opinion

OPINION: This is what we want to see from our politicians at a time of crisis. Humanity.

On Monday night’s episode of Q&A we saw a man visibly shattered by what he and his community have endured during the bushfire crisis.

The South Coast resident fled his home at Malua Bay on New Year’s Eve, with little more than hope that the 5,000L of water he’d doused upon his property would serve as armour against the fast-approaching front.

He spoke of feeling the air thick with heat and hearing the roar of the flames, of joining more than 1,000 people huddled on the local beach for safety, and of the toll that the crisis has taken on his mental health in the weeks since.

“Pretty much every second and third night we’ve been having beers in the lane at home with my neighbour. Just to get through it,” he said.

That man, leaning on his neighbour, just trying to get through it, happens to be NSW Liberal MP Andrew Constance.

WATCH: “I’m going to need proper counselling.” Andrew Constance on the toll of the bushfire crisis. Post continues after video.

Video via ABC

Mr Constance is the state’s transport and roads minister and the member for Bega, one of the regions worst affected by the ongoing disaster.

But during his appearance on the ABC panel programme’s bushfire special, we saw beyond Andrew Constance, the politician; we saw Andrew Constance, the man. Vulnerable, empathetic, determined, honest.

“I certainly have my colleagues, in some cases, running around saying they’re worried about me. But I’m drawing strength from my neighbours and [wife] Jen and the kids,” he said. “I will need proper counselling. Absolutely, I’m going to need proper counselling.”

Though his home was saved, many in his area weren’t so lucky. And the threat continues.

Just this weekend, out-of-control blazes bore down upon the communities of Wyndham and Tantawangalo, claiming yet more properties. The total number of homes destroyed in the Bega Valley Shire alone now stands well beyond 400, contributing to total confirmed losses of more than 2,400 homes across the state this fire season.

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As someone who both experienced the disaster and whose role it was to lead people through it, Mr Constance offered the Q&A panel an invaluable glimpse into the secondary crisis left in its wake. One of mental ill-health.

“I’ve cried, I’ve been hugged, I’ve been loved. But the trauma of this is so profound and it’s affecting thousands of people across our regions, and we need help,” he said.

“That’s why I’m vocal about this. Males, in particular, hide this up, bottle it up. I’ve had farmers cry. I had a mate today cry; he was waiting for the fire to come to his place this morning.

“I don’t want to see, off the back of this, people self-harming. I don’t want to see any more pain than we have to go through.”

With each part of the debate on Monday night, Mr Constance directed focus back to people like his friend, like the tearful farmers — the human beings affected. There was no finger-pointing or blatant political point-scoring. He was, first and foremost, a local man advocating for his community, for people like him.

His approach was in stark contrast to that of another Liberal MP on the panel: Jim Molan, a federal Senator for NSW.

Senator Molan used the broadcast to dismiss accusations that his Government’s response to the crisis was slow and detached (“Fighting fires is a state responsibility”… “I don’t accept that we were totally unprepared”) and to deny scientific consensus that climate change is driven by human activity (an opinion he formed by “not relying on evidence” — his words).

Mr Constance, meanwhile, said little of politics, other than to praise those on a community level — of all political persuasions — who banded together to support each other. And as for the government, he called for his colleagues to “prioritise individuals” in their approach to the recovery effort.

“I think, through this process, we can’t have government from the top-down saying, ‘this is what you’re going to have, take it or leave it’. Recovery is not just about putting the buildings back; it’s more important than that,” he said. “There’s a humanity involved here.”

And that’s precisely what Australians have been crying out for from politicians these past few weeks. A recognition of the humanity behind this crisis, and a demonstration of their own.

After all, surely the most effective response here — be it in planning the distribution of immediate emergency funds, setting environmental policy or forward-planning for the next disaster — is going to stem from keeping the individual men, women and children affected by it front of mind.

Prioritising anything else (say, party lines or chances at the next election) is a shameful disservice to the people just trying to “get through it”.

Feature image: Q&A

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