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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 1093

Mr ANDREWS (7:14 PM) —I rise with considerable sadness to join the previous speaker, the minister, and other members to speak on this condolence motion for the victims of the tragic bushfires in Victoria. These are awful and horrific times for us, especially for those who have been so badly affected by the fires.

Growing up in rural Gippsland, not far from where some of these fires have occurred, we were always aware of the dangers of summer and of fire. At the beginning of each summer, we would re-plough the firebreaks in the paddocks around the farm and clean up the foliage and growth around the buildings and the houses. Farmers would overgraze the home paddock as added protection for the house in case, as inevitably happened at some stage, fire came long.

I can recall as a child the warning, the wail, of the CFA bell in the nearby town on a regular basis—once a week as the CFA practised with the volunteers who would turn up—but then on other occasions when not expected, as an indication that there was a fire somewhere nearby. Often it was a grass fire in that area, but sometimes it was a lightning strike. I can remember, in particular, haystacks going up in fire. But, worse than that, on occasions there was a fire in the nearby hills, in the foothills of the Great Divide to the north, when places like Licola and Dargo and, closer to home, Briagolong, were under threat, or, a few miles to the south, in the foothills of the Strzelecki Ranges, where fires from time to time would break out.

At this time just a week ago that is what happened again. These fires at Callignee and through that part south of Traralgon are in places that are familiar to me from my childhood. They were the hills where we would go for a drive on the weekend and have a picnic. They were the farms where my father, who ran a livestock transport business, would collect stock to take to market. Those places were part and parcel of the neighbourhood in which I grew up.

The tragedy is that, once again, we see fires returning. Indeed, just before coming here to speak tonight, I phoned my brother, who lives near Willung, Gormandale—that area, a few miles from part of the latest fires—just to ask what was happening. They said that things were okay at the moment. In fact, they have just had a bit of rain. It is not enough rain; a lot is needed to put these fires out, but at least they have had little bit. And the wind is not blowing in their direction. But, if it does and the fire gets into the pine plantations, they will go up like a tinderbox. And who knows how many kilometres the fire could travel in a short period of time?

The damage is so great because of a combination of factors: the furious winds that we had, particularly on Saturday, in Victoria; the extreme heat, which others have spoken about; the tinder-dry bush; and, of course, the unique nature of eucalypt forests in Australia, which adds to the ferocity of fires which occur under these circumstances. The damage is also compounded by the fact that greater Melbourne extends these days to areas that it once did not—areas such as Pakenham, to the east—which are dozens of kilometres from the CBD and are now at the extent of the urban sprawl and to towns like Narre Warren; to the south, Cranbourne; up in the Dandenongs, Cockatoo and Gembrook; and, further to the north, Kinglake, Whittlesea and St Andrews. Once these were small villages and hamlets, miles away from what we regarded as suburban Melbourne. You would drive out through farmland and paddocks to get to these places. But the reality today is that they are encompassed by what we would overall describe as metropolitan Melbourne.

That means that there are many more people living in much closer settlement than there were even 10, 15 or 20 years ago and, of course, when a fire then comes through those areas there are potentially so many more victims, as unfortunately and tragically we have seen over the last week or so. Indeed, some of these places are so close that towns like Kinglake, Kinglake West, St Andrews and Whittlesea are places that I and friends of mine often ride our bikes to on weekends. They are not that far from where I live, and you would regard where I live in my electorate as much more central to Melbourne than these sorts of places. The reality, and this is part of the challenge, is that when we come to ask the hard questions and look for answers we will need to address this continuing spread of metropolitan Melbourne—and this occurs in other cities around Australia—into areas that were once regarded as bush. Yes, there were small villages and hamlets there, but they were not populated to the extent they are today. I remember the same thing was occurring, at the time of the Ash Wednesday fires, at Macedon and Mount Macedon and places like that. I was a lawyer at the time and spent about a week or 10 days coordinating a voluntary legal relief information and advice service for victims of those fires at Macedon and Mount Macedon. The spread of population is even greater now than it was, tragically, at the time of Ash Wednesday.

These are issues that we have to address when we come to ask the hard questions. In the meantime it is appropriate that this parliament offers its condolences to the victims and their families—those that are known tonight and, tragically and regrettably, those that we will only come to know of in the days and weeks ahead.

Anybody who has been to a fire location such as this knows the total and utter devastation that a fire causes. It is indescribable. And it is not just the scene; it is the smell, the atmosphere, which, having breathed, is difficult to get out of your mind and your senses for a considerable time afterwards. In those circumstances we owe a particular debt of gratitude to all those who have been fighting and are continuing the fight against this natural catastrophe. I think of people like the members of the CFA at Warrandyte in my electorate and of the other CFAs, not just in my electorate but elsewhere, who are out fighting fires in neighbouring areas. I think obviously of the Salvation Army and the other charitable organisations and of the hundreds if not thousands of volunteers. I think of the members of the SES, also volunteers, who give up their time to do this work. There are many others who are not so visible but whose efforts and services are equally invaluable at this time. I saw an email from one of my local councils, Maroondah—which borders Yarra Ranges, the next council, whose area is affected by this—indicating how officials and officers from Maroondah council are out there assisting in the Yarra Ranges area. I am sure this is the case for so many other councils and government departments. There are also thousands of other people who are doing what they can in these circumstances. Then there are the ordinary people who are making donations in their millions. There is such generosity from so many people in this country who have gone through their clothing or toys or found the bike sitting out in the back shed that is no longer used and have thought, ‘Maybe there are kids somewhere in this fire ravaged area who have lost not just their bikes but everything, but this at least might bring some joy back into their lives at a time of great mourning and tragedy.’ To everybody who is contributing in this way we owe our heartfelt thanks at this time.

There is a pall hanging over these areas. It is not just a pall of smoke and smell; it is a pall that affects the atmosphere and people’s thinking. I have spoken to people in my electorate, members of my family and my friends. We are all burdened, in a sense, by what has happened. Everybody is bewildered by it. We ask those questions which we all ask at times of tragedy: how could this happen? How could so many people, in such an indiscriminate manner, be the victims of this? There is that grieving and bewilderment at this time. That will turn to anger, and much of that anger will be righteous anger. That is appropriate. The grieving process will not occur unless people have the opportunity to express that. As observers we must support them at that time as much as we are supporting them now during this time of bewilderment over how this could happen.

It is appropriate that we have inquiries into these matters. Those inquiries, I will simply say, should be complete and should be timely. We owe it to the victims to have complete inquiries that ask the hard questions and do not shy away from looking at the issues that need to be looked at if we are going to try and prevent or militate against such a tragedy occurring in the future. As I said, the inquiry should also be timely, not one of those things that go on for years until it is all forgotten and we have moved on but those who have suffered are still grieving and in many cases still traumatised. As a community we owe them a timely response to what has occurred.

The sad reality is that fire is capricious and indiscriminate. Some who were well prepared have perished. Others were saved by a shift in the wind or the fact that the fire jumped their house—what seems to us just sheer luck, because there can be no explanation as to why one house stands in a street where eight or a dozen or 20 others were totally destroyed. As the member for Gippsland said today, the psychological or mental suffering of the people who survived, who wonder, ‘Why me?’ is just as great, I suspect, as the suffering of those who lost family and friends in this tragedy. This fire favoured neither the rich nor the poor. It favoured neither the young nor the old. It favoured neither the farm nor the town.

We live in both a beautiful and a terrible country. It can be both things at once. It has always been thus, and I suppose it always will be thus, but it is our duty as legislators and as elected leaders and representatives of our communities right across this nation to do our utmost to ensure, insofar as possible, that we prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.

I conclude my remarks, which are so inadequate in response to this tragedy, in this way, Mr Deputy Speaker: we hope that our words will bring comfort, that our actions will provide support, that our prayers will bring relief and healing and that our common humanity will unite us to do all that we can for those who are suffering tonight because of their losses.

Debate (on motion by Mr Raguse) adjourned.