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Thursday, 14 February 2013
Page: 1544

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (12:35): The Riverina, as with so many regions, during a particularly testing summer, found itself at the mercy of natural disasters. Bushfires in early January brought national attention to the plight of affected Riverina people as they fought valiantly to protect themselves, livestock, homes and farms. But for the exceptional efforts of professional fire-fighters, ably assisted by hundreds of enthusiastic and efficient volunteers as well as those who pitched in to save their own properties, the damage could have been far more extensive. As it was, more than 3,305 hectares of prime agricultural land was razed, including about 38 kilometres of fencing, 924 head of sheep, hundreds of bales of hay, some sheds and machinery. Mercifully, there was only one reported injury, with a volunteer hospitalised with serious but not life-threatening injuries after an excavator overturned while building a firebreak.

These Riverina fires could well have been deadly. Weather conditions, described officially as catastrophic, had the potential to exact a dreadful toll on lives and livelihoods. In such situations, things are never helped by senseless idiots who deliberately light fires. On 19 January it was reported in Wagga Wagga that there had been 18 suspicious scrub fires lit and seven trees set alight locally in the previous 18 days. No punishment presently legislated by states is ever severe enough for arsonists. This is not a debate for this place, but I am in favour of firebugs being made to assist clean-up operation. Further, the view that arsonists should be forced to watch as burnt but alive animals are euthanised has merit. It sounds harsh, perhaps a little old-school, but let us not mess around with people who show such flagrant disregard for others in their communities and an inhumane indifference to animals which suffer from their actions. In truth, they ought to have their noses rubbed in the ashes. The time for namby-pamby, kid-gloves treatment of arsonists—no matter what age—is over, and state parliaments must ensure penalties fit the crimes. The community expects and demands nothing less.

A coalition government from 14 September would end the nanny state mentality federally. State governments need to do the same, and soon. There were many hotspots across the Riverina, including, but not limited to, Alfredtown, Big Springs, Corby Hill Road north of Narrandera, Mates Gully Road, Oura, Tarcutta, Tumbarumba and Yenda. The importance of regular, controlled burn-offs in national parks and the like must be re-examined. We must reduce the fuel load to avoid the sorts of tragedies in regions most at risk. We cannot simply shut the gate on protected forest and leave them to become a tinderbox overrun by pests and weeds, as some conservationists would want.

Further, with widespread flooding again devastating parts of Australia, particularly south-east Queensland during January—and certainly in your area of the electorate of Maranoa, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott—I again raise my concerns about the lack of commitment to the construction of more dams. More and better embankments and levees to protect urban areas are also a must. I know the frustration, inconvenience and panic caused when Wagga Wagga's entire central business district was evacuated on the night of 5 March last year. Even though the city did not go under, it was a sensible move by Murrumbidgee State Emergency Service controller, James McTavish, for, as it turned out, a few more centimetres of river level and much of Wagga Wagga would have been washed away. Despite criticism from some who should have been wiser and more cautious with their words, it was far better to be safe than sorry. I was pleased to see Mr McTavish deservedly acknowledged with an Emergency Services Medal in this year's Australia Day honours. Wagga Wagga City Council and the state government are presently grappling with the financial burden of flood-proofing by way of strengthening, lengthening and heightening the levee bank. Work on the main levee safeguarding Wagga Wagga began in 1960 and was completed in 1962, giving protection for a one-in-one-hundred-year event.

Australia is a country of droughts, fires and flooding rains but we are smart people and we should be doing more to help ourselves from natural disasters which have occurred since ancient times, not as a result of impending climate doom as some would have people believe.

Ungarie was also hard hit, again, unfortunately by the devastating forces of during January. This poor village cannot take a trick. On the afternoon of the 21st, a wild storm ripped through the town, unroofing buildings and causing millions of dollars of damage. I immediately wrote to the then federal Minister for Emergency Management, Nicola Roxon, and have since resent the letter to her successor, Mark Dreyfus, to bring Ungarie's plight to the federal government's attention should a request for help come from the New South Wales government.

As many members in this House would be aware, Ungarie was devastated by the awful widespread flooding which occurred in south-west New South Wales in March 2012. Ms Roxon was very supportive of the people in that community last year by providing special financial assistance for which Ungarie residents and I were most appreciative.

Rural Fire Service Bland-Temora's Superintendent Steve Holden said the lightning strikes from the recent storm front started five fires in the Bland-Temora area but firefighters were quick to respond. Again, I praise the quick response of our emergency service personnel.

As opposition leader Tony Abbott himself, a volunteer firefighter, said just last Tuesday—a week ago:

… the worst of Mother Nature tends to bring out the best of human nature right around our country, as tens of thousands of Australians rise to the challenges of the natural environment they face.

One such local champion sacrificed his own property to save that of his neighbour. Adjungbilly farmer Tony Engel did not even know the name of neighbour who allowed the Rural Fire Service to burn 180 hectares to contain the Cobbler Road fire burning west of Yass. This particular blaze, which began on 8 January, burnt almost 14,000 hectares with thousands of stock perishing in the flames and the smoke, leaving little behind.

With any natural disaster, lessons must be learnt to protect lives and properties for the future, but Mr Engel was just so thankful that his unknown neighbour came to his help. Mr Engel is a retired Commonwealth Bank executive and he has owned his property, Cascade, for eight years but moved there permanently only last year. He joined the Adjungbilly Rural Fire Service brigade and was greatly impressed by the work of firefighters. He said:

I am absolutely stunned by the co-operation and generous spirit of country folk and the RFS in actively working together against bushfires.

This community, as all rural communities have, have fought fires for many years and have a wealth of on-the-ground experience—especially the fire captain of the Adjungbilly brigade, Bill Kingwell, whose quiet resolve during this fire was very reassuring to my wife and I.

That sort of comment resonated throughout Australia, whether it was the fires in Tasmania, Victoria or New South Wales; or the floods in my friend the member for Parkes's electorate, or indeed south-east Queensland.

As I said, we need to learn the lessons of these absolute disasters. When these disasters occur, we need to be ready and prepared much better the next time. Insurance companies have an important role to play. Rural, regional and remote communities benefited from the former coalition government's commitment to ensure access to modern telecommunications services with targeted and strategic assistance as part of its communications fund.

A total of $2 billion was invested in this fund and this generated $300 million over three years interest—money which was of enormous assistance to those in the bush. Sadly, under Labor, this fund and this money is all gone—wasted, along with all the other millions upon millions of dollars poured down the drain by the Rudd-Gillard governments since 2007.

The trouble is now there is no connectivity when the system goes down. Poor mobile telephone reception in many country areas means people in zones of risk do not receive important emergency text messages in times of disaster, in times of crisis. Landlines go down. Homes and businesses lose power and, in many cases, television, radio coverage and mobile service is simply inadequate, leaving affected regional residents exposed to the fury of nature and the madness of arsonists. This is a problem and it must be fixed. If Labor can roll out a national broadband network costing somewhere in the order of $50 billion, surely it can help mobile black spots to ensure people's safety and wellbeing in times of crisis.

The need for better mobile coverage was no better highlighted that in my local newspaper, the Daily Advertiser, in its edition on Wednesday, 16 January, this year. We see there a photograph of Ralph Billing standing on his International tractor hoping, in vain, to get mobile telephone coverage. The newspaper report says:

The need for strong mobile phone reception in rural communities was driven home after bushfires tore through the region last week.

While the need for towers has been discussed in recent months, some farmers yesterday said the lack of communication could become life threatening.

They are not exaggerating—this is very real. The member for Parkes would acknowledge that and I am sure you would acknowledge that, Deputy Speaker Scott. This is a huge problem.

The newspaper reported that Mr Billing, who lives north of Marrar, said:

"We had no mobile phone coverage and no landline, which caused a lot of stress."

Mr Billing said landholders kept watch for fires while remaining out of phone contact with the rest of the world.

It is simply not good enough in this day and age. The report said:

Winchendon Vale farmer Bob McCormack—

yes, he is a relative—

resorted to climbing on a cattle ramp on his property in a vain attempt to get just one bar of reception.

And we all know that one bar is not going to get you much coverage at all. The report went on:

NSW emergency services can send voice messages to landlines based on location, and mobiles based on billing address, to warn of impending disasters.

But it is no good if you do not have a landline; it is hopeless if you do not have any mobile reception. The report also said:

At this stage only Telstra provides location-based services and even its coverage in Mr Billing and Mr McCormack's areas is limited or non-existent.

"The issues are that Telstra has to put a business plan together and when they do that … then we'll work from there," Mr McCormack said.

It is a hopeless situation. As I said, we are a very smart technological country and we must get our budget in order so we can put these sorts of programs in place to help these people most in need, so that when future disasters strike—whether they be bushfires or floods or whatever—they have proper mobile coverage, they can get the alerts in time and they can take the necessary precautions to save their lives and their properties.