“It’s before we even begin to count the cost to business, to those people who may not have lost their homes but they don’t have a place to turn up for work today. They’re not sure how the next pay cheque is going to arrive. The cost of this is unprecedented.”
Mr Colvin, who oversaw Australia’s policing response to the 2002 Bali bombings, said the needs of different communities across the country would be varied and could not be fixed with a “one size fits all” approach.
“A tourist town in East Gippsland is very different from a dairy farm on the South Coast of NSW. Our approach is going to have to be something which is tailored and nuanced. That is the message I will be sending to everyone involved.”
He said the recovery effort would be “nationally generated” but would work only if it was “locally delivered”.
Ensuring mobile service centres were out in communities in the coming days was also critical, he said.
“So that people have somewhere to go and talk, people have a face to put to the challenges and the problems that they need help with. We will continue that,” he said. “We’ll be listening and we’ll be learning. That’s the key message here I need to get out.”
Mr Colvin said the agency would call on the experience of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority created after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.
Its tasks would be to integrate recovery and rebuilding activities and ensure communities had access to “meaningful support” and all available services.
Mr Colvin said he was acutely aware of the social implications for communities and said support for relationships and mental health would form a critical role in the recovery efforts.
“If you look at a place like Christchurch after the earthquake, or indeed Victoria after Black Saturday, the toll it took on relationships and families was still being felt six years after they happened,” he said. “The mental health of first responders is going to be a big part of this and I think you can understand from his comments the Prime Minister is also very committed to this effort.”
Mr Colvin said he was well aware of the potential for red tape to infuriate communities as they attempted to reclaim their lives but agencies would not be tripping over each other as long as he was in charge.
“Thirty years in policing has taught me a lot about how to work with other agencies, how to work with police, how to work with emergency responders, how to work with states and territories,” Mr Colvin said. “I’ve been in touch with so many of my state and territory counterparts already. I will continue to be in close contact with them because that is where this will work, that is where we have to deliver.”
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra