Black Summer Condolence Motion

Wednesday, 05 February 2020

Mr HAWKE (Mitchell—Minister for International Development and the Pacific and Assistant Defence Minister) (16:49): For 60,000 years that we know of, two things have dominated our continent's destiny: drought and fire. We must never forget that our continent is covered in eucalyptus, an ancient tree, an incredible species born from fire and a tree that not only burns but explodes. It burns the air itself, through its flammable oil, and even regenerates through fire. How could anyone ever put our Australian story better than Robert Hughes, in his epic work The Fatal Shore, when he said:

Bushfire and drought are the traditional nightmares of bush life. A bushfire driven by a high wind through dry summer forest is an appalling spectacle: a wreathing cliff of flame moving forward at thirty miles an hour, igniting treetop after treetop like a chain of magnesium flares.

Aboriginal people knew all of this before Europeans came. They learnt to manage our beautiful land, and they still know it today. It's one of the greatest failings of not reconciling with Aboriginal people that we've failed to listen to them, failed to learn from their incredible stewardship of this continent and their deep understanding of it.

Today, in 2020, we again face the trials, the tragedies and the devastation of our dual fates: drought and fire. When a fire hit Box Hill in my electorate of Mitchell last week, it was a lightning-fast response: 100 fireys and local RFS volunteers who sprang into action to help quickly bring the fire under control. But it was also a bunch of builders working nearby, just local people, and local residents too. They picked up buckets. They ran for hours, back and forth, taking water from the local swimming pool and dousing the fire in 40-degree heat, to protect homes and protect lives. Thankfully this fire was brought under control quickly, with no damage to personal property, but it was close.

This devastating season of drought and fire is a testament to our humanity, our decency and our strength as a country. Without doubt, it is the superhuman efforts of our volunteer firefighting services that shine the brightest amongst the bright. But precious and treasured lives have been lost, so many properties have been damaged or lost, and unbelievable amounts of country and wildlife have been burnt, scarred and blackened. We mourn too many, and we grieve for those who are left behind. But the hardest thing of all was the noise of those young children that echoed in our chamber of parliament yesterday—the children who've lost their fathers, the children who are too young to even know yet that their fathers are gone. It breaks our hearts, it hurts our souls, to know the suffering and the sacrifice those men endured to protect us all from harm.

We say to the children who were there yesterday, as a parliament and as a people, that, when they're old enough to hear it, the bravery and the sacrifice of your fathers will stand for all time. Your dads were the best amongst us, and they remind us at all times that we are truly our brothers' keepers. From this great sacrifice come so many reminders of resilience and the commitment that we have to each other. It's estimated that in this 'black summer' one in two Australians have put their hands into their own pocket and made a donation to help others in need. Over half a billion dollars has been raised, and more is still coming in. The amazing feats of the volunteers of our Rural Fire Service who have done the impossible—they've saved so many, they've saved so much—are a testament to the true spirit of our humanity.

These are volunteers who are best summed up by a couple I met at the Wilberforce Fire Control Centre last month. Imagine a husband and wife, maybe 60 years old, standing side by side in their ash-covered yellow uniforms. They must have been married for 50 years. They'd been together fighting the fire for months in the Gospers Mountain fire—in their spare time—the husband continuing to work and somehow both in impossibly good spirits when I met them. But they were tired. When I said to him that it must be so tiring to have to go to work every day, the wry Australian reply that I got, with a cheeky smile, from this 60-year-old man, with his wife standing next to him, was, 'Mate, I go to work to get a rest!' Would anything sum up this service—the quality of our people—more than this husband and wife and their example to us?

Our volunteers have been joined by the Australian Defence Force, with almost 6,500 men and women serving in the bushfire efforts. For the first time in our history the government has enacted a compulsory call-out order. The ADF Reserve brigades, with about 3,000 reservists, have been there for our community. Our proud military tradition is one of the citizen soldier, and this tradition continues with the Reserves of today, serving our own people and our own country. And we are so proud. In fact, thousands—hundreds of thousands—have volunteered to fight fires. They've volunteered to help, they've volunteered to care, and they've volunteered to do something to help people and land recover.

Our businesses are donating goods and services. Our multicultural communities: new migrants are heading into communities with their meals, their hearts and their hopes. And all of our charities are working so hard to ensure a proper and sustained recovery from so much devastation. This is the greatness of Australia, the strength of Australia—the way we treat and take care of each other. We choose to ask, 'What can I do?' and 'What can we do for each other?' When tragedy strikes, through great sadness, together we can look to the horizon and emerge a stronger nation.

We also get by with a little help from our friends. We all need our friends, and the nation is no different. We must never forget that through the trials that we have faced, assistance has flooded in from all corners of the planet, especially from our Pacific family. Australians have been so touched to see the scenes in villages in Vanuatu and PNG of people with wheelbarrows collecting money from people who don't have very much—for us—donations for us from people, from churches, from villages.

To see our New Zealand family, our Papua New Guinean family, the Fijian defence forces—all of them—working so hard on the ground in our country to assist us with bushfire recovery, bringing with them the love of family, the help of friends and the hope that comes from the compassion and the faith, the great faith, of Pacific people. This is what family means—being there for each other when it counts. To our American friends who came to fight our fires: we can never say thank you enough for your loss. To the people of the Pacific: Australia will never forget what you have done for us.

Our destiny as a continent has always been and always will be shaped by drought and fire, but our destiny as a people is to learn the lessons we must learn: to listen to our Aboriginal people and the ancient lessons they have for us, to understand our continent better and our changing climate but also, vitally, to stay together through this time of trial. To our Pacific family, we say: vinaka, kia mihi, fa'afetai, tenkyu tru, thank you. To the army of volunteers, donors, service personnel, bureaucrats, workers, public servants everywhere: thank you. And to anyone who asked the question, 'What can I do?' and did it, we as a parliament say thank you.