Condolence speech on Australian Bushfires

 I too rise to offer my sincere condolences to all of those Australians that have suffered enormous loss over this terrible and tragic summer period and add my brief words to this statement. These fires have been devastating and tragic for so many. Thirty-three Australians have lost their lives.

More than 3,000 homes have been lost. My heart goes out to all Australians that have been impacted by these fires—that have lost loved ones, that have lost property, that have lost farms or that have lost business through the indirect impact of the fires on local communities.

These have been very hard times for many in our country, but it's at these times that Australians have shown the strength, resolve and compassion that we are known for as a nation. Those values have been shown more by our rural firefighters than anyone else. They have put themselves in harm's way to protect others and protect property, and for that they have my never-ending gratitude. We should recognise their efforts because self-sacrifice is one of the highest human virtues and our firefighters demonstrate it in spades.

I also want to recognise the efforts of our Australian Defence Force. While this was a formal and compulsory turnout, I know that the efforts of our Defence Force were made with the same volunteer spirit that was shown in our rural firefighting services, and their efforts in response have given so much hope to communities that were at a low, low point. It has not only helped in the immediate response to these tragedies but also, I think, put many Australians in a better position to recover and grow.

I think the most important thing we can do as a parliament and as a government in response, in the months and years to come, is not just to offer our condolences here but to make sure we also stand with these communities to help them recover over the long term. In some senses it will be in the months to come that the pain will be almost the hardest, and that's when we must remember all of those Australians who are suffering and be there to support them. I know this government is doing that. I don't live in an area that's been affected in the tragic ways that many areas of south-eastern Australia have, but in my area, near where I live at Yeppoon, was one of the first fires we experienced, in mid-November last year. Indeed, the fire began only a couple of kilometres from my house, proceeded north and west and destroyed a lot of farmland in my area. Also, 14 homes have been destroyed.

In the last month I have spent quite a bit of time travelling around with the local member, Michelle Landry, to those farms and communities, and it is humbling to see the stoic nature of people who have almost lost it all. I thank people like Graham and Judy, Robert Sikes, and Jack and Ray Cowie for showing us around their properties. They have lost a lot, but fortunately they've saved themselves, and I know we'll be there to help them rebuild and they will all come back from these tragic events.

I also want to thank the local people in my area for their response at an individual level—people like Anthony, who is the captain of the Bungundarra Rural Fire Brigade. His own property was at risk, but he spent the whole time, the four or five days that this fire was at its peak, not trying to save his own property but, as captain of the rural fire brigade out there, saving other people's places, and he helped so many by doing so. We can only take the positive out of events like these, which is the example set by ordinary people, before our very eyes, and how we should all respond as well.

These fires have been very devastating. They're some of the worst fires on record, depending on how you measure that. The quantified devastation is not the thing that marks as unique these fires and the other events we've recently experienced. The really unique feature of the fires of the last few months is how many of us, particularly in this place and others like it, have sought to use others' tragic circumstances for their own political gain.

I was here in Canberra in 2003 for the devastating fires then. I had just moved to the town with my then fiancee, now wife, 17 years ago now, almost to the day. When we moved down to Canberra we had a presumption that it was a public service town and it might not have the same community feel as other parts of the world that we'd lived in. But within two weeks of arriving, when those fires hit, we saw the whole of this community come together. There was a great community response, even though it was a tragic event, where four people lost their lives and 500 lost their homes. It was such a tragic event, but a unifying moment because people did come together at that time. Unfortunately, we don't seem to do that as much anymore. We have floods, cyclones and fires, and they're no longer a time for us to unify and just help people out. They have become a time for some to preen themselves on their self-proclaimed moral virtue while accusing others of having blood on their hands.

I'm going to draw an analogy here. The richest man in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar was a bloke called Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus made his fortune in a number of nefarious ways, but one was that he established the first fire brigade in Rome. His brigade would rush out to any fire threatening or burning homes, and he would offer to buy the homes in the path of the fire at a fraction of their value. Eventually, landowners would generally accept because otherwise they would get nothing. As soon as they did that, the brigade would fire up the hoses and save these properties, and Crassus would leave with a fortune.

Many politicians over the past few months have acted in the same sort of dishonourable way as Crassus. They've acted in a crass way—and we get the word 'crass' from the Latin 'crassus'. They've turned up at the scene of fires, not seeking to help people, not even to offer support or condolences. Instead, they've launched into harangues that are all about politically profiting from others' tragedy, just like Crassus did 2,000 years ago. We know they are doing this because they so often stretch the truth and paint an incomplete picture about why these fires have occurred.

Let me be very, very clear: we have experienced more fire-weather days—that is, hot, dry, windy days—over the past 40 years, and part of this increase is attributable to climate change. That is all laid out in a definitive reported entitled Climate change in Australia, produced by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. But what you won't hear, I think, from almost any commentator on this issue is that the report goes on to say—this is a direct quote from the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology report:

However, no studies explicitly attributing the Australian increase in fire weather to climate change have been performed at this time.

That result is also consistent with the latest IPCC special report on climate change. In that report, there's a table summarising the potential impacts of climate change on a range of natural disasters. In the row describing and outlining wildfires and climate change, Australia is listed as having little to no information about a link between climate change and bushfires. So, why, if we're getting more hot days, is there not that established link? That is because weather conditions are only one factor in establishing fire risk. As the CSIRO and the bureau say in their report that I quoted earlier, fire potential at a given place depends on four 'switches'. They are, the report says:

… 1.) ignition, either human-caused or from natural sources like lightning; 2.) fuel abundance or load—a sufficient amount of fuel must be present; 3.) fuel dryness, where lower moisture contents are required for fire, and; 4.) suitable weather conditions for fire spread, generally hot, dry and windy …

Two of those factors directly relate to climate, one of them does indirectly and the other has no link at all.

The reason why it has been hard to establish a direct link between fires and climate change is that they could have counteracting impacts. As a scientific paper titled 'Effects of climate change on bushfire threats to biodiversity, ecosystem processes and people in the Sydney region' says:

Effects of elevated CO2 on plant growth could counteract effects of future dryness on fuels, but such effects in local ecosystems are uncertain. Thus there is potential for fire activity to either increase or decrease in the Sydney region as a consequence of climate change.

Now, all I'm doing tonight is reading out the direct science on this issue. I haven't had a chance to listen to every speech here tonight, but there have not been many—none that I've heard—that have directly quoted science. We're not going to solve these issues by exaggerating the potential impacts and risks that we face. We need to calmly respond to the fact that we are a country that faces serious fire risk and we are a country that is experiencing higher amounts of hot weather and dry conditions, and therefore we do need to take corresponding action to reduce the other things that we control, of those four factors that determine fire, to reduce risk to the Australian people and make people safer.

One of those conditions for fires that we can have a big impact on is the amount of fuel that is available. We can reduce that amount of fuel. We can do more to clear vegetation, to put in fire breaks and to potentially stop the spread of fire when and if it is created. Instead, though, over the last 10 or 20 years we've been reducing the amount of clearing and fire preparation we do in fuel loads. We have been taking rights away from landowners to do their own clearing and reduce those risks, risks that I have seen, up-front and personal, as I've gone around farms in my region. Farmers have pointed to areas where they have wanted to thin, wanted to clear, but have been prevented from doing so because of the various state laws and regulations that are in place. That is something that we must turn our attention to in response to this fire, not offering people the false hope that, if we were to ban all coalmines in this country and get rid of all coal-fired power stations, we would somehow remove all bushfire risk in this country. That is what is seemingly suggested by some people in this place. As incomprehensible as it would seem, that is the logical conclusion of a lot of the positions people are taking.

This country has always faced significant bushfire risk. Our Indigenous Australians know that. They've been dealing with it for over 10,000 years. And I don't think, even in the grossest exaggerations of the recent Dark Emu book, there is any suggestion that Aboriginal Australians back then had coal-fired power stations. That wasn't the cause of those fires back then. We had those risks then. We can deal with these risks today if we use the tried and tested methods to do so to keep people safe.

What I think we should do now and in the next few months, potentially as a royal commission and other inquiries occur, is to all talk a little bit less definitively on these issues and do a lot more listening to those who face these issues and risks at the frontline of our country, those that tackle fires almost on a yearly basis, those that try and plan and protect their properties every year to face the risks that they do in this country. They know. They have the knowledge. They are aware of the issues. If we just listen to them a little bit more, I am confident we'll make Australians safer. We won't remove bushfire risk, but we'll make Australians safer and we'll reduce the likelihood of tragic events like this happening again.

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