Condolence Motion for the Australian bushfires

February 04, 2020

THE SENATE - CONDOLENCES Australian Bushfires SPEECH - Tuesday, 4 February 2020 

I'd like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, on whose land we speak today, in giving our condolences to the families and to all involved in the bushfire recovery right across Australia, and I note here on this country of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people the bushfires that are still burning.

It has been a summer of loss and trauma for so many. I extend deepest condolences to all families and friends of those who have lost loved ones. And to all those who have lost country, homes, treasured possessions and livelihoods: my deepest sympathies, on behalf of the people of the Northern Territory. To those who have tirelessly fought the fires, day and night, week in and week out: I salute your efforts—the people of the Northern Territory do. We are in awe of what you do. I'd also like to say a very big thank you to our firefighters and volunteers from the Northern Territory who assisted in various jurisdictions over the past five months as individual places, communities and towns called for help across Australia. To my colleagues here and in the other place, who've spent their summer also on the front line fighting the fires, supporting their communities and constituents on the ground, lending a hand: thank you.

I've heard many say conditions such as those that we face this summer are the new normal. I cannot accept this. We will not accept that we have to face the loss of thousands more square kilometres to out-of-control fires every summer, that families will have to flee their homes, that farmers will see livestock and infrastructure wiped out and businesses will burn down, that ancient forests that have never seen a wildfire have now gone and others are threatened and that an estimated one billion native animals have been killed. The fires have been and continue to be acute and sometimes overwhelming. Our focus is rightly on the continuing firefighting efforts, recovery in those areas where the immediate threat has eased and supporting those who have been impacted. We certainly refuse to accept that what has been going on is the future. We have to do everything we can to bring emissions down in Australia and internationally. It will get much worse if we don't.

The use of fire as a landscape management tool is not new to First Nations people. In Arnhem Land, it runs through all aspects of our lives, our spirituality and the way we interact with the ecology, and it has done so for many thousands of years. We know it's different everywhere. It's about nuance, culture, vegetation type, weather, climate and so much more. In the modern context, it's been made more complex by 200 years of settlement, new fire-promoting weeds, feral animals changing the landscape, dense settlement patterns of people and houses in many areas, and of course an increasing level of drought and drying and intense hot weather due to climate change.

We also know, and shouldn't forget, that First Nations communities are managing for those contemporary issues too. That is happening right across Australia, in particular through well-established Indigenous ranger groups and Indigenous protected areas, who all have some level of planning and capacity around managing fire. It's knowledge that we so want to share right across Australia. Burning off, for the First Nations people of the Northern Territory, even on my home country of the Yanyuwa-Garrwa people, is something that has been culturally significant for generations—something we've been able to teach, and work closely on, with non-Indigenous Australians, particularly in the firefighting industry. Ancient techniques and knowledge are partnering with modern technologies to develop effective ways of using fire to manage the land.

I read a comment recently that 'a few well-placed matches like in the old days' would have somehow been an effective way of managing fuel loads and mitigating fire risk. Nothing could be further from the reality of the modern fire management practices that are being used by Indigenous rangers. Sometimes these First Nations rangers work from helicopters, working with scientists, sometimes with drip torches and sometimes not. The longer these ranger teams have been around and the better they're resourced, the more they are a key element for the entire community, for the Australian community, in managing fire. Indigenous ranger groups are working side by side with fireys, state agencies, national parks, local shires and local government. In many cases, they are the fireys.

The southern parts of Australia from Queensland to WA have been severely hit, to an extent we've never seen before—and it's not over yet by any stretch. The smoke we've seen here on Ngunawal-Ngambri country today is proof, if we ever needed it. We've watched it all summer, and we saw fires start in winter. This is not business as usual.

It's been a particularly hard season for many in the Northern Territory over the past year. Highly experienced and accomplished landscape managers like Warddeken in western Arnhem Land have sophisticated fire management techniques. They've applied cultural knowledge in combination with Western science and technology over the last 10 years, greatly reducing the severity and spread of wildfire in their region. It's knowledge they are so willing to share. But this last year has been a major test even for them. An extended and pronounced dry season has seen them applying huge effort since as far back as last June, extending into what is normally the wet season. The rangers of Warddeken all suspended their Christmas holidays to keep the fires under control. They have done everything right and have applied hazard reduction and cultural burns over a decade, but a changing climate and its impacts on our wet season and our weather have seen them spending down significant amounts of their own money and time to keep country, wildlife and property safe. In doing so, they greatly protect the flanks of our other national natural assets, like Kakadu National Park.

In Queensland, groups such as the Bunya rangers are in a different position. They aren't landowners, but they have over several years stepped up in responsibility for land management in their region. They negotiate and build relationships with local landowners, shires, parks agencies and others, and, through forging these relationships, they are making a vital contribution to their community and culture and to the public benefit of all Queenslanders. They have been working closely with other services and sharing their expertise and knowledge to prepare for and to fight fires.

In New South Wales, the Minyumai rangers work on the Minyumai IPA, south of Lismore, and the Wattleridge Indigenous protected area, near Armidale, which were both hit hard by fire over Christmas and New Year. They did everything right in terms of preparation. They did their cultural and hazard reduction burning and they worked side by side with local fireys and park rangers, but the extreme conditions meant they were heavily impacted. Thankfully, they're all okay—if exhausted—and ready to apply themselves to the long task of recovery. The task of supporting the wildlife—the impacts we have seen extensively—is a massive task. The government has finally, slowly started to respond, but this response cannot, must not, be a flash in the pan. We need to step up our land management year round to tackle fire and the associated impacts and causes, including weeds, threatened species, feral animals, cultural and tourism site protection and human safety.

Over in Western Australia, the Ngadju traditional owners have again been hit hard by fire in the beautiful landscape of the Great Western Woodlands. Ngadju country is particularly diverse. The management of fire in the landscape there is different to Victoria, which is different to New South Wales, different to Queensland and different to the Northern Territory. First Nations people understand that and our best scientists understand that now. But we need to relearn it in a new and changing climate with new risks and new conditions. In Western Victoria, the Gunditjmara people have seen fire across their World Heritage listed Budj Bim cultural landscape. Thankfully, they report no major damage, but it's another example of a well-regarded local ranger and IPA crew being able to inform better local fire management.

Sadly, in New South Wales, the Mogo Land Council, including their rangers, lost a lot of buildings and equipment over the last month. There is a lot of rebuilding to do there and they will need support. There are many other stories of individuals, of cultural places hit so hard, and of the overall sense of hurt and damage inflicted on beautiful country and, most importantly, on our families right across the country. There is grief for the loss of so much.

Along with the immediate emergency response, we need to ensure that we don't get complacent and go back to business as usual when the TV cameras have moved on. We need to step up the resourcing of our land management nationally for fire and many other connected aspects that relate to land management for fire and recovery after it. The government must increase long-term investment in establishing and supporting strong ranger programs and strong ranger teams on the ground and increase funding for our Indigenous protected areas.

Existing groups have made multiple calls to expand their ranger teams, with new jobs and increased operational funding for year round management. This needs to be ongoing, permanently. It is about jobs. It is about working on country and valuing cultural knowledge and practice that belongs to this country and the people who live here. We must commit to ensuring the programs which intersect with rangers and Indigenous protected areas like threatened species recovery, research and science, feral animal and invasive weed control, cultural heritage management and so on are supported by an engaged and technically competent federal government. Strangely, we have further distanced our environment department from supporting ranger groups and IPAs over the last six years. Prime Minister and Cabinet currently manage contracts, and I'm repeatedly given feedback from on the ground that they cannot and do not provide the engaged on-ground support that is needed. Our Indigenous community based rangers and IPAs are delivering so much and we shouldn't be reducing their support. We need to improve it and increase it. The Prime Minister told the National Press Club: 'We must learn from Indigenous Australians and their ancient practices on how to improve our resilience to these threats.' Well, Prime Minister, listen to this speech. The lesson is right here in front of you. The action you can take is right now. We have the knowledge of these rangers right across the country who are willing to give that to you.

So let's make a commitment not to simply have a response that's temporary. We have models to deliver and support Indigenous land and sea management well. Our IPAs and our ranger networks have proven successes and in fact are being looked at as models internationally. Just get serious about working with First Nations people here. It's time. It's time for all of us to come together in sharing this knowledge.