Adjournment – Childers Hostel fire anniversary

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Mr PITT (Hinkler) (11:13): I would like to speak about a little town with a big heart. At the centre of my electorate is the town of Childers. It is a town which is surrounded by red soil, blue sky and rolling greenfields of sugarcane. Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough, I am sure you were around in 1985 and the Gang Gajang song Sounds of then. It is something which always comes to mind when I think about Childers. It is part of the Isis District—a district which has been around for much longer than the current terrorist organisation, which we hear so much about on the news.

Much of the main street of Childers is heritage listed. Many of the buildings in the CBD had to be rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1902. As a result, the main street now has a largely uniform and authentic architectural style. The original Palace Hotel, located in the centre of the main street, was one of the buildings destroyed by that fire. It was rebuilt and opened for business in 1903 and operated as a hotel continuously for some 85 years. During its heyday in the thirties and forties, it was the premier hotel in Childers. As well as serving the very first thirsty canecutters. it offered accommodation, a dining room and, at one stage, a grand ballroom. In the early 1990s it was converted to backpacker accommodation. This week marks 15 years since the Palace was gutted by fire for the second time. On 23 June 2000, tragedy struck when the Palace building was the subject of an arson attack that killed 15 backpackers. Twelve of them were visiting from overseas. Miraculously, another 70 escaped unharmed but with minor injuries such as smoke inhalation. The fire compromised the structural integrity of the building and the main street was partially blocked as a result of support being installed on the facade.

In October 2002, two years and four months after the devastating fire, countless members of the Childers community, survivors and victims’ families rallied together for the opening of the Palace Memorial Building. Twelve of the families who lost loved ones attended that moving ceremony. Today the restored building encompasses a glass memorial wall, a portrait of the victims of the fire, the Childers Regional Art Gallery and the Childers Visitor Information Centre.

Over one million people have visited the memorial site since its dedication. Last year, Rob Jansen, a traveller from the Netherlands who survived that fatal fire, became a father for the first time. In a heartfelt tribute to an event that changed his life and the community that came to his aid, he named his daughter Lea Isis Jansen. At this point in my delivery I would like to make special mention of the mayor of the Isis district at that time, Mr Bill Trevor. I have spoken to Bill on a number of occasions about this event. It is something which has clearly effected him personally as it has many others in the community. It is a very small community that rallied, and rallied strongly, to support those who were affected. But it is a community which continues to feel the effects of such a terrible tragedy. I know that their hearts go out to the people of Ravenshoe, who have suffered a similar issue in recent weeks.

This tragedy was always in the back of my mind when the issue was first raised about backpacker exploitation in my district; the fact that we can have in this country houses or units which accommodate many people—up to 15 or 20 in one house—without the sufficient protections of a proper hostel, without fire warning services and without the systems needed to save a life if there is a terrible incident. This incident at the Palace Backpackers has always been in the back of my mind as something which we must always try to avoid in the future.

So I am very pleased to be part of a government which has put forward Taskforce Cadena. Taskforce Cadena is a multijurisdictional task force to address worker exploitation, in particular for workers who do not have legal work rights in this country—for people who are on 417 visas and working holiday makers. These are people who are absolutely essential to the horticulture industry and, in particular, to my electorate. There are some 230,000 people on 417 visas in this country at any one time who are assisting us to build this great nation and at the same time using the money that they earn to support our local businesses, and to travel and see this great country.

So, Taskforce Cadena is an incredibly important task force put forward by this government. It is something which will address this issue and, certainly, being of a multijurisdictional nature, it will be able to tie in state government and local government, because there are so many levels and so many departments involved. It is absolutely incredible that this has been allowed to go so far for so long without being addressed.

I am very pleased that is has kicked off. It has been successful already. There have been some raids which caught 38 illegal workers in recent weeks. I will be very interested to see the outcome, so I thank Senator Michaelia Cash and, of course, Minister Keenan and Minister Abetz for the work that they have done.

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