Zali

Zali Steggall's speech on Prime Minister's Condolence Motion

6 February, 2020

On Tuesday 4 February, the Prime Minister moved a motion of condolence regarding the ongoing bushfire crisis. Due to the large number of Members wishing to speak to the motion, I have not yet had the opportunity to share my thoughts. Below is the statement that I intend to provide to Parliament in the next sitting week:

“Mr Speaker,

I join with my Parliamentary Colleagues in expressing heartfelt condolences for the devastating loss of life, property and innocence in the bushfires that continue to ravage our nation.

The statistics are heartbreaking.

  • 33 Lives lost
  • More than 3000 homes destroyed
  • Over one billion animals killed
  • Almost 12 million hectares burned across our nation.

To the families and friends of those grieving the loss of their loved ones, I extend my heartfelt sympathies. To lose someone in such horrific and unexpected circumstances is heartbreaking and the public nature of the loss can compound those emotions. To the families of the 9 firefighters in particular, on behalf of all the people of Warringah, I thank you for their service and for their ultimate sacrifice. The nation grieves with you at the loss of these young men who represented the best of the human spirit.

That spirit - that sense of selflessness and compassion for others - was constantly on display during this crisis – from families opening up their homes to strangers, to volunteers rescuing injured wildlife; from surf club members turning their clubhouses into evacuation stations to volunteers working 3 days straight to distribute care packs – the best of humanity constantly came to the fore and as Australians we can stand rightly proud of that.

In NSW, much of the focus has been on the South Coast and the devastation to communities there – we have seen heartbreaking scenes of evacuations, loss of property, complete towns wiped out. But it’s important that we don’t forget those regions on the North Coast where this crisis first started unfolding in August. Those communities also experienced devastating loss of life and property and they need our support as they start the slow process of recovery. I for one will be encouraging members of my community in Warringah to visit our sister city of Glen Innes as we support Mayor Carol Sparks and her community to get back on their feet after devastating losses there in November.

Reflecting on the North Coast Fires is also a reminder of just how long this bushfire season has been going. We have had more than 6 months of this and I’ve no doubt that no one is feeling that more acutely than those on the front line battling these conditions.

Like many other Australians, I have nothing but the highest level of admiration – even awe – for the men and women of our firefighting services – both volunteers and paid professionals.

Due to some incredible mobile phone video footage, for the first time we went inside those trucks with the firefighters.

And it was terrifying.

As they drove through scenes that can only be described as pure hell, we looked out the window with them at 60m flames. We drove through ember attacks with them. We heard the howl of the flames and the wind above the whale of the sirens. Yet all the time these men and women remained calm, giving instructions on radios, focusing on the road ahead, driven by a sense of duty to get the job done.

At this stage I would like to pay a special tribute the Rural Fire Service crews in my own area of Warringah. Although we were fortunate enough to avoid any bushfires ourselves, the men and women of our local units constantly stepped forward and were deployed to various locations across the state. And they did us proud.

So to Inspector George Sheppard and to the men and women of the Northern Beaches District of the NSW Rural Fire Service, I say thank you.

The individual units are:

  • Beacon Hill,
  • Belrose,
  • Coal and Candle,
  • Coasters Retreat,
  • Cottage Point,
  • Davidson – and here, I would especially like to commend the actions and volunteerism of my predecessor – Tony Abbott,
  • Duffys Forest,
  • Ingleside,
  • Mackeral Beach,
  • Scotland Island,
  • Terrey Hills,
  • Tumbledown Dick,
  • Warringah, and
  • West Pittwater

Our nation has experienced bushfires before with devastating loss of lives and property. Bushfires are part of our nation’s history and character, that can’t be denied. But this year was different – we all know that, even those who won’t admit it publicly know that this year was different.

The scale, intensity and reach of these fires was different.

The fact that fires burned in so many states at the same time was different.

The firefighters are telling us it was different – that the fire behaved differently, flames were more intense that the fires created their own unique weather patterns.

The people of towns that were burned to the ground are telling us this was different.

The experts are telling us this was different

So therefore our reaction and our response, especially from those of us here in this place, must also be different.

I welcome the fact that Governments at various levels are prepared to investigate these fires but we must not become bogged down in more red tape.

These various inquiries and royal commissions will look into all the factors that contributed to the severity of the disaster. I encourage that and I look forward to reading the various terms of reference.

I intend to help by listening and finding solutions to prevent future disasters and as a member of the House’s Environment and Energy Committee I look forward to constructive discussion as we carry out our inquiry into the efficacy of past and current vegetation and land management policy, practice and legislation and their effect on the intensity and frequency of bushfires and subsequent risk to property, life and the environment.

This disaster will provide many lessons... lessons about Indigenous land management practices, about resourcing and of course about the impacts of Climate Change.

In that respect, I wholeheartedly support the comments made yesterday by the Member for Bennelong in his very moving condolence speech:

“Today is a day for commemoration, not politics, but one thing I would like to mention is the need to recognise that these fires are not a warning about climate change; they are climate change. The Leader of the Opposition mentioned that this is not normal. I fear this is actually the new normal.”

Well I for one refuse to accept this new normal and I know many others inside and outside of this place who refuse to accept it as well. I will be doing all I can to ensure that is not the legacy we are leaving to future generations.

In Australia, we all know that bushfires lead to new growth – to rebirth. It’s what’s been happening for tens of thousands of years. My hope is that these bushfires (which in many ways have galvanised our community), will lead to a new growth in our discourse and a rebirth and reset of Climate Change policy in Australia.