A Scrooge moment

Like Australians generally, bloggers are donating generously to the Victorian bushfires relief appeal, over at John Quiggin’s place and LP.  And this morning news here in Darwin praised the old diggers at Darwin RSL for raising $20,000 over the weekend, while earlier news revealed that local philanthropist and former Senior Australian of the Year Tony Milhinos has donated an astonishing half a million bucks.

The compassion is heart-warming.  But I can’t help asking the obvious question that no-one in the MSM has bothered to consider.  Why?  Why at least are we still being exhorted to donate when the Red Cross Appeal total has already passed $100 million?  That’s almost $15,000 for every single one of the 7,000 men, women and children made homeless.  

I certainly don’t begrudge them that sort of assistance after such a horrendous ordeal, but is any more truly needed?  After all, they’re also eligible for a range of federal and state government assistance, and the vast majority will receive insurance payouts that will allow them to rebuild their homes.  

It’s hard to imagine how the Red Cross will actually manage to spend all the donated funds on causes connected to the fires.  One suspects that they’ll end up diverting much of it to other unrelated charitable causes, which is fine but they should be telling people now that this may be the case.

I can’t help wondering whether this remarkable (if arguably excessive) outpouring of community generosity has as much to do with primal fear and an existential sense of dread as with heartwarming compassion; dread caused by the traumatic realisation that our comfortable, wealthy lives are actually subject to sudden and unexpected hazard and even horrible death .  Existential hazard is something humans in past ages couldn’t help but comprehend, but for we citizens of the 21st century life seems so cossetted and safe.  

Maybe a similar refusal to confront the fact that life is unavoidably fraught with hazard also explains the seemingly universal urge to find someone to blame.  The righties blame the greenies for opposing hazard reduction burning, while the lefties blame the neoliberal righties for failing to combat global warming and privatising power utilities (supposedly leading to the Kilmore/Kinglake fire), and everyone blames the arsonist(s).  Despite the more sober analyses of the CFA, few people seem willing to comprehend that the immediate conditions probably made a fire cataclysm almost inevitable.  The combination of 4 days of temperatures above 40 degrees C on top of a longstanding drought with the fact that Black Saturday itself involved a record temperature of 46.7 degrees C and hot winds from the north switching to south at over 100 kilometres per hour meant that the smallest spark from whatever cause was going to ignite an uncontrollable inferno.  

It’s certainly essential that there be a Royal Commission into all the factors people have been blaming for the fires, from insufficient back-burning regimes through inadequate building regulations for fire-prone areas and even the adequacy of construction and maintenance standards for power lines.  Maybe the hazards can be reduced.  But they’ll never be eliminated, not in my lifetime anyway. And truth be told, all the people who chose to build or buy in the Victorian bush knew it too, just as we in Darwin know that our homes might be blown away by a cyclone at any time in any wet season.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Life, Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to A Scrooge moment

  1. Ken Lovell says:

    I expressed related sentiments myself, albeit in less measured terms. A commenter suggested that the outpouring of public emotion and activism on these occasions is more about making people feel good about themselves than it is about focused concern for the people directly affected by tragedy. Something in that, I suspect.

    Tonight’s 7.30 Report started to restore a bit of balance, with questions about the sense of building homes in the middle of a eucalypt forest and the failure of so many people to take out adequate home and contents insurance.

    Your point about the misplaced urge to find someone to blame is well-made.

  2. NPOV says:

    If just the Red Cross total is over $100M, there must be close to another $50M worth that has been donated as part of separate appeals (for instance we donated pet food to the RSPCA). In which case if the 1800 homes destroyed estimate is accurate, that’s over $80000 per home! It does seem rather a lot, all things considered. It’s interesting to speculate on whether it would have been more or less this time last year when the economy was on much surer footing and spending habits were generally much freer.

  3. Patrick says:

    I am not sure about people feeling good about themselves. As a Victorian I and everyone we know know people who have lost their closest loved ones, not to mention houses and neighbourhoods. All that without mentioning those who didn’t lost only a few nights sleep fighting the fires and defending their properties, stock and belongings.

    So maybe we were giving out of compassion or sympathy, emotions that archetypical lefties like Ken seem to struggle to recognise as capable of private unorganised non-governmental expression. How else can you feel when asked to donate suits because people have no clothes to wear to the funerals of their own family members?

    A more relevant and less snide comment might be to explore KP’s comment about the urgency prompted by disaster and proximity (consider the Tsunami to which Australian non-government and non-large-corporate donations were nearly $300m) as opposed to the resignation prompted by the ongoing humanitarian disaster and far greater deprivation in many parts of the world.

    I think the answer is simply psychological and a pretty fundamental part of ‘how we work’, which suggests that there is not much we can do to change it.

    Another part may be that we feel that this suffering is temporary and largely immediately rectifiable, whilst the suffering in eg Africa is substantially structural and infinitely harder to ‘fix’. Another side of that coin is that this is an ‘aberration’ or a deviation from the norm whilst suffering and misery in Africa is part of the status quo that we have all grown up with. The tsunami also fell into the ‘right’ side of both divides.

    And structural change is rarely going to galvanise public attention like immediate disaster will, and as suggested by eg Iraq/Afghanistan is likely to be far more expensive to fix.

  4. Ken Lovell says:

    Patrick I’m constantly amazed at the innovative ways in which people can force virtually any opinion into an absurdly inapplicable left/right spectrum but your comment has set a new benchmark.

    My comment, if you had bothered to read what it actually said, was not about donations, and in my own blog post I was deriding the organised, governmental events which you imply that I endorse. But none of that apparently matters if you see an opportunity to have a cheap shot at ‘the left’ (who to the extent that they genuinely exist would strongly repudiate any suggestion that I am a member, as would I).

  5. NPOV says:

    To be fair, Patrick doesn’t actually specify which Ken he was referring to, though I’d think neither would qualify as “archetypical lefties” – a term that doesn’t seem to have a lot of useful meaning.

  6. Ken Parish says:

    What Ken L said. My post had two themes, the huge charitable giving for fire victims and the “blame game” over fire causation. Neither could sensibly be characterised as ideoological in a left-right sense. I wasn’t denigrating private charity or advocating that government welfare should take over, simply suggesting that enough had now been donated for this particular cause, despite its continuing media monopoly and tragic dimensions. The other point I made in that regard is that the Red Cross and others still pushing donations to the fire appeal should (a) explain how they’re going to use all the money productively on bushfire relief; and (b) if they’re in fact intending to divert the excess to other objects (as occurred with Cyclone Tracy donations and no doubt the proceeds of numerous other disaster relief appeals), then they should say so as a matter of basic honesty and transparency. I doubt that many would object, or the giving cease, if the Red Cross announced that it would deploy any excess towards things like the north Qld floods where residents continue to suffer just as much as the displaced fire victims.

    While I’m commenting, I was hoping someone would raise the issue of uninsured fire victims. Stories yesterday suggested that Victorians were the most uninsured in Australia in terms of house insurance, with up to 25% uninsured. One would hope that people living around the Dandenongs, Yarra Valley etc would be rather more prudent than that, given its notoriously fire-prone nature. However, even if we assume that (say) 300 of the 1800 householders who lost their homes were uninsured, would it make sense for the Red Cross to spend its huge fire relief funds in building new houses for those people (or giving them the money to do so)? That would certainly result in a high proportion of the existing $100 million being spent. If we assume a cost of $150,000 to rebuild each house that’s 45 million dollars on this aspect alone. But would that be a sensible idea? I suggest it would create perverse economic incentives, rewarding the most irresponsible and encouraging previously prudent householders to act equally irresponsibly in future. Better, perhaps, to subsidise the rents of the irresponsible uninsured for a couple of years while they save for a deposit to buy another house.

  7. NPOV says:

    Strongly agree that the uninsured should not get funds to rebuild houses – not much point in insurance if not having it means you’ll be looked after anyway.

    A big concern should be for those that have mortgages who have lost their houses and now want to move out of the area – the land they were living on is surely now almost worthless as its primary attractions (trees, idyllic country towns) have now largely burnt down. And the nearby areas that weren’t directly affected by the fire, where forest still remains, must be in a similar predicament – everybody is now so much more aware of the risk and horrible consequences of bushfires, that the demand for such land will surely subside considerably. If residents of, say, Healesville decide it was too risky an environment to bring up their families, then those with substantial mortgages may not have many options. It will be interesting to see what happens to real estate values in those areas in the next few months.

  8. Ken Parish says:

    NPOV

    Yes, market prices for those areas will indeed be interesting to watch, although I’m not sure I’d want to see bushfire relief funds devoted to funding victims who want to move away to meet the shortfall in their post-fires land value.

    The reality is that prices in these areas already reflected the fire risk to an extent. Jen and I were looking at houses in the Dandenongs last year, preparatory to a possible move to Victoria in the next 2-3 years. Probably the price differential with non-bush suburban Melbourne will now widen further. As far as I’m concerned, buying in the Dandenongs remains an option, and might even be more attractive to the extent prices fall. I’m not sure about Jen, but I’m not deterred by the fire risk. I’ve lived in Darwin for 26 years now and dealt happily with the cyclone risk. You simply insure adequately, make sure your family memorabilia is readily to hand, and evacuate early to a safe location before the risk reaches critical levels. Just as we check into a nice hotel when a cyclone is in the offing, we’d do the same in Melbourne well before a “Black Saturday” risk situation. After all, despite all the talk of fire arriving without warning, the high risk was well known and Brumby even warned about it in interviews the previous evening. Even from 5000 ks away I remember thinking on the Saturday morning that it sounded likely that there’d be some very big bushfires down there, so it would be surprising if local residents in the “at risk” areas didn’t have an even more heightened awareness. No doubt many did, but misunderstood the extent to which their homes were in fact “defendable” in an extreme fire situation. It’s a mistake knowledgeable Darwin residents don’t make about cyclones, and hopefully Victorians won’t make it in future either.

  9. NPOV says:

    Hmm, if relief funds are not used to assist families to move to safer areas and help deal with large outstanding debts, then what are they to be used for?

    I don’t doubt that even before Saturday prices in the Kinglake or Marysville area had some amount of fire-risk built in, but it’s hard to imagine properties in Marysville to worth very much at all now. I suspect that for this reason alone a lot of people will choose to stay, though it might be some months before they can come to terms with living among the literally stark and bleak reminder of what just happened to them and their neighbours.

    Yarra Glen is perhaps the most interesting case – when we were there a few months ago it was starting to look like suburban sprawl (the closest genuine Melbourne suburbia is Lilydale, about 20 minutes drive, with mostly farmland/vineyards/forest in between). I don’t think many of those who have moved there recently thought it was much of a fire risk – it’s not surrounded by forests or even particularly “leafy”.

  10. NPOV says:

    BTW, Ken, didn’t I gather that you are your wife cycled a lot in Darwin? You might not find that much of an option in the Dandenongs!

  11. Ken Parish says:

    “Hmm, if relief funds are not used to assist families to move to safer areas and help deal with large outstanding debts, then what are they to be used for?”

    Decisions about which areas should be rebuilt and which (if any) reserved for open space from now on can surely only be made by government after the Royal Commission and an extensive planning process. Merely embarking on a charity-funded ad hoc scramble back to suburbia would play havoc with urban planning and almost certainly produce very bad outcomes. I don’t think funding such activity is a productive use of relief funds, indeed the fact that you can even contemplate such extravagant expenditure confirms that the bushfire relief fund is oversubscribed.

    However, I certainly agree that relief funds could reasonably be used to assist displaced victims with mortgage repayments for a while (after the 3 month moratorium I gather the banks have agreed to anyway), whether because they have been unable to work and earn an income or because they’re trying to buy elsewhere while selling their existing fire-ravaged property. If they don’t have enough to buy anywhere despite insurance payouts and the (reduced) proceeds of sale of their land, it would be reasonable to look at some properly planned resettlement scheme, and any residual charitable funding might even have a role to play there along with government. However, it’s not the sort of thing the relief fund management should leap into without very careful thought and co-ordination with government effort after the Royal Commission.

    “didnt I gather that you are your wife cycled a lot in Darwin?”

    Yes, and that’s one of the reasons why the Dandenongs is only an option and not the preferred option. The narrow winding roads and fast traffic around the Dandenongs scare the hell out me (even in a car).

  12. Yes, and thats one of the reasons why the Dandenongs is only an option and not the preferred option. The narrow winding roads and fast traffic around the Dandenongs scare the hell out me (even in a car).

    The roads are crazy – but still people ride bikes on them. The commute into and out of Melbourne for work is also crazy – an hour and a half each way for many. There is the train from Ft Gully and Lilydale lines.

    Commuting riding in the hills is a game for big thighs but for recreational biking there are some great trails with no cars and only wandering walkers and a few horses.

    The Warbuton Rail Trail f’rinstance runs off road through beautiful country for 40ks from Warbuton to Lilydale train station. Passing by around 10 towns/settlements. And there’s the famous on trail Cogs Bike Cafe

  13. I grew up in the Otways – I can’t think of any place that has had a fire that wasn’t rebuilt with even more housing.

    In 1983 14 houses in Deans Marsh were burnt and one person died. At that time most of Deans Marsh was essentially widely spread out and on grasslands. No trees to speak of. I doubt Deans Marsh had 50 houses at the time. Deans Marsh /Pennyroyal has at least tripled in size since then and is now a desirable destination with probably around 1,000 people permanent and numerous weekenders (I say weekenders but many of the houses are top end buildings).

    84 houses went up in Lorne, 32 Eastern View, 177 Fairhaven, 87 Moggs Creek, 217 houses in Aireys and so on.

    30 houses went in Warbuton on that day.

    On that Ash Wednesday 47 people died, 1600 houses and 1500 other buildings were burnt.

    Ash Wednesday was essentially the same “perfect storm” as the recent Saturday.

    All of those areas burnt on Ash Wednesday have been resettled, in most cases denser and with more foliage, than before. Real Estate prices along the Great Ocean Road and most of the other burnt places have never been higher.

    Ash Wednesday was only 25 years ago.

  14. Area/town
    Cudgee & Ballangeich Area (km

  15. Ken Parish says:

    FX

    I suspect you’re right. The most recent Dandenongs fires were only 6 or 7 years ago, I think, which accounts for the evident modest price gap between houses there and those in slightly closer (but otherwise much less atrractive and desirable, at least to my taste) areas of suburban Melbourne.

    The most desirable living areas often involve an element of risk. Some beachfront areas on Sydney’s northern beaches are notoriously subject to getting washed away, but still command high prices. Similarly with waterfront areas in darwin in “primary cyclone surge” zone. In fact the latter areas are among the most highly priced Darwin homes. Maybe that’s partly because people have short memories, but I suspect it’s more likely because most people take the same approach as mine – insure adequately and POQ early when there’s an imminent risk.

  16. NPOV says:

    I note the Age online has a video feature “How much charity is too much?”

    “…it’s so overwhelming in fact that the Salvation army is now asking people to hold off giving any more goods…”

  17. but I suspect its more likely because most people take the same approach as mine – insure adequately and POQ early when theres an imminent risk.

    So sadly Ken it doesn’t seem true for many. Un-insured well I can’t fathom it, but it does pay off.

    The leave early seems to be not understood. It seems so sad that many thought that “leave early or stay and defend” means “stay without much preparation, then leave at the last minute when it all seems too much”.

    When I lived in the bush we and others would send the kids and elderly or infirm 20 ks into town the day or two before. With clothes and valuables like photos. The car or truck would be parked out on the road, facing the right way, ready with the keys in it on the day.

    I’ve been in the CFA truck having to have two guys walk in front of the truck with torches to see the road edges and to guide the driver.

  18. Ken Parish says:

    FX

    I actually also said in an earlier comment:

    “No doubt many did, but misunderstood the extent to which their homes were in fact defendable in an extreme fire situation. Its a mistake knowledgeable Darwin residents dont make about cyclones, and hopefully Victorians wont make it in future either.”

  19. Ken Parish says:

    I should note that the cyclone/bushfire analogy is imperfect. We can get a much better idea of how big a cyclone is, and whether it’s likely to come near enough to threaten, early enough to POQ safely. SE Victorian residents had a much less precise idea of the extent to which they were threatened, in many cases until it was too late. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure I would have decamped to Melbourne on the Friday night with family, even without the hindsight knowledge of what occurred. It was clear enough to me that the threat was big and imminent. The similarity between fire and cyclone is that, if it’s big enough there’s no way you can “defend” however well built and maintained your house and surrounds may be, you just have to escape early enough to save your life and rebuild your property later if the worst occurs. In that sense I reckon they DO need to refine the “leave early or stay and defend” message. If they do that and keep reinforcing the message with ongoing effective community education, I reckon it’s perfectly OK for people to continue to build in the ravaged areas.

  20. pedro says:

    Brisbane riverfront home prices were interesting after the flood. They’re very high now and we are more than 30 years on, but I think part of the explanation for the big increase is that the river is no longer so much of a toilet.

    The insurance issue really raises questions of fairness. I saw a bloke on the tele who had set up a fire protection sprinkler system at some cost, and saved his house. Now he won’t get any of the handouts.
    The fellow who was fined for tree clearing now has a house at great expense and won’t get the handouts either. I’ll bet there are quite a few people who invested in fire protection at some cost in money and effort and who now have houses. Equally, there will be stupid people with now insurance and dnagerous conditions around their house who will receive big cheques.

  21. Ken Lovell says:

    I suppose pedro that’s the essence of charity – to give according to need rather than according to justice. Presumably most of those giving have been motivated by feelings of charity.

    Justice however should govern the distribution of public money, and I would strongly oppose any government acting as a de facto home and contents insurer for people who declined to take it out for themselves.

  22. NPOV says:

    The tree-clearing guy should definitely get his money back – provided he can demonstrate that his fines had anything to do with “greenies” as he apparently seems to think. Nobody that I’ve spoken to associated with environmental groups or the Greens party supports the idea that it’s reasonable for councils to fine residents tens of thousands of dollars for clearing firebreaks on their own property.

  23. pedro says:

    Agree with you both. If he cleared a fire break he should get his fine and costs reimbursed in full, and an apology.

    Ken, I think a lot of charitable giving is motivated/affected by justice as well. I wouldn’t have donated if I thought them all undeserving idiots hoist on their own petard. But there are some idiots and I suppose it is another form of free riding.

  24. If we stopped public monies being spent on idiots we’d be in surplus forever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.