Document release will delay bushfire relief: government

18 February 2021

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AUSTRALIA – The NSW government says it will be forced to delay funding to bushfire-affected communities if it is made to release documents detailing the first round of a $177 million bushfire relief scheme.

The upper house on Wednesday night passed a motion ordering the government to produce papers outlining how it chose bushfire-affected regions to receive fast-track funding under a state and federal program last year. Most of the funding was given to Coalition-held seats.

Deputy Premier and Minister Responsible for Disaster Recovery John Barilaro recently defended the scheme at a parliamentary inquiry, saying areas that missed out did not meet the criteria.

Greens MP David Shoebridge said the government needed to be transparent about why projects in bushfire-hit areas such as the Blue Mountains were rejected.

“There is genuine deep community outrage at the way in which this government has grossly politicised this round of funding about bushfires,” he said in the upper house, calling for the Deputy Premier’s answers at the inquiry to be tested against any documents that exist.

The government now has 21 days to produce all documents relating to the first round of the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund.

While the motion passed by 23 votes to 16, the government lodged fierce opposition and claimed the “political attack” would greatly affect the timing and delivery of the second round of funding.

“This order for papers will require significant resourcing to be redirected from the current assessment process for the opening round that is currently under way,” deputy leader of the government in the upper house, Sarah Mitchell, said.

“It is estimated it would take approximately 600 hours to fulfil this order. That is a staggering amount of time for a team who have already worked long hours … since the devastating bushfires.”

Ms Mitchell said the government had been more than transparent about the process.

“Is this political attack really more important than getting the recovery money to those who need it?” she asked.

Upper house Labor MP John Graham said he found it remarkable that the government would threaten funding to other projects because there was parliamentary scrutiny.

“I have not seen that done before in the house,” he said on Wednesday night.

Mr Shoebridge added that he was “revolted” by the government’s argument against a motion seeking transparency.

“Even the most basic analysis shows [the funding] was pork-barrelled, excluding opposition and Greens electorates.”

Mr Shoebridge later told the Herald the government was “holding bushfire victims hostage”.

Government maps show the areas worst hit by the economic impact of the fires were the Shoalhaven, Bega Valley and Snowy Valleys councils, totalling more than $750 million. All are in Coalition-held state seats.

However, other areas that suffered extensive damage did not receive any funding, including the Blue Mountains, the Central Coast and Ballina, which collectively suffered more than $300 million of economic loss. All are non-government-held electorates.

Mr Barilaro said Labor and the Greens were abusing parliamentary processes to push their agenda.

He said it was a disgraceful display of politicising a bipartisan issue, after he had given his time to appear before the Public Accountability Committee at a grants inquiry earlier this month.

“Now, they have gone even further, using a parliamentary process to once again weigh down hardworking bureaucrats … meaning that critical funding is not getting rolled out,” Mr Barilaro said.

The Deputy Premier fronted the committee’s ongoing probe into $250 million in council grants, which were also handed out to mostly Coalition-held seats in the lead-up to the 2019 state election.

It has been expanded to include the bushfire fund.

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