House debates

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Ministerial Statements

Disaster Risk Reduction

10:30 am

Photo of Fiona PhillipsFiona Phillips (Gilmore, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to rise today to talk about our community's disaster risk reduction. Frankly, nothing could be more timely than this discussion as the end of this summer nears—and a terrible summer it has been. 'Harrowing' is the word that springs to mind when I speak with the many people who share their terrible stories with me. That is what it has been—absolutely harrowing. This government did nothing to prepare for this disaster. They have done nothing to keep our community safe from disaster. They did not listen when, time and time again, the experts warned them about the dangers that were coming. They did not reduce the risk by making sure we had the resources and equipment to respond quickly. They were to slow to respond—and they have been missing in action ever since.

The fires in my electorate started in November. By the time of the last week in this place last year, I had an overwhelming feeling that something was terribly wrong, that our community was at risk and this was not good. All of my instincts were to leave—to go back to the New South Wales South Coast and be with my community. On 3 December, I did leave. And from that day on, for as long as those fires were raging and for all the time since, I have been on the ground with my community. For the 10 weeks until I returned to this place, every day I have been talking with local people and hearing the stories. Perhaps if the government had been doing the same, they wouldn't stand here with platitudes and promises about plans and risk reduction. They would know that we were not prepared and we did not respond how we should.

I want to be very clear about this: I have no criticism of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service workers. I have no criticism of the district managers, the emergency services personnel or anyone on the ground fighting this fire. Our RFS workers are our heroes. They have done an incredible job, in very difficult circumstances, fighting every day to keep our community safe. They have felt the pain of our community with us. I have said it many times but I will say it again: thank you from the bottom of my heart to every one of our RFS crews, our emergency service workers and volunteers for everything you have done. But these amazing crews that have done amazing things were put in harm's way by this government because the government did not listen. The government stubbornly refused to take advice from experts and they let this fire season take hold like never before.

The Currowan fire, the one that started it all and eventually split into four different fires, burned on the New South Wales South Coast for 74 days. It began on 26 November and it rapidly got out of control. And my community is still coming to grips with all that happened next. When I met with Gerry, a farmer from Conjola, I was struck by how his words resonated with what so many people had been saying. Gerry talked about how volunteers and the community have stepped in where the government should be. It is the community who have led our response to this crisis, not the government.

The government has for months refused to listen to the experts. The Prime Minister refused to meet with the former fire chiefs who warned we were headed for disaster and needed to take action. I had the pleasure of meeting one of these former fire chiefs. He is running the community response in Lake Conjola. I met him at the community centre there. Peter Dunn, the retired ACT emergency services commissioner, stood up with other prominent leaders like former commissioner Greg Mullins in December and said the government was asleep at the wheel, that we were at risk and that we needed action now. But the Prime Minister refused to listen, and the government has remained asleep at the wheel. While our communities are suffering, the government's response has been slow. It has been inadequate and it has left so many people—in the words again of Gerry—feeling 'traumatised' by their government. It is the community, not the government, that is leading this response, and the government could learn so much from what the community has to say.

A great example from my community is the Kangaroo Valley Community Bushfire Committee. The committee formed 18 months ago, after they saw a gap in the government's disaster plan. They put together a bushfire community plan. They split the community up into nine neighbourhoods and they appointed a coordinator. They knew in advance which families would be staying in the event of a fire and which would be leaving. They knew who would need help and where they could get it. The committee had their UHF radios so they could communicate with each other. In a community where mobile phone reception can be unreliable, this is critical. They were ready and they, no doubt, saved lives.

I met with one of their members, Matt, recently. One of the things that Matt wanted to raise were concerns about the Hampden Bridge and what he saw as the fire approached. The Hampden Bridge is essential for the Kangaroo Valley community. Like many communities on the New South Wales South Coast, there is one road in and one road out. In the valley, this road requires the bridge. But the government has no plan for the Hampden Bridge. There is no water resource. There is no risk management, only ad hoc reactive attempts to protect it—a historic bridge, an important access point, and there's no plan.

This is not an isolated incident. When I visited the Sussex Inlet community on the day that the road into Sussex reopened, I heard how people had to be taken by dinghy across the inlet to St Georges Basin where the evacuation centre was. Again, there's one road in and one road out. That meant, when the fire came, they were cut off. There are many stories like this: so many of my communities had to fend for themselves when the roads were cut.

When the fires came, they quickly knocked out large parts of our electricity network. In our evacuation centres, where hundreds of people were told to go, there was no power, and there was no back-up power—no generators, no way of keeping the lights on, no way of keeping people cool in the searing 40 degree heat. In Ulladulla, the evacuation centre got lucky. The Stardust Circus was in town and they had generators. It was thanks to the luck of the circus, not the risk reduction of the government, that the lights stayed on in Ulladulla's evacuation centre.

Many people further down south were not so lucky. The evacuation centre in Moruya was a basketball stadium and simply not fit for purpose. It has no air conditioning and no insulation. I have heard terrible stories from people evacuated there about the conditions they endured. Again, it was the community looking after each other that made the difference.

There was no plan for people with a disability, who were turned away from those centres and turned away from the hospitals, left with nowhere to go. I met with local disability advocacy group roundsquared. They stepped into this space, helping their clients where they could, making sure they were safe. They told me terrible stories about what they saw.

When the Currowan fire was split for the first time and the Clyde Mountain fire was born, an emergency operation centre was established in Moruya. When the Princes Highway finally reopened, I visited the centre and was sorely disappointed by what I saw. The Eurobodalla does not have a dedicated emergency operation centre, so staff trying to deal with a crisis on a magnitude never seen before were using a community hall. They were working on trestle tables. This is just not good enough. The government talks about risk reduction, but, in a time of crisis, our community did not have the basics necessary to respond.

I have spoken many times over the last few weeks about this government's slow response to the bushfires. The minister's statement talked about the government's $2 billion commitment and the national disaster recovery fund. That sounds like a lot of money, but the question is simple: where is the money? I speak with people in my community every day and this is what they are asking. This is what I am asking. When will they actually see this money on the ground? Our community has had enough of empty promises and empty rhetoric from the Morrison government. They need to see action now; they can't afford to wait.

Debate adjourned.

Federation Chamber adjourned at 10:40