House debates

Monday, 3 December 2018

Private Members' Business

Black Saturday Bushfires: 10th Anniversary

11:55 am

Photo of Cathy McGowanCathy McGowan (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) 7 February 2019 will be the 10th anniversary of the bushfires that devastated parts of Victoria;

(b) the fires were the most devastating in Australian history, killing 173 people, burning more than 450,000 hectares of land and destroying more than 2,000 houses;

(c) in the 10 years since those devastating fires and the horrific weather conditions that preceded them, communities in the electoral division of Indi have worked hard to rebuild homes, businesses, communities and lives;

(d) in the immediate aftermath of the fires, these communities were inundated with generous offers of help, including the commitment of governments at all levels to work with those affected to rebuild;

(e) as a result, much has been done to rebuild communities, to provide support to help heal the devastating emotional loss and progress the recovery of those many thousands of people affected by these fires;

(f) while much has been achieved, it is time to finish the task of rebuilding core infrastructure and restore the sense of place and vibrancy within communities that were destroyed almost 10 years ago; and

(g) the 10 year anniversary of the 2009 fires presents an opportunity to bring together bipartisan support from all levels of government to announce and complete this rebuild; and

(2) calls on the Government to:

(a) pay tribute to the strength, courage and resilience of those who survived the fires on 7 February 2009;

(b) continue to provide support to individuals and communities who lost so much;

(c) honour those who lost their lives in these fires;

(d) acknowledge the wonderful work of the frontline emergency services personnel and volunteers, the community agencies, governments at all levels and individuals involved in assisting local communities to rebuild in the past 10 years; and

(e) honour a commitment to work with those communities devastated by the 2009 bushfires to complete the task of rebuilding core infrastructure and restore their heart and soul.

Colleagues, next year, in February, we will remember the 2009 bushfires in Victoria. Sadly, parliament won't be sitting then, so members from surrounding electorates have gathered today to honour, acknowledge and thank and to bring to mind those 10 years. I would like to honour those who died: the many, many people who died at the time and those who have died since. I would like to acknowledge the trauma, the hardship, the courage, the persistence and the dedication of individuals, groups and government during those fires, post the fires and, still working, 10 years on.

I also would like to take the opportunity in this House today to reflect on and be thankful for the fact that, when disasters happen on such a large scale, many people come to help us. I know that, as I talk, this current circumstance is being played out in Queensland. To my electorate of Indi, people from right around the country gave so generously. Millions of dollars were invested at the time, and then in philanthropic trusts following the fires to continue to support people in my community. In bringing my remarks to the parliament today, I want to talk a little bit about some research, some outcomes and some things that we still need to work on.

I'd like to start with research. I'm a great believer in the power of research. I'd like to bring to the attention of my colleagues today in parliament, and people watching this recording, some research on long-term disaster resilience that has been undertaken by Women's Health Goulburn North East, with support from Victorian and Commonwealth governments, Monash University and the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation. It comes in three volumes: the executive summary, the long-term resilience full report and a literature review. I just want to read out some of the headings that are covered in this research before I pay particular attention to one finding: 'Part 1: Perceptions of disasters' significance'; 'Aren't you over it yet?'; 'What happened?'; 'A defining moment'; 'No getting over it'; and 'Long-term consequences of the disaster'. The second chapter talks about what helps and hinders resilience and what we can learn, particularly about gender in resilience. Then they talk about children, family obligations and disaster planning. It's a report well worth looking at.

I'd particularly like to talk about one of the postcards that they've produced to help communities like mine as we prepare for summer. It's talking about gendered fire planning. I know you will find this interesting, Deputy Speaker Bird, because, when they did the research, they talked to men and to women and to LGBTI people affected and saw that gender makes a huge difference. And the case I'm going to bring up is about fire plans. Only five per cent of people actually have a written fire plan. When they did the research, they saw that there was an enormous difference between what men and women thought a fire plan was. Mostly women say: 'We want to go. We'll pack the stuff up, we'll get out and we'll get out early'. But what they found is that there's a heroic sense that many of our Australian men have of staying and fighting the fires. Women would escape alone or with children, often in terrifying circumstances. What happened with our men was that they would stay and fight or, alternatively, leave late. You've got the family in the car having a rip-roaring argument about what's going on. It's in those circumstances that many of the people died. The importance of fire planning and how men and women are doing it, understanding that we do it differently, is really important. This report has just got so much in it that's worth reading, and I can't recommend it enough. It's not only got recommendations but also wisdom for how we move forward.

I'd also like briefly to comment that we're not over it yet in north-east Victoria. There is still work to be done. There's infrastructure work. There are people with mental health issues. And there are communities still very much affected by those fires. So, to all the people involved, thank you for the work you've done. We haven't forgotten you. We know we've got to continue to work. To those facing bushfires in other parts of Australia: come to us, because we've got a lot of knowledge and wisdom to share about how we worked and how we can support you during your time of need.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member. Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

12:00 pm

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last Friday morning, as I was flying back from Canberra to Melbourne, our plane was put in a holding pattern for a while, and we were circling around that area of Victoria on the Great Divide. It was a beautiful, clear morning; you could see clearly to the Gippsland lakes and the Ninety Mile Beach in one direction, right through to the Murray in the other. But what struck me the most, as the plane circled for 10 or 15 minutes, was that you could still see the scars in the bush of the 2009 bushfires.

Those 2009 Black Saturday bushfires were the most devastating in Australia's history. One hundred and seventy-three people, tragically, lost their lives; 414 were injured. More than a million animals were lost. Four hundred and fifty thousand hectares of land were burnt, and you can still see many of the scars where 3,500 buildings, including more than 2,000 homes, were destroyed. So this was a devastating tragedy for all those concerned.

The response of the communities, as the member for Indi has indicated, was a great response—a very significant response. People from all walks of life did what they could. They made contributions where they could to relief agency efforts et cetera, to ensure that, as best as possible, we could aid all of those who had been devastated by these fires.

I want to talk about the future, because this coming summer season has already been indicated by fire authorities and others as one which will be more hot than usual, and one where there are more likely to be those sorts of unusual conditions which come along from time to time. We had 100-kilometre-per-hour winds on that Black Saturday during those bushfires almost a decade ago. I put that in this context: a recent Country Fire Authority survey revealed that half of all Victorians living in areas of high risk of bushfire actually classified the risk to their homes as only 'moderate', 'minor' or 'non-existent'. In other words, there's a huge disconnect between the actual risk and people's perception of the risk in many instances. A third said they would only leave when a fire threatened their town or suburb—rather than on the morning of, or the night before, a day of extreme fire danger, which, of course, is the CFA advice. So preparing for this fire season is very important, particularly in the context of the summer which we are facing right throughout Australia. And of course we see what's happening in other parts of Australia at the present time.

I particularly urge my constituents in the new areas of my electorate, in Eltham, Eltham North, Research, Kangaroo Ground and North Warrandyte—places which have been touched by bushfires in the past; places in which there are very few ready exits, in terms of major roads, if people need to flee—to actually be prepared and to have plans for what they might do should these extreme warnings come from the Country Fire Authority and other authorities. Of course there's the other work that people can do now, such as cleaning up their property—especially around their house—which can reduce the risk and, therefore, in many instances, reduce and prevent destruction. So, even if you are going to leave early, please follow the steps that the CFA and other Fire authorities have set out in terms of minimising damage to property. Move furniture, wood piles and mulch away from windows, decks and eaves. Prune tree branches so that they're not overhanging the roof or touching walls. Keep grass shorter than 10 centimetres and regularly remove leaves and twigs. Don't allow plants higher than 10 centimetres in front of windows or glass doors. And of course, if you are leaving, before you do so, make sure you remove all flammable items from around your home. Houses have been lost from things as simple as embers landing on a doormat. And a decade ago we saw those great ember storms that went kilometres forward and caused so much damage and destruction as a consequence. Then there are very practical things such as checking that your home and contents insurance is current and includes a level of cover in line with current building standards and regulations.

This is simple commonsense advice which is given by the authorities in relation to the risks that people face; yet, as the CFA survey showed, many people who are at a significant risk are not aware of the level of the risk—and, of course, that itself can be a trap for them if they do find themselves in the devastating and tragic consequences that we saw in Victoria a decade ago. So I urge everybody, whether in my electorate or wherever else in Victoria or Australia, with this season of a hot summer coming, to take the necessary precautions to try and minimise any damage if it should tragically occur.

12:05 pm

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think back to what happened about 10 years ago in February, which was probably the worst day in most people's lives. I remember standing in the backyard at my place at lunchtime, and my wife was excited because the washing was dry in 10 minutes because the wind was blowing so hard. Later that day, 1,000 CFA and other firefighters fought the fires. There were 173 deaths and more to follow. Something that I think gets overlooked a lot of the time is the deaths that have occurred since the fire and that continue to occur today. Thirty-five children died and 16 became orphans in one terrible afternoon.

I think back to people like Bill Coppinger; Trish and Alan Heywood; David and Amanda Cordell; Helen Kenny, who is four foot tall but has a heart the size of the MCG; Anne Leadbeater; Jim Usher and Mac Gudgeon, for the book they wrote, Footsteps in the Ash; Jane Heywood, the principal of Strathewen Primary School, and probably one of the greatest people you'll ever get to meet in your life; Laura and Cameron Caine; Kathy Stewart; and Sue Egan. I could rattle off names for hours of people that have done amazing things in our communities.

But the key thing keeps coming back: this was not something that happened and finished; this is something that happened and continues to grow. From day one, people had a whole range of issues, a whole range of views and a whole range of ways they wanted to move forward. I think of Steve at the Flowerdale pub, who kept putting on parma, after parma, after parma to help the volunteers during that time. I think about the number of people who suffered mental health issues and continue to do so today. I think about the children, who at the time may have been six and 10 years old and are now young adults and still live with the trauma and have issues today. I know of one girl, who is probably 19 now, who still gets up every day and cleans the windows of her house, making sure that those windows are clear to see the fire coming. These types of things happen every single day, and we need to ensure that we're there for our communities. They are not asking for handouts; they just want the help that's needed. Many people moved on straightaway, some people moved away later, some people stayed and some people have barely been able to lift a foot since those days. The support needs to be ongoing for our communities.

I was glad to take Bill Shorten, the Leader of the Opposition, up to Kinglake a couple of weeks ago to announce some funding there. The funding for the streetscape was important, but also important was the time to sit down with people in a closed forum and talk about what's going on. That sort of thing is important. There needs to be support for people with mental health issues and support for the community. Since Black Saturday, people have worked every day and haven't had a rest. They haven't had the opportunity to take their family away. We all may move away and move on to different things, but each and every day that you drive up that hill to Kinglake or you go through Strathewen or you look across at the back of my place in Whittlesea to the mountains all you can see is scars. These are physical scars on a landscape, but you can't see the scars that the people carry.

I think about people I know who perished that day, particularly old Reg Evans, a crusty old bloke from St Andrews—one of the greatest Labor people I have ever met—who decided to nick back because he wanted to save something. I think about Elaine Postlethwaite from Marysville, who had a fight with her husband—he stayed and she left. There are many stories like that. We need to make sure that our communities are given the help and the support that they need to continue. We have learnt from this. We know that, through what we went through, other communities across the nation in disasters have benefited. I know from the floods in Brisbane, within the first hour of these things happening, I was getting phone calls from people from Kinglake and from Whittlesea saying, 'We want to help.' Kevin and Rhonda Butler from BlazeAid started a group to go along and fix up farmers' fencing. It's a full-time career for them now. Wherever there is a natural disaster, you will find BlazeAid there helping to restore fences. So, No. 1, please don't forget our communities; they still need our help, and we have a long way to go.

12:10 pm

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

) ( ): McMillan was an affected area, and my wife and I were down the street in the newsagent at Pakenham in the immediate aftermath of this fire. She said to me as I walked in, 'If this was John Howard instead of Kevin Rudd, he'd have rung by now; he'd have been talking to you,' and the phone went, and it was Kevin Rudd. The best part was that we were being acknowledged as a community by the leaders of the nation. My speech of that time stands on the record, and I don't step back from what I said at that time. I think I actually identified with where the community was at and where we were at, and how I was proud of the response of the federal parliament in regard to this horrific few hours.

Things can change in a day. In the morning, I thought my little farm was fine. We didn't have a problem. So I rang others and said, 'Look, you're under threat. Send the animals here, load them up and bring them here'. Within an hour, we knew we had to leave. Being a 12-year fireman myself, from the early morning until the midmorning, my place had gone from a safe haven to one of the most dangerous places you could be in, because of the temperature. Even though I was totally prepared, nothing could have stopped it had that fired continued on its path towards our place.

Just recently, I was at Hedley, and I was hoping to come in and say that we've got a new generation of firefighters—that we've got all these young people and new equipment. But, at Hedley the other day at a hall committee meeting on a history matter, there was the head of the fire services down there, and—like, I bet, in your electorate and in your electorate the same—we haven't got the numbers of people coming forward as volunteers and joining, and we just haven't got the population in some cases in these small the areas. So it is the same people preparing for the fire. One of the difficult things as we that represent country electorates are reading our electorates all the time is this: the last tragedy we had was preceded by poor rainfall in the spring and poor rainfall in the autumn. This year, we have had poor rainfall in the spring and poor rainfall in the autumn and then rain at a time of maximum growth. Here we are just before Christmas. It is the most dangerous place. It was referred to by the member for Menzies and others; we're in a dangerous time again. Queensland shows that we haven't been burning off enough, as our Indigenous communities did for thousands of years before us. We don't understand the threat even now, and we think we'll be all right. As the member for McEwen said, very clearly: 'You think you'll be all right? Well, you have to consider whether you can survive such an onslaught when living in country communities.' Even now, people are being caught out.

The tragedy of the personal lives has been raised by the member for Indi and especially, very well, by the member for McEwen. I join with you and say there are people grieving right now as they listen to this address for the family that they lost at that time. We can never understand the grief of a mother who has lost a son, daughter-in-law or children—never—and how they continue to survive and go on in their lives after being confronted with such tragedy in such terrible circumstances. We can only empathise with them, with those who have been hurt and knocked about. We can only do our best to make sure that our communities are prepared in a way that will protect them. We can only send out a message that says: 'Don't hang around. Your life is worth more. Get out of the place. Grab what you need to get and go.' Bron took the dog before me, by the way, when we left; the dog got in the car first. You can understand that—I can! Thank you, member for Indi, for allowing me to speak on this. (Time expired)

12:15 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd also like to acknowledge the member for Indi for moving this motion, because this is the last chance that we'll get to debate it before the anniversary, with parliament resuming that week in February. I want to acknowledge the other speakers who've spoken on this motion, in particular the member for McEwen, whose electorate was one of the worst-affected on Black Saturday. Those personal stories, those people, those constituents, are real. Whilst in Bendigo we did lose a life on Black Saturday, there has always been a sense around Bendigo of, even though we lost homes and stock, how lucky we were that there weren't more who were killed on the day. It is largely due to the amazing effort of our CFA, SES and fire services—the professionals and volunteers—and of the community rallying together, but it was also due to some luck. It is quite alarming to reflect every fire season, 'Were we lucky this year?' In a country of our size, in a country of our wit and capability, it can come down to luck on these terrible days, these bushfire-risk days.

Like all Victorians, this date is the date you always remember. I remember where I was on Black Saturday. I was still working for United Voice and was doing the early shift. There was a shift change at Crown Casino. It's climate controlled there. I walked out at seven o'clock in the morning after the shift change and I can remember going, 'Geez, it's hot.' That was at seven o'clock in the morning. It was like five o'clock on those really hot days that you get in a normal summer, and here it was at seven o'clock and you felt like you'd just walked into an oven. There was an eeriness about that morning that there was going to be trouble, because it was just too hot that day. Like everyone, I saw it roll out. I didn't leave the city that day, because we didn't know whether it was safe to get home or how to get home. The stories started to unfold about adult children who were away from home, working in the city, and mums saying, 'Don't come home,' and that being the last conversation that they had.

That trauma that those individuals have, that those families and communities have, can never be forgotten. That is for two reasons. One, they learn to live with that, and it's hard. We need to be there to support them. Two, we don't want any others to have to risk that in the future. The member for McEwen is right, and the leader of the opposition mentioned this last week. Post Black Saturday, in Victoria, there was a lot that went on in the way of debriefing, planning and modelling. A lot of it actually occurred in my electorate at the Australian Emergency Management Institute, which was in Mount Macedon. It will be in the member for McEwen's electorate at this election. That institute was where the best in our country came together to reflect and say what we could do better. It's where they came up with the simulation on how to better manage bushfires, and that is what we are seeing played out now in Queensland—people getting out, the intense water bombing and having preparedness and resilience within communities. It's unfortunate that this government shut down the Australian Emergency Management Institute. It was one of the casualties of their 2014 budget. We lost the ability to properly plan, as a nation, that we'd had previously because the government shut the institute down. They saw a price that they couldn't refuse. Former Attorney-General Brandis saw the price tag and said: 'Great! Let's offload this.' They saw the word 'institute' and thought it was an educational facility. Sure, it did have education—it offered a diploma in emergency management—but it also brought people together to do the planning and come up with best practice so that in our country we would never again face a Black Saturday. We may face the conditions but not the loss of lives and property.

I also want to remember the leaders at that time: John Brumby, the former Premier, whose parents almost lost their home on that day in Bendigo; and Bill Shorten, the then Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction. We should never forget that day.

12:20 pm

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to speak on this motion marking the impending 10th anniversary of the devastating bushfires in Victoria. With the loss of 173 lives, more than 2,000 homes and 450,000 hectares of land, that bushfire ranks as one of the worst in Australia's history. Victorians not directly in the line of fire and those living interstate watched on in horror, through their television screens, as the terrible event unfolded. The scale of the disaster was difficult to comprehend for many. The 10th anniversary is a chance to reflect on that devastation, honour the memory of those lost, and remember the suffering of their families and friends and those who lost possessions. It's a time to honour and pay tribute to the courage, bravery and dedication of those who fought the fires and helped rebuild the lives of people and their communities.

Unfortunately, bushfires have always been a feature of the wide brown land we live in. Queensland is currently in the grip of bushfires raging across much of the state; in particular, in Central Queensland and North Queensland. Most of the hundred fires have caused widespread devastation, including the loss of one life, the destruction of numerous vehicles and buildings and the burning of more than half a million hectares of land. Last night there were more than 160 firefighting crews on the ground fighting bushfires right across the state of Queensland, including those in and around my electorate of Dawson. I am told the situation is expected to worsen today. Strong winds combining with very hot and dry conditions do not make it an ideal time for fighting fires.

I want to make special mention of the Central Queensland man who died at his family's property south of Emerald last week. He was struck by a falling tree while clearing a firebreak to protect his family's property. I would like to extend my condolences to his family and the Emerald community. In our own Finch Hatton, not in my electorate but just on the border of my electorate, farmer Robert Blines—and I know the Blines family very well—lost his house, his shed, his equipment and his crop while he was out fighting fires elsewhere. Finch Hatton cane farmer Burnie Ward also lost 100 per cent of his crop. He fought hard to save his house, bucketing water out of his dam because there was no power to pump the water. More than 700 hectares of high-value sugarcane crops were destroyed. CQ Rescue and its brave staff, under the leadership of Ian Rowan, need to be mentioned because they airlifted 10 people, including six children and an infant, out of Eungella.

The Deputy Prime Minister and the Assistant Minister for Home Affairs, who's responsible for emergency management, visited my electorate. They went to Capricornia, just on the doorstep of my electorate, to the communities of Finch Hatton, Netherdale and Eungella, to survey the damage and speak to those who were involved in fighting these fires—those in the SES and other volunteers who were assisting them. It is so heartening to see the community's response to this. The whole community has come together, and I have to applaud the leadership of Greg Williamson, Mayor of Mackay Regional Council. I visited Bloomsbury—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12:24 to 12:37

I want to acknowledge those who are out there fighting the fires around the Bloomsbury area right now and those who are helping them out. Locals told me over the weekend that over 100,000 hectares up there have been burnt, including livestock burnt alive and fencing and vehicles—tractors, dozers and utes—destroyed. A number of grazing properties have been completely razed. I visited the properties of Tania Plemenuk and saw Max McFarlane's property on the weekend—absolutely devastating scenes there of totally scorched earth.

I want to particularly mention Christine Kinnear, who's leading the group of volunteers at the Bloomsbury community hall to help out and feed all the men and women out there fighting fires; the local fire warden Paul Camm; and blokes like Tony Jeppesen, whose properties were at risk and who are out there helping their mates. There are about 100 men and women fighting a 20-kilometre front of fire—all of them volunteers trying to stop that fire through a series of controlled burns and breaks around local properties. They've been battling it for hours and hours and hours every day since last Tuesday.

I've got to say: it's great that assistance is on the way and concessional loans have been approved by state and federal governments for primary producers. There are going to be community recovery teams out in the field, and hopefully more assistance will come if category C assistance is declared. My heart goes out to all of those who are battling the fires right now.

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of date for the next sitting.