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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 1070

Mr RUDDOCK (5:14 PM) —I rise to support the condolence motion moved by the Deputy Prime Minister and supported by all who have spoken to date in this debate. I add my condolences to the families who have lost loved ones and my commiserations to those who have lost property and assets, and I bring with me the condolences and commiserations of the electors of Berowra to the parliament and to my colleagues, particularly those colleagues whose electorates have been affected.

In the time that I have been in the parliament I have witnessed many events of great enormity and tragedy, often in other parts of the world. There are not many that impact upon Australia, but when you think of the Australians who lost their lives in the Bali bombing it was significant in this parliament. The services in the Great Hall reflected that. But I do not think I have seen, since 1973, the activities of the parliament truncated in the way in which they have been so that a universal view can be conveyed to the Australian community about the enormity of the loss that has been suffered, nor do I think that I have heard such fine addresses by colleagues. When I think about the member for McMillan speaking yesterday, joined by the members for Wannon, Mallee, Casey and Bendigo, when I think about the fine addresses today from the members for Gippsland and Indi and add to that members affected by flood who acknowledged the enormity of the disaster that is being suffered in Victoria—the members for Herbert, Dawson and Kennedy—this has been a remarkable couple of days.

I was gratified today to hear that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have met to discuss the way in which we might move forward in common purpose. At times of emergency, there is an expectation that that will happen, and I certainly hope it can continue, because the wide range of issues that we have to deal with demand it. I thank the Prime Minister, as the Leader of the Opposition did, for his engagement with members of the parliament generally and his messages of support and encouragement. Particularly the members who have received them have acknowledged the importance of that common purpose. It is in that context that I look around this chamber. I see the members for Bradfield and Werriwa, and they will know, as I do, that fire is a present threat for many of us in the outlying areas of our great cities, where you have great national parks and open spaces adjoining urban and semiurban areas. So when I hear something of the horror that people have experienced, while I know that my constituents have not had the same level of adverse experience, nevertheless constituents know about the enormity of threat that fire poses.

In 1957 I fought my first bushfire in Sydney with a hessian bag. In that sense, I felt overwhelmed as significant parts of Hornsby, including St Peter’s Church, were lost as the fire came up out of the Berowra parklands and Galston Gorge. We have had more recent fires. I relate to those who have spoken with horror at the prospect that somebody may deliberately light fires. Close to my own home at Pennant Hills, out of the Lane Cove National Park, we used to regularly experience bushfires that we now know were always deliberately lit, because the culprit was found and prosecuted. Since that time we have not had any fires, except I think the one that was at the eastern end of Lane Cove National Park, adjacent to the member for Bradfield’s electorate, last week.

I know the enormity of the anguish that people experience as they think about fire. We have lost life and property in my constituency but we have not experienced the enormity that our Victorian colleagues have had to endure. It is right that we should mourn and commiserate with them. It is right that we should express our condolences in the way that we have. But it is also important that we learn the lessons. At times I have had some responsibility for assisting in relation to the work of Emergency Management Australia, an agency within the Attorney-General’s Department that has had responsibility for liaising with states and territories and ensuring that Commonwealth support, where it is possible to assist, is available.

I notice that the Commonwealth disaster plan has been activated. It has happened again and, as the Prime Minister acknowledged, EMA played a role in ensuring that the Defence Force could bring together the tents, stretchers, sleeping bags, portable beds and mattresses as well as the heavy machinery—the bulldozers and loaders—and the chainsaw crews, the aerial imagery and the defence personnel who can provide search and recovery assistance.

The Commonwealth disaster plan provides the ability to gather together the support that the Commonwealth can offer—and it is appropriate that it should—but the Commonwealth’s role is quite limited. While Emergency Management Australia provides that critical support—and it has done so again, through Tony Pearce, its director, briefing the Prime Minister—you can see from the arrangements outlined by the Prime Minister that the royal commission will be a Victorian royal commission. The Victorian government will establish, under Victorian legislation, a Victorian bushfire reconstruction and recovery authority. The personnel are eminently well qualified; nevertheless they are the choice of Victoria.

While I am not critical of those arrangements that were put in place to respond, or of the activities of those that did respond—I know the enormity of it and the difficulty associated with the response and I know of the professional and volunteer support that has been given—I think we will have to reflect on whether or not there should be some further Commonwealth engagement in relation to the way in which these issues are taken forward in the future. I offer the comments constructively when I say that. I have spoken, long before this tragedy, about reviewing some of the material that has been prepared by ASPI, and I noted that in the Smith review, which was undertaken in a broader context dealing with national security issues, it was proposed that Emergency Management Australia be integrated into an Australian emergency management committee with a national security adviser as the chair. This was seen as providing enhanced capacity to respond to an all-hazards approach to dealing with emergencies that we face.

My view, as I said in a speech that I made in Victoria several days before these fires, is that the Commonwealth needs to go further. Emergency Management Australia has played an important role in Australia’s response to and recovery from many disasters, both locally and abroad, but I believe that that role needs to be expanded along the lines suggested by ASPI, to include a greater command role for disaster recovery and response. That is a matter that the government might be prepared to consider. I think its role needs to be more than just providing grants for volunteers, education at Mount Macedon and grants to enhance facilities of agencies. I oversaw its implementation. Our Rural Fire Service in New South Wales has seen increased participation by volunteers. While volunteerism has been in decline in so many areas in Australia, it was interesting that, in that one area, where people’s property and life were threatened, there had been increased voluntary participation, particularly in New South Wales. I believe that the role of the former government’s programs in attracting people to volunteer was important.

I very much want to contribute positively in this debate, but I more particularly want to associate the electors of Berowra, my constituents—who understand something of the loss that the Victorians have experienced—with this condolence motion and the commiserations that have been offered in terms of the loss. My electors, along with Australians generally, have been and, I am sure, will continue to be generous in their financial support. I know from calls to my office that people have been looking at ways and means by which they can be of assistance, and it is a great tribute to Australia and Australians that in a crisis of this sort people have so willingly pulled together. I also commend my colleagues, who have given leadership, and also the parliament for its fulsome engagement in this motion. It says a great deal about the nature of our democracy that on an occasion like this we can put aside our more combative approaches and speak with one voice and in union.