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I too would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
Could I acknowledge the Governor-General, Mrs Hurley, acknowledge the Prime Minister. And particularly acknowledge the family and friends of the extraordinary Australians who we are recognising today.
The National Emergency Medal was first struck in the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires.
I remember that day vividly.
The heat of it.
As I do, Ash Wednesday, the smoke filling the house in which I lived, in Geelong.
Emergencies, floods, cyclones, natural disasters, but particularly fires have been a part of life on this continent forever.
They sear our consciousness.
They mark time.
They go to the heart of our culture.
But even in the context of that history, the Black Summer Bushfires were of a different order of magnitude.
In 2009, about half a million hectares were burned in the Black Saturday Bushfires.
In the Black Summer Bushfires of sixteen months ago, by various estimates, it was somewhere between 24 and 40 million hectares.
It says something about the scale of the event.
And with sixteen months to reflect on the extraordinary phenomenon that occurred, there are some aspects of it which really loom large.
Most particularly was the scale of the lives lost.
And to put it perhaps differently; the comparative size of the lives saved.
Tragically, 33 people lost their lives in the in the Black Summer Bushfires but that compared to 173 people who lost their lives on Black Saturday.
That begs a question; how is it that a fire that was fifty times as large, saw a loss of life only one fifth as big?
The answer to that question is in this room.
Shane Fitzsimmons said to me that in terms of the National Emergency Medal, it’s estimated that 130,000 Australians will be eligible for this, in terms of the contribution that they made in fighting the Black Summer Bushfires.
That is extraordinary.
And it speaks to the fact that our ability to deal with fires, to reduce the loss of life has grown significantly.
But there is in the midst of it also another tragic statistic.
Nine firefighters who we acknowledge today lost their lives – much more than the loss of life on Black Saturday, much more.
And those nine people in the midst of incredible danger, ran toward it, not from it, and put their lives on the line, as did all those who volunteered during the Black Summer Bushfires.
Because of what they did, there must be hundreds of Australians now who are living their lives, who are contributing to our country, who are loving their loved ones, but wouldn’t be but for the effort of your loved ones.
And it’s that sacrifice that we acknowledged today.
At the end of the US Civil War, America’s greatest President wrote a very famous letter for Mrs Bixby who lost five sons during the Civil War.
His words speak to the anguish of sacrifice, but the pride that goes with it.
And in a sense to me, it seems those words are very apt today, particularly given that three of the nine who lost their lives were from the United States and that we have our friends, our family from the United States who are watching today.
Abraham Lincoln said this;
“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine, which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.
But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”
Today our nation gives you our thanks.
That in the anguish of your bereavement, that you know, that in the sacrifice of your loved ones and of your friends, there will always be a deep and solemn pride.