House of Representatives Speech- Victorian Bushfires

It is with great sorrow that I rise to support this motion and offer my deepest condolences to those who have lost their loved ones, their property, their precious keepsakes or their businesses or who have survived but with injuries. The past four days have brought natural devastation the likes of which neither Victoria nor Australia has ever seen. At last count, 173 people have died and around 800 houses have been destroyed. Thousands of people seeking shelter have left their properties, and either their homes are still in danger or they are a pile of smouldering rubble where their lives used to be.

It is with great sorrow that I rise to support this motion and offer my deepest condolences to those who have lost their loved ones, their property, their precious keepsakes or their businesses or who have survived but with injuries. The past four days have brought natural devastation the likes of which neither Victoria nor Australia has ever seen. At last count, 173 people have died and around 800 houses have been destroyed. Thousands of people seeking shelter have left their properties, and either their homes are still in danger or they are a pile of smouldering rubble where their lives used to be.

The news bulletins have been full of stories giving accounts of survival, of loss, of heroism and of people who bear the pain of still not knowing the whereabouts or fate of their loved ones. It is excruciating to watch, to listen to and to read but, at the same time, it is impossible to turn away. One can only imagine the sheer hell that these fine people, in different regions of our state, have gone through. We all hope the worst of the fires is behind us but we continue to brace ourselves for news of more tragedy and loss. The death toll will continue to rise this week as volunteers complete the horrible task of searching homes, sheds, shelters and vehicles for remains. Some of those fighting for life and being treated by the hardworking and dedicated medical staff in our hospitals may lose their battle.

It is important to remember those who have perished, whether they decided to stay put and bravely defend their homes in places like Marysville, Wandong or Callignee or they were desperately trying to escape but were trapped on the narrow, tree-lined roads in places like St Andrews, Kinglake and Strathewen. The lives lost are young and old: they are children, parents and grandparents; they are fathers who sent their families to safety while they stayed and were taken by the smoke and flames; and they are entire families wiped out in the most tragic and fearful way imaginable.

While it is important that we remember those who have left us, it is also important that we recognise the efforts of the firefighters and volunteers, those who have mobilised in the last few days to fight the fires and to care for and tend to those affected. The incredibly brave men and women of the Country Fire Authority crews and the Department of Sustainability and Environment who have gone into territory that can only be described as hell on earth deserve every bit of praise and appreciation they get.

Some of these brave souls have been defending other people’s properties while their own have been under threat. Some have lost their own family members while trying to save the lives of others. This level of dedication and personal sacrifice is indescribable, but I can assure every firefighter and volunteer who has attended these fires that all Victorians are thinking of you and are extremely thankful.

It has been heartening to see in the background of news footage fire trucks with names of towns far away from the areas under threat. Fire crews from places like Portarlington on the Bellarine Peninsula and Patterson River in my electorate have gone and helped out at this time of greatest need. Each of the Country Fire Authority and Metropolitan Fire Brigade units based in my electorate has helped out either in Bunyip, Narre Warren, Gippsland or the Kinglake fires that have claimed so many lives. I would like to mention the Carrum Downs, Edithvale, Keysborough, Dandenong, Noble Park, Patterson River and Skye Country Fire Authority units and the Mentone Metropolitan Fire Brigade and thank them for helping out in those vulnerable communities when they were needed. I would also like to mention the contribution of firefighting units that have come from South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales, which itself has been battling major fires, as well as a group of around 100 firefighters who have flown from across the Tasman to help out on behalf of New Zealand. I am sure that when your area is next under threat, Victorians will be the first in to lend a helping hand.

I think it shows a great deal of care and community spirit that the response from Victorians has been to turn up to relief centres in places like Whittlesea, Diamond Creek, Alexandra, Traralgon and Chiltern with any clothes, blankets or food that they could fit in their cars and help out in whatever way they can. They have come in such numbers that some have had to be turned away. The response from people donating money, goods or blood to the Red Cross has been overwhelming. Corporate Australia as well is doing its bit, with substantial donations being made from some of Australia’s most well-known companies. I commend all the volunteers, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, St John Ambulance and many others who have sprung to action when they were needed.

As other members have done, I commend the ABC for its coverage of the disaster, particularly ABC Radio, whose non-stop coverage of emergency announcements from Saturday morning onwards I know was a lifeline for many. The radio coverage, with its precision and its immediacy, brought home to the rest of us the scale of the disaster as we heard town after town, community after community, added to the list of fires and fire threats.

Seeing the footage of entire towns being wiped off the map, it is difficult to grasp that the people who survived will have the drive to go back and rebuild where their houses used to stand. Some of the areas hit are extremely beautiful places. As a teenager in the Scouts I used to go camping and bushwalking around Kinglake, Marysville and Healesville. We took our young children for picnics in the area. I love the area for its beauty, serenity and the good people who call these places home. They will rebuild. These towns and communities will never be the same, but they will be rebuilt. For some the painful memories will be too much and they will not be able to go back. Places like St Andrews, Kinglake and Marysville have extremely tight-knit communities and many of the survivors will return and work tirelessly to bring these towns back to life. I hope these communities are reborn so that future generations can enjoy the peaceful tranquillity of the hills north-east of Melbourne, which many Melburnians, including me and my family, have had the privilege of doing over the years.

I give my condolences to the members for McEwen, Bendigo, Gippsland, McMillan, Murray and Indi in this place and to their constituencies who have had these fires hit them so hard. We have heard moving speeches from members with directly affected electorates—I say ‘directly affected’ because all of us are affected by these fires. I particularly mention the fine speeches of the member for Bendigo yesterday and the member for McMillan today. They were speeches which conjured up the horror and the terror of these fires and conveyed to all members of this House the losses that their communities have suffered.

I grieve for those who have passed, for those whose loved ones have passed and for those who have lost everything. I hope they can still have hope for the future. We are behind you. We will help you. As the Prime Minister said today and the Leader of the Opposition confirmed, the whole of this parliament is committed to doing whatever it takes to put these communities and all of those affected back on their feet.