May 11, 2020

Transcript: Sir Peter Cosgrove interview on ABC RN Drive with Patricia Karvelas

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Patricia Karvelas, host: The federal government has today brought the national focus back to bushfire recovery, announcing how the next $650 million slab of the two-billion-dollar Bushfire Recovery Fund will be spent. The Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management, David Littleproud, told me earlier today that almost $449 million would be given to local councils and communities to deliver local recovery plans. With a priority given to the most severely impacted regions as they look ahead.

The Hon David Littleproud MP, Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management: This second stage is about longer-term recovery and that's about empowering local communities. We've always said we don't want to Canberra led recovery; we want a locally led recovery that's predicated on building back better. And that's what this next phase has been, because there's a lot of healing that had to happen. People are obviously in the here and now just trying to assess their current situation then for us to work through before they could think about longer term futures.

Patricia: The announcement comes as the final clean up begins in the tiny coastal town of Cobargo in New South Wales, almost five months since fire ripped through that community. Sir Peter Cosgrove is the former Governor General and he's now the chairman of the Business Council of Australia's Community Rebuilding Initiative, BizRebuild, and joins us tonight. Sir Peter Cosgrove, welcome.

Sir Peter Cosgrove, BizRebuild Chair: Hello Patricia, good to be on your show.

Patricia: Lovely to speak to you. The next tranche of this $650 million is to be spent on ideas from locals, that's councils and industries within the communities. How much of a say will the Community Rebuilding Initiative have in how the money is spent?

Sir Peter: Well, I think they'll get a very big say, and I must say that it's very timely that, in amongst all the other problems confronting Australia and the global community, that we haven't forgotten the bushfire folks because they must've felt like they'd been hit by the proverbial bus when the bushfires arrived. And then of course our attention was taken by this other grave threat. But here it is, the government has said, ‘well, we haven't forgotten.’ I believe the community will get a pretty big say. Because for a start, that's where we've been taking all our advice on the BizRebuild side. We actually go and talk to the people as our colleagues do in the NBRA. And we basically try to get from them their problems and not come in with a template solution. So from what I hear from Minister Littleproud and the Prime Minister, that's exactly what the federal government and the state governments will be doing is getting the desired solution from the community and then seeing what I can do to bring it about.

Patricia: The government says it has already spent about 1.3 billion dollars on its Bushfire Recovery Fund. But many people have questioned why recovery efforts have taken so long. For instance, we heard from Lindy Marshall, a bushfire survivor from near Bega on our show last month. She was still living in a caravan without running water and was concerned about how people would make it through the winter.

Lindy Marshall, bushfire survivor: I'm currently living in a caravan, which is kind of okay, but caravans are not hugely warm accommodation. So I'm a little concerned about winter coming because winter in the Bega Valley is quite cold. But not just for me, Patricia, there's so many people worse off than I am. There are people still living in tents. I don't think anyone realises the aftermath of a bushfire. There's a royal commission into the bushfire, but I thought royal commissions happened when an event was over. This is not over.

Patricia: Andrew Colvin said today that anyone in a bushfire zone who is living in a tent has been offered alternative accommodation, but do you think enough has been done?

Sir Peter: Never enough, because we're all striving like billy-o to get a solution out on the ground. Now, governments being responsible for taxpayers’ money have to actually go through accountability processes. The other thing though is that people like that lady…my heart goes out to her. The lady you had just a moment ago on the broadcast. There she is, she's saying, ‘I'm in not a good shape, but there are other people worse.’ That so typically Australian. I found when I was doing a similar job, but in a more broadcast way, up in the aftermath of Cyclone Larry. We were patting ourselves on the back that we were looking out for people very well. I was putting a particular family into a bump up village that we created. And I asked the lady where she'd been for the last three months, and she said she'd been living in her car. Now, this was 2006 in Australia. She and the nippers had been living in the car. That took the smile off my face. There's going to be these sorts of really unfortunate follow ups that are lacking, and we're going to find these for ages. We've just got to be persistent and make sure our big ears are flapping when we hear that sort of news from a lady who is…she's quite right. Who'd want to be in a caravan or a tent, much worse, down in that part of New South Wales when the winter really hits? So, I have no doubt at the NBRA [inaudible] at that one.

Patricia: I know you've previously argued that we shouldn't be sitting on our hands waiting for inquiries. Do you think the royal commission into the handling of the black summer bushfires has given the government an excuse to sit on their hands?

Sir Peter: Not at all. Exactly because of what the lady who was your listener, who phoned in, exactly because of that sort of outcome. The work must go on, even as properly people examine processes and regulations and capabilities that were applied in what sequence, and why were the bushfires so violent? That's necessary. We can't just say, ‘oh, bad luck,’ and then fix the outcome. But at the same time, I think you'll find our colleagues in the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, led by Andrew Colvin, are working very hard, as are our folks. We're a bit of a cut through organisation because we go straight to small business. That's the glue of the community, if the businesses fold, then the community will often just dissolve. So we're working that angle, but we're not waiting around for the royal commission, nor is Andrew's team. And the government plainly, with another $650 million coming into the plan, is obviously getting ahead.

Patricia: How about the rebuilding process in this time of coronavirus? I mean, many of these restrictions have forced people to stay at home. The economic fallout has meant many businesses are now losing and closing rather their doors and they're at least in hibernation. How big an impact does that have on terms of the recovery work and the morale in these communities?

Sir Peter: Well, it is terrible. We had to go from a face to face model where we would be in your town, be it Cobargo, Mallacoota, Lakes Entrance, you name it. Wherever you were as part of a bushfire struck community, we would be there talking in the Town Hall if was still standing and doing clinics with people. We've had to do that by distance. It's not the same. We've got wonderful people working in our agency, the people who do all the work, and they're doing it by remote video, telephone hook ups and the like. It's not the same. They're very busy, but the people at the other end of the phone or at the other end of the video are thinking, ‘what did we do to deserve this?’ So, it's crazy. It's almost an existential challenge to people who were previously living in some of the most beautiful parts of our nation. And now they are coping not just with the natural disaster, but the pandemic and the outcome of the pandemic.

Patricia: How about the process of applying for bushfire grants for businesses and individuals? It's been described by many people as too complex, too slow. Do you agree?

Sir Peter: I think, and I'm going back a long way with this now, back to Cyclone Tracy, 1974. I believe that we would love it if it was just very slick, but unfortunately very slick gets you into trouble when you're talking the huge amounts that governments pour in. There has to be some level of I won’t say guarantee, but surety or certainty for the ordinary taxpayers that governments are only giving the money to those who most deserve it and for the most appropriate reasons. I can recall after Cyclone Larry, the handout of cash in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone passing through that part of North Queensland. We had some lovely young people lining up to get Australian cash, and they were Swedish backpackers who thought, ‘you line up there and you get free money.’ So that's a fairly shallow example, but it does illustrate that there has to be some credential checks done. We have taken the chance at BizRebuild, because we trust businesses and we get our business sponsors, donors, philanthropists to funnel the money through us that we'll put it in there and take a bit of a chance. But we're talking in terms of government, two billion dollars. And with a budget deficit this year that's going to be over 300 billion dollars, it all sounds like it's Mickey Mouse. But every dollar counts I suppose, and you don't want governments just throwing it in the air.

Patricia: Just finally, I know you've been concerned about disaster fatigue, that people would get sick of hearing about the fires for instance so often they would stop caring. Do you think that's happened?

Sir Peter: It's inevitable and I don't blame people. I say that there is an overload. Let's go back to World War Two. And listen, nobody would have imagined it would go for six years, but it did. And after a while, people got deadened to the bad news, the casualty lists and all the rest. The same happens with the terrible news of disasters. Those people in the bushfire area would have thought, well, nothing this dramatic has happened in our neck of the woods ever. And here it is suddenly eclipsed by a global pandemic which affects Australia. Naturally, we're on disaster fatigue. And that's why what you're doing now by highlighting the government's announcement today with some discussion and a place to phone in to say, ‘don't forget us.’ That's so necessary. That we just say to the eternally generous nature of the Australian people, ‘hey look, sorry to trouble you, but we still need help in this area.’ We've got to work on disaster fatigue.

Patricia: Sir Peter Cosgrove, always a pleasure to speak to you. Thanks for coming on.

Sir Peter: Thank you, Patricia.

Patricia: That's the former Governor General and now the chairman of the Business Council of Australia's Community Rebuilding Initiative.

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