A new minister finally got work started on the bushfire clean-up last week but it was too late to stop Blue Mountains City Council from formally condemning the state government for its slow response to the disaster.
The O’Farrell government came under strong attack at an extraordinary council meeting at Winmalee High School on Thursday night, despite NSW finance and services minister Andrew Constance garnering credit for his role in expediting the clearing of blocks.
Even the Liberal councillors voted to express their “deepest concern and disappointment to the NSW Government” about the bushfire clean-up after a milder motion of their own was defeated.
Labor mayor Mark Greenhill said the clean-up’s slow progress “was not acceptable” after 49 days. His Liberal predecessor, Daniel Myles, mirrored his concerns.
“We do need to learn from this. The response has not been anywhere near good enough,” said Clr Myles.
Deputy mayor Brendan Luchetti, a school teacher, received the strongest applause when he described how he would evaluate the state government’s performance if he was writing a school report: “Started well with clearly stated good intentions, however appears to be easily distracted and lacking in conviction and has trouble in finishing set tasks in a timely and efficient fashion,” he said.
Passed unanimously with councillors Robert Stock and Geordie Williamson absent, the resolution called on the State Government to engage a single contractor for the clean-up — as happened in similar disasters in Victoria and Tasmania — rather than negotiate with insurance companies to organise the work as it has done.
“Rather than using the effective proven templates from other disasters we were lumped with complexity, bureaucracy and inaction,” said Clr Luchetti.
“We were on our knees and the message was clear: the message was that at the start of the bushfire season our government could not be relied on to do the right thing by residents in times of crisis.”
Former federal Labor candidate Susan Templeman, who lost her Winmalee home in the fires, was scathing that it had taken public pressure to finally fast-track the clean-up.
“In the Blue Mountains we should not have had to fight for the same treatment that people in Victoria and Tasmania got. It should have been our right. We should have been able to trust that it would be done,” she said.
Buena Vista Road resident Fran Elston said the delays have been painful for people who have lost their homes as well as people, like herself, whose homes survived.
“Seven weeks [for work to start] is a long time when you’ve lost everything and seven weeks is a long time when you hate walking out your front door because all you see is ash and the destroyed buildings ... We deserve better,” she said.
Bushfire recovery co-ordinator Phil Koperberg told the meeting a minimum of 30 contractors would be on the ground by Tuesday, December 10 and that more than 60 blocks should be “completely cleared” by January 23.
“Many of the obstacles that we faced to a cohesive and comprehensive clean-up perhaps last week have been largely resolved,” he said, crediting the new minister for “unblocking some major blockages”.
Mr Constance, who drove from Bega to attend the meeting, said it was his job to listen and to make things happen.
“I’m not convinced this process has been particularly easy for all of you to date but I also hope that in the days that I’ve been involved we do start to see some of the pressure eased and we start to unblock some of the problems Phil Koperberg has been dealing with and we make sure we get this job done as quickly and effectively as possible. That’s my brief. It’s that simple,” he said.
While many speakers praised his progress, the overwhelming sentiment was one of “too little, too late”.
Springwood resident Trevor McDonald told the minister: “It seems you’ve been given the keys to the bus now. But that bus has been sitting in the garage too long while the premier has been arguing with insurance companies about who’s paying the petrol.”
The minister will hold a public meeting about the clean-up at Winnmalee High School on Monday, December 16, starting at 7.30pm.