Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Matters of Public Importance

Australian Bushfires: Climate Change

6:44 pm

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

I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, nine proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Hanson-Young:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The bushfire emergency and the climate emergency.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

6:45 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

New South Wales is burning. In my home state, almost one million hectares have been razed by bushfires since the start of this year's unprecedented bushfire season. Lives have been lost. Over 150 homes, as at the last count, have been burnt to the ground. First and foremost, my thoughts and heart are with those families and communities and with our courageous firefighters, volunteers and emergency services. They must have the resources they need to do their jobs—not budget cuts, as the New South Wales Liberal-National government has done over years. New South Wales is in a state of emergency, and summer hasn't even started. The Greater Sydney and Greater Hunter areas are experiencing catastrophic conditions for the first time on record. I hope everyone is safe from the fires today.

My state is burning, Queensland is burning, and yet all we have from this government are platitudes. The experts have told us for decades that our inaction on the climate crisis will mean more frequent and more intense disasters. There is no mistaking the fact that the climate crisis is making bushfires more dangerous every year. But there is shameful silence from the government on the link between tragic bushfires and the climate emergency. Instead of a solid plan to confront this crisis, they are offering thoughts and prayers. You all have to grapple with this reality, but you refuse to. The truth might be a bitter pill for you to swallow, since you've been denying it for so long, but now is the time to change. Now is the time to stop running a protection racket for the coal lobby.

We have to act like the house is on fire, because it literally is. This is the time to talk about the climate crisis that we face. If not now, then when? Yes, the community is looking for all the support and protection, and we must be very generous in providing that here and now. But they're also looking for leadership to take real action on the climate crisis. That's what politicians are elected to do. So, yes, this is political. Your refusal to act is political too. New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has said it is unprecedented for New South Wales to have so many fires burning at the 'emergency alert' level, pointing out that it is a sobering reminder of what's around the corner.

Hundreds gathered outside New South Wales parliament this morning with survivors of these bushfires who came to Sydney to tell politicians what it's been like. Jacqui Mumford from Rainbow Flat, whose family home was severely damaged by fires, said she hadn't seen such conditions in her 30 years. Jacqui said: 'It's not too soon to talk about climate change. It's too late.' Carol Sparks is the Mayor of Glen Innes Severn Council and lost two members of her community in the fires last weekend. She wrote powerfully yesterday about the need to speak the truth of climate change's role in the fires. Her words are haunting. She says, 'Ignorance and arrogance have delivered us only ashes.' Mr Greg Mullins is a firefighting veteran and a former head of Fire and Rescue New South Wales. On ABC's 7.30 last week, Mr Mullins said: 'People are at risk. We need a game changer in how we deal with these catastrophes, because they're going to get worse and worse.' Mr Mullins leads a delegation of former fire chiefs and experts. The Prime Minister keeps dodging meeting with them.

Mr Mullins wondered what it would take to wake up the people in Canberra, and some days I wonder the same thing. What will it take? How many more disasters must we go through before you stop serving the interests of coal barons and start listening to the people you are meant to represent? Communities have been devastated by bushfires across New South Wales. Hundreds of koalas are feared dead, their habitat ravaged by these bushfires. Almost 600 schools and TAFEs have been closed across New South Wales. This isn't normal. The climate crisis is in our homes, and all the Liberals can offer is platitudes. What a profound failure of your duty to the community. In the words of Greta Thunberg, how dare you?

6:49 pm

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

True leadership does not seek to conflate the issue of climate change and the fire emergency that our country is currently experiencing. Well may the former speaker, the Greens senator, indicate to us that somebody said that in their 30 years, they had never seen such fires. I remind the honourable senator and the person who spoke those words that, in fact, Australia has been around for a lot longer than 30 years. Indeed, let's have a look at the history of fire and the history of drought within our country.

The Federation drought that lasted some eight years saw the great Murray River reduced to a chain of puddles. There were no irrigation schemes then, no big factories taking out the water and no suburbs taking out the water, yet it was reduced to a chain of puddles. Those of us who actually have bothered to study the history of our great country and its history with fire would be aware that, in 1851, there was a huge fire that crossed the landscape, causing huge devastation. There was the Black Saturday fire in Victoria in 2009, when 173 people were killed and 4,500 square kilometres were devastated. There were the Ash Wednesday fires in Victoria and South Australia in 1983, which burnt 5,200 square kilometres, destroying some 2½ thousand homes and killing 75 people. In my home state of Tasmania, there were the Black Tuesday fires of 1967, with over 60 people killed and 1,400 homes destroyed. And the 1939 Black Friday fire in Victoria burnt 20,000 square kilometres, destroyed more than 700 homes and resulted in 71 fatalities. Australian history is, sadly, a history of fire and the devastation that it causes. Indeed, the royal commission into the Victorian bushfires of 1939 indicated basically a 20-year period of dryness prior to those devastating fires.

The minimisation of fire and the fire risk is a matter of concern to anybody who loves our country but, in response to the suggestion that somehow our coalmines are causing the fires, as the previous speaker indicated, I invite the Greens to explain to us the fires that I've just listed. Were they caused by Australian coalmines? I don't think so. When the white man settled Tasmania, they discovered that southern Tasmania had been badly burnt. The landscape had been devastated by fire. Was that courtesy of Senator Faruqi's coalmines? I hardly think so. At this time when men and women are perishing, when houses and livestock are being destroyed, I invite people to have a sense of civility and decency in relation to these issues. Let's let our hearts go out to those who are experiencing this devastation and this loss. Let's let our thoughts and prayers go out to them and to those who are fighting the fires, who are on the front line, who are doing battle, and who are risking their own lives in the service of our fellow Australians.

The Greens do themselves an injustice by bringing up a topic such as this today and seeking to conflate two issues, knowing full well that they are trying to get a very cheap, opportunistic headline in circumstances that do them and their party no credit whatsoever. On this side of the chamber today, our hearts, thoughts and prayers all go out to those devastated by the fires. (Time expired)

6:55 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

) ( ): As I speak, large areas of New South Wales are burning and many more regions are under threat. People across our state face an anxious night as they wait to see whether the fires will touch their lives. Too many already know the answer. They've lost businesses, they've lost homes and, in a few tragic cases, they've lost their loved ones. My thoughts are with those communities and with the firefighters and the volunteers who stand with them. Some of the worst fires are burning in northern New South Wales and up and down the North Coast, and they're threatening places like Baryulgil, Macksville and Terania Creek. I know these areas well. I grew up on the Tweed, and I know that the towns and the communities in that region are strong, resilient and full of people who look out for and care for their neighbours. I know that they will get through this. Labor stands with them and is ready to support them in any way it can in this crisis.

Over the past few days we've had experts come out and confirm what common sense tells us is true: that the scale and intensity of these fires is unprecedented, that it's rare for Australia to be facing a risk of this magnitude at this time of year and that the fire season seems to be getting longer and longer. For some time now, climate scientists have been warning of longer and more intense fire seasons, and the science behind those warnings has only become more certain over the years. It is difficult to link any specific and particular event to climate change. However, it is increasingly clear that climate change lies behind many of the factors that make fires more common and more dangerous to more Australians. The trend is clear, and we need a plan to address the risks posed by a changing climate, because we all have a stake in a safe climate. But right now people across the country are in harm's way, and now is the time to focus on the current crisis. Now is the time to stand with those who are battling fires or who are protecting their properties and still at risk. Now is the time to support those who are grieving.

As I mentioned earlier, I know many of the communities affected by the fires. They are places with real community spirit, and the threat and tragedy of these fires will have brought people together. That is why it is disappointing that parliamentarians at the extremes of our debate on both sides saw today as an opportunity to make political points and drive people apart. Their contributions were not reflective of the mood in this place. I know that the thoughts of my colleagues are with those in harm's way—and that's colleagues right across the chamber. We are united by a commitment to do whatever we can to help. Stay safe and take care of one another.

6:58 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My deepest thoughts and prayers are with the people and families affected by the bushfire emergency. I am ashamed that some people in this place and activist groups out there are seeking to politicise this tragedy, making it a climate change debate while the fires still burn. More than 30 people are injured, including 20 firefighters, and three people have tragically lost their lives. People have lost their homes and people are still being threatened, including our brave firefighters and emergency services. Let me be clear: at a time when all of our focus and efforts should be on delivering immediate assistance, this isn't appropriate. People at risk don't need to hear politicians seeking to play some sort of blame game. There will be a time and a place for this discussion, but it just isn't now. It is incredibly irresponsible to be detracting from the help and assistance that we are providing now, and it's important our people remain aware of the situation and are informed about what support is available to them right now.

In my home state of Queensland, lives and properties are under threat and the fire situation remains fluid. At this time, 12 homes in Queensland have been confirmed destroyed. A state of fire emergency has been declared across 42 local government areas due to the tinderbox conditions. DRFA assistance is now available in the local government areas of Livingstone and Noosa. A range of assistance is available, including support for people suffering personal hardship to help with their immediate emergency needs, help for eligible people whose homes or belongings have been damaged, and funding to cover counter-disaster operation costs, including firefighting activities. I urge anyone in need of assistance to contact the Queensland government community recovery hotline on 1800173349. This non-means-tested Australian government disaster recovery payment will become available tomorrow. The payment is up to $1,000 per adult and $400 per child. Also available from tomorrow is the disaster recovery allowance, which helps affected people by providing up to 13 weeks of Newstart or youth allowance payments. I encourage people who have lost their homes or loved ones or suffered damage or injury and those who have lost income to contact their local Department of Human Services offices. If you need help with this, please contact my office.

To echo the Deputy Prime Minister, at the worst of times you see the best of Australians. More than 1,300 emergency services personnel are currently fighting these fires. Our emergency services are doing a phenomenal job, backed by service groups and community members working to ensure that our emergency services personnel have the food and other resources they need. From the bottom of my heart, I thank them all for their bravery and their compassion. We are set to face more challenging times ahead, including tomorrow, and I urge those living near affected areas to listen to emergency personnel and to follow their directions. They do know best. If you're asked to leave your house or property, please do this as soon as possible. Follow their instructions and please protect your and your loved ones' lives.

7:01 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I remind everyone that, on 1 June 2017, during Senate estimates, Australia's Chief Scientist stated that, if Australia stopped all production of human carbon dioxide, it would make virtually no change to the global temperature. Could the Greens please explain how reducing Australia's human carbon dioxide production could contribute to increasing the number, frequency or intensity of bushfires in Australia?

Trying to politicise a natural disaster is a despicable manoeuvre, even for the Greens, especially a disaster that is commonplace and has many precedents during human history. This political opportunism comes at the expense of the many who are grieving and others who are still in the line of fire. Fires are still burning out of control, lives have been lost, properties have been destroyed and brave firefighters are still putting their lives on the line. Senator Hanson-Young's motion uses this place and time to virtue signal for cheap political pointscoring—shameful.

7:03 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to make a short contribution in this matter of public importance debate. I speak as a both a senator for Queensland, which is experiencing bushfires again right now, and also as Labor's shadow minister for natural disaster and emergency management. As other speakers have made clear, we do continue to face a terrifying situation in much of Australia at the moment. My own home state of Queensland is again facing bushfires from Central Queensland through to the southern border. And, of course, there are parts of New South Wales which face, arguably, an even greater threat, with more minor—for the moment—but still serious bushfires happening in other parts of the country.

I have been in regular contact with the Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management, Minister Littleproud, and his office, and I appreciate the briefings that they have provided to the opposition through me. I have also been in contact with state government representatives and councils to make sure that the federal opposition is fully informed about what the situation is and what communities need. Yesterday I participated in a briefing with the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Albanese, conducted by officials from Emergency Management Australia—and, again, we appreciate the government's willingness to provide those kinds of briefings to the opposition.

We've been very clear at all times that the opposition are going to be taking a bipartisan approach to the management of these bushfires. This is a serious national threat that we face and, in those circumstances, we think that the responsible position is to take a bipartisan approach. We've made it clear on a number of occasions, and I know the Labor leader, Mr Albanese, has made this clear to the Prime Minister as well, that Labor stand ready to support the government in its efforts to fight these bushfires and ensure that Australians are kept safe. Unfortunately, we have already seen the tragic loss of life of three Australians at this stage. We desperately hope that that number will not increase in coming days. Of course, there has been a lot of property damage across large parts of Australia as well. As I've repeatedly made it clear, and many others in this chamber have as well, our thoughts are absolutely with the communities that are threatened and affected by these bushfires. We hope that there is no further loss of life or loss of property, and we wish all residents in those areas the absolute best over the coming days.

I also want to put on record the opposition's gratitude, again, to emergency services personnel and volunteer firefighters. The bravery that is shown by these people is absolutely extraordinary. I think, as do any of us who have seen the footage of firefighters driving through flames—literally through flames—that it is just astonishing to see the lengths that Australians are prepared to go to look after each other. Sometimes these situations do bring out the best in us. Again, I want to give a massive pat on the back to those people who are putting their own lives in danger to protect their fellow Australians.

In closing, I do want to reinforce a point that the opposition has made in the last couple of days, particularly through Senator Wong. Obviously, when we face events of this kind on this scale and frequency, and the earliness of these bushfires, they raise serious questions for this parliament about the impact that climate change is having on our environment and our communities. We are up for a debate about that. But, right now, we think that the primary task facing everyone in this chamber and everyone across Australia is fighting these bushfires and keeping people safe. It has been very disappointing in recent days to see members of parliament from a number of different parties take the opportunity to point-score and advance their political agendas—in some cases, in pretty despicable ways—rather than keep everyone focused on staying alive and looking after each other. We are absolutely up for that debate; our position on climate change is very clear. But the primary mission at hand is making sure that Australians don't die and don't lose their property. Let's hope that things settle down with these bushfires and that we don't see any further loss of life in the coming days.

7:08 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Large swathes of New South Wales and Queensland are burning as we are having this debate. People have died, communities have been devastated and ecosystems have been destroyed. The thoughts of the Greens and, I know, the thoughts of everyone in this place go out to those affected and to those who are so bravely responding to these fires. Yet our Prime Minister refuses to acknowledge the link between these fires and climate change—the direct link that climate scientists have been warning about for many decades. And, because of the science, we know that these very fires are more devastating than they otherwise would have been, and we also know that we are going to face fires like this more often than we otherwise would have faced them.

Those of us who stand up in this place to make those points, to speak about the climate science—to point out the direct link between the way we have polluted our atmosphere with carbon and carbon-equivalent gases, and the frequency and increased ferocity of fires like these—get shouted down. We get shouted down, firstly, as we've just heard in this debate, with this: 'Oh, it's too soon. Thoughts and prayers and moral support are enough for now. This is not the time to be talking about climate.' Well, you know what? It's not too soon; it's too late. And now is absolutely an appropriate time to be talking about the link between climate change and fires. To extend the argument out that Senator Watt has made and others have made in this place, it is like saying you can't talk about how to fix the health system while there are sick people in hospitals. It is a logical absurdity to say we shouldn't talk about climate change while these fires are burning. Now is the time and there is never a better time to talk about climate.

We're also shouted down and told not to politicise the fires. Let me assure you: climate politics is alive and well as we stand here today. The coal and oil corporations that bought policy outcomes from people like Senator Canavan, his mates over on the LNP side and those who sit on the ALP benches have not stopped their political efforts. We've got Premier Berejiklian's government as we speak trying to move legislation to make it easier for coal companies to pollute our environment. In this place today, the LNP and the ALP have colluded to ram through pro-coal legislation in this Senate while Australia is burning. Labor MP Mr Fitzgibbon and Liberal MP Craig Kelly earlier today sent out an invitation for Christmas drinks at Parliament House that are sponsored by who? Yes, right, the fossil fuel sector in this place. Let me abundantly clear: you cannot adequately respond to a climate emergency while you are aiding and abetting the fossil fuel sector and the native forest logging sector in this country. It is a logical absurdity to suggest that you can.

Just last week, our Prime Minister stood up at a lunch of the coalmining industry and gleefully threatened more punishments against those of us who are trying to improve our environment by boycotting the coal sector. I've got a question for our Prime Minister: When he goes to front the people in New South Wales and Queensland, is he going to take his much loved lump of coal with him? Is he going to wave that lump of coal around and try and convince them that they have got nothing to fear? Is he going to do that? I think not. I think he won't front up and admit that his fossil fuel donors will not allow him to adequately respond to the climate emergency, as 23 former fire chiefs and emergency services leaders have asked him to do. (Time expired)

7:12 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me make it clear: a state of emergency has been declared within New South Wales and parts of Queensland. Across New South Wales, we have our communities and people facing conditions like never before. And my colleagues Pat Conaghan from Cowper, around Coffs Harbour; David Gillespie at Lyne around Taree and Wauchope; Kevin Hogan from Page, who covers Lismore and Grafton; and Barnaby Joyce in New England are all up there with their communities standing shoulder to shoulder facing this fire front.

I am dismayed that, as these communities are facing this catastrophe and landholders and residents across in my home state of New South Wales are facing what is undoubtedly one of the toughest weeks in living memory, South Australia's Senator Hanson-Young and her party, the Greens, are seeking to politicise this crisis, as we have just heard from Senator McKim. I put to the Greens: how many bushfires would have been avoided if we had closed all our coal-fired power stations? Because I submit: none. And what would the difference between closing those coal-fired power stations have made to the fuel load that is building up on the floors of our national parks because we're not addressing issues such as reduction burning appropriately, we're not building the fire breaks that we used to have and we're not addressing the practical preventative measures that are required? Furthermore, today, to hear, via Sky News, that GetUp! have used this opportunity to fundraise not to help the victims but for their next election campaign against the coalition is despicable.

Right here, right now it is about the communities. I commend the fire and emergency services personnel for their efforts, as well as the many volunteers who have assisted in fighting these fires and the employers who have released their employees to volunteer in these dangerous conditions. And I thank the residents and landholders of the bushfire affected communities for their ongoing cooperation with authorities.

I also want to acknowledge the outstanding leadership of Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Deputy Premier John Barilaro in responding to the bushfires. The New South Wales government is ensuring that every resource possible is dedicated to saving life and property. Premier Berejiklian has made it clear that those communities that have already experienced the horrors of the fires over the past few days will receive the support of the New South Wales government today, tomorrow and in the weeks, months and years ahead. The coalition government is ready to stand with them to help.

In closing, I remind all residents of New South Wales that it is absolutely critical that they stay up to date on the latest bushfire information. I implore you: stay alert, stay informed, stay safe. Check on your neighbours. Look after one another. This isn't about politics; this is about people. And people matter.

7:16 pm

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

I rise to raise my concerns and express my sincere thanks to all the brave Australians from across the country who have put their lives on the line, and will continue to put their lives on the line, to save other people's lives and property during the devastating bushfires across the land. Tragically, three people have lost their lives and dozens more have been injured, including firefighters. The Rural Fire Service estimates that 150 structures have been lost, including a large number of homes. Evacuation centres have been established, and people are doing everything in their power with the resources they have to care for those most in need, offering food and drink, offering support and offering an encouraging voice.

As I speak this evening there are 3,000 firefighters and volunteers in New South Wales battling some of the most intense winds and heat our country has ever seen. So much of our country is on catastrophic fire alert, with winds reaching up to 90 kilometres per hour in high-altitude areas. There are over 70 fires across the country at the moment, with no end in sight. Australia is a country of extreme weather, and we are seeing the bushfire season start early this year. If you talk to people on the ground you'll hear that these fires are particularly intense for this time of the year. These are difficult days for many communities and individuals.

No matter our political affiliation, we in this place are all proud of the professionalism, bravery and dedication of our emergency service workers and volunteers. They are inspiring all of us, and their dedication and passion for saving other people's lives has not gone unnoticed. I would like to acknowledge the Tasmanian Fire Service crews in Tasmania and those who have flown across the country to stand side by side with their counterparts to fight these fires. Twenty-seven people from Tasmania, mostly volunteers, have flown to New South Wales to render assistance where they are most needed. Last Friday the team from Tasmania was assigned to try to save properties and protect the township of Wytaliba from the blaze near Glen Innes on Friday night. Three Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service firefighters worked to save Ms Vivian Chaplain after she was trapped while defending her home. They performed CPR and treated her burns before evacuating her across a river, but she later died. I note that this is the second rotation of Tasmanian firefighters to be sent to New South Wales, with 25 travelling interstate last week. In the coming months, as the weather heats up in my home state of Tasmania, I hope that the fire risk in Tasmania remains low and any fires can be mitigated.

One thing is for sure: Australians always have each other's back when there is a natural disaster. We come together and face these challenges together, and we are stronger for it. We will always be there for one another, but we cannot underestimate the danger. All those in high-risk areas must take the advice of emergency services. I again put on record our thanks for their commitment and dedication. Very many of these individuals lose their own property, and that should never be forgotten, but, as always, Australians stand shoulder to shoulder. We stand together.