Following an inspection of the damage caused by yesterday’s bushfires in Canberra, the Prime Minister, John Howard, has commended the “great fighting spirit” of Australians.
Referring to assistance being provided in the nation’s capital today, Howard praised “the generosity of the people of Canberra and the people of Australia towards their fellow Australians who are in difficult circumstances.”
Howard also said that the loss of property, the intensity of the heat, and the suddenness of the firestorm is beyond the experience of Australians.
Transcript of the doorstop interview conducted by the Prime Minister, John Howard, in Canberra, following his inspection of the damage caused by yesterday’s firestorm.
PRIME MINISTER: Well can I just start by saying that this is the worst bushfire scene that I have come across anywhere in Australia, indeed anywhere. The loss of property, I’ve been told the intensity of the heat, the suddenness of the firestorm in quite a number of cases is certainly without the experience of people in the Australian Capital Territory and indeed people in other bushfire situations around Australia. The Commissioner of the ACT Police who was involved in fighting the Ash Wednesday fires in Adelaide in 1983 said that the experience of yesterday put him very much in mind of the experience of the Ash Wednesday fires.
Can I say on behalf of all Australians to the families of those who’ve lost their lives, we extend our deep sympathy. We feel a sense of understanding and empathy and mateship towards the people of Canberra and the people of the ACT. I have had preliminary discussions with the ACT Chief Minister. The normal disaster relief arrangements will operate. He’s indicated to me that all of the requests that have been made of the Commonwealth have been met. There’s been excellent co-operation between the Commonwealth Agencies and the ACT authorities and also the New South Wales Government. And the presence of the New South Wales Rural Fire Commissioner Phil Koperberg is very valuable and also the Minister responsible for emergency services in the New South Wale Government, Mr Debus. So can I finally in this introductory comment say that once again the great fighting spirit of the Australian people has come through, the way in which the Canberra community has rallied. To see that enormous array of food in the gymnasium of the Narrabundah College just a few moments ago, is in a way a metaphor for the generosity of the people of Canberra and the people of Australia towards their fellow Australians who are in difficult circumstances.
JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, are you surprised [inaudible]?
PRIME MINISTER: It’s always inspiring to witness the morale of Australians in adversity. You see it again and again and it is one of our great characteristics and the people have come together, the volunteers, everybody’s pitching in, everybody wants to help, everybody wants to do something, everybody feels that there’s somebody whose situation is a lot worse than theirs. And I met quite a number of people who’d lost their homes in Duffy and the morale of those people and the spirit, given the trauma through which they have gone and will go through over the days ahead, is quite inspiring and it’s a reminder again of that great Australian spirit.
JOURNALIST: What [inaudible] disaster relief, what contributions has the Federal Government made towards easing the situation?
PRIME MINISTER: Well we do under those arrangements, once it gets beyond a certain level we contribute 50 per cent of the cost and then 75 per cent and they’re standing arrangements, they kick in. And the Chief Minister indicated that he’d raise some other things with me and I’ve invited him to do so, so it’s very much a co-operative effort.
JOURNALIST: What do you think this might mean [inaudible] perception of Canberra as the national capital?
PRIME MINISTER: It will enhance, in my view, in the eyes of the rest of the Australian community the great individualist spirit of the Canberra community because what the rest of Australia has witnessed over the last 36 hours is the national capital under attack from the summer terror, if I can put it that way, of bushfire in an unprecedented way and the rest of Australia has seen the people of Canberra respond in this quite remarkable fashion.
JOURNALIST: While you were out there inspecting the damage, was there any particular story that really pulled at your heartstrings?
PRIME MINISTER: Oh one lady who, clearly traumatised, she said she had lost everything. Another lady who I embraced said – we’ve lost our house but we’re all safe and sound and we can rebuild it, we’re all safe. A man, a veteran of World War II showed me his charred medals and we sort of resolved to make certain that he got some new ones and he got them replaced. There were many stories that are so touching. And freakish stories of one house under an ember attack and somehow or other it led to an explosion of the water tank, which put the fire out. And the extraordinary, random character – one house from Gowrie was left completely untouched. But I have been to a lot of bushfire scenes in Australia in the time that I have been Prime Minister and previously. This was by far the worst, by far the worst.
JOURNALIST: [inaudible] are you thankful that more people didn’t lose their lives?
PRIME MINISTER: Well you are always thankful, amongst being saddened by the loss of life, that it is a miracle that given the ferocity and the suddenness and the intensity of it, it is a miracle that more people didn’t lose their lives and it’s a huge tribute to the emergency services. And what is so good is the way everybody works together, and you forget that you might belong to this group or that group. You go into the College here and you’ve got people from the Salvation Army, people from the Society of St Vincent de Paul, you’ve got people from the Adventist belief organisation. It’s just fantastic the way everybody works together.
JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, will you be staying in Canberra long?
PRIME MINISTER: I’m staying in Canberra tonight and I don’t have any plans at the moment beyond that, but I feel that it’s important that the people of Canberra know that the rest of the community feels for them and they understand that their fellow Australians are very supportive of them at this very stressful time.
JOURNALIST: [inaudible] Mt Stromlo, have you received any reports of any other damage to [inaudible]
PRIME MINISTER: Not yet Dennis. I may well, but not yet.
JOURNALIST: [inaudible] the character of Canberra as the bush capital. Is that character [inaudible] now too much of a danger?
PRIME MINISTER: Malcolm I don’t think one should within hours of something like this… let me remind everybody – it’s not over yet. The weather is a bit better today but there are a lot of experts who are a bit nervous that it could get worse again before it’s finally behind us. And I think it’s wrong at this stage to be talking in sweeping terms about this or that. It is a natural disaster brought about by a freakish conjunction of circumstances. The prolonged drought has played a very big part in it. It really has. Everything is so dry. This is the same story that I got when I visited the scene of bushfires on the outskirts of Sydney a few weeks ago. Eastern Australia is going through probably the worst drought, in many respects, for 100 years and that is creating conditions of unprecedented danger. And if you get that freakish conjunction of very hot weather, dry undergrowth, dry trees, hot winds turning at the wrong time – you get the combustion, the firestorms, that you had last night.
JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, do you know of anybody personally affected by this?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes I do. One member of my close personal protection detail had his house totally destroyed and he’s a person who is, you know, he’s part of my close personal security team. I mean that’s the person I know most who has been directly affected. I know many others of course who know friends and have families affected, and I have members of my own staff of course being affected in different ways. Many of them live here and many of my… people working in my own Department as yet unknown to me may well have been similarly affected. It is one of these things that has reached out and affected all parts of the community, as natural disasters always do. They do have the effect of bringing people together. Our differences dissolve, whatever barriers might exist are hurdled in a very generous way. And that is something that is quite inspiring about the Australian spirit.
JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, do you think the ACT emergency services could have been better prepared?
PRIME MINISTER: Oh look when something as sudden as this happens, it’s a miracle to me what the emergency services are able to achieve and I will not join any criticism of the emergency services. I’m full of admiration for what the police have done, what the emergency services have done and what the ACT Government has done. It’s very difficult. It was very sudden. You’ve had tragically two lives lost, but given the dimension of it, it’s a miracle there weren’t more. And I have no criticism to offer of any kind of anybody, and I want again to thank everybody in the community for what they have done. Thank you.