by Leith Hillard
Red skies and falling ash are signs that a bushfire is approaching. But for Mike Kirkness, financial capability counsellor, the proximity of the 2019–2020 bushfires to Bairnsdale was on show in the hundreds of people wearing just shorts and t-shirts around town. They were standing up in everything they had left.
With more than 16 years’ experience in financial counselling, Mike is now a rural and gambling counsellor, although he describes himself as a ‘generalist’. He worked out of the Bairnsdale hub as part of a bushfire ‘mop-up service’ funded by the Commonwealth Department of Social Services. He’d previously worked with people facing financial challenges caused by the flooding in St George in Queensland’s southern inland in early 2020, so it wasn’t his first emergency response.
Financial counselling at the frontline
‘The fires got to Buchan, 20 kilometres from Bairnsdale,’ says Mike, who was called across from his role at Latrobe Community Health Service by Financial Counselling Victoria once the fires were out.
‘We’re not needed in that first stage when Red Cross and the Salvation Army are working on getting people fed and into accommodation. I came in along with Anglicare financial counsellors about a month in. Rural financial counsellors were there to specifically work with farmers.
‘The main issues are replacing lost identity documents.’
‘There was triage at the hub and a production line set up to help people in need of services and advice. You run on adrenaline to start with. You might be talking to people whose brains are understandably foggy and the main issues are replacing lost identity documents, car loans, credit cards and utility bills.’
Banks did a sweep of all mortgages in the area and allowed payments to be put on hold. Mortgages were paid back first out of insurance funds and numerous issues emerged relating to under-insurance and no insurance.
Gambling in the background
If gambling had previously been front of mind, the emergency replaced it.
‘It did slow gambling down,’ explains Mike. ‘There was no money and no venues and many people no longer had transport.’
But when you rip away gambling from those who use it to self-soothe, different coping mechanisms come to the fore, including the abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs. Family violence also increased after the fires, with some already-traumatised people forced to rub up against each other in the close confines of a caravan.
‘There was no money and no venues…’
The majority of Mike’s clients were aged 55+ including farmers on pensions who never thought their properties would burn. And, in the wake of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, stringent building codes now in place can make rural rebuilding particularly fraught.
Emergencies might happen quickly but they often have a very long tail. While Mike’s initial deployment was for four months and demand had slowed by early 2021, clients still trickle in.
Breaking the gambling cycle?
‘With access to venues closed by fire and then the pandemic, we hope that some people have seen a better way and broken the cycle of gambling,’ he says.
Now he’s working monthly in Bairnsdale alongside Kelsie Cafarella who’s seven months into her one-year role as a trainee financial counsellor working on a Diploma of Financial Counselling at TAFE through RMIT.
‘It’s been eye-opening to see the remnants of the fires,’ she says, ‘but beautiful to see the regrowth in the bush.’
She appreciates learning the ropes from a financial counsellor with ‘capability’ in his title: know-how, can-do.
‘Mike has that focus on prevention rather than cure and empowering clients by teaching financial literacy,’ she says.
‘Get real about your finances and take charge.’
Mike’s current focus is encouraging people to have a regular financial health check-up. He’s also enthusiastic about the Victorian government considering the teaching of financial literacy in schools.
Apart from the budgeting basics of not spending more money than you make, he’s most concerned about the disappearance of cash, meaning money is no longer tangible.
‘You don’t see it disappearing from your wallet or out of your hand,’ says Mike. ‘It just evaporates in cyberspace, so it’s easy to lose touch with how much you had and how much has gone. I’d encourage everyone to keep their receipts for a fortnight and look back over where they spent their money.
‘Get real about your finances and take charge.
‘An emergency wears people down very quickly, but counsellors can help them rebuild and see a future rather than just the past.’