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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 804

Mr SHORTEN (Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation) (5:57 PM) —I would like to acknowledge the words of the member for Gippsland, who just spoke then, and put on record that he, along with other members of parliament, has worked continuously since the Black Saturday fires to help these communities reconstruct and recover.

On 30 July 2009 I described Black Saturday in this place as without a doubt the greatest peacetime disaster in Australian history. So it remains. Today, with this muddy wretched summer of 2010-11 still fresh in so many of our minds, it would be more than understandable for many Australians to be focused almost entirely on the natural disasters which we are still only cleaning up from and rebuilding. While all of us in this place have spoken formally to the condolence motion and what we have seen in recent times across much of Australia, the profound and enduring view remains in our society that the Victorian bushfires and the destruction of two years ago still remain the greatest peacetime disaster in Australian history.

It is fitting that parliament is formally remembering those whom we lost in the Victorian bushfires. I had the privilege to attend the second anniversary ceremony in Federation Square, and it was very well done. I believe that for many of the people who attended it was an opportunity to take another step on their personal paths to recovery. But in speaking here, and speaking softly, I am in firm admiration of the courage of the 33 distinct and very different Victorian communities representing 78 towns across Victoria who faced the wrath of Mother Nature as she tore through our beloved bushlands, towns and neighbourhoods.

A melancholy lesson for me in all this black horror of the bushfire tragedy was that the concept of a community itself perhaps has never been stronger, more evident or more inspiring than when a group of good people face great trauma, emotional and physical loss and acute economic stress. I speak here of many communities, each of whom experienced this disaster in its own different way. In doing so, I think at this point I would also like to acknowledge other members of parliament I worked with directly: the member for Ballarat, the member for McMillan, the member for Mallee, the former member for La Trobe and the current member for La Trobe, the former member for McEwen and the current member for McEwen. There was also, of course, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs; the former Prime Minister; and many at the state and local level who I will refer to later in my presentation.

But the community I most recall in all of this is of course the community of the bereaved. No fewer than 173 of our fellow citizens died in these fires; 40 were very injured. But each of the 173 whose lives were lost left behind them families and friends, workplaces, sporting clubs, classrooms and community groups that they had belonged to. These loved ones and local brethren who were so abruptly left behind still mourn and ponder and recover as individuals. But they also do this today as a very special community in and of themselves, and I do respect and revere each of them for their enduring resilience.

I said that there were 33 separate geographic communities. In their own distinguishing ways they comprise 78 towns that have had so many months and years of sifting through memories from ashes and recalling faces that are now gone. The towns and villages and many of the farms are still there, as are the roads and the yards and the hills and the creeks where people played and grew up, but there are things that are no longer there that are important too. It is not just the houses, but homes, and not just buildings, but livelihoods. These are now gone and these communities and their citizens are still finding their proper feet in so many different ways.

The rebuilding and the getting on with it in so many of these places have been a great credit to these districts and I think it honours the pioneering history of so many of the region’s ancestors. Again, I want to record my respect for each of these communities for their strength in adversity in testing times. With all this, these towns have re-affirmed the meaning of community and what it is to be good neighbours and each of them has helped their friends get on and travel through the darkness of the last two years.

There is another community which is central to this motion of condolence, and that is the volunteer community. It does not matter whether it was the SES or the CFA, the Lions and Rotary clubs or the other service groups, the Scouts, the Guides, the football and netball clubs, the various and vibrant people power of these Victorian communities has helped wage the battle and they helped pick up the pieces once the inferno passed. These volunteers have been great ambassadors for their communities and all together form a community of their own for which I have enormous admiration and gratitude.

While hearts and heroes of Black Saturday are the typical modest Australians too many to name, please let me also say that I believe that the leadership of Premier John Brumby in the aftermath of the event remains an example to all of us. I am pleased to have had the opportunity and the privilege in my former role as Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction to help make a contribution in the communities to which I have spoken. Many have made this contribution and it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge Christine Nixon, who was the Chair of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, and her husband, John, who was beside her throughout all the long kilometres travelled and the meetings held.

I have referred to the bereaved community, but I should also acknowledge Carol Matthews’s leadership, and that along with her committee. There were over 30 community recovery committees established and all of them deserve recognition. I particularly recall some of the creative exchanges with people from Flowerdale and the people from Kinglake. I recall the hard work done at Callignee and at Traralgon South by those committees. I look at the work done at Marysville by Tony Thompson. I look at the work of David McGahy, the captain of the CFA brigade at St Andrews. I look at the work of Jenny Beale, who worked hard in the Kinglake community, and the work done by the community radio people and the Mountain Monthly.

I would also like to acknowledge some individuals whom I had the chance to work with. Ian Archibald from Labertouche worked very hard, and he is still doing it hard, I might add. I look at the remarkable Val and Vern Brown. Val has passed away since the fires, but Val and Vern worked and organised, and the work continues, with their beautiful granddaughter Madison, who lost her parents and sister in these terrible fires. Madison is recovering well but she has a tremendous battle. I would also like to acknowledge Koula Alexiades and the team at the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction Agency, who work so hard, and there were so many people there.

So many of these people I have mentioned—and there are so many more I should have mentioned but have not yet mentioned because time does not permit—on this journey of reconstruction, I believe, help underline what it means to be Australian. Coincidentally, a person who shares the surname with what was left behind so universally after the firestorm, the late Arthur Ashe, the former tennis great and social advocate, once said:

True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.

I think many of us would agree that two years on from that terrible and terrifying day the many communities of the 2009 Victorian bushfires have served each other remarkably well with significant courage and now have found hope in the future, from the work of the Red Cross and the appeal fund now chaired by Pat McNamara through to every individual who has tried to make recovery. As the phoenix continues to rise over the Yarra Valley, the Dandenongs, Gippsland, the Victorian Alps and so many of our plains and forests, let us never forget what happened. Let us learn from the experience to protect ourselves from the inevitable recurrence of bushfire. Let us honour the fallen as we embrace those who are still with us.

Debate (on motion by Mr Craig Thomson) adjourned.