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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 1068

Mr SYMON (5:02 PM) —Today I rise on behalf of the constituents of the electorate of Deakin in support of this condolence motion for the victims of the Victorian bushfires. That such a tragedy has occurred is shocking; that it is not yet over is deeply disturbing. Every day brings more terrible news about more death and more destruction. As the winds pick up today in Victoria, many towns are again under threat. My sympathy, my heart, goes out to all those affected, especially those people who have lost loved ones, friends, neighbours, workmates or those who know others who have. The destruction of life, property, personal belongings, pets and animals, and even little mementos and keepsakes, is on a scale that is almost incomprehensible. The horror of the pictures and the words that have been conveyed from the many destroyed or affected townships fills me with immense sadness, as each of these pictures or stories represents a person or a family whose life has now gone or is tragically changed forever. That such a disaster can occur in the 21st century reminds us all that nature has not been tamed. A bushfire in the 21st century is no less fearsome or deadly than in times long ago.

As a Victorian member I have listened to the other contributions to this condolence motion with trepidation. Each speaker has told of the destruction, whether of life or property, but many have told stories of hope or escape. Some of those stories are almost beyond belief. I grew up in the outer Melbourne suburb of Bayswater in the 1960s when it was still semirural. One of my earliest memories—as a child of probably only three or four—is of looking out the back door on a summer’s afternoon and seeing the fires in the Dandenong Ranges. I think that would have been around 1968. It was a fair distance from where we lived—in fact, at that time it was quite a few miles away—but, as a small child, that was one of the things that was in my memory and will not go away.

Fortunately, on that day, and every other time there were fires in the hills while we were living in that house in Bayswater—and that was quite often—they did not come towards us. They always burnt into the hills. As we have seen and heard in some of the stories of these fires, however, they have gone into areas that are not even regarded as hills. The fires around Bendigo, where bushfire intruded into what are really suburban streets, will need to be looked at in great detail in the upcoming royal commission. Even though I lived a long distance from those fires, distance is no object when a bushfire is raging—as we have seen in recent days. Time seems to go—or does go—in mere seconds. If a bushfire is travelling at the speed of over a hundred kilometres an hour, the best laid plans simply do not always work.

I well remember the bushfires of 1983, which were subsequently known as Ash Wednesday. Forty-seven Victorians died in those fires and another 28 people died in South Australia. The smoke from the fires covered Melbourne, the sky turned a dirty brown and fine ash rained down in many suburbs. About a week or so after the fires had gone, I decided to volunteer and to go up and work in the township of Cockatoo, which had been burnt out in those fires. Three hundred and seven buildings and six lives in that little township up in the hills were gone, and that was just one of many places in Victoria that were burnt—almost beyond recognition—by those fires. I volunteered, and there was so much work to be done; there was quite simply nothing left in the way of services. There were a couple of shops in the main street that had not been burnt and a relief centre—which was a community hall, from memory—that had not been burnt and that had the Red Cross and various others operating out of it. By that stage, the initial clean-up had started, but it was still so far from ever being what it is now; and today it is actually a thriving town.

The work I was doing involved something quite simple: installing temporary builder’s electricity supply poles on each burnt-out block—and, as I say, there were many of them. At that stage, there were no powerlines, there were no phone lines and the roads—where they had been tarred—had burnt. There were lots of volunteers up there doing small jobs so the big ones could start. I suppose it was just a truly devastating experience to see what that township had been through and to see it up close, not in the fury of the flames of the bushfire but in what came after. Even the street signs melted. The glass out of the street lamps melted into big teardrops. There were burnt-out cars, houses and structures of all kinds. Even the trees around Cockatoo were just giant black matchsticks—no leaves, no branches. The smell that had been left behind by the fire was there in every breath you took.

The other thing that I had forgotten—it is 26 years since the Ash Wednesday fires—was the absolute silence of the place. There was no noise—no birds, no animals, no sounds of humans even, because they were spread out across what had been the township, doing small jobs. The silence was all encompassing. Even though I was not exposed to the fury of the fire or the fear of it coming in, seeing the fires on TV now and hearing the stories, seeing afterwards what it had done, certainly brings back those memories. That there have been worse fires than those that occurred on Ash Wednesday is a national tragedy that requires us as a nation to consider all alternatives, whatever they may be, when dealing with bushfires.

Many of the towns that have been razed over the last few days are very familiar to me because I spent many weekends and holidays enjoying the surrounding bushland—going away for the weekend, camping with my Scout group at Glenburn, fishing in the river at Murrindindi, having cold beers at the Narbethong pub, playing bad golf on Sunday mornings at the Marysville golf course or having weekends away with the boys on the Black Spur. For me those things were some of the benefits of growing up in the eastern suburbs and its easy access to the bush: those places were all less than an hour up the Maroondah Highway or the Melba Highway.

Although my electorate of Deakin has escaped any direct damage from the bushfires, there are many people in Deakin affected by this disaster through friends, family, work connections or school, and those stories are widespread. There is probably no-one within the electorate that is not connected or does not know someone in the neighbouring electorates. As I said before, we are only a short distance from the hills and therefore from some of the fires.

Like just about every other speaker on this motion I have to say what a great job the CFA, the DSE and the MFB—who have sent some of their services across—have done in doing everything they can to protect people’s lives and properties. It is a huge effort in Victoria at the moment with so many fires burning at once, and some of them are in such inaccessible areas. You could never have enough people available to counter what is happening at the moment. Fortunately, in the last few days the weather has been kinder than on the weekend, but I think many people in Victoria on Saturday, when it was 46 degrees, knew it was going to be a rough day. It is not as if it was a total surprise. The warnings had gone out, but then things just got dramatically worse.

Of course I cannot forget the work the police, the SES, the ambulance services, community groups, the Red Cross and the Salvos have done and are doing. It is fantastic to see that community spirit come out. It is still out there now—and it needs to be out there for such a long time to come. I am told there are 5,000 homeless people; I am sure that figure will grow. As I said before, rebuilding is going to be an even bigger task than it was after Ash Wednesday. It took many communities many years to overcome that, and we still do not know how much more Victoria is going to face. As the Deputy Prime Minister said in moving this motion:

Every one of us here today will do everything that we possibly can to respond, to rebuild and to make certain that, to the extent that we can ever combat nature’s might, such tragedies cannot happen again.

I wholeheartedly agree with the Deputy Prime Minister, and I commend this condolence motion to the House.