11 April 2020

It's time for the Capital region to act like a community and leave the loathing behind

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Person sitting on wharf looking out to Clyde River and bushland at Nelligen.

Clyde River at Nelligen on the NSW South Coast. Photo: Eurobodalla Tourism.

If the past summer’s bushfires brought out the best in our community, could COVID-19 be bringing out the worst?

Everyone is a little bit scared. Everyone is fragile. Everyone’s lives have been thrown into turmoil by these strange times. And everyone wants to protect themselves and those they love from the virus.

However, it’s been shocking to see how virulent some of that conversation has become.

“NO OFFENCE CANBERRIANS STAY OUTA BATEMANS BAY YA NOT WANTED OR F****N NEEDED THERE”, (asterisks mine) reads one Facebook post. It’s not hard to find other posts that call for closing the borders, or make reference to “virus-laden” ACT residents.

Region Media colleagues say if you have Canberra number plates in many South Coast communities, you’re probably risking an egging.

In a word, some of the reactions have been feral.

Here’s the lowdown from Canberra: ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has been abundantly clear that people should not be visiting their holiday homes on the coast or high country, calling it “extraordinarily selfish”.

His message echoes pleas from Snowy Monaro Mayor Peter Beer, Eurobodalla Mayor Liz Innis and Bega Valley Mayor Kristy McBain.

And it is selfish. Regional communities do not have the resources to carry infected people from elsewhere. Everyone should stay home, but not because Canberrans pose a greater COVID-19 risk than anyone else.

The ACT is not a coronavirus hotspot. Diagnoses in the ACT are roughly level pegging with the rest of Southern NSW. There is no confirmed evidence of community transmission in Canberra, where health authorities say the community has been cooperative with new restrictions.

Indeed, the nearest actual COVID-19 hotspot to Canberra is up the road from the Eurobodalla in Nowra, where NSW health authorities have identified an elevated risk of community transmission and subsequently expanded local testing criteria.

So where does this loathing and antipathy come from?

All of us who grew up in Southern NSW recall the lurking dislike of “Canberra people” in rural communities (despite the fact that many of them were our own family members who had gone to the ACT for jobs and education – a trend that continues today).

But in the Eurobodalla, for example, non-residential ratepayers represent around 40 per cent of the rate base, and therefore a substantial chunk of the income that provides services for everyone. People from Canberra, among other places, pay for roads, water, sewerage, parks and ovals with their rates.

Canberrans’ love of the coast often arises from generations of family visits and enduring friendships. In retirement, it’s not uncommon for people to divide their time between the national capital and regional areas, and to become engaged, active citizens in both places.

Just weeks ago, fire-ravaged communities begged people from Canberra to visit the coast. As the whole region suffered through a horrific summer that brought the blazes right to our doorsteps, ACT locals set out as soon as they were safe to do so and brought their eskies with them.

Car rallies were organised to visit Braidwood, campaigns created to fill country town streets with those “yogi-bear” number plates. And had COVID-19 not intervened, there’s little doubt that visitor dollars would be bringing much-needed replenishment to regional business coffers this Easter.

Every day, children from Southern NSW head across the border for schooling and populate Canberra’s universities and vocational training institutes.

And if you are really, really sick somewhere in the Capital region, you will very likely end up in the Canberra Hospital, perhaps even airlifted into Woden.

While there’s a GST allocation that’s intended to cover the disproportionate costs of providing healthcare and, to a lesser extent, education for around one million people from a tax base of half that population, it’s long been a bone of contention whether that funding meets the actual need.

But that healthcare and education provision is as it should be. Why? Because this is a region where we are all connected. The ACT is not an anomalous hole on the map, filled with aliens. We are all a vital part of each other’s communities and we depend upon each other socially and economically.

Many people in Canberra are – like me – from regional NSW, living or working here regularly. We do that precisely because Canberra is the sweet spot between the opportunities of city life and the deep-seated desire to stay connected with your country roots.

When all this ends, there will be more holidaymakers down the coast or up in the high country, bringing their love for the bush and the beach along with their friendship, community support and dollars.

Let’s work together as a region. Let’s resist the fear-ridden temptation to blame “the other” and thus sow division and hatred. Life is hard enough already. Let’s choose to be kind neighbours and friends to each other.

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It is always good to get beyond pretense and know what people really, honestly think about you. One of the reasons we wanted to holiday on the South Coast was to help the locals after the fires. But clearly we from Canberra are held in contempt by residents of the South Coast and so we should keep that in mind. Stuff you too.

Elizabeth Ann Thurbon5:35 pm 16 Apr 20

While everything in this article may be true I have had a very different experience. My neighbours have been so kind and caring. Offering to get groceries and scripts, setting up online coffee and chats and book club meetings. We open our doors each evening and end each day with uplifting music and a wave. I couldn’t speak more highly of the kindness here in Campbell and I’m sure my community is not unique. Canberra is a very kind, generous place and a city with a lot of soul in the community.

Thanks, Genevieve. Very thoughtful, as always. We divide our time between Canberra and Malua Bay and have spent the past 3 weeks getting repairs done to our bushfire-damaged house and garden. Because we are familiar faces in Malua, we are treated as “Canberra locals” rather than blow-ins but we do dislike the over-zealousness of some of the sentiment we pick up.

Well said.

HiddenDragon7:44 pm 12 Apr 20

Hopefully, in the next year, or so, there will be a vaccine, and maybe even effective treatments for the virus, and then people can drop the high-grade aggro and get back to the traditional parochial insults.

Just on the touchy subject of health funding in Canberra, it’s not, of course, all covered by the Medicare levy, which is not paid by everyone, anyway – there’s exemptions for low income earners.

In the case of the ACT health system, the latest Rates Notices (that’s “Council Rates”, for the benefit of non-Canberrans) issued by the ACT Government shows that 31% of the money paid by Canberrans for annual rates on their homes goes to the ACT health system (along with 24% to the ACT education system). A similar proportion of all the other taxes paid by Canberrans would also go to the ACT health system, so let’s not pretend it’s all funded by national taxes – it most certainly is not.

It is traditional in NSW to blame “Canberra” for all the ills they are facing. Except during NSW election campaigns when the bush pollies blame Sydney for their problems and pledging to get a better deal out of Macquaries Street. And yes, when I was a kid growing up I heard the expression “NSW stands for New South Wales, not Newcastle Sydney and Wollongong” quite often.

Sharon Adlam12:14 pm 12 Apr 20

I, for one South Coast resident am sick and tired of hearing this ‘woe is me’ from those who do not permanently reside here. We have been living with an incredibly high level of anxiety since mid November last year. We have had to live thru the some of the most terrifying fires any of us have ever experienced. We then had to continue living thru the torrential rain and flooding that ensued. We had to come to terms with not only the loss of our beautiful environment and some 300+ of our homes but also the economic devastation that our region began experiencing as a result. Yet when we ask that you remain at your home rather than come to isolate, have a break, visit your holiday home or whatever excuse you deem applicable, despite government bodies at every level, be they local, State or Federal, asking that you do the same, you decide that we are being unreasonable. It is time to put the shoe on the other foot and show us that you care – stay bloody home. 🙁

me heretoday10:32 am 12 Apr 20

A lot of the abuse from the country folk started while the fires were going on. I caught a lot of it from my own family. They didnt believe we had smoke here, they thought the media were making too big a deal about the suffering of the Canberrans and not focusing enough on the smaller communities. I phoned daily to keep in contact, make sure they were ok and in the end I had to cut ties.
I was raised in small towns but moved here for family reasons 30 years ago. I was told that all Canberrans, including me, my whole family including grandchildren, and all of my friends were just whinging whining ar5es and needed to wake up to ourselves… Not once had I bought up the smoke in our phone calls because they were going through worse but this is what they called us because they were sick to death of what they saw as biased media reporting of the time.
We will not travel back to the small towns ever. We will holiday in cities only now.

The ‘Come back Canberra’ happy songs after the bushfires—code for bring your laden wallets—was always just mercantile. Anyone who regularly visits the south coast knows the disdain with which Canberrans are regarded and treated there, including special attention from police for driving. It’s very unfortunate that the south coast has been so virulent in its (legitimate) messaging to stay away—when this thing goes, Canberrans will likely remember and the happy ‘Canberra come back’ songs might sound a bit hollow.

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