How the long bushfire recovery could decide Australia's election

COBARGO, Australia — On a recent sunny day in the hills behind Cobargo, a village in southeast Australia, local volunteers were hard at ...


COBARGO, Australia On a recent sunny day in the hills behind Cobargo, a village in southeast Australia, local volunteers were hard at work installing a bathroom for the Jee family, who had waited over two years for one an appropriate one.

Tammie and Brett Jee and their five sons lost their home on New Years Eve 2019 when a fierce fire swept through the area. It was one of the most damaging bushfires of Australia’s “black summer”, which killed 34 people, destroyed 3,500 homes and burned more than 60 million acres in two months.

For the Jees and many others, the recovery from their devastating loss has been painfully slow. Barely one in 10 families in the affected region have finished rebuilding, according to local government data. Most haven’t even started. Planning delays, skilled labor shortages, pandemic-induced supply chain issues and lack of government support are among the causes of the delay.

The suffering has not only left its mark on families living in sheds or struggling with bureaucracy. It has also changed the political firmament: If the opposition Labor Party wins Australia’s election on Saturday, it could be partly because those once-conservative rural towns south of Sydney have switched allegiance out of frustration and anger.

“It’s a perfect storm of factors,” said local MP Kristy McBain. Among them is a recovery effort complicated by the overlapping involvement of national, state and local governments.

‘It seems like every time we have a disaster we have a government that wants to try and reinvent the wheel of how recovery should work,’ added Ms McBain, who was mayor of the local council during the fires. “And we never chose a role model, which is pretty crazy.”

Other communities have also been devastated by the summer fires. Other cities have also struggled to rebuild and recover, hampered by a pandemic; by floods and storms; and through an icy approval process from government agencies.

But Cobargo, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison was loudly heckled during his visit to the city in the aftermath of the fires, has become an icon of devastation and politically divisive aftermath.

Just inland from Australia’s southeast coast, 240 miles from Sydney, Cobargo is part of the Eden-Monaro electorate, a flagship seat that until 2016 had been won by the party forming the government in the Australian parliamentary system for four decades. It is currently held by Ms McBain, for the opposition Labor Party, which won a by-election in July 2020 by a margin of less than 1 percentage point.

The electorate in northern Gilmore, also hard hit by the fires, is held by another Labor representative, Fiona Phillips. It was previously in conservative hands for two decades.

While the ruling Liberal-National Conservative coalition is expected to lose city seats in other states, conventional wisdom dictates that the current government’s road to re-election is through the country – in this case, a country ravaged by fires. bush.

Mr Morrison currently governs with a one-seat majority in Parliament. A failure to win back those seats could cost the re-election of his coalition.

The Jee family has more immediate concerns. They first lived on a rental property before returning to their burnt-out rural acreage in Wandella, near Cobargo, where they built a small shed and supplemented it with a disaster accommodation ‘pod’ – a 23-foot-long, eight-foot-wide self-contained shipping container – provided by an Australian charity.

Life in their small temporary accommodation has been difficult, even before an exceptionally wet year that has now forced them to battle mold. Because the Jees’ third son, Mason, 16, has muscular dystrophy, he can’t use the cramped camp-style shower in the pod. Before the new bathroom was installed in a newly built shed, every time he wanted to take a shower, he had to go to his grandmother’s house a few miles away.

When the Jees set out to rebuild, they ran into a wall of planning documents. Planning problems inherited from their former home and changes to development law meant that at one point it looked like they would never be allowed to rebuild.

Although these roadblocks have largely been overcome, the Jees are still awaiting final approval to begin construction. They are unlikely to have a new house built by the fourth anniversary of the bushfires. “It’s been a nightmare,” Ms Jee said.

Nearby Cobargo, Vic Grantham has been trying to get answers about the latest delays in his own planning process. When Mr Grantham and his partner, Janice Holdsworth, moved to a 26-acre property in the area in 2005, they found community and contentment.

Early in the morning of New Year’s Day 2020, their house was destroyed by fire.

They sold their property and purchased a block in Cobargo Township, intending to live in an existing shed on that site while they built their new dream home.

But because they had moved, they later learned, they no longer qualified as bushfire survivors for local government planning prioritization.

“We’re not a priority,” Mr Grantham said, “because we’re not ‘affected by the bushfires’. That’s George Orwell-talking. Tell me again I’m not affected by the fires of bush.

There are signs that such anger over the disaster response could hurt the Liberal-National government’s chances of winning back Gilmore and Eden-Monaro. A poster depicting Mr Morrison dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and floral helmet was seen on the main street of Cobargo recently, pointedly reminding voters that the prime minister was vacationing in Hawaii while the fires raged.

In February, there was a regional government by-election for the seat of Bega, which includes part of the two federal electorates and is home to many communities affected by the fires. For the first time, a Labor candidate won the seat.

“I think there was anger about the bushfires,” said election winner Dr Michael Holland.

In an interview at his clinic in the coastal town of Moruya, Dr Holland, an obstetrician, recalled sheltering from the fires in his office. “I slept on the floor here for five nights,” he said.

His house was spared, but many of his constituents were not so lucky. “People still haven’t rebuilt,” he says. “There really are a lot of people struggling, and they’re mostly struggling in silence.”

With Australia extremely vulnerable to the impact of climate change, effective disaster recovery will only become more critical in the years to come.

“Climate change is making a difference,” said Ms McBain, the MP. “These events are happening more frequently; they are more intense. They are now impacting the lives and livelihoods of so many people. It is up to governments to put the right process in place.

Whatever happens during the Australian election, the people of Cobargo will continue their slow road to recovery.

“You heal with the earth,” said Philippe Ravenel, a Swiss-Australian blacksmith who, along with his wife, Marie, lost their home in Wandella to the fires.

“We can’t complain,” he said, noting that some lost their lives. The fire in the area was so intense that Mr. Ravenel’s cast iron cooking pots melted.

For much of the past two years, the Ravenels have lived in a shed adjoining the blacksmith’s shop, which survived the fires. They will soon begin to rebuild.

In the meantime, Mr. Ravenel has been part of a project to help the community heal. Along with another local blacksmith, Iain Hamilton, he opened his workshop to locals to forge a sheet bearing their name. Once the approximately 3,000 leaves have been forged, the blacksmiths intend to use them to create a memorial.

“The idea is that you have a tree under which you can sit and think,” he said.

The memorial, on the main street of Cobargo, will be a lasting reminder of the bushfire that devastated this hamlet, the turbulent reconstruction process that followed and the central role of Cobargo in a wider national debate in Australia.

“We’re using fire to create something,” Ravenel said of the project, “instead of all the destruction that fire left behind.”

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