It’s with a heavy heart and some level of frustration that I raise my concern about the failure of all levels of government to actually deliver the recovery we need in East Gippsland after the Black Summer bushfires. On the bright side, I do want to thank the workers and the volunteers who have actually done something to help, but we have such a long way to go. Next week, I’ll be meeting with representatives of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, and my advice to those staff members will be blunt and it will be straightforward: ‘Grant-writing fatigue has set in, adding to the trauma in my community. You need to stop making excuses and you need to start meeting deadlines. You need to start listening to locals instead of state government bureaucrats. You need to develop a greater sense of urgency, across all levels of government, and you actually have to help get stuff done on the ground.’
Mr Deputy Speaker, it’s been almost two years since the bushfires, and I’ll just remind you of the scale of the impact in my seat of Gippsland. More than half of the East Gippsland local government area was burnt. More than 60,000 people are estimated to have evacuated in East Gippsland as a result of the warnings. Three people, tragically, died and 410 residential properties were destroyed. The cumulative impact of economic losses as a result of drought, bushfires and COVID-19 has entrenched the socioeconomic disadvantage experienced by one of the most vulnerable regional communities in Australia, yet this region has not received a fair share of funding, because the state government ran the grants program. The latest program, the $280 million Black Summer Bushfire Recovery Grants program, has not announced a single successful project, because of bureaucratic delays here in Canberra. We were promised these funds months ago but now we’re being told to wait until next year.
I understand that East Gippsland community organisations have applied for more than $40 million worth of projects—much-needed projects—and that some bright spark gave us a notional allocation of just $4.5 million in the official grant guidelines documents. I’ve already pushed back on that idea, and now we’re told that it’s only an indicative amount and we could receive more. Sorry, Deputy Speaker, if on behalf of my community I call bulldust on that one. We don’t need more empty promises. We need more money and we need a focus on delivery to help one of the most disadvantaged communities in Australia fully recover—socially, economically, environmentally and culturally.
I’ve received a letter from the Minister for Emergency Management and National Recovery and Resilience, Bridget McKenzie, claiming the Black Summer Bushfire Recovery Grants program allocation to the region will not be capped at $4.5 million as was previously indicated. I’ve repeatedly called on my colleagues to ensure the funding is properly weighted to the regions which suffered actual fire damage and not just flow-on economic impacts. It defies logic that $27 million has been notionally allocated to six councils in north-east Victoria and just $4.5 million has been notionally allocated to East Gippsland Shire. To add insult to injury, the Canberra bureaucrats have allocated funding based on local government areas, which discriminates against Victoria because we have amalgamated our councils. In East Gippsland’s case, four or five councils were amalgamated into one. Under this lazy Canberra bureaucratic approach, if East Gippsland Shire hadn’t gone through the amalgamation process we’d be eligible for $22.5 million.
Thankfully, according to Senator McKenzie, the notional amount allocated in the grant guidelines is not a done deal. She’s written to me:
The amount of funding that ends up going to projects in a LGA may be more or less than the guide amount, based on projects received, demonstrated need and the project merit.
I hope the minister’s right. I’m not blaming her. I hope her bureaucrats don’t let her down again. There is huge unmet demand for projects in my electorate, and it’s going to take a lot more than $4.5 million to keep me happy and to keep my community happy.
East Gippslanders suffered more damage than people in any other part of Victoria did, and the go-slow by the state government in repairing or replacing assets on public lands means the private economy—the visitor economy—is not recovering as quickly as it should be. We are the custodians of a huge public land estate in East Gippsland, and we don’t have the resources to properly look after that public land estate. We still have bridges, cabins and pathways that haven’t been fixed because there are simply not enough boots on the ground. The state government does not hire enough outdoor workers to get the work done. We need more boots and less suits. We need more boots in Gippsland to get the practical environmental work done and less suits in the cities making excuses about why projects can’t be completed in a more timely manner.
It’s simply time to get stuff done. I have no intention of giving up the fight for a fair go for Gippslanders. I remind the National Recovery and Resilience Agency: stop making excuses. The grant-writing fatigue has set in. It’s adding to the trauma of my community. Start making your own deadlines, start listening to locals, develop a greater sense of urgency and actually get stuff done on the ground.