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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 935

Mrs MIRABELLA (2:15 PM) —As a nation we grieve at the horror that continues to unfold in my home state of Victoria and I rise to support the motion and to pay my respects and express my deepest sympathies to those who have lost family members, loved ones and workmates. The sheer scale of loss of human life, as incomprehensible as it is, has horrified us all. I think it is true to say that universal grief has gripped our nation like never before during a natural disaster. We need to remember that every individual who did not escape the fires had dreams, had hopes, had plans. The fire did not discriminate between young and old. All these lives cut tragically short, leaving loved ones behind. The people who have left us are in our thoughts and prayers. All we can hope is that that knowledge provides some small comfort to those who are left behind.

In my electorate, we mourn the deaths of John and Sue Wilson. Like so many residents of the north-east of Victoria in the past, and many in the present, John and Sue stayed, defending their home in Mudgegonga, just north of Myrtleford in the Ovens Valley. To their children, Grace and Samantha: we mourn with you. It is hard enough for anyone to lose a parent; to lose both in such tragic circumstances can only compound the hurt and pain. The extraordinary conditions of this fire have shocked and tested even the most seasoned firefighters, both volunteers and professionals. This is the third fire in six years that has ravaged my part of the world—north-east Victoria. The scar tissue from the 2003 fires particularly has left an indelible mark on the landscape and the psyche of those living in north-east Victoria. In the days and months ahead we will struggle to quantify how these catastrophic fires of 2009 will impact on not just those areas affected in Victoria but the nation as a whole.

The main fire currently burning in Indi is described as the Beechworth fire and, to date, it has burnt approximately 30,000 hectares. This is in addition to over 900,000 hectares burnt during the 2003 and 2006 fires. The most recent information I have is that milder weather conditions have helped keep this and the Koetong Dry Forest Creek fire within containment lines at the moment. It is a great relief that the towns and residents in my local valleys and in my regions are not under immediate threat. We hope that—as the fires are contained, with improved weather conditions and successful back-burning operations—those communities will remain safe. But they do need to remain vigilant—as do many other communities in Victoria—because it is not over. At last count, there were 300 firefighters on the ground. But for every firefighter there are several volunteers behind the scenes: the communications personnel, the CFA members keeping the sheds and equipment in working order, the SES, others preparing the food—whether, yet again, it is the women’s auxiliary of the Myrtleford CFA or the local Red Cross or just mums and dads down the road who want to do something to help—those who are working at relief centres or others donating their time to feed cattle.

The tasks being undertaken by thousands of people across the north-east and across Victoria are limitless. The list of names runs into many pages. It is quite heartening that it is not only the long-standing residents of our area who are helping but many who have moved there recently. Only the other night, I was at the Chiltern relief centre and there were three young army wives who had recently moved with their husbands to our local facility in Bandiana. They were distraught; they did not know what they could do to help. They each looked around their home and collected everything they thought could be of help and delivered it to Chiltern. That is just a very small example of the emotion, of the desire and the need to help, right across our region and right across our state.

To all of the firefighters, to their families who support them, to the crews who keep them going, to the local communities, to the businesses who have given so much I give a very deep thank you. The lifeblood of our communities in rural and regional Victoria is our volunteers. They are our safety net. We could not survive, let alone thrive, without them. Scores of people, often whole families, stop whatever they are doing to play their part whenever a natural disaster hits—by helping their neighbours, by helping their town, by doing whatever is asked, and often even what is not asked, and by doing whatever it takes. It is humbling to not only be part of that community but also represent people who give so much of themselves in such an unassuming way. It is often those who do not have much themselves who give the most. They may not say much but their actions speak volumes. They are an example to us all in this House.

So much of the human spirit of Australia is displayed in those hours and days before official assistance, grants and programs kick in. Just one local example is the coordination of feed for local stock. Local farmers, who themselves have suffered years of drought—who have battled drought, bureaucracies and challenging world market conditions—have not thought twice about donating what, in dollar terms, is quite a sizeable amount of feed to their fellow farmers. A very special thankyou to Stephen Street, who is coordinating that effort locally in Mudgegonga. It also gives me great pride to represent a part of Victoria where there are these self-starters, these people who do not wait to be told but do what needs to be done.

Still in shock, exhaustion has set in. I have been speaking to quite a few of our local volunteers on the ground. They have given me a few messages and they have asked me to pass them on, which I will do here today. They are all touched by the generosity of not only fellow residents of north-east Victoria but also people right across the nation and throughout the world. There is a very real and immediate need for counselling across the board, from the tough weather-beaten farmer to the impressionable young child.

I remember the emotional damage left by the 2003 and 2006 fires. Long after the cameras have gone and the media attention fades away, the scars are still there. The coordination of counselling is an urgent priority right across the state. In the weeks to come, many who have experienced the horror—including the volunteers, the police and Army personnel—will need help, whether it be an understanding ear from friends or professional help. Our communities must be equipped to make such help available. It is these intangibles that will determine, as much as the bricks and mortar will determine, how well and how rapidly our communities do recover.

Farmers have asked for help to get their farms operational again. In many cases it will take years for them to recover. They have asked for assistance in the form of long-term, low-interest loans; an extension of exceptional circumstances; incentives for pasture improvement; help with the repair and replacement of fencing; cleaning and enlarging dams; and of course improvement in local telecommunications.

It is not the first time telecommunications has become an issue with bushfires across Australia, but we need to learn the lessons and learn them quickly. To take one local example, Trish Carroll is the communications officer for the Mudgegonga CFA Brigade. Mobile coverage in the area is very poor. Trish Carroll’s home telephone has not been operational for over a month and is still not operational. Recently, the Carrolls were told that their complaint issue had been lost in the system. Local people are angry and justifiably so. A usable home phone is beyond a basic need. We are in the age of talking about all sorts of advanced technological means of communication and equipment, yet we need to remember that, in many parts of Australia and many parts of Victoria—often rural areas—that are not as accessible as others, a basic home phone is the starting point.

Knowing that your neighbour, your elderly relatives and your children are safe and sound during these fires is an absolute priority. Needing this assurance, needing to know that, is an essential part of the human condition. The mobile phone bills for this period are expected to be horrendous. In the great Australian spirit of giving that we have seen right across our nation—again, often the poorest of communities giving the most—perhaps it is time for telecommunications operators to donate, for the fire season, the cost of the telephone bills of those living in fire-affected areas. Again, this is a specific idea and request that has come from my constituents. The same request has been made of large corporations providing petrol to local outlets to assist with the transportation of hay and other materials. Volunteers are using their own trucks, their own funds to pay for the petrol and diesel. Perhaps some assistance could also be forthcoming in that direction.

The coverage, information and dedication of the ABC right across Victoria has been commented upon in this House. I have to repeat that our local ABC personnel have been outstanding. They have formed part of the fabric of north-east communities, giving assurance and information, which were particularly important last weekend, amidst much anxiety and much fear. They give of their time and they are truly part of our local community. Police, local council staff, VicRoads, the ambulance service and the staff at the incident control centres have all been part of the local effort. A particular personal thanks to Tony Long and Rob Charwell, who have taken time out from their very important work at the incident control centre in Ovens to keep me updated about what is going on.

Many issues have been raised. The time for questions and investigations will come. Now is not the time for me to go into these details. But I will just flag that we should be guided by many discussions on these matters that have occurred in the past and by much of the discussion that will no doubt take place once we are over the horrific circumstances of the present time.

Our thoughts at the moment are with those still recovering. I pay special tribute to Fran Bailey. She is an extraordinary member for McEwen. So many of us have been touched by these tragic events over the last few days, and if ever there was a person who is a fearless and unafraid champion of the local people it is Fran Bailey. My thoughts are with her at the moment. A special thankyou to the leaders of our nation. To the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, and to the Prime Minister: thank you both for caring enough to keep personally updated by contacting me and other members in bushfire affected areas.

Personally, I am relieved and grateful that the federal government’s assistance to rebuild our Victorian communities is uncapped and unconditional. That is the right thing to do. It is a mark of respect and humanity that we all, on both sides of the House, remain united and determined to do whatever is required to rebuild, to help, to support and, above all, not to forget. In commending the motion to the House, I note that this tragedy will go down in history as the worst natural disaster our nation has faced, and the appropriate response in due course needs to be of that scale as well. I commend the motion to the House.