Senate debates

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Condolences

Australian Bushfires

6:18 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution regarding this condolence motion and the bushfire crisis that has torn through our country in the last three months. The images that we have seen have been transmitted around the globe. They are hard for us all to come to terms with. The ferocity, the force and the power of these fires has left a real mark on our country's consciousness.

Bushfires affecting an area the size of Scotland is not normal. People dying because of fires of this magnitude and species being pushed to extinction is not normal. Hearing the cries and stories of Australians during this crisis has been simply gut-wrenching. Labor stands with all of those Australians affected by the bushfire tragedy that has gripped our nation. We are resolute in our commitment to all the families affected. Unfortunately, the crisis and the consequences of the fires will be felt for a very long time.

To our regional firefighter warriors: you have done our community and the Australian people immensely proud. You are the real heroes of this natural disaster. Some have made the ultimate sacrifice during the fires, and my thoughts and prayers are with the families who have lost their loved ones. My heart goes out to the communities because they also feel, very deeply, the loss of their community members. I want to also put on record my thanks to our overseas friends who have come to our aid at this time of crisis to lend their support. As we know only too well, some of those paid with their lives as well. So our heart goes out to them and their family, and we thank those nations for coming to our aid. Words are really not enough during a tragedy like this. I believe the actions of those who fought these fires, and the generosity of those who have helped in whatever way they can to address this crisis, have displayed the best of our country in extremely trying times.

My home state of Tasmania did not escape these fires, with blazes occurring in the lead-up to summer, and then a single fire at Fingal in northern Tasmania turned into two fires during the crisis. The east coast, highlands and southern Tasmania were all affected by the fires. Thankfully, no lives were lost. The Tasmanian Fire Service began back-burning towards the fire front to reduce the intensity of the inferno. Once it reached their containment lines, although the fire burnt for weeks, it was finally extinguished.

While Tasmania has been affected by this crisis, the majority of the devastation has affected our mainland neighbours. New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia faced fires of unmatched ferocity, fires which we have never before seen in this country. I thank the Tasmanian firefighters—in particular, rural firefighters and volunteers—who travelled to the mainland states to help our neighbours fight these fires on the front line. A dangerous mix of consistently hot days, no rain and dry, windy conditions brought this country to its knees. Fire services did not have the resources to fight these fires. We on this side know, and the Australian people also know—and now, I hope, those opposite understand—that we need greater investment to ensure that we can fight these fires and this type of crisis going forward.

Consistently hot days, no rain and dry and windy conditions may well be the new norm in Australia for decades to come, and therefore Australia must be prepared. If it takes an investment of 50 Elvis helicopters to help fight fires in years to come, then that's the investment that we should be making as an Australian government. Erickson Air-Crane helitankers were first brought out to Victoria in December 1997. We have seen them fight fires, and they work. If we were equipped this summer with more resources, I believe we could have fought the fires better and we would have saved lives, property, habitat and such large amounts of land.

The ecological cost of these fires is still being measured. Our natural environment, our flora and our fauna, has been devastated. A billion animals may have lost their lives, and the land is scorched with scars from these fires. The cost to fellow Australians is significant. The emotional toll, with the heartbreaking loss of loved ones, property and livelihood, equates to truly difficult times for so many. These fires have ruined lives and livelihoods. The damage to agricultural land, viticulture and small and medium-sized businesses is devastating. Everything must be done to help our fellow Australians to rise from the ashes of these fires and rebuild their lives.

Now this arrogant government has lots of explaining to do in relation to how our country responded, which I will leave for another time. Thankfully for Australia, the New South Wales fire chief, Shane Fitzsimmons, displayed leadership and judgement in extraordinary times. He's a man of integrity who informed the public of the crisis and what people must do. He explained to people what was happening and executed his duties with diligence and professionalism at all times. He rose up against fear and misinformation and explained to the Australian people why these fires occurred and that fire services knew for months that these fires were expected, because the science told us that the conditions were atrocious and that was what we were going to be confronted with. Thank you to Shane Fitzsimmons for his leadership during this crisis and to his team behind him.

I also acknowledge again—and I know others have put this on the record—the ABC. How good is the ABC? How good is the ABC in this country at a time of crisis? How good is the ABC in ensuring that our community and members that are going to be directly affected have the information that they need? It is so important to have that information so we can have our people reacting as quickly as possible.

The Australian community is currently suffering after this bushfire crisis, and it's not over yet. Please don't be mistaken and think that it's over, because it isn't. We're a country that is still in drought. I hope that the Morrison government does everything in its power to assist people through these times, because this affects each and every one of us.

Australia deserves leadership, not arrogance. The long-term consequences for people's way of life, especially in the agriculture and viticulture industries, will not be realised until all the damage can be assessed. But we are talking about potential job losses because of the revenue lost—businesses and families on their knees. Australia's economic loss still can't be fully accounted for, but we do know that we will be taking a hit. So Australians must heal and rebuild. I hope we as a nation will learn the consequences of these fires.

What we have to do is stand together like we normally do. Australians rally and they stand together at a time of crisis. I stand with you, and I know people in this chamber have nothing but goodwill to help those communities who have to rebuild. We will be there with you. Australians do stand together, but they need leadership. They need leadership from a Prime Minister who, until now, has failed in his responsibilities. I will talk more about that at future opportunities, but now what we have to do is stand together. We have to ensure that we support those communities and small businesses and we have to think about where we can holiday to ensure that we are able to rebuild together, because this may very well happen again.

We should have been listening to the scientists. We should have been listening to the fire chiefs. We were well and truly made aware in the most strident manner that we were likely to face this type of summer, and this government failed to act. We cannot afford to do that. The Australian people are relying on each and every one of us, and it's our responsibility to help rebuild this nation.

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