Classic Ellis: The Black Saturday Fires, 2009

(A speech for Nathan Rees)

The enormity of what occurred on February 7th is becoming plain to us by now. Relative to population it could be seen, if we chose, as our 9/11 – certain planned acts of terrorism that ended the lives of a similar percentage of our people, left tens of thousands of witnesses in trauma, and concentrated in quiet rage the minds of a nation.

That so much harm can be done with a match or a cigarette lighter beggars our sense of proportion. That so much lifelong grief can be caused in a minute or two, grief and regret and self-blame that does not begin to recede for years, is one of the questions we must now address as Australians, as neighbours and governments and human beings.

There are kids who lost their dogs, grandparents who lost their family heirlooms and family albums, men who built their houses brick by brick over years who are staring now at blackened ruins. There are small towns that lived on the tourist trade that will not hereafter be destinations again. There are educations interrupted, life ambitions ended, small businesses ruined, mothers waiting for days to identify the corpse of a child. There are looters and similar vermin seizing the hour to profit from catastrophe. There are horses wandering in blackened forests lost and far from home.

And worse, I am told by those who have been through fire and come out the other side, are dreams that come back again and again. And this time the hose is long enough, the car keys found in time, the family photos got down off the wall in time, the school prizes, the war medals gathered up in time, the animals released from the yard in time, the inscribed book discovered unharmed in the ashes, and the loved one turning up alive, out of the burnt forest, after many days. And the dreams do not abate for a decade or more, and the self-punishing memories do not cease. As with the surviving victims of other holocausts, the flashbacks do not relent, and the guilt goes on.

So we, their neighbours and fellow citizens and distant acquaintances – and everyone in this chamber knows someone who knows someone who died in the fire – have obligations, I think, beyond the last wisps of smoke, and the last skin-graft in the hospital, and the last funeral service of a corpse too long harassed by the coroner. We have duties of care to the injured surviving victims, in their loneliness and grief, in their rebuilding of their homes and the words they say to their children, that may continue for years of neighbourly comfort and long phone calls and memorial songs at annual services on the day. We must agree to stay in touch, and be there when we are needed, until in the survivor’s mind a change comes, and they are able to move on to other things.

Mr Speaker, it is a pity, and it is a particular sorrow to me, as a former Minister for Emergency Services and one who saw as a boy growing up the fire-sunsets over the Blue Mountains almost every other year, that, as the globe warms and the continent dries and the lightning storms maraud down the mountain valleys and the snowfields recede and the rivers dwindle and the dust blows, that these ecological enormities, these unstaunchable annual furnaces will multiply, and more and more Australians will get to know firsthand how it is to be surrounded by flame and praying for help that may not come, and to know as well, as the panic increases, that this may have been man-made, and the culprit may not be found. It is in my view, Mr Speaker, a terrible pity, and I note it.

Of the necessary things now happening, Mr Speaker, in these lovely little towns – the bulldozing of landmarks, the putting down of injured cattle, the cutting down of tall beloved trees, the setting up of caravan communities with water, electric light and toys enough for the children to play with, the explaining to children of where some friends have gone, and why some pets may not return, we in this government and our tireless fieries, and volunteer nurses and social workers from this state will play, of course, some part.

But our larger duty, I think, and I choose my words carefully here, our larger duty in this worst of bushfire summers is to begin to effect some change in the minds of the restless boys and the thwarted old men who divert themselves over Christmas with this unimaginable atrocity.

For it is not a thing done, I believe, in full knowledge of its consequences, of the loss of life and the years of misery that follow in its wake. It is in the mind of the culprit a careless, trivial act like graffiti or breaking windows, or the bombs flung and the guns fired in children’s cartoons. That it can devastate a nation is not at first imagined, or even, I fear, eventually learned. And it is a vast educational responsibility we must embark on in our schoolrooms and churches and kindergartens if it is ever to cease. Even twenty-five years in gaol for one or other of the convicted arsonists will not do it. We must enlist other methods of persuasion, of conversion, and find out what they are.

Mr Speaker, we see as always Australia at its best in south-west Victoria in these late hours of tribulation. We see comradeship and neighbourhood anew. We see young men who risk their lives to save not just a stranger’s life but his property. We see the gathering of goodness as communities rally and money pours in from towns and cities far from the scene of catastrophe. We see and applaud that Australia as we can condemn the cause of this convergence of goodwill. And we join our voices here in this house in the general commiseration, in the world wide sympathy for this, our worst peacetime disaster, our most painful embrace of need, and offer our help to those bereaved, and those deprived of their lifelong dreams in a hellish, roaring moment of accident, misfortune and regret, and whatever words and a listening ear and a text message and a card can do to reduce the suffering of so many.

Mr Speaker, I commend this motion to the House.

Leave a comment ?


  1. That was some of your most beautiful writing, Bob. Too, it showed the man you are, Bill.

  2. Did Rees deliver it as is?

  3. Beautifully put, Bob.

    I knew someone who knew an arsonist many years ago, a young man who enjoyed, in the middle of the night, setting fire to schools. When I asked my friend why he did these things, his answer was simple: he hated schools.

    At the root of it, is it a hatred of their environment? I wonder if they just see endless bush, and feel no affinity whatsoever with their land, trees, animals, scrubland. Disconnected. There’s a psychopathy involved, and we must, I agree, try and find a way to reach these people. Punishment is not enough.

    • Some people just like lighting fires. Perhaps a psychopathy is involved. Most of them (at least those halfway sane) are appalled by the eventual results of their firelighting.

      Interestingly, a lot of them join volunteer firefighting groups; they are attracted to fires, and who gets closer to fires than firefighters?

      Of course I do not want to denigrate those wonderful people who give of their time and labour to help fight fires, but some of them are inevitably borderline pyromaniacs, just as some scoutmasters, some priests, some teachers are paedophiles.

      We are complex creatures.

    • Nothing to do with hating anything, just some young louts , bored and dumb; in America they shoot by-passing joggers, here they start bushfires.

      • Helvi, I’m not sure it’s just about boredom. Idle louts break windows and pinch ciggies from the shop, or steal cars. There’s more in play - a destructive malevolence.

        Anyone with half a brain would know what the consequences of lighting a fire on a hot, windy day would be - these boys/men have other motives.

    • More likely the progeny of zinc alum suburbia. Bored shitless. Miles of sameness, dreariness beyond belief. What to do? Get drunk or sneak away and start a fire, anything for relief.

  4. And now this, on top of everything else. Terrorists are fiddling with Dick Cheney’s heart.

    Rome is burning

  5. According to DQ, Jsa is sulking about our lack of support re climate change. Well, here is a small piece piece I wrote in 2000 and I offer it as evidence regarding my long term hopes, a return to a healthier, less polluted planet:

    Death’s fragment is our inheritance
    bashed through time
    from bard to preacher,
    seldom does our raga of hate weaken
    in this snivelling watered down version
    of living
    we take on board as something precious,
    Defend with armies; fighting since
    the first erected cross
    stained the last bleeding hill.

    I wonder and I wonder
    as the stars must wonder why they
    gravel the universe in such prolific
    or the crab wonders as his wounded meat
    too polluted to eat;
    he can only scuttle and remain infertile
    in less cluttered company.

    It’s not hard to slip into despair,
    forget the reason why we are here
    and substitute our own ideas;
    intricate laws
    too intricate to maintain, they are changed
    and changed
    but who do they really protect,
    and what has been protected?

    The one-winged bird cannot perfect its flight,
    nor the half-tailed fish its style,
    as we perfect ours while wrecking the ball
    slack jawed when the big mushroom spores

    Be aware of that thief in the night.

  6. Well done Chris. A poet hiding in the long grass.

    • Long grass, ahh. Now you’ve got me started. Did you know that the official archeological survey conducted on Pine Creek’s China Town area, the longest inhabited Chinese mining settlement in Australian history, was conducted during the wet, when the grass was at is longest, not possible to read the ground. Bugger me.

  7. To the Loggers of West Irian

    You don’t fuck your mother, mother fucker
    ’cause mother ain’t no stranger, mother fucker
    would you put your mum in danger, would you flog her to that stranger, mother fucker?

  8. just saw this on BBC News over here:

    Australia’s military is investigating whether a training exercise using explosives may have started one of the huge bush fires burning in the state of New South Wales.

    • There was a copper in Perth who started a bushfire a couple of years ago, angle grinding on a TFB day and sparking up more than 70 houses.

      I think he walked free. Stress, or something, so they let him off.

      The DOD dunderheads will no doubt be similarly acquitted, ‘just doing their duty’, the beak will say.

      Another fire began here in Sydney earlier in the year when a family business, a son & pop meth lab based in the bush was torched by its owners. Insurance purposes perhaps. The book got thrown at them though, when the time came.

      Perhaps they should have worn chemists’ smocks.

      • What of those responsible for the power poles? They’re too expensive to replace.

      • “The DOD dunderheads will no doubt be similarly acquitted, ‘just doing their duty’, the beak will say.”

        If they got away with Dresden Canguro, the Blue Mountains will be a doddle.

  9. “There has been a terrible tragedy in NSW and nobody should seek to politicise any human tragedy, let alone a bushfire of this scale.”: Greg Hunt.

    ummm… except when we do it, and the humans are, well… you know, illegals.

    • Hunt the horrible, Hunt the hypocrite, his little face full of concern for humanity…go away…you are giving the letter H a bad name.

      • Written and authorised by the Highly Honourable Helvi…. Heroine of the H’s. :smile:

        • So, now you are back Pedro, I missed some regulars here after my little break…
          Bob or someone else has to write something soon…

          So far the reputation of the letter P is impeccable…(Pauline was a temporary hitch) :cool:

      • Adolf got the ball rolling.

        TG for Jerry Hall, who introduced me to Bryan Ferry, and Carolyn Hester who introduced me to Bob Dylan, and the double banger Helen Hunt who introduced me to the Sessions.

        Head high Helvi!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Come back, Jsa. Come back soon.

    • …I second that,Kb.

      • Seriously, why (in 6 words or less)?

        Life is short and it is harder and harder to take politics of any sort seriously when the greatest and clearest issue in human history is barelling down the road towards us and is being met with pathological denial by not just the actual deniers, mostly just immature sillies or greed-deluded rich, but by virtually everyone (because ‘acceptance’ with not even the slightest action is effectively denial).

        I urge everyone to look at this with an open mind

        Some people here lately have said it is all about population. It isn’t. Of course, if we only had 1 billion people as in 1800 it would all be easier, but in fact we can deal with even the coming 9billion, if we all accept that no matter what the population we in the rich west have to greatly change our way of life - for the simpler (and also happier in my opinion)

  11. I’ll look at themonthly later…I’m all for a simpler life/style… good to see you back,JS.

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