House of Representatives

Mr Speaker, this has been the most awful of summers. A summer that has visited upon the nation grief and loss. Today the Parliament stops to mourn and honour the loss and service. Many of us were fearful of what we would face when we left this place in December. What has unfolded demonstrates that we were not fearful enough.

The summer sounds of cicada replaced by the ping-ping-ping of the VicEmergency app – it’s like the heart monitor of a nation in the intensive care unit. Our anxiety is turbo-charged.

These fears were very real in Indi.

The summer weather forecasts were menacing, so on December 12, 2019, I asked if the Country Fire Authority and Victorian government agencies could brief me, state government MPs and local government mayors and chief executives from Indi’s nine councils.

It was crucial, in my mind, that we were informed and united. I am so grateful to:

  • Adrian Gutsche, CFA District 24 Operations Manager and acting Chief Fire Officer
  • Brett Myers, CFA District 24 Commander
  • Paul King, CFA Regional Commander Northern Victoria and the Department of Environment, Water, Land and Planning.

At the Wodonga Incident Control Centre we heard detailed analysis of the forecasts, risks, and emergency liaison. In less than three weeks the faces around that table were all confronting devastating fires across the Walwa and Corryong and Alpine valleys zones. All our resources and unity would be called upon. The professionalism that we saw that day we saw, day-in day-out, in the weeks that followed.

At the end of December, fires broke out around Corryong. This blaze would eventually merge with the Jingellic fire across the Murray and stretch hundreds of kilometres, razing homes in Cudgewa – 394,000 hectares lost.

Our beautiful Alpine towns would soon join them, with fire breaking out around Dinner Plain and Falls Creek: 44,000 hectares lost.

Finally, the Abbeyard fire would break out just minutes from my home town of Wangaratta, stretching from Carboor down towards Omeo: 142,000 hectares lost.

Driving across these fire-affected parts of Indi in this past month, the traditional lands of Dhudhuroa, Waveroo, Taungurung and Bpangerang people, I have seen things which are terrible and numbing.

Tom Griffiths, an environmental historian at the Australian National University, said on ABC radio the other day that we describe fires as if they are monsters. Bushfires have flanks, fingers and tongues; they lick, rage, hunt and devour. We call them vicious, angry and cruel.

Those who have lived through fires know why we describe them like this. Paddocks blackened. Homes razed. Towns evacuated. Camps erected. Soldiers deployed. Highways emptied. Animals incinerated.

This season has also left us grasping even for language to describe what has happened. We used to name bushfires after days of the week: Red Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday. But these fires were not a single day of devastation; they became a prolonged and continuing assault.

Some have called it Black January, but this is not enough, for the fires started well before January. Some have called it the Angry Summer, but this is not even enough, for the fires started in Spring and it may yet be Autumn before they end.

We have always had droughts and fires. But not like this. In our hotter and drier climate we need new language to describe the country that we are becoming.

In my travels across Indi, I have spoken with hundreds of people and heard many more stories about the impacts of these fires. And this I hear: we are devasted by the loss of life, the fires are devastating for our farmers who were already experiencing drought, they have wiped out Christmas holiday tourism, they are pushing small business to the brink, they are reconfiguring our natural environment and they are taking their toll on our people’s mental health. Many people are literally gasping for breath.

As we move from disaster response to disaster recovery, we cannot lose sight of how people are affected and today is about giving respect to those people and their stories.

Mr Speaker, Indi is a border electorate and across the Murray River 28-year-old Sam McPaul died on December 30 after a ‘freakish weather event’ flipped his truck while he was fighting the Green Valley blaze in Jingellic, 70 kilometres east of Albury, just across the river from Walwa. Sam the beloved only son of Chris. Sam and his adored wife Megan were expecting their first child this May.

Mat Kavanagh, 43 years a dedicated Forest Fires Management Victoria employee and father of two, was tragically killed on the Goulburn Valley Highway while on duty. Mat lived with his wife Jude and two young children Reuben and Kate in Alexandra in the south of Indi.

Bill Slade from Wonthaggi, beloved husband of Carol and father of Ethan and Steph. Bill was struck by a tree and killed while fighting a fire near Omeo, saving our iconic mountain country of the North East, again on the border of Indi. These are too many loved people who we speak of with grief and honour today.

Many survivors will also bear scars.

In the immediate aftermath of the New Year firestorm I spoke with an elderly dairy farming couple at the Corryong relief centre. They were dazed and grieving. They sat in a rudimentary school basketball stadium – a stadium that had been packed with 600 people a day or two before. A refugee camp effectively, littered with mattresses and bedding, tables of donated clothing and a supply of food large enough to overwinter an Antarctic mission. They had been rescued from their dairy farm. Their home burned to the ground.

They told me they ran for their lives and only survived because two young blokes had rescued them. Their home contained all the furniture and history of their great, great grandparents who were early settlers in the Upper Murray. They had seen a few things in their 50 years of farming together – but nothing like this. They uttered the words that have become the songline of this disaster: ‘We are luckier than some. Others are worse off than us.’ There are dozens of stories such as these.

Kindness, counsellors, chaplains. Departmental officials, tired CFA personnel, police, cups of tea, notice boards, briefings. Forms. Updates. Information . Too much. Not enough. I thank every one of them.

In the Towong Shire alone, more than 6000 stock have died, 926 hectares of field crops, 33,800ha of pasture and 20,000 tonnes of fodder lost. The Mayor of Towong, David Wortman, CFA volunteer , farmer,  a local leader. A calm man in a crisis. Not one for hyperbole. He told me that day just one thing: ‘Helen we need the army. We simply cannot bury the stock alone.’

The local health service at Corryong led by Dominic Sandilands and his team was evacuated because the most fundamental infrastructure of water, power and communications could not be guaranteed. Frail aged, dialysis patients and pregnant women were loaded onto buses and sent to other towns for safety. Staff worked around the clock in between defending tier own properties. The water did run out and the power did fail, so did the radio transmitter and mobile phone service.

The Cudgewa Pub miraculously survived after heroic efforts from the CFA. Proprietors Tracey, Carol, Ralph and community worker Kate Fair provided food, shelter and companionship for weeks to all who walked through their doors. The one mobile tower in the town was destroyed and roads in and out were closed for days. In all,30 homes were lost in that small district.

Farther west is Cindy Penny. Cindy runs an Angus beef farm in Bandiana outside Wodonga. She lost 170 hectares of pasture in the fires, and was forced  rapidly to sell off her stock. When she called my office, she didn’t want a government hand-out, just some help to rebuild the fences that had been burned across her property and some hay to feed the stock short-term.

Fires raged through the Alpine high country. Close to 30,000 tourists were evacuated in a day. We were lucky in Indi – we could get them out safely and quickly.

But not everything could be saved.

Stef Antonello runs a family-owned grape-growing business in the Alpine Valley. They were not physically touched by fire, but their vineyards, like much of Australia, was blanketed in smoke for much of the summer. And smoke spoils grapes. They are looking at losing 100 per cent of their crop to smoke taint, meaning almost half a million dollars in lost profit. That not only affects him and his family, but his brother and his two kids, and his 82 year-old-mother who has never taken a pension in her life.

Small businesses across the region have been similarly hard hit.

Shane Anderson and Ashlee Laing run the cafe Teddy’s Joint in Tallangatta. They’ve seen an 80 per cent drop in income since the onset of the fires in December. Teddy’s Joint employs five people, so if they fall over, so do five jobs in a small town.

Some of the damage we will not be able to see.

I have spoken in this place before of a University of Melbourne study called Beyond Bushfires into the impacts of the Black Saturday. That study found that in the worst-affected areas, six years down the track, one in four people showed signs of unmanageable mental health problems. There are scores of stories of PTSD, anxiety among people who survive bushfires.

One farmer wrote to me saying he suffers PTSD from a previous fire and that his trigger is dead animals. He’s lost cattle again. He’s not doing well.

But the Beyond Bushfires study found that it was not just the fire event that affected people, but the knock-on effects on lost income, lost homes, lost way of life that affected people. Countless people have written to me saying that the experience of negotiating complex Government assistance packages, with labyrinthine eligibility criteria is quote ‘traumatising again’.  We need radically to simplify the process of delivering assistance in crises like these. It must be fast and effective.

Our response to these fires

Much has been said about the community response to these devastating events and my community, like those around the nation, stood up to the test. Our CFA volunteers and professional firefighters acquitted their duties with valour and endurance. The Victoria Police, Ambulance Victoria, the State Emergency Service. They are still at it as many fires continue to burn.

The staff of our local councils have worked with minimal respite and the most stretched of resources. Food, fodder, shelter and compassion from near and far have supported us.

ABC broadcasts: what an extraordinary service. In my electorate local ABC journalist Ashlee Aldridge was on location everywhere throughout the fires, supported by equally dedicated crew. Press Gallery journalist Matt Doran also covered from Tallangatta. Yesterday I read that since July there have been 900 emergency broadcasts across our nation. The year before there were 371.

Community relief centres were spun up on a penny in Wangaratta and Wodonga. Volunteers came forth to staff them. Friends and strangers alike all helped and I thank them. Our communities are humbled and they are exhausted.

In our bushfire-ravaged communities, the question being asked is: ‘What now? Where do we go from here?’

When I stood for election last year I promised to fight for three things:

  • the regeneration of our regions
  • a national action plan to mitigate and prepare for climate disruption; and
  • to return integrity to our broken politics

Renewal, action and integrity.

We will need each of these if we are to find the phoenix in this fire. And I believe the tasks that follow this disaster are clear. We must work together to find what I know can be our common ground.

First, we need a national disaster response plan suited to the new threats we face.

This plan must tackle the realities playing out before us: a new compact on how the Commonwealth Government and Australian Defence Force should assist States in responding to emergencies; a stand-alone aerial firebombing fleet which does not depend on aircraft from North America;  sufficient trained personnel to fight longer and fiercer fires; and to support health services and local councils. We can’t keep volunteers on the ground for indefinite periods.

Second, we need a nationwide plan to adapt our country to a changed climate. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that adaptation needs greater attention. Let’s work together to match these words with action Restore funding to research organisations leading this work. Adopt my calls last September to introduce an adaptation plan for the agricultural sector.

And develop a plan to make sure our regional communities are resilient in the face of a changing climate. This means greater investment in fundamental infrastructure that sets us up to succeed. These bushfires have exposed the brittle skeleton of years of underspend in rural Australia.  We cannot wait until disaster hits to start investing in regional Australia.

Third, we need to deal with the underlying driver of our worsening fires. Our climate is changing. We are responsible for turning this around. And we can and must do something about it.

There’s a simple truth which people out there in community have already accepted and which we as political leaders must now address.

People in my electorate who have never approached me about climate change before are now coming to me passionately wanting us to address our climate policies. They know that as long as greenhouse gas emissions continue our temperatures will rise, our rainfall will fall, our bush will become drier, and these fires will get worse.

We have to reduce the likelihood and severity of these disasters by cutting carbon emissions at home and abroad. To say this should be as controversial as saying water flows downhill.

To do nothing from here is to sign up to a future where we lose more lives, our mental health, our small businesses, our farms, and our once-incredible natural environment will suffer more.

We cannot be indecisive. We cannot be afraid to change. We cannot be complacent. We must come out of our corners and find our common ground. Just as we have this fire season where I have been contacted and offered support by my Federal parliamentary colleagues of all stripes. I thank them and I thank Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Victorian emergency services Commissioner Andrew Crisp and the many ministers, both state and Federal, for their support to me and my electorate .

Imagine if our firefighters were seized by indecision, by complacency, by infighting when fires crested the hills of our communities. Our leaders have praised firefighters a lot this summer. I think the time is right not just to praise them but to start emulating them.

In conclusion, today I join with Federal parliamentarians to honour and mourn the people who have lost their lives to this terrible fire, and to pay respect to the brave people from all walks of life who protect our country in this time of need. I believe the best way to respect that sacrifice is by remembering the lesson they have taught us: that when our home is under threat, Australians will try everything to save it.

This has been the summer that broke our nation’s heart. Let it be the summer that forges our resolve.

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