Parliamentary speeches

Australian bushfires

February 05, 2020

I join the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Labor Party and so many parliamentary colleagues in speaking to this motion of condolence. It is important and it was the right thing that the first the day of parliament be set aside to this place responding to an extraordinary, terrible and unprecedented summer. I'm pleased that the Prime Minister responded so positively to the request of the Leader of the Opposition that yesterday be set aside and I was pleased to be in the chamber for the remarks of the leaders of both parties, which I think gave expression to the feelings of not just those of us in the chamber but the wider Australian community.

In making my remarks, I'll seek not to cover ground that has been well said—better said than I can—but to try and make some additional observations. In doing so, I'd like to particularly acknowledge the contributions of yourself, Deputy Speaker Hogan, the member for Eden-Monaro, the member for Macquarie, the member for Gilmore and the member for Gippsland, whose communities were much more directly touched than mine. It has been a privilege to see members from across the parliament doing perhaps our best work in standing up for our communities.

In saying that, my electorate in suburban Melbourne was also touched by fires, unusually—fires that reached Bundoora, which is not even at the outer tip of my electorate. Before coming back to parliament, I visited the site and was struck again by how close fire came to suburban housing in Melbourne. In expressing my gratitude to those responsible for making sure that no property was damaged, I have been reflecting continuously on how changed the circumstances are that we find ourselves in and how much heavier the responsibilities are that we all bear in this place.

Over the summer, we have seen such strength and such resilience across affected communities but also, I think, such strength in our wider Australian community. We've seen our social compact, our sense of our common bond as Australians reinforced through looking at the terrible tragedy affecting some amongst us. I want to express my gratitude to all of those who have fought and continue to fight the fires and all those who have helped and will continue to help in the recovery efforts, including our friends from overseas. This time has demonstrated so many acts of heroism—countless acts of heroism. We've seen Australians at their very best.

It's important to acknowledge that this summer has seen the deaths of 33 people, and my thoughts, and I think all of our thoughts, are at this time principally with all of those in mourning and in grief. Of course, we recognise that the current season is not over yet. Thousands of homes have been destroyed around the country.

In terms of hectares burnt, the fires are the largest to have affected any of the megadiverse countries—larger than the fires in the Amazon and California of recent times. Professor Chris Dickman of the Australian Academy of Science estimates that Australia has lost at least a billion birds, mammals and reptiles this bushfire season—a figure that does not include all the animals likely to have been killed. So we're at risk also of losing a significant proportion of our wonderful biodiversity as a result of these bushfires.

There are various estimates of the financial cost of the fires, but perhaps we can say that the cost to our community is incalculable. In the area I represent are areas which saw the terrible bushfires of 2009 immediately to our north, and I acknowledge so many people whose trauma will have been reignited by recent events. I note the CFA in the City of Whittlesea and the shire of Nillumbik has provided significant effort—in particular, in Epping, which has joined the east Gippsland and north-east Victorian efforts as part of Strike Teams 1421, 1428 and 1436, and also assisted, of course, in the Plenty Gorge fire much closer to home.

I think of the community efforts in the community I represent, looking further afield—in particular, to highlight just one, my dear friends at the Thomastown Mosque who again looked to the community around them at a time of its need, as did so many, from the One Way Lebanese Bakery to sporting clubs like the Epping cricket and netball clubs. I'm very pleased to serve as Labor's multicultural affairs spokesperson, and, in this, I want to highlight a couple of features of the community response to the fire around Australia. I say 'highlight a couple' because it is impossible in any contribution to do justice to the way that Australia's diverse communities, many a long way from the fire front, have reached out to those affected. I acknowledge the leadership of organisations like the Ethnic Communities Council, who have brought people together to coordinate efforts. I acknowledge also the incredible contribution of so many Chinese Australians who, in recent weeks, have been dealing with challenges of their own but have reached out to their suffering fellow citizens, despite their own challenges.

Can I highlight a couple of contributions which I think deserve attention. I think of my friends in the Sikh community, including, I'm very proud to say, those associated with the Craigieburn Gurudwara, who donated $50,000 to efforts, and the Australian Sikh Support group, a group heavily located in Melbourne's north and west who have been almost everywhere they have been needed, reaching out, showing that Sikhism is not just a tenet at a theoretical level; its ethos has been shown every day right across affected communities, from New South Wales and east Gippsland to Kangaroo Island. People have travelled, bringing their aid, their skills, their support, and, very often, their food, which seems to have been a focus in this situation. I note the contribution, that is ongoing, of the Sikh community in Bairnsdale in Gippsland, as recovery continues. I think also of my friends in the Pakistani community, a very prominent community in my electorate, and the Pakistan Welfare Organisation in Australia, who have, similarly, been everywhere. I think also of some people I met from the Hazara community, a refugee community, who have raised enormous funds, despite very limited capacity in their community, giving back to a country that has given them a second chance at life.

As I say, these are partial remarks, but I think it is important to see that we have seen Australia's social compact reflected not just in the strength of individual affected communities, Member for Page, as you so effectively highlighted just moments ago, but in the wider Australian community—people recognising the bonds we share and our common obligation to reach out to one another, the finest evocation of, I think, that core Australian ethos: a sense that a fair go must be provided for when it's not granted.

In conclusion, can I just say this: for those of us who have the privilege of serving in this place, what matters of course is not what we say but what we do—particularly now with the fire season ongoing and the recovery efforts that will take not just days but years to complete, if indeed they are ever to be completed. So let us think about how we in this place can work together. Let us think about some of the contributions that have been made, including but not limited to those that were set out by the Leader of the Labor Party about national coordination. Let us think about how the states, the national government and local governments can work more effectively together. Fundamentally, let us think about how we can quickly, and with resolve, grapple with the extraordinary challenge that is climate change.