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Tuesday, 19 November 2013
Page: 736

Mr DREYFUS (Isaacs) (21:00): On 16 October a bushfire started in Lithgow, New South Wales. The next day two more fires began nearby in Mt York and Springwood. These fires led to the loss of at least 210 properties, with over 100 more damaged. By 18 October, two days after the Lithgow fire started, and while the fires were still raging, the present government activated the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment. This assistance is an immediate one-off payment to Australians affected by natural disasters at the time they need it most. It can be used to cover the cost of accommodation, personal items and urgent medications—exactly the kinds of expenses victims of bushfires need to meet when they are isolated from their homes in an emergency situation.

These vital disaster recovery payments were provided following the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, Cyclone Yasi in 2011, and Cyclone Oswald and the Tasmanian bushfires earlier this year. Last month was the first time disaster recovery payments have been approved by the Abbott government. The approval is made by the Minister for Justice, the member for Stirling. But, this time, unlike Black Saturday, Cyclone Yasi, Cyclone Oswald and the Tasmania bushfire disaster, the assistance to the New South Wales bushfire victims was savagely cut without any consultation. A government that claimed it would deliver no surprises delivered a very nasty surprise indeed, heartlessly removing vital assistance for New South Wales residents at the very time they were most in need.

People who were unable to access their homes for more than 24 hours, or who were without essential utilities like water or electricity for more than 48 hours, were no longer eligible for this emergency assistance. The Abbott government decided, without any explanation, that victims of these bushfires in New South Wales deserved less assistance than Australians affected by other natural disasters. When his mean-spirited decision came to light, the member for Stirling continued to claim this decision was under review—an excuse that makes no sense at all. The very nature of this payment is that it is needed when a natural disaster is occurring, not almost a month afterwards—or later.

Last night's response of Senator Brandis at Senate estimates makes it clear that the review claimed by the member for Stirling was a complete smokescreen. Senator Brandis, in response to questions by Senator Cameron about why the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment had not been extended to people who had been prevented from accessing their homes for more than 24 hours, or were without essential utilities for at least 48 hours, said:

It is perhaps what we might call a situational judgement or an assessment of the gravity of the impact on particular potential classes of claimants.

Now just think about that for a moment—'an assessment of the gravity of the impact on particular potential classes of claimants'. Senator Brandis is making clear that the decision was made on an assessment by the Minister for Justice that the victims of this devastating bushfire have not suffered enough to warrant government support.

It is simply not good enough for this government to withdraw support from the people of New South Wales when they need it the most. It is simply not good enough for this government to be running and hiding rather than standing with, supporting the victims of bushfires, as the former Labor government did with so many disasters over recent years. New South Wales residents deserve an explanation from the Minister for Justice. They deserve to hear from him why he has decided they should receive less assistance than Australians affected by previous bushfires.

Just think about the significance of this decision by Mr Keenan, the Minister for Justice. What he says is, 'If you've been kept out of your home for 24 hours or more'—and think about all the consequences that that means for what happens in your house—'if you have been without utilities for 48 hours or more'; again, think about all of the consequences of that particular catastrophe for your household. It means the spoilage of food and potentially the wrecking of a whole range of household facilities. It certainly means you are going to have incurred very considerable expense to keep your life running. If you have incurred any of those consequences of a disaster, under this heartless government, you get nothing because, according to Senator Brandis answering on behalf of the Minister for Justice, they made 'an assessment of the gravity of the impact on particular potential classes of claimants'. It is a marvellous phrase but what it actually means is that this is a heartless government that does not care to assist Australians in need.