Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Australian Bushfires

3:16 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) to a question without notice asked by Senator Wong today relating to bushfires in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia.

Yesterday, the Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, said that we are currently facing 'the most dangerous bushfire week this nation has ever seen'. As of this afternoon, there are over 70 fires raging across the state of New South Wales. Forty of those fires are uncontained, 10 fires are at the emergency level, 10 fires are at the watch-and-act level, over 600 schools are closed and nine have had to be evacuated. We know the conditions this evening have the potential to turn worse than they currently are and can develop rapidly. For the first time in our history, a catastrophic fire warning has been issued for the Greater Sydney area, as well as the Greater Hunter, Illawarra and Shoalhaven regions. This represents an extraordinary threat to life and property. Many more fires are threatening communities in Queensland and South Australia.

Bushfires are cruel. They are a force of nature that indiscriminately takes life and property. With them, they take part of our nation's soul. The tragic 1993 and 1994 bushfires that impacted communities across the eastern seaboard happened before I moved permanently to Australia. My now husband, Ben, was visiting me in the United States as we followed the news, particularly of his family being involved in taking in people who had to evacuate their homes. In January 1994, Sydney was threatened with total isolation due to these fires. Those 1994 bushfires destroyed 800,000 hectares of bushland, along with 225 homes. They took four lives. They changed Sydney and they changed New South Wales. The events of 1994 were one of the catalysts in forming today's modern Rural Fire Service—the same RFS that is bravely battling on the ground today protecting people and property—and yet, since the start of this year's bushfire season, a million hectares have been razed across New South Wales, surpassing that of the horrifying events of 1994.

The devastation inflicted by bushfires is senseless, along with the way that they impact the lives of our fellow Australians. Since Friday, we know that three people have lost their lives in New South Wales. This is an irreconcilable and incomprehensible loss. Given some of the commentary earlier today by the member for New England, I would like to respectfully pay tribute to these three Australian and New South Wales citizens. I pay my respects and send my sorrow to their families. I speak specifically of George Nole, Julie Fletcher and Vivian Chaplain, who have lost their lives in these fires.

More than 150 homes have been destroyed, but we will not be able to comprehend the full scope of this disaster for some time. Labor extends our sincere sympathies to those who have lost loved ones, livestock, pets and property. Our thoughts are with you at this time, and we stand ready to work alongside the government and affected communities to help in any way we can.

I would also like to pay tribute to our incredible emergency personnel and volunteers, who are currently battling these fires across the eastern seaboard. More than 3,000 firefighters have been deployed across New South Wales today to fight these fires and prevent further loss of life. As a former Premier of New South Wales, and as a member of the New South Wales parliament for nearly 10 years, I've been honoured to see our emergency services personnel and volunteers up close. Whether it be during times of flood or bushfire, they are highly skilled, dedicated and courageous. They typify the Australian spirit of helping out one another in a time of need. That Australian spirit is on display right now, in the most harrowing of conditions, through professional firefighters and volunteers working alongside local community members and Defence Force personnel.

We know bushfires don't respect borders, and we thank those people who've travelled from interstate to fight the fires in New South Wales. The footage we've seen is truly terrifying and only serves to underline the extraordinary bravery being demonstrated every moment by those who are risking their lives to protect people, homes and communities. I urge everyone who is in areas affected by fires, including in my hometown of Sydney: please remain vigilant, listen to warnings, download the Rural Fire Service's Fires Near Me app and stay safe. (Time expired)

3:21 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Fire is a friend and a foe. Of late, fire is being an absolute foe, destroying property, livestock, habitat and, most tragically, human lives. Decent Australians' thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, those in the thick of it and the selfless frontline workers valiantly fighting the fires, seeking to protect lives, property and habitat.

We do face a bushfire emergency. Regrettably, it's nothing new in Australia. I recognise the commentary from Senator Keneally: yes, it is true that it is the first time ever that it's been labelled as 'catastrophic', the reason being that we've got a new fire level management system that has introduced the term 'catastrophic'. That was introduced in 2009. So let's get a sense of proportion and not seek to play politics with this. Let's understand that, in 2009, a new regime was introduced, which uses the term 'catastrophic'.

I'm not sure whether it was one million acres or one million hectares that the good senator referred to as having been burnt out. Undoubtedly, much, much more has been burnt out. A million acres—I did a rough calculation; I hope I'm right—is about 4,000 square kilometres. The Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009 burnt 4,500 square kilometres. Twenty-six years earlier, the Ash Wednesday fire in Victoria and South Australia burnt 5,200 square kilometres. Sixteen years before that, in my home state of Tasmania, 2,600 square kilometres were burnt out. Before that—by 28 years—in 1939, 20,000 square kilometres were burnt out. So you can go back in history, especially back to the 1850s, where huge fires devastated our country.

The royal commission into the Victorian bushfires in 1939 said:

For more than 20 years the state of Victoria had not seen its countryside and forests in such travail. Creeks and springs ceased to run.

This was in 1939, so 20 years prior means starting from 1919. We also know that, from 1895 to about 1903 or thereabout, there was the eight-year Federation Drought, which saw the mighty Murray stop running. We've got to understand that this is a country of droughts and flooding rains, as Dorothea Mackellar told us so poignantly in her poem 'My Country'. And so, as our fellow Australians fight fires, seeking to protect life, limb, property, livestock and native wildlife, let's just be mindful of the task they are facing, remember them in our thoughts and prayers and give them all the support that we possibly can in these most difficult times. Let's not seek in any way, shape or form to play a game that might be seen as taking an opportunistic approach to this very serious issue.

Fires are an absolute foe and menace to us in the Australian landscape, especially when fuel loads are allowed to build up and build up. We know that. That is a lesson that we learned from the Australian habitat. Our Indigenous people ensured that fuel loads were in fact relatively low around the countryside, but nevertheless massive landscape bushfires devastated my home state of Tasmania at about the time of white settlement. In 1967 there was a major fire, in 1934 there was a major fire—and so the list goes on. Let's not play politics with fire. Let's give every support to the men and women who are fighting them and fearing for their lives and their property. (Time expired)

3:26 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise also to take note of the answer given by Senator Cormann to Senator Wong's question in relation to the fires across the country, in particular in New South Wales and Queensland. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service deputy, Rob Rogers, said earlier today that the situation was unprecedented and worse than he could have imagined. More than 3,000 firefighters are currently deployed in New South Wales and are supported by 60 aircraft. The response of the state government in New South Wales is at a scale that has not been seen before. More than 600 schools will be closed across New South Wales today, and I'm advised additional schools are being closed throughout the course of the day as fires threaten them. There are 55 fires burning through New South Wales. Thirty of those are uncontained, seven are at emergency level and eight are at watch and act.

While there are fires from the Queensland border through to the Bega Valley, the most significant fires in New South Wales at this stage are in New England and on the Mid North Coast and Far North Coast. In that country—particularly in northern New South Wales—there are many townships and many farms. In the coastal hinterland there are retirees and families living on small bush blocks who are all at enormous risk today and over the course of last week. I know that the thoughts of everybody in this place are with those people.

I spoke to Paul Sekfy, whose property was destroyed over the course of Friday. I should say all of the adjoining properties in his area were destroyed. His shed was destroyed. He returned home to a house that will be uninhabitable and found a note from the Rural Fire Service that said: 'We're really glad we could save your house. I'm sorry about your shed.'

I spoke to the Mayor of Glen Innes, Carol Sparks, yesterday. I rang her for two reasons. Firstly, I think right now it is the job of people in this place to listen and learn. The mayor of Glen Innes was certainly forthright in her views about what Canberra and politicians should be doing. Secondly, it is the country that I grew up in. I know it very well. The countryside, particularly the state forest and national park, are densely wooded. They are dry; they have never been drier. It is very difficult to defend properties and defend those small townships in that circumstance. We mourn the deaths of the three people who were killed last week: George Nole and Vivian Chaplain at the fire in Wytaliba and Julie Fletcher in Johns River. I think it is also important to put on record what the mayor of Glen Innes said to me about the people in Wytaliba who fought so hard to save not just property but the lives of their fellow residents, who were ultimately killed.

I was astonished to hear what the member for New England had to say earlier today on Sky. It was vulgar, it was crass and it seems that there is no low that the former Deputy Prime Minister has not sunk to or will not sink to. What difference does it make who Australians affected by fire vote for? I do not think anyone should have any regard to that. I do not actually think that anybody in this place should. It is beneath contempt. It is a source of enormous disappointment to his constituents in New England. Australians should be working together in these crises.

For Labor's part, we are thinking of the people here. We want to support the emergency services, volunteer and professional. I know that people in that region, in relation to one fire, had been fighting that fire for 70 days in a row. They are exhausted. We want to see the full resources of government committed to making sure that they are safe and sound and that we keep Australians safe. (Time expired)

3:32 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers to questions relating to drought, and I will speak to the coalition government's support for drought-hit communities and farmers. The coalition government—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Van, we are taking note of answers to questions that Senator Wong asked of Senator Cormann, and they went to the fires.

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, in which she referred to drought.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

No, they went to fires.

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Okay. My apologies, Madam Deputy President.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

That is fine. We all make mistakes!

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Our first concern is for the safety and the needs of those directly affected. I think we all agree, especially in this chamber, that it is in times like this that we have to work together and look out for each other. As the Prime Minister said on his visit to the fire-affected communities in New South Wales, Australians are at their best in difficult moments like these. They have shown incredible spirit, heart and generosity. Our emergency services are once again showing their professionalism and dedication in the face of very difficult conditions. In a repeat of advice already given today in this chamber, if people in fire-affected areas are asked to leave by the fire services or emergency services, they should do so to look out for their families and look out for themselves: protect their lives and those of their families before looking after their properties.

I would also like to add my thanks to all the career and volunteer emergency services personnel fighting these fires. I would also like to acknowledge the comradeship on display by the contribution to the New South Wales firefighting efforts by interstate personnel from the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. The clear advice given by fire services to our communities—and I would like to repeat this—is to plan ahead and be prepared. Days like today are not the times when you want to start that planning or start your preparations. These are the days when those efforts need to be bearing fruit.

I'd also like to add that the Australian government stands ready to immediately assist those affected by fires in New South Wales and Queensland. I'd also like to note the defence minister's answer in question time that the Australian defence forces are coming to the aid of those fire areas. Talking about the Australian government assistance, as well as the ADF forces that are being added to this, fire-bombing aircraft have been in action across these fires, and our national aerial firefighting arrangements are ensuring the best possible aerial firefighting equipment is available to protect Australians. Every year the Australian government invests around $14.8 million in aerial firefighting. The Director-General of Emergency Management Australia, EMA, activated the COMDISPLAN on 31 October in response to a formal request for Australian government non-financial assistance, following significant fire activity in New South Wales. This remains activated today. Emergency Management Australia liaison officers have deployed to the New South Wales RFS State Operations Centre and the Queensland State Disaster Coordination Centre. The Australian government is in close contact with New South Wales and Queensland authorities and stands ready to assist.

Disaster recovery assistance is being provided under the DRFA, the disaster recovery funding arrangements, in response to the bushfires that have affected the Mid North Coast and northern New South Wales. DRFA assistance is available for the Mid North Coast bushfires in the local government areas of Coffs Harbour, Kempsey, Mid Coast, Nambucca and Port Macquarie-Hastings and for the northern New South Wales bushfires in the local government areas of Armidale, Bellingen, Clarence Valley, Glen Innes-Severn, Inverell, Richmond Valley, Tenterfield, Uralla and Walcha. A range of assistance is available.

3:37 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the answer given by Minister Cormann to the question asked by Senator Wong. Today is a tough day for Queensland, and tomorrow will be even tougher. I want to thank Minister Cormann and Senator McKenzie for their comments today and add that Queensland Fire and Emergency Services are responding to 55 active fires across the state. There are currently 170 crews on the ground working to keep Queenslanders safe. Some of these fires located in the south-east corner of Queensland have been burning since September, as they are in locations that are difficult to access. Twelve homes have been destroyed, along with the mundane to the memories—family photographs, clothes, heirlooms, items from pantries.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services have 'prepare to leave' notices today for the following areas: Rosevale, Mount Alphen, Double Top, Clumber, Tarome, Adelaide Park, Cobraball, Maryvale and Lake Mary. Residents have been told to be vigilant when it comes to air quality in Brisbane, Ipswich and the Gold Coast. Air pollution is 10 times higher than usual and likely to be the same tomorrow. There are strong winds tonight and there will be more tomorrow. Complicated and challenging wind conditions will make it challenging for firefighters on the ground.

Can I take this opportunity to thank the state and federal governments for their response to this most recent weather event. I know in my home state we have the very best experts in emergency and disaster management response, and we thank all emergency service personnel: firefighters, police, ambulance officers and all of their support staff. We thank those members of the emergency service personnel from other states and countries travelling to Queensland to provide support to our own brave and most likely exhausted fireys. Please stay safe. Please know your service is appreciated.

I'd also like to thank the regional Queenslanders and others working in the media today to bring information and updates to Queenslanders who face unthinkable threats. We are incredibly lucky in regional Queensland to have local newsrooms and journalists dedicated to delivering stories. They bring the rest of the pictures that convey the true horror of these fires. They bring us the human face of these catastrophic events. They're often in the line of fires themselves. We don't often thank the media in this place, but, in regional Queensland, they are also part of our community, and we do thank them for their service.

Over the past few days, I've heard a number of comments on what is correct to say in debate during times like these. On the one hand we have climate change deniers blaming vegetation management legislation for these conditions, and on the other hand we have reactions that seek to blame senators in this chamber for the direct lighting of fires themselves. I've warned both sides on this: no-one comes to this debate with clean hands in politicising what is a tragic event. What people living in regional Queensland—the people who are continually impacted by these disasters—want right now is less talk and more action.

Queenslanders are tough and resilient. Flood, wind, fire—we've had it all thrown our way. But when the sky turns black and the wind picks up and smoke starts to fill the air around you, it's hard not to feel lost and hopeless. Queenslanders are stoic, but right now they are suffering. So to those people back in Queensland I say this: the smoke will pass, and the fires will burn out. The remains of your houses will be rebuilt. But no Queenslander will do this alone because, above all else, Queenslanders stand together, today, tomorrow and always.

Question agreed to.