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Speech: Condolences motion on bushfires

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 4 Feb 2020

The bushfire crisis has wrought havoc and destruction on our communities and on our country. People have been lost, homes have been lost, livelihoods have been lost, and millions upon millions of animals have died and masses of their habitat destroyed. It has been a tragic and devastating time for us and, of course, for people across the globe who have been watching.

I want to acknowledge those who have lost their lives and the communities that have been devastated by the ferocity of these fires. Thirty-three people's lives have been lost to date. Some were volunteer firefighters, who died in tragic circumstances. Some were members of the community, who were killed while defending their homes. Others were American firefighters, who died while operating those crucial aerial water-bombers. They are all heroes. Every single one of these deaths is deeply, deeply tragic, and my deepest and heartfelt condolences and sympathies go out to their families, their friends and their loved ones.

I do have a personal connection with one of the victims, Julie Fletcher of Johns River. I had the sad honour of attending her funeral in Taree late last year. Julie's sister, Daintry, is a close friend of mine, and my family have known their family for almost 20 years—from the time I lived in Port Macquarie. The home that was burnt to ashes was built by their father, Brian Fletcher. My dearest friend Daintry, Julie's sister, has sent these beautiful words for me to read out:

Julie was a much loved member of the Fletcher family which has had a long and strong association with the Johns River area, and she will be sadly missed. She had a strong work ethic and was a valued team member through her roles with the Commonwealth Bank, NSW Maritime and NSW TAFE.

The farm was Julie's peaceful space. Family and friends, past and present, enjoyed this tranquil tidal reach of the Stewarts River, the finger of agricultural land bounded by river, by lake and national park estate.

Julie's death was a traumatic event—she lost her life to an apocalyptic combination of fire and wind.

We are no doubt in unprecedented times of drought-forage and water shortages, associated low humidity and related fire—which will change the way we live in our region, our state and the world as we have known it.

As individuals and leaders we need to focus on planning and resourcing to protect our natural landscape diversity, our farming lands and our communities. This is the time for proactive, precautionary and collaborative action.

We would like to express our sincere gratitude to the NSW Rural Fire Service and importantly the volunteer firefighters who assisted us in the Johns River area and acknowledge the invaluable work done over these harrowing past few months.

I thank Daintry for these words. Like Julie's family, the wounds left by the bushfires and families left behind are going to be very, very hard to heal.

Another of the major tragedies of these fires has been the impact on First Nations people. Two centuries of colonisation have undone millennia of management and care of country by First Nations people. Now they are on the front lines of the climate and bushfire crisis, their country burning and their sacred places lost.

In this time of crisis, communities came together and did everything in their power to help and support those in need. Saying thank you to every one of them doesn't adequately address the gratitude I feel, but I will say it. Thank you to the fireys and the emergency workers who have literally put their lives in the line of fire. Thank you to the animal carers whose homes have become much-needed refuges for wildlife. Thank you to the thousands of other people from around Australia who have sacrificed so much to protect people, homes and habitat. Thank you to those who have opened up their homes and their hearts for bushfire affected communities.

Communities across Australia from city to country and from every corner have pitched in. They've rolled up their sleeves and they've got to work. When I was on the South Coast, recently, I met with residents and people from the CWA, Treading Lightly, Bushcare, Landcare and local farms. All of them have been helping out, actively providing food, medicine, housing and wildlife care as well as communications through social media. Others have opened up their wallets, and donations have been flowing in.

There are so many amazing stories which continue to inspire hope—people like Toni Doherty and Adam Mudge, who ran into a burning forest to rescue Lewis the koala from the fires at Long Flat in the Hastings Valley hinterland. Lewis sadly died, but he became iconic and raised awareness of what was happening to the North Coast koalas. I read Kathy Mikkelsen's story about being trapped in Mallacoota and evacuating first to Tathra and then again to Bega on Christmas Eve, finding themselves with six adults, six children and three dogs and desperately camping in the basement car park of the Safeway. Trolley attendant Ibrahim, who is a refugee from Sudan, stopped them and offered to share his home. Malua Bay pharmacist Raj Gupta, having lost his own home, kept his pharmacy open without power or mobile service so he could continue to provide the medical care his community needed.

I want to pay tribute to some amazing Greens women who have been working day and night for their communities. Carol Sparks, the Greens Mayor of Glen Innes Severn in the New England region of New South Wales, lost her home in Wytaliba. About half the village has been destroyed, including the local public school. Writing in The Guardian, she notes:

Throughout this time, every effort has been made to prepare and defend both private and public properties in my community of Wytaliba, NSW, which last week succumbed to merciless physics that pay no heed to opinion, nor folklore, nor politics.

Members of my family are in hospital. Two community members, my neighbours for decades, are lost to us. We have lost dozens of homes beloved by hundreds of people. An entire community has been all but wiped off the map.

Further south, Shoalhaven mayor, Amanda Findley, has been a true leader of her community, along with her fellow councillors. I had the opportunity to join Mayor Findley at multiple community meetings, and I'm genuinely so impressed by her empathy and practicality in providing support in whatever way, shape or form was needed. Deputy Mayor of Albury-Wodonga, Dr Amanda Cohn, was deployed to Glen Innes just before Christmas, and then to Queanbeyan over the new year as an SES volunteer. These are just some of the stories that continue to inspire me and give me hope. But, despite these stories of heroism, we cannot forget that this is an unmitigated disaster. The environmental impact will perhaps never be able to be calculated. The trauma to individuals and the trauma to communities will be scars that perhaps never fully heal. This will be a moment that will be long remembered in Australia's history.

I also had the chance to visit the Mid North Coast twice in December to provide whatever support I could. I also went to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, which is at the forefront of rescuing koalas. Some say as many as 30 per cent of the koalas in this area have been killed. What they overwhelmingly told me was that the biggest problem was finding habitat to release the healthy koalas into. There was already a huge lack of protected koala habitat, which is now so much worse. In the wake of the fires there must be an immediate stop to the clearing of any more habitat, and no more logging of native forests.

I also drove down some food and supplies for wildlife carers on the South Coast a couple of weeks ago. It was, I must say, very surreal going through kilometre upon kilometre of burnt bush. I heard from wildlife carers about the lack of suitable land to release animals into, and the sheer psychological impact of seeing so many injured animals. I went to Pointer Mountain and heard about what we can learn from this disaster to plan much better in the future. More mobile firefighting units, disaster resilient communications infrastructure and trauma counselling are all needed.

I heard again and again about the powerful role of our ABC in maintaining emergency broadcasts to keep people informed. I also heard, again and again, that there was a lack of preparedness and planning for this crisis and that there are delays now in getting support and services to the people who need them, including local businesses who have lost everything. There is no doubt that people are going through a roller-coaster of emotions—anxiety, sorrow, anger, and fear of what might come.

One of the most heartbreaking and powerful parts of this trip was meeting with Nick Hopkins in Malua Bay at the site of his burnt down home. The Eurobodalla Shire has lost 450 homes. Nick told us he was two parts shattered and three parts enraged. He said, 'This wasn't a natural disaster; it was an unnatural disaster. The intensity of the fire and the drivers behind it were all man-made.' He said, 'Please, Mr Morrison, get real; join the dots—this is what climate change looks like.' Out there, the community knows firsthand what the climate crisis looks like. They told me, many times over, business as usual is long gone. So let this be a wake-up call for all of us.

Sadly, the elephant in this parliament is the climate emergency. People are paying the price for our government's selfishness in not taking action. I know many in this place will moan and groan and say, yet again, now is not the time. Well, when is the time? This is a well-worn tactic to shut down debate. It is time to get real. What Australia has experienced, and actually continues to experience with so many fires still burning since November, is not normal. If it is this bad now, imagine how bad it is going to be in 10, 20 or 50 years time if we don't take action now. People are crying out for this urgent action on all fronts. We need to give our firefighters the pay, the resources and the support they deserve instead of ignoring their pleas. We need to be much better prepared, because, sadly, this is just the start. We need a huge investment to build climate resilience and plan for the future. We need an immediate stop to digging up new coal, oil and gas. We need to plan to phase out our existing coal, because clinging to coal while our country burns is just plain reckless. Let's support a just and rapid transition to 100 per cent renewable energy that can actually create tens of thousands of jobs for the future.

I urge the Prime Minister to stop deflecting, to stop using weasel words when talking about the climate crisis. Show an iota of leadership and call it what it is—a climate emergency—then take action on the scale that we need for this emergency. That is the very least our communities deserve. What is needed most during this time of crisis is courageous, authentic, empathetic and wise leadership, leaders who are willing to step up, to make decisions for people and the planet—not their donors; not corporations. Our community has shown exactly this type of leadership and so must we, both at home and on the world stage.


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