darren.chester.mp@aph.gov.au 1300 131 785
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I rise here today as a proud Gippslander. I couldn’t be prouder of my community and their response to the unprecedented events we’ve experienced over the past three months. It is with a heavy heart but also with enormous resolve and determination that I make my remarks here today on behalf of the people of Gippsland. Like the Prime Minister and the opposition leader, I think I should start with a couple of thankyous. I want to thank my family and my staff in particular for their personal support. I thank you, Prime Minister, the opposition leader, the Deputy Prime Minister and the many opposite who sent me kind messages of support—don’t worry, I won’t name you; I don’t want to expose your pre selectors to an unfortunate outcome! To my colleagues on this side of the House as well: thank you for your support; it has been quite extraordinary; we are so grateful in my electorate.

We are thankful in particular to our firefighters. They kept us safe in the most extraordinary of circumstances, which began way back in November but really peaked just before New Year’s Day. To the emergency service workers, the police, the ambos and the SES workers: your contribution during that initial response phase was extraordinarily important to us. After the main fire front passed through my community was when the Australian Defence Force came into its own. There were unprecedented scenes on the beaches of Mallacoota, which I’m sure many of you saw. Daylight turned to dark, there was the red sky and people huddled under beach towels or fleeing on boats to the inlet. To have our Australian Defence Force available to carry out the most extraordinary evacuation by sea and by air was something that I never thought I’d see as a local member of parliament. We are forever grateful to those young men and women in particular who put aside whatever break they were planning to have in January and who came to our aid.

They’re still on the ground there today. The Army, Navy and Air Force have been amazing in our community, carrying out the evacuation, first of all, and then supply drops and clearing roads in trying to maintain some sort of normality for my community. The Prime Minister touched on this himself as well: the morale boost they provided was something that I think our community desperately needed at that time. We thank everyone, from the Chief of Defence Force down. The gratitude that my community felt was repeated to me on many, many occasions.

Thanks go to the paid staff at our state government departments and our federal government departments, and also to the East Gippsland Shire Council staff, who worked long hours. Then there were the volunteers from all over Victoria; the ones you usually expect to see—the Red Cross turned up in numbers, and the Salvos—and some who you don’t expect to see: the Sikh Community Kitchen from the member for Latrobe’s seat. The Sikh Community Kitchen was probably the most popular community kitchen—no-one wanted bickies, coffee and sandwiches once the curries turned up! It’s fair to say that they were very well received. The Governor-General himself thanked them personally.

So there has been an extraordinary outpouring of support. It is a remarkable nation where you actually have to go on air and tell people to stop donating stuff! ‘Stop sending us food, stop sending us clothing—your generosity has reached our capacity to accept any more.’ We actually had to tell Victorians to stop sending things to Gippsland, but if you want to help us out by all means send a few dollars to the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund. It was extraordinary, hearing the Premier having to make that request. I want to go on the record, actually—as you did, Prime Minister—to congratulate the Premier for his response in those very early days, when things were pretty tough in my region.

Another huge thank you that I need to make is to the farmers from around Victoria, I think, and certainly from New South Wales as well, who loaded trucks and started bringing fodder in. I’m not sure who organised it to begin with, but to see convoys of 20 and 30 semitrailers rolling through towns gave people hope. It gave people hope in the knowledge that help was coming and that they would be supported.

The losses have been enormous, and other speakers have touched on that already. We are still counting the cost in my electorate of Gippsland. There are families who are grieving the loss of loved ones right across the nation, but in Gippsland itself we lost a couple of people during the firefight. Mick Roberts from Buchan was lost in the firefight. Old Freddie Becker from Maramingo Creek was well known in the community. He passed away from a heart attack as he prepared his property. We’ve heard about David Moresi today. He was a contractor, working at Gelantipy. His wife, Judi, and two of his family members, Kelly and Luke, are here today. I thank the Prime Minister for hosting them at that morning tea earlier on.

There was Bill Slade, from Wonthaggi, just down the road from my electorate in the member for Monash’s electorate. He was working on a fire on the recovery line at Anglers Rest near Omeo when he was struck by a tree. He was an experienced forester, and that just reminds us that there are risks still in the environment today—risks in the recovery mode are almost as severe as the risk during the original firefight. It’s a dangerous environment in the bush right now, and we encourage people, please, to pay attention to the warnings that are provided to them by the forestry workers.

These were all tragedies. Each and every one of them will be grieved by their families. But I am actually amazed—and I think you probably are as well, Mr Deputy Speaker, having lived through the Black Saturday experience—that there wasn’t greater loss of life in our community. A lot of people, I believe, had learned the lesson from Black Saturday in Victoria. A lot of people made very good decisions. They made those good decisions, I think, firstly, from the lived experience of the previous bushfires they’d been through but also through the information that was made available to them. We were well informed. There were the Emergency Management Victoria messages, and the technology used for the emergency app certainly helped. And there was our own ABC Gippsland. The ABC Gippsland radio team was broadcasting right throughout the response phase as the disaster unfolded. Having that emergency services broadcaster is very, very important to regional communities. I know every member who lives in a regional area understands that, and their capacity to keep broadcasting to get those messages out and also to allow people to ring in and provide some on-the-ground information that perhaps the emergency services themselves don’t necessarily know. That feedback was very important, and gave some very localised information which I’m sure helped people to make the good decisions that they made to stay safe.

As I said, we’ll be carrying the costs for a long time, and the full costs will only be known once the fires are out. We’ve still got active fire in Gippsland at the moment. I flew up here—what day was that? Sunday. It seems like a lifetime ago. I flew up here on Sunday and there were still active fires in the landscape in Gippsland. We lost some more property at Cape Conran just yesterday and over the weekend, with the Parks Victoria facilities being burnt there. We’ve lost at least 200 homes. We’ve lost outbuildings. Obviously the stock losses are well understood right throughout our nation, but particularly through the northern parts of my electorate. And we’ve lost hundreds of kilometres of fencing. Here I should recognise the work of groups like BlazeAid and Bushfire Assist, who go in there and provide practical, on-the-ground assistance perhaps even more quickly than we as a government can do it. I congratulate those volunteer organisations for getting in there and cracking on with the job.

We’ve talked about the wildlife. Everyone who speaks here today will acknowledge the loss of wildlife that was experienced. But there were some things about the fire that I took a little bit of comfort from as I flew up here on Sunday. While we’ve had a large area burnt—we’re talking about more than a million hectares—it’s not all burnt. As I flew up here I noticed areas where the wildlife would have been safe, where the burn wasn’t as severe, where you can already see the green shoots of recovery. So, while there’s no underestimating the level of devastation, we should have cause for hope, as we’re seeing some of the bush already recovering. And seeing our dedicated wildlife volunteers and their determination to make sure that our native species are looked after gave us all enormous comfort.

We’ve lost a great deal of public infrastructure across Gippsland, and our shires and public land managers, state government and federal government, will need to work in cooperation to make sure we work as quickly as we can to replace the bridges, the lookouts, the walking trails and that type of thing. But, Mr Deputy Speaker, we’ve also been lucky. Dozens of little communities in Gippsland suffered significant losses, like Sarsfield, Wairewa, Clifton Creek, Wiseleigh, Club Terrace—tiny places that most people had never heard of. I pitied my poor ABC Gippsland colleagues trying to pronounce some of the names. Bumberrah, Wangarabell—you name it; they were struggling over them all but they battled on. But the major towns are all intact. They’re little places but important places. Buchan, Nowa Nowa, Omeo, Bruthen, Cann River—they’re all intact. Yes, we lost some houses around the outskirts, but the towns themselves are basically intact. Even at Mallacoota, which bore the heaviest losses in my electorate—we’ve lost in the order of a hundred homes—the town itself, the CBD of Mallacoota, is still intact. When it’s safe to do so, we’ll be encouraging people to return as quickly as they possibly can.

There are the indirect impacts on those who didn’t lose homes and didn’t lose property but are in the small-business sector in our community. A lot of businesses in Gippsland in their reasonably short tourism season of five or six weeks can sometimes achieve 50 to 60 per cent of their annual turnover. We like to call the tourism season ‘harvest season’ for small business. They got only a few days of the harvest season. We had to send everyone home. It will have a long-term impact on towns like Orbost, Marlo, Lakes Entrance, Metung, Paynesville, Mallacoota, Gipsy Point and Genoa. Those towns, which rely very heavily on tourism income, are really going to struggle over the next six to 12 months and into the long-term recovery phase.

Having these fires happen on top of the drought, though, has just added to the complications for our region. We’ve already had some structural economic concerns around our farming sector; around our timber industry, through cuts to the industry; and the commercial fishing sector. We already had some significant economic challenges in my region. This will, I guess, play into our longer-term need to work as a community and to work with all levels of government to support those business men and women. They’re a tough and resilient bunch, a determined bunch. Many members have spoken today about the determination of regional Australians. My community has been through fires before. They’ve been through floods. They’ve been through droughts. From the fires, I’ve seen enormous community spirit come to the fore. Our community is heeding the message of the Australian bushfire recovery leader, Andrew Colvin, that we need to build back better. We do need to build back better.

Mr Deputy Speaker, we do want to build back better, but I also carry one simple message from the people of Gippsland: don’t forget Gippsland. They want us to remember them when the cameras leave. We have to stick together and we will stick together. I appreciate the unity of purpose and spirit that people have expressed here in this chamber today. Issues around mental health support are already coming to the fore. We know that people won’t necessarily seek that help straightaway. You’ve got to keep an eye on your mates and make sure they’re not afraid to reach out and seek help when they need it. There is help available, right across Australia. Help is there, but often people don’t seek it. We need to make sure people reach out and get that support.

This is a complex natural disaster to deal with, because we’ve still got a fire response, a fire relief effort and a fire recovery effort all happening at the same time in my region. So we certainly welcome the cooperation we’ve seen from local, state and federal governments, and the announcements that have already been made; they will be well received in my community. And I’ll have plenty more to say in the future as we work through the full recovery mode. But there are a few early learnings and feedback from my community that I feel compelled to share with the parliament here today.

Hazard reduction has emerged as a critical issue in all of the feedback I’ve had from my community over the last five weeks. The people in my community absolutely accept we need to do our bit to reduce the emissions and to make a contribution to limit the impact of climate change in regional Australia, but they want to see us do more in terms of hazard reduction. They want to see us improve our risk appetite, to have us burn on more days and to provide the resources to make it happen. They want to see us using Indigenous burning techniques; it’s come up time and time again. And, at the risk of making jokes—I will try it anyway; the opposition leader spoke about the humour that comes out of disasters—I was at the Bemm River CFA about three weeks ago, and the CFA captain said to me that he’d known an old Indigenous fellow who was right into the Indigenous burning techniques. The captain, perhaps naively, asked him, ‘How did you guys know when to burn?’ He claims—and I’m sorry it’s going to end up on the Hansard now—that the Indigenous fellow said, ‘Well the original Australians didn’t wear a lot of clothing, and when the grass started touching the old fella it was time to burn.’ That’s some of the gallows humour we had in Gippsland to get us through.

Another bit of gallows humour was a young family I knew, driving out to see their burnt-out home for the first time. The 15-year-old son, having only seen photos and driving to the house for the first time, said to his mum, ‘Well, at least you won’t whinge about me cleaning my room anymore.’ The house had been burnt to the ground. That sort of humour in the Australian laid-back way is going to carry us a long way in the months ahead.

Another early learning for us, other than hazard reduction, is that we need to see more staff on the ground. We need to have more boots and fewer suits. We need to see more boots on the ground doing the roadside clearing, doing the safety zones around our regional towns and doing that hazard reduction work, when safe to do so. We’ve got to help these communities prepare, protect and look after the bush.

Critical to me over this last month has been the failure to maintain safe transport corridors in my region. I’m not looking to lay blame at anyone’s feet, because I know what a difficult task it was to clear the Princes and Monaro highways, but it’s simply not acceptable in 2020 for major arterials like those two highways to be closed for over a month. We have to make them more resilient in the future. That will mean more roadside vegetation clearing to a safe limit so that when we have these events we can get the roads open sooner. On that note, I have to acknowledge the work of our forest contractors and harvesters who went out there with the heavy equipment. They had the gear to get the job done, and they worked side by side with our forest industry workers and with our Australian Defence Force personnel to clear the road. Safety has to come first—everyone knows that—but it shouldn’t take us so long to maintain our major arterials. There were businesses bleeding cash for weeks and weeks while the highways remained closed.

Mobile communications went out in the immediate fire response, but also after that date. Once your mobile tower is compromised and you lose power to it, it’s only a small amount of time until you start losing the mobile communications. In the interim, we may need to look at flying or driving in satellite phones in some of those more remote communities before the fire season starts. It will be a hell of a lot easier to put the phones in before the season starts than trying to drop them with Blackhawks, as we did immediately after the fire front went through. So there are things we can do to learn from this immediately.

The other thing I have to raise in this place is the concern in the community about the way donations have not got to the ground as quickly as people would like. It’s not intended as a criticism of any charitable organisation; they do some fantastic work in our communities. But, once we raise this money, the community expects to see it in their pockets as quickly as possible. Perhaps even more importantly, the people who donate the money expect it to get to people’s pockets as quickly as possible. In my electorate we’ve been lucky to have the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund, which has been able to turn around grants in 24 to 48 hours. In many cases the fund has money in people’s pockets well before any other source of funding. I congratulate them on that.

I need to mention small business support. We’re giving support at a government level. But, right now, it is up to the communities to get back in there and support those regional communities. If you get out there, there is an empty esky campaign. You turn up with an empty esky and you fill it up with goods from those regional communities. Again, people supporting each other will get that support rolling quicker than anything else.

Finally, I thank the House for this opportunity. I thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for bringing forward this condolence motion. My community wants to see a better future. They don’t just want us to build what we already had. They want us to work hard to make sure our tourism industry is not so seasonal. They want us to put infrastructure in place to make our tourism season more resilient. They want to see us working together on things like bike paths and walking tracks. They want simple, practical things. They want to see us harvest some of the trees that have been knocked over, to clear the roads—to salvage them and put them to good use. They would be happy that we have made available some free firewood for our pensioners and vulnerable people. We have collected some of the wood and put it at local footy grounds and let people collect it. Things like that will make a real difference as people deal with the challenges in the weeks and months ahead. And they want to see an opportunity for locals to participate in the recovery. It is all very well to have major national contracts—that is important—but the locals need to have the chance to get the economic benefits that come from this recovery period. Locals want to have their say; they want more control.

I will finish where I started—with a simple thank you. In the Australian spirit—the Deputy Prime Minister talked about it—whether it is your brother, your neighbour or a complete stranger, Australians rush to help those in their time of need, when they need it most. We see it on display throughout Australia and in my electorate of Gippsland. We are grateful as a community. We are thankful for the support we have received. We just want to build a better Gippsland.

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