Australian Bushfires

Mr CLARE (Blaxland) (17:23): Words can’t really explain what’s happened over the last few months. Not like the images of the blood red sky over Mallacoota do. Or the photos of kids wearing smoke masks to help them breathe. Or people huddled on beaches with dogs and cats and their horses just to escape the fires. Or the anger in the voices of firefighters being interviewed by the media. Or that photo of the little boy having his dad’s Service Medal pinned to his little chest. This is a nightmare that is going to take us all a long time to recover from.

We have had bushfires before. We give them names like Black Saturday. But we have never had something like this. This is Black September.  Black October.  Black November.  Black December. Black January. And now Black February. And it’s still not over.

Just to put this in perspective – about as many square kms of Australia has been on fire over the last few months as has burned across the whole world in the last year. People have been forced to run to beaches and jump on boats just to stay alive. People have died hundreds of kilometres away from the fires – in places like Canberra and Melbourne – just from the smoke. Time will come to look at what we did and what we failed to do. Today is not that day. But that day will come.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Buxton, just south of Picton in South West Sydney. And on the side of the road there is make-shift memorial.  A few helmets, bunches of flowers and some messages. It’s where Andrew O’Dwyer and Geoff Keaton died when their truck rolled over back in December. Its an eerie place.  It makes you wonder when you visit there what happened. And what must of gone through their heads in those final moments. What those final moments must have been like. It makes me wonder why RFS trucks don’t have roll bars and if they had them whether the outcome might have been any different. I don’t know. Up and down the street out the front of people’s houses there are signs everywhere saying things like “Thank you RFS” and “Thank you Super Heroes”. In our own way I think that’s what we are trying to do today – to say thank you to those heroes, the men and women who wear those yellow uniforms that stood between us and those awful fires.

And heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Down the road from Buxton there is a little town called Balmoral. Balmoral’s got about 100 homes. 20 of them were destroyed by fires. And in the local hall that’s become a Recovery Centre, I met a woman named Kim. Kim runs her own business, but for the last few months she has been running the Recovery Centre, handing out everything from food to nappies to power tools. Anything and everything the community needs. And she is also in the RFS. She wears the same yellow uniform. I asked her whether she was getting the compensation payments that the government has announced, and she told me to my surprise, “no”. She said because she is not considered “front line” she doesn’t get those payments, even though she is there and has been there for more than a month, helping the people in that community to rebuild their homes and rebuild their lives. It strikes me that it’s just wrong, it’s stupid and it’s something that could be easily fixed.

Today is also an opportunity for me to thank my local community for everything they have done over the last few months, big and small. We weren’t touched directly by the fires – but all of us in the local community have been affected.  We’ve seen it in the sky, we’ve breathed it in, and we’ve felt it. Almost every church, mosque, temple, community club has done their bit, run a raffle, raised money, held a fundraising dinner, done something to help their fellow Australians. I want to give a special shout out to Dr Vinh Binh Lu who organised a dinner three days before Christmas for Andrew and Geoff’s family and they raised an incredible $84,000. I also want to thank the guys behind Maronites on a Mission – they donated ten thousand dollars to the people who live in Buxton and in Balmoral.

And I want to give Jihad Dib and Bilal El Hayek and the team at Bankstown PCYC and Lighthouse Community Support a plug. Back in November these guys put a call out to our local community asking for donations. They got inundated with food, water, toys and toiletries. They ended up delivering five trucks worth of goods to different parts of NSW. And then in January they did it again and took three trucks and two vans to Cobargo and to Braidwood. A week later they took a van full of donated things to Adelong. And they have just taken another truck up to Taree.

They are just a couple of people. Just a couple of organisations. This country is full of great people and organisations like that. They don’t do it for a medal or to get their names mentioned here in this place. They do it because they care about this country and the people who live in it.

About two weeks ago I drove from Batlow to Cooma. And It’s hard to describe what I saw. Everything is black. The trees are black from top to bottom, the dirt is black, everything is black. It was pouring with rain, and the smell of ash and charcoal was thick in the air. It felt like a scene out of Lord of the Rings. Like the end of the world. Driving along that road for a couple of hours had a big impact on me. I can only imagine what it is like to drive that road every day. To live in that community. Seeing that destruction and smelling it every day.

This disaster has affected all of us in different ways. I have had mates that have been evacuated and members of my family that almost had their house burn down. But the thing that I keep thinking about, I can’t stop thinking about, are those two men, Andrew and Geoff, and their two little kids. They were dads. Their kids weren’t much younger than my little boy. I keep thinking about that image of Geoff’s little boy Harvey getting that Service Medal pinned to his little chest at his dad’s funeral. And Charlotte, Andrew’s little girl, wearing her dad’s helmet at his funeral. And I keep thinking about the questions that they must be asking their mum. Where’s dad?  When is dad coming home? And how the hell do you answer those sorts of questions. I keep thinking about all the other boys and girls whose mum and dads wear that same yellow uniform as Andrew and Geoff and what they must be thinking. The fear they must run through every time mum and dad get called away.

There is so much we need to do differently. There is so much we need to learn from the last few months. We owe it to them, those little boys and girls, to make sure that next time we are better prepared. That their mums and dads are better prepared. And that we here do everything that we possibly can to keep their mums and dads safe. If we do anything, if we learn anything out of this nightmare, then please, please let it be this.