The embers of devastation are yet to fade. As public sector leaders know, spin can’t obscure the situation on the ground

By Verona Burgess

Thursday January 30, 2020

AAP/Dan Himbrechts

It comes as no surprise that Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants the unequivocal constitutional and legislative power to declare, unilaterally, a national state of emergency, as he told the National Press Club yesterday.

Anyone who was paying attention saw that coming, as we reported a fortnight ago. (the latest version of the call-out powers is the Defence Amendment (Call Out of the Australian Defence Force) Act 2018).

In this instance, the Governor-General, David Hurley, called out the Defence Force reserve under Section 28(4)(b) of the Defence Act 1903 “to provide civil aid, humanitarian assistance, medical or civil emergency or disaster relief.”

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However, much of the legality for the government to employ the call-out hinges on the definition of “domestic violence” in Section 119 of the Australian Constitution, which has been broadly understood to mean invasion and rebellion (natural disasters don’t get a mention). Whether any further legislation passed by the federal Parliament can credibly stretch the definition to include natural disasters will be moot.  A referendum to change the constitution itself is surely unlikely.

But no amount of big-picture discussion or spin should be allowed to obscure the situation on the ground.

‘We felt abandoned’

Let’s go back in time to early last week.

The visible devastation from the summer bushfires on the NSW south coast begins south of Nowra. We drive down the Princes Highway, through hectare after hectare of burnt-out forest on either side of the road, to check out our holiday house at Tuross Head, one of the lucky places so far in this hellish season.

Our holiday tenants fled when the power was cut. Will they return next year? Perhaps Scotty from Marketing’s $76 million tourism campaign (announced on January 19) will do the trick. Ha. This isn’t something that advertising can spin.  It is destruction on a biblical scale for an entire region and especially for those whose homes and businesses are lost or are teetering on the brink.

Through the stalks of blackened trees with burnt orange foliage, the undergrowth consumed by the inferno, we see hills and valleys and many burnt-out buildings. It is a grim and depressing view. What is incredible is that more houses didn’t burn. “Thank you fireys” say many home-made signs on the highway.

We arrive the Monday before the Australia Day long weekend. The fires are still burning, although there has been some respite. The monster that created virtual war zones up and down the south coast is hungry for a chance to flare up again. Everyone is keeping a close eye on Bodalla, the next stop south on the highway.

Our community in the area is a wonderful mix of people from many walks of life – principally locals, Canberrans and former Canberrans, many of them public servants.  If there’s a Canberra bubble, the entire south coast of NSW is part of it.

We do not hear one favourable comment about the government, and Morrison in particular. The difference between his view of his responsibilities and the people’s expectations is a yawning chasm. The footage of his visit to Cobargo, among many other things, has cut deep. Before the fires, few people outside Canberra, the south coast and the folk music scene would have heard of the little town. Now its name is etched on the national consciousness.

We hear the same story over and over: “We felt abandoned. We were on our own.” The roads cut, no power, panicked evacuations, worries about water supply, no fuel, no communications, price gouging, looting – in such conditions, rumours spread faster than the fires and some of them are true.

Embers of good governing

There is also time for some serious discussion about government. About the despicable rorting of the sports grants program. About Morrison palming off what might be politely described as the “integrity test” of ministerial behaviour to his former chief of staff, now top mandarin, Phil Gaetjens.

Gaetjens, it is evident, has made many enemies with the dumping of five department secretaries before Christmas, closely followed by the resignation/retirement of the well-respected Health secretary Glenys Beauchamp that adds to the plummeting numbers of females at the top. Then there’s what appear to be the rather pointless machinery of government changes, abolishing and merging four departments with no credible policy explanation. They will affect thousands of public servants, starting on Monday, February 1.

In short, Gaetjens has lost a lot of skin and, ironically, that intangible asset, authority, within the bureaucracy. Does that matter? You bet it does.

The government’s response to the Thodey review, giving virtual carte blanche to the secretaries’ board, is also causing alarm at senior levels, especially after the sackings. Would anyone gainsay Gaetjens now, knowing he must have been sitting there for a year as Treasury secretary sizing up his secretarial colleagues? Off with their heads.

In many people’s eyes, Gaetjens’ verdict about the adventures of Bridget McKenzie  – yet to come at time of writing – is as much an integrity test for him, in the solemn office of Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, as for Morrison. If he fails to advise that she has breached ministerial standards, Gaetjens will be found wanting. She, already, is worse than a laughing stock. If ever there was a time for a federal integrity commission covering both the parliament and the APS, this is it – but don’t hold your breath.

Nobody is holding their breath that the Commonwealth’s $2 billion bushfire recovery money will be drawn from new expenditure in the budget, instead expecting that it will be sucked out of existing programs so as not to blow the surplus. The sudden decision to claw back a further $2 billion from Centrelink “overpayments” has political desperation stamped all over it. Does anybody truly believe it is a viable policy option?

On the ground, the work continues

Meanwhile, still at the coast, the ashes and soot are thick on the deck and outdoor furniture, the windows and the normally white walls. They mustn’t be hosed down because of water restrictions but, like everyone else, we clear up as best we can. This time we’ve brought a generator. From now on our lives will include contingencies.

There is a little rain, and a couple of clearer days bring to mind what a pristine environment the south coast has been until now and, we hope, will be again. The surf is good, the water temperature lovely and the few families on the beach pick their way through the blackened flotsam and jetsam washed up with every tide.

Then comes another day from hell – Thursday, January 24. It’s 38 degrees, the wind is howling and the monster licks its lips. The sky is orange from a combination of the dust storm that has rolled in from the west and new smoke. We’ve dropped in on some friends at Potato Point – the next headland to the south – for a cup of tea, but by 3pm it’s time to go. The fires flare up to the west of Moruya and, behind Bodalla, the monster races towards Potato Point and along the ridge. The township loses several power poles on the road in and within a couple of hours it is cut off for days.

On Friday morning the amphibious landing ship, HMAS Choules, chugs past, heading south to stand off Potato Point. The navy is taking no chances of a repeat of the long delay for evacuations at Mallacoota. From our deck we watch the army’s Black Hawk helicopters carrying water buckets and other fire-fighting aircraft dipping into the lake like dive bombers, flying back and forth for hours on end. Then the huge orange helicopter Elvis enters the building, so to speak, and the concerted effort to douse the fire continues for days.

The monster retreats a little, but as we pack up to leave on Tuesday another heatwave is only days away. By that night, Canberra is facing the threat of another inferno.

It’s not over yet.  The Australian Constitution will wait a little longer.

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