Black Summer Bushfires - 05/02/2020

05 February 2020



I rise today to speak on this condolence motion about the bushfire disaster that has gripped Australia over this summer. It's clear that the scale of this disaster is unprecedented, with fires starting in September and many still burning today, with more of the fire season remaining. Eleven million hectares have been burnt, so much of that in national park and wilderness areas. Around 3,000 homes have been lost, and 33 people have lost their lives.

So many Canberrans—in the hundreds—have written to me expressing such deep concern about this disaster. Canberra knows fire. The fear, the shock, the devastation and the loss of 18 January 2003 are marked deeply on the consciousness of Canberrans. I speak on behalf of my electorate to say to those who have lost their loved ones, who have lost their homes and their businesses, that the hearts of your nation's capital are with you. For those who have lost those they love, no words can do justice to what you have lost. To the families of the firefighters who were killed bravely defending communities, including the three American aerial firefighters so far from their homes, and particularly to the children who will grow up without their fathers: I want you to know that our nation will never forget their names, and you should know that they are heroes.

These bushfires have been truly terrifying—megafires creating their own weather systems, fire tornadoes, flame heights of 90 metres, darkness, noise and unbreathable air. For those of us lucky to have only seen this in videos, it is hard to fathom the incredible courage of our firefighters in taking that fight on, to protect life, property and our environment so selflessly. We can never thank you enough, but thank you.

There has been immense devastation in the region surrounding Canberra. Canberrans love the South Coast, a second home to many of us and a place where many Canberrans have deep connections and own property. It has been truly heartbreaking to see the suffering and destruction there this summer—scenes that can only be described as apocalyptic, which have been seen around the world—and to see people sheltering on beaches, with nowhere to turn but the sea. We stand with your communities—economies that have been decimated. A point of light were the call and answer videos on social media: the smooth sound of Batemans Bay's 'Canberra, come back' and Canberra's response, sungto Savage Garden's 'Truly Madly Deeply'—'I want to bay like this forever.' And we will be back. I know Canberrans will relish an additional reason to get to your beautiful towns, beaches and forests and book them out with an empty esky. Canberrans have been so keen to pitch in and help. I was really pleased on Saturday night to attend a trivia night organised by the Campbell's communities care group, who have conducted an amazing effort to raise around $50,000 for the devastated community of Nerrigundah, where two lives were lost and the majority of homes were destroyed.

I want to acknowledge my colleagues and friends who represent these neighbouring regions: the member for Eden-Monaro and the member for Gilmore. They have worked tirelessly for their communities through this period. They have spent each day in their communities, standing in solidarity, requesting practical help and solutions, travelling long distances and just being there with people. I also want to acknowledge the member for Macquarie, in the Blue Mountains, who I know has been attending daily fire briefings since October and who knows firsthand what it's like to lose your home to fire and to rebuild. Our leader, the member for Grayndler, Anthony Albanese, I know has spent each day in the community too this summer, calling for practical solutions to support our firefighters and people affected by fire.


Division called in House of Representatives


The ACT has been affected by fire this season too. On 22 January the Beard fire threatened the community of Oaks Estate and the Beard industrial estate within my electorate. The Oaks Estate community faces more challenges than most in Canberra, and it was terrifying to hear that afternoon, within about half an hour, the warnings escalate from the need to urgently evacuate to the need to take shelter in your home. Thankfully, and thanks to the brilliant efforts of our emergency services team, it was brought under control that evening. But the following day conditions flared again, and we saw it join with a second fire in Pialligo, which caused our airport to close and saw scenes of flames lapping at office blocks.

Then a fire began in the Orroral Valley in Namadgi. We've seen devastating damage to Namadgi, with around 50 per cent of that national park being burnt. This is a beautiful place and home to so many animals. The area burnt by this fire represents almost a quarter of the ACT. It has been estimated that over a billion animals overall have been killed in these fires, and I'm really proud that Labor has called for a full ecological audit into this. A positive was that the Yankee Hat rock paintings in Namadgi, which are Aboriginal art and a very significant site, have been protected.

These fires saw a state of emergency called for the ACT last weekend, and the communities of Tharwa and the southern suburbs of Canberra were facing a very tense and anxious wait, with extreme heat and wind conditions in the context of our tinder-dry and drought-stricken bush. Thankfully, this time the Canberra suburbs avoided fire, but sadly homes have been lost in our neighbouring rural communities over the border.

I want to say a special thank you to ACT Emergency Services Commissioner Georgeina Whelan, fire and rescue chief officer Mark Brown, the head of the Rural Fire Service, Joe Murphy, our Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, the Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Mick Gentleman, and everyone who worked in our emergency services through this period. Their tireless work helped us in Canberra to feel prepared and brought us calm. I also want to thank the ABC, whose role was incredibly important throughout this disaster. When the internet went down, people had their radio to let them know what was going on. It's vital that we resource our ABC properly to continue this and its many other important services.

The real crisis in Canberra over this summer, though, has been our air quality, and I think it's safe to say that this has been a health crisis in its own right. On 9 December our air quality was defined as hazardous for the first time, and since then we have had 34 hazardous days. To put that in context, the advice on a hazardous day is for people to avoid being outside and for anyone who might be particularly affected, such as young children, the elderly, pregnant women or people with health conditions, to relocate to a different place. There were many days over this period that Canberra actually had the worst air quality in the world. On 1 January, the air quality rating peaked at 5,185—200 is classified as hazardous.

Over this period, people stayed indoors and checked the air quality on our apps on an almost hourly basis. Business suffered greatly as people couldn't leave their homes. It became normal for people to be wearing masks, which shops sold out of. Our postal service stopped, flights were cancelled, and our shops and national institutions were closed. Childcare centres were closed. I had so many emails particularly from parents so deeply worried about the impact of this on their children and about how we might not see the impact of it for 20 to 30 years, which is what the research shows. I can relate to that, as the mother of an almost two-year-old, and also to the challenge of trying to find indoor activities to keep them amused over that period.

I had letters from pregnant women who were fearful that with every breath they were doing harm to their unborn child, powerless to do anything about it. Of course, there is a social justice element to this crisis, in that those with the lowest incomes are less able to adapt to it. I had many emails from people who talked about the practicalities of living with a disability on a pension, unable to air-condition their home, with the heat exacerbating their disability, unable to afford masks and unable to afford air purifiers, which became another common thing that many Canberrans were buying this summer. I will talk a lot more about these issues in the parliament.

The people in my electorate and around the country are afraid, and they're crying out for leadership. We are already experiencing the dangerous impacts of climate change. We absolutely need to adapt to deal with this and be better prepared for situations like this next time. But I do not accept that this will be the new normal. We cannot accept that. My electorate have lived through this situation this summer, and I will make their voices heard in this place. They're also asking for this to be beyond politics. This is not about beliefs; it is about science. It is about our future. I join others on my side of the chamber who have been reaching out for bipartisan action on this from government. We desperately need action on climate change now. If there is one positive to come out of the crisis that Australia has lived through this summer, it is that it is a wake-up call. It is time to act. This summer is not over yet. I hope that we can avoid further losses, but we must never forget this summer.