PETA CREDLIN: Twenty-nine fatalities, over 10 million hectares burnt across the country, just some of the horrific statistics from the national bushfire crisis that we've seen since October. Getting on the front foot from the fallout of their response to the crisis on 6 January, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a national bushfire recovery agency to be funded within an initial $2 billion and headed up by the former chief commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mr Andrew Colvin. I spoke with Andrew a little earlier about the relief efforts the agency will provide and how he expects it will make a difference.
Well it's good to see you again, Andrew Colvin. So you retire from the top job with the Australian Federal Police. I know you're not retired per say. You're far too young for that. But you're now no longer the chief commissioner. You're at home, what, you get a call from the Prime Minister, wanting to set up a national bushfire recovery agency and he asked you to lead it. What exactly does he want you to do, and with all the myriad of government bodies out there, why is this one needed so much now?
ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah. Look, thanks, Peta. It's nice to be here. It was a call out of the blue, of course, a surprise. But like many Australians, I was sitting there watching the bushfire crisis unfold and thinking what can I do to help. And I didn't anticipate this but it was a welcome call and what the Prime Minister basically said is that what we have seen around the country was at a national level. It was unprecedented in terms of the size, the nature, the ongoing aspects of the fire and that we needed to bring a national coordination and national leadership to the challenge, and as a result, we stood up the National Bushfire Recovery Agency.
PETA CREDLIN: Yeah. Well thanks for that. The body is modelled off, as we know, the North Livestock Industry Recovery Agency. It was set up by the PM following the devastating floods last year and it's headed up by Shane Stone. It seems we have a need more than ever for these nationally-led coordination bodies. I know the Shane Stone body has really sorted out issues out of that flood. So, is it a fair point to say we need a more permanent national disaster agency for the disaster issues we might have: flood, fire, even terror events? Is there any merit in that?
ANDREW COLVIN: Look, I guess the first thing I'd say, Peta, is that was very clear from the Prime Minister upfront. He's obviously worked very closely with Shane Stone and I've worked closely with Shane Stone in the two weeks that I've been in the role to understand what's worked for them and what hasn't. I think questions about what an enduring national or Commonwealth body might look like is something that we'll answer down the track. But for the moment, I'm learning some of the lessons that Shane has been able to pass on and focusing that into what I've been asked to do here on the bushfires.
PETA CREDLIN: So tell me some of the lessons that he learned because his body started small and his remit really grew over time. And it was a big issue there for some time, the lack of coordination, but since that role was established, he's been able to bring it under control.
ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah, he has. I mean, I think he's done a wonderful job and that agency is a model that we're looking for. Of course, there's differences between responding and recovery from a bushfire to what there is for drought and flood. But lessons that we've learned already very much about locally-led: making sure that what we do works for the local community that you're trying to help, not what we think necessarily from the top down. Also, displacement of local labour. That was something that, I guess, I hadn't thought about until I came into this role and it was a lesson that Shane gave me as well: to make sure that whatever we did, we weren't displacing local economies; we weren't displacing local workers or local labour. So, that's a core fundamental principle of what we're doing in the bushfire recovery now.
PETA CREDLIN: Alright. Well, $2 billion has been invested in this agency. That's on top of disaster recovery payments that go out to individuals, isn't it?
ANDREW COLVIN: My priority is to listen. My priority is to learn right now. But- and what we're hearing already and what we've responded to is people on the ground, communities, individuals, businesses, primary producers, need cash. They need cash flow to help them get re-established, to help them do the basics to start to normalise - it's probably a strong word - but to try and bring some normality to what they're doing. So, that's why over the last two weeks, we've seen a range of announcements that really are designed to get cash into the communities, to start to help them to do the things that they know they need to do. But also, there's a range of support options as well. Mental health, we know from prior experience, is going to be a big issue for these communities. We know that communities need help with their financial planning, their financial counselling. If you're a small business who's been affected, you're probably facing what seems like a mountain to climb right now. So we want to make sure that you're getting the advice that you need. And we're hearing that that's been appreciated. Clearly, as we go on, the recovery needs are going to be greater. The recovery needs are going to be bigger in longer term. But right now, it's about time to stabilise these communities.
PETA CREDLIN: And have you got any role in terms of infrastructure?
ANDREW COLVIN: I think we will have. Absolutely yes. The answer is yes, we will. At the moment, even ADF out there on the ground. Six and a half thousand reservists and full-time ADF are helping with basic infrastructure needs, fixing roads or clearing roads or if we need to repair a bridge or an access way, then we'll do that. Longer term, I think there's some really positive things the Commonwealth can do with the states particularly, the states and territories more broadly, around infrastructure, around the development and the betterment of infrastructure, to make sure that if we can, we are learning lessons from the past, that we are more resilient. But also just if we needed to upgrade infrastructure, now is an opportunity to do that.
PETA CREDLIN: Have you been able to get on the ground? What can you tell us from the circumstances of people you've seen that are affected out of these fires? Now that the immediate threat is past, what are the conditions like? There's been, as you know, some criticism this week about people living in tents in Queensland, about 100 or so days on from those fires. What's the latest?
ANDREW COLVIN: Well, it's mixed across the fire zones are many. I mean, if- and I'm focusing my energy on fires that go back to August last year. So, for some of those communities such as Central Queensland, where I hope to be tomorrow, or northern New South Wales, who had their fire event some time ago, they're a lot further progressed. But that doesn't mean there's still not problems, there's still not issues, and we see them come up every now and then where people still are displaced. We have to get temporary accommodation in for those people and I know the states are very focused on that. But further afield into those zones, where people are still fighting fires now, our recovery centres are still active. It really varies. If you're in Mallacoota right now, you're still cut off. You're still isolated both physically- and at times, we know communications are a problem. We know that power is a problem. But we're working very closely with the telecommunications sector, with our health providers, and they've done a wonderful job, frankly, of getting infrastructure stood back up, getting temporary facilities in place. But unfortunately, there still are communities who are struggling with some of the basics.
PETA CREDLIN: Do you have any role, Andrew Colvin, in oversight of the interface between, say, the Federal Government resources, state government resources, and of course, really significant levels of donations from corporate Australia and from ordinary people? How do you make sure that there's not a duplication of resources but also all the money that's promised actually reaches people on the ground? Do you have a role in that?
ANDREW COLVIN: Well, that's a great question and it's my biggest challenge. I wouldn't say it's about the Commonwealth trying to take ownership. Absolutely not. And that's not the way the federation has arranged this framework for us. But great cooperation. And I think from a national perspective, we can bring some consistency and leadership. So, a lot of the on-the-ground services are now will continue to be delivered by our state and local government partners. But this is a disaster of a nature that has tested the frameworks that we have in place. It's tested that bilateral framework that we normally have in place, where a disaster may be in one very localised community or one state. We're dealing predominately with four jurisdictions at the moment but of course, other jurisdictions have also had fires in this season. So, it's about bringing some leadership to that space. It's about bringing some consistency. But a lot of the work will be delivered at that very granular local level.
PETA CREDLIN: All right. Well, putting your old police commissioner hat back on for a moment, do you think we need tougher penalties for arson? What about looting?
ANDREW COLVIN: I think it's disgusting Peta, quite frankly, both as a former police commissioner, as now head of the agency, but just as a citizen of Australia. I mean, people looting and taking advantage of our own communities when they're at their lowest point is just deplorable and I hope that- and I know that my old former police colleagues will be coming down that as hard as they can. The same with arson - I just cannot see what the rationale is where somebody would think that that is, in any way- I just can't rationalise it, Peta. I really can't. But the penalty is tough enough. Look, the penalties would vary across jurisdictions. I know that. Do we need to bring some consistency? Look, I'd leave my old police colleagues to bring advice on that. But I think it's disgusting, deplorable, and we see the best of Australians at these times of national natural disasters. We see the incredible generosity. Half a billion dollars has been donated thereabouts already. We see the best of it and we have this small percentage of the population that want to do the wrong thing every time.
PETA CREDLIN: Well, thanks for your time, Andrew Colvin. Good luck for the months ahead as you deal with the bushfire recovery and it's been great to catch up with you again.
ANDREW COLVIN: Thanks for having me on, Peta. [End of excerpt]
PETA CREDLIN: Well he's a very good man. I've worked with him in the past. He's more than up to the job.