Monday 27 November 2023
We live in an imperfect world. Things go wrong. Tragedies happen—car accidents, violent crime, natural disasters, fires and floods. There are moments where we find ourselves in crisis. In our moments of crisis, it is first responders who run toward the danger, when many of us seek refuge and safety away from it. Our police, our firefighters, our ambulance paramedics and our volunteers across those three areas are our first responders; they're the ones who embrace danger to save and preserve life.
For me, one of those times was the Waroona-Yarloop fire, which devastated areas of my electorate in January 2016. What hit home to me, as I spent days speaking to the locals affected and saw the damage for myself, was the indiscriminate nature of the fire and how it paid no regard to containment lines of firebreaks. The historic town of Yarloop was destroyed. Two lives were lost, and many livestock perished in those fires. But, in the midst of the devastation and destruction, some houses remained untouched. This was a testament to the many local volunteers and emergency service workers who saved many houses and lives through their hard work and commitment to the preservation of lives and homes.
Being on the receiving end of an event that requires emergency services characterises one of the worst days of our lives. But, for first responders, the worst day of people's lives is where they work, where they go. Like those emergency responders in the Yarloop fire, day after day they make critical decisions and provide a shield against the helpless situations that people find themselves in. They do so sacrificially, running into harm's way and courageously serving their communities.
Their service is not without cost, though. On top of the daily risks they face, their sacrifices to their community place them under ongoing stress that can turn into mental health conditions. They are not unlike our ADF personnel, who carry the scars of their work. Beyond Blue has found that, compared to other Australians, police and other emergency service workers are twice as likely to experience high rates of psychological distress. Any government solution should empower and not override existing, organic relationships that people have.
Fortem acknowledges this, and that is why it offers services to families of first responders—so that the family unit itself is supported. In 2019, the former coalition government announced that it would provide nearly $2 million to Fortem. Since 2019, it has supported over 13,000 first responder families. In 2022, the coalition announced a further $10 million for Fortem, and, in November last year, Labor ensured this funding would be delivered. However, just one year later, the Albanese government has left Fortem for dead, refusing to provide funding beyond March of next year. Because of this, Fortem will have to start scaling back its programs from as early as this month.
This is a kick in the guts for our hardworking emergency services personnel, particularly as we head into bushfire season. It's tough on families, who often are the ones who have to absorb the stress, the anxiety and the cost of the work conducted by our emergency service workers. When they get home, they often bring their experiences under the roof with their families. That's why this decision to cut funding to Fortem is so grievous.
We've already seen in WA the devastating impact bushfire season can have, with 18 homes lost in Wanneroo—which is north of Perth—just last week. At Australia's time of need, the Albanese government turns to cuts to resources and capability. They've cut money from Fortem, and it's unacceptable. I urge the Prime Minister and his government to provide certainty to Fortem beyond March 2024.
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