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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 800

Mr CHESTER (5:42 PM) —I join with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the member for Griffith, in his contribution to this debate, particularly in the context of his role at the time as the Prime Minister. The member for Griffith called me on the phone the day after Black Saturday, as I was driving between Rosedale and Sale. He said, ‘It’s Kevin—Kevin Rudd.’ I said, Sure, Kev, how ya going?’ assuming it was one of my mates from the function I had been at the night before. He said, ‘No, Darren, it is Kevin.’ So I pulled over to the side of the road, as I was having a bit of a panic attack, thinking, ‘What does the Prime Minister want with me?’ I thank you, Member for Griffith—when you were Prime Minister at the time—not only for the compassion you showed the people of Gippsland but also for the energy you had for the task in making people feel confident that the nation was behind them. I still remember your comment about rebuilding the community ‘brick by brick’. I think the people in the most adversely affected areas appreciated the support you gave them at that time. I certainly cannot find any fault with the way you conducted yourself as our national leader at that time. The parliament itself performed at its best in the aftermath of the bushfires. I had enormous support from not only my colleagues on this side of the House but also those on the other side. I greatly appreciated that at what was a very emotional time for many people.

In joining the debate I want to commend all other members who have already spoken on their contributions. I thank them for making sure that the victims of the 2009 bushfires are not forgotten in this place. As the years pass and the memories for those of us who were not directly in the firestorm may fade, the recollections for many people in the community are as vivid as though it happened only yesterday. In my community it only takes a forecast of a hot northerly wind or a forecast of a summer day of 42 degrees to remind people of the pain and suffering that our community felt and then endured on Black Saturday. Many of the survivors I have spoken to over the past two years have told me that they just have to smell wood smoke and it is enough to spark some unwelcome memories for them and trigger a nervous reaction. But as the bushland is regenerating in Gippsland and as homes and public buildings have been constructed we need to remember that many people still face enormous personal battles as they rebuild their lives. As I said at the outset, we must never forget them and we must support them as they recover at their own pace from this disaster. As the member for Griffith indicated, this will be very much a defining moment in people’s lives. They will define their lives from what they did before the bushfires to what they have done after the bushfires. I think some people will not completely recover; others will recover at a different pace. But we need to be with them and support them in that process.

The bushfires of 2009 claimed 173 lives across Victoria, including 11 Gippslanders in very small communities like Callignee, Koornalla, Traralgon South, Hazelwood and Jeeralang. These were small communities where a lot of people knew the victims very well, so it was a blow to their families, to their friends and to a much wider community of people who were directly affected by the personal losses. I do not want to dwell too much on the past today, but it is important to remember the lives that we lost, the enormous destruction of homes and public facilities and just the sheer scope of the disaster as it spread right across Victoria.

In addition to the Black Saturday fires, my community suffered the previous week with 30 homes and 79 sheds destroyed in the Boolarra fire, which is often forgotten about by people outside Gippsland. By any estimation, the Boolarra fire itself was a terrible event which struck right across that district, but the size and scope of the disaster which followed just seven days later dwarfed the tragedy in Boolarra.

On this, the second anniversary of the bushfires, however, I can report plenty of positive news in my community. In Boolarra itself I recently attended the official opening of the new CFA sheds. It was a great tribute to the hard work of the local community and businesses which helped to sponsor the project. I wish we had the people of Boolarra building some of our other public projects throughout Victoria, because they achieved an enormous amount of value for money for their work. The way they pulled together and were able to build that facility is a real credit to the whole community. The official opening was a huge community occasion and a real celebration for the Boolarra district.

That has probably been the biggest positive to arise from the ashes of Black Saturday in Gippsland. Our communities really have pulled together. We have seen an enormous unity of purpose and community spirit on display across our region. We have certainly been challenged by the fires, but by no means have we been beaten. I would like to reflect on the words of some of the local people who have been directly involved in the recovery from the disaster, in some quotes from them on the second anniversary of Black Saturday. Ange Gordon, who is the former Traralgon South and District Community Recovery Committee chair, told the local media:

At the end of the day, you can reflect back (on the past two years) and say it has been long and hard but here we are and you can get bigger and stronger communities out of going through these adversities …

In a similar theme, Tineke Westwood, from the Traralgon South area, whose home was actually destroyed by the fires, said:

It’s not a fake positivity, I could be upset and cry and sulk, but what’s the point?

She said:

We’re a very lucky family because we’re alive, we got out on time.

Finally, the eastern region task force leader, Anthony Matters, who is assisting with the flood recovery efforts in Queensland, said:

It feels like we are part of a bigger community to lend a hand to those across the other side of the state …

He said:

Members came to our aid during the fires … it is fulfilling to be able to lend a hand.

In the time I have available I would also like to note the contribution by my state colleague the member for Morwell, Russell Northe. Russell’s efforts during the Black Saturday bushfires, the response phase and the long months of recovery have been quite extraordinary—an outstanding service to his electorate. I think that was reflected in the support he received at the recent state election. Often you do not know what to do as a local member in these situations. My heart goes out to the members from Queensland who experienced Cyclone Yasi and the flooding, along with the member for Mallee, in northern Victoria, and other members. When you have these natural disasters you really do not know what to do as a local member. Russell Northe was able to just be there for his people. Morwell is quite a small electorate, but he was able to be there for the people and offer them support, follow up on their concerns and chase down any assistance that was required, perhaps when it was not provided quickly enough. He did a power of work for his community, and I commend him for that. Russell recently spoke also in state parliament on the anniversary of the bushfires, and I will just reflect for a moment on a couple of comments he made. He said:

… I am absolutely filled with pride at the generosity and goodwill that has been displayed 1000 times over by so many wonderful people in the Gippsland community, to the extent that now many of those people are also extending their offer of support to those impacted by the floods in Queensland and Victoria.

That is something that we are very proud of. The people of Gippsland, despite the adversity they have been through, are now actively participating in the disaster recovery efforts around the state.

I would also like to commend the other members—the member for McEwen, who is in the chamber, and his predecessor, Fran Bailey, as well. I congratulate him, naturally, on winning the seat but I would also like to recognise the work that Fran did in probably one of the worst affected parts, if not the worst affected part, of the state. I know that a couple of times I had the opportunity to meet with Fran and other affected members, with the Prime Minister, and I can reassure the people of McEwen that they had a real champion in the room. She was very dogged in her pursuit of making sure that her community’s concerns were heard.

I would also like to commend my neighbour in Gippsland, the member for McMillan. He is another man who was very dogged in his determination to make sure that the people of McMillan were never going to be forgotten in the aftermath of the bushfires. And in his presence, I note the member for Maribyrnong who had charge of the bushfire reconstruction in a ministerial capacity. He also did a very good job in presenting the views of the Victorian community to the federal parliament. In many ways the recovery effort has become a guidebook on how to go about some of these things. I think we learned a lot as a nation on how to go about a disaster of this scale. I know the member for Maribyrnong believes that it has probably assisted him in his current role of dealing with flood disasters. We have learnt a lot from that experience and I will talk little bit about that in a few moments time.

I would also like to recognise the member for Indi and the member for Bendigo, whose electorates were also directly affected. I would also acknowledge the member for Wentworth, who at the time was the opposition leader, who came to Gippsland and spent several hours with me going around talking to people who were directly affected. There were no TV cameras or newspaper photographers there. It was just a matter of going out to meet with the affected communities and helping them gain some understanding. I know that he was struck by the ferocity of the fire. At one place, in Callignee, we came across a four-wheel drive where, on one side of the vehicle facing the fire front, the alloy wheels had melted and were lying on the ground in a pool of silver. On the other side of the car, not in the direct line of the fire front, there was still rubber on the tyres. It just goes to demonstrate that the radiant heat must have been extraordinary. Seeking any form of shelter for people caught in those fires would have been extremely difficult. I know the member for Wentworth was certainly struck by the extent of the damage and the ferocity of the blaze that had gone through the Callignee area.

I believe that the members of both sides of parliament were very strong in adversity but they only had to look at the communities across Victoria to draw inspiration. We had people who were doing such extraordinary things. The Minister for Foreign Affairs talked a moment ago about the number of people prepared to drive long distances just to be a part of it, just to provide some support to their fellow Australians in need. Everyone simply wanted to do their bit. This summer, we are again seeing people who are determined to assist the people across Queensland and northern Victoria who have been affected by flooding.

I still believe we have a long way to go though. On the second anniversary the rebuilding of private homes is continuing, but many families have suffered relationship breakdowns in the aftermath of the tragedy. The social costs that we are starting to see in our communities is something that perhaps goes unnoticed in this place. You can see a house rebuilt, you can see a community hall rebuilt, but the lives of families that have been directly affected are very difficult to repair. Some families have been torn apart in the aftermath of the tragedy.

We do live in a very fire prone environment in Victoria and there will always be days of high fire risk and summers which are hotter and drier than the one we are currently experiencing. But even during this comparatively mild summer there is a fire risk. Gippsland this year has experienced one major outbreak on 11,000 hectares, which burnt two houses and some sheds in the Tostaree region of East Gippsland. Thankfully though, there was no loss of life. I thank the firefighting personnel for their efforts in extremely difficult conditions on that day.

We will continue to experience bushfires in the future and it is up to governments, I believe, to do everything in their power to help prevent outbreaks wherever possible, to minimise the impacts of fires when they occur and to assist the communities as they recover—as we have done over the past two years. We simply must learn the lessons of 2009. One lesson which is patently obvious to me is that there needs to be an increased focus on fuel reduction burning. I note the commitment of the new Victorian government to treble the amount of burning it undertakes across Victoria. Fuel reduction burning will not prevent fires but it will reduce their intensity. Some extreme elements of the Greens have in the past opposed fuel reduction burning and the tragedy of Black Saturday seems to have silenced a lot of them. We need to undertake an extensive program of burning right across regional Victoria and on the suburban interfaces to protect life and property and to sustain the environment—and that is a point that is well worth making. The bushfires which raged across Victoria in 2009 were extraordinarily hot. They scorched the earth and devastated the natural environment as well as man-made structures in their path. The impact on wildlife will be impossible to calculate. As an environmental measure and for the protection of life and property we must commit ourselves to delivering an extensive fuel reduction program across Victoria and across our nation.

I am also concerned about the development of early warning systems. I believe we have to be very careful in the way that we portray these early warning systems to the broader public. We need to make sure that these systems, which have great merit, are not something that the public become dependent upon. They cannot be allowed to get to the situation where they believe they are going to get a warning of when to evacuate, that they are going to get some sort of message on their mobile phone telling them where the danger is and when they have to get out. It is simply not going to be achievable in much of the environment across Victoria. In many parts of Victoria we have mobile phone black spots where text messages, particularly in the most fire prone areas, simply will not get through. So we need to be very careful in the expectation we raise in the community about early warning systems.

I also think we need to make sure we do not scare people away from regional areas. Much of the commentary in the media in the aftermath of the bushfires was so extreme, warning of catastrophic days and extreme weather events as if you simply cannot visit parts of regional Victoria. I think that is a message that we need to be very careful about. We run the risk of destroying small business, destroying our tourism industry and scaring the tree changers—the people interested in moving to regional communities. We run the risk of scaring them away with some of these messages. You can live in regional Victoria. You can have a great life in regional Victoria. We need to make sure that people are well prepared for bushfire events, that they understand the risk but that we do not scare them away.

I also think that we need to remain vigilant and impose some very severe penalties upon those who deliberately light fires on days of extreme danger. I do not believe we have gone far enough with our efforts to protect the community from arsonists. I have sought a national database of arsonists to ensure that people who have committed such crimes in the past are subjected to increased monitoring in the future. These particular individuals are known to wait for the right conditions to light fires. If they are caught, part of their punishment needs to be ongoing scrutiny. It may sound draconian to some, but I would have no hesitation in supporting the development of a national database of high-risk offenders, including monitoring and surveillance measures and the use of electronic devices to track their movements for the rest of their miserable lives. The pain and suffering caused by deliberately lit fires demands extreme action to help protect our community from such criminal acts in the future. I urge both state and federal governments to think very seriously about how we are going to make sure that people who have committed such crimes in the past are constantly monitored, particularly on days when extreme fire events are possible. As we reflect on the 2009 bushfires, we must commit ourselves in this place to learning from the experience and doing everything in our power to prevent such a tragic loss of life in the future. I believe we owe that much to 173 victims and their families.