Mr M O'BRIEN (Malvern—Leader of the Opposition)
: Ten years ago in this place I quoted a poem by Henry Lawson, The Bush Fire, which commences:
Ah, better the thud of the deadly gun, and the crash of the bursting shell,
Than the terrible silence where drought is fought out there in the western hell;
And better the rattle of rifles near, or the thunder on deck at sea,
Than the sound—most hellish of all to hear—of a fire where it should not be.
It is the cruel paradox of this land we love: a country of breathtaking beauty but a climate that is at times harsh and unforgiving. On Monday evening we gathered in the Royal Exhibition Building to remember those who lost their lives in the 2009 Victorian bushfires. It was a privilege to be amongst them—the bereaved, the survivors and those who risked their lives to support their fellow Victorians at that terrible time. While we pause to gather and commemorate the 10th anniversary of those tragic fires, we should especially remember those for whom each and every day provides a constant reminder of the loss of a loved one—the empty seat on the couch, the double bed which every morning is only half disturbed, the children’s photo album whose pages end all too suddenly. For those left behind every day brings a new reminder of their deep and personal loss. So to the bereaved we take this moment to say that we have not forgotten you. We have not forgotten your pain and you will stay in our thoughts and our prayers today and every day.
We all have vivid memories of 7 February 2009 and the painful days that followed. Some of the images of that fateful week are as enduring as they are powerful. They are images that show that despite unspeakable tragedy and adversity, hope and resilience are stronger still. For me it is the striking symbol of an Australian flag: burnt, tattered yet defiantly standing among the ashes of what once was a home. That picture has come to symbolise our resilience in our darkest hour. There is also the iconic image of David Tree, a volunteer firefighter, providing water to an injured koala with one hand while holding her paw in the other. It spoke not only of the dedication of our brave firefighters but of the compassion and the unifying effect of natural disasters on all who confront them. It reminds us that we are all in this together.
I still remember being deeply affected by the front pages of the newspapers that week that displayed photographs of some of those who lost their lives. The loss of any life in these circumstances is tragic, but the loss of young life is particularly harrowing. To look into the eyes of the youngest victims that were so full of promise and to know that that promise will now be unfulfilled is to understand the depth of the loss that we suffered as a community. But despite the pain and the loss, this tragedy brought out the very best in Victorians. You cannot read about firefighters arriving at properties in the direct path of the fire to be met by homeowners pleading with them to rescue their neighbours first and not be moved by the selflessness of Victorians.
Words barely do justice to the courage shown by our firefighters that day, none more so than David Balfour, a firefighter from the ACT who lost his life to save others. Stories of their heroism will live long after the scars of that day have passed. I hope that all of the firefighters, the doctors, the nurses, the ambos, Victoria Police, the volunteers and the relief and welfare workers involved in that day and in the recovery understand the place that they hold in our hearts. One hundred and seventy three lives were lost. Around 2000 homes were destroyed and towns were razed to the ground in Australia’s worst-ever natural disaster.
In the face of the worst that nature could summon, humanity responded with the best of which it is capable. It also says much about the generosity of Victorians who in the weeks following donated millions of dollars to support survivors and those communities so devastated by the fires. The outpouring of support from other Australians and, as the Premier noted, from around the world demonstrated to us that in our time of need and our time of mourning we were not alone.
The writers and photojournalists charged with the responsibility of recording this indescribable tragedy with honesty and accuracy did so under the most distressing of conditions. Some of them have never fully recovered, and they deserve our acknowledgement and our thanks. But as attention turned to recovery and rebuilding these events also brought out the best of us in this place. All sides of the chamber were working together to do our best to ensure that nothing of this scale happened again.
Clearly, despite everyone’s best intentions and efforts, there were lessons to be learned. Establishing a royal commission into the disaster was a vital first step in learning these lessons, and I acknowledge the leadership of the then Premier, John Brumby, in this decision. The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission made 67 critically important recommendations. The Liberal-Nationals government under Premier Ted Baillieu committed to accepting each and every recommendation of the royal commission.
It is now a matter of record that while Black Saturday was in many ways a perfect storm of circumstances which together conspired to create our country’s deadliest natural disaster, many of the lives lost that day can be traced back to fires started by failed powerlines. As Minister for Energy in that former Liberal-Nationals government I was given responsibility for implementing the royal commission’s recommendations relating to improving the safety of powerlines in fire-prone regions. In adopting all the recommendations of the Powerline Bushfire Safety Taskforce a $750 million, 10-year program was established involving Victorian government agencies and electricity distribution businesses. This works program was estimated to reduce the risk of fire starts by up to 64 per cent with a mix of undergrounding and use of new technology to limit the capacity for fire starts.
It was a 10-year program and it was designed to be flexible so that the newest technology and developments could be taken into account and adopted in order to improve the safety of Victorians living in bushfire-prone areas. I acknowledge the Premier and his government for continuing the important work we commenced. As we are now eight years into the 10-year program I offer up the suggestion that it might be an appropriate time for the progress of this work to be assessed and reported on to the Victorian community.
I also wish to recognise the important work of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority in assisting to rebuild many of the areas affected by the 2009 bushfires. There is of course still much more work to be done, particularly in the need to continue to support survivors and those still grieving the loss of loved ones. Their pain is forever, but we can help with the healing. It says much about the Victorian spirit that over the last 10 years these communities have done so much to rebuild against the odds. This week is about remembering those we lost in the 2009 Victorian bushfires, honouring those who survived, acknowledging their continuing hurt and celebrating their resilience as they rebuild their lives and rebuild their communities.
On behalf of the Liberal-Nationals coalition, I am honoured to support the motion.