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Member for Gilmore Speech: Condolence motion on the bushfires


Mrs PHILLIPS (Gilmore) (14:03):  I rise today with a heavy heart and a sorrow of pain that I know I share with everyone in our community. All of us on the New South Wales South Coast have been through what can only be described as hell on earth. Not since New Year's Eve but for months, firestorm after firestorm, when day turns into night, when all we can see is redness—ash rain, mud rain and so it goes on. We in this place must not forget the incredible emotional and physical toll this has taken on absolutely everyone. We just want it to end.

Throughout the days and weeks, which are now rolling into months, we have leaned on each other, a shared experience that has bonded us forever. There are so many people and organisations to thank for being there in our time of need. I can't possibly thank them all individually here today, but they are magnificent. They have my absolute heartfelt gratitude for all they have done.

Our firies, emergency service workers and volunteers are our heroes. They have worked night and day to keep our community safe for months, often leaving their own homes exposed while they went to protect someone else's,  putting their lives at risk to save the lives of others. That's just the type of community we are. Then there is the amazing HMAS Albatross, which is a huge part of our South Coast family. These crews fought the fires on the North Coast, along with our firies, only to come back home and start all over defending local homes, property and even the base. Our first responders have done a simply remarkable job—where would be without you? So, on behalf of our entire community, I would like to simply say, 'Thank you.' It hardly seems enough for what you have done, but thank you.

Thank you also to the many, many people in our community who have kept our firies fed, donated water and looked out for those who were looking out for everyone else. In particular, I want to acknowledge the amazing work of the Milton RFS catering team, who for weeks worked selflessly to feed our firies while worrying about their loved ones and their own homes. Your work was not unnoticed. Thank you.

John Hanscombe from the South Coast Register was correct when he dubbed the fire the 'forever fire'. John and his team have done an extraordinary job covering the fires since they began in November. This is true of all our local media teams—the Milton Ulladulla Times, the Bay Post/Moruya Examiner, WIN TV, Channel 9, The Beagle, About Regional and all our community and commercial radio stations. Special mention must of course be made of ABC Illawarra and ABC South East New South Wales, whose rolling coverage of the fire no doubt saved lives.

Our local media and the national and international attention that followed means we know the statistics. We know them too well: the loved ones—family, friends and neighbours—we have tragically lost; the hundreds of homes and businesses full of memories, gone; the hundreds of thousands of hectares blackened; over one billion animals lost. I don't need to repeat these statistics here for you.

What I want to talk about today is people – the personal, heart-wrenching stories that I've heard of people's lived experience of these bushfires, both as they impacted and since. The hugs I've given and received, the tears that have been shed, the grief shared. When I had that sinking feeling and decided to leave this place early in the last sitting week last year, I had no idea that we would still be dealing with active fire more than 60 days later. In that time I have spent every day in my community talking with local people, asking how they are doing, listening to their stories and being a shoulder for them to cry on. I have spent it with people like Sherrie from Mogo, who told me how she sheltered in her house with 21 people as the fire came through. When someone tells you that they thought they and their family were going to die, it is hard not to feel the impact of that. While she watched the trees throw fireballs, she feared she might never see her kids again. She said it was the most terrifying thing she has ever experienced—words I have heard often. Shane from Conjola Park told me how he and his wife, after staying to defend their property, fled into the lake in a small boat to escape the flames and save their lives. Luckily, Shane's house was saved and he and his family spent the next days and months helping to coordinate the donations from community groups, ensuring his neighbours had the supplies and help they needed.

Rae runs a kangaroo sanctuary in Runnyford. Her whole sanctuary, including her home, has burnt to the ground. She told me how lucky she was to be rescued by boat from a neighbour after the hose she was defending her property with lost pressure. But Rae is simply devastated at the loss of so many of her kangaroos—two-thirds of them are still missing. She has been living on her burnt property with no electricity, no running water and no septic system for weeks just so she can care for the ones which are left.

I have talked with so many people who ended up at the beach at Malua Bay and described Armageddon-like scenes—now the frighteningly familiar words that people from Kangaroo Valley to Sussex Inlet, Bendalong and Nelligen have used to describe this summer. The roar of the fire will stay with us for ever, like something out of a horror film. But the trauma we are still living with in its aftermath is raw and real. In small communities like ours, when something tragic like this happens it happens to us all. No-one is left unscathed. I have seen the hidden pain of those who have lost everything and the guilt of those who escaped the worst—emotions that change on a daily, and even an hourly, basis.

But if there is one thing that I know about our South Coast community, it is that we are strongest when we stand together. The stories I hold close to me are the ones that show our community cares. I have heard so many examples of this spirit. I had the privilege of seeing the amazing work that the Batemans Bay Surf Life Saving Club was doing to help those in Malua Bay and the surrounding suburbs who were without power for weeks. People from near and far were bringing supplies—food and other essentials—into the area. Wonderful generosity! But this meant we needed people to organise these deliveries and make sure that they got to where they were needed. The surf club stepped up to that challenge. There were volunteers in the kitchen, cooking meals for local people, and rows of tables with everything you could need, from food to shampoo and nappies, set up almost like a supermarket. With no electricity or telecommunications, members of the club even drove around the local streets letting people know that help was available. The selfless help and kindness of local people in the face of such tragedy is remarkable.

After the fire that tore through Kangaroo Valley, the Friends of the Brush-Tailed Rock-Wallaby were out in force taking water, sweet potato and carrots into the impacted colonies. Devastatingly, the group's president, Chris, lost her home in the fire. Despite that, she managed to put her own tragedy aside to make sure that these much loved endangered animals were receiving immediate help and care.

These are the stories of resilience, courage and strength that I love to tell. There are just so many examples from up and down the South Coast. Bawley Point was one of the first communities to be impacted, in early December. Liza shared her story with me at the local Murramarang markets in Kioloa not long after. Liza lives right near her local RFS station, and she saw firsthand the work of the local firies that literally saved her home. After the fire, Liza marshalled a small army of volunteers to feed the local emergency services workers and volunteers who helped to save her community. She organised goods, created a GoFundMe page and was instrumental in bringing her community together in the aftermath of what happened. Liza is a truly remarkable individual. I have spoken to her on a number of occasions since then, to see how she is going.

Peter Dunn, a retired ACT emergency services commissioner, has also been on the ground with the Conjola community, making sure that those who have lost everything are well looked after. I was reassured to meet Peter and see him in action at the Lake Conjola Community Centre a few weeks ago. He is running a very well-oiled machine there. Deputy Speaker, you may have heard of Peter Dunn: he is one of the ex-fire chiefs who have called out the government for their lack of climate action. I am sure that the Prime Minister would benefit from meeting Peter and hearing what he has to say. He has some interesting insights to share.

We have also seen simply remarkable efforts by so many local charity organisations. Our local volunteers from the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Anglicare and Vinnie's have all been there throughout this crisis.

Well-established groups like WIRES, local Lions Clubs, Rotary, Wildlife Rescue and Ulladulla charity Treading Lightly have all been there every day doing their bit to help people and animals recover from the bushfires. We have also seen new organisations pop up to try and fill gaps, like Wildlife Stations Shoalhaven. This community-driven group has seen more than 2,000 members join together to build water stations out of PVC pipes. They have also coordinated food drops to hungry native wildlife that are doing it tough with so much bushland burnt. To put it simply, we have seen a fast and strong community response to these bushfires. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the response from government, which has been nothing short of disappointing.

People on the South Coast have been dealing with these bushfires since November and still we have individuals who cannot access payments. When tourism is your largest industry and a bushfire dominates headlines for most of summer, you want more than simple platitudes and thoughts and prayers. I wonder if the Prime Minister would have a different attitude if he'd met Simon from Walking on Water and Ulladulla Surf School. Simon teaches swim safety to kids from across New South Wales on the beautiful beaches of the South Coast, in places like Lake Conjola, Fishermans Paradise and Narrawallee. Devastatingly, Simon lost 100 per cent of his bookings because of the bushfire, bookings all the way up to April, a tough thing to deal with for any business that has to pay the bills by the end of January. The Rural Assistance Authority, the New South Wales Government body administering the initial $130,000 for small business loans, told Simon he would only be eligible for help if he owned his own home or had $100,000 in the bank. To say Simon was distressed by this advice is an understatement.

When two weeks ago the government announced their new small business relief package, like Simon, I got my hopes up. Perhaps Scott Morrison had finally been listening to my calls for an immediate cash injection to help rescue our economy. Sadly, no. The grants are still only available to physically damaged businesses. And the loans? Perhaps I shouldn't be shocked. The government announced the $2 billion package 16 days ago, but the guidelines were only made available today—16 days later.

Simon isn't alone. Michael has a beautiful antique store in Batemans Bay, but he relies on trade with Canberra and Braidwood. With the Kings Highway cut for two weeks, Michael's business took a huge hit. He told me he didn't know how he would pay the rent. In small towns like Batemans Bay, it is not as simple as asking your landlord not to charge you. They are your neighbour, your doctor, your friend. But Michael has not been able to access any help from this government. Katrina runs a unique catering business specialising in weddings in Kangaroo Valley. She lost $85,000 worth of equipment in the fire and the kitchen she rented. Now she has also lost a whopping $1 million in bookings for this year.

It isn't just the small business owners that suffer either. Katrina has already had to let go two of her employees; she can't afford to pay them. But it is a story I hear over and over every day—the casual workers people can no longer employ, the lost opportunities for young people on school and uni holidays. In the Eurobodalla alone, early data suggests the economy has lost $130 million and 900 jobs. In a region that already has one of the highest unemployment rates in Australia, what will happen to all those workers? Will they just be forced onto Newstart, which we have known for years simply pushes people into poverty?

People have told me how the government is asking contract cleaners and seasonal workers to provide two months’ worth of pay slips to prove they have lost income. They just don't get it. When most of your yearly income comes in December and January, your October and November pay slips will not reflect what you have lost. The entire system, from individuals to small business to the stagnant tourism campaigns: it is purely inadequate and shows how out of touch the government are with reality. Businesses have already started shutting up shop, and this government takes more than two weeks to release the guidelines for their assistance programs.

The government has left our friends, families and neighbours feeling abandoned, alone and desperate. It has left people jobless, struggling and distressed.

I invite Mr Morrison to come to the New South Wales South Coast to talk with these business owners. I can introduce him to Simon, Michael and Katrina so that he can listen to what they have to say. He can hear what it means to go through hell on earth only to be left high and dry by the government. Maybe that will make the Prime Minister finally stand up and take notice.

In the meantime, I will continue to back the bush by telling everyone who will listen how much we need them. What our businesses want more than anything is for people to come and enjoy our beautiful beaches and rolling hills, taste our wonderful fish and chips, and drink at our luscious wineries. So come and see us. Take a road trip in 2020. Spend with them. Bring your empty esky. Shop South Coast. Buy local. Shop at a store with a door. Rejuvenate Shoalhaven. Love the bay BB. We are open for business and we miss you. The South Coast is still the most beautiful place on earth. I promise you won't be disappointed.

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