This week I want to give thanks to the many councils and communities across Australia who have rallied in difficult circumstances in the face of weather extremes.
The continuing drought across much of the eastern seaboard has been compounded by dozens of bush fires across northern NSW and southern Queensland during the first few weeks of spring, with the fire season starting early and destructively due to persistently dry conditions.
Although it’s no consolation to people still grieving over lost homes and businesses, one positive is that no one has died in these latest fires that have ravaged communities such as around Drake and Bees Nest in northeastern NSW, and Peregian Beach and Stanthorpe in southeastern QLD.
Some of those communities battling the fires have been using critically-low local water supplies caused by the years-long drought.
Communities like the Tenterfield Shire in northern NSW, where water restrictions since 1 September have been listed as critical. This means residents are limited to 100 litres a day.
I’m thinking also of communities in southeastern Queensland which have battled bushfires including the Gold Coast hinterland and around Stanthorpe where it is approaching ‘day zero’ where the town water supply is just weeks away from dying up.
Southern Downs Regional Council Mayor Tracy Dobie told residents concerned about the source of water used to combat the bushfires, that little was taken from the nearby Storm King dam.
She said council worked with rural firefighters to use a creek for much of the water, as well as bringing water in from other locations.
Local Government plays a fundamental role during emergencies, a fact highlighted in the newly-updated Australian Emergency Management Arrangements Handbook, which was produced by Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience with guidance from parties including ALGA.
To quote the free handbook, councils know their communities well, and have a detailed knowledge about those populations such as people with special needs, vulnerable and at-risk people, and special interest groups.
Local councils, along with local units of the State Emergency Service and Rural Fire Service are the often first level of government that responds during a natural disaster or emergency.
Indeed, some council employees are volunteers with those same emergency or fire services.
While many local councils can’t financially assist residents who’ve lost a property in a bush fire, they host evacuation or recovery centres, and help point people toward State or Commonwealth grants, for example.
Local councils, along with community groups and clubs, also help out with hosting fundraising activities or food drives and barbecues.
These acts of kindness and assistance show our communities at their best, when nature sends its worst.
Unfortunately, it risks being a long, hot spring and summer, with the Bureau of Meteorology’s outlook saying rainfall is likely to be below average across most of the country for the rest of this year and early 2020.
I am continuing my advocacy with the Morrison government to extend the Drought Community Program to more drought affected communities and a second round of funding for the council areas declared in the second half of 2018.
I am drawing upon the feedback that councils have provided me about this program and their experiences of drought at this year’s National General Assembly and last year’s Roads Congress to work with Minister Littleproud to ensure that any new funds are made available with the minimum of bureaucratic complexity, and to fund projects that will have lasting benefits for communities.
On your behalf, I also send my best wishes to all communities battling bush fires, droughts and water shortages, and my hope that much needed rain will fall soon.