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ABC Radio Melbourne - Interview

Andrew Colvin
Tuesday, January 21, 2020

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Andrew Colvin is of course the former commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. He was appointed in early January by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to lead the new Bushfire National Recovery Agency. He's got an initial budget of $2 billion to coordinate the national response, and he's been travelling around Victoria and other areas and he joins you now.

Andrew Colvin, good morning, good to see you again.

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah, good morning Virginia. It's nice to be here.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI:  First of all, just give us a report and an update of where you've been and what you've seen.

ANDREW COLVIN: So, so far I've had an opportunity to travel into East Gippsland and speak to mostly the local government authorities and just get a feel from what they're doing. I've also been to the Blue Mountains, as we know affected at the earliest stages of some of this fire events, and also down at the South Coast quickly as well. So it's a large fire event that we've had and it's a lot of ground to cover, but getting out and talking to people is important.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Specifically in Gippsland, what did you learn?

ANDREW COLVIN: I learnt that there's certainly mixed emotions, as you would imagine. I mean, this has been a devastating fire for the country but in East Gippsland there's a lot of frustration at times. I heard you just talking about road closures for instance. This is a delicate balance that government recovery agencies need to find the right mix of when to open roads, but when to make sure that they're safe, so that's obviously frustrating. But I've also heard incredible stories as well of resilience, of community spirit, of people wanting to rebuild.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Do you have some- still so many isolated communities, just staying with southeast of Victoria for the moment. Cann River of course has been much discussed. But smaller hamlets as well that are still cut off.

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah, that's right, up in the northeast of the state particularly, and I haven't personally had a chance to go to visit them myself - I would like to do that. But I mean, they are quite isolated and it's difficult for them to get themselves back on their feet.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: When we say quite isolated, does that mean they're not getting fresh food, that power has not been restored?

ANDREW COLVIN: Well, it's a combination. I mean, firstly I'd say the ADF along with some of our local contractors are doing an incredible job of getting supplies. You know, I heard just yesterday that the ADF were helping deliver mail into some of these areas because Australia Post can't get in there. I mean, these are uplifting morale boosting things for the community, but yes, power's not on everywhere. Comms are mixed and patchy in some places. It's not a consistent blanket.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So, given the scale of the bushfire problem that you describe, and you have a national role here, how do you devolve responsibility and coordinate with local and state authorities to make sure that this massive amount of money that you've got and the responsibility that goes with it is actually effectively applied and in an orderly way?

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, that's my challenge. We're in the early stages and I think in many ways we're still in that initial relief phase of what do we need to get immediately onto the ground in communities to help them to stand up. But then I've got a much longer term plan. As someone said to us the other day in one of the stakeholder roundtables we had: recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.

What we're doing is working very closely with our state partners. So, Ken Lay here in Victoria with the Bushfire Recovery Victoria Agency; someone I know very well, someone we'll work very closely with. But also the local government authorities, and we know that people on the ground that have the eyes and the ears that we can learn from, and know what are the immediate needs, what are the longer term needs.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So it almost reflects, as you describe it there, the three tiers of government, with you representing the Commonwealth from the local authority, up through the state, and then up to you in that Commonwealth position.

ANDREW COLVIN: That's right.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: And is it working effectively so far?

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah, I think it is, but it's early days and we have to remember as well the- across the whole bushfire affected zones in Australia, you've got communities who are three and four months post the bushfire event, and we've got communities who are still today -and it's great to hear from Andrew Crisp that the weather conditions have helped somewhat - but we've still got communities who are worried about fire who are fighting fires. So it's a big priority.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So, describe the decision making process regarding the distribution of funds. How do you order the priorities?

ANDREW COLVIN: Very much we want this to be locally led. So at the moment, we're talking to local governments about what are their immediate needs, and we're trying to build up a picture of what will make a difference [indistinct].

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: [Talks over] So, if there are individuals, communities, small business owners, families listening this morning, they should contact their local government authority to let them know who they are, where they are, and what they need?

ANDREW COLVIN: Absolutely, because we've got on the ground resources as well. I mean, the ADF have got six and a half thousand reservists and full time ADF who are out and about picking up tasks that are given to them by the local government that are those immediate needs. So if we've got bridges that need to be reopened, if we've got roads that need to be repaired or cleared, if we've got fences that might need to be put back up. The other part here is Australians come together at this time, and we've seen the enormous amount of donations.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Absolutely, and I want to ask about that in just a moment. But you also need it coordinated, I mean, the problem is - and we've heard actually stories being told of builders heading to these communities and knocking on doors and saying: can I help? I don't think that's the right response, is it, it's got to be a little more coordinated than that.

ANDREW COLVIN: No, it's not. It's well meaning, it's well intentioned, and we appreciate it, but it's not always the right response. I mean, for two reasons - they may not be ready for builders and labourers to come through and help them repair. Some people aren't even in a position yet to decide what they want their future to look like. But secondly, I don't want to displace any local services. So if we can give work to local contractors, local trades people, local businesses, that's where we need to do it. So I don't want to put layers of bureaucracy into this, but obviously there are mechanisms between state and federal authorities that help us coordinate this.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Andrew Colvin is with you. He's the head of the new National Bushfire Recovery Agency and he's done a tour of duty - if I can put it that way - through some of the most seriously bushfire affected parts of Australia and of course including Victoria. I understand that getting qualified and specialist arborists in to help you identify dangerous trees and to help clear and open these roads is a particular focus and need right now. Can you talk to us about that?

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah, look that's right. I mean arborists need to tell us which trees should come down and we've seen already in this bushfire event the tragic loss of life from falling trees. And I mean, this has been a learning experience for me as I'm sure it has for a large part of the community. A tree that has been in a fire zone may look like it's perfectly stable but it's not necessarily the case and arborists are the ones that tell us that these trees need to come down or not.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But do you do you have the arborist skills that you need right now?

ANDREW COLVIN: Look, that's a good question. I know there are a lot of arborists out there who are helping the Defence Force and local governments. Whether there's enough, I haven't heard that there's not enough but I'm sure we could do with more.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Alright. Well I just heard word about that so I'll dig into that a little further about whether there's a…

ANDREW COLVIN: [Interrupts] I'm happy to look at that as well.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yeah, a particular need for it because as I understand it's a lack of that specialist skill that is the key issue in preventing some of those roads from being reopened.

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah. Which is a core frustration. I mean if you're in East Victoria at the moment the highway is still cut in a number of places and that is really a frustration for communities.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Now look, half a billion dollars has been fund raised already. Now forget the $2 billion that's been promised by the Federal Government, there's all the State Government money as well. This is just from either corporate or individual members of the community, half a billion. How the heck do you correctly, safely and properly distribute that money?

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah that's a good question. Firstly, half…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: [Talks over] Has this created a problem for you?

ANDREW COLVIN: It's a good problem.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: I guess but it's a real problem, but is it a problem?

ANDREW COLVIN: Well it's a challenge I'd say, I wouldn't describe it as a problem, it's certainly a challenge. And I think because this bushfire event has impacted so many jurisdictions at the same time and is still ongoing, it's put pressure on the systems that we're accustomed to that we haven't seen before. So our charitable services have done an incredible job, nearly $100 million for the Salvation Army alone. It's put pressure on them to know what to do with this money in an effective way. So we're working with the charities, we had a roundtable with them last week to say how can we help. We- my challenge at the moment is, how do I match needs with capabilities and capacity? Now that's not just a challenge for the Commonwealth Government, obviously the states and local government are also working with me on that.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Can demolition and rebuilding begin yet or are we not there yet?

ANDREW COLVIN: In some places, yes. But in some places we need to wait a little bit longer and again that will vary across the different communities.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: I'm keen to hear from anyone listening this morning who's not getting access to funds or assistance. Let us know where the road blocks are, and also on road blocks let us know whether the roads are blocked and where you've been isolated for some time. Let's try and paint a picture of where the needs specifically are. I know there are officials out on the road constantly at the moment assessing these areas so you can share those experiences with us 1300-222-774.

The Black Saturday model following the disaster here 10 years ago was in the aftermath of that as part of the rebuilding and the assistance for communities. Of- the model was of giving one or- connecting one caseworker with each person or each family or business so that they had one central line that they could deal with to get access to funds and the like. Are you applying that model here?

ANDREW COLVIN: We are. We're trying to learn every lesson we can from Black Saturday and other fire events around the country. I like the principle that there is no wrong door for somebody to knock on. It doesn't matter if it's state government, local government or federal government, you need to get the right answer. If you're in need and you're traumatised, the worst thing we can do is make it hard for you because we're effectively re-traumatising you through the process. So we're working towards that model. It varies across jurisdictions but that's the objective.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: I know that money has already been given out or is being given out right now in terms of no interest loans or one off grants. How much money does that leave you with to distribute over what period of time, Andrew Colvin?

ANDREW COLVIN: So the Government's announced a $2 billion over two-year fund. The Prime Minister has said to me that we will do what it takes. So if that money is exhausted and we make sure that it's been spent well then I'll be asking the government for further support.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Going through this process is going to make you something of an expert now in the nature of fires and these catastrophes that seem to be our immediate future as the climate heats up. It might not be something that you're interested in discussing right now or maybe it is, but at the end of all this will you have something to say about the nature of how climate change has changed our experience as living in the bush and around the bush as Australians?

ANDREW COLVIN: I think right at the moment I'm on a steep learning curve as we all are, both from a size and nature of this event but also the immediacy of what we need to do. I think along the way I'll see things and I'll form views about community resilience which I will be feeding back into government, at whatever level needs to hear those messages. Because none of us want to do this again and we all want to learn from experiences of past. And I think already I can see that we have learnt from the experiences of Black Saturday in terms of how we get information out to communities. But did we get it perfectly right? Perhaps not so we have to keep learning and that's going to be my objective.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Good to talk to you, Andrew Colvin. Good luck with what is a huge task and I know we'll get to talk again.

ANDREW COLVIN: Thanks Virginia.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Andrew Colvin who heads up the new National Bushfire Recovery Agency.