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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14921

Mr GIBBONS (6:09 PM) —I rise in this grievance debate to inform the House of a disaster that struck Bendigo on Sunday, 18 May. Before I continue, I would like to express my appreciation to my good friend and parliamentary colleague Frank Mossfield, the member for Greenway, who kindly gave up his grievance debate allocation today in order that I may inform the House of the horrendous events that have devastated so many Bendigo families.

At 6.00 p.m. on Sunday, 18 May, a freak storm struck the Eaglehawk and California Gully suburbs of Bendigo, leaving 10 homes totally demolished and around 90 others damaged, many quite extensively. Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker, I know that you and honourable members from all sides of this House will be relieved to know that there was no loss of life and no serious injury to any of the residents of the affected areas. This was an amazing outcome given the ferocity of the storm and the damage it inflicted on the buildings in its path—a 500 metre wide and seven kilometre long trail of destruction.

People who live in this area have vividly recalled scenes of caravans, trees, trampolines, sheets of corrugated iron and all manner of debris hurtling around the sky in winds of around 200 kilometres an hour. The media have used the American term `tornado' to describe the disaster. I understand the Australian equivalent of a tornado is a cockeye bob or giant willy-willy but I guess the correct terminology of this tragic event becomes irrelevant, especially for those whose homes exploded around them. I know that people who inhabit the northern regions of Australia often experience this type of disaster, but it is unprecedented in central Victoria. We are more used to other natural disasters such as bushfires, floods, droughts and, dare I say it, coalition governments.

Immediately the storm had passed, the massive clean-up operation began, with Bendigo police officers, staff from the City of Greater Bendigo, State Emergency Service personnel, CFA officers, Telstra officials and hundreds of volunteers all providing assistance and support. All worked throughout the night and well into the next day to restore the area. The City of Greater Bendigo letterboxed the region to inform residents that an outreach office at the community health centre, close to the affected areas, had been established to provide assistance and counselling for those who required it. I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of all the people of central Victoria to express our sincere appreciation to the many hundreds of people and organisations that responded so quickly to assist and comfort those who were affected by this disaster. All Bendigo residents should be very proud of the way that those who assisted carried out their respective tasks.

I would also like to commend the City of Greater Bendigo and the Salvation Army for initiating an appeal for donations of money and other commodities such as furniture and like items to assist those who were affected. Financial donations can be placed with any branch of the Bendigo Bank or with the Salvation Army. I urge all central Victorians to donate to this appeal if they are able. I acknowledge that the primary responsibility for immediate assistance in these types of disasters rests with state governments. The Victorian state government's response has been swift and appropriate. Police and Emergency Services Minister Andre Haermeyer was in Bendigo just hours after the event to ensure that aid was getting through. The damage bill will probably be around $5 million dollars, and this would prevent the Commonwealth's national disaster plan being implemented. However, I cannot think of any reason why the Commonwealth should not make a donation to the Bendigo appeal. Last week I wrote to the Treasurer and to the Minister for Finance and Administration requesting them to consider making such a donation to this very worthy appeal. I urge them again today to assist the people of Eaglehawk and California Gully by donating to the Salvation Army and the City of Greater Bendigo appeal.

As I said earlier, the initial response and subsequent action by all those involved was swift and effective but, as always, there are some aspects that, with the benefit of hindsight, could have been more effective. For example, why did it take some five hours before the city's major radio broadcasters began issuing reports and alerts regarding the disaster? I understand the two community radio stations began reports of the incident earlier, but the ABC and the commercial broadcaster were not officially notified for some five hours. A journalist on duty at the ABC in Bendigo received a phone call from a listener and was able to feed information through to ABC National News, which first reported the incident at around 8 p.m., some two hours after the damage had been done. The situation raises some serious concerns. Does the disaster plan adequately cover dissemination of information? Is the current system, which requires the police officer in charge to notify the central police operations media liaison group, too convoluted and cumbersome? As I understand it, once this has been done, the media liaison group contacts the head offices of the broadcasting stations and then has to wait to have the matter verified by other contacts, which could take some considerable time. If the local stations were able to be contacted shortly after the event, do they have the capability of interrupting the syndicated programming to begin local broadcasting of the incident and to advise the community accordingly? Is the syndicated programming being received at the local station via cable, which would make such an interruption relatively easy, or is it being received via satellite, which would make it almost impossible to interrupt, especially if there is no-one on duty at the station where the syndicated programming is being transmitted?

I would like to quote from the report of the former House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications, Transport and the Arts, which conducted an inquiry into the adequacy of regional radio services. The report came down in September 2001. On page 111, it says:

4.5 The ABC claimed to play a critical role in disseminating essential State Emergency Services information and in providing companionship to people in times of need.

4.6 FARB claimed that the broadcasting of emergency announcements is accepted within the industry as an `essential element in community relations and in providing a comprehensive service to listeners.'

4.7 DMG Group explained how its stations retain the ability to respond on an immediate basis to emergency situations `through the establishment of telephone hotlines and formal communications strategies with emergency services organisations, and through the ability of the hubs to produce and insert immediate disaster or emergency alerts into the programs broadcast from the hubs and, in extreme or urgent cases, through the ability of the local managers to disconnect hub programming at any stage and replace it with live broadcasting from the local studio'.

I have to say that this did not happen for some five hours after the incident. This certainly warrants an examination by those responsible for drafting and implementing the disaster plan, and it would warrant a wider inquiry into the ability of all radio broadcasters to transmit vital information to the community in the aftermath of disasters such as the one experienced by the community in Bendigo.

The incident in Bendigo on that particular Sunday has raised some very serious concerns about the ability of vital information to be broadcast to communities under threat. Imagine if a small town were threatened by a major flood or bushfire—as they often are—and telephone communications and power were destroyed. A battery-operated radio is often the only means of gaining vital and life-saving information, and, if the broadcasters are transmitting syndicated programming from other states and take up to five hours to begin broadcasting alerts, the risk of a tragic situation is greatly enhanced. The situation is far worse for those who live in isolated farmhouses in the path of such danger.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not levelling blame at any individual or organisation. As I have said, the initial response to the incident in Bendigo was first class. I make these observations in an attempt to ensure that the next time our region—in fact, any region in Australia—is faced with such a disaster we can maximise the chances of dealing with it in the most effective way and avoid injuries or, worse, loss of life.