I join with the previous speakers in supporting this motion wherein the Senate acknowledges the extraordinary destruction, death and anguish that have come to so many parts of this great country of ours in recent months through floods, cyclones and fires. The total toll can now be measured in more than 40 lives; more than 40,000 homes destroyed or inundated by flood waters; and a monetary cost of at least $12 billion in damage concentrated on a small part of the Australian population. Through this motion the parliament hopefully will bring forward the great warmth and comradeship Australians have for people in such distress and share the burden of doing what we can in reparation for those people who have lost so much.
Nothing could be more terrifying than the news, following the floods through Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley earlier this year, of the swiftness with which that extraordinary event overtook the people in its path, leaving them helpless and in some cases watching as their families and communities were destroyed in front of their eyes—that is, those who survived. It is beyond our ability to give reparation for the horror faced by people in those circumstances, as indeed it was beyond our ability, when as a nation we watched and wondered and slept badly, if at all, on the night that Cyclone Yasi crossed the coast, to feel the terror of so many people, even though forewarned, as Yasi cut that massive naturally destructive swathe.
In a healthy and great democracy like ours, it is natural for all of us to want to put our shoulder to the wheel in getting assistance as rapidly as possible to aid and abet that of state governments, local authorities and the meritorious work done to assuage the extraordinary difficulties faced by so many people in the wake of these destructive events. It is also a time to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of people who have contributed, volunteered or gone to the aid of neighbours, friends, families or people they did not know in these extraordinary circumstances. It brought out the best in humanity. We know some of the stories of selflessness and assistance in the midst of terrifying circumstances, but I bet we do not know a lot of them yet—and they will emerge. We must congratulate all those people who came together to minimise the impact of these disasters.
Senator Abetz mentioned the flood at Gundagai, where he said that 89 people died. That little township was swept away from an island in the middle of the Murrumbidgee River in a horrific flood in the middle of the night when, by the time the residents recognised what was happening, they had nowhere to go. Of course the township since then has been built higher in much safer circumstances and has survived a number of floods without that terrifying loss of life. In the future as a nation we must help to plan local communities to make them safer from the repeat of the events we have seen in recent years in this country such as bushfires, floods and cyclones. We know from the records that 300 people, including 100 Indigenous Australians, lost their lives in the great cyclone of Cairns in 1899; over 400 people lost their lives in the disaster of the Cataraqui going ashore in a storm off the west coast of King Island 50 years before that; and we have seen catastrophic bushfires, the worst of which just two years ago took 170-plus lives in Victoria.
We are a more populous country than we were but we are a very innovative country. We have technologies now that our forebears can only have dreamt of, including forecasting wherewithal. We have to acknowledge the services of people who face the hazards of forecasting, of SES personnel and of people who have done whatever they can to get people out of harm’s way, and we have to acknowledge also those who have rebuilt after previous disasters in a way which has minimised the impact of harm. I refer here, for example, to the cyclone proofing or defensiveness of modern homes built in this country since the era of Cyclone Tracy. There is no doubt that hundreds more people would have lost their lives without these technological breakthroughs and without the work of people dedicated to minimising the impact of such awesome events as we have seen in recent times.
Our heart goes out to those who are suffering and will continue to suffer from the impact of these events. We hope that there maybe some respite from it so that we as a nation can move on and hopefully make ourselves safer from such events in the future. The Australian Greens join with other members of this parliament in assuring all those who have been victims of these events that we will do, and are doing, what we can in the political arena to assist the rapid deployment of aid and facilities through not just money but also the remarkable services of public servants, the Army, the SES, the police, medical personnel, people in local government and others throughout this nation. They are deployed to those jobs at our behest and for the benefit of our fellow citizens right now.
Finally, a word on the natural environment, which we look to after the human factor is, as best it can be, attended to. There is no doubt there has been a lot of havoc on the Great Barrier Reef in recent times, a lot of destruction of the great rainforests of Queensland and the wildlife and ecosystems there, and the same applies through the areas which have suffered flooding and fire damage elsewhere in the country. It is part of our harrowing job, but a responsibility we must take on, to see that we do whatever we can to minimise the impact on this nation’s great environmental amenity, because our employment prospects in the future and our economy—as well as our feeling of wellbeing as citizens of this great country—depend on us doing just that.
I thank the government and the opposition for their lead in this debate. I join with them. I add the support of the Greens in bringing comfort wherever and in whatever way we can to the victims of these events and a commitment to see that everything is done that is humanly and politically possible to lessen the burden on the shoulders of those citizens who have been unfortunate enough to be most affected by this series of floods, cyclones and bushfires in Australia.