Complexity, stress and trying to ensure fairness dog any disaster recovery process. The bushfire emergency recovery process has been no exception. Victims are desperate and traumatised. Tempers are heated. Donors are extraordinarily generous. Politics is everywhere. The blame game is well under way.
Complexity has been emphasised by both the Australian Red Cross and a spokesperson for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, reported by Pro Bono News: "Responding to disaster is a complex task requiring both short-term and long-term efforts ... charities are often in a position of balancing getting money out quickly, which is really important to meet immediate needs, with managing it responsibly for the long-term relief effort." Presumably the Australian community wants both to happen effectively.
Everyone is stressed, direct victims most of all (and most obviously) but many others as well. They have suffered life-altering trauma producing shock and bewilderment, no matter their previous life experience and circumstances.
But the stress doesn't stop there. Social and economic systems are also overloaded and under extreme pressure. Political systems are also stressed. Demands for immediate action are put on governments and other organisations which are used to operating at a more measured pace.
Sometimes these demands include departure from the usual protocols. Amazingly those governments which insist on their agencies, including Centrelink and the Australian Tax Office, maintaining the tightest and often meanest controls over government money are now querying the need for paperwork in the allocation of recovery funds.
There have been public calls for new ways of managing disaster recovery, including former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett calling for a new centralised and government-controlled disaster recovery trust fund, bypassing charities and not-for-profits. Yet the latter are trusted by the community more than governments, which is why all governments ask them to manage the distribution of funds.
Fairness to all victims is challenging because equal treatment does not always mean fair treatment. Little attention has been given to the fact that the economic and social circumstances of victims across Australia vary enormously. We are all in this together in one sense, but the lives of some victims were already precarious, because of poverty or drought, while others were relatively comfortable, either because of economic circumstances or membership of a community network like an extended family, sporting club or church which looks after its own and can call on internally generated recovery funds.
Fairness between victims also needs to consider the philosophical question of how to balance the needs of those who made their own preparations, especially by taking out insurance cover, for instance, against those who did not, for whatever reason. These ethical questions don't have an easy answer beyond the provision of basic emergency support for all.
Recovery management also must account not only for some looters and other criminals in the community, but also for a large number of scammers who will take advantage of the vulnerability and generosity of others. Already the government has warned against unlicensed builders taking advantage of the emergency. And there will be other scams.
The emergency phase produced notoriously robust exchanges between the community and its leaders, and also between various federal and state political leaders. Frank language meant some reputations suffered. Much of this was deserved, and served its purpose of calling people to account - while that which was over the top perhaps could be excused by the stressful circumstances.
But now the intemperate language has continued, and it is time to call a halt to it. Political leaders have their own bully pulpit and a sense of entitlement, which is a dangerous combination. They also have the political incentive to "name and shame", and to shift the blame onto others. This has begun already.
The three major charities responsible for the non-government aspect of the relief effort - the Red Cross, the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Salvation Army - have deservedly good reputations. Yet they have come under strenuous attack from government officials. The NSW Emergency Services Minister, David Elliott, whose own contribution has been mixed, used a media conference to tell the charities to "pull their fingers out". Andrew Constance, the Bega MP whose previous contributions have been praiseworthy, crossed the line when he accused the charities of base self-interest: "The money is needed now, not sitting in a Red Cross bank account earning interest so they can map out their next three years and do their marketing."
In fact, the money is needed both now and in months and years to come. Elliott and Constance probably won brownie points in some sections of the community, but bullying charities is unfair. Only a cool-headed and independent review can determine where truth and responsibility lie. The community should expect professionalism and care but not miracles from charitable organisations. The charities responded civilly to the politicians under the circumstances.
One issue is that pledges of financial help don't always mean money in the bank immediately. Another is that no matter who handles the recovery funding, 10 per cent at least will go to administration. Just as emergency volunteers need financial support themselves, so do recovery administrators. The charities also must maintain their usual support activities for those parts of the community not directly affected by the bushfires.
And, of course, the longer-term situation must be managed. As the Red Cross spokesman made clear, the recovery program must continue over a minimum of three years "when the world's attention turns away and the story moves on". As it inevitably, and sadly, will.
Charities should never seek to avoid scrutiny, but they don't deserve to be caught in the crossfire of criticisms emerging from a politically charged environment.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.