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The bushfire crisis: The Prime Minister fiddled while his country burned

Speeches in Parliament
Adam Bandt 6 Feb 2020

Thursday, 6 February 2020

I stand in this place full of rage and sorrow. This building, with its glassy volcanic size, rises and blends in with the landscape around it. But today it mocks the country around it, which is scarred, damaged and unrecognisably burnt. The irony is overwhelming.

The people who sit in the plush chairs on the government side sit smugly on their green benches—a colour that has been burnt away from 17 million hectares of our country. Yet here we stand—a day of condolences. But how hollow so many of them are! We stand here, and some speak empty words to empty chairs, while the people that we were elected to represent die or lose loved ones, friends, families, houses, businesses, their air, their health, their history and their safety. And those words are hollow because they come from the mouths of people who could do something real but choose not to. As a message to anyone who lost something because of the fires: you may or you may not find this motion helpful. It may make it easier to deal with your pain, your suffering and your loss, or it may not. But it certainly doesn't do anything to prevent something like this from happening again. It doesn't stop things from getting worse. Do not listen to those who tell you otherwise.

These fires are unprecedented in their intensity, their size and their destruction because of fossil fuels—because of the burning of coal, oil and gas. Because of what we know about the burning of fossil fuels—because we know it now and have for a long time—when a government continues, encourages and promotes the burning of coal and gas, they are complicit. If we speak the truth then we must assign blame to those who are responsible. And that man and his cronies sit only a few metres away in the chamber. This is irrefutable. The fingerprints of the Morrison ministry, the Turnbull ministry, the Abbott ministry and the ministries that have come before them are on these fires. This fire season has now become an indelible part of this government's legacy. These are their fossil fuelled fires, their coal fuelled fires, their gas-grown fires, their legacy. Maybe in 2,000 years we'll have a new saying because of these times. Currently we say, 'Nero fiddled while Rome burned.' In the future, we'll say, 'The Prime Minister fiddled while his country burned'.

Like everyone else in this place, I want to acknowledge and thank our emergency services, our public servants and our community volunteers who are working so hard to look after us right across the country, including here in Canberra, as we face this continuing bushfire disaster. To everyone who has lost someone: we can't begin to imagine your grief, but we are thinking of you.

Over the past few days, I've been in touch with a Country Fire Authority firefighter in Victoria, who has been telling me of the unprecedented and terrifying conditions our emergency service workers and volunteers are experiencing. He wants the country to know that firefighters on the ground know that the climate crisis is real and is hitting us fast. He, like millions of Australians, has been appalled by the failures of our country's Prime Minister. There's no point repeating here the litany of critical errors that have been made by this Prime Minister, but there is no question that he has abrogated his supreme responsibility to keep Australians safe. He put this question beyond doubt when, almost three years ago, he brought a lacquered lump of coal into this parliament and cradled it like a baby.

The responsibility of the powerful, in the face of a crisis, is to act with certainty, with conviction and with the best available information at their disposal. But instead of this parliament shaping the country it is the emissions burnt from fossil fuels: they are disfiguring it, scarring it and making it unrecognisable. Have no doubt about what these bushfires show. They show that coal and gas sit on the throne of power. They show that Gina Rinehart and the rest of the coal, oil and gas billionaires, safe from the fires in their cathedrals, run this place and they will burn it to the ground for a buck. They have worked together in the corridors of power here to make Australia the biggest LNG exporter in the world. We are the third-largest fossil fuel exporter globally, trailing only Russia and Saudi Arabia. What a trio!

How do you quantify the grief of this catastrophe? The brutal, violent deaths of billions of creatures have happened in a matter of months. Innocent lives, human and animal alike, have been extinguished, their homes of green becoming prisons of flames in the blink of an eye. Imagining the fear and helplessness that they would have felt is harrowing.

A couple of weeks ago I visited Malua Bay with Senator Mehreen Faruqi and stood with Nick Hopkins in front of the wreckage that used to be his home. It was destroyed by the bushfires. Nick stood there and he said, clearly and knowingly, that what we are experiencing is not a natural disaster but an unnatural disaster. He told the Prime Minister that this is what the climate emergency looks like. Nick summed up the feelings of so many of us. He said that he was two parts shattered and three parts angry. Australians are anxious and angry because the government clearly does not have the climate emergency under control and has no plan to get it under control.

This is what it looks like in Australia at one degree of warming. We are on track for up to 3.4 degrees. It is hard to imagine that it could get worse than it is now, but it can—and it will, unless we act. We talk about learning the lessons from the fires. The one big lesson is that the best thing we could do to minimise the risk of megafires like this happening again is to phase out fossil fuels. So, I say to this place: enough; no more thoughts and prayers until you have a plan to phase out coal and gas, because, until you have a plan to phase out coal, thoughts and prayers and people on the government benches are pouring fuel on the fire and putting Australians at risk.

The next motion that gets passed through this place should be a motion that declares a climate emergency. The next thing that gets passed through this place should be a suite of comprehensive policies that deploy the entire machinery of government—every single department—towards decarbonising this country. We desperately need more money for our extraordinary firefighters, but what we also need to do is stop burning coal, oil and gas so they don't have to do this year after year.

Today I was joined by over a dozen firefighters in calling for a doubling of firefighting resources, to be paid for by a levy on the coal, oil and gas industry. Yet, as our country continues to burn, our Prime Minister signs our souls away with new arrangements that will stick a syringe into the ground in New South Wales and draw out gas that we cannot afford to burn. The bushfires have taught him nothing. The urgency of the situation is lost on this man as he plunges us further and deeper into the darkness of an economy that runs on carbon. The politicians in this place have been corrupted and seduced by the fossil fuels that line their pockets. If you were to turn out the jacket pockets of many of the men and women who sit in this place with me, you would find coal dust lining them.

This building should be the instrument of our liberation. It should be able to force our economy and the architecture of our country away from what is destroying it and towards its renewable salvation. I will not accept this summer as our new normal. I refuse to adapt to kids wearing gas masks. I refuse to accept a world where people put off having children because they are feeling so insecure about their future. We are a smart and wealthy country and, if we have the guts to take on these fossil fuel giants and the weak politicians they have in their pockets, we can solve these crises.

We need a Green New Deal to make it more likely that we never see these tragedies again, because, at three degrees of warming, which is what we are on track for, I see a future where the fire comes from the west and the rising ocean comes from the east. I see cities that will need to retreat from the coast and retreat from the bush because both will fast become uninhabitable. So I support this motion, but I also condemn it as a poor substitute for what we were elected to this place to do: to act. But this is not action. These words do not reduce pollution; no words will. Action to replace coal, oil and gas with renewables and to tell fossil fuels that their time is up is the only thing that has any chance of slowing down the extinction that we are hurtling towards.

Today I grieve. I grieve for the immeasurable complexity of what we have lost: the lives, the love and the ecology that may never come back. But I am charged with a determination. My pledge to everyone who has been affected by this summer and spring is that, as long as I am in this place, I will never stop fighting. I will do everything that I can to stop these coal fuelled fires, these gas powered infernos and these oil fuelled flames from ravaging our country every summer.

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