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Tuesday, 8 February 2011
Page: 19

Senator CONROY (Acting Leader of the Government in the Senate) (2:00 PM) —I move:

That the Senate:

(a)   acknowledges with great sadness the devastation occasioned by this summer’s natural disasters including unprecedented floods, Cyclone Yasi and bushfires;

(b)   extends its deepest sympathies to the families of those who have lost loved ones;

(c)   records its profound regret at the impact of this summer’s natural disasters on the economic and social well-being of affected communities;

(d)   records its admiration for the courage shown by so many in the face of these disasters;

(e)   acknowledges the enormous effort of defence personnel, emergency workers, and so many volunteers in responding to these disasters; and

(f)   pledges the full support of the Australian Parliament and community to assist affected areas to recover and rebuild.

Almost two years ago, the Senate met in sorrow to offer its condolences to the victims of Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires. It is with profound sadness that we now gather to mourn the loss of life caused by another extreme weather event. The floods that have swept across Australia have been the most devastating in our recorded history. At least 35 people are believed to have lost their lives in Queensland and nine people remain missing. Two further flood related deaths have been reported in New South Wales and Victoria, both sadly involving young children. Many Australians are mourning these lost lives as we gather here today. Their sense of loss will endure long after these words of condolence are spoken and the essential task of rebuilding is complete. Today we acknowledge all who have lost their lives in this summer’s floods and extend our sympathies to those who mourn their lost loved ones or await news of their whereabouts.

This summer, residents in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania have all experienced the frightening reality of rising floodwaters. Some communities have experienced more than one flood in the space of months or even weeks. Homes have been lost, businesses destroyed and lives turned upside down. Electricity, gas and water supplies have been cut and communities have been left with the legacy of shredded roads and collapsed bridges. In Queensland, the state hardest hit by this season’s terrible floods, more than 70 population centres and hundreds of thousands of people have been affected. In more recent days, residents in the north of Queensland have been confronted with the full fury of Cyclone Yasi, leading to further loss of life and even more physical destruction.

Floods and cyclones are not the only natural phenomena to threaten lives this Australian summer. Just this week, bushfires have threatened lives and destroyed more than 60 homes in the Perth foothills. Common to all extreme weather events across the nation this summer has been the resilience of affected households, businesses and communities; the courage of emergency services and defence personnel; and the selflessness of volunteers who have lent a hand to those in need. The Prime Minister recently announced that she has written to the Queen seeking approval for a new medal to honour those who have performed heroic and selfless acts and who have volunteered their services during recent times of crisis. Subject to approval, the first awards will be presented next Australia Day and will include recognition of those who reached out to others during the Black Saturday fires two years ago. The selflessness of individual volunteers during the current summer has been reflected in the generosity of individuals and businesses who have donated and continue to donate to the various appeals established to help people affected by flood, cyclone and now fire. The total raised by one appeal, the Queensland Premier’s Disaster Relief Appeal, now exceeds $201 million. Many donations and offers of assistance have been received from overseas and we thank our friends in the international community for their support.

We also thank our friends in the media for the work they have done this summer alerting Australians to the danger of flood, cyclone and fire and bringing us the stories of heroism and heartbreak that characterise natural disasters of this scale. It is appropriate to acknowledge in particular the role ABC Radio has played conveying essential safety messages to people placed in danger by this season’s unfolding natural disasters.

It is important for Australians affected by these disasters to know that the parliament and the government are by their side. The Commonwealth is working with state governments to provide a range of assistance measures to individuals, businesses and primary producers. These measures include personal hardship and distress payments for individuals, concessional interest rate loans and freight subsidies for businesses and recovery grants for primary producers and small businesses. Much of this assistance is provided through Centrelink, whose staff have worked long and irregular hours to ensure that people get assistance in their time of need.

With three-quarters of Queensland declared a disaster zone, preliminary estimates indicate that the Commonwealth will need to invest more than $5.5 billion to rebuild flood affected regions alone. Recovery and reconstruction is not a short-term task and this is not the time to debate the government’s plan to fund the task ahead. What Australians want to hear today is that this Senate, representing every state and territory in the federation, is united in its resolve to support affected individuals, families, businesses and communities. It is the Australian way to help each other in times of need. Countless individuals with mops and brooms in hand have started the task; governments must help finish the job.

I conclude my contribution to this debate by acknowledging that for some families it is too early to contemplate the next stage of their lives. There are still people missing in the wake of the Queensland floods. My heart goes out to family members who are waiting for news of their loved ones. On behalf of the government, I extend my profound sympathy to the families and friends of those who are lost and missing in the floods and offer support for the recovery and reconstruction task ahead. I commend the motion to the Senate.