KINGLAKE resident Gayle Rider didn’t want to shake Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s hand yesterday. “I’m so dirty,” she said apologetically. Bushfire towns do kick up a lot of dust. “I don’t give a bugger,” Mr Rudd said, and kissed her on the cheek.
At the CFA station, he autographed a newspaper for firefighter Steve Bell. The man bent double so Mr Rudd could use him as a flat surface. He griped: “They bloody use me for everything around here, even a table.” The Prime Minister grinned and used the paper to thwack him on the bum. Did he want this done or not? The crew exploded with laughter. One yelled: “Please, sir, can I have some more?”
Not everyone was delighted to see the national leader in a little town that usually felt remote from government and had never had a prime ministerial visit before. “Rah, rah,” said one Kinglake woman offered the chance to meet him. She kept walking.
With those he met, Mr Rudd did not put a foot wrong. He started each exchange with a simple, “Hi, I’m Kevin.”
A quick glance established whether his new acquaintance was holding together and a handshake would do, or whether it should be an arm across the shoulder or a full hug. One small woman stood on tiptoe with her face buried in his shoulder for long moments and wept. He held her quietly until she was ready to move away.
Everyone wanted to be photographed with him, including a woman with a T-shirt that read: “I STILL love Kinglake.”
He agreed to every request, which explained why he was running three hours late.
Lots of people had requests. Virginia Scully told him: “Straight up – I didn’t vote for you.” And then demanded he see to it that CFA firefighters, who are all volunteers protecting private property out of a sense of community spirit, are freed from having to pay rates.
The residents wanted it for them. A farmer wanted help with his water permits. The Vietnamese family who ran the town’s bakery needed help with their visas – they did not qualify for bushfire aid.
Cheryl Phillips wanted nothing for herself but wanted something in memory of her close friend, Sue Hyde, who died in the fires. Mrs Hyde and her husband, Geoff, had spent 12years working tirelessly through the local market and other fund-raising efforts to get money for a children’s adventure playground based on the best-selling Bollygum picture book.
Kinglake had only a small playground for the under-fives, which had been used by kids of all ages because there was nothing else. Now, because of the fire, the town lost even that.
Mrs Hyde had helped the town raise half the money. Could Mr Rudd help? “We’ll make that happen,” he said.
Mr Rudd himself had two messages. To those in trouble, he said: “Hang in there. We will be in there for the long haul.” To those who were helping, it was a simple: “Thank you. Great work.”
At Wandong, which had lost at least three residents and 200 homes, he told hundreds at an open-air church service they were not alone. “Together we rebuild – brick by brick, house by house, street by street. We rebuild, and we rebuild together. Not just for tomorrow, not just for next week and not just for next month, but until this community is rebuilt completely.
“We intend and resolve to be with you every step of the way from here. It is an easy thing to say. It is a much harder thing to do, but I am determined that we will honour this commitment to you and each of these communities that have been ravaged by these fires.”
A thunderous applause erupted as Mr Rudd acknowledged the efforts of the CFA, saying firefighters had “genuine guts and genuine strength” for putting “yourselves last and these communities first”.
First published in The Age.