Bushfire recovery groups blindsided by reports Resilience NSW might be axed

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Community groups from a bushfire-ravaged village in the hinterland of the New South Wales south coast fear they will be abandoned amid reports the new government agency established to coordinate disaster recovery might be axed.

But critics of the organisation, created in response to the Black Summer bushfires in May 2020, say Resilience NSW is an ineffectual layer of bureaucracy whose funds would be better spent on frontline services.

About 100 people involved in the recovery effort in bushfire-hit communities were part of a Resilience NSW-hosted meeting in Goulburn on Thursday when news broke that the agency could be dramatically scaled down.

Related: ‘He deserves better’: former MP defends Shane Fitzsimmons amid reports Resilience NSW to be axed

Cobargo Community Access Centre’s Chris Walters was among those gathered in Goulburn whose home town was engulfed in flames on New Year’s Eve in 2019.

Walters said a lot of the services set up to support people in the wake of the inferno were soon abandoned, first when Covid struck and then because the remits for short-term emergency responses expired.

She said Thursday’s meeting had been productive, with experiences heard and plans analysed to answer a key question: how could things be done differently and better next time?

But then Walters read the news that the days of the organisation – which was supposed to be putting these plans into practice – appeared numbered.

“I can’t repeat what I said – let’s just say it started with ‘F’ and ended in ‘K’,” she said.

“Short-term thinking is really damaging to people, because they end up feeling abandoned. If this happens to Resilience NSW, that will be just one more abandonment.”

The aftermath of the Cobargo bushfires, which tore through businesses and homes and claimed lives.
The aftermath of the Cobargo bushfires, which tore through businesses and homes and claimed lives. Photograph: James Gourley/AAP

As of Monday afternoon, the report from the inquiry commissioned in response to this year’s floods was yet to be released.

But, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, the report’s authors – the former police commissioner Mick Fuller and the former NSW chief scientist Mary O’Kane – will call on the state’s premier, Dominic Perrottet, to cut the agency, reassign its responsibilities to existing government departments, and sack its boss Shane Fitzsimmons.

According to reports, the former public servants will recommend a new deputy police commissioner be appointed to emergency and disaster management.

The NSW Labor leader, Chris Minns, has said the evidence was overwhelming that “the massive bureaucracy that is Resilience NSW” had not worked.

Resilience NSW also has opponents among some rural independents, including former MP Tony Windsor, who has said the organisation was a “diversion” from the start.

Fitzsimmons was the NSW Rural Fire Service’s commissioner during the black summer bushfires, a role for which he was awarded NSW Australian of the Year.

Windsor said he believed the then premier Gladys Berejiklian decided to “utilise the euphoria” surrounding Fitzsimmons.

“He was seen as the hero,” Windsor said. “He was the sympathetic, the empathic man. And that was used to cover over a lot of the inept responses to the fires.”

Related: Resilience NSW ‘missing in action’ during Lismore floods, says local MP

But the Cobargo Community Bushfire Recovery Fund’s president, Zena Armstrong, said her community was better prepared for the next devastating fire than they were two-and-a-half years ago.

Where there was previously no water to fight fires in the main street of Cobargo, now there are large underground tanks, funded by the community.

The evacuation centre has been “hardened” and people have been trained on where to go if they can’t get there. Farms have solar panels and batteries so they can pump water to fight fires if the grid is out, while the town is working on its own microgrid.

“That’s the sort of resilience building that Resilience NSW is encouraging,” Armstrong said.

She and Walters bristle, too, at the idea of more disaster-related responsibilities being assigned to police.

They said they can’t forget the riot squad’s attempts to evacuate people from Cobargo to Bega on “unsafe roads”, and they fear centralised “command and control” over community-led responses.

“What the ‘F’ do the police know about recovery and resilience?” Walters said.