Federation Chamber – CONDOLENCES – Australian Bushfires – 6/2/2020
Mr BURNS (Macnamara) (12:46): I rise to support this condolence motion and to add to the many fine contributions that members have made this week. I especially want to mention the tireless efforts of the members for Gilmore, Macquarie and Eden-Monaro, as well as many others. I also want to pay tribute to the member for Bennelong, who I thought made quite a difficult and honest speech in this debate.
This has been a really difficult summer for all Australians, and it’s not over. We have been at the forefront of a catastrophic summer of bushfires right around our vast continent. Like so many members in this place, I flew in on Sunday night over the bushfires that are still burning. Looking down at the hellish scenes was haunting. We can still smell the burning that is occurring less than 50 kilometres away from our parliament. The smell and the poor—often hazardous—air quality that has come with it have been a feature for Australians across the summer. But, throughout this past summer, we’ve seen the best of Australia rise from the most difficult parts of Australia—our incredible emergency service personnel, our volunteers, our defence forces and the extremely generous donations from people all across our nation who just wanted to help.
Of course, this is a condolence motion, and, sadly, we are mourning 33 Australians and others who have lost their lives in these bushfires. Our thoughts are with their families, friends and loved ones. A lot of lives have been saved, though, this summer because we’ve learnt from the lessons of past bushfires. The clear advice to urge people to leave now has been heeded, and that has saved countless lives. I also want to thank all those members across all sides of politics in the federal parliament and our state parliaments who worked tirelessly for their communities throughout the summer. We thank all those overseas and ordinary citizens who lent their support, their firefighters, their financial assistance and their generous donations.
These fires were different. Their scale was unprecedented. Our regions are on fire, our cities are filled with hazardous smoke and our nation has been severely polluted. Our native animal populations have been devastated. More than a billion animals are said to have perished. We’ve seen heartbreaking images of badly burnt koalas. Also at severe risk are species like the brush-tailed rock wallaby, the glossy black cockatoo, the regent honeyeater and many more. Entire ecosystems that our beloved native animals rely on are under threat. This isn’t normal, but the evidence says that this will fast become the new normal. This is a national crisis of historic proportions. This is a climate emergency, and it’s only the start.
Australians are on the front line and the whole world is watching. The bushfire season has taken an immense toll on our country. Its effects will continue to be felt over time. We are saddened and we are sorrowful, but it’s clear we’re also scared. We are scared that summer will no longer be an innocent time to enjoy a swim at the beach, a family barbecue or a day at the cricket; scared that we won’t be able to breathe clean air for months at a time or see the sun shining in blue skies; and scared that our country is getting more dangerous and that the world is getting more dangerous. Their fear is understandable. It should be acknowledged, and it should be respected. We’ve seen the anguish on people’s faces—the desperation, the exhaustion. But, beyond what we’ve seen, we need to recognise the mental health impacts of large-scale natural disasters such as these bushfires. The immediate grief and loss, and in the longer term the anxiety, depression and post-traumatic issues, cause distress for families in the months and even years after these events.
We also mustn’t forget our first responders and firefighters, who suffer significant mental health issues throughout their work, which exposes them to extremely traumatic experiences. We need to make sure that our mental health system is robust and accessible and at the same time provide a hopefulness that is grounded in real solutions to heading off the worst aspects of dangerous climate change. We need to acknowledge that beyond these towns that have been hit is a whole country bracing itself for an uncertain future. Its name is climate change. It’s here, and the way things are looking it’s here to stay.
Today is a day to express our condolences. The detailed policy debates we need to have in the future can begin tomorrow—in fact, they must begin tomorrow. But we cannot talk about this crisis without talking about its causes. We were not elected to this place to merely deliver platitudes; we were elected to this place to govern. We were elected to this place to be leaders and to show leadership in confronting the great challenges that confront our nation. Climate change is not just an environmental crisis. Climate change is not just an economic crisis. Climate change is a humanitarian crisis, it is a national security crisis and it is a migration and refugee crisis.
For years we’ve been warned that this day would come, that extreme weather, droughts and heat would combine to create worse and longer bushfire seasons—and those predictions were right. Hazard reduction is one part of the equation, but climate change is making that harder, too. All in all, we need to accept that the world is getting warmer, that the climate is changing, and we will suffer the consequences if we don’t change and get other nations to change with us. We should be leading the international efforts to combat climate change, because we are on the front lines of this global challenge. But we are not doing enough as a nation, and it’s time we were all honest about it.
We need to lower our emissions, but right now we are not lowering our emissions. The time for making excuses is over. We know what the future holds, because the future is here. To honour those who have given up their summers to fight fires, to honour those who have lost everything, the responsibility now falls on us—on members of this place, the Australian parliament—to do everything we possibly can to ensure that our children, our grandchildren, our neighbours and our constituents have a safe future in this wonderful nation.