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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 1073

Mr HAYES (5:28 PM) —I wish to join in support of this condolence motion by the Deputy Prime Minister. I do so on behalf of my community of Werriwa and certainly my family and myself. Along with all of my colleagues on all sides of this parliament, I have over this week witnessed a national tragedy. Presently some 4,000 firefighters are in Victoria fighting 23 fires. What has occurred in Victoria since last Saturday has probably been the worst natural disaster in our recorded history. I observed, shortly before coming down here, that about 181 people had been confirmed dead and that over 5,000 people were now homeless.

This tragedy has really shaken the whole nation. I know it probably does not mean much for people outside of parliament at the moment, but those of us in here cannot help but feel the sombre nature of this place. I think my colleague the member for Berowra put it pretty eloquently when he said that this place is probably more well known for its feisty and combative nature. The nation has been shaken to its core and, quite frankly, we are reflecting the views not only of our constituents but of the nation as we approach this dreadful tragedy in Victoria. The nation is being shaken by this disaster as it unfolds.

The people of Victoria are in my thoughts and prayers. The people of south-west Sydney and families right across Australia have the people of Victoria very much in the forefront of their thinking at the moment. As a member of this parliament, like many others, I have regard for the many Victorians who have lost friends, families, loved ones and homes and have suffered terribly. We want them to know that we are thinking of them and are praying for them. We are committed to doing everything possible to respond, to rebuild and to make certain as far as we can, in the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, that ‘such tragedies cannot happen again’. I look forward to the contributions that various experts may care to make in the Victorian royal commission that has been announced. I wish the royal commission well not simply in looking at the causes of the great tragedy in Victoria but also in pointing in its findings, hopefully, to what can be done in our communities to make them safer.

At this time we must also think of those families struggling in North Queensland. There is great irony in this great country of Australia. At the same time we have fire devastation in Victoria we have a flood devastated Queensland, where a number of people are missing and over 3,000 people are homeless. Today I take this opportunity to personally pass on my gratitude to all of those firefighters, emergency service workers, police, Army personnel and medical staff and those providing counselling and support to those affected by the fires, and those providing financial assistance, including the dedicated staff at Centrelink. I extend my gratitude to all of those people contributing for doing the work they are doing, work that we physically cannot do.

There is no person in this country who has not been touched by the unprecedented nature of this disaster. It takes your breath away every time you turn the TV on. There is almost the expectation that things will be getting worse because over the last week when we have turned on the television things have gotten progressively worse. I have been speaking regularly to Mark Burgess, the Chief Executive Officer of the Police Federation of Australia. I was talking to him about the welfare of the police not only in North Queensland but in Victoria at the moment. Each time I end those calls only one thing really stays in my mind—and this will not come as any surprise to members—and that is just how wonderful our emergency service workers really are. I greatly value the difficult and often very dangerous jobs that they do. They do them with complete and utter commitment. I have said in this place before that it takes a special kind of person and special kind of courage to commit to wearing a police uniform. This too can be said no less of our firefighters, who as we speak are continuing to fight the most devastating fires in our nation’s history.

We are truly indebted to those brave men and women who are currently committed to fighting and containing the remaining fires, those who are sifting through the rubble of houses looking for bodies, those who are hunting down arsonists and those who are undertaking the grim task of formally identifying those who have perished so the next of kin can be formally advised. To all those involved, you should know that your significant and tireless contributions are valued, and I want to assure you that we do not take you for granted.

Before coming into the chamber today I spoke at length to Inspector Brian Rix, a very seasoned Victorian police officer, a homicide squad investigator and a person who has probably seen the worst of humanity to that extent. He is also President of the Police Association of Victoria. When I was talking to Brian today, I told him that I would be speaking to this condolence motion and Brian asked me to personally pass on sincere thanks from him and on behalf of all of his members who are directly involved in working on this tragedy. He told me that dreadful times like this really bring to light how being a member of the police force is more than just a job. He has received many calls from members each day and he has received numerous calls of support from every police force, state and territory, and the Federal Police. As a matter of fact, I think the Australian Federal Police have now committed over 90 officers to work down there alongside their Victorian counterparts. Inspector Rix said:

We really are one family and in times of need, we support each other and right now you are all showing us here in Victoria that support.

He went on to tell me that the capricious nature of these fires has meant that the welfare of members will require close monitoring. However, he assures me that the service in Victoria is certainly meeting the immediate financial needs and providing emotional support for those who need it. In fact, it was only yesterday that Inspector Rix was at the police operations centre, where he was providing support to his members and colleagues who were exposed to the extreme, traumatic event. In some cases there are members who have lost their own homes but they too are out there still working, still sifting through the rubble and trying to establish what they need to with regard to what they now regard as a crime scene.

While Inspector Rix was out there yesterday, as president of his police association, he too went out to assist his colleagues. He was telling me that he uncovered a body himself and retrieved a body from an area. He left me with a very clear sense of the impact of seeing the effects of this devastation. It is not just something that you see when you put Sky News on and that then goes away when you turn the news off. This actually stays with you. Whilst I know firsthand, having regard to my previous association with the police, about the work that police do and how they are affected, what Inspector Rix wanted to leave me with was that it is not only the police who are going to be affected by this; it is all those various members of the community—the volunteers and professional firefighters, the ambulance officers and all those who are assisting. They also need to be looked at and supported as time progresses.

Additionally today I would like to take a little time to express my appreciation of the numerous dedicated and valuable volunteer members of the Rural Fire Service from my own area in Werriwa. In addition to assisting our local community over the weekend, our firefighters travelled to Victoria on Sunday. Tankers from Casula, Lynwood Park, Minto Heights, Narellan and Varroville bushfire brigades—24 crew members in all, together with a deputy group captain from Camden—departed on Sunday morning to assist the CFA. They are in the Beechworth area as we speak.

I spoke to Superintendent Caroline Ortel, the Macarthur zone manager for the Rural Fire Service, who advised me that these volunteers are providing relief for the Victorian crews and there will be more who will interchange from Macarthur. I understand from Superintendent Ortel that there are any number of local volunteers with their hands up to go down to help. Her task is to ensure that we provide not only assistance in Victoria but also the necessary protection for our own bush areas. She told me that I should mention the dedicated service of those RFS members who as a consequence remain, because they are actually doubling their time on standby in order to protect the south-west of Sydney at the moment. This is an example of a situation where we see all the members of our community pulling together to do something. They have the necessary training and they intend to use it to support the people of Victoria.

Kevin Harder, the commander of the SES at Campbelltown, advised me today that, while there has not been a formal call on the SES, he has already had two of his team volunteer. They have gone to Sydney to refill relief supplies so they can be transported to victims of the Victorian fires. Again, I thought it was very good that, even when our volunteer organisations have not been called upon to do various things, they have initiated their own activity in trying to make a difference in Victoria.

To all those volunteers I say: all your contributions are admired, and I would like to take this opportunity to convey my sincere gratitude to all of those local heroes. To the people of Victoria, who have suffered so much: we are truly sorry for the horror that you have had to endure. Words are unable to successfully communicate the sorrow that I feel or the losses that people have suffered on both an individual and a community level. It is very difficult to stand here and imagine the depth of their loss and grief. To the people of Victoria I say: may you find the faith, the courage and the strength to carry on and to rebuild your lives, remembering those who have passed and what you have lost. Knowing the spirit of true Aussie mateship, all Australia mourns in respect of this dreadful disaster. Genuinely, we send you our love, our thoughts and our prayers. As the PM indicated, we will be there with the people of Victoria to support you with whatever it takes to rebuild your communities.

I also indicate that my thoughts and prayers are with my parliamentary colleagues whose electorates have been affected by the fires, in particular the member for McEwen, Fran Bailey, who is currently unable to attend parliament and is still tending to her community. I have a lot of admiration for Fran in that respect and I think every member of the parliament certainly appreciates her commitment and dedication in staying with her community in their time of absolute need.

Finally, like the Prime Minister and all my parliamentary colleagues, I support the appeal effort throughout Australia. I know Australians will dig deep into their pockets. They will strengthen their resolve and do what is necessary to ensure that we return Victoria to how it was prior to these bushfires. We will be part of rebuilding these communities. We will not forget what has occurred, but we will be part of rebuilding these communities.