‘Dis­as­ter fa­tigue’ the big­gest danger, warns for­mer G-G

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL KELLY

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.”

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