Australia Day Address 2021 by Shane Fitzsimmons
Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons AFSM (former NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner, and leader of Resilience NSW) delivered the Australia Day Address at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Monday, 18 January 2021.
The Address draws distinguished members from the community to express their unique perspective on our nation’s identity and the diversity of our society.
Thank you Premier. Can I too pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation on the lands which we meet and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. Can I also acknowledge our Governor, Your Excellency, The Honourable Margaret Beazley AO, QC. Can I also acknowledge our Premier, The Honourable Gladys Berejiklian. And of course Mr Andrew Parker, the Chair of the Australia Day Council. Ms Yvonne Weldon, proud Wiradjuri woman, Chair of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and Deputy Chair of the Australia Day Council for New South Wales. All other Australia Day ambassadors, VIPs, dignitaries, family, friends, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.
It is an absolute privilege and an honour to be invited here today to deliver the New South Wales Australia Day address for 2021.
As has been indicated, last year, the last year or so has been like no other for New South Wales, for the globe. We've had disasters, we've had crises affecting the way life, we've had disruptions, despair, tragedy. But also highlighting extraordinary stoicism, adaptation, unity of purpose, focus and resilience. 2020 will be reflected upon and recounted throughout the generations ahead there is no doubt.
We've been impacted in the last 12 months or so by the worst drought in centuries that affected New South Wales. Unprecedented bushfires that resulted in damage, destruction the scale of which we've never seen before. A recovery, a rebuilding, a healing effort of a scale and complexity never experienced in this state. When rain relief did come in February, it came all right, it came in loads. But unfortunately that resulted in many areas being heavily impacted with storms and storm damage and heavy rains and floods and erosion and landslides across an already denuded landscape from droughts and bushfires. And then of course as we ventured into 2020 we encountered the global pandemic, COVID‑19.
Leading into 2020, 100 per cent of the State of New South Wales was drought declared, drought affected. 2019 has been confirmed as the hottest and driest year on record. Those antecedent conditions and the continuing above normal hot dry conditions that ventured throughout 2019 and into 20 resulted in one of the earliest and most intense starts to the fire season, certainly the most protracted with one of the latest onsets of monsoonal activity not delivering any moisture until February 2020. It was the most extreme, it was the most extensive, fires were the most ferocious and spread further than anything we'd seen before.
And of course the toll was enormous. They were damaging, they were destructive, indeed they were deadly, with a toll not experienced in New South Wales before.
Yes, there was significant fires and losses in Queensland, the ACT, South Australia and Victoria but New South Wales was the most heavily impacted. Five and a half million hectare were destroyed by fires, 11,500 fires were ignited and spread across the landscape, 17 fires on one day in November, 8 November, were burning concurrently at the emergency warning alert level, which means 17 fires and more than 17 communities were directly impacted and in the path of fires, all competing for resources, support, assistance, help, in their time of need.
Just under 2500 homes were destroyed, but in the same burnt out area because the extraordinary work of the multiagency collective effort of all involved in the firefighting effort, in the same burnt area 14 and a half thousand homes were saved. They were spread across 40 local government areas around the state.
Of course the most confronting toll was the loss of life. Of the 33 lives lost nationally, 26 were lost in New South Wales, including seven firefighters out of the 10 firefighters that died nationally.
In New South Wales we lost four volunteers and we lost three air crew. Geoff Keaton and Andrew O'Dwyer on 19 December, when they had an awful accident down near Buxton in South Western Sydney. We lost Sam McPaul on 30 December down in Jingellic on the Victorian border not far from Albury.
We lost Col Burns on 31 December, a volunteer down in Belowra in the southern ranges. He wasn't identified as a volunteer at the time but after we got to know a little more and I had the opportunity to attend his funeral, we learnt his story and confirmed that he was indeed working with his brigade and died in the line of duty.
Then of course on 23 January, an anniversary that we're marking only later this week, bomber 134, the large air tanker, crashed down near Cooma at a place called Peak View, killing all three occupants on board, Ian McBeth, Paul Hudson and Rick DeMorgan junior.
We had a state memorial for all families, loved ones, friends, of all 26 lives that were lost in New South Wales on 23 February.
The events of that season, communities, families, people, have been changed forever.
The recovery, as I say, as a result of those bushfires are of a scale and a complexity we've never experienced before in this state. But that recovery and that rebuilding and that repair has also been impacted and compounded by the extraordinary storms and flood events and erosion and landslides that impacted those same areas.
And of course the global pandemic, and all the challenges and all the implications that come with responding to and managing through a global pandemic known as COVID‑19.
What we see in communities that are going through a recovery is that issues, needs and priorities are unique and different. They're unique and different between individuals, between families, between businesses, between communities and different areas. We've got the wherewithal, we've got the frameworks, we've got the capacity, and we need to have the capacity to accommodate those differences, those variances, those differences in timelines, those differences in priorities. People will and need to, and indeed are, making decisions in their own time.
In the lead up to Christmas, which is well and truly 12 months beyond fires impacted in Northern New South Wales, we've got people coming forward, talking to us for the first time because they're comfortable about the idea of discussing assistance and support and what does it look like and what might it need. People are having their own thoughts, their own processes, they need time to process.
Repair, reconstruction, rebuilding, but most importantly healing, takes a lifetime. For some it will take a lifetime. Our fires burnt for many weeks, for many months. Indeed, the intensity of the fires was over 200 days of section 44 bushfire emergency declarations in place. We had people sustained in that firefighting effort and impacted communities across the state for a period of five to six months, something we've never seen before.
Whilst the fires burnt for many weeks and many months, the recovery, the rebuilding and the healing will take literally months and years.
What's important to remind ourselves of too I think is that different areas were affected by drought. They were also affected by floods and fires and we've all been affected by the ongoing global pandemic. So for some of us, particularly living in the metropolitan region, our biggest impact and disruption and distress might be the COVID‑19 pandemic, legitimately so.
But for a lot of communities across rural and regional New South Wales they've been on their knees with drought, they've been belted and devastated with bushfires, they've inundated with storms and floods and erosion and then all that comes with the ubiquitous nature of COVID‑19 and the implications and the consequences for all of us.
It's had significant and profound effects, it continues to. Economic, societal, industry impacts, employment, uncertainty, border closures, lockdowns, and of course the confronting reality of the seriousness of the illness and loss of life.
Like so many others, it's changed me forever, particularly the damage, the losses, the loss of life, reminding me of the fragility of life, reminding us all of the fragility of life. I believe we have a responsibility to ensure that we acknowledge and we communicate and we let the loved ones know in our life that matter that we love them, that we care about them, that we need them, that we rely upon them, because we don't know what tomorrow will bring. Don't take tomorrow for granted. And I've said very publicly I'm indebted, indeed I'm blessed to have Lisa, my wife, and my daughters Sarah and Lauren. All our family, our friends, our colleagues, the love and support, the guidance and advice, there is no doubt I wouldn't be here today without it.
So how do we cope in such difficult and uncertain times? Whether it's at an individual level, family level, businesses, industries or the broader community? To me its resilience. Resilience which is at the heart of the Australian spirit. You get knocked down, you get back up again. You get bucked off the horse, you dust yourself, you sit right back in the saddle and continue on. It's about lending a hand, about community, taking stock, looking on the bright side, getting on with things the very best we can, adapting and improving given what we've been dealt.
In my new role I've often asked what is and how do we build resilience? It's fair to say I've too asked that of a lot of others. I've read a lot and I've reflected enormously. I've reflected a lot.
To me resilience is built on our life experiences, whether they be personal, family, workplace, friends or community, the stresses, the disruptions, the trauma, emergencies, disasters. Resilience is about learning and building on experiences to help us ready ourselves to anticipate and endure future disruption, to be able to recover and adapt, becoming stronger, wiser, better for the experience after those impacts and disruptions.
We've seen remarkable adaptation, innovation, flexibility and utilisation of technologies to ensure livelihoods, our economy, our communities remain strong and viable. However and most importantly I think when we reflect on experiences and building resilience, the experience of learning and building is more often than not and invariably linked and closely connected with considerable and very difficult emotional pain and distress, whether that be individual or whether it be collective.
No matter where we go, and Lisa and I travelled down to the southern border region on the south coast during the Christmas New Year break, emotions are very raw and they;re still very real. The emotional and psychological well‑being for all of us truly matters.
One of the most challenging conversations I had in the lead up to Christmas was with a former work colleague on the way home one night. He was getting some support, getting some assistance and it was really helping him. I said, "How is it helping?" He said, "I'm talking to my wife better, getting on with the kids, connecting better at work and I have a stronger relationship with the volunteers". I said that was great and I was really proud of him. And he asked me before we hung up the phone, "You've got to promise me something, Shane, I don't want to anyone to know". I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I do not want anyone to know I'm getting help, assistance. I don't want people to be judging that I'm not coping, I'm not up to it, I'm not strong". It was one of the most disturbing phone calls I've had, and I can tell you I've had a lot in the last 12 months or so.
The same feedback comes from our community members and particularly those in the field that are worried about their loved ones, their partners, their fathers, their parents, about how they're coping and unwillingness to put up their hand for help and talk about how they're feeling.
When I left that phone call with that former colleague it said to me profoundly we've got to do something about breaking the stigma. And the onus is particularly on us men. We've got to do more. We must do better. There is no shame in having emotions, in being concerned, in having anxiety and being affected by the sorts of extraordinary disruptions, despair and tragedy that we've experienced.
We need to normalise conversation and give permission to talk to each other about how we're feeling or how we're travelling, as we often say. Normalise the sharing of thoughts and feelings and importantly the healing benefits of doing so. We do need to ask are you okay, but we need to pause and listen for the response. Not just listen but hear the response, engage and follow up. Follow up on that response, share your thoughts and feelings, relate. But importantly confirm referrals for support and assistance that will help.
I've got to say it's important too while we're looking out for others that we have the same conversation and the same thought processes with the person we see when we look in the mirror.
I don't use the phase social distancing. I support it, I understand it, I get it. But it's actually about physical distancing. More now than ever with what we've been experiencing we need to be connected, socially connected more than ever, albeit so much more virtually and doing it in different ways. We don't want to unnecessarily exacerbate loneliness, isolation, depression or anxiety. We don't want to compound the problem.
No matter where we travelled and who I talked to, people are saying they're conscious and open about in 2020 they've connected more with family and loved ones. They've had conversations, they've had fun catch ups. Same with friends, same with colleagues. Like they've never done before in 2019. Sure it's virtual and we're using new technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, I don't think I'll be ever get sick of hearing "are you on mute". The reality is people are connecting.
When I talk to people in workplaces they say they hear from their supervisors, bosses, CEOs more online in this virtual confronting, difficult world than they normally do in the workplace. It says a lot to all of us who are CEOs, supervisors, your teams want to connect, they want to know you're on the same page, they want to know you're having the same concerns, the same anxieties, the same frustrations, thought processes. Please continue to connect. Maintain that social connection more than ever. But by all means let's focus on physical distancing and stopping the spread of this awful virus.
As we travel around and spend time with different communities I often when I'm looking for answers love to go to our children and when I was the RFS's Commissioner I got literally thousands and thousands of cards, notes, drawings, messages, that came from kids across Australia, around the world and particularly in New South Wales from those that were impacted and affected by the fires. There's something very pure, there's something very innocent, there's something very heartfelt, but there's something very confronting when you read children's notes. Whether it's from the displays I saw at the Braidwood Regional Arts Display, the Cobargo Public School, everything I saw through the Rural Fire Service, kids are having the same conversations.
Over and over again I see these cards with big statements and listening to the kids, we did only a few weeks ago. They invariably come up with three phases, "I am not alone", "you are not alone", "we are not alone". It's very powerful. It's simple but it's powerful and it says a lot. The more we can share, the more we can understand that we aren't alone and we're in this together.
I also believe the key to resilience includes a focus on core values and strong networks, family, friends, colleagues, community, volunteerism. Resilience is not the sole responsibility of any individual, government or organisational business. It is indeed built through community. Volunteers and volunteerism is the heart of anything that works well in community. I will challenge you. Look at what works well and I think you'll find it's underpinned by volunteers.
Of course I look at fire and emergency services, our sporting sector, care sector, our environment and landscape care, it is all around volunteerism. People coming together, making a difference in their local community. I knew that.
I experienced that in my time with the Duffys Forest bushfire brigade. A sense of belonging, contribution, achievement, purpose, community service, mateship and family. It's those life skills that are also taught, teamwork, mutual respect, diversity, inclusion, negotiation, argument, debate, compromise, initiative, resourcefulness, training and development, adaptation and flexibility. Many people, many different backgrounds, coming together. In my case, a common uniform. You don't know the backgrounds, it doesn't matter. But there for a united purpose, united focus, on serving and protecting the community, making a difference individually and collectively.
As Commissioner during the fires I was inspired every day, it kept me going, by all who were involved in the firefighting effort. Front line, behind the scenes, commander control centres in the field, state operations, it didn't matter. There was an Army of men and women. Both volunteer and salaried alike, but especially the volunteers, day after day, week after week, month after week. They were partnered in with communities. Communities with extraordinary fear and anxiety that were working shoulder‑to‑shoulder with the fire and emergency services, listening and heeding the advice. Making decisions and taking action that directly contributed to the saving of life and saving of property.
In my role in Resilience I see that commitment and dedication continuing with recovery and all involved in the ongoing COVID pandemic. I have an extraordinary amount of respect and admiration for the people of New South Wales, for my fellow Australians.
What I've also learnt is that all roles matter and they're key. Of course we recognise our essential workers in areas such as firefighting, health services, policing, emergency services, the Commonwealth ADF. But also in this last year particularly I think it's reminded us all and sharpened our focus and appreciation for all the other critical workers without which we wouldn't be able to function. Organisation and industries, supermarkets, freight, logistics, delivery drivers, public transport workers, cleaners. Of course thank goodness, given our extraordinary impulse to buy, which escapes me, our toilet paper manufacturers and distributors.
In the face of adversity, despair and tragedy it's our community spirit, our humanity that prevails. Genuine compassion, love, care, the generosity between family, friends, neighbours, strangers, colleagues, whether it be locally or afar. There are so many examples throughout the fire season, throughout the recovery period, throughout the COVID‑19 pandemic where we see this extraordinary response and generosity.
This to me is at the core of our Australian spirit. Love of country, unity, mutual respect and inclusion. Sense of community, volunteers and volunteerism, mateship, lending a hand and looking out for others, building optimism, building resilience.
It will certainly be a different Australia Day this year, particularly with the ongoing implications and challenges associated with COVID, and for all those continuing with their recovery journey. However we do have much to celebrate this Australia Day and we must celebrate.
Our resilience, our Australian spirit in the face of adversity, we pull together. We support and look out for one another. We collaborate and work together. I note the National Anthem changed only this last month to "we are one and free", a simple change, a significant change, a powerful and important change in my view.
I've also heard a couple of times now in recent months the anthem being sung in a local Aboriginal language, and it's beautiful. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it were possible to have a nationally agreed indigenous version and that we could all learn in a united voice and sing together as one, both First Nations language and our English Australian, together as one singing our National Anthem.
We are a free nation and indeed a free people. Where democracy truly matters and opportunities do abound. To see politicians working with experts and specials across our public and private sector, organisations, industry and business sectors, our volunteers, our charity groups, our local communities. It's simply inspiring and it builds trust and confidence in the nation, in our people.
Importantly, it demonstrates to me that when we truly come together as one we are strong, we are resilient, we will bounce back and we'll be better and stronger than ever.
Whether your ancestry is with our First Nations people or whether you are amongst the newest of arrivals to this great country, together as one we can and do endure. We achieve great things as Australians as a collective.
Happy Australia Day, ladies and gentlemen, enjoy 2021. All of it comes with it, embrace, endure and welcome out the other side stronger and better.
Following a distinguished, 35-year long career with the NSW Rural Fire Service, as well as council and director roles across state and national emergency management authorities, Shane Fitzsimmons was appointed the inaugural Commissioner for Resilience NSW and Deputy Secretary, Emergency Management with the Department of Premier and Cabinet from 1 May 2020.
He is currently the chair of the State Emergency Management Committee (SEMC), the State Recovery Committee (SRC), Board of Commissioners (BOC) and the National Emergency Medal Committee (NEMC).
In 1998, he was appointed an Assistant Commissioner with the RFS and has held portfolio responsibilities for Operations, Strategic Development and Regional Management. In 2004, he was appointed the inaugural Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC) Visiting Fellow to the Australian Institute of Police Management (AIPM) for a period of 12-months, developing and delivering programs in management and leadership.
During the period of September 2007 - April 2020 he was the Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service and was also the Chair of the NSW RFS Bushfire Coordinating Committee and the Rural Fire Service Advisory Council. He was also a member of the NSW State Emergency Management Committee and the NSW State Rescue Board (SRB) and was Chair of SRB from 2008 to November 2015. In July 2012, he was appointed a Board Member of the NSW Government Telecommunications Authority.
He was appointed a Director of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) in March 2008 and was the Chair of the NAFC Board from 2009 to 2013. He was a Director on the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre from 2009 to 2014.
He was a member of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authority Council from 2007 and was a member of its Board from November 2016 to November 2019 and held the position of Deputy President upon retirement from the Board.
In January 2016 he was appointed as a Councillor of the Royal Humane Society of NSW Inc.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons has been awarded the Rural Fire Service Long-Service Medal for more than 30 years, the National Medal in recognition of more than 35 years, and the Australian Fire Service Medal (AFSM).
He has also been acknowledged with a Paul Harris Fellow and a Paul Harris Fellow Sapphire through Rotary Clubs of Berowra and Sydney. And is the patron of two charities – Kids Xpress and Coffee 4 Kids.
Most recently, he has been announced as the 2021 NSW Australian of the Year, and the Australian Father of the Year 2020 through The Shepherd Centre.