‘Too busy trying to stay alive’: Eden-Monaro voters weary from bushfires and Covid-19 | Australia news

Standing outside the Quaama general store on the New South Wales south coast, owner Ellie Newton narrated the stories of her customers as they came by.

One woman, who stopped to fill her car up with petrol from the store’s single bowser, had lost her home in the January bushfires that ravaged this part of the Eden-Monaro electorate. She’d moved in with her brother after the fires, but had to leave after the Covid-19 restrictions hit. Since then, she’d spent the winter in a tent with her husband and two children.

Liz Lacey (left) and Ellie Newton at the Quaama general store in the electorate of Eden Monaro.

Liz Lacey, left, and Ellie Newton at the Quaama general store. Lacey’s home was destroyed while she was away helping battle a blaze. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” she told Guardian Australia cheerily.

Another, Liz Lacey, stopped by and nodded along with a cigarette as Newton explained how Lacey had woken in the early hours of 31 December and evacuated to the town of Cobargo where she tried to help battle the blaze. She returned a few days later to find her home had been destroyed.

“Liz has probably handled everything the best out of almost everyone,” Newton said.

“I don’t know how,” Lacey replied.

Quaama, about 15km south of Cobargo, is one of dozens of mostly unheralded villages dotting this part of the Bega Valley that were decimated by the summer bushfires. And almost six months to the day since fires first swept through, the havoc wrought by those terrifying few weeks in January continues to dominate daily life.

The sky turns dark and orange from the Border Fire before midday, south of Bega on the New South Wales south coast as the fire front creeps north toward Eden.

The sky turns dark and orange from the border fire south of Bega as the fire front creeps north toward Eden in January. Photograph: Andrew Quilty

As the 4 July Eden-Monaro byelection plays out against the backdrop of the bushfires and the Covid-19 pandemic, which ground this region’s already hobbled tourism sector to a halt, both Labor and the Coalition are struggling to mount a convincing argument for why voters here should care.

“People don’t have time for political opinions,” Newton told Guardian Australia. “They’re too busy trying to stay alive.”

Across this part of the sweeping southern NSW electorate, hundreds remain living in tents and caravans on burnt-out properties in the depths of winter and there is a keenly felt sense that the support promised, and money raised, after the fires has failed to reach people here. They describe the terror of those initial weeks being replaced by a sort of bureaucratic malaise. An endless list of grant forms and paperwork, and a clean-up that seems to never end. Life has become an extended version of Waiting for Godot, but with more post-traumatic stress disorder.

Election poster for Nationals candidate Trevor Hicks beside the snowy mountains highway near Cooma in the electorate of Eden Monaro.

An election poster for Nationals candidate Trevor Hicks beside the Snowy Mountains Highway near Cooma. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“People are watching their lives being scraped into the back of trucks. They’re busy trying to get water to their camp. Or they’re worried about getting something to keep them warm or how they’re going to rebuild,” Newton told Guardian Australia.

“All of this adds up. One of our best friends recently committed suicide. He lost everything and basically, when that sort of thing is happening, the byelection, people are not focused on it. They’re not interested. There has been so much money raised, but we don’t seem to have seen any of it. It’s just not getting to where it’s still needed most.”

The general consensus in the lead up to 4 July is that voters in this part of Eden-Monaro will either use this byelection as a chance to punish the prime minister, Scott Morrison, for his oft-criticised response to the bushfire crisis, or follow national polls in rewarding the government for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Eden-Monaro offers a unique test for both parties. Large population centres in the west of the electorate, such as Queanbeyan and Yass, are more concerned about getting their local economies going again as lockdown restrictions ease. A University of Canberra focus group found the response to the bushfires was among the main issues of concern for voters here but was competing with climate change, job creation and health care.

Labor will hope the byelection will serve as a referendum on the bushfires. It was in Quaama that a Rural Fire Service volunteer refused to shake the prime minister’s hand during a visit to the region in the wake of the fires. But there’s no guarantee dissatisfaction with the government will translate to votes for the opposition.

“As far as the election is concerned, I don’t know, I honestly don’t think it matters,” another resident, Veronica Abbott, who along with her husband, Warren, has been running the makeshift bushfire relief centre in Quaama, told Guardian Australia.

Veronica and Warren Abbott who run the Quaama relief centre at the Quaama school of arts in the electorate of Eden Monaro.

Veronica and Warren Abbott who run the makeshift Quaama relief centre at the Quaama school of arts. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“We either get someone from the government who hasn’t done anything, or someone from the other side who can’t do anything because they don’t have any power. Either way, nothing changes.”

Local residents stock up on supplies at the Quaama Hall in Quaama.

Local residents stock up on supplies at the Quaama Hall in Quaama. The pandemic has made finding supplies more complicated. Photograph: Sean Davey/EPA

Abbott has spent the winter searching the country for supplies to stock the relief centre, a task made more complicated by the pandemic. As restrictions began to hit, donations of bottled water stopped arriving. She’s spent hours scouring the web looking for warm clothes to purchase, placing orders for tracksuit pants with retailers as far away as Western Australia.

Eden-Monaro has traditionally been a bellwether seat, changing hands as the government does. But in 2016 Labor’s retiring MP Mike Kelly bucked that trend, receiving a swing as the Coalition held onto government. Still, it would only take about a 0.8% swing to the government for Labor to lose the seat.

Adding to the unpredictability of the vote is the Covid-19 restrictions that have played havoc on traditional modes of campaigning and organising, meaning both parties are reaching around in the dark when it comes to understanding what voters will actually do at the ballot box.

On Thursday night at a “climate resilience in Eden-Monaro” candidates forum held digitally by a group called the Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action, Labor’s candidate, the former mayor of the Bega Valley shire council Kristy McBain, talked about the link between climate change and poorer health outcomes.

McBain, who spent the week campaigning in the western part of the electorate as she attempts to raise her profile away from the coast, said she would support Labor recommitting to a national strategy for health and climate change made before the last election.

“Climate action is a huge part of the platform for me and for the people of Eden-Monaro,” she said.

The Liberal party candidate, Fiona Kotvojs, has used television advertising to push her local credentials and emphasise her membership of the Rural Fire Service. Kotvojs did not attend the forum on Thursday, but in answers to questions about climate change from local media, she has mostly clung to the same lines, pointing to the Snowy 2.0 project, the government’s $2bn Climate Solutions Fund and the Energy Efficient Communities Program.

Labor candidate Kristy McBain campaigns in Eden Monaro with opposition leader Anthony Albanese.

Labor candidate Kristy McBain campaigns in Eden-Monaro with opposition leader Anthony Albanese. She says climate action is a huge part of her platform. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

There’s no doubt decisions made by the government at the height of the pandemic have helped the Coalition’s standing, but the question is how much.

About 25km east of Quaama in the coastal hamlet of Bermagui, the pub owners Luke Redmond and Yannis Gantner have now reopened their Beach Hotel three times since they bought it four years ago.

In March, they sat down with about 20 of their staff, many of whom had helped them stave off the existential threat of the bushfires, to tell them they would need to be stood down.

“I’ve obviously never been involved in anything like that, and after what we’d been through with some of our staff during the fires, what they’d done for us, it was one of the hardest conversations I think either of us have ever had,” Redmond told Guardian Australia.

A week later, the government announced its jobkeeper program, which Redmond said had lifted the pressure on the business. Gantner agreed the program had helped, but said the slow months during the lockdown had allowed for a level of reflection that could count against the government.

Owners of the Bermagui Beach Hotel on the NSW South Coast Luke Redmond (left) and Yannis Gantner in the electorate of Eden Monaro.

Owners of the Bermagui Beach Hotel on the NSW south coast Luke Redmond, left, and Yannis Gantner, who says locals’ attention to the bushfires is returning. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“You’ve got one thing that the government probably wants people to focus on and another that they probably don’t,” he said. “Covid drew attention away from the bushfires, but I feel thankfully attention is returning and with that some anger about the hardship still being experienced by some victims.”

During the bushfires Bermagui was without power or water for weeks, and was evacuated a number of times as fires threatened to consume the town. Both men have harrowing stories of those weeks in early January.

Redmond, who grew up in Quaama, remembers not knowing whether his father and brother had survived the fires after they stayed back to protect the family farm. Gantner was stopped by the local fire captain and asked to help prepare the town against an approaching fire-front in early January.

“It’s not a question you can really say no to,” he laughs.

“Everyone has those stories and to an extent they’re still walking around with it all.”

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jun/27/too-busy-trying-to-stay-alive-eden-monaro-voters-weary-from-bushfires-and-covid-19