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Is Mayor Innes Trying to Have It Both Ways, But Caught Out by Reality?

The Beagle Editor,

I found my way to Mayor Innes’ press release responding to the NSW Bushfire Inquiry via means of the latest Council newsletter. According to the newsletter, “We” (I naively presumed this meant “Council”) had run “our” emergency operations “from a hall and 4 plastic tubs”. The thought briefly crossed my mind that (if true) this state of affairs could indeed have explained many of the sub-optimal outcomes from last summer, but I then realised this was yet another instance of the marketing fabulations which crop up everywhere these days in the pronouncements of politicians, senior government officials and business leaders.

How do I know the Mayor’s statement was a fabrication? Well, I briefly saw inside the emergency operations centre during the fire crisis, and it contained computers, desks, phones and other everyday office equipment – somewhat more than 4 plastic tubs! Granted, it wasn’t ‘state of the art’, but it was quite a reasonable sized hall, and leagues ahead of what bushfire evacuees were expected to put up with in the official Eurobodalla evacuation centres during the emergency. Evacuees were frequently reminded that the centres were “lifeboats, not luxury liners” (or similar words) in an effort to forestall any inconvenient questions about the state of these evacuation facilities. Ironically enough, when I saw the emergency operations centre, I was struck by the fact that immediately next door was a Council-owned community centre which offered many of the services either missing or seriously stretched at the evacuation centres, yet this facility remained closed throughout the fire emergency.

I then realised that, if the Mayor’s statement was indeed accurate, it would be a serious indictment of a wholly inadequate response to the fire emergency which began in August 2019, and ran for many weeks in the Eurobodalla prior to the fateful day of 31st December. Did the Mayor seriously expect us to believe all “we” could muster in the face of a prolonged and ongoing emergency were 4 plastic tubs and a hall? With my interest piqued, I then clicked on the link in the Council News to open up the Mayor’s full “wideranging” response.

As I began to read through the press release it eventually became clear that the “We” mentioned in the newsletter was not Council, but in fact included the Rural Fire Service and other NSW agencies. This made much more sense now, as anyone who has read Council’s bushfire submissions will have come across the frequent message “The primary agency for bushfires is the NSW Rural Fire Service. The RFS is an independent State Government agency and does not act on behalf of Council”, or words to that effect. In its official communications, Council goes to great pains to carefully differentiate itself from the conveniently warm and fuzzy “We” used in its public newsletter

After having clarified my understanding of the word “We”, I then considered specific issues raised by the Mayor. “Hazard reduction” of course got a big run, whereas “cultural burning” was not mentioned at all, and in the Mayor’s world, the fires only seem to run out of National Parks or State Forests and into private land, but apparently never the other way round, from private lands into government lands. So far the “wideranging” press release had pretty much ticked the usual boxes, with an obligatory “who will pay” thrown in for good measure.

After getting to the end of the press release, I had not come across the word “climate” or “climate change”. This was odd, I thought, for a “wideranging” press release, so I checked through the Bushfire Inquiry report and discovered that the word “climate” is in fact mentioned 141 times in the report.

I thought it notable that the Mayor did not pick up on this obviously major element of the Inquiry, so I then went back and reread the Mayor’s press release for any hint or acknowledgement of climate change. The only potentially likely statement I could identify in the Mayor’s press release was “Clr Innes said the inquiry confirmed an increased likelihood for more firestorms of the type experienced last summer”.

Thinking to myself that this is pretty troubling news, I went back to the Inquiry report, and searched for the word “firestorm”, expecting to find corroboration of Mayor Innes’ worrying assertion. To my surprise, I found that the Inquiry makes no such statement. In fact, the word “firestorm” crops up only once in the entire report, on page 140 when the report briefly mentions the existence of a NSW Government project entitled “Project Firestorm”. The Eurobodalla public and the wider community deserve an explanation of where and why Mayor Innes conjured her firestorm assertion, which can only serve to fuel greater public anxiety about looming bushfire hazards. Has this been done to stoke up the hysteria for even more hazard reduction burns?

The final thing that struck me about the press release was the undue emphasis given to the desirability of a new Eurobodalla Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) to the exclusion of virtually anything else in the Shire. There was no consideration whatsoever of the suitability of current evacuation centres’ infrastructure in the Eurobodalla (which had been sorely tested and found wanting in last season’s emergencies), or the widespread lack of adequate facilities and resourcing for “on the ground” local RFS groups, who directly confront the flames. Council and the Mayor seemed to be focussing on their own internal priorities and agendas, rather than articulating and advocating for fixes to broader community needs and other obvious gaps in Eurobodalla’s bushfire capabilities. I wondered if the Mayor’s press release has just been used to set the stage for an imminent announcement of a new EOC. This could then be used as an unstated ‘silver bullet’ providing irrefutable proof of Council’s impeccable bushfire credentials, and then optionally used to decry those who identify and highlight other critical Eurobodalla bushfire gaps or key improvements as “just whingers”.

It is sobering to consider that the NSW Bushfire Inquiry unequivocally states that “Climate change fuelled by increased greenhouse emissions clearly played a role in the conditions that led up to the fires and in the unrelenting conditions that caused the fires to spread”, meaning that more extreme weather events, involving both floods and fires, can be readily foreseen in our future. We will clearly need to have improved and more robust evacuation centre facilities across the whole Eurobodalla to deal with the inevitable consequences of such extreme events.

It is remarkable that Council’s only consideration of evacuation infrastructure in the Eurobodalla since the fires was when it cynically voted to make unspecified last minute design changes to the Batemans Bay Regional Aquatic, Arts & Leisure Centre (BBRAALC) in order to qualify the project for additional funding as an evacuation centre. It didn’t concern Council that the site for the Centre is on a flood-affected parcel of land clearly identified as such in the Eurobodalla Shire Local Flood Plan, and so contravenes the NSW Government Major Evacuation Centre Guideline. Does Council really care so little about the safety of evacuees and the functionality and suitability of existing evacuation facilities in the Eurobodalla? The thought also crossed my mind as to whether Council would actually open up the BBRAALC during an emergency, based on their track record during last season’s fires.

The disjunct between the Mayor’s glib and confected marketing grabs and realities “on the ground” becomes apparent as soon as these statements are given any serious consideration. Effective flood and bushfire disaster responses require a serious, competent and informed approach from all levels of government. The Mayor’s attempt to score cheap political points from such critical issues does our whole community a great disservice. The Eurobodalla deserves better than this. Name and address supplied and NOT published for fear of vindictive reprisal by Council to the author.