Phil Koperberg departs disillusioned

If Phil Koperberg had his way, he’d be employed as bushfire recovery chief, with his team, until March – the end of this bushfire season. But the state government ended that appointment on Friday.

Having spent that final day in his company, it was clear to the Gazette Mr Koperberg leaves the job proud of the many things he has achieved, but also bitterly disappointed at the petty politics that stopped him from helping people as he thought was necessary.

“Very mixed feelings, it’s a strange day,” he said. “On one hand a great deal of satisfaction being able to help hundreds of people but recovery is not just about clearing blocks of land, it’s about ensuring that the community as a whole feel they have things under control. That hasn’t quite finished yet. We still have distraught people coming into the office.”

On that last day, at 9.30am, a man called Patrick visited the office. With his wife in hospital, an autistic son needing work transport, another child struggling after the fire and his own insurance dramas and rebuilding demands, he told the recovery chief he was struggling. 

Mr Koperberg said there were “several Patricks” — residents still needing emotional or practical help who he remains in regular contact with.

To his disappointment, plans to bring in beyondblue, an organisation set up to combat depression, to do mental health screenings in the fire-affected communities has been unsuccessful due to “a certain amount of resistance from local services ...[but] the screening of people by experts in the field is really critical”.

And he had continued concerns for residents dealing with onerous rebuilding costs due to bushfire regulations and said up to 30 per cent “will not rebuild ... people who don’t want to experience that trauma again”. 

New building codes had put rebuilding costs up by anything from an extra $85,000 to $200,000 and the “fractured” communities of Winmalee, Yellow Rock and Mt Victoria would take time to recover without their neighbours nearby.

To manage the October fire disaster — 211 homes destroyed, 109 damaged — the former Labor member for Blue Mountains and ex-RFS commissioner said he “broke all the rules”.

“We had to scrounge, beg and borrow as if we didn’t have enough to do. We had to fight every day ... it shouldn’t have been so hard.”

As an example he cites the long delay to clear the blocks, the complex scheme with the insurers chosen by the state government, adding “at the end of the day I’m not sure it wouldn’t have been less expensive to engage one contractor”.

“What’s frustrated me to a very large extent is the propensity towards making simple things difficult and making them more complex than they need to be.”

The recovery chief’s farewell lunch was a toasted sandwich, coffee and a few cigarettes at his local cafe. No call of thanks from the minister, but his mobile buzzed constantly as he took calls from an insurance company, fire victims and a work colleague at home sick with fire fatigue.

His team had “wanted to ring each [fire-affected] person before we left [to check on them] but were expressly instructed not to” he tells this reporter. When pressed for more details, he would not elaborate.

Blue Mountains City Council, which he called “a beacon of inspiration”, has now hired Mr Koperberg on a part-time (two days a week) basis.

He is still employed by the NSW Government as chairman of the State Emergency Management Committee and he hopes that his occasional criticism of the government will not compromise that position which has another two-and-a-half years to run.

The promised $1.8 million in state and federal funding to council’s recovery efforts was announced late on Friday by the Minister for Police and Emergency Services Michael Gallacher.

“There’s also money coming into [the Blue Mountains] council to put on some additional staff to enable them to deal with no doubt some of the pressures that will come once the rebuilding process starts in that area,” Mr Gallacher said that day.

The Gazette contacted Mr Gallacher for comment on Mr Koperberg’s observations but his staffer, Tess Salmon, returned the call later, saying the minister was “extremely surprised by his comments, Phil’s not raised any concerns with the minister at the twice weekly phone conferences”.

As the Gazette went to press, the minister and his former recovery chief were tipped to meet in person in Springwood. Ms Salmon agreed it would be an “interesting” meeting.

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