Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Australians suffering disaster fatigue

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BRISBANE -- Just as an Australian businessman handed over a whopping $50 million to aspiring university students, the spirit of generosity appears to be fading away among his compatriots.

Canberra-born Graham Tuckwell this week impressed the nation with the largest financial donation ever made to an Australian university.

His $50 million will fund undergraduate scholarships at the Australian National University for the next two decades.

Tuckwell can afford to be generous. He established ETF Securities after studying at ANU and controls about $30 billion worth of assets.

He and wife Louise reportedly not only wanted to help educate young Australians, but want to avoid spoiling their children with a massive inheritance.

"Lots of money is poisonous to have," he said.

If you take away the breadth of the Bill-Gates-like donation, the kindly gesture is not uncommon in a country that often coughs up enormous amounts of cash to help charitable causes.

Australia might not have the great northern American philanthropic tradition exemplified by the Rockefellers, but ordinary people are quick to send off small sums to those in need.

Just as Tuckwell was writing his cheque, however, thousands of Australians appeared to be snapping their purses shut.

Few outside of Australia probably are aware that January brought yet another massive flood to the northern state of Queensland.

The disaster is just another in a series of natural catastrophes going back to February 2008 when the north Queensland city of Mackay was swamped with a one-in-50-year flood.

From there came more floods, the 2009 Victorian bushfires which claimed more than 170 lives, a powerful cyclone and, in the past few weeks, bush fires and flooding.

In the city of Bundaberg about 400 kilometres north of the Queensland capital Brisbane, hundreds of families lost everything they own as flood waters swept through streets.

Yet when the call went out for cash Australians appeared to turn their backs.

The 2013 Queensland Flood Appeal is almost $10 million short of providing immediate relief to flood victims.

Former Queensland treasurer Terry Mackenroth said the appeal had nowhere near enough money to meet immediate need.

Just under $6 million was in the can at the start of the week when about $15 million was required.

The world-wide charitable organization St. Vincent de Paul also notes donations are far below the outpouring of cash that followed the 2010-2011 Queensland floods, which captured international attention.

One explanation is the federal government's decision to slap a flood levy on all Australians to help pay for the cleanup in 2011.

That angered many of those who had already given to charity and believed they were being forced into a second donation.

But Brian Moore, president of the Queensland arm of St. Vincents, suggests a tougher economic climate combined with a sense of donor fatigue is drying up the rivers of goodwill.

On the Pro Bono Australia website Andrew Thomas, general manager of Philanthropy at Perpetual, says not-for-profit organizations supporting communities are struggling.

Despite a sophisticated three-tier system of government that does an admirable job in disaster management, Australia still relies heavily on simple charity to get through disasters.

Thomas says the spirit of giving is essential to a functioning community. The nation simply can't afford a bout of compassion fatigue.


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2013 A8

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