Luke Foley, the alternative premier of NSW, is a man determined to focus on policy if he wins the top job in 2019 and that’s good news for our growing region, reports ERIC KONTOS, who yesterday joined the opposition leader on a four hour tour of the parts of Macarthur hardest hit by last weekend’s storms, Picton and Camden.
We’re in Greg Warren’s car and the phone rings.
The Member for Campbelltown presses a button in the steering wheel and the deep, calm voice of State Opposition leader Luke Foley fills up the air inside the car.
“I’ve got the media in the car and you’re on speaker,’’ Warren thoughtfully forewarns the Boss.
Foley’s called to discuss the logistics of visiting the flood ravaged towns of Picton and Camden, and, before all that, the State Emergency Service in Campbelltown.
That’s the first stop and the opposition leader’s patient demeanour shines through straight away as he patiently listens to SES personnel explain their roles in emergencies like the previous weekend when hundreds of millimetres of rain caused devastation across many part of the Macarthur region.
He looks mildly surprised to hear that Campbelltown hardly had a scratch from the weekend’s mayhem, other than a bit of flash flooding here and there.
Bruce Chaplin, the Campbelltown SES public information officer, does most of the talking although two other volunteers present, Phil Potbury, Shawn Goulding and Sandra Denny chime in now and again.
Foley and Warren patiently listen, and you start to wonder if they’re going to ask any questions.
Greg Warren does eventually to enquire if the unit has sufficient resources to meet the challenges of emergencies like last weekend’s storms.
Chaplin says the issue for emergency services like SES is the fatigue factor kicking in when volunteers have been out and about helping residents, local or otherwise, for 15, 20 hours straight.
Foley nods as does his Campbelltown MP.
Most politicians, despite their current reputation, work long hours so they get it when they hear others describe the fatigue that comes from such an approach.
The politicians and their minders are then taken inside and upstairs to the engine room of the SES, where they hear how resources are allocated during an emergency operation.
And then the cars roll away, headed for Camden, where another party of local awaits Foley and Warren, who receives another phone call in the car and again forewarns the caller that he’s on speaker.
Meeting place is the Camden Showground, scene of heavy flooding the previous weekend.
We arrive to find I am not the only media present anymore.
As is the style from the print media these days, only a photographer has been sent along by Newslocal, publishers of the local paper the Chronicle and the metropolitan one, the Telegraph.
Lee Abrahams from The District Reporter is there, and it’s comforting for me to see I’m not the only one taking notes and pictures at the same time.
It’s not quite a media pack for the alternative premier of NSW but it will have to do.
Foley meanwhile is the subject of a friendly ambush by the famous local stirrers known as the Camden Residents Action Group, or CRAG.
They want to talk about carparks and heritage protection and overdevelopment.
Foley and Warren are there to talk about the flood aftermath but it’s all civilised thanks to the polite Mr Foley staying patient and calm.
He is also introduced to some local Labor people, including the party’s candidate for the electorate of Hume.
Aoife (pronounced Eee – fa) Champion, of Cobbitty, is a lawyer who was born, raised and educated in the Camden/Macarthur region
Old stager Cindy Cagney, who has been on council both at Campbelltown and Camden – and who is running again in September – fills Foley in on local politics while the CRAG people won’t easily let the alternative premier leave without telling him as much as they can about what needs fixing in Camden.
But that’s why political leaders have minders who will drag them away to the next gig, and in this case it’s on to the Old Hume Highway, over the Razorback Mountain and on to poor old Picton, which has suffered the worst flood in its history.
Our first stop is the Picton IGA located next to the court house and owner Robert Khan stoically shows the visitors inside his store, where the ravages of the flood can be seen everywhere, including rows and rows of empty shelves close to the ground.
Mr Khan says he has suffered millions of dollars in damage from the floods as waves of fast moving waters crashed inside his store.
Staff from Wollondilly Shire Council, including the general manager, Luke Johnson, and veteran councillor and former mayor, Col Mitchell, brief Mr Foley on the big picture of devastation across the central business district of the town.
When we follow Mr Foley outside, we are greeted by a pungent wooden smell combined with a musty, damp odour enveloped in smoke from local fireplaces.
One look at Argyle Street tells you where the wood smell comes from: the pineboard that has been used to board up numerous stores along what used to be a very pretty main street.
The odour means that it will be a few days yet before the dampness left behind by all that water is totally gone.
Mr Foley is introduced to two major victims of the floods, the jeweller and the café owners, both on the western side of Argyle Street, a few doors down from Picton Hotel, which for a few days could not serve beer.
Indeed with the other pub, the King George IV also flood affected, and the third pub, Imperial Hotel currently closed for commercial reasons, the council GM tells me that for a few days you couldn’t get a beer in Picton.
The café and jewellery owners have the same message for Mr Foley: the insurance companies have made the right noises so now it’s a waiting game.
As they go into details, I have a quick chat with Col Mitchell, who tells me it will be months at least before things get back to normal – “whatever normal means’’.
He has one good bit of news: Victoria Park, home of the Group Six rugby league competition premiers, the Picton Magpies, is back in business for a home game this Sunday, a bit of a miracle produced by a lot of locals rolling up their sleeves to get the oval back into playing condition.
“The community has stuck together,’’ Col Mitchell says.
And it’s obvious from the look on the faces of the locals that despair has been replaced by weary resignation that these things happen to everybody from time to time.
One of the locals tells Mr Foley that they’re thinking of putting on a big day to bring back the tourists, who are staying away in droves at the moment.
The Boss nods at the idea, another positive, we’re moving on approach from the locals, who seem to appreciate having the alternative premier of NSW in their midst listening to their problems.
After visiting the dental clinic and chatting with the owner John Chiang, Mr Foley drops in to the newsagent next door, also hard hit by the savagery of the water.
Tony and Michelle Higgs tell Mr Foley what happened during the storm, while he thoughtfully buys a newspaper and an Ozlotto autopick ticket.
That’s the tour of duty over for the opposition leader – four hours after it started – except for a quick interview with the sole remaining media representative and my first question to him is: What are your initial thoughts at the end of this exercise in Camden and Picton?
“What I’ve seen is just devastation for the business community of Picton and for the life of the town,’’ Mr Foley says.
“Clearly the community’s pulled together, in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
“But now there’s a hard slog ahead for business owners to get back on their feet.
“There’s established assistance measures governments have put in place but the government has to send a strong message to insurers to do the right thing, and to do the right thing quickly.
“A lot of business owners told me their frustration of playing a waiting game now, of waiting to hear from their insurers.’’
The opposition leader says it’s important to have a discussion of long term strategies aimed at minimising repeat damage when the next storm comes along.
“Government has a co-ordinating role to play, so let’s get the councils, the state agencies, the business community and insurance industry around the table to talk about sensible long term planning for Picton and flood prone communities.’’
Getting away from floods and storms, I ask Mr Foley what it has been like to be opposition leader, one of the most thankless jobs in politics.
“I took over weeks from the last election and we got a good lift, 20 new MPs, all terrific people and there’s a real sense of energy there,’’ he replies.
“I am very focused on discussion about population growth and how we deliver the services and infrastructure people will need in fast growing communities.
“The government has a strategy for the south west region, that’s Liverpool to down here in Wollondilly, an extra half a million people in the next 20 years.
“The discussion we need to have is about the public transport, the roads, the school, the hospitals, the policing that will be needed for an extra half a million people,’’ Mr Foley says.
“And for me the discussion that’s not happening is around job creation; I see new suburbs being built but I don’t see the jobs to go with the population growth.
“And that’s my real focus – how to grow jobs.
“People don’t want to travel.’’
Foley says “I hope so’’ when I ask him if it would be fair to describe him as a policy wonk – someone who has a handle on the details of policies.
At this point a very patient Greg Warren chimes in with a comment: “Around here we need schools, we need hospitals, and these are things promised by the current government in 2011 and not delivered.
So if it’s fair enough for the government to put the people out here it’s good enough to put the services these people need,’’ adds the Member for Campbelltown.
Mr Foley says being opposition leader is a great opportunity for him.
“I’ve lived here all my life and it’s a privilege to be standing for the office of premier and to put forward my ideas for the future of the state.
“I never thought I’d be in this position.
It’s a busy job, it’s hard; I have three young children, but so far so good.
“I’m just one person among millions trying to balance family life with a busy job.’’