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Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Page: 1030

Mrs MIRABELLA (5:59 PM) —I rise to support the condolence motion. We have had an extraordinary summer. This nation has witnessed floods, fires and cyclones. We do not often have such a combination of natural disasters in such a short period of time, but we are no strangers to natural disasters. The sheer scale of the damage reminds us that nature is bigger than we are. It also reminds us that we are a nation of weather extremes.

This motion gives us in this place an opportunity to express our sympathies for those who have lost so much and of course to reflect on the huge losses that we as a nation have experienced. At a time when we have a 24-hour media cycle, too often we are bombarded with images and too often we can become desensitised to these sorts of disasters. So it is important to take the time, as we are doing in this place, to remind ourselves of what happened only a short time ago.

We have endured much as a people this summer. We have confronted floods in the east, cyclones in the north and fires in the west. Many have lost their homes, their businesses and, tragically, some have lost their lives. These events have tested the spirits and challenged the resilience that we are so renowned for. They have also brought out the very best in people. Communities have rallied, neighbours have joined together and strangers have worked side by side to lend a helping hand to those in need. People have flown from across the nation to assist in the immediate aftermath of these events and, of course, donations continue to flow, and continue to flow generously—even from the poorest corner of this nation. The spirit of generosity and volunteerism is on full and proud display.

While there have been so many tragic stories of loss, equally there are stories of extraordinary compassion. For every image of disaster and destruction, there is a contrasting image of humanity. To all of those who have been a part of that, I am sure it will mark their lives for a long time to come: all those volunteers, all those emergency service personnel and of course our defence personnel. The events of this summer have proven that the Australians spirit of perseverance and compassion is well and truly alive.

The story of young Jordan Rice has touched every single person in this nation and it has brought a collective tear to the eye. His selflessness will not be forgotten and it is a reminder of our responsibilities in some ways to our fellow man. The mere fact that a 13-year-old boy gave his own life for his brother’s brings new meaning to the words ‘bravery’ and ‘courage’.

Over the last few weeks many have expressed the view that these events are unprecedented, and whilst in some respects the number of natural disasters occurring at the one time in Australia may not be a common phenomenon, it is wrong to say that these are totally new events. We are a country that has, throughout our history, experienced long droughts and raging fires—we now call them wildfires—and my electorate in north-east Victoria is often lashed by these fires and by flooding rains. While this year may have delivered more than its fair share of disastrous weather events, we should not and we cannot expect that such events will not be repeated in the future. They are nonetheless tragic events. But also tragic is the tendency of governments to ignore the lessons of past disasters. Long after the cameras and the front-page stories are gone, too often what needs to be done is left undone. We do need to learn from our mistakes and we cannot ignore the wealth of knowledge that local people can provide.

I have long been of the view that local knowledge is a key ingredient in the decision-making process that follows these disasters and that governments tap into. I have from my early years in this place urged all governments to not only respect the knowledge and experience of local people but use it. We have seen in Victoria that inquiry after inquiry was ignored by the former Labor government. That happens even in this place. We established a committee after the 2003 bushfires and so many of those recommendations still have not been fully implemented. You can even go back decades to the Stretton inquiry and some of those recommendations still have not been implemented. And yet the same issues are raised in inquiry after inquiry.

I do not intend to make pointed political criticisms at this time. But, for the sake of potential victims of future disasters and to respect the efforts and sacrifice of those already gone, we need to wake up collectively as policymakers and decision makers who can make a difference. We cannot ignore local knowledge. The fact that you may not have a degree in meteorology does not mean that you do not understand the weather conditions of your area. It does not mean that a family that has lived in a region for generations does not appreciate the nuances of what is happening during a particular season with the weather.

The front page of Monday’s Australian clearly illustrates one example of the dangers in dismissing local knowledge. Brisbane Valley farmer Chris McConnel attempted to warn the Wivenhoe Dam’s operator of the imminent flooding and the need to release water immediately. He is somewhat of a local expert in forecasting flooding. His family had recorded rainfall and forecast flood events as far back as the 1840s. It is this type of expert knowledge that is invaluable. It should not be dismissed and it should not be discounted. As it turned out, Mr McConnel was correct and unfortunately his advice was ignored. Who knows what would have happened if there had been sufficient flexibility and openness within the existing processes for people to have listened to and accepted Mr McConnel’s advice?

Natural disasters like the recent floods have happened before and will happen again. It is our responsibility to ensure that we are as well prepared as possible for when these events occur again. The best way we can do this is to work hard. What we have not done in the past so well is speak with local communities, understand what went wrong and try and fix it. We should not come up with a media fix for a solution but come up with a real solution that deals with some of these issues.

Over the last month I have been meeting with locals in my electorate to discuss the impacts of recent floods in north-east Victoria and to consider some potential solutions. I thank all of those who have worked with me through that process. Indeed, I thank all of those in my electorate and right across Australia who have volunteered their assistance and information through dozens of government inquiries that have been conducted after previous natural disasters. People did that because they believed that what they said might be factored into decision making. They hoped that perhaps governments would engage in some common sense. I urge all members of this House not to disappoint these people and the goodwill they showed to us by taking time out from their families and employment to try and tell us what needs to be done.

In concluding, and in commending the motion to the House, I say: let us not forget that so many corners of this great nation and so many people were affected, right across the board. We have seen, from previous natural disasters, how the emotional scars can still be there for many years to come. We need to be aware of that. We need to provide the resources to communities to ensure that we not only rebuild the bricks and mortar of communities but heal those deep mental scars.