Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (1.00 pm)-You will forgive we Victorian senators if we have seemed a little distracted this past week. Our minds have understandably been on events back home. As I turn to those events, I am very pleased that my friends Senator Kroger and Senator Ryan are in the chamber with me. Victorians will not soon forget the soaring temperature on Saturday, 7 February 2009.
Victorians will not soon forget the incredible wind of that afternoon, a wind that combined with that kiln-like heat to wreak such carnage. The devastation in my home state of Victoria is of a scale that is hard to comprehend. In terms of loss of life, it exceeds Cyclone Tracy of 1974, Ash Wednesday of 1983 and the Newcastle earthquake of 1989.
Indeed, in the past 30 years there are probably only two tragedies, one natural and one far from natural, that have so gripped the nation and that have seen us all pause in horror. I speak of course of the Thredbo disaster and the Bali bombings. In sheer loss of life, however, the events of the past few days have exceeded them all. In scale of physical destruction, these fires are probably only eclipsed by Tracy and Ash Wednesday. This current disaster will too no doubt come to be known over time by its own unique and evocative name.
For most Australians, it will be in these terms and through such comparisons that they relate to and understand the tragedy of this week. The names of the towns will probably be unfamiliar to them. But for those of us in Victoria, these are places we know well. Our comparisons, our points of reference, will be as to the places as we knew them. While Victoria might be one of the larger states in population, geographically it is an intimate place. Kinglake and Marysville are places we have driven through and places where we have holidayed, have met friends, have relatives and have done business. I have my own particular fondness for the north-east of Victoria, having lived for a time on a farm at Ghin Ghin near Yea. Kinglake, Marysville, Flowerdale and Glenburn: that is the neighbourhood. They are towns and localities that Australia is now getting to know better. Each place has suffered horribly. Yea has been fortunate thus far. And so it has become a haven for the region. I was talking last night to my daughter’s Granny and Pa who live in Yea. They had just come back from the oval behind the main street, which has become a refugee camp; a tent city. They had just helped to feed 400 people and were heading back this morning for the 5 am breakfast shift. And I have spoken to others who have opened their properties and homes to the displaced. This generous community spirit is in abundance.
Like many of us I have been touching base with friends and family to check that all is well. Some have lost farms and stock. Fortunately, none that I am aware of have lost their homes or lives. But that could change. Given the numbers who have perished, lost homes, businesses, plant or stock, most Victorians will know someone who has suffered loss. Over 180 souls and probably many, many more have perished in more than 20 localities through Victoria.
Beyond the physical destruction this is about the lives lost, the families left behind and the injured and damaged. It is about people like Sam, who was on one of the morning television programs on Monday. Sam did not know where his wife and children were; he did not know how they were-such unimaginable anguish. The next morning, the same program carried an update. The news did not sound good. We should all pray for those in anguish, for those in pain, for those in recovery and for those who grieve. And we should give thanks for those who serve them in hospital and in the emergency services, for those who have risked and continue to risk their lives and for those who bear the burden of caring.
We are indeed fortunate to live in a country that has the resources and capacity to mount a defence against disaster, to care and to rebuild. The number of personnel and assets pressed into service in this operation are roughly equivalent to the current Australian Defence Force overseas deployments-such are the logistics of this endeavour. There will be a time to reflect on and to learn from the climatic, environmental and criminal events that preceded the fires and the civil defence effort that followed. This is not that time.
But the Premier of Victoria is to be commended for announcing the establishment of a royal commission. Indeed, this was the only appropriate review in light of the nature and scope of this tragedy. This chamber too should consider if there is any role for its capacity for inquiry. But that is a question for serious and sober discussion on another day.
A speech like this can achieve very little in a practical sense. But in this place we can acknowledge the significance of these awful events. In this place, we can reflect on the magnitude of the tragedy. But, more particularly, this is the place where the nation can both express and give effect to its resolve to help, to care, to learn and to rebuild.