A hell of a day in Sydney

Writing a blog in the middle of a firestorm wiping out dozens, possibly scores, of homes on the outskirts of Sydney makes you realise what really matters. I had started the original post with the speech by former Health Minister Nicola Roxon blasting her former boss, Kevin Rudd.
But as soon as I looked out the front door and saw the day turned into night about 4.30pm on the leafy North Shore of Sydney, with smoke replacing clouds in the sky and the wind gusts up to 60km an hour, I knew I had to write about this scene from Apocalypse Now. And we’re not even in the fire zone! I’ve been watching Sky News, with Celina Edmonds presenting the news in her usual professional way, talking with victims of the fire from Lithgow and the Blue Mountains to the Southern Highlands and Doyalson near Wyong north of Sydney on the central coast – a fire still burning nearly four hours later. She talked to a man who lived in Springwood and apologised to him for having to ask about his lost home. He started to cry, and she said: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.” She also talked to a woman who lost her home, along with at least eight other families, in one street in the suburb of Winmalee. She helped her keep it together, despite the circumstances. A professional reporter, with empathy. Well done, Celina. Helen Dalley took over the Sky coverage at 6pm and kept it going smoothly — with the help of those in the field and studio, as always.
The coverage on Ten and the ABC, both tv and radio, was also good. Channel Nine and Seven joined later, and both extended their news coverage for an hour. And A Current Affair on Nine had a half-hour NSW bushfire special at 7pm – good, solid news and information, and a poignant interview with a family who lost their home by Brady Halls. It’s now nearly 8.30pm on the east coast of Australia, scores of homes have probably been lost, two firefighters have been injured, and no one can predict how many casualties there will be. The NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell, says it will be a miracle if there aren’t any casualties. We won’t know that until tomorrow morning at the earliest. Meanwhile, the firefighters have been performing miracles all day.
I texted a friend who lives in Winmalee, hoping he and his family were okay, and he replied: “Thanks for thinking of us. All good at this stage.” Fingers crossed, I replied. I’m looking out the window, and the trees are still blowing, and the smoke clouds have obliterated the sun.
We have been expecting this for some time. I’ve been complaining about the warmest Sydney winter on record, and many people have been saying they don’t mind. They weren’t thinking about the possibility of the fire next time – I love Sydney, but not in the summer, and particularly when summer arrives at the end of winter and the beginning of spring in the southern hemisphere. The smoke and ashes from the storm have reached many of Sydney’s suburbs, including the CBD. A bit of sun has just appeared from the west outside my window, so the southerly winds have started to clear the smoke – up here anyway. It means a renewed fire threat to Winmalee. Fingers crossed, indeed.
Here are some photos of the fires and skies around Sydney today from Twitter on #nswfires: http://bit.ly/GS7hw8
UPDATE: And it’s now just after 11pm and Ten’s Ellie Southwood is reporting in front of the shell of a still-burning house in Winmalee that an emergency alert remains for the Springwood, Winmalee and Yellow Rock areas in the Blue Mountains. Ellie looks a bit bleary-eyed, which is not surprising since she led Ten’s coverage at 5pm, and her eyes have seen a lot of smoke since then. She, like many other journalists on the ground, has been doing a great job, under difficult circumstances. But, of course, the firefighters have been risking their lives saving other people’s homes, while some of them were losing their houses in nearby towns. I dips me lid to all of them.
UPDATE2: Saturday October 19, 9.30am The Rural Fire Service just confirmed 193 homes have been destroyed and 109 damaged in Springwood and Winmalee, and even more properties in the fire-affected areas in the central coast and southern highlands. So far, in a minor miracle, only one death has been recorded, retired draughtsman and art lover, Walter Linder, 63, died from a suspected heart attack while fighting a fire at his home in Lake Munmorah, 80km north of Sydney. And there are fears of more fires in the next few days as the temperatures reach the mid-30s in the areas west of Sydney. There are 82 blazes burning across the state, 19 uncontained. It’s going to be a long, hot spring and summer in New South Wales.
And now back to my original post:
“Removing Kevin was an act of political bastardry, for sure. But this act of political bastardy was made possible only because Kevin had been such a bastard himself to so many people.”
So said the former Attorney-General and Health Minister in the Gillard and Rudd governments, Nicola Roxon, in her John Button Memorial Lecture last night in Melbourne (read the full speech here: http://bit.ly/H2kxiE ). Her comments would have made John Button smile, as the former Industry Minister was never backward about coming forward in his days as a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments.
The former Senator would have also approved of Ms Roxon’s 10 housekeeping tips for future Labor governments, especially this one: “Be polite and be persuasive. Or I could call this ‘Keep yourself nice’.” She cited Rudd’s icy attitude toward then NSW Premier Kristina Keneally in Federal-State health reform negotiations: “Disparagingly calling her ‘Bambi’ behind closed doors was pretty silly when she was whip-smart and went on to run rings around us at the final COAG negotiating table.”
John Button might have had a pet name for a few of his political opponents, but he would have never been silly enough to discuss it in negotiations behind closed doors. He wasn’t a smart-ass. Nobody likes a smart ass. Everybody liked John Button.
I was lucky enough to work with John in 1993 as the producer of a cover story he was doing for the Nine Network’s Business Sunday Program. He had retired as Industry Minister earlier in the year, and was trying out his considerable communication talents as a television reporter, using his contacts to talk to captains of industry around the country about the way forward for manufacturing.
My favourite story about John Button came during a visit to one of the factories where he interviewed the CEO and walked around the premises meeting the workers. I noticed he needed a bit of makeup so we nipped into the workers’ bathroom where I powdered his wrinkled visage. As this was happening, a burly labourer walked in, and an embarrassed Button didn’t know what to say, but the worker did: “The things you have to do for television.” We all laughed, and John wrote about it in the pre-program publicity.
Then on June 28, we flew to Perth for another tour of factories and chats with CEOs. I remember the date because the day before the Sydney Swans broke a 26-game losing streak by beating Melbourne at the SCG. I had my tears in my eyes as the triumphant players walked off the field in front of us. Monday was a busy day and we visited at least three factories and a shipbuilder’s dockyard. As we were going back to the hotel late in the day, John said: “Tom, you know we’ve been meeting the CEOs of some of the most important companies in Perth, and you must realise that the West Coast Eagles are the AFL premiers. And all day you’ve been talking about the Sydney Swans. You’d think they won the Grand Final!” I said: “John, that’s what it felt like for me.”
We also shared a mutual dislike for supporters of the Adelaide Crows. John was a devout follower of the Geelong Football Club, and said that every time he went to Adelaide, the fans would yell abuse at him, which he understood and wasn’t complaining about. “It’s just that they call me terrible names, swear words and what a f—ing awful minister I was. What this has to do with my support for the Cats is beyond me. They’re a parochial bunch.” I agreed and said I always got into arguments with Crows’ fans in Sydney. If John Button were still alive, I would have to ask him about Nicola Roxon calling Kevin Rudd a bastard in the John Button Memorial Lecture. Somehow, I don’t think he would mind.
In a speech he gave to a parliamentary seminar in 1992 (http://bit.ly/15Ke0l8), John Button spoke about the role of the Government Leader in the Senate, which he was then, and mentioned a conversation he had with Don Chipp, who was talking about politicians abusing each other: “But I never did that to you, Don. We never had that sort of relationship. When you were Leader of the Democrats I never abused you.’ He said, ‘Oh, yes, you did. You called me a Thespian once. You said that I was displaying synthetic emotions’. It is strange that after all these years he should remember that. That would be regarded as mild in the context of the House of Representatives.”
So I don’t think John Button would mind Nicola Roxon’s description of Kevin Rudd as a bastard, especially when she added in her speech: “I must say that Kevin always treated me appropriately and respectfully. Although I was frustrated beyond belief by his disorganisation and lack of strategy, I was never personally a victim of his vicious tongue or temper. I did, however, see how terribly he treated some brilliant staff and public servants. Good people were burnt through like wildfire. Losing senior people like chiefs of staff and deputies or contemptuously ignoring their advice left the government weaker … If Labor MPs follow a few basic tips on decent behaviour, and pull others into line when they don’t, then we need never see such shameful behaviour again.”

4 thoughts on “A hell of a day in Sydney

  1. What a welcome we’ve had to life in the Blue Mountains! We only moved in two weeks ago, and yesterday Amanda got one of those texts from the Rural Fire Service saying “seek shelter”. With a sinister brown sky hanging over the house, she didn’t need to be asked twice. Thankfully the fires are still a fair way off from our place though, and we had comfy digs at a friend’s place in Roselle last night.

    • Hi Tim, I was trying to remember who else I knew who lived in the fire zone, and I forgot about you and Amanda. Glad to hear the fire was far away from you. David Hardaker, who worked with us at The Observer Effect, lives in Winmalee, and fortunately, his home is okay, too. Hell, as mentioned above, it was even a bit scary in my neck of the woods with the sky turning brown, the smell of smoke in the air, and the trees both front and back blowing in the wind like there was no tomorrow! I just wish it would cool down another ten degrees and rain the rest of the spring and warm up in January. But then the Coalition would say there’s no such thing as climate change! Hope you have a fire-free rest of the year (and January and February!). Cheers.

  2. Very Incisive, and well reaerched as always on Nicola Roxon and John Button. It was nice to hear the Media are treating victims of the Bushfires with Respect and Empathy. Very well written as always.

    Damien Quinn.

    • Thanks, Damo. It’s good to be back blogging again. I just hope there are happier stories to write about this week. These fires are just awful, and my heart goes out to those who lost their homes, and the man who died defending his.

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