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Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Page: 189


Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (13:43): I rise on a matter of public interest and that is the incompetent response of the federal coalition and the state coalition to the bushfire emergency in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. The Blue Mountains were severely impacted by the recent bushfires—203 homes destroyed and a further 110 homes damaged. Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge the IFS, the interstate firefighters, the SES, the police, the national parks personnel and the volunteers, who played a fantastic role in assisting the Blue Mountains community—my community—to recover as quickly as possible from the immediate impact of the bushfires. Across the state of New South Wales, which I represent, we had a period of damaging and destructive bushfires. I am not convinced that this will be the last and that we will have of damaging and destructive bushfires as the summer progresses.

I want to acknowledge the loss of life in the recent bushfires: David Black, the pilot who was fighting bushfires west of Ulladulla, and Walter Linder, the resident and retiree who suffered a heart attack following his attempts to save his home. I offer the condolences of the federal Labor Party and my condolences to the families and friends of those who suffered these grave losses.

I also acknowledge the skill and professionalism of the emergency response groups. Professionalism played a great role in making sure that there was no further fire damage loss. But there was a lot of luck, in that the fire went through when many people were at work and houses were empty. If you see the destruction of the houses in the Blue Mountains, you can understand why standing beside your home with a garden hose in 80- or 90-kilometre winds is not a very safe thing to do. Communities along the Bells Line of Road, including Bell and Bilpin, and the communities of Yellow Rock and Winmalee were devastated by these bushfires.

I want to note the findings of the RFS and the involvement of the Defence Force in the fires. I do not want to pre-empt any inquiry, but I think it is quite clear that the north-western fire did emanate from activities of the Defence Force.

I have been criticised by the member for Macquarie, Mrs Louise Markus, and the state member for the Blue Mountains, Roza Sage, for apparently politicising the bushfires. I believe that, in a situation like that which my community faced, it is a politician's responsibility to represent the community's needs to the government, not the government's needs to the community. I think Senator Payne, who is the Minister for Human Services, Mrs Markus and Mrs Sage have failed in their responsibility as parliamentarians to look after people in distress and to look after their community when it is under real pressure. I think they fail to understand the difference between representing their party's position in the community and representing the community's position back to their party. It takes some courage to stand up on an issue, and they have failed the test of having the courage to stand up for the community that they represent. I do not care if people say I am politicising this, because my responsibility, first and foremost, is to my community when it is facing a disaster. First and foremost, I will represent the views and the needs of my community. Unfortunately, the coalition, at both the state and the federal level, have failed to do that.

The climatic conditions that led to the fires in the Blue Mountains are consistent with the forecasts of the CSIRO, the Climate Commission—

Senator Nash: Oh!

Senator CAMERON: the Academy of Science and the IPCC. I know we have the climate deniers on the other side—the moans and the groans when you talk about scientific endeavour. I am quite used to the National Party not having any understanding of scientific endeavour. It is not unusual. At least former Senator Joyce can practise his antiscientific rhetoric in the House of Representatives and we do not have to put up with it here anymore.

The Climate Institute has indicated: 'It’s time to face up to real and growing climate change risks and impacts, such as the growing severity and frequency of our bushfires. Our national, state and individual interests depend on better preparation for growing climate change risks and impacts, which threaten personal health and safety as well as economic stability and our fragile environment. The evidence and analysis is clear: climate change is impacting Australia now and will only drive more risks, unless we engage in global efforts to avoid global warming of 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average. With just 2 degrees Celsius warming, south-east Australia can expect up to five times the number of days of very extreme fire danger by mid-century.' This work has been facilitated by the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Bushfire CRC. These are the experts telling us what the situation is.

I think it is quite bizarre that when the Labor Party is up here defending communities in the Blue Mountains we have the Prime Minister in the lower house talking about destroying real action on climate change. How bizarre is it that their anti-scientific, ideologically driven approach is being pursued in the House of Representatives when we have people suffering now as a result of climate change influenced bushfires?

I want to acknowledge the work of the Blue Mountains Bushfire Recovery Committee, which I am a member of, and especially the chair of the committee, Phil Koperberg. I want to acknowledge the work of the staff and the agencies involved. But I want to say this: that that committee has been hindered, and not helped, by the lack of political action on behalf of the state by the O'Farrell government and the Abbott coalition government. I want to express grave concern at the lack of preparation and effective response by the state government of New South Wales. I want to express my disgust at the poor management and ineffective response of the Abbott government. What is the first responsibility of government? It is to make sure that when Australians are in trouble—when Australians are facing a disaster—that you do everything possible to assist your fellow Australians. Let me tell you that test has been failed by the Abbott coalition and failed by the O'Farrell government.

There are three key failures at the moment for these two coalition governments, who stood here in opposition and railed against the Labor government time and time again and who said they were great managers of the economy. Here is an instance where it is clear that the rhetoric is nothing more than rhetoric; it is nothing more than pouting their three-line slogans and not delivering for people when they are in trouble. My community in the Blue Mountains have been denied by the coalition government a disaster relief payment that went to residents who were affected by the fires in Victoria and in Tasmania. My office's rough estimate of the money that has been ripped out of the Blue Mountains community at a time of great need is $4 million. The day after the bushfires had raged through my community, the coalition Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan, was taking away the rights of families to get federal government assistance in their time of need.

The second failure is that the then Leader of the Opposition, and now Prime Minister, Tony Abbott and that then opposition small business spokesperson, and now Minister for Small Business, Mr Billson promised a small business concessional grant. They argued that you needed to respond quickly to problems in disaster areas and that they would provide extra resources and extra money for small business in a disaster. What has happened over a month after the disaster in the Blue Mountains? We have not had any response from the federal government to deliver on the promise to look after what they claim is their base—that is, small business. Another key failure of the coalition government.

The third problem is that they have failed to learn the lessons of the Victorian and Tasmanian bushfires and organise a coordinated demolition and clean-up of the properties affected by the bushfire. When you go through the reports and the analysis of bushfires in Victoria and Tasmania, it is clear that the benefits of a coordinated outcome was that business regenerated more quickly, because you cleared the debris, you cleared the waste and this let the community rebuild. So, it is in business regeneration and economic issues that the coalition have failed. It is about economic stimulus through the rebuilding, and the coalition have failed on that test. It is about the reduction of dependence on government assistance, and the coalition have failed on that test. The coalition talk so much about their care of Western Sydney but, when they have an opportunity to support the residents of Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains, they have failed abysmally. They have failed at the first hurdle; they have failed their first test.

My view has always been that this government is economically incompetent and socially distorted in terms of what its priorities should be. We have many, many families in the Blue Mountains who would have been at least $2,800 better off to help them recover from the bushfire and they have had that ripped away from them by this government because of its penny-pinching, cost-cutting approach. It is an absolute disgrace. I must say that when you see any community in trouble, look at what has been done. Look at what has been done in the Blue Mountains community by the coalition, ripping money away from them—not caring about them or coming in and telling them, as Senator Payne did, that the issue is under active consideration. That was one month ago, Senator Payne, and we have not seen you up there for some weeks now, because you cannot deliver, you will not stand up and you are a disgrace in your position.