The sky is a dark smoke cloud tinged with orange, it’s difficult to breathe outside. I assist my mother to shower, rubbing shampoo into her hair. I hand her a facecloth to wipe soap from her eyes. We’ve closed the windows and doors to stop ash from coming inside. It’s hot. I’m disabled, 63 years old and my parents are in their late 80s. My mother is ill and has been in bed for a few months. It is extremely difficult for her to walk to the shower. There’s no electricity due to the fires that are raging up and down the south coast of New South Wales. No TV, no internet, no phone coverage. Emergency calls only on my mobile phone. Web-based fire apps aren’t any good to us. I’ve packed the car ready to drive to the evacuation centre at Moruya showgrounds. We are relying on the static reception of the ABC and a battery-operated radio for local emergency updates. I am impressed by the local knowledge and articulate reports of people who phone in about their experiences of the fires. Their reports are invaluable to understanding the trauma and loss, the ferocity of the fires and the extent of devastation.
The waiting is frustrating, I feel underlying and supressed fear. Occasionally, anxiety marks my parents’ voices and actions. My father is blocking the down pipes ready to fill the guttering with water. He is determined to stay and defend the house against ember attack and perhaps even approaching fire. His truck is packed and facing the road. He says he will go if necessary. There is no use arguing with him. I oil my mother’s finely wrinkled skin, careful not to press too hard; run my hands over her stomach, silently thanking her for bearing my sister and me. Her thighs are smooth, almost youthful, her ankles thin. I help her into pyjamas and bed and leave her to sleep.
Now I reflect as I wait. The ABC’s emergency reporting is serving us well, but disgust takes over at the Australian government’s not particularly subtle dismantling by stealth of this vital community and national asset. In fact, I realise disgust has been a more or less permanent emotion over the course of 2019. I’m not usually one for hyperbole but I think in this case it is warranted, not to be taken literally but illustrative of the proportions of my disgust; multi-directional, multi-dimensional, stretching to every extremes of my existence and beyond. I breathe the particulate matter of disgust into my lungs, into my veins, arteries and capillaries, my heart, my brain. It penetrates the subterranean reaches of our earth; the water tables, the aquifers, even, I suspect, the white-hot, molten metal core. Disgust drifts to where our earth’s atmosphere bleeds into outer space.
Most of the time, disgust accompanies feelings of grief and dread. As in early 2019, when close to one million fish searched for flow, for faster cooler deeper current, desperately fighting to breathe in the lower Darling river. But they failed, suffocated; their bloated, rotting corpses floating on blue-green algae pools, piling up on the banks and dry riverbeds. The deaths of 100-year-old Murray cod, golden and silver perch, bony bream with shining spirit skins haunt me. I grieve for them as I grieve the looming death of the Murray-Darling rivers system. I fear for the lives of farmers, townspeople, wildlife, reptiles, fish, insects, plant life, wetlands and soil that depend on this river system. Geologically speaking, the Murray–Darling Basin is over 200 million years old. The river system stretches 3,200 kilometres from Queensland, down through NSW, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory then into to the Murray Mouth at Goolwa, in South Australia.
My top lip curls up on the right side, my throat constricts and I feel nauseous. Disgust oozes through my body in response to reports that in 2012 after public consultation had ended on the draft Barwon-Darling water management plan, the National Party, Primary Industry Minister, Katrina Hodgkinson changed the rules to allow irrigators to extract 32 per cent more water during low flows. Disgust that corporate farmer irrigators, many of whom are said to be major National Party donors, have been taking water illegally from the Barwon-Darling and the NSW government has turned a blind eye. Disgust at the massive level of corruption and fraud, lack of transparency and obvious disregard for the health of the Murray-Darling river system that are hallmarks of the government’s water buy backs, water-efficiency projects and capturing of water from overland flow and floodplains. For instance, the federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, has family links to those charged with Murray-Darling Basin fraud amounting to A$20 million, yet he is still the Minister overseeing complaints in a separate investigation of the $80 million Murray-Darling Basin scandal involving federal MPs Barnaby Joyce and Angus Taylor.
I feel disgust at the corporate farming of water-guzzling crops that are not suited to our dry climate: like the annual planting of cotton, with an average irrigation requirement of 7.8 megalitres per hectare and the planting of permanent crops like almonds that require an average of 13 megalitres of water a year per hectare. About 90 per cent of Australia’s cotton is grown in the Murray-Darling basin. Cubbie Station, located on the Darling Riverine Plains, is the biggest water user and largest cotton farm in Australia. Its storage dams stretch for more than 28 kilometres. This water is harvested from the floodplains and cannot therefore flow naturally to the river. It is believed floodplain harvesting is a major contributor to the huge drop in flow in the Darling river. A significant portion of the water stored in dams is also lost to evaporation. Cubbie has water licences for 460GL or 184,000 Olympic swimming pools.
Instead of addressing how these actions contribute to reduction of water flow, the Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud and his NSW counterpart Niall Blair blame the drought.
I let disgust go. I must take my mother something to drink. She is tiny in her bed, covered by red blankets, sleeping. These days, she has almost no appetite. We offer her smaller servings of food, yogurts, milk drinks; easily digestible with nutritional powder, banana or blueberry or yogurt mixed in. As the electricity is off, I mash a banana with a fork until it is liquid, whisk it into the milk mixture then strain out any lumps. I may try mashed avocado next time. We are on a journey of discovery, finding out the food tastes and textures that please her. She likes some soups, carrots cooked until they are soft and vegetable risotto. Yesterday, she asked for a cup of tea.
The police knock on the door. My cousin in Perth is worried as she can’t get in touch with us. One policeman tells us that Mogo, Batemans Bay and places like Malua Bay have experienced significant damage from the fire. They say they would prefer my mother and I go to the evacuation centre today.
My father packs a change of clothes and a toothbrush in a bag. I prop Mum crookedly against some pillows on her bed; she manages to drink a small glass of banana milk. I decide to check out the centre and leave her to sleep.
It’s not far to the Moruya showground. There are a lot of caravans and tents around the oval, horses in various enclosures and other livestock in small buildings. I can hear hens clucking and roosters crowing. People are carrying cats and walking their dogs. The evacuation centre volunteers and emergency workers are set up at tables close to the entrance of the indoor basketball court. A man offers his arm to help me walk. I’m thankful. It’s difficult to negotiate the crowd without my mobility scooter. People, strangers, seem to gain comfort from talking to each other about their experiences, their losses, their fears and their plans for the fires approaching Moruya. I talk to a couple from Canberra who can’t get back because of road closures. Another woman tells me the water is off at South Head. Two elderly men say that the leather shop in Mogo has burnt to the ground. There is a white board with the latest information on the fires, road closures, power cuts and the times when food is served. I register my parents, myself and the cat with the triage team. The workers try their best to help find a suitable place for us to stay but the accommodation on offer is not accessible. They advise me to try the retirement village near the hospital which has chairs available for the night. I drive there and speak to the woman in charge. She is efficient and welcoming. The hushed pinks, greens and grey of the interior provide shelter to many elderly people and some disabled young people, all sitting quietly, staff bustling between them. The woman says we should hurry to be assured of a place as they are also expecting elderly people who are being evacuated from the retirement village in Dalmeny.
Back at home, I give my mother a small glass of apple juice. Dad puts an esky full of drinking yogurt and apple juice, a pillow and woollen blanket in my car. I drive to the retirement village with Mum. Two members of staff wheel her inside, I park the car and bring her bag in. She is sitting on a chair, upright, tense, ready to leave. Her eyes are bright blue, buttoned into her pale face, searching for me. I sit next to her, suddenly realising that possibly she thought I had dumped her in a retirement home under the pretext of evacuation and I wasn’t returning. She asks me numerous times why we are here and where my father is. A staff member offers her a sandwich. She refuses to eat with a slight air of indignance. She keeps repeating that she wants to go home. Her confusion and anxiety are increasing rapidly. I tell a member of staff we are leaving, take my mother to the car and we drive.
I’ve lost awareness of dates, days. It’s a weekday, mid-afternoon. No cars on the road, no people walk the streets and everything seems to glow a dirty, apocalyptic orange. We drive past the Queens Street Medical Centre. There is a sign on the door that reads ‘Closed due to fires’. Some businesses that rely heavily on the tourist season have decided to call it quits for good. ATMs don’t work and the few shops that are open require cash. The chemist in the main street and Woolworths are closed. I drive home, hoping it will be possible for Mum to stay one more night in the comfort and familiarity of her own bed.
Dad agrees with this decision. The fire glows red on the ridge north of Moruya. I’m on edge, wondering how I will know if there is an ember attack or if fire approaches during the night. I manage to sleep soundly, waking to the alarm at 6am. Dad helps Mum into the car. We find parking in front of the evacuation centre. It is not too far to walk. I keep talking to her, explaining that we will be staying here for the whole day and night. An emergency worker asks if we would like someone to bring us our meals. I appreciate her assistance. It means we don’t have to join the long queues at the building that serves as a kitchen. A charity volunteer talks to me about finding a mattress for my mother. Soon, a young man appears with an air mattress. He proceeds to blow air into it. Another volunteer brings sheets and pillows that have been donated. People are helpful. They assist me to walk and carry things. When the electricity goes off, a woman in a bed nearby tells me she is a nurse. She offers to take over from me for a while to fan my mother. Her husband has Parkinson’s and is waiting for his daily medication to take effect. Their two teenage sons are with them. Like many people in here, this family knows the fire has already been through their area but don’t know if their house is still standing. I keep Mum’s fluids up and give her mouthfuls of yogurt from the esky. When a volunteer brings spam and salad sandwiches, surprisingly she eats most of it. The small dogs are yapping, the parrots squawking but generally the animals in the hall are well behaved.
Time passes slowly. I keep talking to Mum, reassuring her. Someone says the fire is at North Moruya, firefighters are water bombing near the airport. A volunteer offers me two wet cloths. I put one at the back of Mum’s neck and one in the esky. She asks about Dad a few times, then asks if we can go home soon. I tell her we are staying the night. I don’t know how I am going to help her up from the mattress when she wants to go to the toilet. I speak to the emergency workers about it. The hair around my forehead is wet with sweat. People stop and talk to us. I notice various disabled people of different ages with varied impairments and health conditions. They are accompanied by family and friends. The strength of community in this hall is palpable. People seem to know intuitively how to help each other, their skills are apparent. It is clear that, even without resources, we will make the best of the distressing situation we find ourselves in.
Mum wants to go to the toilet. She tries to get up but cannot. I ask an emergency worker for assistance. She calls another woman. They try to help but hurt Mum by pulling on her arms. She doesn’t complain. An elderly woman sitting across the way gets up and walks over. Her name is Val, she was a geriatric nurse in England. She demonstrates to the women how to help a frail person up from the floor. Mum is on her feet. I guide her to sit on the walker and push her. We move slowly. I’m not physically strong. The walker helps me balance. There are four toilets and a row of metal basins on the wall. One toilet has a piece of paper taped to the door with ‘For people with upset stomachs’ written across it. Apparently, some form of gastritis is raging through the dogs and the humans in the centre. When Mum is finished, I rub her hands with sanitiser and we return to our mattress. Even though this experience is hard for her, she is quietly persevering. She lives in the immediate present or in her childhood. She talks to me now about her father, telling me that he was a gentle man.
I lay next to her and I think about resilience and about how we are made vulnerable by a system that has let us down. How communities that lack resources – poor communities, the disabled, the elderly, First Peoples’ communities – are particularly impacted by disasters like this one. My guts twist in anger and hurt for those in need who are disregarded or, worse, stigmatised and punished by government policies. Disgust sets in again at the repeal of Medevac, stripping away the only pathway to evacuation from offshore detention for sick refugees. Disgust at the decision to axe funding to the main body representing First Peoples women survivors of domestic abuse. Disgust at Robo-debt’s cruel assault on our welfare system causing extreme distress and, in some cases, suicide. Disgust at the refusal of government to increase the New Start support allowance which, at around $40 a day, which condemns people to live well below the poverty line, barely covering rent, let alone other essentials.
Disgust that people on the cashless welfare card will not be able to buy goods during this disaster when the shops are demanding payment in cash. Disgust that the expansion of the cashless welfare card is costing between $4,000 to $10,000 per person to implement and manage. This money could be going directly to income support or work programs, education or additional resources and infrastructure in areas impacted by high unemployment. It goes instead to Indue Pty Ltd, a corporation said to donate to various Liberal and National Party branches nationally. In August 2019, Indue is reported to have received up to $21.9 million. If the card is extended to every person receiving benefits, the cost to the taxpayer for administration alone will be in the billions. Disgust also that the Indue card is the result of the sustained efforts of billionaire mining magnate, Andrew Forrest, who dictates that the solution to what he perceives as the ‘welfare dependency’ of First Peoples is income management.
Women bring us our evening meal; a sausage with mashed potato and fried onions. One woman asks if she can bring some water with electrolytes.
I say, ‘Yes, please.’
‘It’s cold and it’s electric-blue,’ she adds.
When she returns, Mum has a long drink from the flask. Then tries to get up. An emergency worker brings two young army reservists who offer their help. Val explains to them how to lift. They do a great job. I ask them how they feel about helping citizens at home. ‘It makes me feel valued,’ one says.
I help Mum to the washbasin and pour water from a bottled so she can clean her teeth. We return to our place on the floor and lay down with every intention of sleeping. It is noisy and hot.
Mum turns to face me. Her eyes seem to look right into who I am as if she has some kind of superpower.
She asks, ‘How are you? How are you really going in your life?’
I say, ‘I am good Mum. I have friends. I’m good.’
She continues to look at me.
I have not asked myself this question. Every day is a struggle. I am self-employed, work non-stop and make very little money. My work–life balance is terrible.
Children run up and down the hall, laughing and screaming. The main light in the hall is just above us, secured to the backboard of a basketball hoop.
I return my thoughts to Andrew Forrest and the big mining companies in Australia. Miners of fossil fuels like Adani only expect to be viable if they depend on subsidies, favourable deals and tax concessions. Over its thirty-year life, Adani’s Carmichael coal project would be given at least $4.4 billion in taxpayer subsidies. The miners bring in huge revenues but pay little or no tax at all. The latest Australian taxation figures record that massive oil and gas producers, like Exxon Mobil with $9.23 billion in Australian revenues, Chevron with $5.27 billion and Woodside with $6.28 billion, all paid no tax. Gina Rinehart’s company, Hope Downs, with $3.8 billion revenue, does not pay tax. That both our two major political parties support coal exports when we could be developing other export industries including renewables, makes no sense. I want to see a breakdown of who exactly benefits from the US$87.7 billion income from our 2018 exports of mineral fuels. Given that the demand to decommission coal mines includes a just transition of jobs to renewables, I wonder why there is so much emphasis on jobs in the coal industry when just over 37,000 jobs are involved and many mines, including Adani, are automating. There is also little discussion on how the increase in our exchange rate caused by the resources boom negatively affects other job sectors — industries such as tourism, tertiary education, manufacturing, agriculture that employ vastly more people in widely dispersed locations. I feel disgust that we are lied to by politicians like Scott Morrison and the billionaire-owned media. We are not given the information we need to make decisions, we are discouraged from thinking critically.
I feel disgust that Gina Rinehart’s company, Hancock Prospecting, donates millions to the right-wing, climate-denying think tank, Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) which has close links to the Liberal party and to Murdoch’s media. Murdoch News Australia pays no tax, despite $2.4 billion in revenues from its papers and websites. The same media spreads clearly disproven disinformation that arsonists, not climate change, are responsible for the continuing fire disaster we are experiencing in Australia.
I am equally disgusted when, in September 2019, Donald Trump hosts a state dinner in honour of Scott Morrison accompanied by guests Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest, billionaire media magnates, Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes, News Corp’s Lachlan Murdoch and billionaire Anthony Pratt. These are the important players in Australia’s oligarchy. This is where power resides.
I assume oligarchs can helicopter out of a danger zone if they ever find themselves in one. They can afford to ‘adapt’ to climate change by building bunkers into their holiday homes. We never expect to share space with an oligarch in an evacuation centre.
The generator stops. The lights go out. An emergency worker fiddles with an electricity cable.
My mother asks, ‘Can we go home in the morning?’
‘I think so,’ I say and turn over to sleep.
The generator starts up again. I wake to the light flickering in my face. Most people in the hall appear to be asleep. Mum is trying to get out of bed. She thinks she is at home. I explain that we are in the hall, that we have evacuated. She asks where my father is. A volunteer comes to help her up. I can now see bruises on Mum’s arms, her hips and knees are sore. Val comes over and instructs the woman how to lift. Val also lifts. I wheel Mum to the toilet. It is too late. She has wet herself. I wheel her back to the bed and pack our bag. We pass by the tables near the entrance and sign out. I explain that I can’t continue to put Mum through this. A young man helps us to the car. I don’t know if we are still under threat from fire. We drive home.
Both Mum and Dad sleep through the next day. I listen to the ABC. A neighbour knocks. He tells me we must boil our drinking water because it is now being mixed with water that comes directly from the river. He says the supermarkets are empty. There is no food, no fuel. I take two cans of Irish stew from the cupboard. That will do us.
As the days roll by, we are lucky; the electricity is back on and so is the phone and Internet. Many communities are still waiting for the electricity to be restored. A truck load of supplies gets through under police escort. The food is gone from the supermarket by lunchtime.
My father has an appointment with an Aged Care Assessor who will assess him for Home Care Packages (HCP) level 2. She tells us that her house, north of Moruya, is under threat from the renewed fire danger forecast for the weekend. She will move into town with her in-laws. As we talk, the lack of transparency and brokenness of the aged care system become obvious. Unlike the NDIS, where disabled people at least have the option of self-management, the elderly must use providers. Some providers are said to charge elderly people up to 50% of their government subsidy for administration. Comparing provider charges is an almost impossible task as the formats are not standardised. I ask the assessor if she can explain the announcement made over Christmas by the federal government that private companies will deliver assessments from April 2021. She doesn’t know about it. More than 400,000 assessments are done every year for home-care packages and residential care, at a cost of $800 per assessment.
Disgust settles in the room once again as I realise this is another opportunity for private enterprise to pocket public funds. The assessor explains how, to date, state-employed nurses, social workers and geriatricians work through community health and public hospitals to assess the level of care required by individual elderly people. She doesn’t think private providers will have the community knowledge, expertise or concern for the individual to provide this service. She is worried that, without the involvement of state and local government structures, there will be even less transparency and little accountability. She gets up to go, saying to Dad that it will take up to two years for his package to come through once it is approved.
He says, ‘Well, I may not be here by then.’ He adds, ‘But I don’t want to shoot the messenger.’
I follow her out the door, holding onto the wall for support.
The road to Batemans Bay has just opened. I want quotes for an adjustable bed for my parents, so Mum can sit up in bed to eat. I drive through smouldering, blackened forests. Twisted sheets of roofing iron mark the spot where houses, sheds and businesses have burned to the ground. Smells of burnt wood intermingle with the acridity of charcoaled animal flesh. The agony of a young kangaroo, its body seared to a fence, is captured by a photographer, singeing the psyche of the world. One billion animals estimated killed in the fires. Unknown numbers of invertebrates, insects, frogs, bats dead. Possible catastrophic consequences to ecosystems. More than 2,000 homes and eight million hectares burned. Vast areas of bushland will not regenerate. At least twenty-four people killed and the fires continue.
People in Sydney have been breathing toxic, smoke-filled air for months. People on the south coast are breathing smoke. On the 1 January 2020, Canberra’s air quality is the worst of any major city in the world. On 8 January, the Bureau of Meteorology announces that 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Yet our government acts as if it is business as usual, touting that we’ve had fires since time began.
The 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review examined the scientific evidence around the impacts on Australia of climate change and predicted that, without adequate action, the nation would face a longer and more intense fire season by 2020. Disgust almost overpowers me that this and other warnings are ignored. That Scott Morrison chooses not to meet with the twenty-three former fire and emergency leaders who ask to discuss early preparation and the equipment needed to fight the impending fire disaster. Disgust that, under the 2019-20 NSW state budget, fire and rescue capital expenditure is cut by $28.5 million or 35 per cent. The Rural Fire Service capital expenditure budget is cut by $49.9 million or 75 per cent. Disgust that the Prime Minister sees fit to go on holiday to Hawaii, the NSW Minister for Emergency Services goes on holiday to Europe, and the Federal Defence Minister goes on holiday to Bali while this land is suffering a profound disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Disgust runs out my ears, oozes from every pore and orifice at the arrogance with which the Prime Minister responds to public concerns on how to compensate and properly equip volunteer fire crews who have been battling the fires since September. Disgust at the forced handshakes and thuggish behaviour he imposes upon the traumatised community of Cobargo. I cannot possibly talk about everything that disgusts me. There is too much. This is why I choose to represent my disgust through hyperbole.
The bleak, ashen husks of trees that now comprise Eurobodalla Botanical Gardens are a blur as I drive back to Moruya. It dawns on me that, just like hyperbole, disgust has a purpose. Feelings of disgust are an evolutionary response to protect us from pathogens, infectious threats. Disgust helps us protect and preserve the social order from something that is offensive, poisonous or dangerous. Disgust is about survival.
My disgust calls for totally different ways of living and producing, and different ways of relating to each other and the earth. I don’t think anybody knows yet what this will look like, but I’m sure the oligarchs must not have any say in shaping it. Carbon-fuelled accumulation of capital, greed and ever-increasing profit margins are dangerous to life on earth. Our survival will involve us developing confidence in our ability to respect life, to love and help each other, confidence in our skills and our knowledge, so that we may work within our communities, upwards and outwards, joining with other communities for the common good. Our survival will depend on us learning how to recognise and actively fight corruption, fraud and lies. It will mean we find ways to make reliable information available to all, support and build progressive, independent media, develop critical thinking and make decisions based on facts not lies.
I read that on 31 December in Victoria, Veronica Marie Nelson Walker, a 37-year-old Yorta Yorta woman is charged with shoplifting and refused bail after representing herself at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, instead she is remanded at the Dame Phyllis Frost maximum security women’s prison. On 2 January she is found dead in her cell. Our survival depends on urgently building solidarity with those who are discriminated against, racialised, criminalised and murdered by the laws and system that are supposed to protect us. We know the violence against First Peoples, disabled people, women, refugees, the elderly and other oppressed groups of people is linked. The brutality of this system is lethal.
I stand by Mum’s bed, looking at her curled warm in her blankets.
She asks, ‘Do we have to evacuate again?’
‘No,’ I say, lying next to her. She talks about her father being on the susso. She describes how, during the war, at school they did drills, practised climbing down into trenches in the Exhibition gardens.
‘I don’t think the world has ever been in as much danger as it is in now,’ she says, placing her hand on my hand.
Published by Otway Journal 2021 Coming Back to Earth