Bushfires condolence motion

February 11, 2020

I rise to speak in support of this motion which mourns the Australians who have lost their lives in this horrific bushfire season and pays tribute to the nation's emergency personnel and volunteers who have worked and continue to work with colleagues from New Zealand, the USA and Canada, amongst other nations, to battle blazes across the country. It's been a fire season of devastation, with 33 lives lost, including nine firefighters, more than 3,000 homes destroyed and 17 million hectares burned, taking with it countless wildlife and livestock. So many of our fellow Australians have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods.

In my home state of New South Wales, 25 people have tragically lost their lives, including three volunteer firefighters and the three US crew members of a C-130 Large Air Tanker that crashed on 23 January. The number of homes lost in New South Wales stands at 2,418 and is expected to rise as damage assessments continue. More than 5.4 million hectares have been burnt and 18,000 head of livestock are dead. But right across Australia bushfires have taken their toll. In Victoria, three people have lost their lives, and 1½ million hectares have been burnt. The houses destroyed so far number 405, and more than 7,000 head of livestock have been lost. In South Australia, three people have died, 185 homes have been lost and 300,000 hectares have been burnt. In Queensland, 49 homes have been destroyed and more than 2½ million hectares have burnt. In Western Australia, two homes have been lost and 786,000 hectares burnt. In Tasmania, three houses have been lost and more than 36,000 hectares burnt. Fires have raged near the nation's capital as well, burning more than 85,000 hectares of land. Indeed, it was sobering for members of parliament to return to Canberra last week and see the blackened bush and smell the smoky air.

Near my home, in Lake Macquarie, fires have threatened homes and closed roads in Charlestown and Wangi, and the fire at Killingworth affected the M1 motorway. On the Central Coast, Charmhaven was impacted, and the Gospers Mountain fire threatened communities for several weeks. In the Hunter Valley, communities have been threatened by blazes the likes of which firefighters have never seen before. Some of these fires have been large in area. Others have hit hard and with great intensity. In the words of one firefighter: 'Our rule book says we should never take on a flame height in excess of three metres front-on. We didn't have that opportunity at North Rothbury. The flames were three or four times that height, but they were coming straight over Wine Country Drive, directly on top of houses. So we just had to throw the rule book out the window.' This is the challenge that confronted many, many people as they fought these fires.

I want to express my and my electorate's gratitude to the brave firefighters who risked their lives to save their fellow humans. Some of these firefighters have been serving for months on deployments throughout Australia. I thank you for your sacrifice and your service. I also recognise and thank the hundreds of maritime workers who were involved in rescuing and supplying their fellow stranded Australians. I give my thanks for the individual and collective acts of generosity we've seen throughout the community; people have donated goods and money.

In my position as shadow minister for international development and the Pacific, I also want to thank the governments of so many Pacific island nations who have sent personnel, typically from their armed forces, to help in this crisis. I thank those Pacific island nations for their generosity. These nations have much less resources than Australia, but individual citizens and governments have dug deep into their pockets to donate to the bushfire appeal. Thank you again for your contribution. I want to thank the ADF for their assistance at this time. I want to thank all the other emergency services personnel who have served and helped in this crisis.

I should also note that it was the local ABC radio that kept people informed of where evacuation centres were, when it was safe to return and what the impact was—and it was the local ABC radio that provided a space for the outpouring of community spirit. We really saw our nation come together, with people throughout the community helping in this crisis.

Next to every loss, as hard as it seems to believe at the time, is a win—a win in protecting homes and property, and a win in saving lives. We have seen incredible scenes this summer of orange skies and roaring flames, and always in the foreground are men and women with hoses in hand fighting to save communities and themselves. It takes incredible determination and courage, in the face of what we have seen this season, to push on and to keep fighting. Yet, that is what we've seen in every state of Australia.

There is no doubt that this bushfire season is a national emergency, one that requires a national response and national leadership. For even those who've not been directly affected by fires have been indirectly affected by smoke, by road closures, by interruptions to their holiday plans and by the water restrictions that have been made necessary by appalling drought. It is vital that we learn from this bushfire season; that we develop a comprehensive national response to meet the physical and mental needs of the communities affected; that we begin a national audit to identify and address the mass destruction of wildlife and habitats, as identified by the shadow minister for the environment, my colleague the member for Griffith; and that we start working on a national plan to provide financial support for volunteer firefighters.

Importantly, we must also sit down with the fire chiefs who warned about this disastrous fire season but were not listened to. We must heed the warnings of scientists who wrote to the Prime Minister earlier this month with a message that there is no strong, resilient Australia without deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

In no way does it diminish our mourning for lost lives or our respect for brave firefighters to talk about climate change as a contributor to this horrific bushfire season. In no way does it diminish our determination to rebuild the communities affected to talk about the mitigation and adaptation that climate change requires us to make. As several hundred scientists wrote to the Prime Minister:

The current emission reduction targets of Australia and the world are insufficient and will commit us to 3°C or more of warming by the end of this century.

They continued:

We call on our leaders to unite to develop non-partisan, long-term policies that will enable the managed transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 that the scientific evidence shows is required to avoid dangerous human-caused climate change.

There is no doubt that human-caused climate change is making fire seasons, and fire itself, worse. We are experiencing more frequent and more extreme fire weather conditions during summer, an earlier start to the fire season and a lengthening of the season into winter.

Fire management is becoming increasingly challenging. We must engage in the desperate task of mitigating our climate emissions. Adaptation will not be enough. If we just settle for adaptation now, what we've experienced through this awful spring and summer, and the winter to come, will not just be the new normal; it will be less than what we experience in the future if we allow global warming to exceed 3 degrees. What we saw this season, unfortunately, is, some would say, the new normal, but it can get worse if we just focus on adaptation. It is in the national interest and it is in the global interest to actually focus on mitigation to restrict global warming to well below two degrees Centigrade. Otherwise, what we've faced this season is a mere precursor to what will occur in the future. And I'm not being alarmist—I'm responding to the best scientific advice on what is occurring and what can occur in the future.

This is not something that our country can ignore. We owe it to the Australians who've lost their lives, to the families who've lost loved ones, to the communities who've lost businesses and livelihoods, and to the men and women who continue to stand firm in the face of the raging infernos we have seen bear down on Australia's summer. We owe it to all Australians to take real action on climate change.

On behalf of the people of Shortland, I pass on my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one, to everyone who has lost a home or a business and to those mourning the loss of wildlife—one billion lost. And I pass on my great thanks for the sacrifice of the firefighters and other personnel who have helped us in this crisis.