When Prime Minister Scott Morrison decided to extend the government’s $1,000 flood zone disaster recovery payments, locals and volunteers from many of the flood-affected coastal regions in NSW’s northern rivers weren’t surprised that they had been “forgotten.”
The payments were “completely fuck all” to begin with, they say. “Maybe it’ll buy you some gum boots and cleaning supplies,” one volunteer told VICE, “but we’re still just relying on each other,”
The announcement was pitched by Morrison as a sweetener at a press conference on Tuesday – all part of his brief visit to Lismore.
After a day spent meeting a handful of local producers and business owners, Morrison fronted the press with a reluctant apology, and an extra $2,000 over two weeks for locals who in many cases had just lost their entire lives.
The extended payments, though, would only go to Lismore, Richmond and Clarence Valley local government areas – not the nearby Byron Shire, Ballina and Tweed local government areas, which have also been pummelled by recent flooding.
In the town of Mullumbimby, which falls into the Byron local government area, resentment has been running white hot. It was almost a full week before residents saw any meaningful government support, and even on Thursday, locals told VICE that the NSW government is still failing to come close to meeting their needs.
The federal government’s decision to exclude them from ongoing financial support has only vindicated the belief that they can only call upon each other for help.
At Mullumbimby’s makeshift civic centre, in the middle of town, locals and volunteers told VICE they feel like nothing has really changed over the last 10 days. Among them was Tara Walker, a local who has dropped everything to connect her community with essential items and services. She said the government’s “inadequate” support has continued to surprise her, and that Morrison’s posturing in Lismore was vexing.
“It’s really disappointing to see friends in Lismore who have lost everything – lost their homes, lost their businesses – hoping to stand by us, to have an audience with our Prime Minister, and then not being met and not having their needs heard or not being able to express themselves at all,” Walker said.
“And to hear that there's any kind of difference in the amount of support across different shires or different regions, in light of the devastation that's actually been witnessed in this area and how much it's personally affected us all, is just… yeah.”
Travelling into Mullumbimby on Thursday, visitors wouldn’t be remiss for thinking twice about whether the town they were entering had only a week ago been at the centre of a catastrophic natural disaster.
The superficial devastation that had for days been feeding the news machine was mostly gone. Rubbish no longer dotted the streets, and floodwaters were well and truly behind them. But this is a town that has years of recovery ahead of it, and residents said it has become increasingly clear that they’ll have to do it without the support of any level of government.
According to residents of Mullumbimby, the NSW government set up shop in their self-established civic centre earlier in the week, evicting locals from their town hall, forcing them to set up shop again next door.
State government representatives arrived in town “about three days ago,” local volunteers said, to ensure that the community had access to all essential state and federal government agencies, like Centrelink, North Coast Community Housing, Legal Aid, the NDIS, social workers, and even a chaplain.
Jessie Thomas, a volunteer at the town’s civilian-led civic centre, told VICE that coordinating with the state government’s representatives on the ground has brought with it some new challenges.
“When we got booted, we were out there again, from the beginning, setting up doing what we could,” Thomas said.
“For the government to come in and basically go, ‘Our computers are more important than you. Let's remove you from this space. We’re going to set up here.’ It didn't feel right, and it wasn’t. It wasn't the response we thought we would get.”
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