Thursday, 10 February 2011
Commemoration of the 2nd Anniversary of the Black Saturday Bushfires
On behalf of the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Macklin, I table a ministerial statement on the commemoration of the 2nd anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires.
by leave—I move:
That the Senate take note of the document.
On the second anniversary of Black Saturday, we must remember what a dark and tragic chapter it was in Victoria’s history. One hundred and seventy three men, women and children lost their lives during the most cruel and aggressive firestorm which raged across huge tracts of land, destroying communities and farms, leaving nothing but tragedy and heartbreak in its wake. To those families whose lives were changed forever and are struggling to this day to deal with the emotional and physical aftermath: we have not forgotten you. Many of the communities are still ghost towns. Driving through Kinglake and Marysville only last week I was struck by the fact that people are still living in temporary accommodation. Small businesses have not been rebuilt. In the centre of many of the towns there is no life—there are vacant blocks. We must remember that families are still struggling to make ends meet. While the former Brumby government had the support of the people, they were slow to drive the reconstruction effort. Regrettably, there are millions of dollars in the bushfire appeal account which are still unspent.
I applaud the measures that the Baillieu coalition government have taken in recognising the problems people are still facing and for taking immediate measures to address the concerns of many of those people. Only last week, the Victorian coalition announced a series of measures to support the longer term needs and those impacted by Black Saturday and the Gippsland fires, including a new fire recovery unit, to assist fire-affected individuals. I quote Premier Ted Baillieu:
In the lead-up to the second anniversary of Black Saturday, it is important to recognise that many fire-affected communities are still struggling with a range of issues.
… … …
The Fire Recovery Unit will provide a clear point of contact in government for fire-affected individuals, communities and councils and work closely with other agencies leading bushfire recovery projects.
And he said that importantly it will:
... also provide leadership in developing new opportunities in fire-affected communities.
It is those opportunities the families are seeking because they are looking at vacant blocks. Houses have not been reconstructed and small businesses have not been reconstructed. In many of these areas, which are tourist areas, they are finding it very difficult to put it all back together. They need greater support and some hope that the government is behind them in seeking new opportunities to rebuild their lives. They have also announced the Bushfire Community Support Program, which begins next month and will run for 16 months. It is a $2.7 million program which will provide a combination of individual support and engagement with local communities to support longer term recovery needs. It includes such things as a support help line, which is still so critically important, and bushfire community support workers to provide locally based assistance. They are seeking to fund local organisations in the Hume region to expand drug, alcohol, family violence and men’s counselling programs, improving access for those affected by the bushfires.
In conclusion I would like to assure those in Victoria who have been so dramatically affected by the devastation wrought upon them only two years ago that our thoughts and prayers are with them, that we are behind them and that we will do everything we can to help them get their lives back on track.
It is two years since the Senate passed a condolence motion in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires. In the minds of many Australians, it still feels like yesterday. The scars are still very raw and the effects can still be seen as you drive through parts of Victoria. The Black Saturday bushfires devastated Victoria on 7 February 2009, killing 173 people, injuring 414 others, leaving over 2,000 homes destroyed. Even those of us who were not personally affected by the fires knew people in those areas, worked with people whose homes were destroyed or had a connection in some way or another with people from that particular region. For others, our connection was in seeing fellow Australians going through a living hell, feeling for them and their families.
The Black Saturday bushfires have affected each and every one of us in some way. Like many Victorians, I had personal friends living in those affected areas and had an agonising time trying to reach them during the crisis to make sure that everyone was okay. Over the last two years families have been trying to piece their lives back together and communities have been trying to rebuild. It has been a slow process for many of the victims as well as for their friends and families. The rebuilding has begun and will continue. I am proud to have been part of that rebuilding process with money from the Get Communities Working fund going directly to bushfire affected areas. I acknowledge the efforts of both the state and federal governments in having the bushfire recovery program as a key priority and for helping families get back on their feet.
Two years on, we all remain as committed as ever to helping the bushfire victims, their families and the communities. Australians have been generous with their time and money in helping the bushfire victims and it is a credit to all Australians that we have come together to help one another. I suppose that is the real Aussie spirit. It is important to commemorate what took place two years ago, to remember and learn from the experience and to help ensure that a tragedy of this nature never happens again.
I also rise to support the commemoration of the second anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires, which was a shocking event on that 8 February. There were 173 dead, over 7,500 persons were displaced, 78 communities were affected and six towns were devastated. As my colleague, Senator Fielding, has said 2,300 homes were destroyed, another 2,400 buildings were destroyed and 69 businesses are no longer there. There were 406,000 hectares burnt out in those fires. It has been estimated by the RSPCA in its 2009 annual report that more than one million animals were killed, and we know that more than 1,500 mammals, birds and reptiles were treated in emergency animal welfare treatment facilities.
You should not measure things in costs, Mr Acting Deputy President, but it does help to understand not only the scale of the human tragedy but the cost to date which has been estimated in excess of $4.4 billion. That excludes the involvement of agencies such as the CFA, metropolitan fire board, the volunteers, Victoria Police, the Australian Federal Police, emergency management and others.
It was a shocking, shocking event. Of the 67 recommendations, 66 were accepted and the then Premier, Mr Brumby, made the comment that:
In implementing each recommendation, the State’s foremost priority is the protection of human life and we have again appointed Mr Neil Comrie AO APM as an independent monitor to oversee progress made by departments and agencies ...
Mr Brumby went on to say:
As the Commission’s Final Report makes clear, managing bushfire risk is a shared responsibility between governments at all levels, emergency service agencies, the community and individuals. It requires a whole-of-state—
and a whole-of-nation—
effort with strong partnerships.
The only way I believe that this place can honour the memory of those people and those places that were destroyed is to assure the community of Victoria that the Senate has not been silent in its approach to bushfires. I am absolutely delighted that the inquiry into bushfire management in Australia, which was held in 2010, was unanimous in the 15 recommendations that emerged from that inquiry. I would like in the few minutes left to share them.
The first recommendation is that a national bushfire management policy be implemented. Not for one moment do we want to replace the responsibility, under the Constitution, of the states and territories for bushfires. But, as we all know, the fires do not respect state boundaries, or local government boundaries or, indeed, the boundaries between forest, national park and private property.
We made a number of recommendations with regard to activities that the Productivity Commission could undertake such as looking at the ageing power infrastructure because we know overhead power lines are a cause of fires. They were the cause in the Black Saturday bushfires and they were the cause in Toodyay in Western Australia in 2010 and they are often the cause in other fires. The recommendation was that the Productivity Commission, once it delivers its report, should encourage the Commonwealth to examine options where we work with those responsible for the power infrastructure to upgrade it.
I am very well aware, as a person who was the chief executive officer of a bushfire organisation in my state, of the need for fuel reduction. It was on 23 January this year that we gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the horrific Dwellingup fires in 1961 which wiped out four communities, one million acres—400 hectares—of bush and forest and, miraculously, nobody was killed. As the fire controller of that era, Frank Campbell, said in a book as a result of the Dwellingup fires, which I was proud to launch, ‘No fuel; no fires.’
So recommendations by the Senate committee inquiry are directed at the Commonwealth working with the states to evaluate the adequacy of fuel reduction programs applied by public land managers and we could extend that to private land managers. The Commonwealth would publish the fuel reduction plans and related audit findings on a national database so that the community can be satisfied with the efforts of those in the states and territories who have responsibility for protecting life, property and the natural environment. Any Commonwealth funding into the future on bushfire suppression should have agreement linked to it that the Commonwealth evaluates and audits those fuel reduction programs. We spoke of the need for coordinated and integrated training. I know, having been a member of the Australasian Fire Authority’s Council, that there is a tremendous sense of goodwill that permeates throughout the industry, but we think we can do more.
On that same field, speaking of research, our committee encouraged further research into prescribed burning and its effectiveness because there is not widespread community understanding or support. We see that, regrettably, even in the bushfires that affected the outer suburbs of Perth less than seven days ago when 72 houses were destroyed and another 25 families were devastated by their houses being severely burnt, there were allegations and concerns again that there was no adequate prescribed burning.
I congratulate the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Carr, for his extension of the current bushfire CRC funding, but we need the establishment of a permanent bushfire research institute. In this country, where we have the predominance of Mediterranean style climate with hot dry summers and eucalypt forests and people now living further and further into these forested areas, it is not a question of if we have major bushfires without fuel reduction but merely a question of when. The simple fact is: do we want major fires when temperatures in the middle of summer are exceeding the 40s with high winds and humidity down at eight or 10 per cent—an uncontrolled wildfire, as we saw on Black Saturday two years ago—or are we prepared to sanction a high incidence of spring and autumn burning when we get the same levels of fuel reduction without the risk to human or animal or natural environment health?
In honouring those who lost their lives and their families and their sense of purpose two years ago, the final recommendation is that for the first time in the history of this country the Productivity Commission be tasked to assess the economic effects of recent major bushfires on the Australian economy and to determine the cost effectiveness of the various mitigation strategies. I join with my colleagues in this place in a condolence motion to those who were so severely affected. You have to have given a eulogy at the funeral of a teenage volunteer firefighter to understand completely the tragedy and the anguish with which these people think back on this event two years ago.
Question agreed to.