Monday, 18 February 2019
Private Members' Business
Australian Natural Disasters
That this House:
(1) acknowledges that parts of Australia have been affected by fire, floods and storms during the recent summer period;
(2) recognises the support the Government has given in response to these disasters;
(3) also recognises the outstanding work of emergency services, the Australian Defence Force and volunteers in supporting victims of these natural calamities; and
(4) offers support to the victims of the fires, floods and storms and will do all we can to support our fellow Australians in their time of need.
For many communities across Australia this has been a challenging summer. Time that should be reserved for family has been interrupted by fires, floods and storms. Our government is working with the states and local government to offer support and assistance.
My electorate was not spared. On 15 December severe storms hit, centring on Cherrybrook and West Pennant Hills. Trees and powerlines came down and homes were crushed and many across the electorate were without power and internet for days or, in some cases, weeks. Then, five days later on 20 December, another storm hit. Berowra, Cowan, Berowra Heights and surrounding areas were smashed by hail the size of golf balls. As the storm hit I was at Cowan visiting the Hornsby/Ku-Ring-Gai Fire Control Centre. My car was damaged and it would take until the middle of the year before it was repaired, but I know that, compared to many, I got off lightly.
As the clean-up began the next day, I visited the SES command post at Warrina Street Oval and spoke to the SES, RFS and New South Wales Fire and Rescue officers. I was also talking to residents and inspecting homes. I made the case for disaster assistance funding to the federal minister for emergency management, which was granted. I visited the command centre on Boxing Day and again on 28 December to thank the volunteers who'd come from all over New South Wales to help.
On 24 and 25 of January, I organised with Minister Reynolds to visit the electorate and speak to people about their experiences. On 6 February I attended the Berowra insurance forum and heard insurance companies and builders talking in person to constituents about their claims and repairs.
The Berowra hailstorm was severe. Within minutes, roofs, cars, awnings, skylights and solar panels were destroyed. It's estimated that emergency services workers gave 23,000 hours to Berowra over nine days, including Christmas Day. Volunteers came from as far as Lightning Ridge and Broken Hill.
I want to share the words of one of my constituents, Maureen Maddison:
I was moved to tears as I drove to the local shops on Christmas Eve. The entire length of Barnett's Road into Berowra Waters Road and Turner Road was lined on both sides with volunteer bush fire brigade and SES vehicles from all over Sydney and even further afield. These amazing volunteers were giving up their Christmas Eve to ensure that all of our houses were protected by tarps before Christmas.
When the unexpected happens, we discover what our communities are made of. The stories from those days are of neighbours looking after each other. I heard about Denis Greene siliconing his neighbour's broken tiles before looking after his own, and Maureen Good cooking her 86-year-old neighbour Christmas lunch after his kitchen was destroyed. I have been told about Michael Solomon, a roofer, working tirelessly in the heat. He encountered a python in one roof and was stung by a nest of wasps while repairing another, but still went out of his way to take an older lady to an insurance information session.
Using Berowra's community Facebook page, the SES called for spontaneous community volunteers to help with the sandbagging efforts. Over 200 Berowra people volunteered, freeing up SES resources to get back up on roofs. This is now known as the Berowra model of volunteering. Those stories show Berowra's spirit, and it's that spirit that makes me so proud to represent that community here in parliament. I want to acknowledge those SES and RFS leaders who headed up the operation in Berowra: Reinould Beijerinck, Rolf Poole, Tony Hine, Craig Woon, Chris Mawn, James Logan, Murray Oakley, Andrew McCullough and Adam Jones. These are a few of the hundreds of people in Berowra who deserve our thanks.
We're now two months on from the storm, and Berowra and Berowra Heights are a sea of tarpaulins. People under unstable roofs or in temporary accommodation continue to wait for answers about how long repairs will take. It seems there are simply not enough tradespeople to manage the repair effort at present. It will be a long time before life gets back to normal for many. Students are now studying in homes that have become building sites. Businesses are struggling with nowhere to operate from. Families are unable to enter asbestos-affected homes to retrieve basic goods. Some people will be out of their homes for over a year. There are no easy solutions. We need to remember that a disaster doesn't end when the TV crews go or the crisis is over.
The reports of insurance companies are varied. Some are doing great work. For others, the experience has been disappointing. I call on insurance agencies to provide such excellent service that they become as well known for their dedication as the emergency services that responded over Christmas. It's your turn to ease the pain that people in Berowra are suffering.
In Berowra, we have faced some challenging blows. But many say it doesn't compare to what people in places like Townsville are experiencing right now. One phrase I have heard dozens of times is, 'I've been lucky; some have had it much worse.' This summer will be remembered by many as a very hard one. It will be life-defining for some families. It will be remembered as a summer of hardship and loss, but also as a time of incredible community spirit.
I second the motion. I am very proud to stand in this place and say that I come from one of the most resilient communities in our nation, Townsville. Townsville is my home. I was born, raised, educated and married in Townsville. In my living memory, I cannot recall a weather event that compares to what we recently experienced. This extreme weather event has made history as the worst natural disaster that Townsville has experienced, with 22,000 homes affected by devastating floodwaters. As I speak in this place today, there are residents and business owners in my community who are still cleaning up and trying to come to terms with their financial and sentimental losses. Some people have lost everything: their homes, their belongings.
Townsville is currently going through a housing crisis, with many displaced residents desperately trying to find somewhere to live. The Real Estate Institute of Queensland has reported that roughly 1,500 people in Townsville are at present fighting for an estimated 200 to 400 available properties. The department of housing has received 285 requests for emergency housing assistance as of Tuesday, 12 February. To make matters worse, the competition for property is driving rental prices up, making it simply unaffordable for many residents. I have read reports that a three-bedroom house that was previously rented for $350 per week is now being rented for $700 per week.
I want to say in this place that this is not the time for anyone to take advantage of this disaster. It is abundantly clear that my community is going through an extremely tough time right now, and we need assistance. My office has been inundated by calls and emails from people who have been directly impacted by the floods. Unfortunately, under the watch of this LNP government, many of these people have been denied financial assistance, which is simply very stressful for them at this time. The LNP government claims to have made changes to the criteria for the disaster relief funding, but many residents are not aware of this, and I am sure the department staff are stressed. No-one from the government has come to ask me about what is happening on the ground. In fact, I am yet to receive any communication at all from this LNP government about anything to do with this unprecedented weather event in my electorate of Herbert.
Now is not the time for us to be stingy or play politics. The people in my community just want to know the simple facts about the disaster relief payments. Changes via Twitter are not helpful when people are already very stressed, and in many cases they are receiving conflicting and confusing information regarding the payments.
To receive a year's rainfall in nine days is unimaginable. We measured the rain not in points or inches but in metres. However, through these unprecedented and dangerous conditions, the ADF, emergency services, SES and council workers were at the ready. To those police officers, ambulance workers, firefighters, Defence personnel, SES volunteers, council workers and Ergon workers, who were out at all hours of the day and night assisting residents to safety, I say a huge thank you.
To all of the thousands of volunteers who have been out helping those who are affected by the floods, I say: a big thank you to you too. To those businesses and organisations who have donated food, material items and financial assistance during this time: I thank you for your generosity. To the Townsville Local Disaster Management Group and the advisory group, the local Bureau of Meteorology and local media: thank you for working 24 hours a day to ensure that residents were kept well informed.
I want to especially acknowledge and thank the Townsville mayor, Councillor Jenny Hill, for her leadership in this very difficult time. Her commitment to our city is simply outstanding.
Lastly but not least, I want to thank the people of Townsville. This has been an extraordinarily difficult and stressful time for our community, but we have shown real community spirit and resilience. We will overcome the challenges that lie ahead, and we will be a stronger city at the end of this journey. But we must also take care of ourselves, our family and friends and also notice when there are people who don't seem to have anybody around to support them, to lend a listening ear.
However, let me be very clear: we do need to have very clear and concise criteria so that the people of my community can understand exactly what they need to get their disaster relief money paid to them.
'I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.' Dorothea Mackellar wrote those words over 100 years ago, and very little has changed. Our history has been one of extreme weather and disasters. Her poem continued:
Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us,
We see the cattle die …
… … …
Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold …
There's no doubt that the events over summer were quite catastrophic. I'm sure everyone in this parliament sends our best wishes to those in Townsville who are currently undergoing undue hardship and will continue to suffer hardship for many, many months, if not years, as they try to recover from that disaster.
But I am concerned that our response to these natural disasters must be based in science and facts so we can plan for them in the future. My grave concern goes to a year 10 history book called Pearson History New South Wales, which says on page 115: 'Climate change is noticeable in Australia, with more extreme frequent weather events such as the 2002-06 drought or the 2010-11 Queensland floods.' That is simply an inaccurate statement that is in a school history book. What chance do we have of forming the best policies in this nation to deal with fire, floods and drought if we have children being misled by incorrect information in our history books?
Let's look at what the peer-reviewed science says. Everyone likes to say they believe in the science. Well, here's some peer-reviewed science on cyclones from a peer-reviewed study published in Nature in January 2014. It says Australian tropical cyclone activity is lower than at any time over the past 550 to 1,500 years. That's what the peer-reviewed science says. In fact, if we look at the bureau's records, we find in the 1983-84 to the 1985-1986 cyclone seasons that, in those three years alone, we had 27 severe cyclones strike Australia. In the 2015-16 cyclone season there was not one single cyclone. You cannot look at that graph and then say that cyclone activity in Australia hasn't actually declined. But we will have major cyclones hit us again. We need to be prepared and we need to put our resources to it.
When it comes to that claim in the textbook about the floods in Queensland in 2010-11 being evidence of more extreme weather, that is simply contrary to the history of Queensland. One only has to look at the Brisbane floods. We find the largest flood in Brisbane was actually the 1841 flood. That is followed by the 1993 flood and then the 1974 flood. So to try to make out that the 2010-11 flood is some evidence of greater extreme weather is just simply contrary to the evidence in our history.
When it comes to droughts, many of us understand the severe droughts we're going through at the moment and the severe droughts we have had in the past. This has been standard throughout our nation's history. We should be prepared and we should be planning for continued droughts. When it comes to fires, what does the peer-reviewed evidence say? It finds that the global area burned has declined by 25 per cent over the last year. It says:
… many consider wildfire as an accelerating problem, with widely held perceptions both in the media and scientific papers of increasing fire occurrence … the quantitative evidence available does not support these perceived overall trends. Instead, global area burned appears to have overall declined over past decades …
That is the evidence. That is the science. We need to understand that we live in that same country that Dorothea Mackellar wrote about over a hundred years ago. That is why we need to prepare and help people recover from their resources instead of wasting money pretending that we can change the weather. We'll be far better off, rather than wasting billions of dollars thinking we can change the weather, putting that money into disaster relief to help people who are really suffering.
If there were ever a lesson in what is wrong with this chaotic and dysfunctional government, it's the fact that today's motion is about natural disasters and recognising those people who have served and helped and not once through the offensive and audacious speech that we just had from the climate-change-denying kook on that side of the chamber did he acknowledge the volunteers. I'm glad he brought up the 2010-11 floods. As someone who lived through that and represented that community, I can tell you that when I go back to the people of Oxley and Darra and go around and say, 'The members in this parliament say that it's just a natural occurrence and you should suck it up'—
Government members interjecting—
That's exactly what he just said. As someone who cleaned people's houses and saw people's lives torn apart, for this member of parliament to come into this place today and say, 'Too bad; suck it up'—
Mr Craig Kelly interjecting—
Today, I don't come in here to practice that Trump rubbish that we're hearing time and time again from those opposite. It's little wonder the people of his own electorate want to knock him off and that Kent Johns want to come in here and the member had to be saved with a shonky deal. I'll tell you something: I'll use my time to recognise the volunteers, the SES, the ADF and all of those people who went door to door and house to house to help people put their lives back together.
And the member for Hughes is still on the climate change denying ramp—not interested in putting people's lives back together in north Queensland, not interested in the 5,000 homes that have been destroyed in Townsville, not interested in finding a way to flood-proof and make these communities resilient; only dripping with Trumpism and the trickle-down rubbish that we hear from members of the government.
I want to congratulate the member for Berowra for putting this motion on the Notice Paper today. He is a person of great character who knows what these disasters mean for communities—just like the member for Macquarie, whose own house burnt down, whose own life was ripped apart as a result of that.
Mr Craig Kelly interjecting—
I'm not going to stand in this parliament and read from Year 10 text books about the climate change nonsense that is so-called apparently threatening our way of life. I want this parliament to come together to work as one, as a government and as a nation, and put priorities in place for those disasters that are befalling our nation, whether it be the bushfires in Tasmania or the floods in North Queensland, and that those communities know that this parliament is working as one, firstly, to put their lives back together. The extreme trauma—I have spoken to some of the SES volunteers, around 175 of them, who came from interstate, from New Zealand, to help the Tasmanian communities, where we saw people from across Australia fly into Townsville to help those people, whether it be the SES, state government officials, the Townsville City Council led by Mayor Jenny Hill. Today I want to thank them for their swift and decisive actions to help those who have felt the impacts of these natural disasters, and our hearts go out to all of those families whose lives have been destroyed. There has been the tragic loss of three lives in north Queensland. Time and time again we are seeing the ravages of our natural environment destroying people's lives.
As a parliament, we saw the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister come together to pledge the full resources of this government—that's what this parliament should be doing. There is the wonderful contribution from the business community from right across Australia of millions and millions of dollars. In my own community the weekend before last, the magnificent Vietnamese community were at Inala Plaza collecting money for those people affected by the flood disaster.
Today, I say thank you to the member for Berowra for tabling this motion in the Chamber. Every single member of this parliament should be rising to their feet to congratulate and thank those wonderful volunteers and supporters that are still working today, as we speak. I congratulate and salute them all.
I'd also like to thank the member for Berowra for tabling this motion. I think it's important that we do take note of what's happening to many people across Australia. It hasn't been a great summer; it's been a devastating one for the people in Townsville with those horrendous floods through northern Queensland, and the bushfires in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.
Of course, we had the anniversary of those destructive life-taking bushfires in Victoria 10 years ago. If it wasn't enough seeing Victoria, Tasmania and parts of northern New South Wales ablaze, people are doing it tough and, as a nation, we're seeing once again the brutality that Mother Nature can throw at us from time to time. So, it's important that we do everything we possibly can—everything in policy terms—to make sure that our nation is more resilient, including this motion to recognise the outstanding work of the emergency services, the Australian Defence Force, the volunteers.
I would like to acknowledge, from my own electorate, NT senior fire management officer Lee Gleeson, who has been deployed to Victoria to help fight the devastating wildfires in Victoria. As I mentioned, 10 years ago wildfires led to a lot of loss of life in that state. It affected a lot of my family and friends. But it is a part of being Australian that we do everything we can to help our fellow Australians in their time of need. Territorians were in their time of need during Cyclone Marcus, which didn't get a lot of coverage in the national media. In fact, it took Prime Minister Turnbull about five days to give us a buzz to see how we were going. The northern capital of Australia was hit by a cyclone and there was a lot of damage and a lot of people without power. The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, when he visited us within days of when the cyclone hit, said it was a miracle that no-one was killed—and he was absolutely correct. It was great to be with him thanking the members of the 1st Brigade and the US Marines who assisted us in Darwin when we were hit by mother nature in the form of Cyclone Marcus. We would have been under the pump for a lot longer had it not been for neighbours looking after neighbours—emergency services, the Defence Force and the community pulling together to support each other to make Darwin and Palmerston safe again.
Last week I received a briefing at the Joint Operations Centre out at Bungendore. As we speak, ADF members are out in support of communities that are doing it tough. We had the ADF and emergency services, but we also had community groups like Darwin's Sikh community and the CDU Bangladeshi Students Association making meals for Territorians who were without power after Cyclone Marcus. It was amazing to see the community come together. Losing power is one thing but losing your home in a fire or losing livestock, which is essentially your living, is very difficult indeed. I want to thank everyone who is helping our fellow Australians who are under the pump right now.
Cyclone Marcus was probably the worst disaster to hit Darwin since Cyclone Tracy. I think we saw how complacent you can become about the awesome brutality of mother nature. We are still in the cyclone season right now, so I would encourage everyone to be prepared. I again thank everyone who is helping.
Before speaking on this motion I would like to take a moment to acknowledge my colleagues the member for Herbert, Cathy O'Toole, who has done a fantastic job in Townsville, and also the member for Braddon, Justin Keay, in Tasmania.
People say to me that you never forget the roar of fire as it rolls down towards you and you never forget the stench of mud as you try and clean it up. Our nation has experienced several heartbreaking natural disasters in the past 12 months. This summer alone we have seen bushfires, floods, storms and snow—on occasion, all at the same time—across our wide brown land.
My electorate of Paterson, which includes the magnificent Port Stephens area, has not been immune. In August last year, communities across the Port Stephens area experienced several stressful days when up to five bushfires were burning at the same time within a few kilometres of each other. After five days, flames had torn through over 2,000 hectares of bushland on the Tilligerry Peninsula, and a further 38 hectares of bushland had been destroyed within the Tomaree National Park in Shoal Bay. This was an unexpected disaster captured perfectly by the words heard uttered by firefighters on the ground: 'What the hell is going on? It's winter.' Just months later in November, a fire ripped through Campvale, Medowie and Salt Ash, burning almost 2,000 hectares in just four days. Winds of up to 100 kilometres per hour worsened the situation, and, as five crews responded to this fire, another bushfire broke out 50 kilometres away in my own home town of Kurri Kurri at the backdoor of the hospital. This fire burnt through more than 60 hectares of land and, at one stage, it was so severe that non-essential staff were evacuated from Kurri Kurri Hospital as the blaze moved towards Pelaw Main.
In December, my electorate was handed yet another bushfire disaster when residents of Salamander Bay woke up to flames at their backdoor—literally. Sixteen hectares of the Mambo Wetlands were wiped out, causing a significant impact on vital koala habitat in the area. As I holidayed in the bay over the Christmas period, I was really quite saddened to hear several volunteers tell me the story of the screams of koalas as their habitat was burning around them. We lost many breeding pairs of koala, which is such a devastation as well. Every single one of these disasters involved close calls, but the tireless work of our rescue services prevented these events from being far worse than what they could have been. Organisations like the State Emergency Service, the Rural Fire Service, the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Red Cross all played a vital part in the prevention of these fires getting worse and lives being lost.
I just want to take a moment to thank all the businesses at Paul's Corner in Salt Ash, which provided refuge to people when Nelson Bay Road was cut by fire. People couldn't go back home to the bay so they congregated at Paul's Corner. I would also like to thank Hunter Valley Buses and Port Stephens Coaches. When the kids who were at school couldn't get home to the bay and their parents couldn't come and collect them—they all went to Irrawang High School—the Red Cross gave them something to eat. My own staff member Arley Black went along and helped to entertain them for a while, and then the bus companies drove the children home for the parents to be able to get pick them up at an accessible collection point. This is the way people in my community banded together. Thankyou to all of those people who provided that community effort and went to support those in need.
I commend the member for Berowra for bringing forward this private member's business. It is important that we do pause to really reflect and take stock. I would like to express my utter disappointment, though, that the word 'drought' has not been included in the list of natural disasters. Like so many regions across the country, the drought has taken a huge toll on my electorate. It's dire in the Hunter. It's like we have never seen it before. In May of last year, the Maitland Saleyards, which are a major part of our local economy, were putting through cattle at $350 less per head than years before.
I would just like to acknowledge the Maitland Show. Normally, every year, the Maitland Show is our drought breaker. Well, this year, it has been and gone. It was a terrific event, but there was no rain. It's a sad indictment. I wish it would come. Over the last year, I have spoken a lot about this in my area, but we need the leadership that a Shorten government can provide to see this country through these kinds of disasters.
I rise to speak on the motion put forward by the Liberal member for Berowra. I am speaking after the Labor member for Herbert, the Labor member for Oxley, the Labor member for Solomon and the Labor member for Paterson. The last couple of members had to speak one after the other, because, apart from one climate change denier, the member for Berowra couldn't even get a single Liberal or National Party person to back him up. It's shameful.
Like most Australians, we understand that there are lots of natural disasters, and this has been a particularly brutal summer. In New South Wales, we have had more than 330 fires blazing across the state, with 20 homes destroyed and others damaged. In Tasmania, fires ravaged the World Heritage listed forests. Trees that were more than 1,000 years old were destroyed.
In Queensland, we have seen record-breaking rainfall, which caused extreme flooding that will create havoc for many years. The Bureau of Meteorology described the Far North Queensland rainfall event as 'exceptional'. In and around Townsville, the accumulated total rainfall over consecutive days was the city's highest on record since records began way back in 1888. Some areas have received more than 2,000 millimetres of rain over a 12-day period—2,000 millimetres is two metres of rain. Three people lost their lives in the Queensland floods, and more people are obviously suffering from bacterial infections from contaminated floodwaters. Stock losses are likely to reach more than half a million, and this is heartbreaking for a cattle industry already worn down by years of drought. The Insurance Council of Australia estimates that property damage in North Queensland will reach more than half a billion dollars.
You may wonder what's going on with our weather. The BOM last week made a statement in response to the heavy rainfall and flooding in tropical Queensland and they explained in their climate statement that they are likely 'to underestimate the probability of such rainfall in the future. This is because the climate system is changing and global warming increases the likelihood of heavy rainfall events in most locations.' The BOM's earlier report, The state of the climate 2018, reveals that Australia's climate has warmed by just over one per cent since 1910. The south-east of Australia has seen a decline of April to October rainfall of around 11 per cent since the late 1990s. Rainfall has increased across parts of Northern Australia since the 1970s, and there has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather and in the duration of the fire season across large parts of Australia. The report also discusses why we're seeing these changes. It says:
Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and methane, make it harder for the Earth to radiate this heat, so increase the temperature of the Earth's surface, ocean and atmosphere.
The Morrison government's own report says we're going to see more of these extreme weather events because of global warming, yet they have no real policy to address climate change and no-one prepared to even speak about it. Australians need a government who will give them the immediate assistance they need to recover when a disaster occurs but also one that has the foresight to implement policies that will reduce climate change and prevent future devastation from natural disasters.
In 2014, the Productivity Commission presented the coalition government with a report into natural disaster funding. The then Minister for Justice said on 1 May 2015 that a full response would be provided after consultation with the states. No coalition government response has yet been provided five years and many natural disasters later. This government has done nothing to prepare Australia for an increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters in the coming years. What it has done is scrap the only Commonwealth government oversight for national disaster relief and recovery arrangements. The government wound up the Australian Government Reconstruction Inspectorate in 2015, despite that agency identifying over $120 million in ineligible projects from Queensland alone. That was after the Queensland Reconstruction Authority had already identified $2.7 billion in ineligible claims. The Australian National Audit Office estimates that for every dollar spent in approved insurance, between $10 and $20 is saved in not paying out ineligible claims—money that could potentially be used to prepare for national disasters.
Why is this so? The Liberal Party doesn't understand Queensland. Look at the prime ministers they've had. You have the member for Cook, who comes from Bronte; the member for Warringah, who actually comes from Bronte; and then the former member for Wentworth, for a bit of variety, came from Point Piper. You could throw a blanket over those three suburbs! They don't fundamentally understand Queensland. Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten, who's married to a Queenslander, understand the problems that beset our estate. We need a government that takes national disaster seriously, that will act to reduce climate change to lessen the extreme weather events and that is prepared for the disasters that we will face in the future. What do we need? We need a Labor government, not one that ignores Queensland.
It's not many people in this place who start their day with their home intact, their belongings safe and their garden blooming but finish the day with only the clothes that they have on their back and a tangled mass of metal, brick and ashes. But I'm not the only one. More importantly, that's what has happened to many families this summer from Tasmania to Queensland. The floods have caused similar anguish for many others. Anyone who has been through it knows you would not wish it on anybody else.
What we see under the Liberals every time a natural disaster happens is confusion and frustration about the immediate government assistance that people are eligible for. I'm speaking today on this motion moved by the member for Berowra, who shares the Hawkesbury River and the Hawkesbury wilderness with me as a boundary. We need to remember that the same thing keeps happening time and time again under this Liberal government. I want to take you back to the 2013 bushfires in the Blue Mountains, which destroyed 200 homes and damaged 286 others.
In the wake of homes being destroyed, while other homes were still burning and even more were under threat, while people couldn't return to their street to see if they even had a house still standing, to see if their pets were alive, while water wasn't running, while the electricity was off, while mobile phones were out of battery and food was rotting in fridges, while people were sleeping in temporary shelters or at friends' homes, while there were warnings that the worst was yet to come, while all this was happening, this Liberal government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott made a decision to restrict the disaster relief payment to people whose homes had burnt down or to those who were seriously injured. They were the only two groups able to access $1,000 per adult and $400 per child; no-one else. If you couldn't get back to your house for a couple of days because police wouldn't allow you to travel through kilometres of devastated homes, it was too bad; you missed out. If you were able to go home but you were stuck there with no electricity or water, you weren't eligible for a cent.
The rules changed from the policy that the Labor government had which meant that victims of the 2013 Tasmanian fires and Tropical Cyclone Oswald were helped by this modest payment if they were cut off from their homes or power and water, but not for victims in the Blue Mountains. The policy changed while the fires were burning. It was a mean, offensive decision to take while our community was still under threat, while people were still stunned at what was going on around them.
I want to thank the member for Sydney and Senator Doug Cameron who loudly spoke out in this house about what was going on. I also want to pay tribute to the people who have been through an awful summer in Tasmania because my Blue Mountains community went through five or six days of serious fire in 2013, but those communities went through it for three or four weeks. And, listening to the ABC, I heard the most moving description of it from a local resident and business owner who said the experience had left her in an exhausted daze of raw emotion. She said:
It's really difficult to go through 17 days of high anxiety, high adrenaline and back and forth evacuations, but you can't see the physical damage that the fires have done.
My community gets how tough that must have been.
The Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury know that recovery from natural disasters takes time. Five years on from the 2013 fires, the smell of smoke and the sound of helicopters still triggers anxious feelings for many people. While my house burned to the ground and took 4½ years to rebuild, I could go months without having to visit the street or the site but the few neighbours whose homes survived had to drive through what looked like a war zone multiple times in a day. Those things take their toll.
The people affected this summer will also take hope from the extraordinary efforts of so many volunteers, neighbours and community groups who rise to these occasions, and they will take hope from the work by the rural and the regular fire services, the police, the ambos and Defence Force personnel. No matter what steps we take to prepare for disaster and to mitigate disaster—whether it's fire, flood, storm, cyclone or drought—the very least a government can do is to make decent emergency payments. A Labor Shorten government will do that and much more.