.
A total of $2 billion was invested in this fund and this generated $300 million over three years interest—money which was of enormous assistance to those in the bush. Sadly, under Labor, this fund and this money is all gone—wasted, along with all the other millions upon millions of dollars poured down the drain by the Rudd-Gillard governments since 2007.
The trouble is now there is no connectivity when the system goes down. Poor mobile telephone reception in many country areas means people in zones of risk do not receive important emergency text messages in times of disaster, in times of crisis. Landlines go down. Homes and businesses lose power and, in many cases, television, radio coverage and mobile service is simply inadequate, leaving affected regional residents exposed to the fury of nature and the madness of arsonists. This is a problem and it must be fixed. If Labor can roll out a national broadband network costing somewhere in the order of $50 billion, surely it can help mobile black spots to ensure people's safety and wellbeing in times of crisis.
The need for better mobile coverage was no better highlighted that in my local newspaper, the Daily Advertiser, in its edition on Wednesday, 16 January, this year. We see there a photograph of Ralph Billing standing on his International tractor hoping, in vain, to get mobile telephone coverage. The newspaper report says:
The need for strong mobile phone reception in rural communities was driven home after bushfires tore through the region last week.
While the need for towers has been discussed in recent months, some farmers yesterday said the lack of communication could become life threatening.
They are not exaggerating—this is very real. The member for Parkes would acknowledge that and I am sure you would acknowledge that, Deputy Speaker Scott. This is a huge problem.
The newspaper reported that Mr Billing, who lives north of Marrar, said:
"We had no mobile phone coverage and no landline, which caused a lot of stress."
Mr Billing said landholders kept watch for fires while remaining out of phone contact with the rest of the world.
It is simply not good enough in this day and age. The report said:
Winchendon Vale farmer Bob McCormack—
yes, he is a relative—
resorted to climbing on a cattle ramp on his property in a vain attempt to get just one bar of reception.
And we all know that one bar is not going to get you much coverage at all. The report went on:
NSW emergency services can send voice messages to landlines based on location, and mobiles based on billing address, to warn of impending disasters.
But it is no good if you do not have a landline; it is hopeless if you do not have any mobile reception. The report also said:
At this stage only Telstra provides location-based services and even its coverage in Mr Billing and Mr McCormack's areas is limited or non-existent.
"The issues are that Telstra has to put a business plan together and when they do that … then we'll work from there," Mr McCormack said.
It is a hopeless situation. As I said, we are a very smart technological country and we must get our budget in order so we can put these sorts of programs in place to help these people most in need, so that when future disasters strike—whether they be bushfires or floods or whatever—they have proper mobile coverage, they can get the alerts in time and they can take the necessary precautions to save their lives and their properties.
I too rise here this afternoon to speak about the natural disasters that happen around Australia, particularly the ones in my electorate of Parkes. To show the diversity of Australia but particularly of my electorate, I was dealing with floods and bushfires at the same time. Indeed, as I speak, areas around Mungindi are still dealing with floodwater that has come down the Weir River from Central Queensland as result of the tropical cyclone that did such a lot of damage a couple of weeks ago. It caught the residents of the Boomi-Mungindi area somewhat unawares and there have been stock losses through that area.
I would like to focus my comments today on Coonabarabran. The town of Coonabarabran had a couple of fires, but the major one started in the Warrumbungle National Park. It took several days to contain it, but the majority of the damage was done in the first six or seven hours from the time it got going in the park. That was part of a couple of days of intense weather, with electrical and wind storms that did a lot of damage right through the area. There were fires in the Warialda area and at Collarenebri and they were contained, but the one at Coonabarabran was a problem. The final count was 53 homes lost at Coonabarabran, hundreds of kilometres of fencing and large amounts of livestock, as well as quite a lot of our native flora and fauna from the Warrumbungle National Park.
To highlight the ongoing effects of this fire, the Lill family at Coonabarabran lost several thousand acres of grass and one of their homesteads, and the wind generated by the fire did not actually burn the woolshed but blew it apart.
They have lost—I think this was the final count—something like a couple of hundred stud cows. At the moment the Lills are hand-feeding 30 or 40 poddy calves because the mothers have perished in the fire or are so badly burnt that they cannot nurture their calves.
They have an artificial breeding centre on this farm and they own a stud bull that has semen straws and offspring right through South America and around the world. It is one of the leading red Brangus sires in Australia. They found him sheltering the next day in the dry river bed of the Castlereagh River with burns to 40 per cent of his body. I have seen the photos that Stephen Lill has sent of this great bull. Stephen tells me that the bull has a will to live and is eating but whether he will have any future as a stud sire is yet to be seen.
So the immediate loss, above insurance, for the Lill family is in excess of half a million dollars but the ongoing costs would be in excess of a couple of million dollars because in 2015 they will not have any bulls to sell because their mothers and those calves perished. The photographs of these stud cows and calves, burnt and dead, indicated the ferocity of the fire, because they were not crowded into a corner or panicked. They died as they stood where they were grazing. Cows and calves, side by side, were spread around. That is a sight I have never seen before.
I would like to thank the Prime Minister for her visit; the people of Coonabarabran appreciated very much the fact that the Prime Minister of our land spent some time with them. The irony of that was that nearly exactly 12 months before, the Prime Minister was in my electorate looking at flood damage at Moree. When we inspected the area around Coonabarabran with the Prime Minister you could see trees that had been vaporised. At Bob Fenwick's house, which many people saw on TV—Bob was the volunteer fire-fighter who was away protecting other property while his own place burnt down—there was a green mown lawn which had had water under it because the water tanks melted in the fire. The fire burnt across the lawn.
My comments on that day were that the losses were tragic but that what was saved was incredible. Because of the ferocity of the fire the helicopters and the planes were unable to do anything about it. I think in four hours it travelled 40 kilometres in an easterly direction until a wind change headed it north. Then there were real problems because the front was 40 kilometres wide and heading north. What saved many of the houses was that as the fire front blew over, the helicopters and the planes dumped retardant on top of these houses that were smouldering. We saw that everything else was gone—the car shed, the cars, the machinery, livestock and fences. Just the houses were sitting there because of the work of the fire-fighters.
Indeed, the crew that were up at Siding Springs Observatory, which is Australia's iconic sight for space studies, managed to save the observatory and some of the buildings, although they lost some of the buildings. As the crew followed the fire back into town they put out quite a few of the houses. If the crew had not been there those houses would have burnt because there was no-one there to tend them.
The fire has had a devastating effect. I have spoken of the Lill family, but they are just one of many who have had incredible losses. I was speaking to Steve Bradshaw, the ex-assistant commissioner of police who has been sent to Coonabarabran to coordinate the recovery effort. He thinks there are a few people who will move on; it is just all too hard for them and they will not rebuild.
I will continue a little longer on the fire. The amount of effort and the change in the way fires are fought in the last few years was very evident.
There were hundreds of firefighters there. There were mobile command centres. The airport up there had helicopters and fixed wing planes. They had semitrailers that were there to mix fire retardant. This method of firefighting is quite effective but it is not without some conflicts. I hope there is a debriefing because a lot of the work that saved homesteads and pasture was actually done by landholders. Take a landholder like my good friend Warwick Knight. The fire got within 100 metres of his boundary. He and his neighbours, who did suffer loss, back on to some quite rough country and they spent days up there with knapsacks and McLeod tools putting in breaks up over cliff faces and all sorts of things to save it all. So I hope there is a debriefing because, as is always the case when outside forces come into a local area, there is a lack of communication, a little bit of rivalry. It has always got to be remembered that with all the technology in the world local knowledge is still a wonderful tool in fighting a fire. I hope that in the wash-up of this there is some consideration of that.
There has also been a mix of criticism and praise for the national parks people, praise for the effort that they put in in fighting the fire but criticism not individually of those people but of Parks as they have been somewhat reluctant to back-burn in cool times and the fuel load in that park was incredible, as was the fuel load on private land. After 12 months of an exceptionally wet season, with huge bodies of feed, and then a very, very dry spring and early summer, this was always going to be a possibility. That is another thing that needs to be followed up from the wash-up of this fire, how public land is managed and also how private land is managed and some of the restrictions on land clearing and tree clearing when people are wanting to put in adequate breaks, so that also needs to be looked at.
As with all disasters, there are great stories of mateship and of people coming to help. With the mayor's appeal I was at Coonabarabran on Saturday at a fundraiser as the local jockey club had a race day to raise funds for the people that were affected by the fire. Before that race day the mayor's fund was up over $430,000 thanks to the people that had donated to it and I am sure they had a successful day with, I am guessing, about 3,000 people at Coonabarabran on Saturday to show support. So people have come in and BlazeAid have been remarkable and now the Coonabarabran showground is a little camping ground to which people have come from all over Australia, volunteering their time to help reconstruct fences. Take the Men's Shed groups. I know that in a couple of weeks the Wellington Men's Shed are sending 28 or 30 of their members up for a week to help reconstruct fences. It takes a while because these people that have lost so much have got to gather their thoughts, they have got to have access to some funds to purchase materials, they have got to know what has to be done and put everything in place. You cannot just have a working bee turn up without the planning that goes into it. So that is happening at the moment.
I am a little disappointed, unless something has happened in the last day that I have not been aware of, that the category C announcement is still being worked out between the state and federal governments. I certainly hope that announcement is made because that would enable the $15,000 grants to come though—and they would not cover it but they would go some of the way towards the purchase of fencing material for those people that need to do it.
I would like to congratulate the community. When she was there the Prime Minister saw for herself the scene. Children as young as five and six up to teenagers and our more senior residents were there for days, making sandwiches, putting lunch packs together along with the local volunteer firefighters as well and everyone that came together. I would like to make a special mention of the mayor, Peter Shinton. Peter did a wonderful job. He understood his role completely and he was the conduit between Coonabarabran and the outside world. He informed the outside world of what was happening, he motivated the local people and, indeed, I was in regular contact with him. I think that at times of disaster quite often those of us that are local members are better off to stay at a distance and let the experts get on with the job, and certainly Peter was very good with that.
The member for Riverina spoke about telephone services, and there is an issue. Part of the area was covered by an Optus tower. It seems that the arrangement for the emergency call-out is a Telstra arrangement. I will certainly be following through on that to make sure that Optus is included in that, because the people who were at the northern end of the fire—up around Baradine way and Bugaldie—had no phone coverage. As the member for Riverina said, communications is a big issue. In the initial stages when that call went out I spoke to a firefighter from another fire down near Wellington. Because he had no phone service he missed the call-out to the fire. We do need to fix telecommunications in the bush—and, in times of disaster, there is even more of a need to do so.
I will mention just one of the tragedies that occurred. Rob McNaught is a scientist. He has a comet named after him—the McNaught Comet. He works up at Siding Spring. For the last 10 years Rob has been working—partly funded, I might say, by NASA—searching the night skies for asteroids that are coming towards Earth that might eventually pose a problem by colliding with Earth. Being able to identify asteroids 50 or so years out would provide invaluable information. Rob had a lovely mud brick home and, unfortunately, it was destroyed in the fire. A little bit of irony: over the last five years as I have been knocking on doors in this place trying to seek funding for the Siding Spring Observatory, it was not high on everyone's radar but, as it was nearly lost in this fire, I think there is an awareness now that it is an iconic institution. It is Australia's premier observatory. We are very grateful that it has been saved but we should also ensure that it is adequately funded into the future.
In closing, I acknowledge that Coonabarabran has had a big blow. It is going to take many, many years for the people of Coonabarabran and the economy of that town to recover. The upside is that it has brought that community closer together—to realise that they are stronger than they thought they were and to realise that they have more friends than they thought they had. As a community they are in great heart to take on what next comes their way.
In recent weeks we have seen a series of disasters around the country. There have been bushfires, floods, cyclonic conditions and tornadoes. When you see such extreme weather it illustrates all too clearly the frailty of man-made structures compared to the power of nature. Massive fires, record rainfall events and record flood events have been occurring across the continent. The hearts of the nation go out to those who have lost everything in these events, and the gratitude of the nation goes out to the emergency services personnel who put themselves in harm's way to protect and rescue others. Our gratitude goes to those many Australians who pitched in to lend a hand and help with the clean-up.
In my contribution today I would like to bring the attention of the House to the impact of the recent flood events on the people of the North Coast of New South Wales. On the North Coast we have been fortunate that the major population centres were largely spared. In Coffs Harbour the intensity of the rain was such that the inundation of low-lying areas by Coffs Creek was narrowly avoided. In the Clarence Valley we saw record flood levels, with the river rising rapidly. With the flood height reaching within two centimetres from the top of the levy in Grafton, disaster was very narrowly avoided. Downstream at Ulmarra, whilst the levy was breached and water flowed into the village, most houses and shops were spared from serious damage. At Maclean the levy banks managed to protect the town.
Most of the damage in the Lower Clarence occurred in rural areas and smaller villages not protected by a levy system. Canegrowers have been particularly hard hit. The sugar industry has seen the loss of three crops in recent years as a result of summer floods. Floods at this time are particularly devastating as they destroy young crops. Many cane farmers borrowed to plant and to now lose the third crop will be a devastating blow. Many have also lost soybean crops which are being grown in rotation with cane. It is not just the canegrowers; dairy farmers and graziers have also been adversely affected, as well as banana growers, who, whilst out of flood reach, have been impacted by the strong winds that accompanied the rain.
I wrote to the Prime Minister advising her of the situation in my electorate and requesting assistance. Primary producers are keen to see the provision of re-establishment grants to assist with the cost of replanting and to assist with the cost of flood damage.
A category C assessment is underway and I am hopeful that we will get a satisfactory conclusion in this matter. It is important that those small businesses and farms that have lost so much in these floods are given some assistance to re-establish.
In conclusion, I would like to commend the work of our emergency services: the SES, the Rural Fire Service, police, fire and ambulance did an outstanding job, as well as the staff at the disaster recovery centre. I would particularly like to commend the work of volunteers who selflessly gave up their time to serve their communities. We as a community can take comfort in the knowledge that we have highly trained emergency service organisations who are able to respond to disasters when and where they may occur.
It is with a great deal of pride in my home state of Queensland that I rise to speak on the Prime Minister's statement on the recent natural disasters which have plagued our country once again. We have seen the people of Queensland come together once again in the worst of circumstances to lend a hand and to lift each other up from the wreckage brought upon our great state. As Leader of the Opposition said a little earlier, 'the worst of mother nature brings out the best in human nature'. I can say from my experience in the 2011 floods in my own community that is exactly what we saw across our country and across Queensland.
I particularly want to acknowledge that the member for Hinkler, Mr Paul Neville, lives in an electorate around Bundaberg that was particularly hit by the recent floods, the worst floods on record. The stories that he shared with his colleagues in parliament are ones that will not easily be forgotten. He told a story in the coalition party room of when he visited the house of a lady in her nineties who had no family to speak of to assist her. She had lost absolutely everything. He said she had about 10 per cent of her possessions left. Mr Neville, the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, Barnaby Joyce, pitched in for a day to help this lady clean out her house and organise her belongings. It did not fix any of her problems, but it was a step in the right direction. They were there to give her some support in an incredibly difficult time.
As someone who lost a family home to fire when I was growing up, I know how devastating that experience can be, both psychologically and mentally. With floods you do not know how much you have lost or your path to recovery, because when a house burns down you lose all your possessions and you grow to accept that. You realise you have to rebuild and move on, but with floods you do not know whether the house can be rebuilt or you can live in the same house when it has been cleaned up. The psychological trauma extends for a very long time, and to see that across our communities is devastating. But to see the human spirit come through and individuals come together is something we should be proud of. I am proud to call myself a Queenslander and an Australian.
I turn to my own community. We were not as badly affected as we were in the 2011 floods, but there was a great deal of uncertainty and some minor damage across my electorate. I want to pay particular tribute to the state member for Pumicestone, Lisa France, the member for Morayfield, Darren Grimwade and the councillor for Division 1 in the Moreton Bay Regional Council, Gary Parsons. We were helping people when the floods and particularly the storms in my electorate were occurring with devastating winds. We were talking to locals and helping where we could. We went to the SES depot on Bribie Island where there was pouring rain and winds were gusting at 140 kilometres an hour. We asked the SES volunteers where they needed help and resources. They said they simply needed people to fill sandbags. We said we could do that, and they said they needed more people than the three of us. I said I could help out with the and I really want to thank my community because I put out some messages on Facebook and on Twitter through my office and very quickly we had a very large number of volunteers, more volunteers than could feed the sand-bagging machine out there to help in our communities.
So the three of us and a great deal of very compassionate locals filled hundreds of sandbags in very difficult conditions that afternoon. When I got home late that night, after having been out everywhere and with the wind still blowing, there was an SES volunteer across the road from me on the roof of the local pub in incredibly dangerous circumstances putting a tarp on the roof. I thought: to be doing that after the day that we have just had really shows their commitment and their service to our community. I am incredibly proud to say that I have people like that in my local community.
I will quickly touch on the residents of Dale Street in Burpengary. In 2011 Dale Street was very badly damaged by flooding. It is an area very close to a river bank that consistently floods. After the 2011 floods I spoke to the mayor, made a submission with a range of recommendations to the commission of inquiry that was established in Queensland, one of the most important recommendations being a flood buy-back scheme similar to that of the Brisbane City Council. If properties are consistently flooded the residents of that area obviously struggle to obtain insurance or else pay incredibly high premiums. They cannot sell their property and they are trapped in a cycle of misfortune.
Unfortunately, the progression to develop a flood buy-back scheme for the Moreton Bay Regional Council has not got to the point I would like it to. While I acknowledge that the council, the mayor and the councillors have made some progress in developing this scheme, I call on them to progress it as far as they can, to use this as an opportunity to put a new emphasis on developing a flood buy-back scheme for the Moreton Bay Regional Council. It is something that will fundamentally change the lives of people who are in a very difficult, effectively inescapable, circumstance. I would say to them, 'We are here to support. I know my state colleagues are here to support. We really do need to see this program developed in the Moreton Bay Regional Council, and there is already a scheme well and truly established in the Brisbane City Council.'
I spoke to the member for Ryan, Jane Prentice, during the floods that we have just had and she said her frustration was that locals did not want to sell their properties to the council. I said that my frustration was that the council did not want to buy those properties. There is a version that already exists and is something that we can easily adopt. We need to ensure that people can have a safe and happy existence in our local community.
I will conclude by saying that even though we were not as badly affected as we were previously, in my community I saw once again incredible generosity from locals who supported not only local relief efforts but especially those in Bundaberg. I saw friends helping complete strangers, neighbours helping neighbours and I am incredibly proud to represent such a generous community. As Tony Abbott said, the worst of Mother Nature really does bring out the best in human nature. I am very proud to call myself a Queenslander today.
I thank my colleagues on both sides of the chamber for their valuable contributions on this matter of natural disasters. Firstly, I wish to comment on the natural disaster that we witnessed over the last month, then, to address two important issues that arise from that disaster and which require urgent attention from all levels of government. These are important issues to raise now while the images and impacts of this natural disaster, particularly in Queensland, are fresh in our mind so that issues arising from future disasters might be avoided or, at least, their impact is minimised. I will provide a more Queensland perspective on the disaster as it affected my electorate of Dawson.
Our nation's history and our culture is embroidered with heroic battles against Mother Nature. We have always been a sunburnt country, both relieved and challenged by flooding rains, and in the months just gone obviously Mother Nature has challenged our continent with fires throughout the south and flooding rains in the north.
Our hearts go out to the residents who are faced with the task of rebuilding their lives in the embers and ashes of Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and, more recently, Western Australia. Our thoughts and prayers also go out from my electorate in north Queensland to the people and their neighbours—in central, southern and western Queensland—who could not hold back the tide that was sadly delivered by ex-tropical Cyclone Oswald. We have the strength of our nation and culture, the determination and resolve forged through centuries of heroic battles by Australians with mother nature, and the bonds of mateship and of lending a hand in the time of need.
Thankfully, north Queensland was spared from the worst of ex-tropical Cyclone Oswald. Having lived through Cyclone Yasi and Cyclone Ului, and the devastating 2008 flood in Mackay, we offer understanding to those in need today and we are also there to lend a helping hand. Just as the helping hands arrived in north Queensland during our time of need, I note that the favour was returned. Certainly, SES crews and volunteers from right around north Queensland were on the ground in some of the worst-hit areas of our state. I note that Mackay Regional Council staff members were working in flood-prone areas—particularly around the Bundaberg region and the Burnett region—along with a team of SES volunteers from local SES units in Mackay, Calen, Midge Point and Sarina.
I would also note that groups like the Mackay Church Of the Nazarene, led by Pastor Robyn Geiger, made up and donated community care packages, which are very good for people who go through these disasters. When something horrendous like this happens in your life, you forget the small things. The packets were made up of toothbrushes, soap, shampoo—just small things like that to help people out. That was done by that church and sent on down to north Bundaberg.
My electorate did not escape entirely unscathed, as was evidenced by the boats—there was no damage to human life or serious damage to homes—which were smashed against the rocks and destroyed in the Whitsundays. I happened to be down there giving a certificate to a volunteer at the VMR at Airlie Beach when the storm system was passing overhead. It was a frightening thing to see the size of the waves that were pounding those boats. We actually watched and could do nothing as one of them was smashed right up against the rocks; it was basically split in two in front of our eyes.
Turning from that to the issues of what we can do in the future, there are two significant concerns that I have in the aftermath of these disasters. One is the breakdown of the telecommunications network that basically happened everywhere above Bundaberg, although it was a natural disaster and these things do happen. Somewhere above north Bundaberg there was a bridge that came down and took out the fibre-optic cable there, which was the main service line for all telecommunications in central and north Queensland. Then, unfortunately, the backup system to that was taken out by a landslide in Kingaroy. We had the main line and the backup line destroyed, and there were no Telstra telecommunications services.
But the serious issue arising from that was the breakdown of the 000 emergency service from all Telstra phone lines, including mobiles. That was out for about 20 hours, which was extremely, extremely concerning. I was very distressed not only by that event but to read a few days later in my local newspaper—the Daily Mercurythat there was actually an emergency that occurred in Proserpine during the time that those emergency numbers were offline. Fay Craigie—a 75-year-old woman with a serious lung condition—collapsed in her home and she was there for probably more than 12 hours on the floor, trying to get help by hitting her personal emergency alarm button. These things route through to a nominated person and then another nominated person, but when they do not get to those people they go through to 000—and 000 was down.
So this poor woman lay on the floor for 12 hours. When help arrived it was in the form of her daughter, Anne-Marie Rankmore, who found her and took her to the hospital but, three days later, Fay Craigie passed away from that ordeal and the complications that she already had.
Another situation happened in Mackay around the same time. An 81-year-old gentleman by the name of Colin Gray had a heart attack, he hit his personal alarm button and he was eventually found by, I understand, his daughter. Unfortunately, he passed away as a result of the heart attack but also because of the lengthy delay in getting medical treatment that should have happened. So I am quite alarmed that the triple-0 actually went out. I understand that there are measures, when the phone system went down, for the triple-0 services to remain active. While I am told that there was another emergency number that people could contact, the fact is that not even I know what it is. When people who probably have more information than most in the community do not know this phone number, how are people in the general community to know it? They said it was being sent out via mobile phone text, but the mobile phone system was not working. How on earth are people to get this number? It is quite serious.
I am having a meeting tomorrow afternoon with the daughters of both of the people who sadly passed away. We are going to get a petition together that will come to this place and hopefully put some pressure on the government and the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and the Minister for Emergency Management to liaise with Telstra and the other telcos about ensuring that this does not happen again. There has to be a way that we can have surety of service with that triple-0 number. I have already written to both of those ministers about that. No-one is blaming Telstra for that incident, but the fact that these people could not get through to triple 0 at that time of need, and the fact that the personal alarm system went down as a result of that, is quite distressing.
The second issue is the Don River, which is a river that flows to the side of Bowen. Due to years of erosion from the hills upstream, there are large sand deposits in that riverbed. One deposit is right near the mouth of the river, and it is so big that locals actually call it 'the island' now. It effectively provides a blockage to water as it flows out the mouth and into the sea. A five-metre flood in that river used to cause some problems, but I have got to tell you that a 4.5-metre flood or less now causes flooding issues particularly in the rural part of that community. In the event of a five-metre, six-metre or higher flow coming through that river, I believe we would actually see homes wiped out in the Queens Beach area, which is a sizeable suburb. I note that the Whitsunday Regional Council has recently received $104,000 in a grant from the Queensland government through their floods response subsidy to develop a floodplain risk and management study for the Don River. That is good; that needs to happen before any work can take place to ensure that, if they are going to remove this bit of sand, it will not cause a problem in another part and cause more damage to homes. That study will supply options for flood mitigation works in the Don River, but I am concerned that the study probably will take some months. We need to get going straight after that. If we leave the works that are recommended by the study to languish, if we leave them beyond the next wet season, we could get a flood through that river which could change the hydrology and the sand movements, and then we would be back to square one and we would have to do a sub-study or something like that to find out what is going on.
The Queensland government provides funding through its Floodplain Security Scheme—part of its Royalties for the Regions program—for flood mitigation works like this. But there is actually no federal equivalent. I know they are liaising with the federal government at the moment to try to get some funding to help in these sorts of instances, but it is not there right now. The people of Bowen do expect that all levels of government—council, state and, indeed federal—where we do not have any bucket of money for this type of project, to assist. We want them to assist in preventing a natural disaster that could be caused by the Don River breaking out and flooding homes.
So, in the spirit of prevention being better than the cure, I say to the government: invest in the flood prevention works so we can fix the Don River before it is a problem.
It is fair to say that in Australia we live in a land of extremes where, on the one hand, our environment can be very kind and very giving but, on the other hand, it can be very harsh and very violent and cause massive destruction to property and to people's lives. Unfortunately, over the last couple of months, we have seen the harsher parts of our environment. We have witnessed the extremes of bushfires burning across our country whilst parts of Queensland and New South Wales were flooding.
My parliamentary colleague, the member for Hinkler, has already spoken about the devastation of Bundaberg and the destruction of property and loss of life in his electorate. My friend and colleague the member for Flynn has spoken about the ferocity of the floodwater as it tore through properties, tearing up fencing and pipes. Basically, it tore down many of the things that were in its path and caused extreme hardship for the people in his electorate. With regard to some of the areas we have visited, including Gayndah, his stories about the damage that has been caused in rural areas is really quite heartbreaking. My sympathy goes out to people and families in those areas who have been affected. For many people in Australia it is hard to imagine what went on in some of these areas. We get some glimpses through the media of the level of destruction, and our hearts go out to the people in these as they start the massive task of rebuilding.
Turning to the Gold Coast, the electorate of McPherson that I represent was also affected by Cyclone Oswald over the Australia Day long weekend. Whilst I am not suggesting for a minute that the impact on the Gold Coast of the floods and the extreme weather was on the same extreme scale as what was experienced in other parts of Queensland, we certainly were affected on the Gold Coast. One of the images that we saw regularly played on television was of the waves crashing through Meesh's Restaurant at Burleigh Heads, which is in my electorate, and the ferocity of the waves as they broke through the glass, going straight into the windows of the restaurant, basically wiping out that part of the restaurant. That is probably an image that will live with many Australians for quite some time. There were other businesses and homes within my electorate that were seriously affected. They had damage to their roofing structures and their building structures as well. Across the Gold Coast there were about 50,000 homes that lost power, in some cases for several days.
Whilst, clearly, there was a direct impact on many of our families, it was also our small businesses that were affected by this as well, because a lot of people have potentially lost their livelihood for a considerable period of time. I think we need to be mindful of what happens to small businesses when we do have these severe environmental circumstances, because for our small businesses that are already struggling this is yet another hit to them that makes it so much harder for them to get back onto their feet. We are doing whatever we can in my local community to make sure that we get those small businesses as well as our residents back on track. We had emergency services locally on the ground on the Gold Coast, as they have always been and I am sure will continue to be in the future. They provided enormous support to the community at the time.
In conclusion, I would like to thank all the emergency services workers, all the volunteers from around Australia who did what they do best, which was to lend a hand in a time of crisis. I thank them for all that they have done.
I thank Deputy Speaker Livermore, the member for Capricornia for assisting me in the chair today. First of all, Dorothea Mackellar that endures today reminds us of the summer of natural disasters that we just had.
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me!
We have seen it all this last summer, I have seen it for the last three summers, such has been the weather events that have occurred in my electorate, and of course in many parts of Australia. But we have to add to that the fires that have been so devastating in so many areas as well.
Whether fires and floods, those early alerts that go out are vitally important in saving lives. It also highlights that we have deficits in relation to the communication networks in Australia that we must address. I would hope that as a result of this summer of natural disasters we can look at this collectively across the political divide because we are talking saving lives and property. It was through those communication networks, particularly mobile communications, that people were alerted to get out of the way of a fire or to a flood that was coming their way in very short order. A photograph that ran in newspapers that will endure for me was one of that family in Tasmania who were hiding under a little jetty that was out over the water trying to get away from the fire. That photograph said a great deal to me and to all of us that having an alert and being able to get away at short notice has saved lives in many cases.
Fires in parts of the far west of my electorate have been burning for weeks and weeks, burning out pastoral land. It is probably a fact of nature that that happens every so often. The councils have been in touch with me very concerned about their council workers, who are mainly who we have out there as well as some SES workers. They are way out behind the fires with very limited communications. We have to look at how we can build better and more comprehensive networks, including back-haul. The town of Jundah south of Longreach had a tornado that pulled the town apart. All their communications networks went down and they were isolated completely, power went out. The single channel radio networks, microwave networks and battery backups that last eight or 10 hours went out. To me that says that we have to extend optic fibre cable in many of the areas to complete that back-haul, which is far more reliable in times of emergency and is not affected by structures that stand above the ground that can be destroyed by tornadoes and severe weather events.
I want to pay tribute to the councils as well: Wayne Kratzmann at South Burnett Regional Council, Peter Blundell at Southern Downs, Ray Brown at the Western Downs and others in my constituency in the west who have played an important role in bringing together the community and being a conduit to where emergency services might be working. Their council areas and their council workers, the SES workers, the Emergency Management Queensland and the volunteers who so often step forward are just remarkable. Some days I think that if we did not have volunteers this country would not run. I pay tribute to all those people. I know that the mayor in Goondiwindi, Graeme Scheu, has only in the last 10 to 12 days been able to get out and assess the damage. Some of the applications for category C and, in some cases, category D natural disaster relief and assistance have only just been assessed. I have some photographs here which I shown to some of my colleagues which show the sorts of things that underpin these applications. I was showing them to the Attorney-General. They include one with cattle stranded in a sea of water—there was no hope for those cattle—and ones showing railways and houses totally surrounded but also quite isolated, the other point I make. These councillors and mayors have been unable to get out there until only very recently.
I also thank the government in Queensland, the Premier's department and the Department of Primary Industries, local government and the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General in the Commonwealth. They acted as quickly as they could to assess these applications for whatever categories these communities fitted into.
Whether it is $1,000 per family plus $400 for each child or whatever, it is all important. We are a lucky country and we are a wealthy country—no matter what we think—in comparison to many others. And we have to make sure that in times of disasters—as we have seen in the last summer—we are out there to help and make sure that people are able to be given a hand up, because that is what so often keeps their morale up and helps them cope with the emergency, the devastation and the loss that surrounds them.
When you see photographs of what happened in North Bundaberg, you realise just how fierce Mother Nature can be. We know how kind she can be, but we also know how fierce Mother Nature can be. When you see the loss of property and the lives that could easily have been lost, it underpins what I said earlier about the need for communication, particularly an extension of mobile phones and backhaul communications networks. That is what saves lives. You cannot always save property but we must make sure that we save lives.
In conclusion can I just say that the councils and emergency services people, wherever they were, they were always there for their own communities and always there to help their fellow Australians. I thank them; I thank the departmental people who work silently and never seek recognition; I thank the department people down here; and I thank the Prime Minister's office and the Attorney-General's office too because they acted quickly when that information arrived. That has been very important. I also thank my colleagues for helping me to get some words on the record, recognising this summer of natural disasters, and putting on paper some of the things that I think we must look at urgently as a federal parliament to make sure that, in the future when these things happen—as they will inevitably happen—we are prepared as best we can be.
Firstly, I would like to reflect briefly on the member for Maranoa's comments. Having a seat that is semi-rural, with World Heritage bushland and a valley that is a floodplain all within my electorate, we are familiar with disasters and we have many SES, RFS and other emergency service community volunteers who do tremendous work. I particularly acknowledge the member for Maranoa's comments with regard to communications. I recently held a forum in my electorate, which is in a bushfire prone area. There are areas around and throughout the seat of Macquarie where people do not have access to mobile phone coverage and, in some instances, it is a challenge for them to have ongoing access to landline. It is important for us to enhance and improve these kinds of communications wherever possible, particularly in areas such as my electorate and other parts of Australia that experience natural disasters.
The extremes of nature are not foreign to our ancient and beautiful land, and the people of Macquarie are familiar with the devastating effects of flood and fire. Queenslanders have been dealing with a flooding crisis and, while it may not necessarily be on the front page of the newspaper or on TV today, the full human and economic impact cannot yet be fully measured and they are in the process of recovery. Earlier this month Northern Australians faced the powerful remnants of Cyclone Oswald, the effects of which were felt in many communities. Further south, fires have devastated large areas in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. Many homes and businesses have been destroyed—and we have heard many stories told by my colleagues. Similar threats faced Western Australians earlier this year in Esperance, Boddington, Northam and other regions. Our thoughts are with the people on the ground as they endeavour to pull their lives together. On behalf of the people of my electorate of Macquarie and my family, I would like to extend my deepest condolences, particularly to those who lost loved ones as a result of these disasters. My thoughts and prayers are also with those who suffered extreme loss and damage.
It is important when reflecting upon these events to also acknowledge the men and women who stand up and put their lives and wellbeing on the line to assist their fellow Australians. One should probably start with the Mud Army of Bundaberg. The spirit of these volunteers embodies so much of the best of Australia and the Australian character—willing to drop everything to help their neighbours, friends and strangers. To them I say a huge thank you.
The emergency services, community organisations and defence community within the electorate of Macquarie have a long and honourable history of providing assistance far from home. This summer they have demonstrated that again—the tremendous capacity of locally based resources and organisations in the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains to extend their help to their fellow Australians. Most recently during the flooding crisis crews, equipment and craft journeyed from RAAF Richmond in my electorate. Many aircraft, including C130J Hercules assisted and are continuing to assist flood affected areas. These crews assisted in the evacuation and medivac of many patients, including those being treated at Bundaberg. A medical team of 20 personnel from the RAAF Richmond are providing help to impacted regions. I am told that their contributions have been extremely valuable.
The Blue Mountains has many well established, highly effective RFS brigades, the members of which are brave individuals, always willing to put themselves on the line. During the recent fires in the Shoalhaven, RFS brigades from Bullaburra, Hazelbrook, Winmalee, Wentworth Falls, Valley Heights, Medlow Bath and Mount Wilson and the Blue Mountains Group Support Unit were all on hand. These men and women assisted and fought at the Dean's Gap fire, being of great and vital assistance in protecting lives and property. To them, I say thank you.
The fires that ravaged our iconic Warrumbungle National Park in mid-January were extremely confronting for all Australians. Once again, the RFS brigades of the Blue Mountains rose to the challenge and journeyed to join brigades from across New South Wales in fighting the fires as they burned. I would like to acknowledge the brigades of Blaxland, Glenbrook-Lapstone, Linden, Warrimoo, Woodford, South Katoomba, Wentworth Falls, Winmalee and again the Blue Mountains Group Support for their tremendous efforts.
Blue Mountains brigades also provided invaluable muscle, assistance and expertise to the efforts undertaken to bring the Wambelong fire near Coonabarabran and Yarrabin fires under control. I wish to thank the brigades of Linden, Medlow Bath, Blackheath-Mount Victoria, Mount Wilson, Warrimoo, Woodford, Bullaburra and the Blue Mountains Group officers and staff for their selfless efforts.
Also in my electorate we are fortunate to live alongside two areas of great natural and rugged beauty. These regions breed and foster men and women of the Blue Mountains I have already mentioned, but I would now like to acknowledge the wonderful work of the Hawkesbury RFS. The Hawkesbury RFS also formed part of the cohort tackling the Wambelong-Coonabarabran fire. I wish to extend my deepest thanks and express my gratitude for the efforts of the Grose Vale, Grose Wold, Kurrajong and Oakville brigades. I also acknowledge and commend the selfless and invaluable work undertaken by the Hawkesbury district staff and Hawkesbury headquarters officers.
Finally, I wish to again express the tremendous pride of all Australians in the men and women who serve in our civil, defence forces and organisations. We are deeply proud of them, their selflessness and their extraordinary work. Thank you for the outstanding examples of leadership and service that you grant to us all.
Federation Chamber adjourned at 13:44