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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 946


Mr TURNBULL (Leader of the Opposition) (3:11 PM) —by leave—I thank the Prime Minister for his remarks and in particular thank the members for Gippsland and Indi for their very moving and compassionate speeches full of compassion and indeed full of common sense reflecting their very great insight into their communities, particularly in these very terrible times of fire. I also thank the members for Kennedy, Dawson and Herbert for their reports on the floods in North Queensland.

The Prime Minister and I were able to meet this morning, and I thank the Prime Minister for that opportunity. In these very troubled times Australians look to their leaders to work together in a common purpose. It is vital that wherever we can we aim to collaborate and work in a bipartisan way, because we do have a common purpose of putting these communities back on their feet. I say again, as I have said all week, we will support whatever it takes to put these communities back on their feet after this terrible tragedy.

In that spirit there are a number of practical measures that I have raised with the Prime Minister that I will raise now in the House because they are important issues that the House should consider, that the public should consider. We would propose that a special commissioner for disaster insurance should be appointed for a fixed term to oversee the response of insurers to the natural disasters both in Victoria and in North Queensland, to act as an advocate for those making claims and to act speedily on complaints from insured persons. The commissioner would report to the parliament and to the government quarterly. As we know, very often victims of bushfires have had to wait for a very long time to get their claims paid. We should do everything we can to ensure that the insurance industry responds quickly. I commend the Assistant Treasurer for his actions already, but nonetheless we believe a commissioner of this kind would add additional force and authority, and indeed impartiality, in this effort.

Equally, it is important to ensure that government contributions are directed to those in need and do not substitute for payments from insurers. In other words, government funds should not be directed in a manner that actually relieves the obligation of insurance companies; they should be directed to those in need.

The Prime Minister has established with the Premier of Victoria a joint Commonwealth and Victorian bushfire reconstruction authority, and we certainly commend him on doing that. That is, we understand, to supervise and coordinate reconstruction efforts. That should be a genuinely bipartisan effort, and it should include parliamentary representation. We would propose that the member for McEwen, the Hon. Fran Bailey—whose community, as the Prime Minister has just said, has been most gravely affected—should be appointed to that authority.

We also propose that a joint select committee should be established to review these tragic events in the Victorian bushfires, especially taking into account the findings of other recent inquiries into bushfires, including the report of the Nairn committee inquiry into the 2003 Canberra bushfires. We appreciate that the Victorian government has established a royal commission, and we welcome that. There will be great public interest in the identity of the commissioner or commissioners and, indeed, in the terms of reference, but we welcome the principle. But we all understand in this place that royal commissions can take several, often many, years before they reach a conclusion. There has been a great deal of work done on bushfires in the past. That should be reviewed again in the light of these events, and it should be reviewed by this parliament. This parliament should take action here. The royal commission should not be a mechanism that puts parliamentary action on hold for years and suspends public debate and parliamentary inquiry.

Those are a number of practical matters that I would encourage the Prime Minister and the government to take on board now. The Prime Minister and I discussed a number of other matters, which we will no doubt continue discussing and which will no doubt be the subject of debate or discussion here in this House on another occasion. I say in conclusion that the nation that we are privileged to represent in this parliament is totally united in its commitment to restore these communities and put them back on their feet, and we should resolve to work together in a bipartisan way, as Australians, in ensuring that justice is done to the victims of this dreadful tragedy.