At the centre of Lismore’s flood recovery effort is a dilapidated two-storey structure on Molesworth Street in the city’s centre. Nearly two weeks ago, it housed the offices of the Koori Mail, a national newspaper for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, who have been delivered a grab-bag of news and analysis every second Wednesday, for close to 30 years.
Now, the newspaper’s team, and the hundreds of volunteers who have supported them, are feeding, clothing and housing the majority of Lismore’s population, without even a sliver of support from any level of government.
“My office is just up there on the corner,” Naomi Moran, the Koori Mail’s general manager, told VICE. “So, whenever there has been some major activity with the water, I can have a peek over into the river behind me and determine how bad it will get.
“Obviously, nothing prepared us for what was going to happen on that Sunday night, or early Monday morning. The floodwaters were just far too low. Nobody could have predicted that it was going to be this devastating. In previous floods, we've had very minimal water come into that building. But this time around, there was nothing that we could do to save our first floor here that was completely inundated with water and destroyed.”
Moran and her staff were able to unplug all of their computers, most of the electronics strewn across the lower floor, and get them to higher ground. Once they had, and the pummelling rain showed signs of easing, their attention immediately switched to how they could service their local communities.
A block of land that once housed the headquarters of Australia’s national Indigenous newspaper is now that of the entire Lismore community. It has become the city’s central nervous system, where supplies spanning everything from gurneys and toolboxes, to children’s clothes – in pretty much every size – are donated, catalogued, and tracked by hand “in a little red notebook”.
Residents from across the city go there for food. Maybe to track down a sparky. Or to be connected with mental and medical health services.
“We have a GP, a registered nurse, we have a diabetic nutritionist coming down today because a lot of our mob, you know, have chronic disease, and need to have access to healthcare for that,” Moran said.
“And I think for us, for Bundjalung people, our families and communities, when this happened, when we knew this was happening, they come first. Now that we've provided them with as much support as we can, this is now about the Lismore community and the surrounding towns,” she said.
A handful of volunteers on-site at the Koori Mail’s community hub all kept circling back to the same point: they felt that their response made clear that each of the governments serving them are unable to meet their needs. Whether culturally, racially, or even to help pick up some rubbish, Lismore’s is a community left vulnerable, with only itself to turn to.
They were frustrated that the point needed to be made with a death toll.
Ella Bancroft, a Bundjalung woman and Koori Mail volunteer, told VICE that the Koori Mail’s efforts should send a message to councilmen and MPs alike: relationships between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people in Australia are not healthy and they are not strong.
Changing that could save lives, she said.
“If we don't have a better system put in place for non-Indigenous Australians to make relationships with Indigenous people, we find in situations like this - when there's a disaster that happens - they are left without any communications. There are no government services who have been contacting them,” Bancroft said.
“Non-Indigenous people don't have good relationships with a lot of Indigenous people in this country. So, they are then often in the fringes. And we're the only people who can get to them.”
Like the communities reeling on NSW’s north-east coast, there is an inviolable undercurrent of resentment among the city’s residents for the federal government’s inaction. Bancroft made the case that the last week or so has shown that Australia is suffering a constitutional schism so bad it’s costing lives.
“We pay taxpayers dollars to have support from government systems that time and time again, fail us. And I'm not just talking about Indigenous communities. Everybody is getting failed by these systems. It's not about Labor or Liberal or Greens.
“We need to get local and we need to build local systems, because this has just sucked, showing all of us that grassroots movements get things done better than any government services can.”
Otherwise, she fears her members of her community – like her own mother, who had nowhere to seek shelter but a warehouse that the local council is currently trying to remove her from – will continue to wear the worst of government failure.
“I will say straight up that my mother is an Indigenous elder and she is affected by floods. She lives in Upper Main Arm. And an entire land side has cut off her road,” Bancroft said.
“She was put in her studio to be homed, and yesterday the Byron Bay council – Michael Lyon, who is our mayor – sent people down there to check on her with photos if she was living in her warehouse because there was a complaint that she was living down there.
“In a time like this where we have a crisis, not just with housing and accommodation, the fact that the council is sending people out to do house inspections, especially for our elders, is a disgrace,” she said.
“And that's just one of many stories.”
Even still, Moran and community leaders like her from across the Northern Rivers of NSW are trying to stay optimistic and use their efforts as a springboard to bring about change. Moran said her attention has now turned to trying to get government representatives to “come to the table”, after so many years – centuries – of being ignored, or at the very best having to meet them on their terms.
“Because at the end of the day, it's about the history of black fellas in this country. It's expected that we go to their tables, that we sit around their tables, and what we say is just a small portion of what they've already organised and planned, and what they expect us to adhere to,” Moran said.
“This is a classic example. And a really strong and resilient example of how our local mob are self-determining what crisis support and relief means for our people. So, I'm like: ‘You can come down here and have a chat. And you can come down here and ask questions, but you better be ready, because we've got a lot to say.’”
As fate would have it, one of them would arrive within the hour.
Shortly after Bancroft and Moran spoke to VICE, Governor General David Hurley arrived at the Koori Mail’s doorstep with a security detail and press gaggle in tow. Alongside Lismore’s mayor, Steve Krieg, Hurley was welcomed, before lending an ear to the community’s concerns.
Moran and Bancroft told him much of what they had only just told VICE: That the community’s needs weren’t being met; That centuries of deeply-entrenched racism and neglect of Australia’s First Nation’s people tracing back to colonisation could have cost lives; That all of this really goes back much further than 10 days ago, when floods put Lismore in a headlock.
Pleading with Hurley, attempting to help him understand how Indigenous communities may have been underserved over the last 10 days, she suggested the onus is on the government to do more to learn how they can fill the gaps that Moran and her fleet of volunteers have been left to fill.
“It’s not our responsibility as Aboriginal people to teach people about cultural protocols,” Bancroft told Hurley. “There are a lot of resources out there, about how to be respectful, and actually deal with mob.”
“At the moment,” the Governor General interjected, “it’s not the time to be diving into books.”
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