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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 796

Mr TEHAN (5:24 PM) —No-one can deny that the events of Black Saturday and the bushfires of this period will go down in Australian history as a most tragic and heartbreaking experience. Sadly, the death and injury toll will always remain as stark reminders of this. The fires were the worst that Victoria, and Australia, have ever seen. It is in recognition of this great tragedy and its immeasurable losses, as well as with a sense of pride in the community response, that I stand with the parliament today in support of this motion. My electorate of Wannon was touched by this tragedy. The people of Coleraine had reason to fear that lives may be lost when a fire ignited on a day when temperatures in excess of 40 degrees were recorded. Fortunately, this did not occur. It did, however, burn 800 hectares on the outskirts of Coleraine and 1,300 hectares in Camperdown. While arising out of the most dire circumstances, the example of resilience and the sense of camaraderie which Australians showed in response should not go unnoticed, nor should the severe injuries that were suffered by one Coleraine resident in defending against the fires.

My predecessor, the Hon. David Hawker, spoke of the contribution of a family from the town of Heywood, in my electorate, not long after the fires took place. The family selflessly contributed $950, from the then recent economic stimulus package, to support the Red Cross bushfire appeal. Such generosity is a symbolic reminder of the goodwill which exists in the Australian nation. In addition to acts like these, we cannot forget the volunteer firefighters, the SES, the police and the Red Cross, who braved extremes of temperature for what they saw as being the right thing to do on that tragic day.

This community spirit is still reinforced after two years by the actions of those in my electorate and others. It must have been difficult for Coleraine’s residents to handle the burning down of its avenue of honour, erected in 1919 in commemoration of those who fought in the First World War. It is with great pride, though, that I can report on an event which took place in the town to commemorate what has happened. Two weeks ago the people of Coleraine unveiled a plaque and sign, as well as the replanted avenue, to commemorate not only those who suffered in the bushfires but also those lost in World War I and all wars which have since taken place.

I am told that this has been a whole-of-community effort—and I have witnessed that—led by the local RSL club and with input from the Coleraine community as a whole. It has involved schoolchildren in the planting—and I was fortunate enough to attend on the day when the plantings took place nearly a year ago today—as well as donations and support from the townspeople. Their effort and resilience is to be applauded. This is the stuff that makes you proud of the spirit of generosity that we have in this country. These examples make me, as a member of this place, profoundly humble.

While this may show a most decent side to the responses of our community, it does not diminish the immense tragedy of Black Saturday, nor does it console those whose losses will be felt forever. It cannot. Electorates other than Wannon, most regrettably, were not so fortunate in the toll of people’s lives. Although I cannot speak of the immense grief with which many have been so affected, I, like other members of this place, have met with family members of those lost. I sincerely feel for them and for others in those electorates who have been affected by this tragedy. It is with great sadness that I remember the funeral I attended of a Liberal Party member who lost his life in the Black Saturday tragedy. A mother, father and brother were lost, leaving surviving twins. As the three coffins were taken into the church that day, the grief knew no bounds. For me, this will always be a very, very sad and stark reminder of the toll that the fires took on Black Saturday.

In remembering this, I particularly note the members of the electorates of Bendigo, Gippsland, Indi, Mallee, McEwen and McMillan. I would like to take this opportunity to remember the previous member for McEwen, Fran Bailey. I had the distinction and honour of being Fran’s chief of staff and I cannot speak highly enough of the way that she comforted and nurtured people and dealt with the tragedies that took place on that day and helped her community begin the process of recovery. I can say with great confidence that all of those electorates will be doing what they can and will have done what they can to commemorate and honour those who were affected at those times. Listening to the new member for McEwen in this House just before, I can see that that is taking place.

The statistics from Black Saturday are staggering—173 lives lost, over 400 people injured and 450,000 hectares burnt. As I have said, the statistics almost beggar belief. But statistics cannot measure the loss experienced by those affected. One hundred and seventy-three people lost their lives in the fires, many more lost a member of their family and many more again lost a friend. Many lost more than one. These are not numbers but lives, not hectares but properties and livelihoods.

The week before last I spoke in this parliament on the issues of the reconstruction of local roads and infrastructure following the recent floods, which also touched my electorate. As I said, the damage to property resulting from disasters such as these does not disappear overnight. After two years, the sense of deep loss cannot be underestimated. It is at this time that we need to pause to reflect and offer our sympathies to those whose loss cannot be regrown and make it clear to them that they remain in our thoughts. It is for this reason that I stand in support of this motion, offering my condolences to all those affected by the events of Black Saturday. On this occasion I can only reflect on this great tragedy and say that I and the electors of Wannon have not forgotten those who suffered so tragically two years after the time that it passed.