Standing up for Canberra

Support for Queensland Floods 2011

I rise today on behalf of the people of Canberra to offer our condolences to the people affected by natural disasters this summer. I have been deeply moved by the stories that we have heard in this place yesterday and today, as I am sure have the people in my electorate. The thoughts and prayers of the people of Canberra go out to all those who have lost loved ones in deeply tragic and shocking circumstances and to those who have also lost homes, businesses, pets, valuables and treasured items.

In recent months, those who have not been directly affected by the floods have been confronted with images of destruction, tragedy and heartbreak caused by the floods, bushfires and cyclones that have ravaged this country every day. These hundreds and hundreds of images have all told their own tale of the suffering of our fellow Australians, of the human toll of natural disasters unprecedented in our history. But, for me, three images spoke the loudest.

The first was of a mother and her daughter and son running to a helicopter to be evacuated from the floods. They were hot, they were wet, they were crouched and they were propeller blown. They were also visibly frightened, shocked and in a state of disbelief. What underscored the kind of unreal tragedy of the situation was the everyday reality of the family, which so starkly juxtaposed the chaos of the situation. The family was wearing everyday summer clothes and thongs. The daughter was clutching a Barbie backpack—the kind that is standard issue for my nieces and goddaughters and every girl under the age of 10. From memory, the mother was clutching a handbag, which probably contained all the important documents she could collect at short notice. For me, the image evoked some of those iconic images of civilians fleeing the Vietnam War. But the people being evacuated here were not refugees in a foreign land. They were everyday Australians enduring extraordinary circumstances.

The second image was of a son who was watching his mother hosing down the roof to protect it from the bushfires in WA. The boy was visibly stressed. He was worried about his mother, he was worried about his home and he was worried about being caught too late in the bushfire. It was deeply disturbing because he was too young, too innocent, to be experiencing such emotion and fear on such a magnitude, on such a scale. It was disturbing because this image and the earlier one I mentioned are not ones we normally associate with Australian life.

But it was the third image that has deeply haunted me. It was an aerial shot of roofs, where the houses were invisible because they were submerged under metres of water. This image has deeply haunted me because our homes are meant to provide us with physical security from the elements, and here they were engulfed, rendered useless by those elements. This image deeply haunted me because our homes are where we take our newborns to grow and flourish. They are where we celebrate our rites of passage, our birthdays, our weddings and our anniversaries. They are where we collect the souvenirs of our journey through life. They are the keepers of our histories and hallmarks of our identity as people. They are meant to provide us with security for our family and our future. Our homes are meant to provide us with emotional security. They are our haven, our shelter, somewhere where we can be ourselves away from the world. They are our sanctuaries. Now tens of thousands of Australians face the prospect of life in the near future without their home or with a damaged home that will take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to repair.

On behalf of the people of Canberra, I want to let the people of Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria know that they will be in our hopes and prayers when the water has subsided, when they are picking up the pieces and when they are without their safe haven. We will be with you in the future; in the really tough times when the reality of your situation comes into sharp focus. Even though nothing we have experienced in recent months touches the scale of these disasters, the people of Canberra have some understanding of what you are going through. In 2003 bushfires ravaged the southern part of Canberra, destroying 500 homes and killing four people. It took years for some families to get back on their feet, having lost everything. Then our community rallied around for their fellow Canberrans, offering money, opening up their homes, giving clothes, shoes and toys and lending cars, and then the rest of Australia sent emergency assistance and support to us. The people of Canberra were grateful for that and they have not forgotten. Now we are running around and digging deep for our fellow Australians in their moment of need. Our cafes, restaurants, clubs, shops, baseball teams and radio stations have held fundraisers. The Raiders have set up a charity auction with items donated by players and staff. Community groups have conducted sausage sizzles. Businesses and families have donated food, toys, clothes and shoes. The business community has given to the Premier’s appeal. Canberrans have given in a personal capacity but our public servants are also giving in a professional capacity. Our public servants gladly serve the nation because they want to make a difference, and many of them have been giving above and beyond to help those in need in this moment of crisis.

Emergency service officers have also been lending a helping hand. I received a letter yesterday from a woman in my electorate who had just returned from a deployment in Queensland. She said, ‘It was wonderful to have the opportunity to help others in our wonderful country.’ I do believe that this reflects the views of so many Canberrans. I want to thank all the SES members, all the emergency people and all the volunteers who have helped the rest of Australia in their moment of need. I particularly want to thank the ADF, who, as always, worked extremely professionally and extremely hard to help those who found themselves in extraordinary and often very difficult circumstances. I thank them all.

I would also like to use this opportunity to pay tribute to the role played by the fourth estate during this unprecedented crisis. I would like to acknowledge the work of the journalists, producers, camera operators and all the others who work behind the scenes in making sure—sometimes at risk to their own personal safety—that the Australian public stays informed. Without them, those in the midst of these disasters would have no idea of what was happening around them. They would not know where safety lies, where they can seek help and whether their loved ones are safe. Without them, there would be no way for government to connect the victims of these tragedies to the vital services they need. Most of them came back from leave to ensure that these messages got out, and I pay tribute to their dedication, commitment and professionalism and to their strong commitment to the community.

I particularly want to acknowledge the journalists, producers, camera operators and staff in local radio and local television. Nothing better underscores the value of local radio than an emergency or crisis. This was borne out during the crisis of recent months; it was borne out during the floods in Wagga; and it was borne out during the bushfires in Canberra. I know journalists and presenters from Canberra’s Triple 6 provided relief to sleep-deprived journalists and presenters on ABC Riverina when they had the floods in Wagga. When the bushfires hit us in 2003, local radio, television and print journalists dropped everything. Everyone was on leave at the time —they were at home or down at the coast or elsewhere—and they dropped everything and returned to work to get the word out to their community.

It is perhaps difficult at this point, while disasters still unfold in Victoria and Western Australia, to understand how the communities that have been affected will rebuild and recover. We have yet to tally the full cost, both economically and, perhaps more importantly, emotionally. But I believe that these communities will recover and I believe that their homes and lives will be rebuilt. I have this firm belief because of the strong, binding ethos of these communities of Australians, the same ethos that has seen scores of volunteers from across the country help with the clean-up and recovery, the same ethos that has seen millions of dollars donated to help those families in need.

While other communities have collapsed into anarchy during crises—and we see it all around the world quite often—we have seen our communities rally through mutual support. We have seen people from across the country ask, ‘What can I do?’ Often the only link they have to the tragedy is that they are Australian and that a mate is in need. To see this in action, to see what I have always believed—that when there is need an Australian will always lend a hand to a mate, often a mate they do not even know—has made me incredibly proud to be an Australian and also a Canberran.

As a nation we have been tested by these tragedies and we will be tested again in recovery when the cost of these disasters, both human and economic, becomes known. However, we as a nation are prepared for this. The Australian character is a strong one. I believe we are capable of handling the hardships and challenges of our environment because we always have. I am confident that governments—federal, state and local councils—will do all that is necessary to rebuild. I am confident that communities across Australia will continue to unite to help those in need and I am confident that those areas affected will rebuild and, with the strength of their spirit and the help of the nation, will come out the other side even stronger and more united.

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