Private Members Bill - Disasters

February 19, 2019

Ms SWANSON (Paterson) (17:13):  Before speaking on this motion I would like to take a moment to acknowledge my colleagues the member for Herbert, Cathy O'Toole, who has done a fantastic job in Townsville, and also the member for Braddon, Justin Keay, in Tasmania.

People say to me that you never forget the roar of fire as it rolls down towards you and you never forget the stench of mud as you try and clean it up. Our nation has experienced several heartbreaking natural disasters in the past 12 months. This summer alone we have seen bushfires, floods, storms and snow—on occasion, all at the same time—across our wide brown land.

My electorate of Paterson, which includes the magnificent Port Stephens area, has not been immune. In August last year, communities across the Port Stephens area experienced several stressful days when up to five bushfires were burning at the same time within a few kilometres of each other. After five days, flames had torn through over 2,000 hectares of bushland on the Tilligerry Peninsula, and a further 38 hectares of bushland had been destroyed within the Tomaree National Park in Shoal Bay.

This was an unexpected disaster captured perfectly by the words heard uttered by firefighters on the ground: 'What the hell is going on? It's winter.'

Just months later in November, a fire ripped through Campvale, Medowie and Salt Ash, burning almost 2,000 hectares in just four days. Winds of up to 100 kilometres per hour worsened the situation, and, as five crews responded to this fire, another bushfire broke out 50 kilometres away in my own home town of Kurri Kurri at the backdoor of the hospital. This fire burnt through more than 60 hectares of land and, at one stage, it was so severe that non-essential staff were evacuated from Kurri Kurri Hospital as the blaze moved towards Pelaw Main.

In December, my electorate was handed yet another bushfire disaster when residents of Salamander Bay woke up to flames at their backdoor—literally. Sixteen hectares of the Mambo Wetlands were wiped out, causing a significant impact on vital koala habitat in the area.

As I holidayed in the bay over the Christmas period, I was really quite saddened to hear several volunteers tell me the story of the screams of koalas as their habitat was burning around them. We lost many breeding pairs of koala, which is such devastation as well.

Every single one of these disasters involved close calls, but the tireless work of our rescue services prevented these events from being far worse than what they could have been. Organisations like the State Emergency Service, the Rural Fire Service, the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Red Cross all played a vital part in the prevention of these fires getting worse and lives being lost.

I just want to take a moment to thank all the businesses at Paul's Corner in Salt Ash, which provided refuge to people when Nelson Bay Road was cut by fire. People couldn't go back home to the bay so they congregated at Paul's Corner. I would also like to thank Hunter Valley Buses and Port Stephens Coaches. When the kids who were at school couldn't get home to the bay and their parents couldn't come and collect them—they all went to Irrawang High School—the Red Cross gave them something to eat. My own staff member Arley Black went along and helped to entertain them for a while, and then the bus companies drove the children home for the parents to be able to get pick them up at an accessible collection point.

This is the way people in my community banded together. Thank you to all of those people who provided that community effort and went to support those in need.

I commend the Member for Berowra for bringing forward this private member's business. It is important that we do pause to really reflect and take stock. I would like to express my utter disappointment, though, that the word 'drought' has not been included in the list of natural disasters. Like so many regions across the country, the drought has taken a huge toll on my electorate. It's dire in the Hunter. It's like we have never seen it before. In May of last year, the Maitland Saleyards, which are a major part of our local economy, were putting through cattle at $350 less per head than years before.

I would just like to acknowledge the Maitland Show. Normally, every year, the Maitland Show is our drought-breaker. Well, this year, it has been and gone. It was a terrific event, but there was no rain. It's a sad indictment. I wish it would come.

Over the last year, I have spoken a lot about this in my area, but we need the leadership that a Shorten government can provide to see this country through these kinds of disasters.