Top bushfire recovery brass sees opportunity for the Snowy Valleys

Major General Andrew Hocking visited the Snowy Valleys late last month as part of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency. He believes that with determination and focused work, great things lie in the SVC’s future.

Major General Andrew Hocking sees hope for the Snowy Valleys’ future. As Deputy Coordinator for the National Bushfire Recovery Agency (NBRA), with a focus on getting on the ground and finding practical solutions, “roll our sleeves up” is a phrase Majgen Hocking uses frequently when discussing his time in the Snowy Valleys late last month.
“The important part [of my trip to the SVC] is at one stage we had all three levels of government in one room and really all sharing the same conversation, trying to understand what the needs are of the community in the short term and what some of the opportunities are in the long term,” he told The Times.
“It’s really powerful when we’re all listening to the same story and all come to the same understanding.”
Majgen Hocking is part of the federal response to last summer’s fires, but the NBRA remains strictly non-partisan, reporting to the government, but made up of mostly military personnel.
“The one thing with the Snowy Valleys is, at least for me, the huge opportunity I saw there,” he said, “because of the fundamentals of the area, just being a beautiful area, but equally being so historic to Australia’s story.
“It’s not far from Canberra and other parts of the world. There’s opportunity there going forward to rethink the area’s potential.”
SVC Mayor James Hayes described the Major General as “a breath of fresh air” after their meeting last month.
“I am appreciative to have him working for us,” said Cr Hayes. “He gives me confidence.
“He just seems to get it and rather than just another bureacrat doing the rounds, he seems to be genuinely interested.”
Cr Hayes said Majgen Hocking seemed to have a handle on the local situation and “seems to want to get things done.”
After meeting with people from Batlow to Tumbarumba to Adelong to Tumut, Majgen Hocking said he was very aware that every person in every town has been affected differently. While the major impact for the SVC will come through damage to the pine plantations and orchards, it doesn’t lessen the impact on individuals.
“Wherever I go, whether it’s working in my office here in Canberra, working with my partners in NSW, speaking to communities… We are very alert that everything impacts on humans,” he said, “Whether that’s war [in the usual context of the military] or disaster.
“It’s about understanding humans and understanding that everything is a human endeavour.”
Within that understanding, Majgen Hocking said it’s important that the recovery process moves at the pace of the community, not too fast and not too slow.
The first and most psychologically important step is debris removal.
“Communities are telling me they can’t even start to picture what the future looks like from the physical building of a house perspective,” he said.
“Debris removal is so important because then you’re not constantly looking at your ruins and rubble.”
But even within the cleanup, there are environmental factors to consider and the recent impact of Covid-19 has made meetings and procedures more difficult.
“It’s a big step that has been holding people back, and hopefully that’s got some momentum now and that helps people look into the next phase,” he said.
After debris removal, Majgen Hocking said the next important step is to make sure that there are people on the ground to help fire victims to sift through the many options and offers of help.
“The nation really comes together at times of hardship, but in some ways there’s so much generosity and offers of support there … that it creates a second-order challenge, which is: ‘How do you navigate your way through that?’” he said, insisting that there need to be people physically in fire-affected communities to help the locals sift through the offers and make the best possible plan.
Those plans will also require some flexibility from the government, which Majgen Hocking said he’s hoping to help with.
“We’re about rolling our sleeves up and getting things done. We’ve all got that in us as Australians. The government shares that view as well,” he said.
“Official procedures will only get you so far; this is extraordinary circumstances, so let’s roll our sleeves up, let’s get talking to people and understand what their needs are.”
He said government funding requires strict accountability, but there needs to be a way that the officials in Canberra can understand and respond to the needs on the ground.
“We’ve got to break the mould of top-down policymaking,” he said.
“What we’re trying to do is set quite flexible policy that people can tailor to their own needs in a community-led process.”
The ideas are good, and Majgen Hocking said the conversations so far have been productive. The NBRA was established in early January and given a two-year mandate, but he said they’ll continue operating as long as they’re needed. The next important step is to ensure practical action takes place.
In mid-May, the federal government announced $448 million for local and regional recovery. Majgen Hocking said it’s part of a recognition that the recovery needs to be enabled from the federal level, but led from the state and local level.
“I’ve been in disasters overseas and studied the literature when I came into this job and a quote you hear is, ‘everything was going really well until the help arrived.’
“Often that’s because we like to come up with solutions in our glass clad offices in Canberra and try and impose them on local communities.
“I’ve been really impressed with the state government and the federal government and everybody who has flipped that one its head.”
He said some elements of recovery, like funding for the forestry and apple industries, have to be coordinated from the federal level, but “the vast bulk of recovery is best done at that local level.”
“Communities know better than anyone what their needs are,” he said.