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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 1087


Mr NEVILLE (6:44 PM) —I have always loved poetry, drama and theatre. A poem came back to me this week as we heard the horrific story of the bushfires in Victoria. By today’s standard it is quite a melodramatic poem and even a bit romantic, but there are two themes in the poem: one is the fury of unrelenting bushfire and the other is the Australian spirit of sacrifice. The poem is called Bannerman of the Dandenong and it was written by Alice Werner in 1891. The word that kept coming back to me through the poem was ‘Dandenong’. To many of us who have enjoyed the beauty of the Victorian bush the word ‘Dandenong’ is synonymous with outer Melbourne and, more poignantly in this instance, with the electorates of McEwen, La Trobe and McMillan, where our colleagues Fran, Jason and Russell have been so sorely tested over recent days.

Over the years the Dandenongs have had more than their fair share of bushfires. The link between the word ‘Dandenong’ and what has happened in the past week was not a hard link to make. The poem tells the story of two young men, one returning on his grey horse to see his girlfriend on the Lachlan, the other a horseman from Dandenong who rode a very strong bay horse. Not unlike recent days, the poem tells the story:

There fell a spark on the upland grass—

The dry bush leapt into flame;

And I felt my heart go cold as death,

But Bannerman smiled and caught his breath,

But I heard him name her name.

Then the ride of the young man and Bannerman takes off in earnest as the bushfire develops, and it is oh so familiar to the reports we have received in recent days:

Down the hillside the fire-floods rushed,

On the roaring eastern wind;

Neck and neck was the reckless race,

Ever the bay mare kept her pace,

But the grey horse dropped behind.

He turned in the saddle—“Let’s change, I say!”

And his bridle reign he drew.

He sprang to the ground, “Look sharp!” he

said

With a backward toss of his curly head—

“I ride lighter than you!”

Down and up—it was quickly done—

No words to waste that day!

Swift as a swallow she sped along,

The good bay mare from Dandenong,

And Bannerman rode the grey.

The hot air scorched like a furnace blast

From the very mouth of hell;

The blue gums caught and blazed on high

Like flaming pillars into the sky;

The grey horse staggered and fell.

How many stories have we heard in the last week similar to that? Someone stays behind to protect the home; the wife leaves and the husband is never to be seen again. These scenes have been reported over and over again in the 118 years since Alice Werner wrote that poem. We know there have been major recorded bushfires since 1851, when, in 47-degree temperatures and fierce winds, five million hectares of country was burnt out, countless livestock were lost and 10 people were killed. It was repeated again in 1898, then in 1919, 1926, 1932, 1939, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1952, 1962, 1969 and of course Ash Wednesday in 1983.

As we speak, we know that 181 people have died, which is moving towards three times the scale of the next worst incident that has been recorded in Australian bushfires, and we know that at least 800 homes have been lost. But the story is not much different. The image of the horse has been replaced by the image of the car. The basic story stays the same. Some cars escaped; others were engulfed like Bannerman’s horse, never to be seen again or just to be left on the roadside, burnt so much that the metal is almost white.

Many of the other stories of this bushfire have been eloquently conveyed by my colleagues, so I will not go over the same things again. But there are three images, perhaps even more than images—realities—that come back to me. The first is the faces of children. To open the paper and see the faces of children from the one family who have been lost is just overwhelming. There can be no greater loss or sadness than the loss of children by parents; almost of equal sadness is the loss of parents by children. And we have seen plenty of that in those 181 deaths.

The other image that touches me very much is the one of three firefighters—it looks like a girl and two men—lying by the side of the road in a little bit of green grass, trying to catch a moment of sleep before encountering the next fire. That, to me, is a very potent image. It is emblematic of the commitment of the firefighters, the SES, the Army, the police, the ambulance officers and the community organisations who provide food, shelter, clothing and the like. They are all practised in their art. Those three young people sleeping by the roadside are, as I said, emblematic of those who after exhaustion have to line up again for another period of intense activity. The topography of Victoria in particular but of the southern states generally dictates that these areas will burn. Given the right conditions, there will be very fierce fires. It is a fact that we have to live with.

The other image that comes to me is that of accountability. Today is not the day to go into who is to blame, whether there was too much fuel on the forest floor or any of that sort of thing. That is for others to deal with. But I am very heartened by the promise of the Victorian Premier that there will be a full and frank royal commission. He is supported by the Prime Minister in that. He did say that all things will be on the table. I think that is commendable, and I ask that everyone cooperate with that royal commission. There was a study of this parliament into bushfires not so many years ago, in which at least one state would not cooperate. What a shame that was. We cannot afford to let that happen again. We need total and utter cooperation. I hope the other states will introduce parallel legislation so that, even though it will be run in Victoria, it can become a national royal commission. It should not just be, in my opinion, putting things on the table. What is infinitely more important is that, after the report is written and the recommendations are made, those recommendations are acted on. How often we in this place have seen great reports that have not been acted on. We cannot afford to have in a few years time another conflagration that perhaps is three times this one. This should be the line in the sand.

The other thing I ache for is the people who have lost their homes. When it first happened, we had commentators on the radio and television saying: ‘These people must never return to these places again. They are going to have to go and live somewhere else.’ That really offended me. God, how that offended me. Australians have a love affair with the bush. Many people do. Some people like solitude in the bush, in the jungle in North Queensland, in the mountains of Victoria or wherever it might be. We have to make sure that our preparedness is good, that things like back-burning are well done and that there is a routine for these things. To diverge for a second, some people in my electorate were told at one stage by Main Roads that they could not burn along roadsides. They were doing it voluntarily. You know what farmers are like. They never light a fire unless it is a slow burn. In the end, they gave up looking after the sides of the roads in some parts of Queensland. It was not many years before Main Roads came back and said, ‘Would you start doing the roads again?’ We have to this time be humble enough to know where the mistakes were made and to make sure they do not happen again.

There is the idea too that people who want to live in those places should have a shelter of some sort. After all, the Americans have been doing this for nearly 100 years. They have cellars and underground bunkers. In the twister country, that is second nature. The few that did have them in this circumstance used them to survive. We have to do that.

The other thing we have to remember is that most of us—not all of us—come from an Anglo-Celtic background. I remember an old Irish priest whom I knew many years ago, addressing a group of businessmen in Bundaberg and saying he was going back to Ireland to retire. We said, ‘Why don’t you stay in Australia?’ He was trying to explain it to me. He said, ‘There’s an Anglo-Celtic syndrome in all of us.’ He recited Oliver Goldsmith. I cannot remember the exact quote, but it went something like this: that the Celtic person returns with the swains to where he was born ‘to die at home at last’.

I suppose a lot of people will want to go to their homes not just in defiance of the fire and because they are comfortable with the area but because it says, more eloquently, that that is relevant to them. It says that that is where they want to live. That is their magnet. That is what they come home to. Probably many of them would be happy to die there—although not in these sorts of circumstances, of course. I think a lot of respect has to be handed out to those people when the time comes. We need to work very carefully to make sure that we replace not only the physical goods but also the psychological. That will not be an easy task.

At the time of our intervention in East Timor, I ducked a speech that I was going to give in this place, and I have regretted it every day since. What I was going to suggest to the government of the day was this: if we wanted to have a real engagement with East Timor, every town and city in Australia should adopt a town or village in East Timor. I was going to suggest that we should use that as a basis for empowering the people of that town or village. It might be to give them an old horse plough that has been sitting in the back shed for years. It might be to give them a couple of tinnies so that they can fish and be self-reliant. It could involve sending a group of Rotarians or Lions over there to restore or build a school. In fact, there are a group of Rotarians in my area of Queensland that, for a number of years, have been going over to the Solomons to build high schools. So it can be done. These sorts of things are not impossible.

We have had lots of offers of help in my office. One CWA organisation raised $20,000 in a morning just recently, virtually with no notice at all. I get a lot of people ringing up with good ideas. A certain Toni Sargent from Hervey Bay wrote to me, and since then I have spoken to her mother, Kayleen Bilson. What is interesting about these two people is that they came from Diamond Creek, so this fire is resonating very strongly with them. Their suggestion was very similar, and that is what made me say what I have just said—that is, that every town should adopt a town. We have big provincial cities that could adopt a village.

There will be certain things that state and federal governments will do and that insurance will do, but there will still be gaps at the end of that. We know that, with the best will in the world, there will still be gaps. It might be that you restore the civic hall or the community hall. It might that you provide one of those $30,000 or $40,000 new, coloured playgrounds that are becoming so popular around Australia. It might be that a busload of Rotarians or Lions come down from some town in New South Wales or Queensland to re-grass and replant the civic park. If we had a list of all the towns and villages in the fire areas, then people from bigger cities and towns—obviously they would need to be bigger so that they would have the gravitas to be able to help—could go in and do practical things to bring those very beautiful communities back not just in a utilitarian sense but in a meaningful and aesthetic way so that the scars of these dreadful bushfires will be behind us. It has been a great test of us all and I hope Australians will continue to be generous. I throw that suggestion on the table—that cities and towns adopting small towns and villages could be a very good and tangible way for us to show solidarity between various parts of Australia and this ravaged landscape.

I would like to conclude my presentation today with another stanza from that poem. It tells the story of the boy who has been through the bushfire. His mate has gone and, like a lot of the firefighters we have seen on TV and some of the animals we have seen come out of the fire areas, it says:

She bore me bravely, the good bay mare;

Stunned, and dizzy and blind,

I heard the sound of a mingling roar,

‘Twas the Lachlan River that rushed before,

And the flames that rolled behind.

That should be our image—that, as the flames roll behind, we take these people who have been so sorely hurt, as it were, to the Lachlan, to fresh water and fresh life.