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Fed: Bushfire truce and gentle politics

By Don Woolford
11 Feb 2009 5:23 PM

CANBERRA, Feb 11 AAP - The political truce in the face of the emotionally overwhelming Victorian bushfires is holding.

Question time, federal parliament's main battleground, has been cancelled for the week; a very rare event.

In its place, MPs, mainly from the frontline, speak of the horrors of last Saturday and the continuing threats; and the government, mainly Kevin Rudd, reports on what's being done, both immediate relief and planning for reconstruction.

Malcolm Turnbull promises total support, plus some ideas of his own. His mantra is "Whatever it takes", perhaps forgetting that's the title of the memoir of that most cynical of politicians, Graham Richardson.

In other respects, particularly in the Senate where the government's stimulus package is being endlessly debated, politics and the usual business of government continue. It is, however, more muted than usual. Interjections are rare and language restrained.

On Wednesday, several MPs appeared for the first time this week.

Darren Chester, a Nationals MP from Gippsland, recalled "the day hell came to paradise".

Chester spoke of villages identifiable only from scarred street signs, of people ratting through the rubble of their homes, of a cubby house unscathed amid the carnage, of a tiny old woman who jumped into a dam and stayed there for hours as the fire roared towards her.

He said tough questions had to be asked about how to deal in future with fires whose power was underestimated. Some places simply couldn't be defended. But he wasn't advocating forced evacuations. People had the right to risk their lives by trying to defend their homes.

Liberal Sophie Mirabella, whose seat of Indi covers much of northeastern Victoria, emphasised the bravery and generosity of thousands of people who did all they could for the firefighters and victims.

Families did whatever was needed, often before they were asked. And often those with the least gave the most.

Mirabella is usually a most combative politician and it showed occasionally, like when she spoke of farmers for whom this disaster came on top of years of battling drought, bureaucracy and world markets.

And she warned: "Long after the cameras have gone, the scars will remain."

One MP, Fran Bailey, whose electorate of McEwen was most devastated, was still missing from the parliament. Suddenly, everyone seems in awe of her. Colleagues have described her, admiringly, as tough as guts and stoic. Rudd said she was an extraordinary woman.

Turnbull, who met with Rudd a little earlier, said Australians wanted their leaders to work together and went on to announce three ideas he'd put to the prime minister.

They were to appoint a commissioner to ensure insurance payouts were prompt and fair, add parliamentary representation to the authority that will oversee reconstruction and have a parliamentary committee review the lessons from the fires.

There's nothing specially remarkable about this - except it looks a little like Turnbull trying to deal himself a seat at the decision-making table.

He tried that on Australia's response to the global financial crisis and was rebuffed.

The bushfires are a new, perhaps easier, opportunity. And he baited his ideas by nominating as the opposition representative on the authority, none other than the extraordinary Fran Bailey.