Speech: Appropriations Bill - Bushfire Funding

Speech: Appropriations Bill - Bushfire Funding  Main Image

Mrs PHILLIPS (Gilmore) (18:02): I'm pleased to have the opportunity to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020 and to talk about the cost of the bushfires on my community. The economic cost to my electorate from the bushfires is incredible. The cost of direct damage from the fires, which has been the major focus of the government, is, of course, vast, but the costs outside of this direct damage are wide ranging. The impact of the lost tourism season cannot be overstated. On the New South Wales South Coast, so many businesses rely on the income drawn from the busy summer season to get them through the rest of the year. We aren't talking about businesses that make a significant profit every year. We aren't even necessarily talking about businesses that make a small profit every year. We are talking about mum and dad businesses, family run shops and micro-businesses that make a modest 'just enough to get by'. They don't have nest eggs to fall back on. They don't have security in the bank that they can get new loans with. They don't have the buffer space for additional interest payments. But—and this is the key point—these are the businesses that the South Coast economy relies on. They employ our kids in the school holidays, they give jobs to mums that need flexibility in their work hours, they take on trainees and older workers.

These businesses mean jobs for locals, but they are also vital in attracting tourists. They are our lifeblood. It is true that tourists travel to Jervis Bay for its crystal clear waters, but there is so much to see and do. They take a cruise on Dolphin Watch Cruises or go diving with Dive Jervis Bay. They grab a burger at the Great Husky Bite or grab a drink at Jervis Bay Brewing. Maybe they are on a road trip and just passing through for the day, so they stop in at Milton Meats to grab some steak for their barbie and rent a cabin at Holiday Haven Lake Conjola. Perhaps they get a paddleboard lesson with Simon from Ulladulla Surf School or buy a souvenir from The Fig Tree Forest. They might even buy some bait from Robs Bait n Tackle and go fishing on Burrill Lake.

But what happens when, one day, the tourists are forced to leave, and so Robs Bait n Tackle loses 80 per cent of its income; Jervis Bay Brewing Co, which only just opened, can't cover their startup costs; and Dive Jervis Bay have to put off three of their skippers because they can't afford to pay them? What happens when The Great Husky Bite loses $100,000 in one summer and can't pay their business loans? The answer to that is tragically simple: businesses start to close and people lose their incomes. They lose their jobs. The consequences of that are dire. If these small and micro businesses, these family businesses, start closing, then we risk losing the supports of our tourist season. If we lose the places they buy food, the boats they go whale watching on and the bars that they drink at, then when they come for the crystal clear water there is nothing for them to do. So they stop coming back, and one bad season turns into two and then into five. The New South Wales South Coast stops being a top destination for tourists and our economy breaks down.

The costs of inaction to address this unfolding economic crisis are so much greater than the costs of acting could ever be. But the government are dragging their feet. It took this government 61 days from the time the Currowan fire started burning to announce their small-business package. For businesses that had only lost income, the government was making concessional loans of up to $500,000 available—not ideal but a start at least. But then it took another 16 days for the eligibility criteria to be released for these businesses to see the guidelines. It took 16 days for the government to allow small businesses struggling with the loss of 80 per cent of their income to apply for these loans—not to receive money; to apply; to know whether they were eligible. The government's great saviour to small business—absolutely outrageous!

The Morrison government's help for small businesses in this crisis has been appalling. It has left businesses struggling, distressed and confused. Even today the government is squabbling with the New South Wales government about why only 20 per cent of grants and five per cent of loans have been approved. Businesses are struggling, crying out for help, and the Morrison and Berejiklian governments can't decide whose fault it is. Well I don't care whose fault it is; I just want it fixed. The New South Wales government say the guidelines are the problem. Well I have been asking for the government to fix those guidelines for weeks. The assistance has been slow, inappropriate and inadequate. It is the common thread in the bushfire response for individuals, mental health, tourism and wildlife.

I have three words: out of touch. They have no idea about the reality of this crisis on the ground. They have no idea about people like Bede and Angela from the East Lynne Store, who fought to save their store from the fires only to lose power and be forced to throw out all of their famous home-made pies. They have no idea about people like Joe from Burdett Real Estate, who has seen hundreds of cancelled holiday rentals, with people deciding to holiday elsewhere this year. The government has no idea about people like Ruth from a Nowra courier company, who now has to draw funds from her pension. They have no idea about people like Katrina from Caterina in Kangaroo Valley, who has had to let go of two of her employees.

The loss of jobs across my electorate is huge. Just today I spoke to Max from Yatte Yattah. Max's farm was severely damaged by the fires. He lost nine out of 10 buildings, including his home. Max is retired, but he uses the farm forest on his property for fences and sheds. He has leased the grazing rights on his property to a local dairy farmer. He needs help to build after the fires. But, because Max is retired and less than 50 per cent of his income comes from the farm, he has been told it is unlikely he will receive the primary producers grant. So much damage, kilometres of fences, gates and the loss of his income, but he doesn't fit the guidelines. Still, Max is showing his beautiful prize roses at the Milton Show this weekend. That's just our community—the show must always go on. I look forward to seeing them there.

When Gerry from Conjola tried to apply for the 13-week disaster recovery allowance, Centrelink asked him for a copy of his 2019-20 tax return—a difficult request to meet when we are only halfway through the tax year. Carol from Yatte Yattah was told she did not live in a bushfire affected area. Greg, a truck driver from Yerriyong, lost all his income in December and January, but Centrelink took nearly five weeks to process his application. The government has asked contract cleaners for their October and November payslips—from before the busy holiday period. They just don't understand the nature of casual contract work in tourism areas. So I say it again: they are out of touch. The costs of inaction for my community are huge. We rely on the tourists and we need them to come back.

On 19 January, the Prime Minister announced an initial $76 million tourism recovery package. The package was, and I quote from the Prime Minister's media release here, 'to protect jobs, small businesses and local economies'. That package was announced 19 January, but I have spent every day since then trying to work out exactly where this money is going. How is it being spent and how can my local tourism operators access it? You wouldn't think this would be a difficult question. The money was for local events of tourism and marketing campaigns. Again, I quote from the Prime Minister's press release, 'One in 13 Australian jobs rely on tourism and hospitality.' So then why didn't the Regional Tourism Bushfire Recovery Grants Program for tourism events open until more than four weeks later? Four weeks when we had an economic crisis unfolding on the South Coast, businesses closing and jobs being lost! They didn't even say who would be eligible until the day the program opened. I have local tourism operators crying out for help, and government is dragging their heels. No-one seems to know where the money is, how they can access it or what it will do. Over and over again, I am left asking: where is the money?

Well, it seems like we found some. According to the Cairns Post, $40 million of bushfire recovery funding has been redirected to fund a coronavirus tourism campaign. The federal government has apparently 'opened up bushfire tourism recovery funds'. Perhaps this is why my local tourism operators can't get help. Instead of committing additional funding to address the impact of coronavirus, the government is stealing from Peter to pay Paul. This is just not good enough.

Every day I am out in my community speaking with local groups. Last week I delivered some funding assistance to two fantastic local environment groups, Eurobodalla Landcare and the Coastwatchers Association. At the Kangaroo Valley Show, I also chatted with a Kangaroo Valley wildlife group who are working hard to look after our precious wildlife. What has been a common thread amongst all these groups and more is their concern about pests. With so many local wildlife displaced by the fire and so many trees burnt, the threat of foxes and feral cats is greater than ever. On 16 January, the environment minister announced $50 million to help contain feral predators. Sounds great—just what we need! But again we are left asking: where is the money? My local Landcare groups have not seen it. Grass roots organisations working to protect our native wildlife are trying to find it. They are desperate to get some help.

Once again, the community has stepped in where the government should be. Wildlife Stations Shoalhaven was created in the immediate aftermath of the fires, and they were inundated with volunteers willing to give up their time to make water stations. Even at the Kangaroo Valley Show, I watched as the pile of birdfeeders and water stations grew by the minute. Local people stepped in and stepped up. But where is the government? Where is this $50 million? That is what I want to know. That is what my community wants to know.

The distress in my community, the trauma, is real. I am not exaggerating when I say that people have been to hell and back. When I saw Gerry at his farm in Conjola only two weeks ago, he told me how he was only just starting to feel okay seven weeks later. Gerry's story is distressing—not just how he fought the flames and how he wasn't sure he and his partner would make it out, not just because you can still see the scorch marks on his house, and not just because he lost all his wildflower farm after two intense firestorms, but because, in Gerry's words, since the fires he has been traumatised by his government. On 12 January, the health minister tweeted a phone number that people impacted by the fire could call to get mental health help. So that day Gerry rang that number, but there was no answer. A little while later he tried again. He was told they didn't know who he could speak to. They said someone would call him back, but they never did. He tried again a couple of weeks later and was told the counsellors don't work on Saturdays. He was asked, 'Why do you need a counsellor?' He was given no help. So he told his story to the ABC, and the ABC gave him the number of a trauma counsellor. Why, when we are told over and over again by this government that help is available and that they care about people on the South Coast, did Gerry have to contact the ABC before he could get help from a trauma counsellor? Over and over again, I am left asking this question. Why are so many people in our community falling through the cracks? Why can't they get help? Where is the money?

I could go on. I have so many stories to tell. So many stories have been shared with me. I have been heartbreakingly honoured to hear them. It's been a privilege to be there for so many people and to help take some of the burden from them when I can. I just wish I could say all these stories were different and that they were a one off, but what I am hearing time and time again is that this government has left people without the help they need. It has been too slow in delivering their promised funding, help and support. People in my community only see broken promises from a government that doesn't understand and, frankly, doesn't care. Well, I care, I am listening and I will keep standing up here until something is done.