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ABC Radio Canberra – Interview

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

SABRA LANE: Six weeks ago, the Federal Government announced a National Bushfire Recovery Agency with initial funding of $2 billion to help communities destroyed by the fires to rebuild and recover, but also help the regeneration of the natural environment. Some of those communities have since been deluged by torrential rain and floods. The former AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin heads the agency, and he joined me earlier.


SABRA LANE: Andrew Colvin, welcome back to AM. You've visited East Gippsland, the Blue Mountains, and New South Wales south coast, what urgently needs addressing?

ANDREW COLVIN: Well, good morning, Sabra. It's good to be here. I've also been to Kangaroo Island and I've been to Central Queensland, so I've tried to get around to as many spots as I can. It's really interesting that if it's not the first or second thing that's raised with me, it's certainly one of the very early things is mental health. So people are already turning their mind to some of the longer term impacts of this fire event. But of course right now, I'm focussed still on helping communities stand back up, getting cash to where it needs to be to help people, create effectively the space they need to make the decisions they need to make.

SABRA LANE: The towns that have been the worst affected, do they have the basics? Do they have power, water, communications?

ANDREW COLVIN: In nearly every situation, every case, every town, yes. But there are- I was only on the south coast into the hinterland last week, and I saw some towns who are still struggling with communications. So not all communications are back up in every place. Power is almost universally back now, but I think we need to understand too that the critical infrastructure network was really badly affected. Cell sites were burnt; repeater stations were burnt, so it's taken a while, it's taken too long for many of the communities, frankly. But the reality is, we're just about back there now.

SABRA LANE: We'll get back to the too long in a tick. From New South Wales, we are hearing from homeowners, housing debris, that a clean slate is really important for their mental health. State and Federal Governments are covering costs, but they're saying that there's no action. Why is that?

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah look, I think that's a really good point. I mean, as you travel around and you see the damage and you see homes destroyed, it must be soul destroying for people to see their home there. So with the New South Wales Government, and also with the Victorian Government, the Commonwealth has entered into a partnership arrangement to start rolling the heavy equipment out there and clearing the site. So just last week, New South Wales announced Laing O'Rourke as a peak contract to start. And that's already started now, up in the north coast in particular, to start clearing these sites.

SABRA LANE: South coast?

ANDREW COLVIN: South coast is coming as well, and in fact, I was there last week, and that was the number one issue that was raised with me, was how do we get these sites cleaned up quickly?

SABRA LANE: Is the problem finding places to dump that material?

ANDREW COLVIN: Well, there is contaminated waste, certainly asbestos and other contaminants are in that waste, and we have to make sure that we deal with that properly. But by and large, it's just a logistics exercise. This is a- over 3000 homes, many of them on the New South Wales south coast, and it's going to take a lot of effort and a lot of logistical coordination between contractors, and local contractors where we can. It's important that we use local contractors wherever they've got the capability to do it.

SABRA LANE: From Gippsland, we're hearing that while the fight with fire is over, that the fight of bureaucracy, people feel that's not over. That people who've lost farms and small businesses, they're saying that red tape is really getting in the way of accessing big relief payments. They say that they're being offered help by state and federal governments. And one example, Melissa Churchman(*) who lost her wildflower farm in Victoria's east, she says she's had lots of various phone calls from agencies, promising little payments here and there, but nothing substantial. How are you dealing with that?

ANDREW COLVIN: Well look, there are substantial programs available. There's concessional loans that some businesses will want to take up, and I understand that not every business will. And there's small business grants and primary producer grants, which are available and flowing now.

SABRA LANE: But are you hearing that? That people are getting frustrated?

ANDREW COLVIN: Absolutely. Absolutely we are, and I think that's partly because across the size of the fire event, the needs of the individual communities vary greatly. And we need to tailor it to specific individuals, in some cases, specific businesses or region. So I don't know the particular case you're talking about, but I'd love to look into it. And what we're doing and part of what I've committed to do is as we hear cases, as we hear individuals who are struggling, then we'll help them. What I would say as well, though, is and one thing that I've heard consistently is too many people are self-assessing. And I understand that, they're going onto the websites, they're looking at the government processes and saying, well, that won't work for me, or it doesn't suit me, or I don't comply. Often when we come back around and say, well let's walk you through that and see, we find that they do comply. So the message I try to give to communities is don't self-assess. Get out there, get help, talk to somebody because chances are you're probably selling yourself short.

SABRA LANE: Now you just mentioned that some communities, it's taking too long to get communications back up and running. You've said that infrastructure needs to be rebuilt to be more resilient in the future. What are you talking about?

ANDREW COLVIN: Well I think it's really difficult when I talk to power companies or I talk to telecommunications companies. Of course, we have become so reliant on our phone working all of the time. And while our phones aren't attached to anything anymore, I think we forget sometimes that it does talk to a tower, and a tower is a piece of infrastructure that is also prone to fire or other events. We need to find ways to make sure we protect those pieces of critical infrastructure better, if we can. Now, fire …

SABRA LANE: Because?

ANDREW COLVIN: Because we need to keep our communications up. I mean, we have become so reliant on communications.

SABRA LANE: And more of these events in the future?

ANDREW COLVIN: Well, I think we should- we already know that this fire season, it's longer, drier, hotter, and windier, and we have to come to expect that in the future. Since the fires, we've seen terrible floods and rain events, which is great on one hand, terrible on another hand. So we're a country that's used to disaster, we're used to natural events like this happening, but we're not as resilient as I think we can be, and we need to make sure that we're learning the lessons each time to come back stronger for the next event.

SABRA LANE: Andrew Colvin, thank you very much for joining AM, and we hope that we can come back to you again throughout the year.

ANDREW COLVIN:  Sabra, thank you very much.

 [End of excerpt]

SABRA LANE: That's the head of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency Andrew Colvin.