Senate debates

Tuesday, 4 February 2020


Australian Bushfires

1:06 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

In November, this chamber paused to reflect on the destruction caused by the bushfires in my home state of New South Wales. At that time, I noted we were facing the most dangerous bushfire week this nation has ever seen. However, those weren't my words. They were the words of the Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons.

In the months since then, there has been no respite as we have endured the most devastating bushfire season this nation has ever seen. The summer months have been relentless for communities across Australia, for fireys, for volunteers and their families and even for our native wildlife. In New South Wales, the fire front has stretched from Timbillica near the Victorian border to Gospers Mountain and Kerry Ridge inland and from the Central Coast to Newcastle.

Every state and territory across Australia has been impacted in some way by this bushfire season. These bushfires have been unprecedented in their scope and destruction, and the images of destruction and suffering will remain etched in our memories forever: the mass evacuation in Mallacoota, the devastation of Kangaroo Island—particularly its koala population—and of course the loss of human life there. Even today, a few kilometres south-west of here, firefighters continue to battle a fire in Namadgi National Park which threatens the suburbs of Canberra.

These events have been traumatic for all Australians both at home and abroad. We have seen pictures of small holiday towns like Lake Conjola in New South Wales being splashed on the front pages of the TheNew York Times. Thirty-three lives have been lost as a direct result of these fires. Nearly 3,000 homes have been destroyed, more than 11 million hectares have burnt and over a billion animals have perished.

These were not normal bushfires, and we can't pretend that our lives or our world will ever be the same again. This season will be remembered as one of the worst disasters in our nation's history. The effects of these fires will be felt for years, if not decades, by our environment, by our communities and in our economy. And, regrettably, right now, there is no sign of the threat abating.

Through the devastation we continue to hear stories of bravery, generosity and empathy shown by ordinary Australians in extraordinary times. As a nation, we have opened our hearts, our homes and our wallets to support one another. I take solace in the fact that we haven't forgotten who we are as a nation. We have held onto that Australian spirit that's forged by kindness during times of great adversity. That is the definition of mateship.

Our emergency service men and women have now spent months on the frontline. Theirs is an enormous personal sacrifice, and one they have made for the safety and security of their fellow Australians. These fires are indiscriminate. They take life and property without prejudice and they have no respect for state borders. But, through it all, we've even seen people from differing walks of life and with differing faiths and political views be united. I commend former Prime Minister Tony Abbott for his ongoing time on the front line as an RFS volunteer, just as I thank every other Australian who contributed to those efforts over the summer.

As a former premier of New South Wales, I know it is a role in which one will inevitably be faced with fires, floods and drought. In December 2009, just one week after being sworn in as premier, I was inspecting bushfire-ravaged areas near Bathurst. And while I may adamantly disagree with Premier Gladys Berejiklian when it comes to many political issues, through this bushfire season she has shown daily the leadership that the people of New South Wales deserve.

Likewise, I would also like to recognise and thank the RFS commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons—someone I worked with when I held the role of premier. Shane has demonstrated the clarity and the compassion that the Australian people are looking for during this time of crisis.

I also want to acknowledge my colleagues the members for Macquarie, Gilmore and Eden Monaro. Sue, Fiona and Mike were consistently and daily working with their communities, their electorates, that were significantly and, in many cases, devastatingly impacted by these bushfires.

As we return to parliament today, it's appropriate that we use this time to reflect on the lives that have been lost in this tragedy. Every single one of these 33 individuals who lost their lives leave people behind—parents, partners, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, children and mates; they have lost a great deal. It is important that their names are recorded and their lives are honoured by this Senate: Robert Lindsey, Gwen Hyde, George Nole, Vivian Chaplain, Julie Fletcher, Barry Parsons, Chris Savva, Patrick Salway, Robert Salway, Laurie Andrew, David Harrison, Michael Clarke, Ron Selth, Dick Lang, Clayton Lang, David Moresi, Mick Roberts and Fred Becker. There are also six unidentified victims who've perished in these fires. I hope they can be identified quickly so that we can remember them too.

There are six brave and selfless Australian firefighters who we've lost this bushfire season: Andrew O'Dwyer, Geoffrey Keaton, Mat Kavanagh, Bill Slade, Samuel McPaul and Colin Burns. Their bravery and selflessness is beyond description.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the three American firefighters—three men who came from the country of my birth. They've travelled a very long distance to help Australia, and they ended up giving everything for us—Ian McBeth from Montana, Paul Hudson from Arizona and Rick DeMorgan Jr from Florida. They will now forever be remembered for the sacrifice they made for our country.

My deepest condolences are with the families and communities who have been and continue to be affected by this tragedy. I pray for the safety of the firefighters who continue to put themselves in harm's way to protect their fellow Australians, their communities and even their own homes. I urge all Australians to remain vigilant, to cooperate with local authorities and to stay safe. We will recover from this disaster. It will, at times, be painful. It will take time.

As part of our recovery, though, we must acknowledge that our climate is changing. As we speak here today, fires are still burning. The city of Canberra—this parliament building—is filled with smoke. Australians across the country are scared and concerned. They are fearful for what a changing climate means for them, for their children and for their communities. They are worried about the world that we are living in today. They are worried that, in a year's time, we'll be back here in the Senate again, dealing with another devastating bushfire season. We are facing longer and more intense bushfire seasons and more severe weather. We don't want to be back here in a year, in two years, in five years and in 10 years time, still talking about the death and destruction that has been wrought upon us by a changing climate.

Today is about honouring victims. But we don't just honour their lives and their sacrifices with words; we honour them with our actions. As members of the Parliament of Australia, we are elected, we are asked and we are expected by our fellow Australians to respond to their fears, to listen to their concerns, to take action and to show leadership on how we are going to prepare Australia, and the world, to deal with the changing climate. We will need leadership from everyone in this building: leadership to reduce emissions, to prepare for natural disasters and to reduce risks across the environment, the community and our economy. We should do this united as Australians. I hope and I pray that that unity and that commitment to ensuring that this type of tragedy does not become the new norm in Australia will inspire all of us across this parliament to face these questions and these challenges with that Australian spirit of mateship and that it will shine through and live on in our country stronger than before.


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