Australian Bushfires: Now is the time to stand up and show leadership

04 February 2020

I too rise this evening to offer my heartfelt and sincere condolences to the Australian families and, indeed, the American families who've lost their loved ones in these catastrophic Australian bushfires, this climate emergency that we are now experiencing. I can't imagine what it has been like and continues to be like for those families who are mourning their loved ones—fathers, husbands and sons—who won't be returning home. It is an absolute tragedy—that loss of life. For those Australians who lost their lives fleeing from the fire, or who've been found in their properties, that was a horrific experience. Again, my heartfelt condolences go to their families.

Many years ago as a young woman I too was a volunteer firefighter in Byford in Western Australia. I was in the Byford volunteer fire service. I can say that, sometimes when we were doing back-burning or we were out saving property, it was scary. But the fires that we dealt with were nothing—nothing—like the fires that we've seen over this summer, over the last several months.

The other thing that concerns me is that we're now changing our language. When I used to fight fires, we were able to put them out, but now in this season we've seen these megafires which are almost, seemingly, impossible to put out. We've seen the unprecedented use of equipment, of the Reserve forces, of thousands and thousands and thousands of volunteers, of paid service, and yet these fires continue. This is a different age. This is a different emergency. This is a climate emergency. And we cannot deny it. Yes, we were forewarned about it. This morning Senator Wong alluded to comments that she made in 2003 about a future fire crisis.

I can't watch the images of Australian wildlife anymore. To see those animals fleeing for their lives, to see them burnt, is absolutely horrific. I can't imagine what it is like to pick yourself up and start all over again, having lost everything that you held near and dear in your family among your possessions, and just, for some people, having the clothes they stood in and a handful of possessions. I can't imagine, if I were faced with developing a fire plan, what I might take and what I would leave behind. I can't imagine how much courage it takes to make that decision to stay and defend your property. It's not a decision I would take, but I do respect those that take that decision and the courage that they must have, when we've seen the onslaught of those flames. And, yes, it's going to take many, many years to recover from this. But this is our opportunity to learn, to be united and to act as a parliament to respond to this emergency.

We have new language now. I have never heard fires in Australia be described as 'megafires' before. I've heard those victims, heard 'Armageddon' being used. I'm sure all of us were fearful for those on Mallacoota beach as they watched those flames come closer and closer. The heat, the smoke, the intensity must have been overwhelming for those families with young children, with elderly relatives, waiting, wondering and fearful. I can't imagine the level of anxiety of those who've lived with this threat for months and months and months, who've breathed in the smoke that's been around for months.

When I flew into Canberra on Sunday, I flew into a territory that had declared a state of emergency. A state of emergency was what was being declared as I flew in. Today, ironically, we again have smoke all around the building. And, to those Australians who today came here and stood around the parliament imploring us to do more, we must accept the science of climate. We must consider climate as we develop a response. It's not enough to say, 'This is the new normal.' Smoke masks, states of emergency, thousands of volunteer hours being spent every summer—that's not the response we need. We need to act now to do something positive around climate change, this climate emergency that we are facing, before it is too late.

I urge the government to take the leadership, to do the brave thing, to ignore those on your side who are denying that this is a climate emergency, to now stand up and to show leadership. That's what Australians want, whether they've been victims of this catastrophic fire season or whether they're ordinary Australians outside the parliament today imploring us to do more. Now is the time.