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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 943

Mr RUDD (Prime Minister) (2:56 PM) —by leave—It is a remarkable thing about our land that in our parliament today we have had moving accounts of both fire and flood, as our nation battles with all the elements. I thank those members who have spoken today: the member for Gippsland, the member for Indi, the member for Kennedy and other members who have just now contributed. I note the message of many of those members, which is for us all to be there for the recovery and reconstruction of these communities for the long term, beyond the time when the events which grasp the nation’s attention now are no longer in the headlines or on the front page. That is our sober responsibility to each of these communities.

The Victorian bushfire crisis has moved into a new stage. We are now dealing with two immediate challenges. First, we must continue to fight fires in the face of a situation that has deteriorated in the past 24 hours. Second, we must continue the difficult work of recovery for those who have suffered the impact of fires already. In addition to these two immediate challenges, we must move ahead with preparations for the task of long-term reconstruction. In executing these tasks there will inevitably be gaps in what governments do, and inevitably frustrations will emerge. Our task in the days, weeks and months ahead will be to fill those gaps as quickly and effectively as possible. I would thank members for their contribution to that task in the reports they provide to government on the way through.

First, an update on the firefighting in Victoria. The fire threat in north-eastern Victoria has, I am advised, been increased overnight by strong southerly winds. This morning the Country Fire Authority issued urgent alerts for the communities of Acheron, Cathedral Lane, Rubicon, Thornton-Taggerty Road, and Bulls Lane, with an increase in fire activity in Murrindindi-Yea. The Yea-Murrindindi fires burning to the west side of the Black Range have picked up due to southerly winds, and early this morning they were estimated to cover an area of approximately 100,000 hectares. Our most recent report on the Bunyip Ridge fire indicates that, despite some improvement in the outlook for communities, the communities in that area should remain on alert.

The fire is burning in an area of approximately 25,000 hectares in the Bunyip State Park and state forest and has the potential to directly impact communities in that region. Fire activity also remains high in the Maroondah-Yarra complex, in particular south-east of Toolangi and east and north of Healesville. Fires are continuing to burn in many other areas of the state, including the Churchill-Jeeralang fire, the Kinglake complex and Walhalla. There are of course challenges elsewhere across the state. As one member said to me last night when I telephoned him to speak of fire challenges in his area, it is important to remind the nation that we continue to be in a fire crisis and we are continuing to recover from that crisis which has been meted out to communities already.

The latest information confirms also the catastrophic scale of these fires. I am advised that there are 181 confirmed deaths from the fires and I am further advised that this figure will continue to rise. There are 570 injuries. There are 78 admissions to hospitals—up to 20 patients have been admitted into the major burns system at the Alfred Hospital. At latest count, 1,033 houses had been reported lost, 450,000 hectares had been burnt and at least 5,000 people remain homeless. Of course they have nothing at all: no money, no credit cards, no car and no clothes.

On recovery efforts, the Commonwealth now has four agencies working with the Victorian recovery centre on the immediate challenges: the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Defence Force, Centrelink and of course FaHCSIA. Over 460 Defence Force personnel have now been deployed to assist with a range of tasks, some of which I outlined to the House yesterday. On behalf of all members and all Australians, I would like to thank Defence Force personnel and reserve personnel for their exceptional efforts. ADF teams are providing direct assistance to those who have lost everything in the fires. They are also on the front line of fire fighting and they are providing relief for firefighters and emergency service personnel.

In relation to the immediate search and recovery effort I inform the House that the ADF has deployed a search task group of approximately 160 reserve soldiers headquartered at Kilmore. This group comprises four search teams to assist emergency management agencies search through rough terrain on foot near Traralgon, St Andrews, Flowerdale and Yarra Glen. I am advised that the search team deployed to Flowerdale has completed its work. It is now preparing to deploy to work in the Kinglake area.

Centrelink is providing direct assistance on the ground in fire-affected areas through the Australian government disaster relief payments. Today in the Australian newspaper there was an open letter to me from Mr Gary Hughes, a victim of the fires who lost his house. Mr Hughes wrote of his dismay at being asked to produce identification to receive his relief payment after he had registered with the Red Cross at the relief centre at Diamond Creek when all of his personal documents had been destroyed in the fire. Indeed Mr Hughes wrote a very moving account in the Australian on Monday of how he and his family had narrowly escaped death. What happened to Mr Hughes should not have happened. The government accept the criticism and we are doing everything we can to remove obstacles for people in claiming emergency relief. That is why Minister Macklin is currently in Victoria—to make sure these problems are fixed as quickly as possible and to ensure that Centrelink operates as flexibly as possible given the challenges we will face.

On the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, I would also update the House on the work that the Australian government is undertaking alongside the Victorian government through the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority. As I announced yesterday, the authority will be coordinating bushfire recovery activity across the state of Victoria. The Australian federal government and the Victorian government will share equally the costs of rebuilding communities affected by the fires. I repeat what I said yesterday to the House: the Australian government’s contribution to this reconstruction effort will be uncapped. The authority will coordinate the activities of all local, state and Commonwealth agencies and community organisations. Members will be aware that the authority will be headed by the outgoing Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Christine Nixon. The authority will determine what action is required, such as temporary government offices so residents can continue to access vital assistance from Centrelink and the Department of Human Services to temporary doctors clinics and pharmacies to ensure prescriptions are written and able to be filled and other essential services.

Our priority must be to make these towns become functioning centres of community life again as soon as is possible. They will need to make sure the power and water is reconnected and running properly so residents can return as quickly as is possible. Where homes have been destroyed, the authority can smooth the path for individuals and insurance companies helping to quickly process claims. Then we will move to the task of permanent rebuilding. Cutting through bureaucracy and getting the job done, the authority will direct and coordinate the teams of builders, tradespeople, engineers and other professionals who will rebuild the schools, libraries, community halls and recreational facilities—all the parts required to get these towns back on their feet for the long term; and for that to be done as soon as possible. We must also in the task of reconstruction learn from what has happened—with plans for a safer future.

I turn now to insurance. The Assistant Treasurer, Chris Bowen, this morning spoke to senior insurance industry representatives from the Insurance Council of Australia in order to get a clear assessment of how insurance companies can expedite claims and provide assistance to the victims of the fires as soon as is possible. I understand from the Assistant Treasurer that he made it clear to the Insurance Council that the government expects insurers to act promptly and compassionately. People who have suffered a loss of property due to the bushfires should contact their insurer directly. Some insurers have put in place special arrangements to assist claims. Insurers are allowing lodging of home and motor insurance claims over the phone and providing up to $5,000 of emergency funds where required for food and clothing. I am advised that all insurers are putting claim staff and assessors on the ground as soon as is possible in order to access affected areas and to assist.

The Insurance Council of Australia and its members have also, I am advised, activated an insurance task force to coordinate assistance to those who have concerns or questions about their insurance claims. The Master Builders Association has also joined the task force and will be assisting with the supply of trades and supplies for the rebuilding effort.

I would say this to all members and through them to their constituents: if any person has problems with insurance companies, people who have been affected by this extraordinary disaster, I would like them to contact their local member of parliament and I would like their local member of parliament to contact directly the Assistant Treasurer so that we can deal with these problems.

The country at large has been extraordinary in its response to these natural disasters. The people of Australia have opened their hearts, they have opened their homes, they have opened their wallets and they have opened their lives to those who have been directly affected by these disasters. There is, of course, in some places in Australia understandable frustration about people wanting to give and not knowing how to give or where to give. The response we have been provided by the relevant authorities is that the overwhelming preference is for people if they wish to give to give in cash rather than in kind—cash to the registered national appeals, cash also to the relevant charities who are in the front line assisting with the immediate emergency task.

Dealing with the immediate challenges that I have referred to and that I referred to yesterday is of critical importance. Dealing with the longer term challenges presented by these bushfires, these natural disasters, must also be dealt with over time: challenges including long-term building codes, challenges including long-term planning laws, challenges including long-term vegetation management, challenges including the handling of power transmission systems—I noted carefully the contribution to the debate yesterday by the member for Mallee in this respect and I spoke to him again about it last night. There are long-term challenges of bushfire research, long-term challenges of the adequacy of our arson laws and many other challenges as well.

Our responsibility as members of this parliament is to learn from this extraordinary disaster and to act on what we learn. In this respect, both on these immediate challenges and on these longer term challenges, none of us in this place is the repository of all wisdom. Therefore it will be important to harness the ideas and the initiative of the entire community and all members of this place, be they government or opposition. Certainly in my discussion this morning with the Leader of the Opposition I extended to him a heartfelt invitation that if there are any ideas or proposals in dealing with these natural disasters of an immediate term nature or of a longer term nature then of course they should be made directly to the government. I have spoken to the Leader of the Opposition about mechanisms through which that can be done.

Finally, I pay personal tribute to the member for McEwen. She is quite an extraordinary woman and reinforced this again in a conversation I had with her this morning. She was feeling bad about the fact that she was not here with us all. My advice, and I am sure the Leader of the Opposition has concurred in the same advice to the member for McEwen, was that she is better placed where she is, with her people and her community. I say that because we all know in this place that it is her communities and her area which have suffered the worst in all of this. I also said to her, and I have reflected this also in conversation with the Leader of the Opposition earlier today, that when she does return to be among us, all members, government and opposition, look forward to her speaking to us and at length about the experiences that her community has just been through. I thank the House.

Honourable members—Hear, hear!