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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 125

Mr CREAN (Leader of the Opposition) (3:39 PM) —It gives me great pleasure to second this motion. The fact is that no-one likes getting phone calls at meal times, particularly on Christmas Day, but on Christmas Day this year 1,000 calls went out across New South Wales and the ACT, because it too was threatened. People were called out, away from their loved ones, their Christmas meals together, to go and fight for the protection and survival of the property of others. None of those calls was welcomed, but all of them were responded to. They were the volunteer firefighters of New South Wales and it was their call to duty.

For most of us the news did not filter through until later in the day that New South Wales was going through the beginning of an experience which would see them, for the next 24 days, under one of the most severe bushfire threats in that state's history. I remember speaking to Andrew Refshauge, the Acting Premier, the following day, Boxing Day, to ascertain the extent of the problem. The Prime Minister has mentioned this, too. Despite the gravity of the situation, the irony was not lost on either of us. In Melbourne the cricket test could not proceed because it was raining, yet in Sydney they were sweltering and they were burning.

I flew to Sydney. I went up the next day, but nothing that I had seen on television prior to going prepared me for the magnitude of the problem. Flying up from Melbourne to Sydney you could see, from the Southern Highlands west to the Blue Mountains and north as far as you could see, that the whole of the basin was covered in smoke. The pilot warned us that as we flew in and descended we would smell the smoke in the cabin, and we did, so intense was it. On the ground the feeling was eerie: the pall of smoke was hanging everywhere. The Prime Minister described it as he saw it on the evening before. I happened to be there the very next morning.

To see the impact on the ground was staggering. That day I visited Helensburgh and Heathcote. Despite the widespread and unforgiving nature of these fires, what strikes you is that bushfires are also terribly discriminating. I remember standing with a group of firefighters who were showing us where, on either side of a garage, two houses had been burned out. In front of one of those burned-out houses a house still stood, but on the other side of the road the house had gone. When I was talking to the firefighters—and they were exhausted then so you can imagine what they would have been like at the end of 24 days—I found them to be people who did not complain: they were people who knew they had a task to do, and they had set about doing it.

I also visited the Rosehill command centre, which was an operation I will never forget. I would also like to pass on my congratulations to Phil Koperberg and in particular to his team, who gave us a briefing. Phil was on edge that day, as well he might have been, because the reports coming in about the weather were terrible. They were facing a circumstance where, on the next weekend—bearing in mind that this is the day after Boxing Day—the forecasts were for 40-degree temperatures and the wind building up. When you looked at the ring of fires around Sydney, you could see that there was no direction that the wind was coming from that could not inflame the situation somewhere, such was the nature of the surrounding areas that these fires were covering in Sydney. So these people knew they needed more support, more effort. I think it was on that day that the Prime Minister announced government support. That was very welcome indeed. That was appreciated not just by the firefighters themselves but by the New South Wales government as well. But that was the beginning of it.

At its height, there were 100 bushfires raging around New South Wales and the ACT. There were 170 homes destroyed, most of them in the early days, but, incredibly, more than 10,000 homes were saved. As I said, undamaged houses stood beside damaged ones, but it was the effort of the firefighters post the 170 homes that went up that was miraculous in itself.

Services were cut. People were evacuated. The logistics were incredible. I got stuck in the traffic going down to Heathcote on that morning. The traffic was not moving because the police had to screen those going in. They had to let some people back in because the power poles, which were timber, went up in flames, the power went off and so, in the homes that had been saved, the refrigeration was off and food was rotting. You can understand the dimension of the logistics. This is not just about trying to seal off an area; it is about trying to protect and preserve it in a healthy state.

I think the most incredible thing out of this exercise was the fact that not one life was lost. I do not know of anything that approaches this event in magnitude in which lives have not been lost. That is not just a tribute to the firefighters themselves; it demonstrates the lessons that have been learnt from these earlier tragedies. We are better prepared as a consequence.

The situation deteriorated after the first couple of days—that weekend that I talked about. I talked about the calls that took place on Christmas Day, but there were calls that went beyond that subsequently: they went to Queensland, they went to Victoria, they went to South Australia, they went to Western Australia and they went to New Zealand. The calls went out and they were all responded to. Every state in the country contributed to this effort. This was mobilisation on a national scale. Convoys of fire trucks and buses stretched out along Highway No. 1 in this country. Airlines put on special flights; state governments sent their helicopters.

The real work, however, was not done by the machines. The Prime Minister mentioned Elvis. I think we all remember Elvis and, in a funny sort of way, we probably remember it because it was the only name that was given to something helping to save the situation. There were many others, all of them with names, who participated in and contributed to the effort. There were 10,000 volunteers in the field at any one time—70,000 of them in total. About two-thirds of that figure were active in firefighting and the other third were supporting agencies, such as the police, ambulance officers and volunteers from the state emergency services, the Volunteer Rescue Association and St Johns Ambulance.

The new member for Ballarat told me of the 50 volunteer brigades, together with local professional officers and a large contingent of Department of Natural Resources and Environment and Parks Victoria staff from her electorate, who joined the fight. My deputy, who will speak later in this debate, met an amazing family from Cessnock, the Roberts. She will talk about them later. Every member of that family served in the crisis and the family ensured that not all members went out together on the same job in recognition of the danger and the risk that they were being exposed to.

Over the next 24 days, the nation stood in awe of these people. They were ordinary Australians—men and women—but heroes all. They were farmers, construction workers, housewives, plumbers, electricians, forklift drivers, shop owners, office workers, public servants, unionists, the unemployed, the self-employed—a cross-section of the Australian community. If they were not mates at the beginning, they were at the end. These are the people who are nation builders. In this case, they were saving the nation. They are people that we praise, and deservedly so, but I think it is important to put in context the circumstances in which they performed because they seldom receive accolades or thanks. And, in many cases, when you talk to them they say that they do not expect to. They appreciate your presence, they take it in good spirit, but they know what their task is.

How do we recognise their efforts? Our lasting monument to the men and women who battle bushfires should be a redoubling of our efforts to recognise the importance of that great Australian virtue—volunteerism. The solution should not be a bureaucratic one. The firefighters demonstrated that we need to help strengthen the capacity of communities to shift for themselves, but we can help. The first thing we should do is to keep recognising their efforts. The public parades for the firefighters have been marvellous events. I had the opportunity to attend the one in Sydney last week. Phil Koperberg told me that he was even more nervous about attending to receive the award of gratitude from the city than he was at any stage during the firefighting effort. It was a privilege to be a part of that event in Sydney. It was fantastic to see the firefighters, the volunteers and all the support people parade, proudly bearing a banner that defined their region, their community and their district. It was like the Olympic Games ceremony in a funny sort of way, with everyone coming in proudly holding up victory signs behind the placard that defined their region and their contribution—and all of them would turn out and do it again.

In addition, we should support extra funding for research into bushfires, Prime Minister. Len Foster from the Victorian Country Fire Authority and his colleagues from the fire authority's council are seeking federal funding for a national centre for bushfire research, and examination of their proposals should be given proper consideration. We need to understand better why some houses survived while others burned to the ground. We should continue to make ex gratia payments to the volunteers who lost pay as a result of their service, and we should examine ways of encouraging employers to give time off to firefighters. We should ensure that there are tough penalties for those people who deliberately light the fires. As the Prime Minister indicated, something like 70 per cent of the fires were thought to have been deliberately lit.

Bushfires have ravaged the continent since the birth of time. One of the first things that early European explorers recorded about Australia was the smoke and raging fires that they could see from their ships as they arrived. We will not ever end the threat of bushfires. Their explosive potential lurks in the fibre of our continent, but we can be better prepared. Supporting our professional and volunteer firefighters is the best preparation we can make. We should congratulate them today, but we should continue to support them in the future because they will be supporting us.