Australia: Speech in Parliament Victorian bushfire disaster

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The 7th of February will become etched in our national memory as a day of disaster, of death and of mourning. This nation has been scarred by natural disasters, disasters that remind us of our tenuous hold on this vast and forbidding land: 'Her beauty and her terror', as our nation's poem reminds us, of this 'wide brown land'. Except that the land is now black, the earth scorched, and the people in mourning.

Fire holds a great terror for us all. Its power, its speed, its roar, its relentless destruction, its capricious shifts in course, its want of mercy; all personal stories I've heard from its survivors in recent days.

And the numbers just mount and mount. So far 173 deaths, more than 500 injured, nearly 1,000 homes destroyed, thousands now homeless, 365,000 hectares burnt, 25 local government authorities affected, entire towns gone.

Mr Speaker, our first response as Australians must be as it has been, to extend the open hand of friendship, of empathy and of giving. The people of Victoria are not alone in this disaster because the entire nation is with them. And not just the nation but good people across the world, an expression of our common humanity.

In the last day or so I've received calls from President Obama, from Prime Minister Brown, President Barroso of the European Union, the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Turkey, our ANZAC brothers.

President Obama said that we should know in Australia that the prayers of himself, his wife Michelle, their family and of the American people are with the people of Victoria, the people of Australia today.

We've also received messages from others from around the world - Andorra, Brazil, China, Cuba, East Timor, France, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Nauru, Peru, Pakistan, Samoa, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, The Solomons, Thailand and others.

Expressions of sympathy have also been accompanied by offers of practical help. France and Japan have made urgent inquiries as to what assistance they may offer. Thailand is proposing a financial donation to the bushfire victims. Indonesia has offered assistance with disaster victim identification. New Zealand has offered 100 fire fighters, Singapore has offered to deploy Super Puma helicopters. The United States Department of the Interior is in discussions with the Government of Victoria on the provision of personnel and assistance.

Mr Speaker, we welcome each of these offers of support and these expressions of sympathy from around the world. It is good that they have come.

Mr Speaker, all Victorians and all Australians should know that in this darkest hour, that they are not alone.

Since Saturday night the Australian Government has been working closely with the Victorian Government in response to this disaster. The Commonwealth disaster plan has been activated. The Australian Defence Force has established a Victorian-based joint taskforce of more than 450 personnel under the command of Brigadier Michael Arnold, commander of 4 Brigade.

The Joint Taskforce which includes full-time and reserve defence members from navy, army and airforce has provided tents, stretchers, sleeping bags, to accommodate 120 people at the Yea Recreation Reserve. 140 soldiers from Puckapunyal are assisting with this task. 160 reserve soldiers have been deployed to assist police with search and recovery.

The Joint Taskforce has also provided 150 portable beds or mattresses to relief centres in the Baw Baw Shire. This is to enable emergency workers with facilities so that they can get enough rest to continue their tireless work.

The taskforce also includes heavy plant, chainsaw, sections and logistics support, which have been assigned to the clean-up task. Graders, bulldozers, front end loaders and their operators have been asked to assist with fire containment measures, reopening of roads and fire fighting measures around Yea and elsewhere.

Defence Force Personnel will help build containment lines around Yea, which is still being seriously threatened with fire. Four communications-dedicated armoured personnel carriers have been sent to the town to assist defence force engineers, and to provide an emergency medical capability if required.

The ADF has also been asked to provide aerial imaging of affected areas. This will enable the identification of all residences affected by fire.

Ninety personnel from the Australian Federal police have also been deployed to help Victorian police with the investigation and response to the fires crisis centre operations and general responsibilities.

The AFP team comprises some 16 disaster victim identification specialists, 14 members from the AFP Melbourne Office to assist with the national registration inquiry service and 60 from the international deployment group operations response group.

Minister Macklin and I have both conveyed to the Victoria Police that if any further ADF personnel or AFP personnel are required they will of course be made immediately available. That will include any assistance required in the investigation into the causes of these fires.

Emergency Management Australia is also providing critical support and coordinating our response across the Government and liaising with Victorian Government agencies. Tony Pearce, director of Emergency Management Australia, has been providing me and my office with written and verbal briefings about the fire situation throughout each day.

Mr Speaker, the House will be aware that we have made available the Australian Government Disaster Relief Payment. This payment is $1,000 per adult and $400 per child for those affected by fires, in order to provide immediate cash help.

As honourable members would be aware, people escaping from fires have often arrived simply with the shirts on their back, if that. Therefore the provision of immediate cash to help get the necessities to get through the next day has been of vital importance. Payments started flowing Monday. Mr Speaker I am advised that as of close of business 9 February, we have received 2027 claims, with 427 paid, 1,600 pending. Cash payments were made at Yea, Warragul and Alexandra yesterday.

Other relief and recovery that did not have access to banks will have cash available from today. Indeed a number of banks have agreed to establish facilities at local recovery centres to make cash payments there and then.

593 adults and children have been provided with assistance worth $493,400. And authorities are working to provide further assistance as quickly as is humanly possible.

Mr Speaker, the Government's national disaster relief and recovery arrangements currently apply in 25 local government areas. Alpine, Baw Baw, Cardinia, Corangamite, Greater Bendigo, Hepburn, Horsham, Indigo, Latrobe, Macedon Ranges, Mitchell, Mount Alexander, Murrindindi, Nillumbik, Southern Grampians, Wangaratta, Wellington, West Wimmera, Whittlesea, Yarra Ranges and Lake Mountain Alpine Resort. Today South Gipsland, Greater Dandenong, Casey and Knox were added to the list. And the list continues to grow.

NDRA assistance involves measures to help with those suffering personal hardship and distress assistance. Emergency personal hardship grants, $427 per adult, $213 per child up to a maximum of $1,067 per household and temporary living and re-establishment grants of up to $8,650.

On Sunday the Commonwealth announced a $10 million contribution to an immediate community recovery fund to assist local communities, small businesses and primary producers. We are currently working with the Victorian Government on the specific details of the operation of this fund.

The Commonwealth has also made a $2 million to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal fund. I understand it currently has received donations of more than $15 million and I urge all Australians to make a contribution to this appeal. And I thank from the bottom of my heart all of those Australians who have dug deep, it is a great testament to what Australians do at times like this.

Mr Speaker, I announce to the House today that the Victorian Government in partnership with the Commonwealth Government will establish the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority to coordinate bushfire recovery activity across Victoria. The Authority will be responsible for coordinating the effort of all local, State and Commonwealth Government agencies and the many community organisations involved aimed at helping communities to recover and to rebuild.

The Authority will be established under existing State Government legislation. The Head of the Authority will be the outgoing Police Commissioner of Victoria Christine Nixon, who will be responsible to the Premier. A CEO will be appointed. The Premier will be assisted by a ministerial advisory group. The group will include the Commonwealth's coordinating Minister, Minister Macklin.

The Head of the Authority will chair an inter-agency taskforce comprising all relevant State and Commonwealth Government agencies and local government representatives. The Authority will be supported by a dedicated project team with the specialist skills needed for the reconstruction recovery task. Community input and consultation will be directed through a community reference group.

Mr Speaker, the Australian Government can also announce today further steps to assist the natural disaster-affected areas of Victoria and Queensland.

The Government will provide an additional $5 million for emergency relief for our most recent natural disasters in Victoria and Queensland.

This will be provided immediately to church and other non-government organisations working in the field - organisations such as Anglicare, the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul, Uniting Care and others to help them provide food and other essential supplies to those affected.

For councils in these natural disaster-affected areas, the Australian Government will allow them the opportunity to reprioritise their projects under the Government's $250 million Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program to better meet their needs. These councils will be notified of this change in program today.

In order to assist fire-affected Victorian local governments and flood-affected Queensland local governments, I have asked that the payments for the local government Financial Assistance Grants also be accelerated. As a result, the final payment for the 2008-2009 financial year, which is due on 15 May 2009, will be brought forward to 23 February 2009.

All Victorian and Queensland councils, including those affected by the current emergency, will receive these advance payments.

This will provide fire-affected councils with an immediate injection of funds to ensure that recovery can commence immediately.

Mr Speaker, these funds are untied and can be spent on local priorities determined by individual councils. These priorities will vary from council to council depending on the individual circumstances of the council and the impacts of this terrible disaster. For example, Murrindindi Shire Council has lost about one-quarter of its houses. This has affected its rates base and, consequently, its ongoing cash flows.

In addition, the Commonwealth Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government will consult with all affected councils and communities in Victoria and Queensland to determine the immediate and long term needs of their communities.

Mr Speaker, the Government today will also put in place an Income Support Recovery Assistance program for individuals who have lost their primary source of income, including small businesses and farmers, as a direct result of the Victorian fires and the floods in Queensland.

This assistance will be in the form of an ex-gratia Newstart-like payment up to the maximum rate of Newstart, for a period of 13 weeks, to be extended if necessary.

Mr Speaker, the Australian Government, through Medicare and Centrelink, will also work with the Victorian Government to assist individuals to re-establish their identity for those who have lost licences and other proof of identity.

Mr Speaker, when you meet persons, victims of this extraordinary disaster the desperation is compounded by those who have lost every form of establishing who they are. It is something which, unless you've experienced it, is beyond imagining. It's not just the loss of memories and photos and entire family histories, it's the loss of the certification of who you are and your legal personality.

So we will provide the resources necessary through Centrelink and other agencies to assist in the immediate provision of necessary means of identification for people to begin the difficult and long task of establishing anything approaching a normal life.

Mr Speaker, job seekers in the affected areas of Queensland and Victoria, who volunteer to help with clean up and recovery efforts or who live in locations where job opportunities have effectively been destroyed will not be asked to look for work for a period. Job seekers who have been personally impacted by the tragedy would also be subject to a waiver of compliance obligations for a period of time as well.

The Australian Government will also enter into negotiations with the Victorian and Queensland governments to establish a Farming and Small Business Assistance Fund. Businesses in affected regions will be able to apply for capital grants to purchase or replace premises, machinery or other capital needs. The Australian Government's $6.4 billion Social Housing Fund - announced as part of the Nation Building Plan recently - will be available to State Governments responding to social housing needs in disaster-affected areas. The Government of Victoria will be able to draw on its estimated $1.5 billion share of the Social Housing Fund to assist families in need as a result of the Victorian bushfires.

The government of Queensland will similarly be able to draw on its estimated $1.3 billion share of this fund to meet the needs of those affected by flooding in North Queensland. In dealing with the reconstruction and repair of schools in disaster-affected areas, the Australian Government will make available funds from the $14.7 billion Building the Education Revolution Program.

The Victorian Government will be able to give priority to construction of school infrastructure in communities affected by bushfires.

The Queensland Government will also be able to give priority to repairs and upgrades to those schools which may have been damaged by flooding in North Queensland.

Mr Speaker, this is a start in dealing with the tragedy that has unfolded before us in Victoria and Queensland. The Australian Government stands ready to assist in any other possible way to assist our fellow Australians in rebuilding their lives.

Given the magnitude of this study, we have deliberately made the decision to place no cap on the Commonwealth's contribution to the recovery and reconstruction effort.

This Government will be partners for the long term in the rebuilding of each of these communities.

As members of the House will be aware, it is important that all facts concerning this extraordinary natural disaster are made known. The Government will provide all assistance we can to the Royal Commission that has been announced by the Victorian Premier.

As the House will be aware, the Royal Commission will be examining all aspects of the Victorian Government's bushfire strategy and as the Premier has said, everything will be on the table.

Mr Speaker, we must do all that is possible through this Commission so that we properly prepare for the future. And we await the deliberations of that Commission and its subsequent findings.

Mr Speaker, while the Victorian firestorm has been unleashed on the good people of so many communities in that State, floods have been ravaging towns in the North of our country.

As was announced yesterday, the Minister for Small Business, Independent Contractors and the Service Economy, Dr Emerson, has gone to North Queensland to ensure funds flow quickly to flood victims and to coordinate the Commonwealth's contribution to the relief effort there.

Dr Emerson will be giving all possible support to local staff, who are doing a highly professional job, and to ensure any necessary decisions can be made quickly.

Yesterday, the Minister met with Centrelink and the Queensland Department of Communities in Townsville. He was advised that the Centrelink payments of $1,000 per eligible adult and $400 per child are flowing to victims. The payments are for people who have either been seriously injured or whose home has been destroyed, significantly damaged or inaccessible for more than 48 hours.

So far, 600 claims have been received.

This morning the Minister was briefed by the Director-General of Queensland Emergency Services. Today the Minister is meeting with Commonwealth and State officers and relief staff and local residents in Ingham, where the road is now open to 4WD vehicles for the first time in a week.

And today 20 Centrelink staff have travelled to Ingham to join those already on the ground. In Ingham, 3,000 homes have been affected with 90 per cent of businesses still closed. The town of Halifax is still isolated, but supplies are getting in by helicopter.

Mr Speaker, the Government continues to monitor closely the unfolding events in North Queensland as well.

In recent days, Mr Speaker, the nation has observed a legion of heroes at work, our emergency services workers. The CFA, the Country Fire Authority of Victoria and all those country fires authorities who have come from across the country to support their brothers and sisters in arms in dealing with their common enemy, is a testament to the enormous spirit of CFA authorities across Australia.

Their courage has been remarked upon in recent days and having heard some of the stories first hand, theirs will again be the stuff of legend. The CFA, the police, the SES, ambulance workers, those working in hospitals and those with the extraordinary and delicate task of working in the burns units of hospitals - all these deserve our utmost respect and commendation from this the Parliament of the nation and so they receive it.

In each of the centres also, Mr Speaker, the army of volunteers, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and others who materialise in a way best known only to God at times like this, helped I am sure by extraordinary feats of organisation by those good ladies, invariably good ladies but not always, some men as well, who are there in an instant to make it work.

It is a rolling miracle of the Australian volunteer community, of the church and charitable sector, that this great army of people immediately comes and is there, without complaint, without request for anything in particular. Prepared, with sleeves rolled up, quietly, effectively, assiduously doing the job, And in each centre that I visited yesterday and the day before, Yea and Whittlesea and Alexandra and also other centres as well, this army of volunteers, working quietly and effectively.

In one centre I visited, literally acres of bedding provided by local shops, local families, ready to be made available to those who now have nothing. Entire gymnasiums full of clothing, kids' clothing, toys, bedding, anything else that you might need to start up a household all materialised within a day or two of the ask going out. An extraordinary testament to those communities. An extraordinary testament to the church and charitable and community organisations who have made the physical organisation of it possible.

Mr Speaker, we are left speechless at the thought and the possibility that some of these fires may have been deliberately lit. Every member of this House cannot comprehend how anyone could ever do that.

Mr Speaker, something which the nation must now attend to as a matter of grave urgency is the problem of arson. Where it happens, why it happens, what more can be done about it.

There is no excuse for this. None at all. This, as I said yesterday, is simply murder on a grand scale. Let us attend to this unfinished business of the nation and come to grips with this evil thing.

Mr Speaker, the fires continue. And as we assemble here in the nation's parliament today to reflect on what has happen in days past and the acts of heroism and the experience of tragedy, let us each one of us remember that they are all still in the field today. In so many different parts of Australia.

In Victoria, in New South Wales and elsewhere, fighting the great elements of nature which bear down on communities. We salute each one of them.

We also, as we gather here today, reflect on the lives and families which are now permanently shattered. This is an unspeakable horror for those families. Unspeakable.

The ability to recover from events of such extraordinary trauma will be sorely tested in the days, weeks and years ahead. One of the things that the Minister Jenny Macklin has been determined to do has been to try and make sure we have a sufficient availability of counsellors in the field now.

Counsellors for the families who are now bereaved. Counsellors for those who are friends and neighbours and know or who have seen their friends and neighbours perish. The trauma of scars and blackened vehicles along the road, that I saw yesterday in Marysville.

The trauma also of country fire authority personnel, who have confronted this firsthand, and the police and the emergency services personnel dealing with the aftermath.

The physicality and the emotional scar of trauma reaches deep into people and this is a much and necessary area of work to be done and done as well as possible in the days ahead.

Mr Speaker, we do not know what lies ahead. What I have outlined to the House today is our response to date. Let us all work with governments at all levels and at all communities and with all community organisations with to deal with each challenge as it presents itself.

I say this to the country at large - whatever community you are from, if it has been rendered to ashes, if it has been destroyed, hear this from the Government and the Parliament of the nation, together we will rebuild each of these communities.

This will take time. It will take effort.

Yesterday I sat in the community hall at Alexandra and spoke with a lady of a certain age who was the town's local historian. The town in question being Marysville. And she asked this question of me, 'What is to be the town historian, for a town who is no more?' She said this year the town was about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its historical society. Would there be a 50th?

I told her, Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Government and I believe the Parliament, that there will be. That this town and others like it will be rebuilt. Brick by brick, school by school, community hall by community hall.

Because that must underpin our long term resolve as a Government, as a Parliament, as a Nation. To be there with these communities not just in the trying and difficult days and weeks that lie ahead but in the arduous task of the months and years that lie ahead, until one day we can look back before too much time has gone and say, these towns, these communities have been reborn.

Mr Speaker, I read the contributions from members of the House on both sides of this debate yesterday. I thank them for it. I acknowledge the contributions of individual members of parliament, some of who understandably are still not with us today but attending to their local communities. I have sought to speak to a number of those members during the course of today.

We have a large task ahead of us and it will be uneven in the recovery, that is the nature of things. But let us resolve clearly, in full witness of the nation at large, that this will be our common resolve: to rebuild each of these communities so that these communities can live again.