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Condolence motion: Black Summer bushfires, Senate, 5 February 2020

Last night in Parliament, I was honoured to speak on the following condolence motion (moved by Senator Cormann in the Senate) which paid tribute to the 33 men and women who so tragically died in the “Black Summer” bushfires.

I move that the House:

(1.) acknowledges the devastation across our nation occasioned by the bushfire season including the loss of 33 lives, the destruction of over 3,000 homes, the unimaginable loss of so much wildlife and the devastating impact on regional economies across Australia;

(2.) extends its deepest sympathies to families who have lost loved ones and to those who have suffered injuries or loss;

(3.) places on record its gratitude for the service of David Moresi, Geoffrey Keaton, Andrew O’Dwyer, Samuel McPaul, Bill Slade, Mat Kavanagh, Ian McBeth, Paul Hudson and Rick DeMorgan Jr, firefighters who lost their lives during the fires and extends its deepest condolences to their families;

(4.) recognises the contribution of thousands of volunteer and career fire-fighters and the dedication of emergency services personnel across Australia;

(5.) honours the contribution of more than 6,500 Australian Defence Force personnel, including 3,000 ADF reservists, and the work of Emergency Management Australia throughout the summer;

(6.) recognises the generosity of individuals, families, schools, churches and religious groups, service clubs and businesses from across Australia and elsewhere in the world during the evacuations and following the fires;

(7.) expresses its gratitude to Australia’s friends, allies and neighbours who have provided or offered support;

(8.) recognises the unceasing efforts and close cooperation between state and local governments, demonstrating the strength of our Federation;

(9.) commits itself to learning any lessons from this fire season; and

(10.) pledges the full support of the Australian Parliament to assist affected areas to recover and rebuild.

Senator HENDERSON (Victoria) (21:38):  It is an honour and deeply humbling to rise this evening to speak on this condolence motion. I join with senators and members in the other place to express my sincere condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of the 33 people who tragically died in bushfires this summer, including nine courageous firefighters. Our nation mourns with you. Our hearts are broken by the scale of the loss of human life, of wildlife, of homes, of farms, of stock and of millions of hectares of our country. There is a deep black scar across large parts of Victoria—which I so proudly represent as a regional Liberal senator for Victoria—and in New South Wales, as well as large parts of the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island in South Australia.

Whenever our nation is hit by a disaster, amidst the fear and devastation and loss and then the recovery and rebuilding, it brings out the very best in who we are as Australians: courageous, resilient, caring, sacrificing.

In Victoria, we saw this in spades, from the beach at Mallacoota to the tiny town of Bruthen to the high country in Victoria’s north-east. In Victoria, we lost Mat Kavanagh, Bill Slade, David Moresi, Mick Roberts and Fred Becker. This bushfire disaster has touched thousands upon thousands of families, including my own. My aunt and uncle and their children and grandchildren were evacuated on the South Coast of New South Wales, and they spent a frightening night not knowing if their home had escaped the firestorm. They were one of the lucky ones. Close friends lost much of their vineyard in the Adelaide Hills, but not their home, and they too were lucky.

As the death toll rose and images of firestorms were beamed around the world, tens of millions of dollars in donations poured in. The response was incredible. I want to place on record my thanks for the incredible work of our firefighters and our emergency workers. I pay tribute to their bravery and service. Every day, when they do their job, they put their own lives at risk to keep us safe. I thank our charities, our community service organisations and our volunteers.

I wish to place on record the work of our government, led by our great Prime Minister, to support bushfire-impacted communities: the unprecedented call-out of the Australian Defence Force, including some 3,000 reservists; the tens of millions of dollars paid in immediate financial assistance; payments to volunteer firefighters; and the massive investment in the recovery effort underpinned by the $2 billion National Bushfire Recovery Agency and the fund. The support of so many other countries which came to our aid was overwhelming. The loss of three American firefighters, who died when their C-130 Hercules crashed, was just so incredibly sad. The work of our serving Defence men and women was incredible.

The recovery and the rebuilding will be long and tough and traumatic. I’ve seen this firsthand, when I worked with the communities of Wye River and Separation Creek after the terrible 2015 Christmas Day bushfire. The memories of Ash Wednesday are still seared in the minds of so many Victorians, including so many Victorians who I represented as the member for Corangamite. Around Canberra and in parts of New South Wales and Victoria, fires continue to burn and the threat of further devastation continues. As I flew into Canberra yesterday for the start of the parliamentary year, the smoke was so thick from fires burning to the south that our first attempt to land was aborted.

But even now, our thoughts start to turn to the big questions. What caused this? Could it have been prevented or mitigated? How? By whom or what? Have we learned from Ash Wednesday in 1983 or Black Saturday in 2009? Whatever caused and fanned these huge firestorms—lightning strikes, power lines brought down by trees, climate change conditions, lack of preventative, timely measures like fuel reduction burning or, worst of all, wilful and arson—will need to be addressed dispassionately and objectively. We will look particularly at those elements under control of governments and public policy where we can make a positive difference. We must set aside ideology and embrace the science and expertise which will help to prevent and mitigate such large-scale devastation again.

One element firmly within our control is fuel reduction burning. After Black Saturday’s lessons, can we say hand on heart that we did all that was possible, that we listened to the lessons and conclusions of the 2009 Victorian royal commission and acted accordingly? Already the Victorian and federal governments have announced separate but hopefully complimentary inquiries to address these questions. Now, in this condolence motion, is not the time to address these issues in detail. That is to come.

I do wish to say, however, that some of the wild claims about our government’s response to climate change are disappointing and blatantly false. There have been some things said in this chamber which do not bear repeating and which are more than disappointing.

Right across the economy, we continue to address the challenges of climate change, reduce our emissions and meet our Paris targets. The climate is changing, leading to longer, hotter and drier summers, which is why our government is placing so much focus on climate resilience, building dams, hazard reduction, investing in a stronger electricity grid and driving record investment in renewables. We will continue to do whatever it takes to make our nation stronger. But for now we pay tribute to the men and women who lost their lives in this terrible tragedy and we remain united in our determination to support their families and all the Australians who have lost so much at this most challenging time for our country.

5 February 2020

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