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Tuesday, 4 February 2020
Page: 24


Senator WATT (Queensland) (13:46): I rise to support the motion of condolence in relation to the recent bushfire crisis. I speak today both as a senator for Queensland, which has experienced our share of bushfires unusually this season, and as Labor's shadow minister for natural disaster and emergency management. As other speakers have made clear, the length and scale of this bushfire season has been unprecedented. Its impact has been devastating and its effects have been widespread. As Australians, our hearts break for the hardship our mates across the country have had to endure. I would like to join other senators in extending my sincere sympathies to the many who have lost loved ones, homes, farms and livestock due to the terrible bushfires we have seen around most of the country in recent months.

Tragically, 33 people have lost their lives in bushfires this season, including nine firefighters who so bravely put others above themselves. They made the ultimate sacrifice. We owe them so much. Many died helping the communities they loved so dearly, including Victoria's Bill Slade, who had been a firefighter for 40 years, killed by a falling tree while battling a blaze at Omeo. Father and son Robert and Patrick Salway—Patrick was aged only 29—both died on New Year's Eve protecting their property in Cobargo in New South Wales.

We need to remember that these fires have been going for some time, back into last year, when towns were affected by bushfires as early as September and October. That includes Wytaliba, near Glen Innes in northern New South Wales, which lost two larger-than-life characters when flames swept through in early November. The 85-year-old George Nole was a genius electrician who was so good with circuits he had worked on NASA's Apollo program. Born in Greece, George moved to Australia after tossing a coin. If it had fallen the other way, he'd have moved to Zimbabwe. Sadly, George's body was found inside a car on the fireground in his town. Nearby, village director and grandmother of six Vivian Chaplain also perished, protecting the home and animals she loved. They are, of course, only some of the tragic stories of people we have lost this fire season. Our sincerest sympathies are with their families, their loved ones and their communities today, as they are with all who have lost loved ones over this summer.

As well as the terrible loss of life, Australians have also lost more than 3,000 homes, and over 11 million hectares has burnt. No doubt those numbers will rise as the scale of the damage continues to be fully realised. There has also been irreparable environmental damage to our native flora and fauna. The country's iconic landscape has been forever changed by the horrific conditions we've seen. Ecology experts estimate that more than one billion animals perished during the fires. It's a figure that is truly hard to fathom, but we're told it's a conservative number. It could be higher. Of course, despite the massive losses we've seen to date, fires still continue to threaten parts of the country—in fact, including not too far from here, where we stand, today. Today, conditions have eased across southern New South Wales, the ACT and Victoria, but people need to remain vigilant. It's worth remembering that, ordinarily, the fire season would have only just begun in much of the country, so we still need to keep a very close eye on things in coming weeks.

In the past month, I visited a number of places that have been badly affected by bushfires: Kangaroo Island, Shoalhaven and the South Coast of New South Wales, the Blue Mountains, the Sunshine Coast, the Scenic Rim and Central Queensland. With the member for Gilmore, Fiona Phillips, I stood alongside residents at Lake Conjola on the New South Wales South Coast, on the ashy remains of what had been beloved family homes. That's something I'm not going to forget in a hurry: an absolutely idyllic scene of forest and homes overlooking an absolutely gorgeous lake, but everywhere you turned you saw homes decimated. It was truly unforgettable. I can't imagine the terror facing those families that were affected. With the member for Macquarie, Susan Templeman, in the Blue Mountains I saw burnt orchards alongside charred World Heritage listed forests. Around 80 per cent of the iconic Blue Mountains World Heritage area is thought to have been lost in the fires. On Kangaroo Island, in South Australia, where father and son Dick and Clayton Lang lost their lives, I joined state MP Leon Bignell to meet with a community still coming to terms with all that they had lost. They were just beginning the journey to recovery. Last year, in Central Queensland, I joined Mayor Bill Ludwig to hear from community organisations on what they needed to help their communities recover.

Across much of the country, tourist operators watched as their businesses were brought to their knees by holiday cancellations. Cafes and small-business owners, who were looking forward to the busiest time of the year, have been left with empty tables and empty tills. Despite that, you hear amazing stories from some of the businesses that have been affected. On Kangaroo Island, I visited one coffee shop which, despite the fires having a dreadful impact on their own turnover, decided to bring in a program of pay-it-forward coffees, where people who came to their coffee shop could purchase another one for someone else—someone who was in more need than themselves. All of these businesses and all of their workers, many of whom have lost shifts and lost their jobs, will need our support and will need their government's support in the months and years ahead.

I've seen for myself the long road to recovery that many of our fellow Australians face, but what was clear in every place I went was the incredible community spirit and the mateship that is so firmly instilled in our Australian culture. Amid all the heartbreak, we stick together to rebuild. I've lost count of the number of times that I spoke to someone who might have lost a home, whose business might be damaged or who might have lost their job and they told me they were okay and that someone else was doing it much, much worse. I've heard from many locals that they're ready to get back on their land and rebuild once they're given the green light to do so. It's going to take time for these areas to recover physically, emotionally and economically, and we must ensure we do all we can to help them in that recovery.

Amidst the heartbreak, there are so many we need to thank. Thank you to the emergency personnel and the volunteer and career firefighters. The bravery that has been shown by these people, who've put their own lives in danger to protect their fellow Australians, is absolutely extraordinary. Thank you to the Australian Defence Force, including the reservists, who continue to assist with recovery efforts. Thank you also to the community groups and community leaders who have worked tirelessly on the ground in recent months to feed our firefighters, to raise funds for affected communities and to help our wildlife recover. I want to personally thank the Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management, David Littleproud, his staff and officials, Emergency Management Australia and the Department of Home Affairs for their generous willingness to share information with the opposition over this bushfire crisis. The bipartisan approach that they took in that regard enabled the opposition to communicate with affected communities and pass on extremely important information in a timely fashion. So, again, I really recognise the efforts of the minister and his staff.

We continue to face a terrifying situation in much of Australia at the moment, and many have commented that these bushfires are unprecedented in nature—in their scale, their intensity and their timing, and starting earlier and going for longer than anything we've seen before. I spoke twice on the bushfires before the summer break, and, as I mentioned on both occasions, the science is unequivocally telling us that we are likely to see more extreme weather events, whether they be bushfires, floods or cyclones, in future due to climate change. The government's own scientific advisers, the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and emergency leaders are all telling us this. This is a serious national threat that we face, and we have known this for some time.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to listen to this advice and to act. Today is not the day for a lengthy critique of the government's policies and actions with regard to the bushfires or climate change. Suffice it to say Australia deserves to have a government that can act swiftly and effectively in an emergency, a task we have sadly seen the Morrison government fail to live up to during bushfire planning, response and recovery in recent months.

In speaking with people in fire affected regions, it's clear that what they're most concerned about right now is making sure that the government's recovery effort gets on track and actually gets them the support that they need. Obviously, when we face events of this kind on this scale and frequency during such a long bushfire season, they raise serious questions for this parliament about the impact that climate change is having on our environment and our communities.

The Labor Party has made it clear on a number of occasions that the risk we face to our economy, our environment and our lives is so great that real action is desperately needed on climate change. This is a challenge this parliament and this government cannot ignore any longer. We hope that there is no further loss of life or loss of property as this bushfire season continues, and we will stand beside those communities in their time of need.