Mr PASIN (Barker) (19:12): It has been an unprecedented beginning to the season. My deepest sympathies go to all those who, devastatingly, have lost homes, property, stock and, tragically, loved ones. In particular, I join with the Prime Minister in offering my sincere condolences to the families of the nine firefighters who have lost their lives fighting these fires. In Barker, there have been a number of fires across the electorate. The Adelaide Hills fires, whilst predominantly in Mayo, also impacted on residents in Barker. We also saw fires at Carcuma, Coonalpyn, Bunbury and Nangwarry. Local firefighting units did an amazing job in containing these fires before they did too much damage. To these local heroes I say thank you.
While these local fires may not have achieved the national attention of the devastation we have seen in the eastern states or in the Adelaide Hills or on Kangaroo Island, the communities I have visited in the last few weeks and the people who have lost so much have certainly not been forgotten. One of the worst hit communities in Barker was Keilira. Started by dry lightning on the morning of 30 December, the fire there burned more than 25,000 hectares, with a perimeter of 76 kilometres. It destroyed three houses, more than 2,000 bales of hay, sheds, vehicles, hundreds of kilometres of rural fencing, crops and more than 3,500 head of livestock.
Following an initial tour of the fire ground in early January and a community meeting, I returned to Keilira last week. But this time it was as a volunteer with BlazeAid. I have volunteered with BlazeAid a few times over the years and I’m always blown away by the organisation and its volunteers. This summer they have been outstanding, with camps set up in bushfire locations all over Australia helping to rebuild critical infrastructure like rural fences. While this infrastructure is a vital part of the recovery process, the volunteers also help to lift the spirits of bushfire victims.
BlazeAid volunteers work in communities for many months, not only helping individuals and families on their properties but also helping to rebuild local communities. The lift in morale in Keilira with the arrival of BlazeAid was obvious to me last week, and I can’t thank the organisation enough for what they are doing. Like many regions across the country, Keilira is in a mobile blackspot. One of the biggest issues on the day of the fire was the inability to communicate, particularly when the landlines went down. I’ve heard sobering stories of 000 calls failing at critical moments. Thankfully, no lives were lost.
And, while those in this place may think I’m starting to sound like a broken record on this issue, I’ve got to say it again: we must continue to invest in fixing mobile blackspots in this nation. Mobile phone service is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity in many situations. And, while better regional communications can have a positive impact on our regional economic activity, it’s also a critical safety issue. While we must always be vigilant and never rely on one form of communication, having limited options to begin with is unsettling to say the least. I’ll continue to lobby for increased funding at every level of government and with the network operators to address this issue.
I just want to call out in particular the Mayor of the Kingston District Council, Ms Kay Rasheed. Kay is a hardworking and diligent mayor. She’s done an amazing job in relation to this fire, all of which would be enough, but, if I was to tell this place that hers was one of the most affected properties during this fire, to see her rise up as she has in a leadership capacity, despite her own personal circumstances—I really do need to draw that effort to the attention of the House.
The heroes of this summer are undoubtedly our fireys. I join with the Prime Minister and my colleagues in this place and, indeed, all Australians in my admiration and gratitude for the brave efforts of the thousands of firefighters who selflessly attended bushfires this summer. The vast majority of our firefighters are volunteers living and working in rural and regional Australia. These are the men and women that help make up our regional and rural communities—the practical quiet achievers with the can-do attitude that never ask for thanks or praise for what they achieve, whether it’s helping to feed the world or whether they’re contributing to our national economic prosperity or leaving their own homes and properties to help defend that of their neighbour. To you we say thank you. Words could never express our nation’s gratitude well enough.
Our regional communities are resilient, and we roll up our sleeves, rebuild, recover and get back to business. It will take time, and our government will be there to support our communities and the vital industries that contribute so much to our economy and our nation’s prosperity. The bushfires, like the drought, have taken a toll on agricultural industries. The loss of stock and crops and the damage to land and infrastructure will reverberate along the supply chain.
We’re also counting the terrible cost from the loss of forestry plantations. It’s still to be determined just how extensive these losses are, but the rebuild and renewal process will be long and it will be expensive. Our forestry industries must not be forgotten, and we must thank them for the role they play in fighting and preventing fires. Both plantation and native forestry play a critical but perhaps sometimes unappreciated role in risk reduction as they maintain firebreaks, manage vegetation and deploy their firefighting units in times of need.
I’ve thought a lot this summer about the fact that when we see fire we run in the other direction. When the brave, selfless firefighters see fire they run towards that risk to protect us. And it’s not just members of the Country Fire Service. It’s also volunteers on farm appliances, it’s members of the SES, it’s members working for government departments and agencies and it’s also forest workers. I particularly want to call out our heroes in high-vis, who jump on their forestry equipment and run straight towards that harm to protect us from it. I’m incredibly grateful that they’re members of my community. They stand shoulder to shoulder with CFS and SES agency staff to defend us from this harm.
Finally, I want to pay tribute to the individuals and communities within Barker who are volunteering or donating their time, money and goods and services to those who need them. From local bake sales to hay runs, community fundraising events, and the tip jars in local cafes and restaurants, Barker is stepping up to help not only those in need in our own community but our fellow Australians. It makes me incredibly proud to be part of this great country and incredibly proud to represent such a giving and resilient community.