Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (11:45): I too rise to speak on the fire condolence motion before us today and do so on behalf of the Morwell electorate, and I firstly extend our support to those impacted by fires that have devastated many parts of Victoria. I also extend best wishes to our friends in other states who have grappled with fire events in recent times.
It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to be standing here speaking about major fire events in our regional communities. To reflect upon the impacts is really difficult to bear—particularly the loss of life. My sincere condolences to family, friends and communities who have had to contend with such tragedy in addition to homes being lost—outbuildings, fences, assets, livestock, wildlife, flora and fauna.
Given the enormity of the events experienced, especially in the east and north-east of the state, I would like to personally and deeply thank the people of the Gippsland community for their incredible generosity and selfless acts of service in response. I could never say enough about those who respond to these events on the ground and in the air. To me these people are the purest definition of heroes that you will ever find. Many put their lives on the line on a daily basis in their efforts to save others. Having spoken to a number of my local CFA volunteers over recent weeks, many local brigades and firefighters have been active in fire events not only in East Gippsland but in New South Wales as well.
We should remember that whilst these brave people are serving and protecting communities they are also missing out on substantial personal time with family and friends, particularly during the festive season. On behalf of all in our community I sincerely and deeply thank all these wonderful firefighters, SES workers, police officers, defence personnel, departmental firefighters, private industry firefighters, timber industry personnel, ambulance staff and all the other volunteers and workers who give their all in serving and protecting our communities. To the charities, the service clubs, the support organisations, council and departmental staff and everyone who has played a role in response and recovery efforts, we say thank you. And as an animal lover, to the veterinarians and wildlife carers, we cannot thank you enough for the work you are doing.
I know many a constituent in the course of service or donation gave up their holidays, caravans, homes and family time. They made generous contributions from deep pockets and put in countless numbers of volunteer hours assisting emergency recovery efforts across the Gippsland region.
There have been so many remarkable contributors supporting victims that I would never be able to name all the charities, businesses and groups, but I do want them all to know how incredibly proud your community is of you and how inspiring your actions are. I do, however, wish to mention two amazing organisations, those being the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund (GERF) and Gippsland Farmer Relief (GFR). GERF has been there for Gippslanders for many decades, and knowing that every cent donated goes towards a family or individual in need is so important. Observing Melissa, Mark and all the volunteers at GRF was something to behold in recent weeks. The generosity of people wishing to donate was humbling, whilst the support from local businesses in providing storage space was just so gratifying for the GFR team. And the army of volunteers who were sorting and distributing items of need was just heartwarming to observe. I know such actions have been replicated right across the country, and that just fills one with pride.
It is also a difficult time for governments and local MPs when fires such as this strike, but I commend the Premier and his office, government ministers and their staff and departments for their immediate response to the victims of these disasters. I know only too well that bushfire response and recovery will never work perfectly for all, but I genuinely believe everyone is doing their absolute best in the most difficult of circumstances. There will be lessons learned from these fires, as has been the case from previous major fires, and it is imperative that governments current and future stay the course in ensuring recommendations and commitments that are made are implemented in totality and are not watered down due to ideological or political pressures. Our regional people are far too important than that. I have my own views on how we can better prepare for fires that will invariably occur in the future but will leave those views for other forums.
In digressing slightly, major events such as this bring out the very best in humanity, but unfortunately they also bring out the worst in a small minority of people. I encourage the government to urgently review the sentencing and penalty regime that currently applies to arsonists causing death and to looters. In my opinion they are the most despicable of persons, and we need to send the strongest of messages that their actions will not be tolerated. During the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires the arsonist, and not climate change, killed 11 people in my community, destroyed hundreds of homes and caused untold emotional and physical damage to people, livestock and wildlife. This person received a sentence of approximately 15 years in jail. Many in my community felt that this was totally inadequate for the harm that was caused.
On a more positive note, we thank the community leaders who have been working around the clock managing the event response, and those coordinating relief and recovery support should be immensely proud of their and their teams’ service to their fellow Victorians. To all those working as part of the statewide emergency and recovery efforts, we say thank you, and many are here in the gallery today. In particular I want to acknowledge the MPs—the members for Ovens Valley, Murray Plains, Benambra and Gippsland East. Obviously the electorate of Gippsland East is the electorate closest to me, and I have seen the work that the member has done in that community. It is just outstanding, and he should be absolutely acknowledged for his work.
It is important that as a Parliament we acknowledge the work of electorate officers, who take many of the calls from people who are in distress in the community. From the Parliament, we thank staff in electorate officers for the work that they do.
There will be a long period of recovery for many of our regional towns and communities. It is important that support continues beyond the time media interest wanes and life seemingly goes back to normal. There have been initiatives to encourage buying from businesses in fire-affected communities and a focus on holidaying in some of the impacted Victorian destinations when it is safe to do so. This continued economic support is so important in towns that have not only suffered the trauma of losing loved ones but have also had their homes, animals, businesses and livelihoods significantly impacted such an awful way.
I know all too well the resilience, camaraderie and determination of communities following catastrophic events such as these. I know that Victorian fire-affected communities will continue to rise above whatever challenges are thrown their way, because as Australians that is what we do. We will be there to support you. To the people, businesses and organisations within the Morwell electorate who have either played a role in tackling these fires or sought to help communities recover, your courage, commitment, kindness and generosity makes me so proud to represent you in the Parliament of Victoria.