We need a National Guard

An aerial shot of the area of Deloraine flooded
Tasmania Police​​

Our days start to get long in Tasmania at this time of the year, and God bless that!

We'll get sunset at nearly 9 pm by Christmas. It used to be that you would look forward to the long daylight hours. When I was a kid we'd count down the sleeps until December. We'd go on holidays from school and know we were in for the fun. I spent the days and nights roaming around with the other neighbourhood kids. Nothing was better than mucking about and enjoying late twilights and warm evenings. Our only fear was what we'd get under the Christmas tree!

I wonder what it's like to be a young kid in Australia during the summer these days. We've had three years of one-in-100 natural disasters: fires, floods, storms—you name it, we've had it, with three years of watching the news and seeing people pick up the pieces from disaster after disaster and having their lives turned upside down. That's what summer is for our kids these days; it's what they think is normal. It is their reality.

But it's not normal. This is not what our country is supposed to experience every year. We're not supposed to have one-in-100-year weather events happen every year. Regional communities aren't supposed to get smashed by floods, drought then floods again and again, but that's what we're getting and we've got to get used to it. I can say that Tasmania has copped it bad this month. Our rivers are getting pummelled; our office is full of talk every day about the roads that are closed, how to get into work safely and the bridges that can't be used anymore. All of us are wondering if this is what's going to happen every year from here on in. Will we be having these conversations forever?

These disasters keep coming and coming, and they're getting worse every year. The Tassie floods were so strong, they picked up giant concrete slabs and washed them away—concrete slab weighing tonnes and tonnes floated off just like paper boats. Our wildlife hospital was flattened, people have lost their homes again and family photos, furniture fences and gardens are all gone. Tasmanian businesses have had to close, and that's after months of closures thanks to COVID. And I can tell you, we'll be feeling this and cleaning this up for a long time, and Tassie hasn't even been hit with the worst yet.

Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland have taken an absolute hit—again. I have no idea what it does to a person's mental health to have their house flood every six months, to watch their paddocks get washed over and over, to watch their stock go up in flames or go down under the water. We've got farmers who have had to leave fruit and veg to whither on the vines because they can't put heavy machinery on flood affected roads. Heads of cattle have died in floods this year, and there have been thousands of them. My heart goes out to all of you. It must feel like your clean-up is never-ending. You're getting whacked again and again, and those floods are only getting worse, and it's so not fair.

The really crazy thing is that disaster season is starting earlier and running for longer. Those Black Summer bushfires in 2019? They started in June. The country was burning in June, during winter. The fires burnt for more than six months. I will never forget what it was like up here in Canberra when those fires were burning. The sky was a weird yellow-grey colour for weeks and weeks. The smell of smoke got into everything and you could not get away from it. It sunk into your skin. It was terribly hot, but you couldn't open a window, because that would mean more smoke.

My staff had family in fire zones. We were up here in parliament writing speeches and moving amendments while we watched the fire maps move, hoping the wind wouldn't change direction and send the front towards old childhood homes. We cheered at news of the tiniest little sprinkling of rain, and we held our breath when we saw the fires spark back up again. Australia lost 34 people to those Black Summer bushfires, and the fires burned more than 46 million acres of land. Nearly 2½ thousand homes were destroyed in New South Wales alone. Entire towns are still traumatised from what happened in those months. The Victorian town of Mallacoota will carry those scars forever; I have no doubt. So will the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, and East Gippsland's Hume and Armidale. Half of our country was on fire.

Massive-scale disaster like that is going to be our norm, apparently, and I hate to say it, but I think it's true. All of us are going to live through more disasters like that in our lifetimes, and I tell you what, it scares the hell out of me, and I'm sure that for those people who have been through it not once or twice but now three times it's starting to scare them as well. But we do have some things working for us. The thing I love most about regional Australia is the way we pull together when we have to. Where I'm from, you know your neighbours. If they're in trouble you help them; if you're in trouble they will help you. That's what we do. And as much as we might get on each other's nerves about someone's dog being a pain—usually mine, by the way—or early-morning noise or whatever else, we pull together when we have to. 

That's what we've seen in Lismore. It was Lismore residents who got on with saving people when the floods first hit in February. The waters went up so fast that lots of people woke up to find that the levy had broken and they were already trapped. You couldn't get through to 000. The SES was way too stretched to get to everybody. On one morning they took 374 calls in less than an hour and a half—100 calls every 10 minutes. The normal processes were broken. If we'd played it the way the government wanted to play it, more people would have died. Instead, a bunch of guys and girls hopped in their tinnies and went to action and jumped in those floodwaters. The residents of Lismore did it on their own. Regular people went out and picked up neighbours in wheelchairs. They found elderly people stuck on their roofs and a mother and her three-year-old who'd been trapped in a kayak in their backyard for four hours. All those people could have died if the community in Lismore hadn't pulled together to fix those things themselves. I reckon that's pretty bloody amazing, to be honest with you.

I reckon that's the kind of bravery and loyalty we should look up to in this country. But I also reckon we can't keep dealing with disasters this way, just off the cuff. In the Army we have this saying called the six Ps: proper planning prevents piss-poor performance. And we keep getting hit with our pants down—let's be honest. We're not prepared. We know these disasters are coming. We know they're more frequent and they're more severe. It's not fair to leave it to the neighbours in regional Australia to figure out how to deal with a fire or a flood at the time that it's happening. That's not their job; it's our job. We're leading the country. We're not doing the proper planning. The six Ps tell us what our performance looks like and, I can assure you, it is not very good. That's why I'm moving this motion, hopefully today. 

It's time for a conversation about how we deal with climate change in our own backyard—not the climate wars, not more bickering about targets and emissions reduction. We need to talk about how we look after our own people, our own backyard, because we are getting absolutely smashed. It doesn't matter if we hit net zero by 2050. We could turn off all our coal-fired power stations tomorrow and we'd still be up the creek in a barbed wire canoe without any paddles. The planet is warming. It doesn't matter if it's by one degree or 1½ degrees or two degrees. Things are going to get hotter and regional Australia is going to feel it most of all. 

That's what this inquiry is about. How do we prepare? How do we fix our poor performance? What do we need to do to get more boots on the ground to protect our country and our people? Right now we're in nowhere land. We're flying by the seat of our pants. We send the ADF in every summer. We have cadets who have been deployed out to sandbag rivers every year. They're running evacuation centres, handing out water bottles to people who have lost their homes. Those guys are meant to be in training. Service men and women who signed up three years ago have had every summer disrupted by domestic deployments. 

Defence is extremely worried about this, and so am I. They told the new minister they can't keep doing it, and they cannot. It's too much to put on them, especially when we have China breathing down our throats, especially when we have Russia threatening to use nuclear weapons on Ukraine. We need the ADF to be on their toes more than ever, right now. That's their job. Their job is to protect us and our allies from other countries that want to do us harm. We can't keep running to them when climate change hits us again and again, and we need to be better prepared for that. 

The other problem we have is that no-one wants to volunteer anymore. How sad that the country has got to a point where we can't get volunteers anymore. Nobody wants to do it. We've become a country of selfishness. That is what we have become. It's all about self. It is really sad. It does not build community spirit, and neither will we remain the lucky country that we are if we're going towards that way of life, I can assure you. I will tell every Australian out there: you will always rely on somebody; you can't always do it by yourself. Volunteering Australia says the number of young people volunteering dropped by 10 per cent between 2019 and 2020. Nearly half of all our volunteers are 45 or older. Retirees are going into disaster zones to rake up mud. Little old women are making sandwiches for people who have lost their homes and to feed people battling fires and floods.

We need to build more resilience as a country. We need to pull together. That's what this inquiry is about. I have ideas on how we could do it; those views are on record. I reckon we need a national guard to clean up after disaster strikes. The guard would be formed as a standby force, similar to the Army Reserve. We'd train people up to go into disaster zones and do what the Army does now. That's all we're asking of you people out there who have never worn a uniform. We're now asking you to give back to your country. 

We are all responsible for the floods and fires that are going on in Australia right now, and they will continue. It means all of us. Us in here, and no matter what age you are out there, we are all responsible for looking after each other and looking after this country. Logistics, emergency management and rescue—go in and help the states make it happen. Young people who want to give back to their country can do so. Here's your opportunity. Let's see what you're made of. Come on! Get off those games out there, and get out there and learn what it's like to survive in the real world. Give back to your country. I'll tell you what, it's the hardiest thing you'll ever do in your life. Take it from somebody who knows. It will give you bragging points. Veterans who aren't ready to end their service could keep a connection to defence, and the communities who have lost everything wouldn't have to organise everything off their own bat. That's my idea. I'm open to others. I don't have all the answers in this; I'm open to others. But it's going to take a whole nation to pull this together. That's why we have set this inquiry nice and broad; we've left it right open. If you think you can contribute to this inquiry and you can make a difference, when this country is in dire straits, when it is under flood or in fire, then, please, let's see what you've got. Put your hand up. Let's see you. I want to hear from residents who have lost their homes to the fires and the floods, and the community coordinators who pulled up their socks when the federal government went missing in action. They'll know better than I do about what we need.

The other thing I want to do is work closely with the government to figure out what we do over the next 12 months to get this done. Minister Watt knows what we need to do to make changes. I was glad to hear this week that he has asked his department and the defence minister to put some thought into this. Regional Australia deserves better than the suck-it-up-and-see approach we've had to natural disasters up to this point, and the ADF deserves better.

We can all sit here and talk about when we are going to cut down emissions, and all the rest. This is the easy work. The hard work, the grunt work, is putting your boots on. We've all got to be part of that. If that means at times we've got it happening in our own backyard, we need to be helping; we can't be sitting here, especially if there are two of us and only one can come up. That is what we've got to give back to this country. It is time for a nation-building exercise here. We've seen our kids' resilience through COVID. We've got to build this resilience up and we need to look after this country. If somebody has a much better idea than I do, please voice your opinion because I'm not hearing you. This needs to be done now. We need boots out on the ground. Please come and tell me how we, as politicians, make that happen. It's a whole-of-country contribution. Get off your butts. I want this to happen, and I'm happy to sit here and lead it. 

Let's move.

*Photo from Tasmania Police.

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