03 February 2016

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (11:47): I rise to support the comments of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and everyone who will now make a contribution to this important reflection on the natural disasters we have suffered in this country in recent months.

In particular, I want to focus on my own region, the Hunter. But before I do, I want to acknowledge the other unfortunate and tragic events reflected on by the leaders. There were, of course, the fires in Western Australia, particularly in Yarloop where we had what I would describe almost as a Hollywood-style event, where a whole town was effectively wiped off the map. It was just so tragic. It is very hard to believe. And, unless you were part of that event, I do not think any of us could possibly hope to fully understand the impact on that community. There were also the fires around the Great Ocean Road region, and the floods in the Northern Territoryall are tragic events at arguably the worst time of the year, when people are seeking a break and hoping to have a holiday. But wherever the event, there is one constant, and that is the work, the skill, the courage and the dedication of our emergency services personnel, both those who are paid but also more particularly, in many senses, the unpaidthose who volunteered; those who give up their time. They are simply amazing, leaving their families, often on Christmas Day, more often than not during a period when they are trying to take a holiday from their work. They do that to risk their lives, in the cold or the heat, in an attempt to assist others who are in trouble.

I do not think that any of us can speak too highly of those who are doing that important and dangerous work.

Indeed, I pay particular tribute to Paul Sanderson. He was a volunteer firefighter from my own electorate who gave his life in November last year fighting a fire in the searing heat. At 48 years of age, he suffered a fatal heart attack. It is a sad and tragic loss. I suspect that almost every member of this place would have a similar story, given the sheer number of volunteers we have out there on a regular basis

In my own region, the stormsthe cyclonic eventthat we suffered over the course of the Christmas period came very soon after the devastating April floods and storms of last year. I have heard anecdotes of people who were only just finally coming around to replacing the carpet in their home or in their small business, only to have it ruined again by the storms which took place over the break. So this is particularly devastating for those people.

The April storms took the lives of three peoplenot all of them, but some in the electorate of the member for Paterson and one, certainly, in my own electorate. The community of Gillieston Heights in my electorate, for example, was cut off from the rest of the community for days on end. I pay tribute both to the residents of Gillieston Heights and all those who came to their assistancewho volunteered their fishing boats et cetera to get food and supplies onto what the stoic residents came to call 'Gillieston Island' rather than Gillieston Heights, which was both funny and reflective of the courage of the community.

It is time for the state government to do something about the access to Gillieston Heights. I went to school in Maitland, travelling from my home town of Cessnock, and the school bus was cut off regularly at Testers Hollow, the roadway through just before Gillieston Heights. We were unable to get to school. I am now 54 years of age, so that was a little while ago, Madam Deputy Speaker

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs Prentice): Twelve years ago!

Mr FITZGIBBON: and still in heavy rains and floods the access to Gillieston Heights is still being blocked by floods. We are in the 21st century and it is time the state government became very serious about making sure that is not the case and that the residents of Gillieston HeightsI almost said 'Gillieston Island' again!are not stranded in the way they were during the April storms and again recently. They were not landlocked this time, because it was only blocked off on one side this time, but they were in April. They should never have to experience that again in this modern world. Where we have all the wit in the world, we should be able to address that problem, and money should not be a barrier to such an important project. It does not have to be the lifting of the road; there might be other solutionsfor example, a different route for the road. I have heard some alternatives, but whatever it is it should be done and it should be done quickly. Indeed, all three levels of government should be working together to make sure that is the case.

I just want to touch quickly on an area called South Cessnock in my home town. I am going to go back to my youth again. I remember when I was on Cessnock City Council, wading through water that was waist-deep in South Cessnock, helping local residents sandbag to protect their homes from the flood. South Cessnock is still flooding. In heavy rains it floods. I am not too critical of the council; I know it has a strategy or plan that is working on the issue. But I think South Cessnock residents, many of whom were there all those years ago and well before I was wading through the water, deserve to have that problem addressed. They have had water through their homes on too many occasions, and surely in the 21st century we have both the finances and the wit to do something about that problem.

These events are a reminder that we cannot control the weather. We cannot control Mother Nature. Mother Nature is far more powerful than any technology we have, including nuclear capacity. When the volcano goes off or the winds or the high seas comethe tsunamiand wipes an island continent out, there is nothing human beings can do. We need to take care of our environment.

I have never been described as a rabid environmentalist.

I prefer to describe myself as a conservationist and a person who believes that we do have to take more care of our environment. If there is any suggestion that the endeavours of the human kind are causing our weather patterns to become more erratic and less predictable, we should be doing something about it and taking any measure as a precautionary principle to make sure that we are, as best we can, as a human race protecting ourselves because, again, when Mother Nature speaks we do not have the answers. We can go out and help as best we can and protect ourselves as best we can, but we cannot protect ourselves from the most erratic weather events. So we should be taking a public policy approach that reassures people that, as best we can, we are making sure that the activities of the human race are not making those events more likely.

I support the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and I am pleased that they put this motion forward. It is Important to those who have been affected by weather events. Certainly, from my perspective, it is a very, very important opportunity to pay tribute to all those who have helped in the recent events and those before them and no doubt will do so in the future, giving up their time and risking their lives to help others in need.