NSW Govt rorts ‘continuing’ with Bushfire Relief Fund

Bushfire smoke enshrouds Sydney's CBD in December 2019 during the infamous 'Black Summer' 2019-20 bushfires. Photo: Alec Smart.

By ALEC SMART

This week NSW residents learned that there appears to be no change to NSW Government policy, nor the depth to which they will sink, to rort public finances for political gain.

The Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund, a rescue budget to aid NSW communities adversely affected by the 2019-20 devastating bushfires, is at the centre of another ‘pork-barrelling’ scandal. There are allegations that aid has been channelled towards regions where the Liberal-National Coalition hold power, at the expense of Opposition-held areas.

In November 2020, the Federal and NSW Governments jointly announced that $177 million of the $250 million relief fund was being fast-tracked to 71 chosen recipients in fire-ravaged areas.

The Federal Minister for Emergency Management, David Littleproud, stated: “Getting our regional industries and communities back on their feet will be a vital economic driver in bushfire-affected regions. Having places to come together, attractions for visitors, improvements to local infrastructure and support for key local industries were identified as priorities for communities and we have listened … The funding will provide an injection of local economic stimulus to support work for locals in fire affected regions.”

And yet, only $2.5 million of that $177 million was allocated to bushfire-affected regions held by the Labor Party: Lismore and Cessnock.

Other bushfire-devastated regions not held by the Liberal-National coalition – including the NSW Central Coast, Ballina, and the heavily-impacted Blue Mountains – were bypassed completely. And yet dozens of homes were torched, tens of thousands of hectares of forest were incinerated, and businesses driven to the brink of bankruptcy by loss of tourism income and other fire-influenced factors in these areas.

On 9 January, 2020, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian visited the NSW Central Coast to formally announce the bushfire recovery fund. This followed on from a trip to the Blue Mountains the previous month to express sympathy to the victims of the fires.

Conversely, the independently-run state electorate of Wagga Wagga, which the coalition is keen to win back at the next elections, received almost a third of the $177 million funding. It borders a federal seat run by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

Furthermore, two $10 million grants were allocated to Visy recycling, to upgrade and install new machinery in their paper mill at Gadara, near Tumut, at the base of the Snowy Mountains.

Visy, the world’s largest privately-owned paper and packaging company, is chaired by billionaire Anthony Pratt, a major Liberal-National donor who gifted the Liberals $1.3 million and the Nationals $250,000 in the 2019-20 financial year.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, who chaired a NSW Upper House Inquiry on 1 February into the apparent misappropriation of the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund, told Crikey the allocations were “highly politicised”.

“You can’t help but see the deep politics in this,” he continued. “No one even knew the funding was available until the recipients were tapped on the back.”

‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s investment

Another billionaire, West Australian iron ore magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, who, with his wife Nicola runs the philanthropic Minderoo Foundation, is expected to top up the $250 million Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund.

In the wake of the apocalyptic bushfires, when charities, artists and support groups were raising money to help those in need, Minderoo announced it would donate $70 million to relief efforts, as well as invest in the nation’s long term resilience to bushfires.

However, critics pointed out at the time that only $10 million of this was allocated for relief organisations like Red Cross and Salvation Army. The majority of it – $50 million – was to set up Twiggy’s own ‘fire and disaster think tank’, which he declared would look for a “globally relevant national blueprint” to develop new approaches to fire resilience. Twiggy also claimed most of the fires were caused by arsonists, an opinion strongly disputed by fire authorities.

The other $10 million was to enlist a ‘volunteer army’ of over 1200 tradies and health workers from Western Australia who could be deployed to assist the recovery of regions devastated by bushfires.

“We are putting together a small army of 1,250 skilled personnel from first-aid, emergency first responders, tradespeople, electricians, carpenters, project managers, construction and clean-up personnel,” he declared.

Shoebridge also asserted it was a “highly unusual development” for Twiggy and Minderoo to become involved in the decision-making process for which region deserved the bushfire relief funding.

“He is not a neutral political player here and the question would be what if any impact this billionaire has had on the allocation of critical public funds?” he told Crikey on 4 Feb 2021.

However, a spokesperson for NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who is responsible for overseeing the bushfire fund, rejected claims the allocation system had been politicised.

“The only people who are politicising the projects are Shoebridge and Labor, as they attempt to undermine the good work this government is doing,” they responded.

A bushfire-ravaged property. The NSW Government is allegedly using bushfire relief funds to their own political gain. Photo: Alec Smart.

Rorts aplenty

In 2020, a NSW Upper House Inquiry found that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian had personally been involved in allocating 95 per cent of the $250 million Stronger Communities grants scheme to Liberal-National Coalition-held seats before the 23 March 2019 State Election. This was allegedly to influence the electorate into voting for the Coalition.

Ms Berejiklian was unapologetic, claiming it was “not an illegal practice” even though it breached commonly-accepted rules of fairness and good governance. Ms Berejiklian’s office then destroyed most of the documents relating to the matter, which the State Archives and Records Authority found was a clear breach of the law.

Other suspicious transactions include:

* The Badgerys Creek land payment deal, which saw the NSW Infrastructure Department pay a pair of Liberal Party donors 10 times the value for a parcel of land adjacent to Western Sydney Airport. Four separate internal investigations into this fiasco have been undertaken, but the results not made public.

* Sports Rorts Affair, AKA the ‘McKenzie Scandal’, in which Federal Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie’s office redirected 70 per cent of a $45 million Federal Government Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program scheme (initially overseen by Sport Australia), to minority-held or Coalition targeted electorates in the lead-up to the May 2019 Federal Election.

The Australian National Audit Office report into the affair found that the funding was not informed by a proper assessment process and that the successful recipients were not those that had been assessed as the most meritorious.

This included the Pennant Hills Junior AFL Club’s receipt of $500,000 for a new clubhouse, despite it not meeting the required minimum 74/100 scoring system recommended by Sport Australia for worthiness.

Those bypassed for grants, despite being highly-recommended, included lighting for the Riverside sporting precinct in Tamworth and a cycle track for South Wagga Wagga Apex Club.

At least six sports grants were awarded to organisations that had never applied for funding.

Total devastation of trees and wildlife from a bushfire. Photo: Alec Smart.
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