As the horror of Australia’s bushfire season fades, some may hope for things to return to business as usual.
But one MP has ensured the raw, emotional loss that many Australians have felt remains front of mind.
Bega state MP Andrew Constance, whose southern New South Wales electorate has been one of the worst impacted by fires, has been the public face of the grief and trauma that many fellow Australians are living through.
Throughout the crisis, he has delivered a much-needed dose of reality to discussions around the fires and brought focus back to the suffering of those involved.
Immediately after the New Year’s Eve fire that razed the town of Cobargo in southern NSW and killed three people, Mr Constance expressed the incredible grief and shock at the devastation.
Mr Constance, who is the local Liberal MP, choked back tears as he was told on January 2 that 381 homes were known to have been destroyed.
“It’s unfair,” he told ABC News Breakfast, obviously fighting against his emotions.
“I met four RFS guys yesterday who lost their homes. Beautiful neighbours of mine lost their homes. It is tough. We will get it together.”
Days later Mr Constance delivered an extraordinary rebuke to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who visited Cobargo after being criticised for being on holiday in Hawaii in December as fires burned, and was heckled and confronted by residents who refused to shake his hand.
Mr Constance was asked whether the feelings were the same across his electorate and his answer was brutally honest.
“I didn’t even know he (the PM) was coming and I haven’t had a call from him, so to be honest with you, the locals probably gave him the welcome that he probably deserved,” Mr Constance told Sunrise.
“I’d say this to the Prime Minister today, the nation wants you to open up the chequebooks, obviously help people rebuild their lives.”
Mr Constance put aside party allegiance to articulate the very real emotions that people were feeling.
“Having lived through this myself it’s tough, you can’t experience this, it’s cruel, it’s nasty,” he said. “(The) Cobargo community lost people … the feeling is bloody raw and it’s raw for a reason.”
Mr Constance, who was forced to flee his own home during the fires that raged through NSW, and seek refuge on Malua Bay Beach, described the experience as “hell on Earth”.
He put the focus back on the needs of his community and said the PM needed to get the national chequebook ready so people could get money in their pockets to buy supplies.
Last month Mr Constance went into bat again for his community, criticising the Red Cross, Salvation Army and St Vincent De Paul for taking too long to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars raised for victims of the bushfires.
“How dare they (the Red Cross) say publicly they’re only going to spend a third of the donations on people when people are traumatised and in crisis?” Mr Constance told reporters.
“The money is needed now, not sitting in a Red Cross bank account earning interest so they can map out their next three years and do their marketing,” Mr Constance said.
“We need a very real change, very quickly so that the money can get to those who need it most … people are on their knees and we can’t have a drip-feed.”
The charities have since announced reforms to the way their funding is delivered and Red Cross has doubled the amount of money available as immediate relief, to more than $61 million.
RELATED: More than $100 million raised for bushfire affected communities
In an appearance on Q&A on Monday, Mr Constance, who stepped aside from his role as transport and roads minister in January to help with local recovery efforts, revealed the toll the fires was still having on his mental health and said his life would never be the same.
“I saw something that day which I was never, ever expecting to experience,” he said.
“I saw bushfires on the farm as a kid, I’ve seen it spot across our countryside but not like this.”
He described being “encircled by fire” on Malua Bay Beach with a thousand other people.
“When I took off from home, I could hear it, the power of the heatwave off it, I thought I was going to melt,” he said.
“When I got into the car, the car gauge was at 58 degrees.”
Mr Constance acknowledged he would probably need counselling to deal with the trauma of what he had been through.
“I’ve cried, I’ve been hugged, I’ve been loved, but the trauma of this is so profound and it’s affecting thousands of people across our regions and we need help,” he said.
“Yeah, I’m going to need proper counselling … and that’s why I’ve been vocal about this, males in particular hide this up and bottle it up.
“I’ve had farmers cry, I had a mate today cry because he was waiting for the fire to come to his place this morning.”
Mr Constance said the reason he had called for donations to be made to Lifeline was because it was the only service available at 2am and 3am when people were awake thinking.
On Tuesday in an address to the NSW parliament, Mr Constance said he did not want to see finger pointing about the causes of the fire.
“I say that the bushfires are a combination of factors,” he said.
“We can argue about climate change and fuel loads till the cows come home, but are you really going to expend that degree of energy when we now need to come together and move forward?”
He said a number of fires “quite frankly turned into bombs when they hit” but he was a big believer in listening to Aboriginal people about cultural burning.
“When you lose more than 905 homes in the community, with 400 structurally damaged to the point at which no-one can live in them – homes that are in a suburban setting in Malua Bay, in an Aboriginal community in Mogo, in rural subdivisions and on farms – it is very hard,” he said.
“Losing a home is not just about losing the bricks, mortar and timber walls. It is the memories. It is everything so special to you. This is where trauma really comes into this.”
Mr Constance said he was determined to make the best recovery the world had ever seen. He urged his colleagues to put politics aside and focus on helping people and communities rebuild.
“This is a real test of our humanity. It is a test of where we are going to go. We spend so much time arguing, particularly in this Chamber.
“That day changed me because of what I saw – the bravery of our surf lifesavers and those in the Rural Fire Service – and the incredible stories I have heard since of people drawing strength from each other.
“What has given me the most hope over the last month is the strength of community and the strength of people drawing together in a bond that will unify them for life.”
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