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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 1067

Mr IAN MACFARLANE (4:52 PM) —I rise to support this motion of condolence and in doing so I acknowledge the many comments that have been made, particularly by members of electorates that have been affected by this horrific tragedy—electorates like McEwen, Gippsland, Indi, Murray, McMillan, Mallee, Wannon, Corangamite and Bendigo. They are all electorates that I have had the opportunity to visit, for various reasons, during my time as a member. No one would argue that when the rains come and the valleys blossom these are beautiful electorates. As someone who has grown up on the land I have some insight—although I would never think that I had a real picture—into just how horrific these areas would be when they were attacked by fire, fire like we have never seen before.

If I reflect on my days when I was a member of the Boondooma-Durong bushfire brigade, fighting fires in gum trees in hilly country was a danger all on its own. But the dangers that I confronted in the forests of Queensland are almost insignificant in comparison to the fires that we have seen in Victoria, with the temperature so much higher, timber so much denser and accessibility so much more difficult. There are few things that frighten me, but fire is certainly one of them. Fire has with it an inherent risk.

With this motion we reflect on what happened to too many poor souls as they attempted to defend their property and their loved ones and lost their lives or were severely injured as a result. We know that the death toll will rise. We know that grief in the communities will arise as the stark realisation hits home. We know, though, that deep down inside these people are Australians, and it is that character, that sense of resilience and that gritty courage that will rebuild these communities—that will rebuild the houses, halls, roads and fences—and restock the land, and, as best they ever can, the communities will be as they once were, but never quite the same. The toll of this horrific event will be far greater on the spirits of these brave Australians than it will be on their pockets. Australians everywhere, including in my electorate, are digging deep and putting their hands in their pockets to help these people overcome an extraordinary challenge that, hopefully, no other region will ever experience.

People in Toowoomba and the Darling Downs have been blessed with country that is not prone to fires and, with a few exceptions, most areas will not see the ravages of fire or the devastation of floods, as we have seen in North Queensland, but that does not mean that these people do not feel for their fellow Australians when such a horrific disaster strikes. From my family, my constituents in Groom and myself, I convey our deepest condolences. I express our deepest sympathies and assure the people of the communities, whose names we continue to hear each time we turn on the television, listen to the radio or read the newspaper, who have lost so much—in some cases everything and in some cases that which is most precious—‘You are in our minds, you are in our hearts and you are in our prayers, not just today but on an ongoing basis.’

In our nation’s history we have faced many calamities, but fire is a recurring theme. Dorothea Mackellar has been oft quoted in speeches, both in this place and in the main chamber, but in fact when you use the words ‘beauty’ and ‘terror’, as she used them to describe Australia, they can actually be used to describe fire. Many of us—probably all of us—have had the opportunity to sit in front of a crackling fire or around a bonfire and gaze into it and feel its warmth on a cold night. We should never, though, be seduced by that warmth into thinking that fire is anything but an absolute danger in the bush.

There will be lessons learnt from this fire and there will be incriminations and accusations—and I am not going to participate in any of that. As I said, I have fought fire, I know its danger and I have seen men almost killed by it but for a stroke of luck and a couple of seconds of timing, but in support of this condolence motion today I really just want to convey, on behalf of the people of my community, how much we feel for the people of the communities affected. I also express our gratitude to the selfless people who go without scant regard for their own safety or time and give their all in a volunteer capacity to fight these fires, care for those who are injured, assist those who are distraught and help begin the rebuilding process.

Members of the RFA and the CFA and volunteers who have travelled from New South Wales, Queensland and no doubt South Australia to assist these people in their time of distress are Australians displaying the true spirit of mateship. They do not expect acknowledgement and they certainly do not expect payment, but they will go away knowing about the eternal gratitude of not only the communities but, of course, all Australians. To them I express my thanks. I also acknowledge and thank those who are administrating the relief effort and those who are treating the injured and the burnt: ambulance officers, medical officers and hospital staff. Their job in rebuilding the bodies of these people will be a critical part of their recovery.

Today in the House we heard about the efforts of the Australian defence forces and the people who have gone in with them from the police force to perform what must be one of the most challenging tasks in the post-fire recovery period—as the Minister for Defence said, optimistically searching for survivors but realistically knowing that they are looking for those who have perished in this fire. I know they have courage and I know they have the ability to do the job, but I wish them all strength in the task they perform. In closing, I again just say that the rural landscape can bring great beauty and reward to Australians and this nation has grown as a result of our involvement with it. At these times, when it has wreaked such huge devastation on life and property, we need to remember the lessons that are learnt and comfort those who are suffering but look forward to a brighter future.