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Parliament House, Canberra
04 February 2020

Ron Selth, Dick Lang and Clayton Lang—three South Australians, contributors to their community and much loved by their families—tragically lost their lives in this year’s fire season. Ron Selth, a 69-year-old engineer and a resident of Charlton in the Adelaide Hills, lost his life in the Cudlee Creek bushfire. He’s survived by his partner, Suzy; his children, Johanna, Luke and Jasmine; and his six grandchildren. He was described and remembered in the most moving way for his ‘incredible hugs’, hugs that apparently were so tight and so firm as to squeeze the air out of his loving family—a family that would just wish that they could have one of those hugs yet again. Dick Lang, ‘Desert Dick’, was 78, a pilot, a pioneer and an incredible South Australian who opened up so much of Australia, Papua New Guinea and other parts of the world to tourists. He pioneered his work in terms of the establishment of a business, which I hope and trust continues on bearing his name, supporting our great tourism industry and giving South Australians and people from all over Australia and the world the opportunity to enjoy incredible experiences.

Clayton Lang was aged 43. I didn’t know Clayton—or Clarrie, as he was known—but I do know many who studied alongside him in medical school and who worked alongside him at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital. They spoke so fondly of Clarrie, who shared the adventure-loving spirit of his father, Dick. He was driven to help others, and his work as a plastic surgeon was dedicated in part to working alongside those treating cancer patients and helping to ensure that especially those facing skin cancer treatment had the support and assistance of worldleading plastic surgery to help them through their journey. I attended Dick and Clarrie’s funeral, where Dick’s three remaining sons, Justin, Derek and Lachlan, spoke about their father and the little brother they had lost. They, along with Dick’s longstanding wife, Helen, and Clarrie’s two young daughters, Sophia and Madeline, mourn the loss of two family members—two family members who loved the Kangaroo Island community so much and who fought to save their property and other people’s properties as those bushfires raged on Kangaroo Island.

Those three South Australians, tragically, were among 33 people who lost their lives in bushfires this season, including nine firefighters who so bravely served the Australian community. Three were working as United States firefighters, as part of aerial contingents, and volunteered to come to Australia. We acknowledge their particular service and the spirit of mateship in which they as Americans came to help support Australia during this terrible period. More than 3,000 homes have been confirmed as lost across Australia. Eleven million hectares have been burnt, with significant impacts to livestock, to farming, to ecology and to environment.

These bushfires have been troubling and upsetting and have had an impact on us all. As a government, we must act, and are acting, to support our communities and our nation now, and we must continue that effort into the future to help them to rebuild, to help them to recover better and stronger, wherever possible.

As a South Australian senator, I’ve seen firsthand the impacts of these fires in the Adelaide Hills and on Kangaroo Island—devastating for these communities. I’ve seen and spoken to some of those firefighters who’ve given up their time to help and defend homes, to save properties, to save lives; the emergency services; the other volunteers who’ve helped in the rebuild; and our Defence Force and Defence Force reservists, who have stepped in to open roads, to clear trees, to assist in so many ways that are so valuable to those communities.

It’s estimated that more than 300,000 hectares have been burnt across fire grounds in South Australia this season, primarily Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Hills, but also the Yorke Peninsula and the south-east. Up to 185 houses have been lost, with many other outbuildings, farm machinery and property as part of that. In the Adelaide Hills, numerous properties have been devastated, with fire tearing through vineyards and leaving a trail of destruction, not only to homes but also very much to businesses. On Kangaroo Island, approximately 300 firefighters and other agencies are still on the ground, working alongside many others in the community. There are approximately 60 tankers. Notably, as we focus often on those who’ve lost life, there are also 22 firefighters who have been injured on Kangaroo Island. There would be many more across the rest of the country who have injuries and wounds that they have sustained, and they, of course, also need the support of communities in their recovery.

The Kangaroo Island community stands out amongst this bushfire season because it is an island community. It’s a small community, with incredibly resilient island folk who live there on KI. But they are heavily dependent, almost exclusively dependent, on the tourism industry, agriculture and to some extent the fishing sector. Kangaroo Island is an ecological wonder as well, home to a unique bee population, to a chlamydia-free koala population and to many other species. And I especially acknowledge the work of the many wildlife volunteers, people from the Adelaide Zoo, and other experts who have come to help and assist as part of the wildlife recovery that is a key part of our response to these bushfires.

Despite all that is lost, it is important that we also remember all that remains. In these South Australian communities, the Adelaide Hills, Kangaroo Island, we still have businesses and communities who are strong, who are resilient, and who also have much to offer and enjoy. As tourism minister, I am particularly conscious of this. The perception, whether it’s in Australia, about fire-affected communities not being worth visiting now, or internationally, that potentially Australia is not worth visiting now, is an incorrect perception. It’s a falsehood spread by misunderstandings, sometimes even by misleading information or maps that have circulated internationally. And it’s a falsehood that has the potential to further hurt communities and compound the economic harm to those who are already hurting as a result of these bushfires.

The Adelaide Hills is a much-loved tourism destination. The region welcomed 210,000 overnight visitors from Australia and the rest of the world in 2018-19, and, due to its proximity and ease of access from Adelaide, around 1.3 million domestic daytrippers. Thankfully, people have been going back to support the Hills community. The recent Crush Festival over the long weekend saw tourists come and visit many businesses, as they have been, such as Barristers Block, which Senator Wong spoke of—and, in fact, which we bumped into one another at as we were both engaged in visiting and talking to local Adelaide Hills businesses. Jan from Barristers Block makes a great drop, which I and many others have bought to share with friends and family.

I know people who have similarly been sup porting fire-affected wineries in the Adelaide Hills. I would also note and encourage that, when doing so, people should remember that those who were not burnt also face consequences and impacts, and to spread that support as far and wide as they possibly can, in terms of those communities—grapegrowers like Simon Tolley, in the Adelaide Hills, who lost much of his vineyard but is showing resilience by replacing some of the less profitable varieties of wine with alternative varieties that better meet his business planning. People are moving on and getting on, as they should, with the support there to help them do so.

Perhaps most visibly I recall, in visiting those Adelaide Hills vineyards, fire-affected vines that had been cut off, at ankle height, right across the vineyard—a devastating sight to see—but then, only a couple of weeks after the fires, poking out of those little stumps sitting in the ground were the green shoots of regrowth and regeneration. It was an indication that the vines will grow back, just as the communities will rebuild.

I was there on Kangaroo Island, a community that has had some 186,000 overnight visitors, when the first cruise ship arrived after the bushfire—such an incredible symbol for that community. It is crucial to remember that, for the loss and devastation on KI, more than 90 per cent of accommodation beds still remain there. Yes, iconic tourism properties were lost. Yes, much land was burned. But, equally, businesses go on. They need people to support them. I can say that incredible, amazing environmental destinations on KI are still there to be seen, completely untouched by fire. This is before, of course, we reach the latter parts of this year and start to see, after winter rains, the incredible recovery that will come in the many wildlife areas of the Kangaroo Island community.

It’s critical, despite all that is lost, that we remember what remains and work to support those communities in what remains. It’s not just the fires in my home state of South Australia but across New South Wales and Victoria, in particular, and Queensland earlier in this fire season, and WA and Tasmania. They all have impacts on communities. In New South Wales and Victoria it has been long and devastating for many communities. Businesses on the South Coast of New South Wales that I visited, classically, like so many coastal communities around Australia, have an influx of city folk over the summer period. They tell me that 60 per cent, and 70 per cent in cases, of their annual revenue comes from a six-week period. For most of that six-week period they have been empty, as people were evacuated, roads were closed and people were urged to stay away. Yet for many of these same businesses, and right across Australia’s tourism industry, people have stepped up. Airlines have transported volunteer firefighters, in cases, for free. Accommodation has been offered. Coffees have been given. Meals have been made. People who have lost have been generous in their giving. That is so crucial, in acknowledging the fact that Australians have stepped forward with their very best.

Government has sought to step forward as well with its $2 billion recovery package, with support for farms, for small businesses, for mental health, for wildlife recovery and—yes, in my portfolio area—for our tourism industry. The $76 million package that we have brought forward of initial investment in our tourism industry is even more important than it was when we envisaged it just a couple of weeks ago, as our tourism sector now faces the additional hit of the coronavirus and associated downturn in global travel and, in particular, travel from China. We will stand with the industry and help it through this tough time. I have confidence that just as our industries rebounded in the past, just as other nations have rebounded from natural and other disasters, we will do so here in Australia once again.

I know that this summer has focused attention on many policy questions around land management, climate change, firefighting capabilities and planning decisions. This is the place to debate many of these issues. But today’s motion is not the time to do so. I trust the reviews that will occur will rightly consider questions of how we adapt to a changing climate, how we build better resilience for the changes that are already occurring and how we minimise those future changes. I acknowledge the crucial role Australia has to play in reducing our emissions as quickly as we can as part of a consolidated global effort of emissions reduction, but also that we must continue to do so in ways that protect Australian jobs and ensure the transition of the Australian economy to that lower emissions future.

This has been a tough experience for many Australians. It’s shown the best of the Australian spirit in many ways. We’ve banded together; we’ve donated time, money, food or support; and we are a resilient nation made up of many resilient communities. Those communities, I am confident, will get through this, will come out stronger than even before and should have the confidence that not only the government but, I know, everyone in this parliament stands with them in support of them as they rebuild.