One year on since the last Federal Election, and what a year to remember - drought, bushfires, floods, coronavirus.
Some context is needed. Pre-election, the drought was crippling local farmers on the NSW South Coast. Local dairy farmers were calling out for help and a fairer farm gate milk price. Before the last election, Labor supported investigating a fairer farm gate milk price and is still pursuing this today. Meanwhile, farmers are still grappling with the impact of the drought, and will be for a long time to come.
There is no doubt our changing climate and those extraordinarily dry conditions helped fuel the most devastating bushfires that raged for months.
The difficult irony back in 2019 when I was elected was that local farmers could not access drought loans because the Morrison Government said the NSW South Coast was not in drought, despite the NSW Government determining the South Coast was severely drought affected. This was an argument I was not backing down on. Some nine months later, and after the bushfires, the Morrison Government finally changed their mind.
With an eery feeling I left Parliament early on 3 December 2019 to return to Gilmore, where I remained every day supporting during the duration of the fires. The Currowan fire was beginning to spread fast. At Fire Control, I looked at the bush fire maps and hoped the worst case fire spread would not occur.
In the end it burned almost the length of Gilmore, from the outskirts of Kangaroo Valley in the north to near Moruya in the south. No-one could not be impacted by the bushfires in some way.
Firestorm after firestorm. Orange flame ridden sky’s turning day into night. Ash rain. Mud rain. So it continued, time and time again, like it was cursing and tormenting us all - when would it end?
Our brave brave firefighters, our forever heroes. All our emergency services workers and volunteers and the army of volunteers and organisations supporting the mammoth firefighting effort – we salute you. You are incredible.
The kindness people have shown in some of our darkest times gives hope.
Fire fighters telling me they want to get the message out to thank our community for their support. Home made cookies with messages of support, children’s artwork showing fire fighters as their heroes with capes, showed the real love and bond within our community.
Despite businesses themselves going through firestorms and tough times, businesses, workers and individuals went above and beyond providing food and somewhere to sleep for stranded people.
Sadly we lost loved ones. Families will never be the same.
The emotional and financial toll on our community has been enormous. Our businesses, organisations, jobs and families have suffered immensely.
Many businesses were in dire trouble with lost tourist income. Early in January I said loudly there was an unfolding economic crisis on the NSW South Coast. I called hard, over and over, for a direct cash injection for small businesses, to give them a chance to survive. This eventually happened in March with the announcement of the $10,000 Bushfire Assistance Grants.
With more than 600 homes lost, it is disappointing that so few of the destroyed homes have been cleaned up. With winter fast approaching, the clean up and recovery for impacted individuals, businesses and farmers needs to be sped up.
However, while there were raging bushfires for what seemed an eternity, then came the floods. Conjola that wreaked the wrath of bushfires, saw its lake and community flooded – again.
Bomaderry High School’s flooding was so severe that ceilings caved in and crumbled to the floor; and the smell of possum excrement is hard to forget. Our public schools and country kids deserve way better.
After the bushfires, the goodwill of holiday makers started to come back. Easter was the hope of being the Christmas we didn’t have. There was genuine excitement. Then came coronavirus…
One thing after another, our resilient community took on the next challenge.
Tourists were turned away again from the double whammy of bushfires and then coronavirus. Businesses and local jobs were struggling under the enormous strain.
Our nurses, doctors, teachers, cleaners, aged care workers, food and supermarket workers, farmers, truck drivers – to all our essential workers through bushfires and coronavirus, thank you.
But the truth is as the national focus changed to coronavirus, bushfire impacted people felt forgotten.
That’s why on my return to Parliament on 12 May 2020, to find that by March only 1 in 8 dollars of the promised $2 billion in federal bushfire recovery money has actually been spent, it’s simply not good enough.
The Federal Government must genuinely listen and learn from the ex-fire chiefs, experts and people’s experience on the ground. That’s why the Senate Inquiry into the Lessons to be learned in relation to the Australian Bushfire season 2019-20 is so important.
Winter is calling, so is the next bushfire season – we must be prepared.
For far too long now, our country areas have been ignored. Plagued with some of the highest rates of unemployment in Australia, the Federal Government has failed to invest in nation building infrastructure in country areas. There is no reason country areas like the NSW South Coast can’t be the economic powerhouse of the nation if given the chance.
Infrastructure like the new Eurobodalla Hospital should have mental health in-patient beds and a training facility. The Kiama Arts Precinct is ready to build. Get on with investment in our towns, public transport, renewables jobs, and bring forward more funding to fix our notorious Princes Highway.
The drought, bushfires, floods and coronavirus, have proved that we have resilient and dedicated people on the NSW South Coast.
One year on, it’s beyond time for the Federal Government to give back.
**If you need someone to talk to during the bushfire recovery or through coronavirus please call Life Line 13 11 44.