House debates

Monday, 18 February 2019

Private Members' Business

Disaster Relief Funding to Tasmania

5:28 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

Photo of Kevin HoganKevin Hogan (Page, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion.

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Although the circumstances motivating me to rise and move this motion are deeply saddening, I'm proud to be able to do so—proud to represent the people of Tasmania, proud to stand here as a representative of Lyons, an electorate which includes many people in communities whose lives have once again been disrupted by natural disaster, and proud to show my sincerest gratitude to all the men and women who dedicated their time to battling bushfires that ravaged our state this summer. They are men and women like those in the Tasmanian Fire Service, their interstate and overseas peers who provided assistance and, of course, Tasmanians who opened their doors and homes to strangers and volunteered in affected communities and evacuation centres and who, of course, rallied around to support firefighters, communities and people in need with donations and moral support.

As all in this chamber are aware, the bushfires that wreaked havoc upon Tasmania resulted in more than 200,000 hectares of land being burned in a few short weeks. That is three per cent of my state's surface, almost half of it in Tasmania's precious Wilderness World Heritage Area. It was so bad that the smoke could be seen from space. Three years ago, fire destroyed other World Heritage in Tasmania, including in my electorate, blazing its way through 100,000 hectares and destroying irreplaceable alpine vegetation. Six years ago, fire destroyed much of the township of Dunalley, in the south of my electorate.

Tasmania is well known for its natural environment. It is one of the reasons that we have record numbers of people visiting our state. It is the reason why so many people move to Tasmania. Across Tasmania, stunning landscapes and unique and diverse flora and fauna have remained largely unchanged for millennia. As Tasmanians, we are proud of our natural environment, our remote island surrounded by wild seas. Mainlanders who watched David Attenborough's documentary on our island did so with a sense of envy and longing.

But now, in a short few weeks, so much has been lost. As a percentage of Tasmania's entire wilderness, what went up in smoke is not great, but that does not reduce its significance. The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, a network of parks and reserves and one of the last expanses of temperate wilderness in the world, suffered enormous damage. Significantly, this is an elevated temperate area, untouched by fire for thousands of years. The flora never evolved to deal with the flames. It will never regenerate in the same way that lowland woodlands will.

The Tahune AirWalk, in the south of the state, in the electorate of my colleague Julie Collins, was one of Tasmania's premier and iconic tourist destinations. Visitors could walk amongst the tall canopy of forest and watch the wild waters of the Huon and Picton rivers come together. Damaged by fire and now surrounded by burnt forest, it's closed for the foreseeable future, ending an experience for tourists, ending jobs for locals and dramatically impacting business for the town of Geeveston.

Two weeks ago, we welcomed cooler, wetter weather, and then we watched in disbelief as snow fell on the Central Plateau, often just metres from where fire continued to burn. The past weeks have been all about battling the blazes, but now we turn to the recovery, which will cost millions. The impact on regional communities will be particularly hard felt. These fires came during peak tourist season. Accommodation providers, cafes and restaurants, hotels and pubs, coach companies, wilderness guides and more—all were closed; all had staff and volunteers out on the front line; all bear the economic scars.

We've learned that Tasmania's $10 million leatherwood honey industry has been hit for six. The unique rainforest leatherwood takes decades to mature and flowers annually. Many trees have been lost and will take years to regrow, if ever, because the soil is likely no longer to support their vegetation.

In Lonnavale, the Ta Ann veneer mill was damaged to the extent that it may not be able to resume operations for months. The Southwood timber-processing site was also damaged. Thousands of hectares of working forest have been lost, including many trees ready for harvest. The impact of the loss has not yet been calculated, nor has how the state intends to respond to ensure that timber communities maintain production.

As bad as the devastation was, it could have been so much worse. Thankfully, our state suffered no fatalities or serious injuries, a testament to the training and skills of our firefighters. Firefighters and volunteers worked countless hours in heat and thick smoke, placing themselves in danger to contain the bushfires. At one point, the TFS reported that 755 fire personnel, including 159 who had travelled from interstate and New Zealand, were fighting fires across our state. Another day saw 520 crews fighting fires, while 14 emergency warnings were in place. In late January, it was estimated that more than 70,000 hours had been spent fighting fires in Tasmania.

I want to commend the many volunteer firefighters who form the backbone of Tasmania's regional firefighting capability. Without them, our state would be in cinders today. There are too many to mention by name, but they hail from 80 brigades in my electorate alone and many more in the electorates of Braddon, Bass, Franklin and Clark. Their importance, their dedication, their courage and their endurance can never be overstated. They were the difference between victory and defeat.

Many volunteers took time off paid work to help their communities. It has always been the case that volunteer firefighters use their own annual leave. There are others, like shearers and business owners, who were unable to work, and they also lost significant income—but they have no access to any leave at all. I think this has to change. Fighting fires is no longer an occasional event. We've had breakouts in Tasmania every summer in recent years, some of them very serious. I know that many volunteers want to keep alive the volunteering spirit. But I also know, from speaking to many, that they are feeling the economic, let alone the emotional, strain of the continuous call-outs. We need to take another look at how we, as a community, can better support the men and women who we call upon to support us.

I am open to suggestions. For example, do we offer up to two weeks leave for emergency services duty, similar to how we treat armed services reservists—perhaps funded jointly by the Commonwealth and state—or do we offer something like an emergency duty payment? I do not profess to have the answer here, but it is time to ask the question. We all benefit from the sacrifice that these men and women make, and I do not think it much to ask that we shoulder some of their burden.

Beyond the line of fire, we saw the Tasmanian community come together in a way that elevates the soul. Residents like Sandra in Bothwell opened their doors to strangers. Hoteliers offered rooms for free. Farmers offered paddocks for displaced livestock. Catteries offered free board for pets. Thousands of Tasmanians donated food and water—and beer; so much beer!

Kaylee Hattinger will hate being singled out, but she deserves it. Kaylee owns and runs the Great Lake Hotel in Miena, which was the eye of the storm of the fire that blazed through the Central Highlands. Roads in and out of the Central Highlands were closed to all but essential traffic throughout much of the weeks of battle, so Kaylee saw her trade drop off a cliff. Still, she opened up her hotel to firefighters, allowing it to become the hub of the Central Highlands firefighting effort. Volunteers were provided with a place to rest and plenty of food, by Kaylee and her staff, to ensure that they had the energy to go out and do their jobs. During the height of the 50,000-hectare Great Pine Tier bushfire, Kaylee and her staff fed more than 120 firefighters, and made upwards of 120 packed lunches and 120 hot dinners every day for more than two weeks. Dinner at the Great Lake Hotel would be served from 4.30 pm and often not end until after midnight. She even took out time for a small birthday party for Andrew Nisbet, known as 'Sugar', a Central Highlands volunteer who spent his 50th birthday fighting fires. Visiting Miena a couple of weeks ago, I saw firsthand what a mighty effort had gone into saving the township: a massive firebreak, excavated overnight; a line of controlled burning that kept the blaze from getting too close.

There are so many other volunteers I was hoping to mention today, and other issues. I'm sure my colleagues in Tasmania who are speaking on this motion will follow me with their own stories. I would like to thank, with my deepest respect, the Tasmania Fire Service and all the volunteers across our state who made such a magnificent effort in tackling that terrible fire.

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Lyons and I call for a seconder for the motion.

Photo of Julie CollinsJulie Collins (Franklin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Ageing and Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion.

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Franklin.

5:39 pm

Photo of Julie CollinsJulie Collins (Franklin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Ageing and Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

People would be aware that I spoke in this place previously about the Tasmanian bushfires on behalf of my colleagues, and I want to thank the member for Lyons and the member for Braddon for speaking on this motion today, and particularly the member for Lyons for drafting this motion. It is very difficult to convey in just a few minutes our thanks and gratitude, not just to the firefighters and the local communities, to all of the residents who've been supporting each other, but also to the nation, for the spotlight on, and the assistance that firefighters across the country have provided to, our home state of Tasmania.

I had the privilege of joining the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, and our state leader, Rebecca White, down in Huonville a few weeks ago, along with Senator Catryna Bilyk, to talk to local residents about these fires and what the impact has been on them, particularly in the Huon Valley. It was an honour to thank in person some of our volunteer fire brigade and some of our full-time firies in Tasmania, and also the other first responders—the SES, the police and the local councils, who were doing a lot of the heavy lifting and organisation on the ground in terms of the evacuation centres—and the workers from local non-government organisations. The Salvos, who were down at the Huon Valley evacuation centre, were making three meals a day for three weeks for the evacuees. At one stage, there were up to 600 evacuees at the Huon Valley PCYC; that has dropped back to about 150 in the last few days.

But people should be under no illusions: the fires in Tasmania do still continue. They're no threat to properties at this point in time, which is only due to the wonderful efforts of our firies in Tasmania, both career and volunteers, and of those who came over to Tasmania to assist. On the day I was there, I met firies from Queensland, firies from New South Wales and firies from Victoria. It was wonderful to see people from all over the country coming to help our island state, as we have done in the past when other states have been in similar situations.

I also want to put on record my great thanks to the local mayor. I mentioned previously that Mayor Bec Enders, the Huon Valley mayor, was only elected in October. She and her husband were evacuated from their property at Franklin, and she was at the evacuation centre with the other evacuees day in, day out, during that really difficult time. We sat with residents and talked to them about what was happening for them. We met one lady who had been evacuated three times. She was evacuated from the West Coast, the Zeehan fire, then went to Miena and got evacuated from there, and was then down in the Huon Valley in that evacuation centre. It was quite remarkable to talk to some of these people. They were very generous in sharing their stories about their experiences.

As I said previously, the really hard thing is to hear people say: 'I didn't know what every morning would bring. I didn't know what had happened to my property.' In the Huon Valley, in my area, we did lose four properties and also had some damage to some timber mills. Two in particular were Ta Ann, in Southwood, and Neville Smith's timber mill. Many of the workers at those facilities were casual labour hire, and have already been stood down in some of those areas. This has impacted the Huon Valley quite a lot.

As the member for Lyons indicated, the Tahune AirWalk has also been closed. They were able to save the visitor centre. On the walk structure in the tall timber forest: we're not sure yet whether that structure is still sound. Of course, a lot of the forest itself has burned; that will take a long time to regrow. That attraction took 80,000 to 100,000 visitors a year down into the Huon Valley, to the area of Geeveston. Without that drawcard, there are a lot of local businesses, particularly tourism operators and small businesses, who will be really concerned about what that means for their futures in the coming weeks and months until we get some clarity on when the Tahune AirWalk will be able to be reopened. We've got a lot of people on the ground trying to tell us that as soon as possible. With the timber mill and the Tahune, it is impacting a lot of locals' jobs and a lot of small businesses, and people are really starting to feel that. I know the federal government has offered some assistance. I don't think the assistance for businesses has actually started to flow yet. We're hopeful that that will happen in the coming days and weeks.

I want to say to the rest of the country, as I said the other day: Tasmania still needs you. We need you to come and visit our state. We need you to come and visit some of the fire-affected areas still. We need you to spend some money in our state and keep some of these terrific businesses going until we can rehabilitate some of these areas. A World Heritage area, as the member for Lyons mentioned, has also been burnt, but we still have a lot of national parks open. Tasmania still has a lot of forest for people to come and see. We still have a lot of attractions, and people should come on down.

5:44 pm

Photo of Justine KeayJustine Keay (Braddon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to thank the member for Lyons for bringing forward this motion and, also, the member for Franklin for sharing her experiences and sharing the devastation that hit her electorate in southern Tasmania. Unfortunately, bushfires have always been a part of our landscape in Tasmania, particularly over the warmer months. Even today, parts of mainland Australia and Tasmania continue to burn. In my state, the Tasmanian Fire Service still has alerts for 27 bushfires. At the height of the Tasmanian bushfire emergency there were 60 active fires across the state.

Like all members in this chamber, I want to acknowledge and say thank you to all the emergency service workers, paid and volunteer, who fought very hard and continue to do so through these bushfires. I also want to say a big thank you to the army of volunteers in the community who are looking after those who have been impacted, whether it be with food or drink or just somewhere to stay. On behalf of the state of Tasmania I say thank you. I also thank all the interstate and overseas firefighters who came to our beautiful state.

In my electorate of Braddon, which covers the north-west and west coast of Tasmania, we had multiple fire fronts throughout late January. Fires were burning on the west coast near Zeehan, in remote areas at Pieman Heads and at Brittons Swamp at Circular Head. The fires near Zeehan required an enormous firefighting effort. Roads were closed and people were evacuated.

As well as destroying thousands of hectares of forest and protected areas, the west coast fires have had a major effect on local businesses. The community of Strahan is the gateway to the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. It's the most beautiful place on this planet. In January and February you expect all the visitors coming to Tasmania to at least get over there, but, sadly, with the road closures, local businesses have suffered. I'm, sadly, aware of one operator who lost $5,000 in bookings in just that very short period of time. I'm also aware that, in many cases, businesses were reduced to winter staffing levels, as people simply could not get there or had the perception that all of Tasmania was on fire and cancelled their bookings. It is not the case now. I encourage everyone to come and visit, particularly the west coast of Tasmania and the far north-west. You will not be disappointed.

The west coast fires are still active, but now burn deeply underground. Firefighters are physically digging the fire out of the ground to extinguish it. While some property has been destroyed, as the member for Franklin has stated, the fact that not a single life was lost is a great credit to all involved. However, large amounts of productive forests, farmland and high-value conservation areas have been destroyed. One phenomenon we have seen is alpine forests destroyed. Sadly, these forests do not regenerate like eucalypt forests do.

Clearly we need to learn from these fire events. Following the devastating 2016 bushfires in the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area on the far north-west coast I recall concerns raised by local firefighters about their inability to properly fight fires due to environmental restrictions. The depth to which machinery could dig to construct firebreaks was limited. It resulted in the fire causing more damage to a protected area than it would have otherwise. A familiar story has been raised this time by the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, the TFGA. The TFGA has raised concerns that in the early stages of these current fires in some cases firefighters could not use bulldozers to put in containment lines in World Heritage areas or privately owned conservation areas. They've called for a review of strategies used in conservation areas and a greater focus on fuel reduction burns.

I'm sure that after these fires the relevant agencies will come together to review what worked well and what could be improved. I join with the TFGA and local firefighters from my electorate to call upon the state and the federal governments to seriously take on board what are valid concerns. I don't think there is any argument that there will be more of these extreme weather events and, unfortunately, very sadly, more bushfires. What we must do is have the mechanisms in place to allow our firefighters to deal with these emergencies to minimise the risk to life and damage to property and to provide greater protection of our most beautiful natural environment.

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next day of sitting.