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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 794

Mr McCLELLAND (Attorney-General) (5:16 PM) —I commend all speakers on their contributions to this debate. The Australian government has joined with Victoria and the rest of Australia in marking the second anniversary of the devastating Black Saturday bushfires. Those bushfires were Australia’s worst fire disaster since Federation, claiming 173 lives, devastating entire towns and communities, destroying more than 2,000 homes and leaving thousands of residents homeless. Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, will be forever etched in the nation’s memory as a day of mourning but also one of tremendous spirit and inspiration. This has been commented on by former speakers. The tragedy brought out the best of the Australian character and inspired countless acts of bravery, heroism and generosity. It also brought to the forefront the courage of the Australian people, the local leadership and the spirit and resilience of local communities. Our thoughts are with the survivors of the bushfires as they remember the people they lost and they work to rebuild their lives and their towns. This anniversary reminds us all of how hard it is and how long it takes for individuals and communities to recover from devastating events such as Black Saturday.

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the tireless and selfless efforts of volunteers supporting affected communities. The strong local trait of independence, commitment and self-determination has ensured the recovery of the communities of Victoria. I would also like to formally recognise volunteer employers and self-employed volunteers. Many employers of volunteers have contributed and continue to contribute direct and indirect time and also resources to emergency management and recovery organisations. As I mentioned during the motion of condolence in respect of the Queensland flood victims, no other country in the world has so much of its emergency management capability based on volunteerism. That is something that we should be proud of and that would not be possible without supportive employers. The Australian government has stood side by side with local communities, the Victorian and local governments, businesses and non-government organisations in the effort to rebuild bushfire affected communities. More than $468 million has been provided by the Commonwealth government to assist and support the reconstruction.

On 31 July 2010 the Australian government welcomed the final report of the Victorian bushfire royal commission. The report contained 67 recommendations, of which five were primarily directed at the Commonwealth. These relate to bushfire awareness and research, Commonwealth firefighting resources, bushfire arson and environment protection legislation. The Commonwealth strongly supports each of these recommendations. The government has already implemented a number of recommendations from both the interim and final reports and is committed to continuing its cooperation with the Victorian government and the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority to ensure the needs of local communities are met.

More than $1 billion has been invested across bushfire affected areas under the Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan, generating significant economic activity and employment opportunities for the community. The government remains dedicated to supporting those affected by this terrible disaster and working with the Victorian government to assist in the implementation of recommendations made by the commission. In cooperation with states and territories, the Australian government has supported a range of measures to ensure that Australians are better prepared for bushfires. This has included, for example, the provision of $26 million for the development of a national telephone based emergency warning system, Emergency Alert, and convening the inaugural bushfire preseason briefing for emergency management officials. I am informed that in excess of six million SMS messages have gone out on Emergency Alert to date.

Today, in a country where extreme weather conditions and the continuing risk of bushfires are a reality, the tasks faced by our firefighters, volunteers, communities, government and industry are more challenging than ever. In the midst of the worst flooding and cyclone season that Australia has faced, the communities in Perth also faced extreme fire conditions, resulting in the destruction of a significant number of properties. In 2009, Victorian bushfires reinforced this message all too clearly. The devastation of this event was a reminder of the impact that fire can have on all of us regardless of where we live.

As the Council of Australian Governments has recognised, climate change will increase the intensity and extent of many extreme weather events. Events such as the recent Queensland and Victorian floods and Tropical Cyclone Yasi are unavoidable and will be an inevitable part of our future. We also acknowledge that, in the face of a likely increase in the frequency and impact of natural hazards, protecting communities from the impacts of these threats is a shared responsibility. It cannot be borne by a single agency, organisation or sector in isolation. Rather, an integrated approach to managing emergencies and disasters across all levels of government, the private sector and the community has been adopted. This ensures Australia is better able to withstand a crisis and have enhanced ability to recover from impacts—that is, to make a resilient community.

The Council of Australian Governments has now adopted a National Disaster Resilience Strategy involving all arms of government and the private sector. The government is both strengthening national partnerships for emergency management and encouraging communities to take a more hands-on approach to developing self-reliance. The reality is that governments have finite resources to protect our country and its diverse and greatly dispersed population, so it is imperative that we work together in partnership to ensure everyone can be better prepared in times of these inevitable crises. Above all, the government remains firmly committed to assisting the states and territories to improve emergency management arrangements by enhancing Australia’s resilience to disasters. We aim to do that community to community.

The recent natural disaster events in the states of Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales demonstrate that we have learned from Black Saturday and that the Australian spirit continues to shine. The anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires represents an important opportunity to reflect on the terrible tragedy but also, as former speakers have acknowledged, to admire the courage and spirit of Australians and to acknowledge the critically important work of our emergency services and volunteers and the generous support of the Australian community in helping those in need.