On Tuesday NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet admitted the disaster response hadn’t improved since the Black Summer bushfires. But he couldn’t really say why.
“It’s pretty clear to me that more can be done, but for me today it’s not a time for review, it’s a time for action,” he told RN Breakfast.
His comments backed up similar concerns raised by former NSW treasurer and wannabe federal Liberal MP Andrew Constance, who said nothing had changed since the fires which devastated his former electorate of Bega.
Since that disaster there have been state and federal royal commissions and multimillion-dollar disaster recovery agencies established by NSW and the Commonwealth. But that is little relief to people across swathes of northern NSW and south-east Queensland, where 16 people have died, homes have been destroyed, and entire livelihoods shattered by the kind of deluge we can expect more of.
What will the election mean to you?
Sign up to our free newsletter, including this weekend’s coverage of the election.
In the Lismore region, the epicentre of the tragedy in NSW where floodwaters rose 14 metres last week, there’s a feeling of being abandoned by both the state and federal governments, which have delivered inadequate support too late.
“We don’t need a bureaucracy, we need a benign dictator,” Lismore mayor Steve Krieg said.
NSW and feds clash over ADF
A major source of frustration, in NSW at least, has been a feeling that the Australian Defence Force response hasn’t been nearly enough. Residents have been forced to crowdfund helicopters to deliver food as the federal government was forced to defend its rollout of military support.
There are about 700 troops on the ground in northern NSW and 1300 in south-east Queensland. Perrottet expects to get the full 5000 personnel he has asked for. They’ll arrive, finally, tomorrow.
Nobody can seem to figure out what’s taken so long. Defence Minister Peter Dutton was doing the damage control media rounds on Tuesday morning, where he copped a lashing from Sunrise host David Koch for suggesting the delay was because the military couldn’t land amid the deluge.
“God help us if we’re going to war — we wouldn’t stand a chance if it took us this long to get organised,” Koch said.
The government blames the weather for its failure to get troops into Lismore. But also exacerbating the situation is a story we’ve seen throughout the pandemic — a breakdown in coordination between state and federal governments.
Volunteer-staffed State Emergency Services handle the initial response to a crisis. When it gets out of hand and they’re overwhelmed, as happened last week, the ADF can be called in.
In essence, the Commonwealth decides when to deploy troops, but can do so only at the request of the states. Last week Emergency Services Minister Bridget McKenzie promised 2000 additional personnel. But Resilience NSW boss Shane Fitzsimmons was furious that the minister had not contacted him about it.
Patchwork relief, challenges ahead
As floodwaters recede and the troops finally arrive, fear of what comes next is potent. Lismore will require a complete rebuild, locals say.
For those affected, getting immediate relief is a challenge, especially when access to power, devices and key documents have been limited by the floods. Services Australia provides a $1000 lump-sum disaster payment for people who’ve been significantly affected.
Labor Senator Murray Watt says tightened eligibility criteria means people living in raised, Queenslander-style homes cannot access the payment unless the water came up above the bottom level into the interior.
University of Queensland strategic management Professor Paula Jarzabkowski says although the payment seems paltry to some, a short, sharp injection of cash immediately post-disaster can make a significant difference.
While the states provide some individual relief, the NSW Disaster Relief Grant targets only low-income earners, and Queensland offers far less than Services Australia.
Once the initial devastation is overcome, the long and daunting challenge of rebuilding looms over flood-prone areas. Last week National Recovery and Resilience Agency head Shane Stone was slammed for appearing to victim-blame those who “want a home among the gum trees” in flood-prone areas.
But Jarzabkowski says while Stone’s comments are insensitive, with climate change making such disasters more frequent there needs to be a serious conversation about adaptation and mitigation — moving entire towns if need be. It’s something that requires significant investment and coordination from numerous agencies across all tiers of government.
Instead, natural disasters have been followed by a failure to take responsibility for adaptation.
“It’s like a hot potato that everyone wants to keep passing to someone else,” Jarzabkowski said. “But there is no somebody else. We’ve got to stop passing the potato.”
This article was first published by Crikey.