Silver puddles of molten aluminium still lie in the grass around Brad and Gail Rayer’s auto workshop five months after fire swept into their valley, burst skyward at a nearby hill and rained ash and flame on their business. The building imploded, cars ignited, equipment burned. All that remains are tools and engine parts that liquefied in the heat and are now melted into lumps of concrete from the old workshop floor.
It took no time at all for the fire to destroy the business in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, but it has been a long and hard slog for the Rayers ever since. It took until March to connect the power and until May to connect the phone. The couple relied on help from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army to get by while they sought government loans and lodged an insurance claim that seems destined to end in dispute.
“I think I’m going to be out of pocket $1 million even after we sort out the insurance and everything else,” says Brad.
The Rayers lost a dozen vehicles, five motorcycles, two auto repair hoists, five computer diagnostic machines and more when the fire struck their Coolagolite property on the road from Cobargo to Bermagui on the NSW South Coast. Most of the scrap has been removed but Brad still has the charred shell of his 1971 Ford Falcon GTHO, a collector’s gem before the flames. Only now is the steel frame of a new workshop rising above a concrete slab. They were luckier than others – they did not live at the property – but the recovery will take years.
The black summer still burns for the communities that lost so much. It still has the power to burn politicians, too. The coming byelection for the federal seat of Eden-Monaro, which includes the Rayer’s property, gives those communities a chance to cast their verdict on Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his bushfire response.
While Morrison rides high in the national opinion polls on the strength of his response to the coronavirus crisis, Eden-Monaro is different territory. This was where he encountered the anger and disdain of bushfire victims just days after he returned from a holiday in Hawaii. It was where he walked through a shattered Cobargo and made headlines for all the wrong reasons by trying to make one local, Zoey Salucci McDermott, shake his hand. That history means this political contest has a personal edge.
Labor’s Mike Kelly held the electorate on such a slim margin it could fall to the government with a swing of just 0.85 per cent, or about 850 votes. It no longer has bellwether status – it swung to Labor in 2016 when the Coalition clung to power – but is unpredictable enough to give Morrison a chance at an unlikely victory.
Yes, it has been one hundred years since a federal government won a seat from the opposition at a byelection. But Morrison leads a government with a majority of only two seats. A bigger majority is worth fighting for.
The calculations are simpler for Anthony Albanese: he has history on his side in his first contest at the ballot box since becoming Labor leader. Like Morrison, he has something worth fighting for. A strong victory would show colleagues he is the campaigner the party needs at the next election.
And the two main candidates? “They’re both good,” says a weather-beaten fisherman at the Tathra wharf. He will not give his name, and is keen to return to catching squid, but he praises Labor’s Kristy McBain and the Liberals’ Fiona Kotvojs in the same breath he airs his frustration with the bushfire recovery so far.
McBain shot to prominence as a guest on the ABC’s Q&A program in February when, as mayor of the Bega Valley Shire Council, she demanded the federal and state governments “step up” their bushfire measures. Born in Traralgon but mostly raised in Merimbula, she became a lawyer in Canberra before returning home to start a family and run for council. Albanese hand-picked her as the best choice to replace Mike Kelly, the MP whose resignation in April triggered the byelection.
Kotvojs was raised on a dairy farm in the hills near Cobargo and left home for Sydney University and a career as a teacher before changing course to work on environmental and foreign aid projects. At one point, she spent 18 months in Kiribati in the Pacific. A director of Oxfam Australia, she returned to the farm in 2012 and serves with the Cobargo Rural Fire Service.
While McBain campaigns on the need to broaden the JobKeeper wage subsidy and permanently increase the JobSeeker unemployment benefit, Kotvojs stands by the government response to the coronavirus crisis. The government’s own timing gives Labor a window of opportunity to argue for a bigger stimulus while Treasurer Josh Frydenberg waits until July to respond to a Treasury review of the JobKeeper program.
Morrison launched the $688 million HomeBuilder scheme in Eden-Monaro on Thursday morning, standing with Kotvojs in the new housing estates south of Queanbeyan (and being asked by a resident to move the crowd off his new lawn). But the scheme is limited by a means test and rules that lock out small renovations, which could limit its appeal to the region’s voters.
More than a dozen candidates are joining the contest, including a contender from the Nationals to be announced on Sunday. The party that came third in the general election, the Greens, is fielding Bega councillor Cathy Griff. This will be the first test for the party’s “green new deal” policy under new leader Adam Bandt.
Griff says the bushfires shifted attitudes on climate change and mean more people want to talk about renewable energy and policies like a $12 billion fund to modernise manufacturing. “That’s the path to recovery,” she says. “It’s very much about economics and jobs.”
Drought, bushfire, pandemic. Eden-Monaro is not the only electorate to see these horrors but all three will shape the July 4 result. The electorate covers the coast from Eden to Tuross Lake, inland to Yass and down to the Snowy Mountains along the Victorian border. None of its communities have been spared the challenges of the past year.
The farmers and orchardists in the inland town of Batlow are dealing with the same pressures as those on the coast: lives lost, homes burnt, apple and other crops destroyed. While aerial water-bombing saved the nearby town of Adelong, the residents of Batlow were not so fortunate. It took the volunteers of the local Rural Fire Service to save the town.
The Dunns Road fire damaged such a large area that the timber companies of Tumut, and the nearby Visy paper mill, may not have the supply of plantation timber they need.
The Rayers are typical of many in their distrust of what the politicians offer. They praise the charities that helped them but not the “horrendous” government bureaucracy that slowed them down. “Mr Morrison has been bragging about the things he’s going to do,” says Brad. He is still waiting for all the federal help he feels the Prime Minister offered – not just the cash payments but the concessional loans worth up to $500,000.
Gail is frustrated with some of the political claims made in the wake of the fires. She believes the causes were arson and inaction on high fuel loads in the forests, rather than climate change.
Graeme Freedman, who is living in a caravan on his property outside Cobargo after the bushfires destroyed his two-storey home, is not only sceptical of the government response but the way the major charities are operating. “I’m not sure that anybody has the answers for the recovery,” he says. He believes the charities are using the “refugee model” used to offer help and handouts in other parts of the world, rather than empowering locals.
There’s no electricity at Freedman’s property at the moment, and he is still waiting for potable water. He has learnt to take no prisoners in his dealings with insurance companies and other big business: if he gets no reply within 24 hours, he says, he escalates the complaint on Facebook.
A common refrain in the aftermath is that the help was promised and never delivered or offered in all the wrong ways. What still rankles is the gap between a politician’s fine words in the news and the emptiness that follows when people who need help are still waiting for it to arrive.
“For all the assistance you were led to believe was going to be there, it isn’t,” says Stephanie Stanhope, who lost her home in the Bega Valley on January 4. There were no trees around her house, in the dairy country she has worked in for years, but it went up anyway. Her experience is that the charities encourage dependence rather than self-reliance and the local council is slow to act, even if all that is needed is approval for a kit home.
“Not long after it happened, there was a call from someone in the system saying that each person would be given a mentor to guide them through the process,” she says. “I’ve had one phone call. So that individual guidance isn’t there.”
Stanhope is the president of the Country Women’s Association of NSW and says the volunteer organisation, now almost a century old, has been a bigger support than some charities that are meant to be helping. One reason is the impersonal nature of so much assistance: it is applied for online, arranged with a call centre, done by paperwork. “There is no personal contact,” she says.
Sitting in the neighbourhood park in Candelo to tell her story, Stanhope sheds tears when remembering the lack of support in some quarters and the friendship from the CWA.
“The support from people I’ve never met has been absolutely amazing,” she says. “If you are in an organisation and you have that base, then I think it’s much easier, even if they’ve got nothing to do with the actual recovery process. It means you’ve got that support.”
In some ways, this is a wounded electorate. The fires brought ordinary life to a halt for many of the people of Eden-Monaro long before the pandemic did the same for others, and the recovery had barely begun before it was stopped by business shutdowns. The great hope of the tourism sector, an appeal to Australians to use their holidays to help the bushfire recovery, never got off the ground.
The community has learned not to expect too much from politicians. But it can use this byelection to make sure it is heard.
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David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.