Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (15:54): I move, by leave:
That this house:
(1) notes that hundreds of homes were destroyed in the 2019–20 bushfires across Victoria;
(2) acknowledges the enormous devastation and trauma suffered by people directly affected by any bushfire, including from losing a home, enduring living in temporary accommodation, and undertaking the arduous process of rebuilding a home;
(3) recognises that only one in around every 40 people who lost their homes in the 2019–20 bushfires has successfully moved back into permanent housing, even after nearly 18 months have passed since the fires;
(4) expresses concern at the range of challenges that are continuing to delay and compromise rebuilding and rehousing efforts, especially the:
(a) financial gaps that frequently exist between the amounts of insurance payments received and the costs of building a new home in a bushfire area, not least because of the substantial expenses associated with complying with Victoria’s bushfire attack level ratings system;
(b) severe shortages in local housing and other accommodation available to the tradespeople required to undertake the rebuilding work;
and calls on the government to urgently consider changes to the relevant policies and regulations to help alleviate these very serious, ongoing problems.
I would like to begin by saying that I realise we did have our broader discussion on the government’s motion earlier today. However, I feel that it is also important today to focus on—
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! Sorry, Ms Maxwell. There is far too much chatter in the house. This is a serious motion, and I ask members if they want to have conversations to go outside.
Ms MAXWELL: However, I feel that it is also important today to focus on the serious, ongoing problems that are continuing to hamper and delay the process of rehousing and rebuilding for the many hundreds of people in Eastern Victoria and Northern Victoria who lost their homes in the 2019–20 bushfires. Currently these clearly remain the most pressing, practical legacies of these bushfires.
At this point I would like to acknowledge all those people, in both paid and voluntary capacities, who have been part of the recovery effort. This is an effort that has been made even longer and more challenging by the advent of the various COVID restrictions during the past year as well. I would like to thank Claire Lock for her courageous speaking this morning—not only her courage to come into this house and speak but also her strength and determination. I would like to reiterate the words that Dr Ratnam said: we are in good hands, and I do believe, Claire, that your advocacy will certainly support the youth of this and other surrounding areas.
I would also be very remiss if I did not thank the government for the considerable support and assistance that it has provided in order to aid and expedite recovery in many different forms. I will say that I did express serious fears before the 2019–20 fires in Parliament on 13 November 2019 about the government’s policies on the build-up and management of bushfire fuel loads, and I mention them here again now because, like many of my constituents, I think much more could be done to actively reduce fuel loads. Nevertheless I do commend government MPs for their actions throughout the period since the 2019–20 fires eventuated.
In that same spirit, this motion is intended to inspire a productive, rather than an adversarial, discussion. Obviously the task of rebuilding after any bushfire is generally one fraught with great frustration and difficulty. As the wording of the motion reflects, this form of adversity after the 2019–20 fires has been substantially exacerbated by two sets of issues in particular. These have been the wideranging consequences of the bushfire attack level, or BAL, ratings and the difficulties in bringing the necessary tradespeople to the affected areas. This was also previously mentioned at length by Ms Lovell. I imagine the government will have a more official figure at their disposable on this than me; however, I have been told anecdotally by local councils and constituents that only one in around every 40 people who lost their homes has successfully moved back into permanent housing during the nearly 18 months that have transpired since the 2019–20 fires.
Bushfire Recovery Victoria also revealed to the Bairnsdale Advertiser earlier this year that there have been as many as 50 locations that have officially been identified as complex sites and in relation to which new planning permits and approvals for rebuilding have therefore not been granted. In turn the cost of rebuilding at many other sites even where approvals have been granted has also become prohibitive. Frequently this has been because there have been large gaps between the amount of insurance payments on the destroyed homes and the asking prices for building the new homes. For many of the people affected these new prices are unexpectedly high because this is the first time they have become aware of the existence of and the substantial compliance costs associated with Victoria’s BAL ratings. As Eliza de Vet and Christine Eriksen of the University of Wollongong made clear in a journal article last year, the BAL ratings can often inflate rebuilding costs by 20 per cent or more, yet these ratings remain largely unknown to most Victorian home owners and are notoriously confusing to navigate.
There is little wrong in theory with the concept of more caution and improved standards being applied to the building of homes in bushfire-prone areas. However, as de Vet and Eriksen also pointed out in 2019, insurers and successive governments across Australia have done little to inform home owners about these changes to standards and their associated insurance implications. This has provoked what is now widespread underinsurance prior to disaster events. It has also heightened confusion and anxiety, not to mention created adverse financial consequences, in the wake of such events. Meanwhile there also remain many unanswered questions about what other regulatory changes, if any, might be exercised in respect of the many thousands of older homes that still stand in bushfire-prone areas and that were built before the advent of these various new standards. In turn I understand that in some cases and especially since the 12-month anniversary of the fires some insurance companies have capped payments and/or time periods for temporary accommodation and are therefore no longer covering this even where rebuilds are yet to be completed.
To make all of these matters worse, the areas directly affected by the 2019–20 bushfires typically suffer from severe housing shortages. Now, with even less housing and rental stock available than normal in the wake of the fires and prices for it escalating, there continues to be significant confusion about how to bring tradespeople to these areas for days and weeks at a time in order for them to undertake the recovery work needed. This is all compounded of course by the problem within Victoria that there are substantial skills shortages across most construction trades. With all these difficulties in mind I do want to make a plea to the government and/or to any other relevant authority, including in the insurance industry, that it urgently consider changes to the relevant policies and regulations to help alleviate these very serious ongoing difficulties. Above all I hope we each agree that these problems should not be allowed to continue to mount or indeed even to persist at all, particularly by the onset of the next bushfire season. The task of rebuilding lives and homes and restoring even a small degree of normality is arduous enough without having bureaucracy and regulation compounding matters as well.
In the meantime I also extend my deep sympathies and best wishes to all of those people trying to move to permanent post-bushfire housing, and in recognition of their needs and interests I would like to encourage communities to continue to back, support and do all you can to help these people get back into their homes. I sincerely would like to thank all who have contributed in supporting the communities who experienced the loss and devastation of these fires. I reiterate the words of acknowledgement by all of my previous colleagues who spoke on the government’s motion, and I would also like to congratulate the Wangaratta community on their efforts in providing shelter, food, clothing and other necessities at a minute’s notice to people and their animals.
They provided shelter at a moment’s notice. I know that Ms Symes came down to help out as well. We stood on the foreground of those showgrounds, and we did what we could to provide meals, to provide clothing and to support people to be able to have showers. There were animals being housed there. That was the strength of the community. That was what people were prepared to do. We had so many people come down from Melbourne who wanted to help out. These people had never met any of the people who we were accommodating, but they came in their droves and they helped out. They cooked, and they even put trailers on with barbecues and drove up to Corryong to help out where they could, cooking meals, doing what they could to raise money to support these people. I would like to say, as has previously been said, standing here now that when we go home we will not forget that. We will not forget how resilient communities can be when they face the most adverse and hideous realities that bushfires can bring. I would also like to thank the Bright and District Chamber of Commerce, Bruce Hore and Rupert Shaw for their ongoing work to support the community here in Bright and for the support that they have provided to other businesses.
Since being here I have spoken to many businesses. One of the major issues they identified was that they cannot get staff because they have nowhere to house them. People coming here for tourism, for holidays, are asking questions: ‘Why are these cafes not open?’, ‘Why can’t we get staff here?’, ‘Why aren’t we getting the service that we expected?’. I say to those people: be patient; come back and support this area. It will take time to get housing for people to come, but there are ways that we can work through this. I think with a bipartisan approach we can manage this, we can help these communities. We need to stand by them and stand alongside them to help them and support whatever their needs are as best we can.
I cannot speak highly enough of the camaraderie and community connectivity of people coming together to help those not only from their own area but from other areas, and I spoke about the people who came down from Melbourne to help in Wangaratta and other areas. The hearts of people! Many families may have been so financially strained, but those people were still coming out to support their communities. It just shows you most people have a good heart and most people want to do the right thing and to help. I am digressing a little bit from the motion, but I am very passionate about this and I do believe that people need to keep putting up their hands for help. There is absolutely no shame in doing that—absolutely none—and there are a gazillion people out there waiting to help in whatever ways they can.
It was so informative last night speaking to so many people who provided their experience of the bushfires. When I am on the back of a fire truck and I jump off and I have got a hose in hand and I am fighting a fire, I know the fear that I feel. I cannot imagine the fear and the feeling when people see those flames coming down upon their property, not knowing what to do: ‘Do we leave? Do we stay? Do we fight? What do we fight with? Do we have enough water?’. It is frightening. We are so lucky to have our emergency services who come in and help. But apart from that, we have had so many other services, and I do commend every service. I am not going to start naming them, because inevitably, as Ms Symes said earlier, there is always someone that you forget, and I would hate to do that.
I am going to leave it there but say thank you to the Bright community for hosting us here. Thank you so much to the government, the clerks and the staff. The set-up for us to be here for this one day has been absolutely incredible, and I am so proud to stand here in this room today to honour and acknowledge the work that you have done to make this possible. So I truly say thank you, and I am sure I speak on behalf of all those colleagues here in this place. Without further ado I would like to say that whilst the fires have been devastating, I do believe there is a rainbow at the end of this. People are not travelling overseas; people are coming to these communities. People are wanting to spend their money. It was great to see the market here today and to see everybody going out to support them. I will close now so others can speak, and I commend this motion.