Bushfire Condolence Motion

Transcript
04 Feb 2020
Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister
E&OE

PRIME MINISTER: Mr Speaker, I move that the House:

(1.) acknowledges the devastation across our nation occasioned by the bushfire season including the loss of 33 lives, the destruction of over 3,000 homes, the unimaginable loss of so much wildlife and the devastating impact on regional economies across Australia;

(2.) extends its deepest sympathies to families who have lost loved ones and to those who have suffered injuries or loss;

(3.) places on record its gratitude for the service of David Moresi, Geoffrey Keaton, Andrew O’Dwyer, Samuel McPaul, Bill Slade, Mat Kavanagh, Ian McBeth, Paul Hudson and Rick DeMorgan Jr, firefighters who lost their lives during the fires and extends its deepest condolences to their families;

(4.) recognises the contribution of thousands of volunteer and career fire-fighters and the dedication of emergency services personnel across Australia;

(5.) honours the contribution of more than 6,500 Australian Defence Force personnel, including 3,000 ADF reservists, and the work of Emergency Management Australia throughout the summer;

(6.) recognises the generosity of individuals, families, schools, churches and religious groups, service clubs and businesses from across Australia and elsewhere in the world during the evacuations and following the fires;

(7.) expresses its gratitude to Australia’s friends, allies and neighbours who have provided or offered support;

(8.) recognises the unceasing efforts and close cooperation between state and local governments, demonstrating the strength of our Federation;

(9.) commits itself to learning any lessons from this fire season; and

(10.) pledges the full support of the Australian Parliament to assist affected areas to recover and rebuild.

Mr Speaker, we welcome the families of those who have lost and who are here with us today. In past times, when Australia has been tested by fire, we have given the fires a name based on the name of a day or a locality:

Black Thursday in 1851;

Black Friday in 1939;

Ash Wednesday in 1983;

The Canberra bushfires in 2003;

And Black Saturday in 2009.

Just saying these words brings back such chilling memories.

This year we have faced - and we are still facing - a terrible season of fire.

National in scale.

Fires that reached our highest mountain range, and our longest beaches.

Fires that consumed forests, grasslands and farms, suburbs and villages.

Fires that jumped rivers and highways.

Fires where days became night; and the night sky turned red.

And fires that raged into the heavens as clouds of fire.

With it all, a merciless smoke that lingered across our cities.

Fires that still burn.

And the smoke from burned bushland that left an oppressive tightening in our chests that told us all that all was not right.

This is the black summer of 2019/20 that has proven our national character and our resolve.

A national trauma, best described by Indigenous leaders who love our land so much as a grief for the victims; a heartache for our wildlife; and broken heart for the scarring of our land.  

These fires are yet to end and danger is still before us in many, many places. But today we gather to mourn, honour, reflect and begin to learn from the black summer that continues and to give thanks for the selflessness, courage and sacrifice and generosity that met these fires time and again and continue to.

Many of the stories of our black summer we will never know. Some will become known and others have already been taken to our hearts as Australians.

Across Australia we witnessed unparalleled fire-fighting and relief efforts.

Thousands upon thousands have stood together to fight fires and protect communities.

While our hearts are heavy for the loss of 33 people, and the destruction of over 3,000 homes, we know our emergency services and our ADF personnel, our fire-fighters have undertaken a mighty effort to save so many more homes, so many more communities.

Along with the loss and at times, seeming failure, there has been perseverance, courage and a willingness to give all to prevail.

None has given more than the nine firefighters we lost.

I extend again my welcome to the many family members of our lost firefighters who are with us today

I also welcome the Ambassador of the United States, Ambassador Culvahouse who stands here in the stead of the three American families who also gave and lost so much.

Every one of these firefighters was loved - all were brave and had lives that meant so much to those around them.

At the funeral of Geoffrey Keaton there was a coffee mug.

A mug no different than most of the Dads here I am sure have seen at some time. It was a mug that was placed on Geoff’s coffin and it had the words “Daddy, I love you to the moon and back”.

Geoff’s son Harvey was 19 months old when he lost his father.

Geoff’s fiance Jess held their son as they mourned his loss together with his family.

Geoff died alongside his fellow volunteer Andrew O’Dwyer from the Horsley Park Brigade, an amazing group of people, fighting the Green Wattle Creek Fire.

Geoff and Andrew were mates, together with their Captain Darren who has honoured them so many times now. 

Some even referred to them as brothers, with their children born days apart.

Andrew’s daughter Charlotte, almost two, was also at his funeral. Jenny and I joined them. Innocently unaware of her horrible and terrible loss. Charlotte was wearing a little white dress. She had pigtails that only her mother Melissa could have lovingly made and on top of those pigtails she put on her father’s white firefighting helmet.

Like Geoff, Andrew loved what he did, with the Brigade Captain Darren Nation saying his love of the fire brigade “was as thick as the blood that ran through his veins”.

Like Geoff and Jess, Andrew and Melissa shared a life together of such promise that is so sadly now a memory.

We lost David Moresi fighting a fire in East Gippsland. He was a husband, a father and a grandfather. He had been supervising the creation of vital firebreaks and died in a vehicle roll-over.

He was a bushman who loved to shoot, fish and hunt. He had planned on Boxing Day to travel to the Philippines to help build a school there. He’d already supported the building of schools in Thailand. 

And we lost Sam McPaul. He was just 28.

The world at his feet.

Married to Megan for just a year and a half.

Expecting their first child.

The son of a loving single mum, Chris, for whom Sam was her entire world.

There will come a day when that young boy or girl will imagine what their father was like and will ask questions. When that day comes, we want that precious child to know that their Dad was even better than they could have ever imagined. He was the best of us.

Mat Kavanagh was also a young father. Two children - six year old Ruben and four year old Kate. A devoted husband. 

Loved his fly fishing and had been a member of Forest Fire Management Victoria for ten years. On the day of the accident, he’d been extinguishing unattended campfires.

His older brother Mike said his family had lost “the most special person in the world”.

Bill Slade was just as loved. His wife Carol, daughter Stephanie and son Ethan know how much he was loved.

Bill had worked in land and fire management for 40 years, and was about to retire.

It was said there was no one more experienced and no one as fit as well.

Bill even fought the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983.

He was described as “a true gentleman with the kindest and gentlest of souls”.

I spoke with Ethan and Stephanie and they could not have been more proud, but also as devastated by their loss.

When we thought we couldn’t hurt anymore we lost three men who had travelled half a world to protect us.

We honour our American friends. We have no greater friend than the United States. Captain Ian McBeth, First Officer Paul Hudson, and Flight Engineer, Rick A DeMorgan Jr who were lost to us when their C-130 Hercules aircraft crashed near Peak View.

Captain McBeth, who was an experienced firefighting pilot, is survived by his wife and three children. He had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was a member of the Montana Air National Guard. His daughter, training to be a pilot herself, said she wanted everyone to know “he was just a wonderful person”.

First Officer Hudson had served in the Marine Corps for 20 years including as a C-130 pilot. He is from Buckeye Arizona and survived by his wife Noreen. Across Arizona they lowered flags in his honour. 

And Flight Engineer DeMorgan had served in the US Air Force with 18 years as a flight engineer on the C-130. It was said his passion was “flying and his children”.

Mr Speaker, on Australia Day I announced that the National Emergency Medal would be declared for the black summer of 2019-20 for these fires. 

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service and Forest Fire Management Victoria have advised that, once the bushfire response is complete and eligibility criteria for the Medal has been set, all nine of these firefighters who have lost their lives will be nominated to be posthumously awarded the National Emergency Medal.

In addition, the government has reconsidered the criteria of eligibility for the National Medal.

This is Australia’s most awarded civilian medal with more than 237,000 medals awarded since its inception. It recognises the long and diligent service by members of eligible Australian government and community organisations that risk their lives or safety to protect and assist the community. It is awarded after 15 years’ of service. 

It has not been awarded posthumously to long-term members of eligible organisations who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

I am also pleased to announce that Her Majesty has agreed to amend the regulations for the National Medal to be awarded posthumously.

The change will allow the National Medal to be awarded to those who died in the service of their duty - and who would have reached 15 years service if not for their death.

This amendment will be retrospective to the creation of the medal in 1975 meaning that others who have died in the service of others will now be eligible.

Mr Speaker, we have witnessed the most remarkable actions through these fires, by our volunteers and our defence forces in recent months.

Tens and thousands of volunteers - all of them doing things that were extraordinary. Although they would consider themselves ordinary.

Joined by 6,500 Defence Force personnel including 3,000 reservists who were compulsorily called out. 

So much of it is difficult and dangerous work.

Ordinary people, extraordinary actions.

One NSW firey, Alex Newcombe, from up near Blackheath, returned to the fireground just 12 weeks after a kidney transplant. 

His doctors weren’t pleased. But as Alex said, “that’s just what we do. We get stuck in”.

His kidney donor was none other than his wife Kate - a fellow firefighter in the same brigade.

Alex has been a volunteer for 20 years. 

On 21 December his truck was overrun by flames. 

The truck had run out of water meaning it couldn’t activate the sprinkler system. 

After all he’d been through, it was touch and go.

He drove his crew to safety.

That’s the story of the summer: remarkable Australians standing by each other. Struggling, persevering, taking the wins where they could find them.

And it wasn’t just firefighters.

Behind our fire crews have been caterers, logistics officers, radio operators, fire control centres and a support apparatus that did not sleep.

And our communities were backed up by volunteers at evacuation centres, service groups such as the CWA, Rotary and Lions and wildlife groups such as Wires.

And the charities, the Salvos and St. Vinnies and so many more.

Some of it was organised, some of it not.

Together, these efforts resulted in the most tremendous outpouring of generosity our country has seen.

Big businesses, small businesses, superstars, mums, dads, all giving what they could.

That was the wonder of this summer, tens of thousands of volunteers fighting fires then joined by 25 million of their countrymen and women supporting them.

Trusting each other.

Backing each other.

Twenty five million acts of kindness - all of them reminding us about the country we love.

More than money, it spoke of our resolve.

A reminder that what unites us as Australians is always more enduring and lasting than what divides us.

And with every action, a reminder of who we are.

Like the owners of the Indian Restaurant in Gippsland I referred to on Australia Day, who cooked thousands of free meals of curry and rice.

The chemist at Malua Bay who despite their own home burning down and not having an electronic payments system, kept the pharmacy open to get the medicines through.

The businesses, including up in Yeppoon, who saw a survivor and took no payment for clothes or meals.

The wildlife volunteers - one who even gave the shirt off her own back - looking for koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats to tend and protect.

The men from the Islamic community in Auburn who drove six hours to Willawarrin with 30 kilograms of sausages to cook a BBQ for a devastated community. That’s faith.

The convoys of trucks that took supplies through to communities that needed them  - an ‘army of angels’ that loaded 150 trucks of supplies and got them to Buchan and Omeo.

The tradies who knocked on doors and at no charge climbed on roofs and cleared the gutters of local homes.

The families who opened up their own homes to strangers.

And the children: Cake stalls, lemonade stalls, giving away their pocket money and their Christmas money. The kids of this country give us every reason to hope.

The generosity of the rest of the world was also so humbling.

70 nations offered us assistance.

Over 300 firefighters sent from the United States, Canada, and to New Zealand to whom we are so grateful.

We also had offers of assistance from the UAE, which is greatly appreciated.

Military assistance from New Zealand, the United States, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, Japan, our wonderful family in PNG and Fiji.

When the 54 engineers from the Republic of Fiji Military Forces arrived in Melbourne, they placed their hands over their heart and they sung a hymn “angels watching over me”, and they have been, to us.

Our Pacific family has been so incredibly generous.

Our neighbours, such as Vanuatu, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands have given generously, from not much, reminding me of the widow’s might, to our bushfire relief. 

In PNG’s second largest city, of Lae, the young people began a wheelbarrow push - collecting donations and giving them to our consulate.

Having stepped up for our Pacific family, we are now being so blessed by seeing our closest neighbours step up for us. We are so grateful to our Pacific family.

The actions of every level of government have been exemplary and I pay tribute to our Premiers, to their agencies and local governments who have all been doing exceptional work and I acknowledge Commissioner Fitzsimmons who is here today, amazing job Shane.

In our own ranks, I want to acknowledge those wonderful workers the electorate staff, the members here - not just the members that sit on this side, all members in this and the other place, and their teams who have worked under extraordinary pressure. 

As members of this place we are all so proud of our colleagues and what they’ve done during this time, and those who serve with them.

Across government there have been tremendous efforts.

And I want to acknowledge the outstanding contribution of Emergency Management Australia and its Director General, Rob Cameron, who is here with us today.

I also pay tribute to the contribution of our Australian Defence Forces.

6,500 personnel have been providing that support in the field, at sea, in the air, and from Defence bases in the fire-affected communities going back to September of last year and continue out there today.

That includes these reservists. The first compulsory call-out of reserves in our history for these purposes.

The compulsory call-out will end this Friday.

The ADF taskforces, led by Major General Jake Ellwood, as he’s known, have been undertaking vital on-the-ground tasks - like delivering emergency food and water, evacuating stranded people, re-opening roads, restoring services, clearing debris, building fences, and burying dead animals.

This reflects the transition of ADF support from assisting to save lives and properties to relief and recovery operations.

Their sheer presence just presented such encouragement and boosted morale, when Australians so devastated could look up and see them there and they knew they were supported.

They will continue to provide that support wherever it’s needed, for as long as it’s needed, with the full-time forces and those now volunteer reservists.

The recovery operations require a whole-of-government response. 

And that is why have established the National Bushfire Recovery Agency under the leadership of former AFP Commissioner, Andrew Colvin.

It is overseeing a National Bushfire Recovery Fund which will support all recovery efforts across Australia over the next two years, and for as long as it takes.

We have allocated an initial and additional $2 billion to fund this agency to ensure families, farmers, business owners and communities hit by these fires get the support they need as they recover, working closely with our colleagues in state and territory Governments.

Already, the Government has made major commitments providing funding for clean-up operations, tourism support, wildlife recovery, local government assistance, small business reconstruction, primary producers, farmers, graziers, and families as well as vital mental health support.

In addition to that, over $100 million already provided in emergency payments.

However, today is not the day to speak in detail of these initiatives, today is the day for memorial and commemoration.

We know that recovery takes time - and we are all here for the long haul.

Mr Speaker, following a natural disaster of this magnitude, we must also heed the lessons.

These fires have been fueled by one of the worst droughts on record, changing in our climate and a build up in fuel amongst other factors. 

Our summers are getting longer, drier and hotter, that’s what climate change does, and that requires a new responsiveness, resilience and a re-invigorated focus on adaptation.

Today, I have written to the Premiers and Chief Minister to seek their feedback on the draft terms of reference for a Royal Commission, that I have flagged now for several weeks. Along the terms that I’ve outlined in public.

The Royal Commission will be led by former Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin AC, and it will shine a light on what needs to be done to make our country safer and our communities more resilient.

We owe it to those we have lost, we owe it to those who have fought these fires, we owe it to our children and to the land itself to learn from the lessons that are necessary.

Mr Speaker, over a century ago, Henry Lawson wrote a poem about a bushfire in a place called Dingo Scrub.

“It is daylight again, and the fire is past, 

and the black scrub silent and grim,

Except for the blaze of an old dead tree, 

or the crash of a falling limb”.

In his reminiscence, Lawson writes about three men who “wipe away tears of smoke” and put themselves in harm’s way to save a family. 

When the fire has passed he writes of the men: “When they’re wanted again in Dingo Scrubs, they’ll be there to do the work”.

That’s what we’ll all do - here in this House and across Australia: to do the work.

To do the work of recovery to build back better. To do the work of learning. To do the work of repairing shattered hearts, broken communities.

That is what we owe our country. That is what we owe each other.

Australians are overcomers.

Despite the scale of this disaster and the tragedies - Australia is not and will never be overwhelmed.

As we face the challenges that remain active.

As we confront and face the devastating drought compounded in so many places by these fires.

As we confront and contain the challenge of the virus indeed that threatens the world.

Australians will not be overwhelmed. We will overcome as our anthem encourages us - with courage all, let us proclaim Advance Australia Fair.

So I conclude in memorial, I conclude in thanks, I conclude in honour to those we have lost and the deepest of our sympathies and condolences to you and we just simply hope and pray, that as we’ve gathered here today to acknowledge your great loss, and the heroes you have lost, that this will make your journey just that little bit easier.