Condolences - Australian Natural Disasters


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (3:34 PM) I support the motion before the Senate with a mixture of sadness and pridesadness because of the tragedies that have befallen the people of my home state of Queensland and indeed all of Australia in recent weeks, and pride in the manner in which my fellow Queenslanders have coped and are continuing to cope. It proves yet again that Australians have an innate capacity to confront and overcome adversity with courage, determination and compassion. Like most Australians, my wife and I found it difficult to watch the television coverage of the floods that swamped Central Queensland, Brisbane, Ipswich and the Lockyer Valley in early January. The Brisbane floods left me with a lasting memory of a familya mum and dad and their young childrentrapped on top of their vehicle in swirling floodwaters while a news helicopter hovered helplessly overhead. We learnt later that rescuers were able to save the mother and the child but that the father was lost. He was one of 29 people who lost their lives in this natural calamity and tragedy.

There were many other heartbreaking storieschildren torn from their mothers arms by raging torrents, homes destroyed, precious family heirlooms and memorabilia lost forever and old and infirm people trapped in their homes as rivers rose so dramatically, consuming everything before them. Australia watched in disbelief when a second wave of floodwaters surged down through the peaceful Lockyer Valley, snaking its lethal way through Toowoomba and Grantham and other smaller centres. Again we watched as cars were tossed around like toys and houses were torn from their foundations. My wife and I drove through Central Queensland and saw firsthand the devastating effects that flooding was having on peoples lives and on properties, supply chains, infrastructure and, in turn, local authorities and emergency relief workers.

Two weeks after the Queensland floods, Victorians were faced with their own flood challenge as the drought ended with a vengeance in that state, causing untold damage to towns and rural properties in central and northern Victoria. And again just a few days ago we watched our friends in Western Australia being evacuated from their homes in the path of fierce bushfires south-east of Perth where a total of 48 homes were destroyed, causing immeasurable heartbreak.

It was only this time last week that I and thousands of others who live in North and Far North Queensland from Mackay to Cooktown were battening down in preparation for the imminent arrival of Cyclone Yasi, predicted to be the biggest and most damaging cyclone in living memory. All of usI have to confess, somewhat selfishly and guiltilywere hoping against hope that the cyclone did not come our way, that it went somewhere else; that, with the notorious unpredictability of cyclones, it did not, in the last few hours, redirect towards us. Having lived in a part of Queensland most of my life where cyclones are common, I have become used to the threat of cyclones during the wet season. It is simply a part of life in the north. In a sense it defines the pioneering spirit which attracted early explorers to the northern and remote parts of Australia.

We have survived many blows, as we call cyclones in the north, but this one had to be taken seriously because of its sheer size and intensity, with wind speeds estimated to be up to 290 kilometres an hour. No matter how many cyclones you have lived through, you never overcome that two to three hours of abject terror as cyclonic winds gusting up to 300 kilometres per hour batter your house and flatten trees in your yard while you are sitting in pitch blackness with a sound like a runaway freight train assaulting your home and your ears. In that situation, you know what terror is all about.

My wife and I had each other. Many face these storms alone, exacerbating the fear and distress that cyclones bring. Where I live we were lucky. We feel for those further north who were not quite so lucky. The 400-kilometre-wide cyclone crossed the coast of North Queensland around Mission Beach, Hull Heads, Tully Heads and Cardwell, flattening rainforests and banana and sugar plants, destroying hundreds of houses and leaving immeasurable human suffering in its wake.

I spent the Saturday just past with the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, inspecting the cyclone-ravaged towns of Innisfail and Tully and later Mission Beach, Tully Heads, Hull Heads and Cardwell. As we flew into Innisfail, the coastal strip between Babinda and Cardwell looked as though a giant scythe had cut everything off at the base. Whole stands of rainforest had been stripped bare, thousands of banana trees and sugar cane stands were flattened and hundreds if not thousands of houses and farm sheds were severely damaged, some beyond repair.

I thank Alf Cristaudo, Chairman of Canegrowers, and Cameron MacKay, Chairman of the Australian Banana Growers Council, for their briefings on the cyclones effects on the banana and sugar industries respectively. Losses in those two industries alone will reach an estimated $900 million, with far-reaching economic consequences for the thousands of workers and businesses that rely on those industries for their livelihood. I was pleased that, while in Tully, Mr Abbott was able to assure all the people of that region that the opposition would oppose the importation to Australia of bananas that do not have a 100 per cent serious quarantine clearance. That is what the people of that area wanted to hear.

I am pleased to announce to all banana lovers in the country that it will not be too long before Australian bananas are back on the shelves. Because of the experiences through Cyclone Larry and other calamities, the damage this time to the industry will not be as severe as previously. As we went around, I was impressed to see some banana stalks standing upright where growers had, the day before the cyclone struck, pruned all the leaves off the stalks of the banana trees and the winds had not knocked them over or broken them off, as happened with most of those which still had their leaves on them.

During our inspection visit, Mr Abbott and I met unsung heroes and stoic Australians at every stop. Smiles had begun to replace tears as people faced up to the massive task of rebuilding their lives, their homes and their economy. Complete strangers became instant friends as victims confronted each other in relief centres run by volunteers and emergency workers.

The relief operation is now in full swing. Power is being restored, water supplies are being reinstated, telecommunications are getting back to normal and highways and access roads are opening. The contribution to the relief and reconstruction effort by over 4,000 soldiers and engineers from Lavarack Barracks in Townsville as well as elements of the Navy and Air Force has been simply magnificent. The sight of a convoy of Army trucks on the Bruce Highway, ferrying troops and heavy machinery from Townsville to the Cassowary Coast to help with the clean-up, was both awe-inspiring and a great comfort to the victims of the cyclone. As shadow parliamentary secretary for the Defence Force and defence support and as a proud North Queenslander I want to thank the men and women of our defence forces for their selfless efforts and tireless work in cleaning up and in giving support to those who suffered the wrath of Cyclone Yasi.

I also take this opportunity to praise and thank the men and women of the Red Cross, the State Emergency Service, Emergency Management Queensland, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Queensland police, Ergon Energy, the Salvation Army, Lions, Rotary and other service clubs, and the church groups, counsellors and innumerable volunteers and individuals who carried out tireless and selfless work during the cyclone and its aftermath. It is practically impossible to identify individuals, and sometimes it is not wise to do so, but without in any way diminishing the heroic work of so many people I do want to mention Tully Red Cross volunteer Noelene Byrne, who typifies the quiet courage, determination and leadership of so many Australians in times of calamity. Noelene worked without sleep for days, ensuring the safety and welfare of victims. It was Noelene who, at the height of the cyclone, went down and corralled evacuees located in one evacuation centre and took them to another, stronger, building only a short time before the first building was completely destroyed by the cyclone. Actions such as this one by Noelene Byrne were repeated right across the board by so many people, and we are indeed grateful and wonderfully blessed to have these people in our community. There were simply so many of them who came to the fore during and after the cyclone.

Everywhere Mr Abbott and I went during our inspection we were inspired by the number of Australian flags and green and gold boxing kangaroo flags that were fluttering on bent flagpoles or hanging from homes that had been completely wrecked. It was as if the people affected were saying to Cyclone Yasi: We will not be beaten. We will be back. Those flags expressed that thought ever so clearly and brilliantly. This was yet another example of the resilient strength of human spirit that has made Australia the great country it is.

I should in passing place on record the leadership shown by many of my parliamentary colleagues in those times of calamity. I mention Ken ODowd, in the north when the floods hit Emerald and Rockhampton; George Christensen, who had to deal first of all with Cyclone Anthony, which was relatively small in cyclonic terms but nevertheless did impact on the Mackay region; and Ewen Jones, Bob Katter and Warren Entsch, for the work and leadership they showed during and in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi.

Australia will recover from the tragedies that have confronted the whole nation in recent times and many other challenges that will inevitably confront the nation over the centuries to come. Adversity will only strengthen us. I want to emphasise that the north is not an inherently dangerous place. It is in fact a great place to live, work and play. We will bounce back, as we have done in the past. The north, with its mineral production, beef cattle, sugar, bananas, other horticultural crops and tourism, makes a very significant contribution to the economy of Australia. North Queensland is a magnificent part of Australia, and the rainforests are as good as they are because they experience rain and get cleaned out every now and again by cyclones, which bring them back even better. Because of the international publicity that this cyclone received before it hit, there will be a bit of a dent on the hard-won reputation of the north as a tourist destination, but I want to assure everybody that it will not be long before the north is back in full swing. Indeed, many parts of the north that were fortunate not to be in the direct path of the cyclone are up and operating again and will continue to provide the magnificent tourism experience for which the north is so well known.

I want to use this debate to call upon all Australians, and indeed my colleagues in the Senate and the House of Representatives, to play their part in rebuilding that part of the north affected by the cyclones by planning now to spend their winter holidays in somewhere like Mission Beach, Cardwell, Cairns or Port Douglas and Townsville or the Whitsundays. They are fabulous places to go and there will be some great deals around. As parliamentarians we can all play our part by spending the two or three days we get off as a winter holiday in that part of the world. In doing so you will be sending a message to everyone else in the world as well asI can guaranteehaving a great time yourself. I also urge Australians to eat a bit more sugar and, when the bananas return in two or three months, really get stuck into bananas, because it is in that way that we can all do our bit to help those places and industries recover.

In conclusion, I humbly and with feeling support the motion before the Senate and extend my condolences to the families of all of those who have lost their lives in recent natural disasters in our country.

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