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Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Page: 857

Mr TANNER (Minister for Finance and Deregulation) (8:08 PM) —Like so many other country Victorians, I grew up in the shadow of bushfire. I can remember in primary school learning a bit about Black Friday. I remember reading books by authors like Ivan Southall. Bushfires were so much a part of ordinary rural life when growing up. In my late teens, I spent two summers—two fire seasons—working for the forest commission doing a range of things, including fighting bushfires and experiencing something that is pretty common in rural Victoria. But the events of last weekend and, indeed, more recently—the extraordinary intensity, the severity, the horror that unfolded and all of the appalling consequences that flow for so many families and so many communities—just overwhelm all of that past experience of people like myself and so many others who have grown up in country areas where bushfires are prevalent.

Others have expressed very eloquently the enormity of the tragedy—the heartache, the loss, the emptiness and the suffering that will prevail for so long for so many people and families. On the other side of the ledger, they have spoken of the miraculous escapes, the extraordinary self-sacrifice, the heroism and the dedication of so many people who have worked so hard to keep their fellow human beings safe and to look after their property and animals. I do not wish to reiterate those themes; I think they have been very amply and eloquently expressed by so many of my colleagues. I want to make a few points that arise from the terrible events that we have all experienced or seen in recent days.

First, these experiences touch so many different people and spread so much wider than just those immediately involved. I note the comments by you, Madam Deputy Speaker Burke, about one of your electorate staff. I discovered last night that my daughter’s kindergarten teacher has lost her home—she lives in Strathewen—and my wife is already involved with others in the kindergarten in organising things to assist there. I have been on the phone to my brother quite often in the last few days, because he lives in an area that is now not far away from the latest threat in Healesville. He was up all Saturday night with his wife and two small children, listening to the ABC and scanning the internet, with two suitcases packed, ready to get out of there. These are limited connections with these events, but I have no doubt that most of the members of the Victorian delegation to parliament will have similar connections, some perhaps more telling, and that most Victorians will have connections of some kind to those events and will have people whom they are connected with—people whom they need to help, to worry about or to look after. In a sense, that is a good thing. It means that, for most of us, these events are extraordinarily immediate and familiar in so many terrible ways. They are connected to us and to our communities, even for people who, like me, are in and represent the centre of Melbourne.

The second point that I want to make is that already we are seeing a wide variety of arguments, understandably, about these events emerge in the community—about what went wrong, what bad decisions were made or who is to blame. That is understandable, but I urge people to exercise restraint and withhold judgment, because it will be quite some time before we are in a position to truly understand where blame should be allocated, if it should be allocated, and what the factors are that have caused so many deaths. All of these things are quite complex, and inevitably you are seeing some people emerge who are running particular themes which may or may not have some merit but which happen to be themes that they hold dear irrespective of whether or not these events had occurred.

Whether it is the level of back-burning, whether it is planning issues and whether people should be allowed to have homes in areas that are exposed to such bushfire risk, whether it is the fire plans and arrangements and the instructions people are given and how well they are implemented by the CFA, whether it is climate change or whether it is arson—we saw today the member for Mallee get up and point out that what was originally thought to be arson in the case of the Horsham fire has turned out to be the product of a faulty insulator on a power pole, apparently—it is extremely important that we withhold judgment on all of these matters. By all means, raise questions, but it will be some time before we can draw conclusions. I think, out of respect for those who have lost their lives and property and for those close to them, we should all avoid drawing firm and unduly emphatic conclusions that may happen to suit things we are predisposed to believing anyway before having seen all the evidence and having understood all that has gone on.

I have been involved in controlled burning—many, many years ago—so I have got some idea of what a complex thing that is and also of how risky it is. It seems like a great idea to start a fire in October or November in a very thickly forested or overgrown area in order to reduce the fuel, but sometimes it does not quite work out as you intend. These things involve very difficult judgements; they involve very tricky questions for the authorities concerned. So, again, I would urge people to avoid drawing conclusions too early.

The third point I want to make is to commend all of those people and organisations throughout Australia—particularly in Victoria, most obviously, but throughout Australia and, indeed, in some other parts of the world—who are already stepping up and offering to help. For example, I note that the AFL has rescheduled the NAB Cup game that was scheduled to occur between my team, Essendon, and the Western Bulldogs in Darwin. That is now going to be held on Friday at Telstra Dome with all of the people involved donating their services and all the proceeds to go to the fire appeal. I also commend Channel 7, Foxtel and AUSTAR for televising that. I am going to be attending that game representing the government. So that is just one example—and you can already see such examples across corporate Australia, amongst ordinary citizens and in workplaces—of how people are stepping up to help in all kinds of ways. It is a good example of just how Australians do come together and work for each other when things are so difficult.

The fourth thing I would like to mention—and again this follows on a little bit from what you, Madam Deputy Speaker Burke, in your capacity as member for Chisholm, talked about before—is that many people have quite correctly acknowledged the CFA volunteers and the extraordinary sacrifices they make and risks they take, even to the extent of one or two individuals actually fighting fires in one location while they were losing homes, or even loved ones, in another. I certainly endorse all those comments. But I do want to add something, because I think there is a group of people who are often overlooked. Alongside those CFA volunteers there are large numbers of employees of the Department of Sustainability and Environment whose job it is to look after the bush, to step in and fight fires, to put their lives on the line, to work around the clock—to do all kinds of extraordinary things to keep people safe. They, too, make an extraordinary contribution. They are the professional foresters, the bulldozer drivers, the labourers, the variety of people who work for the state government who are always in the front-line of dealing with these things whenever there is a bushfire, and I think it is extremely important that we acknowledge their heroism and dedication, as we acknowledge that of the volunteers. I might add to that that we acknowledge the dedication and bravery of the other professional services, whether police, ambulance or the various others who are also involved. It is worth emphasising that this is a team effort. Even when you are dealing with relatively modest bushfires that threaten property but perhaps do not threaten life, you will have both CFA volunteers and professional firefighters—including, in this instance, metropolitan firefighters as well. It is important that we acknowledge both of those groups because both of them are crucial to the effort.

Finally, can I give some hint of optimism in all of this. When you see those terrible aerial photos of communities like Marysville, Kinglake, Strathewen or elsewhere, it is hard not to think that these places will never recover or that it will take decades. It will happen a lot quicker than that. I was fortunate to be a part-owner of a home in Aireys Inlet many years ago, well before I became a member of parliament—in fact, well before I owned any other kind of property. I bought that property about six or seven years after the Ash Wednesday fires had completely devastated Aireys Inlet. This house had not been burned down, but much of Aireys Inlet had—it was one of the key locations of the Ash Wednesday fires. Within six or seven years, you would barely have known that. As somebody who did not know the history, there was nothing obvious about this community to tell me that this place six or seven years ago had been three-quarters wiped out by bushfire.

I believe that these communities, with the dedication of their people and with the support of the rest of the Australian community, the federal government and the Victorian government, will recover physically and will re-establish themselves much more quickly than we might have expected at the peak of such a terrible event. We can have cause for optimism that economically and physically that recovery will be quicker than we might have expected. The emotional scars and traumas in those communities and people connected with them are a different matter.

I conclude by reference to what is, perhaps, my favourite piece of poetry which I think epitomises the Australian character and how we are both competitive and cooperative and shows how we get the balance right in conducting ourselves in moments of enormous trauma and tragedy when coming together and helping—leaving other things aside—really asserts itself. It is the Henry Lawson poem called The fire at Ross’s farm, in which, for those who do not know it, the squatter and the selector, great 19th-century symbols of antagonism and opposition, because they were fighting over the same land, were in perpetual feud. In the final part of the poem there is a fire on the selector’s farm and at the conclusion of the poem the squatter and his son go to help the selector—the selector he is trying to get rid of and get off the land—put out the fire. That epitomises how the Australian community deals with these kinds of things when all other antagonisms, all other conflicts, legitimate though they often may be, are set aside and people just step up to the plate and do what is necessary to help the people who are in such terrible difficulties.

We are already seeing that again and I think you will see it much more in ensuing weeks and months. That is what gives me great confidence that, notwithstanding the unbelievable enormity of these events, the appalling tragedy and loss of life, and the mass psychological damage that has inevitably emerged, those communities will recover and the people affected will recover better and quicker we can conceivably imagine at this stage. We have done it before. This is a bigger challenge for our community than equivalent things in the past, but that recovery will come. We have to believe in that. We are committing the practical things, with the support of the opposition, and I am sure the same thing is occurring at the state level. But more than that the recovery of the spirit, the recovery of optimism and commitment to get on with things, will see us through quicker and more strongly than we would perhaps expect.