For many Canberrans this festive season has been sombre and confronting. The usual excitement for the unknown possibilities of a new year hasn't accompanied the welcoming in of 2020. We have been blanketed in smoke from fires in NSW to the north and south of us and have been horrified by the images of devastation and terror beamed back from the fire grounds.
We have been fortunate so far to avoid any major fires in the nation's capital but the blanketing of Canberra in smoke pollution for weeks on end has been a very real reminder of what the usually idyllic and peaceful regional communities in direct line of the fires are dealing with every day.
While the areas being devastated by fires are over the NSW and Victorian borders, the affected towns and the people who live in them are all part of the extended Canberra family. We know these places. For many of us we have spent our summers in these communities and we care deeply about them. The mountains, the roads, the stops along the way, the forests and the beautiful beaches are very familiar to most Canberrans. There isn't one among us who isn't normally envious of those who live there permanently.
But this summer those warm feelings of familiarity and connectedness have been replaced with helplessness, sadness, horror and distress. The images coming out from the fires are more than confronting. The new reality facing these communities once the fire has been extinguished is overwhelming. The recovery task will be long, hard and for many, traumatic.
Canberrans will need to lock in behind these communities. In the short-term, government assistance will flow and insurance will be paid out, but the long-term recovery will have to be led by Canberrans, who will need to be the first to book holidays, in both winter and in summer, and to buy local to help fire-affected communities get back on their feet. I know Canberrans will be doing everything they can to help and assist in the coming weeks and months.
Back here in Canberra the air pollution generated by the fire-smoke has dramatically changed the way we live our everyday lives. No dog walks without masks, no barbecues, no hanging out the washing, no trips to the river or down to the lake and no outside play in the evenings with our children. While this seems trivial when compared to what those on the fire grounds are going through, it has certainly given us all a taste of a world we definitely do not want to live in.
To the Canberrans that have sought me out over the past few weeks worried about the smoke pollution, fires and the broader issue of climate change I will work with all of you to make sure the federal parliament knows exactly what steps you would like to see taken to prevent this from happening again.
As people have chatted to me in supermarkets and around town these past weeks it is clear they want and expect more than just the standard recovery response from governments. They want and expect more from the political leadership in this country. Canberrans do not want to see a repeat of this fire crisis. No more unnecessary loss of life, no more massive loss of property, livestock and native animals, no more mass evacuations, no more selling out of face-masks, no more telling the kids it's another inside day.
The long-term recovery will have to be led by Canberrans, who will need to be the first to book holidays ... and to buy local to help fire-affected communities get back on their feet. I know Canberrans will be doing everything they can to help and assist.
Concern across the Canberra community is widespread and nobody should try and diminish it. This is not just another natural disaster or just another big bushfire. This is different and every person on the street knows it. Explaining it away as something we have all seen before is only going to elicit angry responses.
Frustrated, sombre and fearful is how most Canberrans talking to me are feeling. The concern is palpable and the frustration at what they see as a lack of leadership and action on behalf of our national government is real. They want political leaders from across the spectrum to listen to what they are saying and to respond to them.
After more than a decade of political disagreement on how best to tackle the changing climate and its effects we must commit to work together, show the leadership that's required and build consensus across the community. If we are to take any positive lessons out of these terrifying fires then surely serious action to address climate change has to be it.
So when the fires are put out, the air pollution disappears, the clear blue skies return and the rain comes, please let us all commit to never forgetting the summer of 2020. We must demand that our national government does what it needs to do by listening to the experts and the science, and enacting policies that keep Australians safe.
But for now, for today, tomorrow and right up until this fire season is over we will continue to rally together and deal with the crisis in front of us. To all of the volunteer firefighters and emergency service workers who have been working so hard for weeks now to keep people safe and protect property and livestock - we thank you.
We also recognise the tireless work of volunteers both in the fire zones and here in Canberra who are giving up their own time to staff evacuation centres and donation collection points to ensure that those affected by this crisis are supported through this traumatic time. Your work is a shining example of everything that is good about Australians and we are in awe of your efforts.
6 January 2019
This article was first published in The Canberra Times.