Condolence Motion - Australian Bushfire Crisis

11 February 2020

It's a pleasure to follow my friend the member for Shortland, given the very thoughtful condolence speech that he's just made. I want to assure him, and everyone in this parliament, that I and my constituents in the federal electorate of Griffith on Brisbane's south side offer our deepest condolences to those affected by the national bushfire crisis. Of course, we've seen a horror summer, with 33 fatalities as a consequence of the bushfires and more than 3,000 homes lost. Businesses have been affected—some by physical damage, but many, many more by the economic loss that comes with the interruption that we've seen to the tourist season.

I think all Australians, when they saw the images of the children of some of the people who had been lost, would have been overwhelmed by grief, and it's very clear that our entire community has been united in that grief and in that mourning. That's why this condolence motion, an expression of the condolences of the entire Parliament of Australia to the people of Australia for their loss, is so apt.

I really want to thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for deciding to devote the first day of the new year of the parliament to this condolence motion and to addressing the condolences that we all want to express to those who've lost people. With condolence must come gratitude for the sacrifices of the people that we lost over the summer and for the sacrifices of many more, whether they were volunteer firefighters, first responders, paramedics or other health professionals, or people who just stopped what they were doing, got together and made sure that the response was there.

Last week I drove from Canberra to Batemans Bay, where we had our shadow cabinet on Friday. I stopped at Nelligen, which is just outside Batemans Bay, for a burger with the lot. Can I recommend to every Australian: the burger with the lot at the River Cafe at Nelligen is delicious. I say that advisedly because these businesses are suffering. The owner told me a story of how the pub was suffering, how the caravan park had been closed for a very long time and how so many businesses were really suffering as a consequence of the bushfires. He told me his story, and many other people I've spoken to have told stories about how they were personally affected by the fires.

We couldn't help but be moved, could we, Deputy Speaker Gillespie, by the stories of people who, while their own houses were burning, were out there volunteering as firefighters to save their communities and to stand up for their communities. I was really moved by the words of the member for Eden-Monaro, who said that he and his local RSL—he's a veteran, as you know—had invited the fire service volunteers to march together with them on Anzac Day this year. And it's fitting, isn't it? Because I've heard so many people talk about how Gallipoli forged the spirit of a nation a hundred years ago, but I think this summer the sacrifices that have been made, the losses that we've suffered and the incredible spirit that we've seen are also going to be really formative of our identity and our spirit as a nation. So I think it was really apt for the member for Eden-Monaro to talk about firefighters marching on Anzac Day with the local RSL. It was very fitting. I know that so many Australians will be looking for ways to express solidarity, condolence, grief and also hope in coming months, because we've already seen it.

In my electorate on the south side of Brisbane, in Griffith, people were so moved to try to help. The thick smoke haze lay across our city because of the fires—the direct interaction that we had with them, which of course pales in comparison to those who were directly affected by the flames. But it isn't that long since the 2011 floods. We as a city remember what it's like to go through a disaster, to suffer great loss and to suffer the terrible feeling of not knowing what's going to happen—what's going to happen with your house or what's going to happen with your rebuild. I think there's still a feeling of: 'The rest of Australia really pulled through for us back then and we now want to do the same.' We saw the bowls clubs, the pubs, the local craft breweries and the bookshops putting on their own bushfire fundraisers—the pubs with meat trays, for example. I was really overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.

The other thing that's really notable is the amount of grief and distress that this national bushfire crisis has caused people in relation to the loss of some other Australians—the tiny Australians: some of our threatened species. Obviously we've all seen the images of koalas and we've heard the stories of the potoroos and the Kangaroo Island dunnart. There are some less charismatic species as well. I noticed a story that was circulating last week about a fluorescent pink slug. Insects, lizards, fish, vertebrates and invertebrates—all of these different species have been affected. I've had people in tears about these losses as well. Of course our first thoughts are to those who lost their lives in the fires, but so many Australians have been moved to support the wildlife. They've also been moved by the loss of stock. So many people have had to engage in some quite gruesome work because of the loss of stock. I can't even imagine what that would have been like for the people who were suffering through that.

But we've seen some stories of real heroism. We visited the Adelaide Koala Rescue people when they were camped out in the gym of one of the local primary schools, using 100 or so little tents they'd bought from Bunnings Warehouse to house the koalas. We saw the work that people like them were doing, and there's a lot more to be done. One of the academics I spoke to, Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney, gave an attention-grabbing but actually quite conservative estimate of more than one billion animals dying in the fires. That is an estimate. We need to know, firstly, what the scale of the loss is, and, secondly, what needs to be done right now, in a short window of opportunity, to deal with secondary threats: things like feral cats and feral foxes; things that come in once the fires recede and then pose another threat to the species.

I'm really pleased to see that the minister put out a press release today about the Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel identifying 113 species for priority recovery as a consequence of the bushfire crisis. What we need in addition to a mapping exercise—which is excellent; I'm pleased there's a mapping exercise—as soon as it's safe to do so, and in some cases it is safe to do so now, is boots on the ground for a national ecological audit, with scientists undertaking the work that needs to be done. For some species, we have a window of opportunity now to make sure that they're protected. So I encourage the minister to consider Labor's suggestion in that regard. I also want to thank the people who are already doing what they can: the citizen scientists, for example, who are turning their grief and their distress into action, including those using UNSW's iNaturalist app, where it's safe to do so.

But in this condolence motion we are here to mourn. In mourning and in expressing our condolences, we have to acknowledge that the national bushfire crisis has been continuing. We're now facing additional challenges. We had drought in a lot of the fire affected areas—Tenterfield, for example. I visited there last year; they were mid drought and also dealing with the immediate aftermath of serious fire. And now, on top of drought and fire, we have had some significant rain events. So I want to acknowledge the work that is still being done. As I said, I drove to Batemans Bay last week. There are lots of RFS people still working so hard on the recovery, still trying to come to terms with the loss that they've suffered. So, as well as expressing the depth of our grief as a nation and the sincerity of our condolences, we also should thank those people who are continuing, in many cases, to put themselves in harm's way in order to respond to the national bushfire crisis.

Briefly, I want to associate myself with the comments that the member for Shortland made in his capacity as the shadow minister with responsibilities for climate. I endorse those comments, of course. I anticipate that we will all be looking at what can be done to ensure that, in the future, a tragedy on this scale doesn't happen again—to take whatever action we can to honour, through mourning and condolences, the lives lost, and to ensure Australians' safety into the future.