Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Mr O'BRIEN (Malvern) --
Ah, better the thud of the deadly gun, and the crash of the bursting shell,
Than the terrible silence where drought is fought out there in the western hell;
And better the rattle of rifles near, or the thunder on deck at sea,
Than the sound -- most hellish of all to hear -- of a fire where it should not be.
So wrote that quintessentially Australian poet Henry Lawson in The Bush Fire.
In supporting the motion before the house I place on record my deepest condolences, and those of the people of the Malvern electorate, to so many who lost so much in the bushfires of Black Saturday and beyond. This last fortnight has been a terrible period in the history of our state. Over 200 lives were lost, hundreds more were injured, over 2000 homes were destroyed and entire communities were devastated, and the danger continues still.
In the face of such dreadful calamity the words we speak in this house, though heartfelt, seem inadequate. It is the action we take in this house in the weeks, months and years ahead that will be the true measure of our response to this tragedy. I do not think there is a single Victorian who has not been affected in some way by these events. The towns hit by these fires may be small in population, but they were often popular tourist destinations because of their great natural beauty.
Many of us who live in metropolitan areas have fond memories of places like Marysville and Taggerty through holidays, school camps or day trips.
I tried to contact a good mate of mine on the night of Saturday, 7 February, because I knew that his mother, a lovely lady, lived in Marysville. She emailed me later and simply stated, 'There is nothing left, but glad to be alive -- and my dog too'. This lady lost everything bar her life and her dog, but in the context of the scale of the disaster that was Black Saturday, she regarded herself as fortunate. We must ensure that those who have survived will be supported as they rebuild their lives.
Some of the images of that terrible event will stay with us as a community. The cover of the Herald Sun that featured photographs of some of the children who perished in the bushfires affected me greatly, as I am sure it did many others.
Any loss of life in circumstances such as these is tragic, but the loss of young life is particularly harrowing. To look into those eyes, so full of promise, and to know that the promise will now be unfulfilled is to understand the depth of the loss that we have suffered as a community.
There were also images that stirred the spirit. The sight of an Australian flag, burnt, tattered but still flying in front of a home that was no more, was symbolic of our determination to go on. The wonderful photograph of Country Fire Authority volunteer David Tree giving water to an injured koala with one hand and holding her paw in the other captured the compassion and dedication of our brave volunteer firefighters. That image brought home to many Victorians the fact that when it comes to bushfires, we are all in this together.
The outpouring of support from fellow Victorians, from Australians and from around the world confirms that we are not alone.
So many people want to help and to give in order to help alleviate some of the suffering, so donations of money, of blood and of goods and services have been pouring in. Corporate Australia, often the subject of criticism, has responded generously to a national tragedy. Long may it continue.
My electorate has been quick to contribute. Nineteen schools in Stonnington raised $88 000 from a casual clothes day on Friday, 13 February. Many local traders have made donations in cash and in kind. These are just two examples of the wonderful contributions that are being made. I am proud of the generosity and compassion of the people of my electorate, but I think all members can be proud of the generosity and compassion of people in their electorates at this difficult time.
Firefighters, police and disaster identification teams have come to Victoria from around Australia and countries including New Zealand, the United States and Indonesia. They are undertaking difficult and often dangerous work, as was highlighted by the tragic death of Australian Capital Territory firefighter David Balfour. We extend our condolences to Mr Balfour's family.
We thank our fellow countrymen and our friends from overseas for their support at this most difficult time. Our thanks also go to those brave men and women who have carried so much of the burden of fighting these fires on the front line. Members of the Country Fire Authority, the Department of Sustainability and Environment, the State Emergency Service and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade have put their lives on the line to protect and defend their fellow Victorians. Mere words cannot express the debt they are owed, but I hope they understand the place they hold in our hearts.
Victoria Police has been doing a difficult job extremely well, as have members of the ambulance service and the doctors and nurses dealing with the many people injured as a result of these bushfires. Relief and welfare agencies such as the Red Cross, the Salvos, St Vincent de Paul, the Country Women's Association and counsellors have been there giving the practical support that is desperately needed on the ground. Government agencies have been contributing as well.
Finally, I welcome the decision to establish a royal commission with wide-ranging terms of reference. Indeed, a tragedy of this scale demanded nothing less. It is clear that our systems, our policies and our procedures did not work as they should. The death of so many Victorians makes that self-evident. The challenge for us as a Parliament is to honour the memory of those who perished by leaving no stone unturned to establish the truth as to what went wrong and to commit to doing whatever it takes to ensure that the tragic loss of life from these bushfires is never again visited on Victoria.