Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Questions without Notice

National Bushfire Recovery Fund

2:36 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is also to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Cormann. When the $2 billion National Bushfire Recovery Fund was announced in January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed the funds would 'be ready to hit the ground in communities where the fire front has passed to help them rebuild'. Can the minister confirm that figures released earlier this week have revealed the government has paid out less than $260 million, or less than one in $8 promised, from its $2 billion fund months after the fires hit?

2:37 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

Sadly, it is my melancholy duty to inform the chamber that unfortunately the opposition simply got it wrong again. We're talking here about a $2 billion bushfire recovery program, which was of course always designed to run over two years. That was always the plan—over two calendar years. And by the end of this financial year—this is by the end of June 2020—about $900 million will have been expensed.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Watt, on a point of order.

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

A point of order on relevance: my question was about the spending that has occurred, not what might occur one day in the future.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I will continue to listen carefully to the minister's answer. I believe, with respect, he was directly addressing the subject matter of the question.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me take Senator Watt through the detail. Five hundred million is being paid out this financial year on the following: over $170 million—

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Cormann. Senator Wong, on a point of order.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

The point of order is on direct relevance. The question is not about the future. The question was very specific to figures released earlier this week which revealed expenditure to date. The minister has simply been asked to confirm that. He hasn't been asked about future expenditure; he's been asked a very clear question about what has been spent and figures which have been released this week.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

On the point of order, Senator Cormann?

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

On the point of order, as much as I hesitate to correct Senator Wong, the data that Senator Watt is referring to is quite outdated. It's March data. That is why I am providing, in a directly relevant fashion, more up to date information.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, if he wishes to do that, that would be directly relevant, but he's actually saying what will be spent.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I will consider whether the nature of 'directly relevant' has a temporal element to it, but, with all due respect, there was a quotation from Senator Watt about the program. I believe the minister is being directly relevant to the subject matter because the minister can be directly relevant to all or part of a question. I've allowed you to restate the point at the end of the question, but I believe the minister is being directly relevant, while going into detail about the program that is referred to in the quotation contained in the beginning of the question.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor, as always, have got this wrong. A $2 billion two-year program, and in the first six months we will have spent nearly half. This is a program that is implemented on an evolving basis. Over $170 million has been allocated to 10,000 small business support grants, over $100 million in expanded primary producer grants, over $32 million in back-to-school support payments, over $60 million in payments to impacted local government areas, over $27 million in mental health support to school communities and emergency services workers, over $50 million in emergency relief and financial counselling, over $26 million for wildlife and habitat recovery, and, by the end of June, $400 million will be paid out of the fund to reimburse states for clean-up costs. And of course the timing of these payments—and that is something else that Senator Watt doesn't understand—actually depends on when the invoices come in. I know the Labor Party wants to just throw the money out without the invoices having come in, but we actually pay on invoice.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Watt, on a point of order.

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Again on relevance: is the minister suggesting people that living in tents should be sending invoices?

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Watt, that's not a point of order. Senator Cormann, have you concluded your answer? You have. Senator Watt, you have a supplementary question?

2:41 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I do, Mr President. Can the minister confirm that some of the government's most hyped bushfire funding pledges, including mental health assistance for schools and rural financial counselling, are yet to receive a single dollar? They are not outdated figures; they are figures that were provided in a question on notice answered on Monday this week.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

As Senator Watt well knows, answers to questions on notice from estimates go to the period of time when the question is asked, so they are outdated figures. But, in an abundance of openness and transparency and to make sure that I've got the most up-to-date, current information, I will ensure that I provide Senator Watt with an updated answer to the question on notice.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Watt, a final supplementary question?

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Australians on the ground in bushfire affected areas know that money is not reaching those who need it. With winter approaching, bushfire victims are still living with friends, in caravans, in temporary accommodation while the government tries to spin what it's actually doing. These people need action, not more marketing. When will the Morrison government actually deliver the money they promised so that bushfire-hit communities can actually rebuild?

2:42 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me just say it very clearly: these are communities that have gone through a terrible crisis, and they are getting significant support from governments, state and federal, and we are working as fast as we can in you know what are, quite frankly, pretty complex circumstances, not made easier by the health crisis that we've also had to deal with very hard on the back of the bushfire crisis. I can see that Senator Watt is intent on pursuing political points here, but let me tell you that communities actually do know that we are doing our absolute best to provide support to them as soon as we can in what is a very difficult circumstance.