Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Statements by Senators

Fire and Emergency Services

1:35 pm

Photo of Derryn HinchDerryn Hinch (Victoria, Derryn Hinch's Justice Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Nightly on the news we're seeing the carnage in California as that state suffers the deadliest bushfires in its history. The death toll has now climbed above 40. Hundreds of people are still missing. The fires have scorched and destroyed thousands of acres and thousands of homes. The ironically named town of Paradise is now ashes. More than 6,000 homes are gone forever. The home of Australian actor Liam Hemsworth and Miley Cyrus in Malibu is gone. Military veterans say that Northern California now reminds them of a war zone. Australians can empathise with Californians after Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday and the 2003 bushfires here in Canberra.

Many Australian firemen have actually been deployed to help the Americans battle fires in California. There are no Aussies there right now, but earlier this year they were there. Crews from Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and New Zealand formed a contingent that was 140 strong. They've all since returned home to prepare for our high alert bushfire season. Over the past 20 years, Australians have been deployed 17 times across the world, including to Indonesia, the United States, Canada and Greece—which leads me to the reason for this statement today. Two weeks ago, I met with Wayne Rigg and Simon Butt, volunteers with the Country Fire Authority. Both have distinguished careers characterised by that sense of selflessness and bravery that is epitomised by our country's emergency service men and women. Wayne and Simon detailed their service both here in Australia and overseas. I was shocked and enamoured at times by some of their stories—from fighting the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 to picking up the phone and finding themselves halfway across the world only two days later fighting wildfires in California. Now, sadly, I was also shocked to learn that Australian firefighters who serve overseas do not receive recognition for that service, unlike other emergency service members who also risk their lives.

Like nearly every other country in the world, Australia has a system of honours and awards so that our citizens can be recognised for excellence, for achievement or for meritorious service. We give honours to recognise, celebrate and say thank you to those who risk their lives for others. Within the Australian honours system, medals are awarded to police and military personnel for their overseas service, through the Police Overseas Service Medal and the Australian Operational Service Medal. The Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal honours Australian groups for emergency humanitarian service overseas in often hazardous and dangerous circumstances. The primary intent when the HOSM was created was not for fire and emergency personnel. However, it is currently the only award that's available to them for overseas recognition of their work.

Australian firefighters want the federal government to create an award, a new fire and emergency service overseas medal, and I support them 100 per cent. There are still applications going back nearly 20 years for the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal, and ideally those people would be eligible for the new fire and emergency medal—sadly, several of them posthumously. As I said, our firefighters and emergency service men and women epitomise selflessness and bravery. I believe they are entitled to a medal struck especially for them. On another issue, the time they've been based overseas must be included in their record of service.