Labor steps up criticism of bushfire grants after damage report by federal agency revealed

14 September 2021

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Fresh concerns have been raised about how bushfire grants are allocated, after a federal agency identified significant damage in a New South Wales council area that has so far missed out on help from a key economic recovery program.

A report prepared by the former Howard government economic adviser Peter Crone for the National Bushfire Recovery Agency shows 48.1% of the Blue Mountains local government area was directly fire-affected, compared with 47.9% of the Snowy Valleys.

When the NSW and federal governments announced $177m in joint funding for 71 bushfire recovery projects in November, 12 of these grants were for the Snowy Valleys, worth a total of $32.9m. None of the grants in that funding round were for the Blue Mountains, whose mayor is a Labor councillor.

The federal opposition has seized on the damage figures in the report – which was released in response to a question on notice in Senate estimates – as the national agency indicated it served “as a basis for discussion with the states”.

Labor’s spokesperson for disaster and emergency management, Murray Watt, said the report “directly connects the Morrison government to the NSW bushfire rorts”.

Both the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and the NSW state government defended the allocation of funding on Friday, saying the program in question was one of several, and that the Blue Mountains had received other support.

The NSW government also promised that areas “that have not yet received funding will be prioritised in the next round”.

The National Bushfire Recovery Agency’s report on fire damage in local government areas across Australia was completed last February and was marked as “preliminary”.

“The contract required Mr Peter Crone to undertake activities to assist in establishing a reporting and analytics function within the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, including an indicative mapping of local economic recovery geographic areas as a basis for discussion with the states,” the agency told a Senate committee.

The report outlines the level of impact for every local government area in Australia, relying on a national “burn scar” dataset. It was created using information collected and provided by state emergency management authorities, as well as input from Emergency Management Australia.

While the Crone-authored report does not mention the political affiliations of local government areas, the Labor mayor of Blue Mountains, Mark Greenhill, has previously argued the council’s applications had been overlooked by the NSW Coalition government.

The NSW deputy premier, John Barilaro, appeared before a parliamentary inquiry into the state government’s alleged pork barrelling of council grants last Monday. He argued councils in Labor-held seats including the Blue Mountains had not been eligible because they were not of sufficient size or readiness.

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