‘Disaster fatigue’ the biggest danger, warns former G-G
Former governor-general Peter Cosgrove, now chairman of the business-led effort to repair bushfire-broken communities, warns Australia must avoid succumbing to “disaster fatigue” and instead make a long-term commitment to rebuild.
“Somebody else might have coined the term but I use it and it’s when people start saying ‘for heaven’s sake you’re still banging on about the bushfires, let’s move on’,” Sir Peter said in an exclusive interview.
“Now that won’t happen in the bushfire areas. They’ll still be devastated, handicapped in what they can do, frustrated and worried that people have forgotten them. But this is the reality: it’s a real danger, people saying ‘move on’. We must seek at every level to gain understanding and commitment for the long haul.”
The chair of BizRebuild — an initiative by the Business Council of Australia to get money and kickstart operating businesses in the devastated communities as fast as possible — used his authority as a former governor-general to highlight the gravity of the bushfire
legacy. “This is without doubt the greatest disaster, not so much in loss of life, but in overall community impact, in my lifetime in Australia,” he said.
Sir Peter left no doubt about the unprecedented nature of the legacy: “Most disasters are fleeting … Floods, maybe a week, sometime a little longer; cyclones, less than that, though they leave enormous damage; but the fires were immense, they swept up a huge area and many different communities. The time span was over months. Our message is we won’t let your communities fold and fade away.”
Sir Peter said his mission was “to prevent any business on the verge of failure from failing, to enable them to get back into commercial activity and to support them until they are strong and functioning”.
BizRebuild is a five-year recovery-and-build fund run by business with deductible gift recipient status. The funds come essentially from the wider business community in either cash or support in kind. The campaign is just starting but Sir Peter said the total funds were already in the “tens of millions of dollars”.
The contribution so far from business including and beyond BizRebuild is $36m, with an estimated extra $15m from support in kind equivalent.
The agenda is to get money and action on the ground as fast as possible. This also involves “flying squads” giving on-ground support to small business that needs advice on rebuilding. Asked how people were coping, Sir Peter said: “There are stoic people who show magnificent qualities in the face of this adversity. Often they are community leaders; sometimes people who just step up. Behind them are people in what I would call teetering on the edge of despair.”
He said an example of the effort was in Mogo where “the businesses were actually burnt down”. On Friday night a convoy of trucks took a series of demountables to the NSW south coast town to be assembled, with 10 or more businesses to function “as a demountable CBD” to get commercial life back and running. Sir Peter will be in Mogo early on Saturday.
He said BizRebuild urged corporates, where possible, to offer relief on bills: “If we drive people under, we not only have an unhappy customer, we have a bankrupt customer. Each company has to make its own decision. But we are suggesting to companies it would be a great contribution if they took a benign approach to the indebtedness of people who simply have no income.”
Sir Peter has had a long involvement in disaster relief, including Cyclone Tracy in 1974, the 1998 PNG tsunami, the Asian tsunami of 2004 where the ADF was involved and Cyclone Larry in north Queensland in 2006. He summarises the key lesson: “When the political determination is there, that commitment flows into the arms and legs of government.”
Sir Peter was approached about this role by former BCA president Tony Shepherd and then current chief executive Jennifer Westacott. Asked about his response, he said: “The practicality is, this was irresistible. I understand there can be cynicism. But you’d be the sort of person who’d boo Santa Claus if you didn’t react to this reality. The community was in serious strife and by focusing on business I think the BCA identified that if businesses fold then the community is in even greater trouble.”
He said the bushfires had left an impact on the nation’s psyche and had brought climate change as an issue “into the nation’s lounge rooms”. He warned, however, a more immediate “threatening phenomenon” was “disaster fatigue”, with leadership needed to avert this trap.
Sir Peter said the government’s decision to call out the ADF reserves was “inevitable and commendable”. He said: “Remember the defence force is already expeditionary with its hospitals, kitchens and warehouses and engineers and is used to operating in remote areas.”