If I may say so ladies and gentlemen, it is particularly heart-warming to see so many of you gathered here this evening, and to know how determined you are to help those who were so cruelly affected by the catastrophic bushfires in Australia recently. I was most touched to have been invited to join you for this occasion and to have an opportunity to express, once again, just how much my family and I care about what I can only imagine must have seemed like an apocalyptic vision of Hell that the Australian people have been through over these past, desperately trying, few months.
Like all of you, I was profoundly shocked by the extent and intensity of the fires which swept Australia this Summer. They affected an area, as you’ll know better than I, larger than Scotland, and even the most seasoned firefighters were taken aback by their ferocity. These terrifying fires robbed people of their lives, their loved ones, and their property; driving them from their homes while, at the same time, wreaking untold devastation on Australia’s unique and precious wildlife. The scale of the loss is as appalling as it is heart-breaking and it is dreadful to think of the suffering that so many Australians have had to endure.
I must say, I was deeply moved by the letters my family and I received from Australians describing the dreadful scenes they witnessed. One lady from New South Wales described how, driving through the Snowy Mountains near Canberra, she saw: “Hundreds and hundreds of miles of burnt trees – utter devastation everywhere. The one thing that I noticed” she went on, “was the silence… no birdsong of any type. My heart was broken at the sights we saw while driving through each small hamlet.”
Amidst the horror and the sorrow, I have, above all, felt the greatest possible sense of admiration for the extraordinary determination and resilience of the Australian people. The manner in which firefighters and other emergency services, as well as countless thousands of volunteers, in their own unique, Antipodean way, have risked their lives to defend neighbour and stranger alike, represents, it seems to me, the very essence of the Australian character.
At times we saw that enduring spirit of Aussie ‘mateship’ tested by exhaustion, by the greatest pressure and by the gravest danger. It is not surprising that the firies’ helmet now stands alongside the diggers’ slouch hat as a powerful symbol of the courage, resilience and generosity for which Australians are renowned. At the very worst of times, we saw the very best of Australia – and knowing the Aussies, as I do after fifty-four years, that makes me very proud.
The dividend of that remarkable resilience is already clear. I have read such heartening reports of recovery in so many of the fire-affected communities; and I have been greatly encouraged by plans to restore some of the precious habitats that have been lost and by the fact that the Australian Government has provided $2 billion to the National Bushfire Recovery Fund to kick-start recovery and rebuilding, and to help communities and businesses get back on their feet.
However, the overriding, fundamental challenge remains. Tragically and terrifyingly, these bushfires are becoming ever more frequent and more fierce as temperatures rise, breaking records even in Australia’s capital cities, with a truly alarming 48.9°c in the Sydney suburb of Penrith in early January, just as we saw 46.6°c in Adelaide last year. Longer, hotter, drier summers are the new reality with which Australia must contend. And so, while we pray that the devastation of this past bushfire season will not be seen again, we must, it troubles me to say, be prepared that it may be very likely repeated and that the resilience of the Australian people will continue to be tested in an unprecedented way…
Through all of this, I can only hope that Australians are able to draw strength from knowing just how much so many people around the world care about their situation. Thoughts and prayers are important, of course, but they only go so far: it has mattered even more that so many friends of Australia, particularly here in the United Kingdom, have been so generous in donating to charities and bushfire recovery causes.
My Prince’s Trust Australia is playing its own small part by working with a range of stakeholders including the Kangaroo Island Council, and Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, on a medium and long-term response to the bushfires. This includes helping with the design and rebuilding of a community centre in South Australia which, I hope, might offer a useful blueprint for other communities working so hard to rebuild.
I do know, Ladies and Gentlemen, just how much each of you is doing to support those Australian communities as they recover from the bushfires or, indeed, as we are discovering with ever-greater extremes in weather patterns, those who are now having to contend with serious flooding. I am sure that tonight’s dinner will make a very significant contribution to all these efforts.
Now, I am only too aware that so many of you feel the same deep affection for Australia and her people that I have always felt, and which is now etched into my sub-conscious. And so I can only thank you again ladies and gentlemen, for your tremendous generosity and for the friendship and solidarity you have shown to those who have borne so much.