Tuesday, 4 February 2020
I too rise today to express my condolences on the tragic loss of life and the devastation caused by the recent fires right across Australia but particularly in my home state of Victoria. In this place, I offer my heartfelt grief for all of those who have lost loved ones, friends, livelihoods and homes.
There is no doubt that the extensive nature of these fires has shocked the community. The size of areas burnt, the tragic loss of 34 lives and the extent of damage to property, whilst not unprecedented, has required the brave efforts of many to combat. But, despite being tested, or perhaps because of it, we have also seen an amazing response from Australians and the international community at an operational response level and also in rallying together to support affected communities in the areas impacted by fire. Our emergency services support organisations, spontaneous community groups and Australian Defence Force service men and women have worked continuously since August responding to fires across Australia. They have worked long and hard hours to respond to these fires. The generosity of the Australian people is amazing, and in times of crisis like these that generosity is front and centre. Even today, community organisations continue to fundraise through local markets, sporting events, neighbourhood gatherings, BBQs and so on. Volunteer organisations are also the beneficiaries of this very Australian response, not only through financial donations but also through an increased interest in people looking to join and contribute their time to various causes.
I was proud to spend time last week in East Gippsland with a wonderful organisation BlazeAid. They are a volunteer based organisation that helps to rebuild the lost fences of our farmers, and this in turn helps them rebuild their lives. Volunteering for BlazeAid was an experience that utterly humbled me, and I will continue to work with them. We were in a little hamlet called Wairewa, where 11 out of 30 homes were destroyed—just near Buchan in East Gippsland. The residents had lost so much and the volunteers I was with had so much to give. Every single one of them captured the Australian spirit. True Australian characteristics of selflessness, resilience and courage abounded. The stories of the farmers who stood and defended their homes or defended their neighbours' homes deeply moved me. Their internal strength and optimism to already be doing what it takes to rebuild showed me their strength and resilience and gave me a sense of optimism for their future.
As a parliament for all Australians, we place on record our thanks to all of those who provided donations and hours of volunteer work to supporting our fire-devastated regions. The generosity of giving and the spirit in which it has been given should inspire all Australians. As a country, we will continue to face challenges, but it is clear that we will face them together as a nation. In my home state of Victoria, sadly, four lives were tragically lost, and I express my condolences to their families.
We also thank the tireless work of many organisations in Victoria who have assisted with the response and recovery effort. This includes the volunteers and career staff of our various emergency services who continue to work tirelessly on fires around the state and to support their interstate colleagues as well. The efforts led by the Red Cross and the Salvation Army have been ably supported by many spontaneous community groups, including BlazeAid, which I mentioned earlier. They continue to assist individuals and the community to deal with the immediate effects of the fires and to start the recovery process. We also acknowledge the often forgotten roles that our local governments, media and utility companies play. They communicate information to the public, make areas safe and restore essential services as soon as possible.
As outlined by the Minister for Defence earlier and ably overseen by her work, the work of the Australian Defence Force, both full-time members and the second division reserve members, and our international partners has assisted the combat and recovery efforts of local authorities not only in Victoria but right across Australia. On behalf of all Victorians, I thank them for their dedication and their efforts to protect life, property and our environment from the destruction of this summer.
But, as we know, Australians are not unfamiliar with bushfire devastation. We have gone through this terrible process in years past. The Black Thursday fires in 1851, Black Friday in 1939 and the Central Australia fires in 1974 that burned 117 million hectares are all examples of this. Myself, I remember all too well Ash Wednesday in 1983 and Black Saturday in 2009. Fire has tested the Australian community before. In each of these fires, Australians have suffered significant personal and community losses. The stories of anguish and heartbreak were not dissimilar to the ones we are hearing now.
However, I'm confident that Australians and Australia will come back from these fires. The bush will regenerate and regrow and people will mourn and then, with our help, rebuild their lives, their homes, their businesses and their communities. This is the time that support and help from government is most critical to help people access the support they need, whether it be financial support, health and mental wellbeing services, rebuilding local businesses, providing critical infrastructure or the encouragement to bring visitors back to regional Australia. Governments at all levels will have a vital role in supporting recovery efforts and ensuring people are able to recover and move on from the devastating impact of these fires. It is important to remember that governments need to do this in consultation and partnership with local communities.
I very much encourage all members of this place and the wider community to visit regional holiday and tourist areas again, especially those in my home state such as Lakes Entrance, Mallacoota, Bright, Omeo and the greater alpine region. Your support, business and spending will be vital in helping these communities get back on their feet after this disaster.
I would also like to issue a call to action to everyone in the community, but especially to our younger generation, to follow in the footsteps of previous generations and volunteer in their communities. Australia has been built on the back of volunteers. And now more than ever I believe all who can should consider becoming a volunteer. It doesn't have to be fire related. Just give of yourself what you can. I would love to see the rates of volunteering double or more as a show of respect for the sacrifices others have made in their service. I feel very proud that two of my staff volunteer for the Red Cross Emergency Services and the ACT Rural Fire Service, and I thank them for their commitment and their service during this fire season.
Finally, again, I extend our condolences to all who have suffered destruction and loss as a result of these fires. Our thoughts are with you and your loved ones, and we will continue to support you as best as we can to recover.