Senator Murray Watt, the Federal Shadow Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management, was in the Snowy Valleys on Friday ahead of the Eden-Monaro by-election, touring bushfire damage with Mayor James Hayes.
Among Senator Watt’s priorities while in the region were hearing about whether the government was delivering on its disaster-related promises and checking on local jobs and properties.
“The very first conversation I had on arriving in Tumut was with someone who was a bushfire victim and is really unhappy with the pace of the bushfire recovery,” said Senator Watt. “That is consistent with the feedback I’ve been getting in every bushfire region I’ve been to.”
Senator Watt, a Queenslander, said he has been trying to visit each of the fire-affected communities in between parliamentary duties and has heard common themes.
“They’ve obviously been through a very traumatic experience through the fires themselves and to be months on feeling still that they’re not getting the support that they need is just tragic,” he said.
The senator said people are widely complaining that the debris removal is taking too long and there are too many “bureaucratic fights” about what will and won’t be removed.
“People feel that the announcements that the government have been making about bushfire recovery don’t end up being delivered, so there’s a real feeling of over promising and under delivering,” he said, pointing to figures which suggest the government has only paid out roughly one quarter of the $2 billion bushfire recovery fund, though the Prime Minister places that number at $1.4 billion.
The Bushfire Recovery Agency clarified the numbers, saying that $1 billion has been spent from the fund so far, with $529.2 million already gone out and $471.8 million committed to reimburse or reconcile the work of other governments and agencies. The agency also agreed that the additional $417 million for disaster relief grants come out of general revenue, putting the total bushfire spend at $1.4 billion. There is still roughly $1 billion left in the bushfire fund.
The argument over numbers comes close to splitting hairs, but Senator Watt insists it matters.
“When trust is so low, I think it’s much better for the government to be honest about what it’s actually spent, rather than inflate figures to try to make themselves look good.”
In media announcements about the $1.4 billion spend, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison has described the money as being “committed” or “pledged” for bushfire recovery.
Senator Watt said the government hasn’t been closely watching what’s actually happening on the ground.
“Unfortunately, people at the local level are left to deal with the consequences.”
He said that includes the local councils and individual landholders who are left to pick up the pieces.
Senator Murray insists that there is still money in the bushfire recovery fund waiting to be spent, and the government needs to work harder at getting money out the door. He also wants to see the government take responsibility for clearing unsafe trees from rural road corridors, since they committed to removing all the fire rubble, rather than “cherry pick the bits that they want to do.”
“There’s nothing quite like seeing things first hand and hearing things firsthand,” he said. “My worry is there’s a bit too much sitting back in Canberra, thinking about what might be happening rather than actually having people out here on the ground on a daily basis, seeing it, hearing it and taking action.”
Senator Watt spent his day touring Batlow and Old Tumbarumba Road, meeting with orchardist Greg Mouat to hear more about the fire fight and the government’s support.
Mr Mouat said their time was limited, due to conflicting appointments, but Senator Watt promised to follow up this week.
“It was good to see him in the area,” said Mr Mouat. “He’s obviously keen to understand what’s gone on. Once he makes contact, we’ll be able to advise him of our ongoing needs.”
Mr Mouat has been spending a lot of time doing media interviews and meeting with politicians since the fires and said it’s an important part of the region’s recovery.
“The damage that occurred in the area has created a lot of political interest, and we’re keen to make sure that all those politicians who come into the area are aware of the impacts on the community,” he said.
“We’ve got a story to get out there. We need all levels of government to be aware of what’s happened and what the ongoing issues will be. It’s not just the immediate damage that’s occurred, it’s the ongoing economy of the orchards, the economy of the town, it’s all interlinked, and it’s important that’s understood.”
On mental health, Senator Watt suggested mental health support should be more closely ‘embedded’ in other services, since victims often don’t have the time to seek out support.
“I’d be interested to know what we can do to provide those mental health supports differently so that people can get them,” he said. “People might not necessarily be willing to pick up the phone and ask for help, so how do we build those mental health supports into other services that are being provided?”
In other regions, mental health counsellors have joined local recovery groups which are working on farms or in businesses, embedded within broader recovery teams, making it easier to start sensitive discussions. He said these creative approaches would also help relieve the confusion and time pressure which people face while trying to rebuild.
Adding to his calls for the government to loosen its purse strings, Senator Watt said he felt there should be more flexibility in how grants are paid to fire victims, with the understanding that “having one size fits all rules that get rolled out all across the country don’t work.”
He said there need to be staff who are able to recognise the differences within each region and community when awarding grants.
“The guiding principle has got to be locally-led. What are the local needs and how do you make the rules respond to local circumstances?” he said.
Australian Defense Force
During the fires, the Prime Minister took the unprecedented step of mobilising close to 6500 ADF personnel without being asked by the state governments to intervene.
Senator Watt said he’ll wait to hear the Royal Commission’s recommendations, but said that “I don’t think it has to remain the way it has been in the past with relying on the states to call it in,” admitting “it’s a pretty big change for a federal government just to be able to come in over the top of state governments and you’ve got to be careful about those sorts of changes, but we shouldn’t be locked into old thinking.”
“It may be the case that in days gone by we didn’t use the ADF to do certain things, but all of the indications are that we’re going to be facing more bushfires in the future and more intense bushfires in the future, so if the circumstances are going to change, your response has to change and I think we do need to rethink how resources like the ADF are being used.”
A major concern for the government and opposition is the future of the Snowy Valleys timber industry, which is the major employer of the region and was crippled by the bushfires.
“It’s obviously had a massive impact in terms of product destroyed,” said Senator Watt.
“I know there’s a lot of concern about future employment and the future state of the industry,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have any answers yet, but will be speaking with industry leaders.
“I’m conscious that there’s been a really big hit to the industry and it’s a crucial employer in this region and we can’t afford to let all those jobs fall to the wayside.”
With “business as usual not going to cut it anymore,” Senator Watt said he had been considering the potential of hiring professional fire fighters for future fire seasons.
“It’s a good example of where we’ve got to be open to those sorts of changes,” he said
“I don’t think that we can expect that the purely volunteer-based system that we’ve had is going to cope.”
He suggested there could be professional firefighters used during key points in the year to prepare for the fire season and to be on hand during the peak fire season.
“I just think it was unfair and unrealistic to think that volunteers would be able to continue serving for weeks and months on end like we did last year,” he said, “To expect that people can walk away from their families or their own work for that length of time is really unfair.”