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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 1031

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (11:00 AM) —It is difficult to say that you are pleased to rise on an occasion like this to talk to a motion like this, because we all would wish that we were not actually facing the circumstances that Victorians and other Australians are facing, but we are and, as the member for Canberra, on behalf of my community I want to record our deepest sympathy and empathy with all of those affected throughout Victoria and particularly those within the fire-ravaged areas and the areas touched by fires.

I asked my staff this morning to give me a list, to try and make me correct, of the federal electorates that are, to any degree, affected by this fire experience. And—at the risk of being a little bit wrong, and I hope I am not—the electorates remotely, closely or deeply affected cover almost the whole of Victoria. They include: Murray; Gippsland; Indi; McEwen, in particular; Mallee; Bendigo; Casey; Ballarat; McMillan; Calwell and Wannon—and, obviously, areas surrounding all of those electorates as well.

So when we, as a community, offer our sympathy and our empathy to all of those people, it is to the people within those electorates but it is also to those within the state of Victoria and, sadly, I have to say, it is to people throughout Australia who are now beginning to feel the effects as well. An instance of that is a family in my electorate—who I found out about yesterday, who have lost their whole family in Kinglake. So it is very evident that, when there are constituents of mine, who I personally know, who have lost a daughter, a son-in-law and three small children, we are beginning to see the tentacles of this fire spreading, in that human and personal way, throughout all the different parts of our community in Australia. We are, sadly, still at the height of it, and we really do not have any idea, I think, of when exactly this is going to end.

Unfortunately, from our point of view, in Canberra we can empathise. About three weeks ago we had the sixth anniversary of 18 January 2003, when Canberra suffered a very similar type of fire—but with a different outcome in terms of enormity. Whilst we lost 500-plus houses and, sadly, four lives, the extent of the Victorian fire in its coverage and its spread is obviously much, much greater.

Yet the experiences of this community of the ferocity and the speed of the fire are very similar in many ways. We are hearing stories from Victoria that are very similar to stories from here—and the member for Windsor made comment to this effect as well—in terms of the sheer unstoppability of a fire when it reaches that point. I know that the fire control people and the firefighters here in my community said to me on more on than one occasion after our experience that, even if they had had a fire truck on every corner of every suburb in Weston Creek, for instance, they still would have had no hope of stopping the fire, because once it gets to that point it is, literally, unstoppable. So the points that previous speakers—in particular, the member for New England—have made, in relation to what we can try to do as a community to avoid it getting to that point, are really the salient points of this debate about doing all we can to try and stop a repeat of these horror stories. The experience also we have had here also leads me to comment, if I can, on what we are seeing as an impact down there and what we can begin to imagine is ahead for those people.

Obviously, the loss of life is beyond comprehension. The numbers are horrendous, and behind every single one of those numbers is a person with a family—the human impact. Then we have the loss of homes and buildings, livestock, pets and wildlife. There is also the loss of infrastructure—the community buildings and schools and places where non-government organisations and community support services operate from. All of those support services that exist day by day within our communities have lost their ability to operate out of a facility. And the infrastructure in terms of roads, bridges, power poles, telephone boxes and letterboxes—imagine all of the things that are part of the normal street where you live—is all gone. The rebuilding of all that infrastructure, in every shape that it takes, is going to take a long time.

I turn to the rebuilding of houses. I know that here in Canberra a small number of people who lost everything had left within 24 hours and were never seen again. That was their way of dealing with the impact on their lives. Then we had some folk who could not wait to rebuild and miraculously had a house up within three months. We had others who needed time to think of what they wanted to do. Did they want to replicate their house? Did they want a new design? Did they actually want to do it? Were they prepared to consider trying again in blackened areas? In some of the hot spots the soil was burnt down to a metre, and that is what has happened in Victoria. To imagine that you can begin again in that sort of scenario takes a bit of thinking, and these people needed some time to do that.

Then you had others who took a year or two to decide whether they could stay and rebuild. If you go to the worst hit suburban areas here, you may even today, six years on, see the odd block that is left where people have not been able to make up their minds. They are in a very small minority now but they still exist. So what I am saying is that the human reaction to this is going to be varied and as a community—including this government, state governments and authorities—we need to understand that giving a commitment to rebuild is the best commitment we can possibly give, because it gives an indication to all of those people that no matter what their decision is the community is with them and will do it with them. We also need, however, to understand that the impact is so deep that people will need to be able to work through their reactions in a variety of ways.

Then you have the people whose houses did not burn. Whilst initially they will celebrate that and be thankful for it and shocked by it, they will also have their own pathways of recovery. In many instances, probably, when services come back those people will be able to resume their lives in their houses, although they will be living in blackened, desolate surroundings—and that in itself will have a cost, emotionally, to them. I cannot imagine anything more difficult than going back to a house that was in a beautiful area that is now surrounded by death and destruction in a very blackened landscape. We will have to show them some understanding. Those people will go through a phase where the area around their home, should they be back living there, becomes a reconstruction site. And that in itself will bring a variety of challenges and new circumstances, none of which is insurmountable and none of which, I suggest, is necessarily bad—such as building controls, new shapes of houses and the impacts on neighbours.

The pathway to recovery for all of these people is going to be very vexed and incredibly varied. There will be an enormous range of outcomes for everybody. They are going to have to decide how and when they can afford to rebuild their local footy club. They will need to reconnect with their neighbours. Those who decide to go back to their communities will find that other people have not gone back and their communities are different. That all brings about different social needs, different community expectations and different pressures.

The reconstruction authority and the royal commission that have been announced are absolutely correct and proper and they should happen. In my view we should be dedicated to the rebuilding process and we should do this with the greatest of enthusiasm. I am not doing a comparison here with our experience, because this has had a much heavier impact, but the speed of the fire and the devastation were very similar and the impact on human lives will be very similar. Members of this parliament, members of the community, officials, agencies and governments need to be fully prepared for a long recovery process. We should not expect these people to be okay in six months. We should not think that, if they have their house up, they are okay again. It will take time.

I very sincerely acknowledge the actions that are being taken to offer a variety of counselling. That is going to have to continue for a long time. I want to very strongly emphasise that the need for all of those recovery support services, such as counselling and financial assistance, will last a long time, and people need to be given that time. In that period they will need encouragement as well to know that they are going okay, whatever direction they take.

In any tragedy of any enormity, whether it be an unexpected death in the family, an accident or going through something as enormous as this, we as human beings have a tendency to move after the initial shock of what has happened into a period of grief and then—depending upon the circumstances, of course—into a phase of anger and then into a phase of asking questions such as: How? Why? Is there someone I should blame? Is there someone I can blame because that might make me feel better as it removes from me all of the other emotions that I have gone through? That is going to happen in this instance. It happened here as well. Some folk found it necessary to continue down the path of blame for some time. In my view, in doing that they left the sores of emotions open for a long time. Others really just wanted to get on with their lives and put all that behind them. So again there will be a variety of responses.

I join all the other members of this parliament in applauding the community response and the appeal process. People have an anxiety to help. People want to do something. They feel that the only way they can deal with this terrible thing is to be part of it, to get in and assist in some way. I actually smiled wryly the morning before last when I had morning TV on, which I usually do not do. The journalist was interviewing a fellow standing outside a recovery place somewhere who was doing his little bit. He had a barbecue and he was cooking breakfast for everybody. He said that people really needed a feed. When someone asked him if there was anything he needed, he said he needed some bacon. Within 20 minutes he had 50 kilos of bacon in front of him. He did not know what to do with it, because he did not have enough people to eat 50 kilos of bacon.

That reminds me of what happened here in Canberra when there were lots of offers of furniture and mattresses. The ABC put out a call for utilities: ‘If you’re out there with a ute and you can help, could you call in.’ Within 20 minutes they were saying: ‘Please, we don’t want any more utilities. We’ve got nowhere to put them. We’ve got a traffic jam outside the ABC.’ These instances reflect the general population, who are not involved in this in a physical way, wanting to be involved by offering their help.

Obviously what we can do there is turn that into support. I know that they are being flooded down there with physical assistance—they have so many clothes and all that sort of stuff—and that is wonderful, but I am saying to my community—and I think we all are to our own communities—that we really need people to donate money. It does not matter if it is a $2 coin or a $2,000 cheque; what matters is that we get some financial assistance down there through the appeals that are now open. I am asking my community to do that, and I know we all are.

I want to commend the speakers preceding me through this whole debate. Mention has already been made of the member for McMillan—and I have to say that contribution yesterday was pretty enormous—but I want to thank the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition for the leadership they showed at the beginning of this debate and the words that they have given to the parliament. I want to repeat the condolences from my community. I am aware that the Premier of Victoria and the Chief Minister of the ACT have already had some discussions. Given our experience, we have some knowledge on how to set up recovery processes and so on. I know that that is now happening. I am really pleased about that because I know that there will be people here who will really want to help in any way that they can in a practical sense in those processes. I am sure that that will happen.

In conclusion, I want to repeat that feeling from our community to Victoria. I want also, as I have indicated, to mention that there are going to be other people around our communities who are indirectly—and therefore directly—affected just by the impact of having family members down there, let alone by the loss of family members. We should consider that as well when we are talking to our own electorates. We must do what we can to help anybody if they need to get some assistance and they need to talk to people. If they are feeling boxed in in any way, we should not leave them there. We should get them out and offer them whatever access we can to counselling, so that they can sit down and talk about the emotions that they are going through. As has been said, this is the biggest and the worst that we have seen in this country in terms of human impact, and we need to deal with it. I really am grateful to have this opportunity, and I join my comments to the comments of all other members of the House. I wish everybody in Victoria the very best under the circumstances.