Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Victorian Bushfire Disaster – Recovering and Rebuilding

Location: Australian Parliament House, Canberra

***Check against delivery***

Mr Speaker, over the last days I’ve met survivors, fire fighters and volunteers in many towns – Whittlesea, Yea, Alexandra, Wallan and Traralgon.

I’ve heard their extraordinary stories of escape and survival and their tragic stories of loss.

On Sunday I spoke to a woman who was waiting to hear the fate of her family.

Many people are still waiting – it’s an agonising wait.

I’ve heard accounts of modest heroes – neighbours, friends, fire fighters, strangers who risked their lives to save the lives of others.

In Marysville I saw the seared and twisted wreckage of homes, churches, local stores – the whole main street destroyed.

These people, our fellow Australians, have suffered inexpressible shock and trauma. Healing will take time.

But even in these early days, despite their terrible loss, there is hope for the future.

The people of Kinglake and Marysville, in Wandong, Flowerdale, Churchill and many other communities aren’t about to give up.

Overnight some of them may have become citizens of tent cities – each night going to sleep under canvas – but they are already planning and thinking about how they can go back and start again.

They want to get back to their towns and farms, to begin sorting through the wreckage, to salvage what they can.

Already farmers are out in their paddocks – assessing their losses but also getting down to work.

Those whose homes are still standing are taking in those who have no home.

They are sharing their stories of escape and survival; they are re-gathering and re-grouping.

Their losses are enormous, but they haven’t lost their sense of community.

Bound together by courage, sacrifice and an incomparable generosity of spirit.

The same generosity of spirit and determination which, at a national level, is driving our national response.

Because while we remain a nation in shock we are also a nation mobilised to help.

Ready and willing to tackle the huge task ahead.

To help people rebuild the bricks and mortar of their lives, to accommodate their indestructible spirit of community.

Because overwhelmingly that spirit of community, the notion of belonging, of reaching out will never be destroyed – not by even the fiercest flames.

It is alive and well in the relief centres where organisations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army are working alongside government agencies and many, many volunteers.

Mr Speaker, the last few days remind us that Australians, being who we are, are not the sort of people who stand by and do nothing.

Over and over again I’ve seen this.

People arriving with their cars full of life’s basics for those who have absolutely nothing.

People rolling up their sleeves to make sure the survivors not only have the practical things they need, but also extending the arms of human kindness.

While we remain vigilant and aware of the continuing threat of fires, work on recovery and reconstruction has begun.

The Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority has now been established to begin this task.

I will be working closely with the Victorian Government offering the full support of the Australian Government.

I have already held discussions with the chief operating officer of the Authority, Major General Cantwell – someone well equipped to take up the challenge of recovery and reconstruction; a soldier for 35 years with frontline experience in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait.

He will be working with Victorian Police Commissioner, Christine Nixon both in her current role and then as chair of the Authority.

Major General Cantwell’s first task is to assess what immediate action is required.

For those whose homes are still standing – restoring essential services like electricity and water.

And where homes and property have been lost, making sure people have somewhere to live.

Then the Authority will move to the permanent rebuilding. Cutting through bureaucracy and getting the job done.

Rebuilding, as the Prime Minister has said, brick by brick, school by school, community hall by community hall – restoring the infrastructure which brings communities together.

The sports fields, the churches, the community centres – the places where people meet and connect.

And we’ll do this, working across government, harnessing the experience and capacity of our emergency and relief services, community and volunteer organisations until the job is done.

Mr Speaker the public display of sorrow and sympathy of the last few days has made it obvious that the people of Australia stand ready to do everything that’s needed to rebuild lives and communities.

With so many deaths, so many of our people hurt and suffering, Australians everywhere want to help.

Financially their contribution has been overwhelming, but many also want to do something practical. They are thinking about what they can do, how they can help.

Those who want to volunteer their time and energy should call the Victorian Bushfire Volunteer Hotline 1300 366 356 or go to Go Volunteer website

That way they can be matched up with appropriate community service organisations.

As we begin the huge task of rebuilding what has been lost, there will be an ongoing role for volunteers – for all those Australians who want to harness their sorrow and grief and put it to practical, useful purposes

It’s true the lives of the fire survivors have changed forever.

But they are resilient people.

Many of them told me they won’t be beaten by this tragedy; they are ready to take on the huge challenge of rebuilding and starting over.

But they’re realists as well. They understand that rebuilding will take months, years – it’s a long-term investment.

They asked me if the Australian Government would be there with them, supporting them all the way.

I was able to tell them that all of us are in this for the long haul.

That they will have our support and, I’m certain, the support of the Australian people for as long as it takes.