Northe in the line of fire

THE state opposition has unleashed a firestorm of criticism against the Coalition Government’s response to the Hazelwood mine fire, widening its attack to target Member for Morwell Russell Northe in State Parliament yesterday.

Submitting a ‘Matter of Public Importance’ motion in the lower house, the Labor party called for condemnation of the Napthine Government and Mr Northe for “abandoning” Morwell residents and neighbouring communities during the catastrophic fire.

Opposition leader Daniel Andrews launched a scathing tirade against the government’s initial handling of the smoke crisis – including the 19-day time lapse before at-risk residents were advised to leave the Morwell south area, saying the response was “botched” and “inept”.

“The basic test of any government is how it leads in a crisis,” Mr Andrews said.

“In the weeks since 9 February the people of Morwell and the broader Latrobe Valley have watched their government forget that task and fail that test over and over again.”

Opposition spokeswoman for community services Jacinta Allan continued the fierce attack, taking particular aim at Mr Northe’s role during the crisis.

“I can just imagine the limp-wristed attempt by the member for Morwell as he pretended to stand up for his community,” Ms Allan said.

“If the member for Morwell was successful, why then did it take two weeks for a community health assessment centre to be opened? Why did it take so long?”

Stepping out of parliament to speak to The Express – shortly after ripping up a copy of the MPI motion while defending his government’s response – Mr Northe said the Labor motion was absolutely false, offensive and disrespectful.

“The way Labor have been acting through this whole ordeal has been absolutely disgraceful, and disrespectful for the hundreds of people from numerous departments working their hardest on the ground to ensure the Morwell community gets the support it deserves,” Mr Northe said.

“Sure, the government’s response could have been handled better – I’ve been on the public record numerous times stating our response could have been quicker, but to be making these widespread accusations that we have abandoned the entire community is just disrespectful.”

Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge was also the target of sustained criticism during the MPI debate, particularly for her delayed visit to the region on 6 March, almost one month after the mine fire began on 9 Febraury.

Shadow spokeswoman for community services Jenny Mikakos said Ms Wooldridge, who oversees the operation of the Department of Human Services – a major player in the government’s crisis response effort, had ignored the people of Morwell.

Ms Mikakos suggested she had been preoccupied with a preselection battle in her own electorate, which she lost earlier this month. 

“The minister was clearly distracted by the Kew preselection which is no secret – it has been widely discussed in the corridors of Spring Street – she completely had her eye off the ball when a significant disaster was affecting a very large number of people,” Ms Mikakos said.

A spokesperson for Ms Wooldridge said DHS senior executive officers had been working in Morwell community overseeing the response effort throughout the ordeal, and the Minister had received regular briefings and updates.

The Labor party has been keen to capitalise on the widespread public dissatisfaction with the government’s response in the Morwell electorate – where Mr Northe holds a 13 per cent margin – ahead of the upcoming state election in November, 

A research poll, conducted by Lonergan Research last week, found 48 per cent voters were less likely to vote for the Coalition at the November election as a result of the Hazelwood fire.

The poll, which surveyed 1660 people in Moe, Morwell, Churchill and Traralgon, found 72 per cent of Valley residents considered the government’s response to be slow, while 64 per cent were dissatisfied with the response.

Sixty-two per cent of poll respondents thought residents should have been evacuated.

While Mr Northe acknowledged the current levels of dissatisfaction as a personal political challenge, he said he was more concerned with ensuring Morwell residents recovered from the month-long ordeal.

“Absolutely I’m concerned for my political future – I’ve never been one to sit comfortably in the knowledge that you are in a safe seat, and this has certainly heightened the situation for me,” Mr Northe said.

“When you are dealing with an incident of this magnitude for this length of time, you have to expect the public to be critical.”

Combined with an electoral boundary shift made last year, which saw Newborough reclaim the seat of Morwell from Narracan and likely to bolster Labor’s primary vote in the electorate, Mr Northe said he would have a fight on his hands at the November election.

However Monash University senior political and social inquiry lecturer Nick Economou warned against over-estimating the current dissatisfaction with the Coalition Government.

“What tends to happen in these sorts of crisis situations like some bushfires we have seen in the past, once winter comes and the community gets some relief, the emergency and immediacy of the situation will begin to dissipate, and the attention of voters will return to the traditional factors of economics and services when they go to the polls,” Mr Economou said.