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Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Page: 1033

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for Justice and Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information) (6:11 PM) —I rise to support the motion of condolence in relation to the natural disasters that have affected so much of our country this summer. My sincerest sympathies go to those affected by these natural disasters: the floods, the cyclones and the fires that still affect large areas of Australia. This summer we have seen catastrophic acts of nature right across the country. However, the disaster and devastation has been countered by countless examples of the strength of the human spirit, with people all over Australia pulling together to help out their fellow citizens.

I witnessed, firsthand, inspiring examples of this spirit last month when I visited the flood devastated town of Rockhampton while acting as Attorney-General. At that time, the town was cut off by the waters, and I was flown in by Australian Defence Force Black Hawk helicopter. What I flew over could only be described as an inland sea—the tops of trees were covered in yellow-brown waters and pockets of livestock were crowded on island hills surrounded by water. As I flew over the town I saw parks that looked like ponds, streets that looked like rivers and houses where water had swallowed up all but the tops of roofs. At the Rockhampton Community Recovery Centre, accompanied by the member for Capricornia, Kirsten Livermore, I met the emergency workers, the volunteers and the mates who had rallied together to help those in need. Some had lost houses and some had lost possessions, but all had been affected financially and emotionally. I was impressed and inspired by their stoicism, tolerance and humour during this adversity. I was also impressed at how orderly and well run I found that centre to be and at how the people showed such great patience in having their matters dealt with properly.

These are difficult times for many people, but the government will not stop working to ensure that all the areas affected by the natural disaster will recover from this very challenging situation. As well as offering my sincerest condolences to those affected, I would like to applaud the enormous efforts of defence personnel, emergency workers and the many volunteers. I would particularly like to take this opportunity to praise two agencies in my portfolio, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, for their efforts. AFP officers have been working with the Queensland Police Service in some of the hardest hit areas of the Lockyer Valley, including Murphys Creek and Grantham. During the busiest times, the AFP provided around 70 personnel to support the Queensland Police Service. Their work included difficult operations such as search and recovery efforts, as well as general policing in affected communities.

Customs and Border Protection staff have also been working tirelessly across areas affected by natural disasters to ensure that all goods required to support the emergency effort are processed urgently. These urgent items include food, health and medical supplies, clean-up tools and public infrastructure equipment. Customs and Border Protection is also ensuring that internationally donated goods for charities and philanthropic organisations are processed quickly and that the donor organisations receive advice on duty and tax concessions for those goods. Customs and Border Protection is providing officers to assist Centrelink to process food related claims. As the minister responsible for these two agencies for the past 18 months, I am used to seeing outstanding acts of public service. Once again I have been impressed by the level of commitment and dedication shown by both these agencies in dealing with the task at hand. Their response to this disaster is just another fine example of the magnificent work they do to serve the community, and I commend them for their efforts.

As the emergency response to these events winds down, the focus of the Australian government is to provide what is necessary to assist local communities to recover and rebuild following these disasters. These events have been a national tragedy and a dark time for many, many Australians. But the courage of Australian people, the local leadership and the spirit of resilience of local communities continue to shine through.