Condolences - Australian Natural Disasters

That greatly loved poet who captured so much of that which is unique about our great country, Dorothea Mackellar, summed up Australia’s capacity to deliver brutal weather events in her moving tribute My Country, penned some 100 years ago. In that renowned poem she talked of Australia’s ‘droughts and flooding rains’. She spoke about our country’s terror, of ‘flood and fire and famine’. That word picture of our country by Dorothea Mackellar 100 years ago has rung especially true this summer for many Australians. While she may not have specifically mentioned cyclones, I am sure that those who were confronted by Cyclone Yasi will say it was appropriately covered by the descriptor ‘terror’ in the second verse.

Whilst devastating weather events have always been part of our history and experience as a nation, it does not make it any easier for those who actually experienced the floods, the fires and the sheer terror of the cyclone. So on behalf of the coalition, the alternative government, I extend our deepest sympathy to those who have personally felt and experienced the full front and the terror of the recent natural disasters—floods in every state, fires in two and a cyclone. To those who have lost loved ones, to those who fear the worst for loved ones who are unaccounted for, to the injured, to those who have lost their worldly possessions and to those who have lost their livelihoods we extend our sympathy and support.

Here in this modern marvel, our Parliament House, with its full air conditioning and other creature comforts, we are far removed from the experience that so many tens of thousands of our fellow Australians experienced in recent times and, indeed, are still experiencing. It is appropriate therefore that this parliament take time out to extend sympathy, to reflect and ponder, to salute our emergency service personnel, our police and our defence personnel, to acknowledge the spirit of the private and mostly anonymous volunteers who excelled, to embrace and highlight the thousands of acts of selflessness we have witnessed and to appreciate the generosity of those who have donated to the flood appeal, which already represents about $10 per man, woman and child.

It is also appropriate to thank our national broadcaster, the ABC, for its role and, also, our commercial media, which lived up to their community service obligations. As is so often the case, we see our nation and her people at their best in times of adversity. Regrettably, and thankfully to no great extent, we have also witnessed the worst of behaviours with looting and other undesirable acts of preying on our people in their plight and time of need. I trust the courts will keep in mind the community’s overwhelming sense of disgust at such behaviour.

We have witnessed leadership at its best by the Lord Mayor of Brisbane and the Queensland Premier. Regrettably, we have also witnessed cynical public utterances. While more needs to be said about this appalling behaviour, now is not the time other than to note its regrettable occurrence.

As the weather stabilises again and the clean-up, the repairs, the rebuilding and the new starts are made, we need to recognise that the task of rebuilding will be with us for days, weeks, months and, indeed, years to come. The clean-up, the rebuilding and the repairs will not only entail the infrastructure of road, rail and community facilities; it will also entail private housing and businesses and, most importantly, the rebuilding of shattered individual lives and communities. I fear the tragedy of a delayed impact on many of the survivors—families torn apart, fractured emotions, shattered self-esteem, feelings of guilt and the nagging thought, ‘Could I have done more?’ All those people deserve our support and will need our help for many tomorrows to come.

So while we pause to mourn the dead, to comfort the injured and to sympathise with those who have lost their worldly possessions, the coalition also stands ready to support the survivors, the fellow Australians whom we have the honour of representing in this place, to get justice from their insurance companies, to get justice from their banks, to obtain understanding from the Australian Taxation Office, to gain support from employers and to ensure that government support is properly targeted and administered. In times like these, it is far too easy to talk the big picture and the broad brush. Our task is also to concentrate on each individual and on each community, focusing especially on the smaller population centres where the capital to rebuild the local supermarket or pub will be the determining factor as to whether that township revives or dies.

The insurance companies and the banks bear a very real responsibility here. Their decisions, made in air-conditioned high-rise offices, will determine the future prospects of families, businesses and communities alike. There will be those whose real estate assets have plummeted in value or those uninsured who have had their homes washed away—will they be able to rebuild; will they be allowed to rebuild? If not, what can they do with the block of land they own? There will be the local publican who leases flooded premises where the owner cannot raise the capital to rebuild; or indeed the owner of the pub whose lease was a retirement income stream; or the business which was not impacted at all physically but sells its product into a devastated area and has lost its market; or those who have or will lose their job as a result; or the widow whose lifetime of memories in pictures and photo albums no longer exists—all those reminders of happy bygone days simply and brutally obliterated.

In future days this parliament will debate how best to assist those who have been so devastatingly impacted. Different approaches will be considered and discussed, as they should be, and there will be passionate debate, as there should be. I do not presume to speak on behalf of all senators but on this occasion let me try. Irrespective of our passionately held views, one thing those impacted on can be assured of is that we are united in this place in our desire to help. That will not be in dispute. The only question is: how can we best help? And that too is as it should be.

Our nation will rebuild. It is in our DNA. When bushfires, droughts, floods, heatwaves, big freezes, cyclones and landslips assail us we do not simply walk away. If we did, we would have abandoned large tracts of our great country over the centuries. The fact that we have not bears testament to our intergenerational resilience and determination. As our forebears replanted, restocked and rebuilt, so will we in 2011 replant, restock and rebuild. We inhabit a continent that Dorothea Mackellar poignantly described as having both beauty and terror. The good news is that the terror our continent inflicts is only momentary whereas her beauty is constant. We rebuilt after the Gundagai flood of 1852, which took 89 lives. We rebuilt after the 1916 Clermont flood, which took 65 lives. We have rebuilt after cyclones, fires, landslips and drought. I trust that in years to come our successors will look back on 2011 as another chapter in the story of Australia where we excelled ourselves in helping each other to rebuild after the calamities of fire, floods and cyclones. In the meantime, let us remember in our prayers the deceased, the bereaved, the injured and the devastated and let us draw strength together from our forebears who, when confronted with similar or even worse ordeals, simply got on with the task of rebuilding—and the coalition stands absolutely committed to doing its bit. With that spirit, with that commitment, with that resolve, our fellow Australians’ lives, both individually and in community will be rebuilt.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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