The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Bill Shorten

Bill Shorten

Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Financial Services & Superannuation

14 September 2010 - 14 December 2011

Speech of 09/02/2011

NO.002

Condolence Motion - Summer natural disasters

Parliament House

9 February 2011

Parliament is a big strong building. It is full of the cut and thrust of politics; the floors, walls and ceilings echo often with ideas and argument. It is a place of national enthusiasm.

But in speaking to this most serious motion I think that one of the most obvious things that I cannot but help recognise is that clearly this place sometimes cannot have the answers-far from it.

We have been witnesses this summer to national disaster and national tragedy. We are left, I suspect, with a requiem of questions: will people be okay? Did families get to safety? How soon will these storms and floods come again? How long will it take to rebuild? Could we have avoided the worst of it?

I have asked myself during this summer-the annual holiday that never was this year-when I watch the images on television, visit places affected and witness the stories of people: why does it take disaster to bring out the best in our nation?

I actually think that in some odd, unexpected, unsought for and undesired way these floods and storms have helped us to rediscover and remind us of our greatest strengths.

I was privileged to see up close in 2009 my fellow Victorians prevail through the terrible Black Saturday fires and their aftermath, Again, I have been privileged to witness so many Australians face flooding and destructive storms in recent weeks. Indeed, I believe that Australians are not simply enduring but prevailing.

In this great continent that we call home we are witness to the physics and chemistry of mother earth working their way across the lucky country in a way that makes you question that famous tag, 'lucky', attached to our country.

But if we are strong and resolute in the way that we come to together perhaps 'lucky' is still the best way to think, despite all that brutal water, wind and fire.

I believe this motion is not just an opportunity to define answers to such national introspection but to more softly ask some of the questions; to ask them, and then to ponder and honour as we remember those who we have lost and those for whom the terror and loss is so real.

Prime Minister Keating once spoke of the lessons that we can learn from ordinary people, and that lesson is that they are not ordinary. His timeless observation was about Australians in a time of war, and how great that generation was in their extraordinary modesty and sheer determination to pull through.

I am reminded of these wise words about ordinary Australians and what they really prove to be when the chips are down when I think about this holiday-less summer that we have had-and that is still yet to end-and the people who have seen the worst of it.

I believe that what it all comes down to is love. Love is what creates the courage we have been witness to.

The love and courage to calm your family and protect them while the wind is howling above your roof like a train, or as the water is rushing down your street like a wild river, or as you sit stranded on your car with your wife and daughter as you float down the torrent of the flood.

The love and courage to look about your mud filled lounge room, figure out that you will get back to it later, put your boots and hat on and walk out the door to help a neighbour who has lost their ceiling, two retaining walls, the car and the family pet.

The love and courage to walk out into the tumbled green mess of a cane sugar plantation or a banana farm before your Cyclone Larry recovery chapter has even been concluded, or indeed in the north-west of Victoria to survey your crops which have been ruined even though you have just come out of drought.

Amongst all of that, to simply see farmers roll up their sleeves and get on working with their next story of recovery is very Australian, very honest, very tough and very brave. This is precisely what has been happening in recent days. This is what communities are doing right at this moment. It is so compelling.

I care about people with a disability, and I was struck during the floods by how people with a disability were coping while everything around them was being destroyed by torrents of water. In particular, during the Channel 9 flood appeal the observation was made that over 100 people with a disability were trapped in the floods. There was concern that they had not been heard from and that some were unable to escape their homes without assistance.

Indeed, tragically some did not flee in time. Neighbours were asked to check on these people, and in an enduring sign of mateship many did so. And, in doing so, they helped people in difficulty who are all too often invisible.

When I say a person with a disability might be trapped in a house by the floods, the storms or the fire, you might instinctively think about someone in a wheelchair. Indeed, that could well be the case. But having a disability can take many forms.

I think about those people who lost vital medication and medical equipment when they were flooded out, the people who might have lost the ramps that allow them to enter and leave their house, the people who have lost a motor vehicle that has been modified to allow them to drive and have some participation in the community and the people who have lost electronic devices that they need to communicate with others.

How do you define love and courage when not only has your house been destroyed but when your everyday life was filled with struggle and difficulty well before the floods ever appeared? Coping with loss and devastation is hard for everyone.

While we are speaking here to offer our condolences, I urge everyone in this place to think about those Australians with a disability who have been affected by the floods, yet another barrier to them in the lives they lead. People with a disability are vital and valued members of our community but they can sometimes be unintentionally overlooked in the midst of extraordinary tragedy.

There are, of course, all manner of degrees of this disaster-from the catastrophic loss of a loved one to the temporary loss of livelihood or time at work and the vital means to support a family.

I do believe people are anxious.

But people have been anxious before. Australians have been afraid before. We have had to deal with hardship and then stand up again.

In my home state of Victoria I have seen people gradually beginning to get back on their feet after the disaster that struck-after seeing what seemed like the very flames of hell reach out and claim the houses, their properties and in 173 cases the very lives of their families, friends and neighbours.

Monday was the second anniversary of the devastating Victorian bushfires known as Black Saturday. As we pause our usual legislative debate and speak to remember the devastation of this most recent tragedy, the devastation that sprawled across so many parts of Australia, it is worth remembering the bushfires of 24 months ago. It is worth remembering how communities, families, businesses, unions and politicians of all political stripes pulled together, stood up together, rebuilt the burnt places and continued the long process that has left such a scar on the land and, indeed, on our souls.

Over 400 bushfires burned on that day two years ago and continued for days afterwards. But it is Black Saturday that we remember. We remember the 2,000-plus homes that were completely destroyed. We remember the 78 individual towns that were affected and the 7½ thousand people who had to seek alternative accommodation after theirs became untenable.

As the Parliamentary Secretary for Bushfire Recovery I travelled to Kinglake, Marysville, Flowerdale and Traralgon South two years ago. I travelled to 33 communities to speak to victims of the bushfire and offer the support of the federal government.

I know that Senator Ludwig, the recently appointed Minister for Flood Recovery, will be doing the same for people battling with the outcomes of the floods.

Of course, recovery from disasters is about much more than just kind words in this place, no matter how heartfelt. Recovery, in some instances, is about fighting for people who have been forgotten. It is about making hard decisions on how to proceed from nothing or next to nothing.

As we did two years ago this government has been working with the insurance industry to help those affected by the floods and the storms. Many Australians are today asking questions about their financial security and their degree of protection from disaster by virtue of the detail of an insurance policy. The questions are plenty and varied.

In many cases, but not all, I have been pleased with the early goodwill and good sense with which the insurance and banking sectors have approached their own response, and responsibilities, to these floods. This includes some very real community expectation that there needs to be real change in how these important sectors of our economy operate.

My commitment is that I will keep a shoulder to the wheel in all of this and get some of the necessary outcomes that flood affected communities so definitely deserve.

There is a varied list of items on the agenda of insurance reform after these floods-from policy disclosure and consumer protection issues to land planning policies and questions about where people build. Some of these things need to be considered thoroughly, carefully and methodically; others demand more immediate movement.

In my view, a handful of particular ones can help ease some of the strain of the disaster affected families and improve the insurance sector for the times and unforeseen but inevitable events ahead. Whilst I speak clearly to the matter of a standard definition of floods, I recognise that these matters are not the silver bullet for the improvement of insurance in Australia. But they are an overdue and necessary first step.

One matter relates to the expert hydrologists, the water experts, and how they can help speed up insurance claim processing. Obviously, after the waters and winds have calmed, no family wants to experience unreasonable delay in being able to put their lives back together and fund the clean-up and rebuilding process.

Last month the government encouraged the insurance industry to establish an expert panel of hydrologists to make neighbourhood by neighbourhood type recommendations about the nature and cause of flooding. Whilst hydrologists are in short supply at any time, let alone now, this expert panel is now up and running and should already be assisting the overall claims process through its expert recommendations on the cause of water damage in different areas. It has also been endorsed by the ACCC.

Nonetheless there is still concern about frustrations with claims taking too long. Indeed, yesterday morning I spoke to the Mayor of Ipswich, Paul Pisasale, and the members for Blair and Oxley to hear about some of the frustrations that they are hearing firsthand on the ground in the community. I will be meeting with them again soon and we are likely to go over more of these matters.

I acknowledge, with all the members of Parliament, that the members for Blair and Oxley have been doing a terrific job representing the interests of their residents, along with Mayor Pisasale, and I record my congratulations.

Where such street-wise observations are raised by any community leaders, this government remains prepared to listen and, where appropriate, act and act as quickly as possible.

We were able to ensure yesterday, for example, with the Insurance Council of Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology, that timely data will be supplied to insurers to allow claims to be processed more quickly. It is pleasing that the insurance industry, the Insurance Council of Australia and its members have agreed that it is time we had a standard definition of 'floods'.

I acknowledge their view that more will need to be done to improve the offering of insurance products, but it is a good first step.

There is cooperation and industry leadership from the Insurance Council of Australia. We are discussing with them ways of improving insurance policies, including plain English on policy documents, to make it easier and simpler for consumers of home and contents insurance to know exactly where they are, to know exactly what they are covered for and what they are not covered for and to know their policies.

I know these things resonate with all Australians at all times and we will keep to the reform task at hand. Later this week I will be meeting with the very important consumer groups to make sure that we get all views from all sides in this debate.

It was a very Australian Christmas break this year, albeit one to break the heart.

We are warned in our national verse of the droughts and flooding rains, the far horizons and the beauty and the terror which make up our national story. Yet it is comforting, in an odd way, when another poet writes that a terrible beauty is born. 

Around the cups of soups in the churches and the school halls and the smashed streets, where new friends were made amongst the wreckage. There is a noble beauty in the search for the photo albums, the children's toys and the pet animals that may have survived the juggernaut that came from the heavens and went so fast through a lifetime's history and hopes-now strewn before people in mud and splinters that cannot simply be put back together again.

I suspect it was in a modest way war by other means. I suspect it was a war in which in a real sense, as the floods recede and storms abate, people were made refugees.

It would be wrong to falsely find much comfort in it. But it is worth knowing that when the roofs were flying, when a deluge as large as some European countries was swamping heartland, town and street we did not hear a cry of 'every person for themselves'. It was not 'Devil take the hindmost' or 'I'm all right, Jack'.

It was, alas, unlike in other countries under hurricane or, indeed, conflict it was here the attitude of, 'Let's look after each other.' It was, 'How can I help?', 'Do you need a hand?' or 'Can I carry that for you?' across the suburbs and towns of a large part of our nation under water and parts of our nation facing cyclone and facing firestorm.

Australians were there for their friends and for strangers- they risked their lives for the property and lives of others.

We were there in that wondrous communitarian unity of help that is the Australian settlement, of a difference in shared peril and bad weather.

We have witnessed people being there for each other, as we have been in war, tempest and peace. Australians do the right thing. It is habit now.

This, of course, does not bring back those who have left us or the heirlooms or the beloved kitchens or the pianos and the gardens tended down through the decades by gentle souls too old to plant them again. This does not mean that it has not happened.

What it does mean is that we are good neighbours in this country and Australians rally round. Led by our Prime Minister, our state leaders and many more, we rally round. We give comfort when it is cried for.

We are a good people whose goodness has been tested too much this summer.

We are people who have shown again that when the time comes around once more Australia will be there facing it all as one.