Motion of Condolence: Australian Bushfires 4/2/20

9.45am | February 05, 2020

From the Blue Mountains to the Southern Highlands and from Batemans Bay up to the Northern Rivers and Northern Tablelands, this bushfire season has been devastating for my home state of New South Wales, with 4.9 million hectares of land having been burnt.

In September last year, well before we expected the bushfire season to begin, there were reports that fires were tearing through northern New South Wales. Having grown up on the North Coast, I know that these communities face floods, fires and severe drought, and they've done that for many years. But it was clear, really clear, that this time was different. The word we all used was 'unprecedented'.

It's difficult to put aside the image that appeared all over the news later in the season of a young boy in a breathing mask being evacuated from a beach in Mallacoota surrounded by thick smoke and a dark-red sky.
The bushfires across the South Coast of New South Wales, by that stage, were out of control. The roads in and out of the area were closed, and many locals were forced to flee to the beach.

These fires have had a devastating impact on the communities of New South Wales: 25 people have died defending their homes and towns; thousands of properties have been destroyed; and over 800 million animals have been killed.

The response to the bushfires has demonstrated the strength, the resilience, and the compassion that define our community. Local businesses, like a motel in Grafton, turned their premises into evacuation centres, providing food and shelter for people fleeing the fire. Community organisations have helped people and families access the services and financial assistance that they need to rebuild lives. Knitters across the country have been making pouches for the koalas, kangaroos and possums whose habitats have been destroyed by fires. In Lismore, locals have been donating backpacks, lunch boxes and pencil cases to kids going back to school in fire-affected areas. And every day for the past five months firefighters—many of them volunteers—have risked their lives to protect people and their homes from the fires. We are deeply thankful for their work, and we honour those who lost their lives defending their communities.

Australians are grieving. They are grieving for their homes, their towns, their families and their neighbours. They are grieving for pets and livestock. They're perhaps also grieving for the quiet places in our forests, in our creek beds and in our scrublands that, in so many ways, define who we are.

We ought to acknowledge that many Australians are also angry. They are angry because they feel they have been left to fight these fires on their own. People living on the North Coast and the Northern Tablelands have battled disaster after disaster for years, and they are exhausted, they are heartbroken and they are financially depleted. The question today is: how best do we respond, here in this parliament, to this grief and to this anger? I think the best way that we learn, the best way that we acknowledge this tragedy, is to learn from it, to engage deeply with affected communities, to truly listen and to hear the voices of the people who've lost so much. Of course, the listening can't just be over this summer or over the next few months, because for these people rebuilding lives and communities will take years, and communities need to know that we will be with them for the duration. Sadly, in parts of northern New South Wales, including on the Northern Tablelands, where the fire season began four months ago, I know from conversations with my friend the local member, Janelle Saffin, that many feel already that they are being left behind.

We also need to prepare for the future and to take steps to shape our future. We all have a stake in a safe climate. For decades, climate scientists have been warning us of longer and more intense fire seasons caused by climate change. Well, these warnings are now a reality, and it is well past time for serious climate action, not denial of our reality and not denial of our obligations. No child should have to witness what that little boy from Mallacoota did. The next generation should be excited about their future, not scared of it.