Bushfires have tested us but Australia will prevail

Family is everything. Family is the reason for getting up in the morning. For working hard. For caring about our community. For caring about our country and its future.

This was true for Geoff Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer as they headed out last Thursday night as part of the Horsley Park RFS Brigade.

Like the more than 200,000 other registered firefighters in Australia, they would have seen their service as an extension of their devotion to their families.

Geoff and Andrew were tragically lost while displaying extraordinary courage and service to our nation and their local community.

Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting Geoff and Andrew’s families – their wives, their parents and their young children. I personally expressed Jenny and my condolences. I also met their incredible local RFS family who are deeply mourning their loss.

We honour their memory, we respect their heroic contribution and we are grateful for their service.

Andrew and Geoff are not the only Australians we have lost in these fires.

As in times past, these fires have taken so much from so many. And as in times past, these fires have brought out the best in so many Australians, especially in those areas directly ­impacted by fire.

Our nation’s response to these disasters, like our response to the floods earlier in the year, proves just how great a country we are.

We live in such an amazing country. However, unlike in times past when Australians have united, on this occasion we have sadly witnessed greater division and conflict. Genuine concerns have led some to question the support being provided by state and federal governments for the ­firefighting response, as well as the ­contribution of climate policy to these fires.

While there is always more that can be done, I can assure Australians that our governments, supported by the Commonwealth, including our defence forces, have ensured that our firefighting efforts have never been better resourced or their actions better co-ordinated.

This has been confirmed to me in the many visits made and briefings I have received from fire chiefs both before the fire season commenced and from September this year as the fires began.

Our emergency management centre in Canberra. The Canungra fire in southern Queensland. The devastated community in Rappville in northern NSW. The Queensland Rural Fire Service HQ in Brisbane. The incident control centres in Wauchope, Wilberforce and Wollondilly and evacuation centres in Taree and Picton.

Visiting these locations I have seen first hand the co-ordination, the technology, the rapid response, the professionalism, the resources, the bravery and determination.

There are agencies at all levels, including Emergency Management Australia at a federal level, whose sole job it is to ensure our national effort is well co-ordinated and resourced.

Their work includes, for example, ensuring we have firefighting planes and helicopters in place, which the federal government has put $26 million into this year alone, including a recent boost of $11 million, ensuring there are supplies of fire retardant in the country or that our mapping systems and emergency frequencies are in place and in good order.

This co-ordinated effort also includes the role of defence forces that have been supporting the fire fighting effort for months now. Our defence forces have been providing vehicles and planes, clearing roads, removing debris, providing accommodation, meals, maintenance and air support to map fire zones.

We will learn from these fires like all those before, as is being demonstrated in the current response. Panicked mindsets never assist in managing a crisis and will not aid the process of further strengthening our response capability in the future.

We must continue to take precautions to protect ourselves. Hazard reduction, sensible land clearing laws, managing fuel loads in national parks, learning from Indigenous Australians, improving our technological capability, law enforcement to prevent arson, improving our weather forecasting tools, better building codes, community education and information programs and how we can best sustain our extensive volunteer fire fighting effort.

All of this will and must be reviewed after the fires and any urgent issues or improvements needed during the current disaster will be identified and addressed.

And yes, we must continue to take real action on climate change. There is no disagreement and there has not been any denial of this critical factor, either by the federal government or any state or territory government.

But to suggest that increasing Australia’s climate targets would have prevented these fires or extreme weather events, in Australia or anywhere else, is simply false.

As part of a global effort, our government will ensure Australia keeps commitments made at the election. Australia’s carbon emissions are on average 50 million tonnes less per year than they were under the previous government. All achieved without a carbon tax.

As I made clear at the election we will exceed our Kyoto commitments, we will meet our Paris commitments and we will continue to welcome ­record investments in renewable technologies. At the same time we are getting electricity prices down, by $65 a year according to the latest figures, as a result of our policies.

We won’t embrace reckless targets and abandon our traditional industries that would risk Australian jobs while having no meaningful impact on the global climate. In short, we will continue to act responsibly on climate change, avoiding extreme responses and get the balance right.

That’s the promise we made to Australians and I intend to keep it.

But for now, there is a firefighting effort to support, there are fellow Australians who need our comfort and our help, and there are plans to be made to make sure we are even better prepared in the future.

And on Christmas Day, take a moment to remember all those impacted not just by the fires, but the drought and floods, and especially Geoff and Andrew’s families, who will spend their first Christmas without them.

Published in The Daily Telegraph.

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