We can't talk about bushfires without talking about climate change - Speech, House of Representatives


Edward Ryan was born at Calvary Hospital on 20 January. A few hours later his parents' car was smashed by hailstones in the hospital car park.

As Edward left hospital with his parents two days later, Canberrans were being evacuated from their homes and workplaces as bushfires bore down.

When Edward was just a fortnight old, flames framed our southern skies, turning them red, as emergency services battled the Orroral Valley fire—the worst since the 2003 Canberra bushfires.

I spoke with Edward's parents, Renee and Sam, at the climate rally outside yesterday. They were among the hundreds of people who had gathered in the wake of the bushfire crisis. Renee told me how she spent the last month of her pregnancy inside avoiding the smoke—there was an air quality index rating of 4,091 on New Year's Day 2020. That's around 20 times the level considered hazardous. It was the worst air quality recorded anywhere in the world on that day.

In the Canberra Hospital some machines were unable to operate due to smoke. Steve Robson spoke about babies being born in smoky delivery suites and the anxiety of their parents. He said:

'I feel it so viscerally. You deliver a baby and you think, "Wow. Isn't this the greatest moment of someone's life?" And just behind it now there is this apprehension about what this child will face.'

It wasn't just smoke that Renee was avoiding. She stayed inside to avoid record-breaking heat. On 4 January Canberra reached 43.6 degrees, a new top temperature record. Less than a fortnight later, the bush capital recorded four consecutive days of 40 degrees or above—another first. Just four days ago, temperatures in Canberra hit 42.7 degrees, an all-time high for February.

We can't stand here and talk about bushfires without talking about climate change. In 2008 Ross Garnaut's climate change review noted that unchecked climate change would likely lead to more hot days, droughts, extreme winds, hailstorms, thunderstorms and floods. His review cites projections of fire weather, saying bushfire seasons would start earlier and end later and generally be more intense.

Many Australians already know this. We've seen their anger and frustration in recent weeks. From the affected regions to the city streets, they march for change. Hundreds gathered on the parliament lawns yesterday to hear from Dr Karl Kruszelnicki and other speakers. These are people who bring us stories of hope, like ACT Young Australian of the Year, Madeline Diamond, who recently stood alongside the Prime Minister with the words 'climate justice' written across her chest.

We've seen the best of Australia this bushfire season. Canberrans Tom and Phoebe Caddaye were stranded on the south coast on New Year's Eve as bushfires neared. They had no cash for the cash-only petrol station and faced being stuck in the path of the fire with their children. They were saved by another driver, who scraped together all the cash he had on him—$36—and handed it over.

As Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities, I acknowledge the outpouring of volunteer effort and donations and the hard work of nonprofits, including the Red Cross, Vinnie's, the RSPCA and WIRES. I know many of the organisations on the ground have emphasised the value of getting cash. It helps local businesses and avoids the problem of unwanted goods piling up in the community hall. To make an in-kind donation a great channel is givit.org.au, which matches generous donors offering a laptop, washing machine or trampoline with a family that needs it. Many people near bushfire-prone areas have opened up their houses to victims. Last weekend we listed our spare bedroom on Airbnb OpenHomes and hosted a young family who had been evacuated from Narooma.

But individual action isn't enough. We need strong government action too. Australia is the developed economy most at risk from unchecked climate change. It is in our national interest to be a leader in global emissions reduction, not tugging at the shirts of the leaders, dragging them back.

Like Renee and Sam, I don't want my children to grow up in a world where their lives are limited because of a lack of action from those in power. We here in this chamber cannot allow the events of this summer to be forgotten in the chaos of another political year.

One per cent of Australia's land area burnt.

Thousands of homes destroyed.

33 lives lost.

As Labor leader Anthony Albanese has said, we honour those who have sacrificed their jobs, their health and, in some cases, their lives to fight the fires. We remember those who have lost their homes and their precious belongings. We share their frustration and anger at those who say it's business as usual. We must use this moment as a catalyst for change.


Authorised by  Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.