Tuesday, 23 February 2016
Corangamite Electorate: Bushfires
Almost two months ago, the community of Wye River and Separation Creek in my electorate of Corangamite suffered a Christmas Day like no other: a devastating bushfire swept through the town destroying 116 homes. The two caravan parks, the Wye River general store, the pub and the surf lifesaving club were saved and, through a sheer miracle, there was no loss of life.
The Commonwealth, in partnership with the state, quickly stepped in to assist. Under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements that are administered by the state, emergency grants were provided and emergency re-establishment payments were announced. These provide up to $32,500 for each eligible household for clean-up, emergency accommodation, repairs and rebuilding and the like. There was also provision made for affected individuals and families to seek personal and financial counselling, and affected local councils to seek assistance with the cost of clean-up operations and restoration of essential public assets.
About six weeks ago, I held a community meeting with Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley. Many issues of concern were raised. There were tears, high emotions, fear and uncertainty about the future but, at the same time, a great deal of resilience echoed throughout the community. The Victorian government then announced a community recovery fund. There was funding for a one-stop shop to assist with rebuilding and planning, and funding for water infrastructure and for marketing to boost tourism. That will build on the assistance that has been provided jointly by the state and the Commonwealth.
Last week, I again visited Wye River and Separation Creek to mark the commencement of construction of a new Separation Creek bridge—a $4 million investment under our $50 million Great Ocean Road upgrade project. So there was great celebration for that. I also held another community meeting and it is with some regret that I raise a number of concerns about the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements process.
Some residents have had difficulty accessing a certificate to say their house burned down—a certificate needed for insurance purposes. To date, only one family who lost their home has been able to access an emergency re-establishment grant. For instance, Tony Maley, a member of the Wye River fire brigade who watched his house burn to the ground as he was defending another, and his wife Lesley have not been able to access an emergency relief payment.
I wrote to Victorian emergency services minister Jane Garrett a number of weeks ago on behalf of the Maleys, making representations that the criteria should be changed because it is based on income earned last year. The Maleys, of course, are not able to earn any income at the moment. They have no income and no house. Tony Maley is a builder and has no tools, and Lesley is a cleaner and has no equipment to clean. I have not received a response from the minister. It is very disappointing that the Maleys still do not know whether they can access any financial help.
There is no central website for communications and the one-stop shop bringing together all the services that are needed for rebuilding and planning has been established in Melbourne, not in Wye River or Apollo Bay. That is a big issue. A welfare officer and a counsellor are desperately needed in this community, and that has not been provided. Also, there has been no help for small businesses.
Recovery from natural disaster is complex and extremely challenging, but it is imperative that the state government does everything it possibly can to provide the help community members need at this very important time. There are, for instance, many people struggling with insurance claims who feel alone and lost. It was devastating to hear that Sherryl Smith, who lost everything in the fire—her house, all of her goods and her business—has just had her insurance claim knocked back by AAMI. Just as I took on BP Australia when it tried to shut down the petrol station at Lorne, which of course affected the community of Wye River and Separation Creek, I am determined to join with Sherryl to fight AAMI's unjust decision.
In Christchurch in New Zealand, residents are still battling insurance companies five years on. This cannot happen in Wye River and Separation Creek. I believe we need to think outside the square and the state needs to establish some sort of fast-tracking process and authority to deal with all of these issues as quickly as possible. The community needs much more help. I have already announced my determination to fight for more funding for the Great Ocean Road and for tourism infrastructure. They need more help with better communications. Paddy's Path also needs some funding. This is a path between Separation Creek and Wye. I am determined to stand with this community and I will continue to support them every step of the way.