By Gary Smith
It is often said “travel broadens the mind”. Having travelled far and wide I consider our pocket of real estate on the far south coast of NSW one of the better places on Earth to live. It’s not for everyone but it is a fine example of coastal rural living with pleasant towns, friendly people, decent community infrastructure, superb beaches and estuaries and it feels safe. Our economy is not the best nor is it the worst, having remained under-developed for a century, mainly due to lack of a rail service which boosted most other regions. Not necessarily a bad thing , the environment benefits from a smaller population, that’s why many of us live here. It’s also why visitors holiday here to spend time and money enjoying our natural beauty. Crowds are not often encountered except at holiday times when visitors double the population, top up our economy, and are therefore tolerated. Most years are good, some are better, but 2020 certainly began with remarkable events to test our community. Wild bushfires then a pandemic virus invaded our tranquil coastline.
New Year’s Eve was a portentous beginning to 2020, it was like living on the set of Mad Max. Due to unprecedented bushfires north, south and west we were seeing and breathing smoke for weeks. Ash and burnt leaves fell like dirty snow and covered everything. We experienced unusually hot weather in December culminating in the advancing fires on New Year’s Eve which came with an eerie red glow in an ominous dark sky . The area was full of holiday visitors. Suddenly, the power fails and with it goes internet access and mobile phones not to mention lights, refrigeration , television and radio . Blackout. Roads are closed and vital highway transport ceases. Over the next few days, fires consume homes and businesses in Cobargo, Mogo, Batemans Bay and Moruya areas. Communications were minimal, some news got through if you had a battery operated radio or petrol powered generator. With the realisation of being trapped here for an unknown duration, stocking up on food, fuel, batteries, candles, medicine, water and grog became vital. Due to blackout, most shops were closed. I visited some which were in darkness yet full of customers. With signs up “Cash Only” credit cards were useless. So much for the new ‘cashless society’. Petrol could not be pumped. Stranded visitors were sleeping in cars and in hastily arranged community halls and parks. Bushfires were burning somewhere nearby, word came out the power would be off for another day or two. Local radio, especially ABC, kept us informed if you had a battery or car radio.
Luckily, the weather became milder in the days after NYE and fires slowed however highways were still closed and shops empty of stock. Travellers waiting for roads to open and fuel to get home. People were anxious and uncomfortable but patience and manners were holding….for now. Power returned to some areas then off again. Some roads opened and a long slow exodus began. Thanks to calm heads and hard-working volunteers, government and energy authorities, under difficult circumstances, we made it, this time.
After only a few days without electricity, internet , phones, credit cards and empty shops in a crowded area with fires nearby there was a feeling of how close we were to civil breakdown. A few idiot looters were already active. A more widespread natural disaster or intentional sabotage lasting weeks or months without electricity is likely to severely impact our security, safety and economy. Hopefully this timely example is a wake-up call for government to adopt findings of the Bushfire Inquiry and review issues such as current infrastructure , back-up electricity supply, internet and phone communication; train and deploy Defence Forces for a main role in homeland emergency support; provide more fuel reserves around Australia ( as a nation we only have about two weeks fuel in reserve, another reason to support electric vehicles ); address Global Warming which will create more costly climate extremes. About twenty years ago I met Al Gore (previous US Vice President) at the Sydney launch of his ground-breaking film “An Inconvenient Truth” which rang alarm bells re global warming and the damaging weather events to come. A Member of Parliament at the time dismissed the film and the message as entertainment”. Despite constant warnings from the scientific community little has been done by our government to prepare Australia for climate change. It is an international problem but we can’t hide from our long drought and unprecedented bushfires which are just the start of extreme weather events to come. The Australian government would be better respected on the world stage, and by younger generations who will inherit this mess, if we genuinely supported global action on Climate Change. Even recently, while the country was on fire, some MP’s said “ this is not the time to discuss climate change”. The time has come for a focus on long term strategies for Australia rather than plans to win the next election.
However, by a stroke of timely misfortune, the COVID19 virus pandemic followed the bushfires and hammered a few more nails into the coffin of our economy.
Just when we want visitors to come here and prop up our bushfire damaged economy, they are not allowed in. Politicians like a crisis and the pandemic has provided a perfect reason to avoid discussing issues like climate change, bushfire causes and compensation, the growing wealth divide in Australia including the increase in casual and underemployed low paid workers. The virus has demonstrated that the heroes are essential workers who are keeping the country running….those in health, education, retail, transport, emergency services. Not the highly paid corporate executives, board members or politicians. We have also learned that the good old general public, the voters, are keeping calm and surviving through the hardship of restricted freedom. To date only a few mishaps such as near riots over toilet paper. Other than the sad loss of lives from the virus, we have managed the event reasonably well. Who knows the outcome if there had been a complete lockdown, confined to houses with no outside exercise and unemployment for much longer periods. It’s still early days and we have already sustained a huge hit to the economy and personal finances of many especially for the million or so casual employed. Our coastal community has behaved calmly and strong during both the bushfire and virus crisis, it must be an advantage to be able to get out and walk, cycle or swim in our beautiful natural surroundings, while keeping at a distance.
Some might come out of this event with a different perspective on life, perhaps a slower, less busy, more meaningful lifestyle after an introspective period indoors and limited social contact. Some might have to get used to a less opulent lifestyle, like most of the world’s population. And the real workers, those heroes who make this country run by doing productive useful essential jobs, deserve the reward of better wages. Congratulations to our enduring community and looking toward to a relaxed other side with the return of visitors and economy in the knowledge that dealing with any crisis is better on the South Coast.