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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 1018

Mr MORRISON (10:00 AM) —It is with shock and disbelief that I rise to support this condolence motion on behalf of the more than 100,000 Australians represented in my electorate of Cook and, in partnership with the member for Hughes, on behalf of the more than 250,000 Australians who live in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire. Both of us stand here today to offer, on behalf of our communities, our condolences to the communities in Victoria who have been so dreadfully devastated.

This is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions—unspeakable in its horror, unspeakable in its scale, unspeakable in its sheer human devastation. We are humbled and bewildered by the fury of this force that has scorched the lives of at least 181 Australians, some of whom left us in the blink of an eye from the face of our earth. This was the perfect firestorm. Let us pray that we and our children will never see the face of such horror again. But the terrible truth is that such a day will come again.

I am proud to say that a contingent of some 120 volunteers from our local brigades in the Sutherland Shire from both the Cook and Hughes electorates have taken and will take their place in the days ahead at the fire front in Victoria. The first team of 21 is being relieved today, another team will go down this weekend and another team will go next week, on Wednesday. I am sure, given the spirit of those in the shire, they will do whatever it takes. They will be there until the last fire is out and the last need is met. They have been based in Beechworth, in the electorate of Indi; they have already been on the ground in Dederang and Running Creek in northern Victoria and will continue to do their duty.

I think it is important to also acknowledge in this place the contribution of the husband of the member for Hughes, Bob Vale, who at his age is an extraordinary Australian. It is just so fabulous to see Bob so quickly answer that call for help, as he has done all of his life. Both he and member for Hughes are a credit to their nation.

I thank all of the volunteer teams for their service, and our thoughts are with them as they journey south and with their families, who will worry and who will be concerned in the days ahead. We pray for their safe return and their reunion with their families in the shire.

The shire is no stranger to bushfires. The circumstances of these deaths are horrific, and they will stay with the victims’ families forever. The tragic events in Victoria will call up memories for many across the country, including in my electorate and the neighbouring electorate of Hughes. For those in Victoria, these haunting memories have only just begun. In December 2001 Sydney experienced a black Christmas. Those fires, which had a particular impact on southern Sydney, burned for more than three weeks. It was the longest continuous bushfire emergency in New South Wales’s history.

The fire affected the southern part of the Cook electorate, mostly the natural areas within the Royal National Park. The National Parks and Wildlife Service evacuated more than 3,000 people from the park, including holiday-makers and campers, as fires flared up very close to the main picnic and recreation areas within the park boundaries. The fire encroached on residential areas surrounding and within the national park, including the villages of Bundeena and Maianbar, which are only accessible by road—one road in, one road out. Hearing the stories yesterday, particularly from the member for McMillan, about the many Victorian communities facing the same thing, my mind immediately turned to those communities in Maianbar and Bundeena. Fortunately, there is another way out of Maianbar or Bundeena, and that is by ferry or boat. During those fires, that was the way that many residents of the suburbs were evacuated.

More than 60 per cent of the vegetation within the Royal National Park was destroyed by fire. Thankfully, there was no loss of life. However, that has not always been the case in bushfires in the shire. On Friday, 7 January 1994, a fire began in Menai that by the close of the following day would have destroyed 88 houses, taken the life of Pauline O’Neill and seriously injured Kylie and Catherine Dicken of 39 Lincoln Crescent in Jannali, in the neighbouring electorate of Hughes.

On Saturday morning the fire was still on the other side of the Woronora River, yet by the afternoon it had leapt this narrow waterway and the threat had moved on to the suburbs of Bonnet Bay, Como and Jannali. Richard Dicken, his partner Pauline and his two daughters were sitting safely in their home at this time, but just after 2 pm the fire truck that was stationed in their street was directed by the command centre to go to Jefferson Crescent in Bonnet Bay, where the need was perceived to be much greater.

That truck was manned by my brother-in-law, firefighter Gary Warren, a professional firefighter. He was a member of the brigade and served with distinction over many years before falling victim to multiple sclerosis so that he had to retire from the service. But he was there on that day, and I spoke to him this week as we recalled the memories of the discussion we had those many years ago about that day. On arrival at Jefferson Crescent in Bonnet Bay, he found the area completely deserted. It was a very eerie, silent place but the danger was looming and progressing. Together with his colleagues that day he saved many homes in the area, yet back in Lincoln Crescent things had begun to turn from bad to worse. In just over an hour one big flame, not unlike some of the flames we have been hearing about in Victoria, came straight up the road at a point across from the church, which immediately caught fire. By soon after 4 pm Richard and Pauline’s home was alight. Together with Richard’s children, Catherine and Kylie, and their two dogs Pauline got into their vehicle in their garage, with a view to leaving. When the garage door opened they saw the front of the house on fire. The utility at the top of the drive was also on fire. The bush opposite was alight, with the wind driving the flames into the house.

They shut the door and returned to the house. They used wet towels whilst sheltering in the laundry and bathroom area of their home. Richard then went looking for a way out the back of the yard, as the front door and the window next to it were now on fire. The house was now on fire and Catherine saw a ball of fire come out of her bedroom. Richard by this time was in the pool. Everything was alight and he called his family to get to the pool, as he saw this as the way out. As the inferno reached its intensity Pauline, Catherine and Kylie jumped into the pool. The dogs never made it off the pergola. The girls survived, although they sustained burns, but Pauline had perished by the time she hit the water. When my brother-in-law Gary and his crew were finally able to get to Lincoln Crescent he saw a scene he described to me as total devastation.

The Como-Jannali fire was one of the most damaging fires that occurred in New South Wales in 1994. It was also one of the smallest fires in New South Wales, being largely confined to the riverside bushland reserves. The fire affected 476 hectares of bushland and destroyed 101 houses—ultimately more than half of all the houses lost in New South Wales during the January 1994 bushfire emergency were in that broader area—and it claimed the life of Pauline O’Neill.

I relay this story not because of its comparison to the suffering in Victoria—there is no comparison, I think, to the suffering we have seen in Victoria—but simply to make the point that the stories, identities and lives of all those who have been lost in this terrible tragedy must be remembered, just as we can remember Pauline O’Neill today in such detail. Every life lost is precious, whether there is one or there are 181. There is a human face to every one of these horrific stories, and although it is so difficult we must look at these faces. We must feel our loss, as we have been doing in this place this week, and we must honour the memory of those people. So, when the time comes and we are able, let us name these names—as today I remember Pauline—and let us mourn all these deaths. Let us tell their stories. In fact, let us have a national day of mourning, when we have counted the dead, so that we can celebrate their lives together.

The rebuilding and learning process must now be our focus. I welcome the measures announced yesterday by the Prime Minister and those announced the previous day by the Deputy Prime Minister. The coalition stand ready, as we have said, to do whatever it takes, as I am sure that is the resolve of every member in this place. There are some important issues that I believe we need to pay careful attention to, not just in the days ahead but in the weeks, months and even years ahead. They relate particularly to the issues of insurance coverage and dealing with the claims of those who will be in such distress. They will need support and advocates, people who can stand with them to work with the necessary bureaucracies. It will be difficult for them, as they do not have documents, as we heard yesterday. They need to substantiate their claims and work through all of these details. They will need people to hold their hands through that process. Let us be there to hold their hands.

I also want to join all colleagues in expressing my gratitude for the generosity of all Australians, including those in my electorate, who have reached out in this time of need. The over $30 million—and I am sure the figure is climbing—reminds us of the Australian response to the tsunami tragedy. Here on our own shores our generosity is no less.

I also wish to thank those who this day and every day are serving on the ground, including my colleagues from Victoria, providing the leadership in their communities that is so essential. In particular I wish to acknowledge the member for McEwen. I wish to thank all the members for their incredible tributes on behalf of their electorates. I do not think any of us will ever forget the contribution yesterday by the member for McMillan, who I had the great privilege to sit beside when I first came to this place. I got to understand a fair bit more about the member for McMillan. What we saw yesterday was 100 per cent pure member for McMillan.

I also want to thank all those involved in the gruesome task of forensic identification. We pay tribute to the firefighters, the volunteers and those working in charities, but I particularly want to draw our attention to those who are going through the most gruesome of tasks. This brings back a personal memory. My father was a fingerprint expert for the New South Wales Police for many years in his career. Like most policemen, ambulance officers and firefighters, he tended not to talk about his experiences. My brother serves in the ambulance service and many of my family have served with the police, and they do not talk about it. One thing my father really never talked about was the time in 1979 when he was one of the first on the scene to do identification for the poor boys who were killed in the Luna Park fire. Those boys were the same age as my brother and me. They came from the community we grew up in. It was my father’s grim task to identify those bodies.

Similarly, some performing that gruesome task in these communities will have lived in these communities and have known these individuals, and some will not. They will see the charred remains of children and they will force themselves not to think of their own children and their friends’ children. They will see things that I hope I will never see. They will be forced to do that task. I know they will do it professionally and with the great integrity and respect that that job deserves. Let us spare a thought for them as they work through this horrible business.

I hope our words in this place provide some salve to the open wounds of our nation at this time. I believe in something far more powerful than that: the hope and blessing of a benevolent God. Accordingly, I agree with the member for McMillan, who said: those who can pray, pray. In that vein I wish to offer a prayer from Isaiah. If I can be indulged, this is my prayer for them:

That the spirit of the Lord, whom the Lord has anointed, will bring good news to the afflicted; that He will bind up the broken hearted; that He will proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; that it will become the favourable year of the Lord; that He will comfort all who mourn; that He will grant those who mourn, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting, so they will be called oaks of righteousness; that they will rebuild the ancient ruins and they will raise up the former devastations.

May God’s blessing be on all those who suffer and mourn at this time and those who seek to comfort them.