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Civil society did not drown in the floods

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 21 January 2011

The floods that have hit Queensland and parts of Victoria and NSW are a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions. The loss of life and livelihoods, the damage to households and businesses are gut-wrenching and heart-breaking.

But amid the chaos and sadness, there is at least some reason for celebration. In dealing with the crisis, Australians have shown character.

For a start, there was the notable absence of panic. Some flooding was eerily foreseeable. Once the torrents were on their way, it was inevitable they they would cause destruction. But residents prepared, helped each other, and remained calm. The night before Goondiwindi expected its floods, Sky News crossed live to a pub in the town where locals were having a last beer before disaster struck.

When the floods reached towns and suburbs, there was still no panic but stoic discipline in dealing with the situation. Police reported hardly any incidents of looting; instead, there were more cases of neighbourly help and assistance.

The BBC’s Australia correspondent Nick Bryant observed that there was no self-pity on display, but rather something completely different: a good sense of humour. ‘I lost count of the number of people we filmed kicking back with a few beers on the verandas of their Queenslander homes, those great bungalows on stilts, as the waters rose inexorably underneath them,’ he wrote in The Australian. The Aussie larrikin spirit certainly did not die in the floods.

The response to the call for voluntary cleaners was equally overwhelming. An army of tens of thousands, armed with shovels, brooms and buckets, queued up for kilometres to be assigned to cleaning duties. They were helping total strangers, who had suffered even more than themselves.

Finally, and with the notable exception of a certain Greens senator, there was no attempt to turn this natural disaster into a political battlefield. Faced with the worst imaginable disaster, local and state politicians did their jobs with determination, empathy and professionalism. They knew this was not a time for political blame games and point scoring. The angry response to the senator’s attempt to utilise the events to promote his own agenda were not only frowned upon but met with outrage. Rightly so.

As terrible a tragedy the floods have been, they have equally left us with a strong impression. The response to the floods probably said more about this country than all of next week’s Australia Day celebrations taken together.

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