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Tuesday, 5 February 2013
Page: 1

Ms GILLARD (LalorPrime Minister) (14:01): Members of the House will know that many Australians have lived through a summer of sorrow. Seven people were killed as a result of severe weather and flooding in Queensland. One resident was killed in the Seaton bushfires in Victoria. We lost two firefighters—a Victorian volunteer died in Tasmania and another firefighter died near the Seaton fire. Many Australians have lost homes and possessions, and many will not sleep at home tonight or for some time yet.

Through summer, it has been very important for those communities to know that all Australians are thinking of them, and I have taken that message to them personally. On 7 January, I visited and spoke to affected families in Tasmania. In Dunalley I toured the site of the primary school which had been burned to the ground. There I met Billie Hassett, a young girl—she is nine—and her mum, Sharee. Billie's school had been burned and she was looking at its ruins. She had actually been told at midnight the night before that they had lost their home as well. Sharee returned to Dunalley to clean up, leaving Billie to stay with friends, but Billie would not eat and would not stop crying. Mum could not get Billie to town by car, so friends brought her daughter to her by boat. Billie told me that, when she got back to town and got back to Mum, she found that her house—next door to a bakery which had exploded in the fire—was in fact still there.

I visited Coonabarabran on 17 January. While I was there, I met with local firefighter Bob Fenwick and his wife Jeanette. They had lost their house in the fire—the fire Bob had fought. I visited Seaton and Heyfield on the 28th. Over morning tea with Graham Lord and his CFA brigade, I learned about their incredible success saving homes in what they called a guerrilla firefight.

When I visited Bundaberg and surrounding areas on the 31st, I saw the extensive flood damage there. I will not soon forget Doug Ambrose, who has been the principal of Bundaberg East State School for 21 years, or Janelle Fielding, the manager of the Bargara Bowls Club, where a mini-tornado had ripped the roof from the building. They shared with me the heartache of the whole Bundaberg region.

This is a time beyond politics and a time to pull together, so I acknowledge the efforts of state leaders and members of this House whose communities have been affected, particularly those who hosted me on visits to their communities—the member for Gippsland, the member for Hinkler, the member for Parkes and the member for Lyons, as well as the premiers of Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland. I found the experience of visiting with them a sobering one. I was returning to some places for the second time—I had been there in circumstances of natural disaster before.

I want to thank the emergency services and Australian Defence Force personnel who responded to these events. Brigadier Greg Bilton was appointed commander of a joint task force to assist Queensland authorities and, in the Bundaberg region alone, four Black Hawks, two C130s, a C17 Globemaster aircraft and over 200 personnel have been in the air and on the ground.

The government is also directly helping those in need. Under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements, the Commonwealth and the states are delivering support and assistance to affected communities across Australia right now. This includes personal hardship and distress assistance for affected individuals and families who need immediate financial help, along with access to concessional loans for small businesses and primary producers. It includes funding for counterdisaster operations measures, from supporting evacuation centres to helping councils and states with emerging public health and safety matters in the cleanup phase. It includes funding to restore essential public assets and repairing damaged public infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, in the weeks and months to come.

In the worst affected areas, we have now activated the Australian government disaster recovery payment and the disaster income recovery subsidy. In the past month, this has, through payments of $1,000 for eligible adults and $400 for eligible children, put more than $50 million into the bank accounts of people severely affected by these disasters.

I am always in awe of the courage and common sense of the Australian people and never more so than in the hardest circumstances. For many, this summer—the summer we are living through—has been a summer of sorrow. But it has also been a summer of survival. I can reassure the House that the communities I visited are resilient and united and I can reassure those communities that we will help them rebuild and recover: that they will not be alone.