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Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Page: 860

Mr BYRNE (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) (8:23 PM) —I rise with an incredibly heavy heart to support this condolence motion. I can recall as a 20-year-old living in Adelaide during Ash Wednesday staring up into the hills of Adelaide, beautiful hills that they are, and watching them ablaze. The heat was unbelievable. I think it was close to 44 degrees with a very hot north wind. I recall hearing news reports about the loss of life and devastation of township communities up in the Adelaide Hills. When it was safe to do so weeks down the track, I drove into the Adelaide Hills and saw the absolute devastation that had occurred throughout those hills. As a 20-year-old that sticks in your mind.

I had relatives who lived in a township called Bridgewater, which had been affected by the Ash Wednesday fires. They told me how the fires, when they were attempting to fight them, would leap across houses. Their house was safe, but they had watched the fire jump from one house to another and completely demolish it. That is the precarious nature of these events and their incredible force—the sound like a freight train, the wind, the speed at which the fire comes up a hill. Reading about the devastation in Victoria and Adelaide I thought and hoped—foolishly perhaps, as a 20-year-old—that we would never see the likes of Ash Wednesday in this country again. Tragically, we have, in an even more awful way. So it is devastating to stand here and talk about these circumstances and the loss of life that has occurred. There are no words to adequately express the personal shock and the community sorrow over the loss of life in my now home state of Victoria on Saturday, 7 February.

The countryside, which many members have eloquently referred to, the picturesque villages and the idyllic landscape where many people had holiday experiences have been obliterated in an instant. For many, those areas of natural beauty and serenity were a canvas on which they crafted happy lives and even happier memories. This is a canvas that is now charred, a scene of unprecedented loss of life, human and animal, and of property, with hundreds of homes simply gone. By a terrible act of nature, townships on our local maps are no longer there. They have been razed.

At this moment there are places that used to be townships that are now remnants of townships—places like Marysville and Kinglake. Some are saying—I have heard some of the commentary in the media—that these places will never be built again. Like the member for Melbourne and others, I do not believe this, because I saw what happened after Ash Wednesday in the Adelaide Hills. I doubt it because in this country you can never write off the triumph of the human spirit, the strength of resolve, the stoicism, courage and inventiveness for which Australians are famous. As our Prime Minister said in the parliament today, we are going to rebuild our broken, devastated communities, brick by brick, community hall by community hall and school building by school building. Mark my words, we are going to rebuild.

Australians reading the morning papers, watching the horror of these events on television or listening to radio—774 in particular, by the sound of it—have learned that there are potentially hundreds dead and missing, yet such numbers remain incomprehensible. How can we possibly comprehend 200 people lying dead in these townships? It is simply incomprehensible. It is as though this cannot be happening. Would that by wishing we could make it go away. Tragically, we cannot.

My thoughts and prayers and those of my family are with the many thousands of Australians touched by this tragedy. There are about 5,000 people who are homeless, at this stage, as a consequence of this tragedy. In particular, our thoughts are with the honourable members for Bendigo, Gippsland, Indi, Mallee, McEwen, McMillan, Wannon and the thousands of their constituents who have been left destitute or bereaved by these fires. Further to that, I would like to praise the work of two Victorian state members whose constituents have been hit hardest by this catastrophe: Ben Hardman, the member for Seymour; and Danielle Green, the member for Yan Yean. As I understand it, fires are also burning across the New South Wales border in the Bega Valley, so I extend our best wishes and prayers to the staff and volunteers of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, my friend the member for Eden-Monaro and his constituents.

Australians, as we know, are by their nature generous people and ready friends when the going gets tough. As a nation, we have shown this time and time again. From domestic crises such as the Ash Wednesday bushfires and the Thredbo tragedy to natural disasters abroad such as the Boxing Day tsunami, we band together to lend a helping hand to those in need. However, we are unused to tragedy at home on this scale; we need to be frank about this. That in our most densely populated state, despite all the best laid plans and preparations, so many people have died whilst protecting their homes, their families, their photos—everything that is dear to them; in essence, everything that represents who they are in this world—is heartbreaking.

I am taking advantage of the time here, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I would like to thank you for your indulgence, but you listen to people who have been affected and it is absolutely heartbreaking. There was a gentleman who was watering what was left of his home in one of the townships that had been destroyed, and Sky TV came and interviewed him. They said, ‘How do you feel?’ He said, ‘How do I feel? I don’t know what to do. I’ve lost everything—my possessions, my future, my school.’ He just about broke down. As he was about to continue, he said, ‘But I’m worried about my mate. He’s been fighting bushfires and I don’t know what he’s going to come back to.’ What other way could you summarise the Australia spirit? In the midst of losing absolutely everything, you have that quintessential Australian spirit of thinking about your mate and how that person is coping and feeling? It is just a small sign of the greatness of the Australian spirit that comes through in these times of adversity and that I know will see us through this great catastrophe.

Victorian Premier John Brumby, clearly moved by Saturday’s catastrophe, has rightly announced that a royal commission will determine whether more could have been done to save lives and whether or not the policy of allowing residents to defend their homes in the face of encroaching fires will stand. But we will leave that to the royal commission. I confidently predict one finding: Victorians faced a perfect storm and all the emergency services did a brilliant job in trying to subdue it, at the risk of their lives. At times like this the issue is not that we mourn the loss of one life here more than the loss of lives overseas but rather that it often takes the immediacy of witnessing or hearing of suffering of our own neighbours in our own backyard for us to be alive to the risks to our way of life that exist at home. For causes near or far, Australians are typically generous, with estimates this morning of around $20 million already pledged to victims of the fires. I am sure there will be much more to come.

I would like to echo the comments of the Prime Minister on Monday’s Today program when he rightly said: ‘The challenge at present is to provide the hand and the heart of human friendship to those suffering from both loss and grief at this difficult time.’ As you have said very eloquently, Madam Deputy Speaker Burke, this grief and loss will last. This is not a short-term thing. You do not lose everything in your life—your loved ones; your whole identity—and expect that to go away. We need to be there providing support to these people for five years, 10 years, 15 years or however long it takes because they are going to need our support for that period of time, particularly those who have experienced burns, as you have mentioned Madam Deputy Speaker, and who will suffer post-traumatic stress due to some of the horror stories I have heard emerging. They basically will need intense counselling for a long period of time. We have to rebuild hope, and I hope what people take from the unanimity of spirit within this place that we have seen over the past couple of days is that we are united, we do stand behind those affected by the bushfires and we will continue to do whatever it takes.

Whilst no suffering can compare to the staggering loss of life, the immediate threat posed by Saturday’s hellish conditions was not lost on the residents and CFA volunteers in Holt. On Saturday several major fires started in my electorate, which is one of the most densely populated areas in Melbourne, with a number of families sadly losing their homes. In and around the suburb of Narre Warren North, just outside my electorate, 184 hectares were consumed by fire. Two houses and garages and a heritage listed caretaker’s hut were destroyed on a day that saw temperatures in the area reach 47.1 degrees with wind gusts up to 100 kilometres per hour. Thirty-nine CFA vehicles were on hand to battle the blaze. I am reliably informed that, without the further assistance of the Erickson Skycrane and a helitanker, the damage done by this fire would have been much worse. The sight of this help from the sky, in Holt and all over Victoria this past weekend, is nothing less than a gift from heaven to firefighters giving their all in the most appalling conditions imaginable. The fire in question is still burning, as has been mentioned by the member for La Trobe, but I am advised that it has been contained.

A CFA strike team and the local Narre Warren CFA fire brigade are working around the clock, monitoring the fire and preventing a revisiting of Saturday’s horror in the areas already destroyed by fire. I salute, and I hope we all do, the enterprise and ingenuity of local firefighters, who, without appliances, arrived in their own cars and, using a garden hose they had brought themselves, assisted with the fire-fighting effort—and it was 47 degrees when they were doing this.

Additionally, there was another fire that was started on Saturday, in and around Narre Warren South. It destroyed six homes whilst a further seven homes were significantly damaged. The fire burned under high-voltage transmission lines at Ormond Road and threatened and many more are homes in the area. Narre Warren South is a very densely populated area. The fire was contained as a result of the hard work of a metropolitan fire brigade strike team that was diverted to Narre Warren South whilst en route to yet another fire. Without the help of the metropolitan fire board, it is likely that there would have been far more widespread property loss, as the local CFA fire brigades were stretched to the limits across the local area and the state. Sadly, however, a local CFA member’s house was amongst those destroyed in the fire, with the Hampton Park brigade doing all they could to provide assistance at this time.

The Mayor of the City of Casey, Councillor Geoff Ablett, has informed me that the council has swiftly provided clothing, counselling and accommodation to those affected by the fire, even as council staff feared for their own homes also under threat. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Geoff and the Casey council staff for helping those affected at this terrible time.

A fire also began in Cranbourne on the fringe of a major road that runs through my electorate, the South Gippsland Highway, which turned into a substantial grassfire on the Cranbourne golf course and the landfill. As a result, the highway was closed owing to the considerable danger to motorists posed by the thick smoke. There exists concern that this fire may have been the result of a flicked cigarette butt or a similar ignition source from the highway. Despite no property or life being lost in this fire, the stretched resources of emergency services on Melbourne’s hottest ever day meant that every fire truck that could have been saving lives or homes elsewhere was instead fighting a grassfire set off by a cigarette butt in Cranbourne.

This sort of irresponsibility—or could I call it criminality—is nothing short of disgusting. In this vein, I would like to join with my colleagues the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister in condemning any suspects found to have deliberately lit fires on Saturday as murderers. Some eight years ago, Don Watson, the author and former speechwriter of Prime Minister Paul Keating, criticised the term ‘un-Australian’. While some may say it is in an inelegant epithet, just because it is not pretty does not make it inappropriate. The behaviour of those individuals who we believe started some of these fires is utterly devoid of humanity and is completely un-Australian. These people deserve the term ‘un-Australian’. In fact, Mike Rann went further in dubbing these people terrorists. Like I said, I have a personal opinion aside from the Prime Minister’s; they are cold-blooded, shameless murderers. I have great faith that the men and women of the Victorian Police Force and the Australian Federal Police, some of whom have the heart-wrenching task of searching for and identifying victims of what is now called Black Saturday, will hold these individuals to account.

To sum up, the brigades in my electorate that have taken part in the fire-fighting effort over the past few days included Cranbourne, Hallam, Hampton Park, Narre Warren North and Narre Warren. The brigades in the electorate have, in addition to fire-fighting duties within Holt, sent strike teams to other parts of Melbourne and regional Victoria such as Healesville, Yarra Glen and Bunyip. Staff of the metropolitan fire brigade are to be commended for their assistance to the CFA, with MFB staff stepping up to the CFA stations, enabling more CFA staff and volunteers to join strike teams despite the huge demands already placed on the MFB dealing with the increased fire risks all around Melbourne and the deployment of strike teams to rural fires. The pilots of various airborne fire-fighting apparatus flying in extremely windy, hot conditions and dealing with reduced visibility were nothing less than miracle workers. CFA staff and volunteers who fought long and hard to protect the homes of others whilst their homes were potentially at risk must be thanked last but certainly not least.

In 44-degree heat on 30 January—just prior to Black Saturday—with conditions made worse by strong winds, local CFA brigades battled a large fire in Endeavour Hills, which is not far from my home in my electorate. Following the collision of two cars, one car caught fire. The fire spread to over 45 hectares of grassland and threatened hundreds of homes and the Churchill Park Golf Club. More than 350 firefighters—not only CFA staff and volunteers but the MFB, the Department of Sustainability and Environment, and Parks Victoria staff—battled to keep the blaze under control, and they did in about three hours. So for every one of the fires we have seen, we should think about the number of fires that have actually been put out by these incredibly brave people.

They seem to have no respite, given the current set of circumstances. In circumstances like this I cannot help but admire the strength and courage of the CFA firefighters, the emergency service workers, the police and the ambulance service workers who literally put their lives on the line in order to protect us. They do this at great personal cost and really not for great financial reward. These heroes could be spending the weekend safe in the care of their families or their mates at home instead of defending homes in record heat and in conditions that you and I can scarcely envisage or perhaps even survive in. So much of the fire-fighting phrasebook sounds awfully glib or euphemistic with terms like ‘asset protection’. However cliche the comparisons between the havoc wrought by the fire and the damage done in a war there is a sad truth to it, and that is that people can die in these sets of circumstances.

I would also like to thank all of the employers in my electorate and throughout Victoria who have supported their staff who volunteer with the local CFA brigades. You do your community and the people of your state an invaluable service. Although times are tough, I urge all employers to continue to support their staff who are giving their time and risking their lives to help others. Whilst I hear the weather has been quite cool in Melbourne and in many parts of Victoria since Sunday—a state of affairs that is naturally unheard of down south and could not contrast more with Saturday’s heat—the danger to many areas remains very real and the need for volunteers remains great.

I think I speak on behalf of all members of the House in expressing a prayer that, being ever mindful of the continuing risk that some of the fires still burning present, the services of our brave firefighters, police and emergency services will not be required in this way again this summer or for that matter ever again in our nation’s future. We must learn the terrible lessons of this holocaust of fire and, united as a nation, take whatever action is necessary to wipe the scourge of bushfires from our harsh and beautiful land and confine the horrors of the last weekend to the dusty books of history.