04 February 2020

Australian Bushfires - Condolence Motion

It has been an absolutely heartbreaking summer. Like our brothers and sisters in the eastern states, my home state of South Australia has suffered deeply at the hand of these bushfires, some of the worst our state and our country have ever seen. The images that those of us lucky enough to escape the tragedy directly have seen streaming on our televisions and devices have been harrowing. Of course, that is nothing compared to what our communities who have lived through this devastation and tragedy have felt. And it is nothing compared to what our brave and selfless volunteers have endured and given.

In South Australia, Kangaroo Island has suffered horrifically. Three hundred thousand hectares have burned. That's an estimated 68 per cent of our beautiful island. Australia's third largest national park, Flinders Chase, on the south-west of the island, was mostly destroyed and burned. The visitor centre, which I was lucky enough to take my son to just last year, has been completely wiped out. There were 100,000 sheep and at least 25,000 other livestock lost. The world's purest strain of the Ligurian honey bees are found on the island; 6,000 of their beehives have been lost and a further 10,000 damaged. It will take seven years before the trees they feed on flower again. Sixty homes on the island are gone, as are hundreds of buildings, including important tourism infrastructure.

Tragically, of course, two South Australians lost their lives in the Kangaroo Island fires. Dick Lang and his son Clayton were on their way home to the family property after fighting fires for nearly two days, but they never returned. Desert Dick, as they called him, was a pioneering push pilot and safari operator. He assisted countless travellers and tourists to explore the charm of Kangaroo Island. His son Clayton was one of Adelaide's leading plastic and reconstructive surgeons. His brother Lachlan described him as someone who was determined and light hearted, with a strong work ethic. Their deaths are an incredible loss to the Lang family, to the Kangaroo Island community and to our state as a whole. May they rest in peace.

So too Ron Selth of Charleston—who, sadly, was lost in the Cudlee Creek fire. Ron has been remembered by his family as a loving and generous man with a unique and unforgettable character. He was a grandfather to six grandchildren, who will no doubt miss him immensely—a tragic and great loss for his family, his community and our state. The Cudlee Creek fire that tore through the Adelaide Hills region, including nearby Lobethal, claimed 25,000 hectares. Vineyards, farms and homes were destroyed and 500 buildings were lost. I was in Cudlee Creek last week and I was completely struck by what seemed to be just apparent randomness in what the fire took and what was spared. I saw whole structures that had survived standing next to structures which had been completely burned. Whilst the area is still very much still open for business and needs our support, the evidence of the tragedy is plainly visible to everyone.

Nationally, 33 people have lost their lives, some of them parents who leave little children behind; 3,000 homes have been destroyed; and 10.5 million hectares have burned. Of course, what these statistics can never convey is the depth and meaning of what is lost. The loss of a parent or child, a brother or sister, a friend, a community member is something which can never, ever be given back to those families. And there's the loss of the houses, people's homes—perhaps the first place they brought their child home to from hospital, where they've shared Christmas with family, where they've broken a sweat painting walls and hanging photographs, where they've cooked meals for their families and got the kids ready for school. The loss of someone's home is so much more than the loss of a building. And, of course, in every home there are hundreds of valuable possessions which can't be quantified by a dollar amount and can never be replaced by insurance or the generosity of strangers. Then there are the other buildings lost, the hectares burned, the number of people whose livelihood went up in flames this summer: vines destroyed and damaged irreparably, livestock killed, businesses ruined. When you lose not only your home but also your business, or when your street and your whole community is suffering, what kind of loss is that? It is impossible to adequately describe it in this place and it is impossible to adequately emphasise for those of us who didn't feel it.

By almost any measure, these fires have been unprecedented. The season was unprecedented. But unprecedented should never be confused with rare or one-off, because our scientists are telling us, as they have been for years, to expect more of the same. They predicted this. The severity of this season and the extreme weather that has exacerbated these conditions have resulted from our changing climate. The science on climate change is clear: climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and severe. We know what causes climate change and we know what we must do to act.

The devastation in my state is heart wrenching, but we are a resilient state filled with resilient people. We will of course get through this. The generosity of our community in the face of this tragedy has been absolutely awe inspiring. As the Leader of the Opposition said, 'In response to the worst of Mother Nature, we are seeing the best of human nature.'

Of course, there is no greater generosity than the fearless service of our firefighters and volunteers. I want to take this opportunity to put on the record my eternal gratitude to the South Australian Country Fire Service and their volunteers who battled these deadly fires in our state for months and even travelled interstate to assist others.

Within our community more broadly, so many people stepped up to offer their support in whatever way they could, with $250 million donated to charities. Locally, organisations like the Sant Nirankari Mission of Adelaide got together and delivered a truckload full of donations to Foodbank South Australia. Foodbank itself did a tremendous job of coordinating donations and extending support to the community with what they needed and when they needed it. Local women, like Karen Flinn, organised Backpacks for Bushfires and collected 4,000 backpacks for kids in need. Nurses, vets and volunteers at our animal hospitals, like the Adelaide Koala and Wildlife Hospital—which I was lucky enough to visit—are working tirelessly to support our injured wildlife. Of course, in South Australia there is the #BookThemOut campaign, an initiative of the state government and the tourism commission, which I commend and am absolutely proud to support.

Beyond these initiatives, we need to remember that of course our producers and our communities need support not just now but into the long term. I visited Petaluma winery in the Adelaide Hills last week. While some of the damage was clear—melted sheds, destroyed machinery, vines lost and burnt—so much of the impact is yet to be known. We don't know how the smoke will damage the vines. We don't know what the impact will be, what can be saved or what can be produced down the track. This means that for many of our producers, who can't necessarily see visible damage, there will be an impact on their business, and it will hit in a few years time. So we need to make sure we remember them years into the future, not just now. We must also make sure that we empower the people who are helping our producers, like the Australian Wine Research Institute. The best thing we can do as a community is support our bushfire affected areas. But the best thing we can do as a parliament is to get our policy settings right for the future, to empower our emergency services and our volunteers, to listen to the experts, and to act on their advice to act meaningfully on climate change.

The road to recovery in my state will be long and difficult, but we will recover. The mental and emotional impact will last a lifetime, but the scars will fade. We will never get back those we've lost, but we will always remember them, their service and their sacrifice. We can never thank our volunteers enough, but we will do everything we can to show them that we respect their sacrifice and that we know that they deserve better. Australians expect all of us in this place to do everything we can to limit this tragedy, or one like it, unfolding again and again, and we owe it to them to deliver better and to change.

4 February 2020