Senator Hanson-Young Speech on the Australian Fires: I rise today to give a contribution on this condolence motion and of course associate myself with comments by many in this place in relation to just what a devastating summer we have had—the numbers of people who have lost homes, have lost property, have lost livelihoods; individuals who have so terribly, sadly, lost their lives as a result of these terrible fires. We know that communities have been destroyed, tested; they’re suffering. Our environment has been ravaged. Almost eight million hectares have been burnt across the country in those states that have been ravaged—millions and millions of hectares, much of which was so special to this country that we had given it World Heritage protection. Over a billion animals have been killed. And we know that the figures aren’t even finalised on that. Many more animals are dying today because of the lack of food and clean water because their habitats have been destroyed. We also know that hundreds of billions of insects have been lost. And this is going to have a huge impact on the ability of our environment and ecosystems to recover.
I grew up in East Gippsland. I went to school at Orbost High. My family have property about an hour up the Bonang Highway from Orbost. My parents’ property was ravaged by fire on New Year’s Eve. Our neighbour’s property was ravaged by fire. The whole community—Goongerah, Martins Creek—faced the brunt of the fires over that week. And even just this weekend, when I was talking to my dad, as they’re trying to pull their lives back together, there was another fire only 10 kilometres back down the road.
These communities knew that this season was going to be a horror season. The people who live in these areas have experienced bushfires before. I remember, as a kid living on the farm, in the middle of the heat of summer we always watched how the temperature was, how the wind was going. Dad would talk to us about whether this was a high-fire-danger day or not. Any whiff of smoke would set a bit of a chill, and you knew to watch out and be prepared to leave. In all those years, all those summers, as my dad told me on New Year’s Eve, ‘We have never, ever seen anything like this before.’ It’s a very similar story to what I’ve heard when I’ve visited other fire-ravaged communities in my own state, South Australia, whether that be in the Adelaide Hills or on Kangaroo Island, or last weekend, talking to locals in the Blue Mountains: while fires have always had a place and been there in the Australian landscape, particularly in the bush, these fires have been different. They have been more intense than ever before. The heat has just incinerated everything in its path.
I was talking to a group of people who were fighting the fires and protecting their homes on Kangaroo Island a number of weeks ago, when fire ravaged there over the new year period, and they were talking about the animals that were leaping out of the flames as they were trying to battle these fires. Days later, once the flames subsided and people walked and were able to check out what property had been lost, the charred animal carcasses were a stark reminder of just how brutal these fires had been. These animals had nowhere to run.
The grief that people feel in these communities right now is palpable. Some are frustrated. Many are angry. Everybody is grieving. What I continue to hear, over and over again—whether it is from individuals who have been on the front line fighting these fires, small-business owners in towns that rely on summer visitors and the tourist dollar, school teachers who are having to deal with the shock and grief and experiences that young kids in these communities have had over summer or, indeed, members of my own family—is that people are angry, and what they are angry about is that leaders were warned that things were getting worse.
Yes, these fires have been unprecedented, but they were not unforeseen. The former fire chiefs wrote to the Prime Minister and members of his government in April last year, asking for a meeting, urging him to meet with them to discuss what plans needed to be put in place. They were dismissed and rebuffed. Only at the end of last year, before we all went on our summer break, last time we were in this chamber, our Prime Minister was still refusing to meet with these fire chiefs and take their warnings on board. So people are angry about that. They’re also angry that the scientists have been warning that conditions are getting worse and that climate change is getting a hold. If we are serious about confronting and dealing with dangerous global warming then we have to stop making climate change worse, and that means we have to stop the expansion of fossil fuels. You don’t deal with climate change while continuing to make pollution larger and more dangerous.
Our planet is sick, and Mother Nature is crying out for our help. There is nothing more emblematic of that right now than the scenes of devastated bushland and forests and charred animal bodies, and that’s just in the places where the fires were. We know communities outside the fire zones have been impacted by the devastation this summer. Here in Canberra, locals have been struggling to deal with the hazardous levels of smoke haze. In Sydney it has been the same. In small towns and communities right throughout the South Coast, people are asking: why is it that we’re having to put face masks on our kids before they go to the playground? It is simply not good enough to say, ‘We’re sorry for your loss,’ without acting and making the change that is required.
When I hear the pleas from members of the community for more action and for honesty from politicians, I totally understand why people were furious that the man in the top job, as Prime Minister, was not even here when things started to get really bad. The Prime Minister went on holidays as this disaster unfolded, after he had ignored the advice of experts, scientists and everyday people who were already choking from smoke and dealing with fire on their doorstep.
I understand why people are angry and frustrated. As we move and talk and respond to this crisis in this place now, we all have a responsibility to do better, to do more and to stop making climate change worse. I know there are still some people in this place and in the other place who continue to deny the truth, the facts and the science of climate change and its link to these extreme bushfires, but the bulk of people in this place are not that stupid. Most people elected to this parliament can see what every other Australian can see, and that is that we are in the midst of a climate crisis, an environmental catastrophe. If you can see that, if you can hear what the experts are warning us of, it is irresponsible for us not to act and not to take the necessary steps to deal with the dangers on our doorstep. Make no mistake: the fires that we have experienced over this summer are climate fires. Make no mistake: the community expect us to respond to this climate and environment emergency. Any political party or politician who fails to take on board the warning that Mother Nature is giving us to listen to the pleas for action from our community do so at their peril.
This is a moment when Australia needs to step up. The rest of the world has been watching as our country has been on fire and as our national iconic animals like the koala are being burnt or are suffering from a lack of clean water and food. As children walk down the streets with their faces covered by face masks because of the smoke, the whole world has been watching Australia this summer, knowing that this is the warning that the globe has had about the very real impact and dangers of climate change. The whole world knows that what has happened here is the very first glimpse of the climate crisis unfolding, and this is our moment—this should be Australia’s moment—to step up on the world stage and to say we need a global pact to deal with this devastating catastrophe. We need Australia to call on our allies to work with us to reduce pollution and to stop making climate change worse. In order to do that, Australia must lead the way. We must stop pretending that we can carry on exporting more coal and fossil fuels, burning fossil fuels, continuing business as usual and pretending that this crisis simply will go away. It will not. If we are serious about responding to the crisis we have before us, we must make the change, and that is stopping the expansion of fossil fuels, restoring our environment, protecting our animals, giving a real voice to the environment and starting to listen to what Mother Nature is telling us.
Chamber. Senate on 4/02/2020. Item. CONDOLENCES – Australian Bushfires.. Speaker: Sarah Hanson-Young Source: Parliament of Australia Website provided under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence.