Thursday, 11 June 2020
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, Senator Ruston. Last week it was reported that only four per cent of Australians living in bushfire affected communities have been able to access government support. Why?
I thank Senator Watt for his question and his obvious ongoing interest in the bushfire affected areas of Australia. I am going to have to take on notice the specific question that he has asked me because I do not have the necessary information in relation to the three per cent number that he is quoting. However, while I have the opportunity to add something in relation to the government's response to the bushfire affected communities in Australia, we recognise that it has been a very, very traumatic time for those people that have been affected by bushfires because, on top of that, they have had to endure the coronavirus pandemic impacts that all Australians and all Australian communities have had to endure as well.
I would like to assure all bushfire affected communities that they have not been forgotten. I acknowledge that the recovery in many areas has been hampered by the COVID pandemic, but the government is focused on addressing bushfire relief and recovery needs with flexibility and speed, and that is why the Prime Minister himself announced, on 11 May this year, a further $650 million in assistance in addition to the $2 billion bushfire recovery fund, which, I might say, has already been fully committed. A billion dollars of this fund has already been delivered and is working to support the locally led effort in response to the bushfire impacts on the ground in these communities, including in my home state of South Australia, particularly in the Adelaide Hills and the Kangaroo Island area that were devastated by the two fires that took hold in South Australia over the Christmas and new year period. When you add that to the expenditure from existing measures, this means that around $1.4 billion is rolling out across our bushfire affected communities and supporting individuals within those communities.
Stephanie Stanhope lost her home in the Bega Valley on 4 January June 2020. Struggling to navigate the system, she said: 'For all the assistance you are led to believe was going to be there, it isn't. Not long after it happened, there was a call from someone in the system saying that each person would be given a mentor to guide them through the process. I've had one phone call.' How can we expect bushfire victims like Ms Stanhope to access the system when there's no-one to help them navigate the system?
Thank you very much, Senator Watt. As I've often said in this place, if you have individual examples of people who have concerns, whether it is in my area of social services or in other areas that I represent, I am more than—
Senator Watt, I have repeatedly ruled that the part at the end of the question is not the only part of the question. The minister may be directly relevant by being directly relevant to any part of the question. The minister is being directly relevant in this case because you did quote a specific example. Senator Wong.
Even when I'm being nice, you're mean. Really!
A government senator interjecting—
That's harsh! Wounded! I am wounded, Eric—all those years at the table.
A government senator interjecting—
Now that's mean!
You have ruled, Mr President—and I would indicate that we believe correctly—that direct relevance can pertain to different aspects of the question. But this minister can't get out of answering anything by simply saying, 'Oh, you mentioned an individual.' That is not the test of direct relevance, and that is the way in which she is using this tactically. She should answer the policy point if she doesn't wish to talk about the individual.
Mr President, it was a very broadly introduced question, with a range of matters canvassed. The minister was clearly being directly relevant to the question asked and, as presidents of both political persuasions have ruled during the time that I have been in this chamber, the President is not in a position to tell a minister how to answer a question. The President can only require direct relevance, and the minister was being directly relevant to the question.
On the point of order, there are several points. Firstly, I will reiterate, without restating, what I said earlier. Secondly, Senator Wong, the minister had been speaking for only 16 seconds, so I am not in a position to rule on the entirety of her approach. I have said before—and I will state it again—that when very specific questions are asked requiring facts of ministers the term 'directly relevant' will be strictly applied, as I have done. However, I have also said before that to be directly relevant a minister can directly refer to or address, including challenging, material or assertions contained in any question or preamble. The minister was being directly relevant by addressing that part of the question in the 16 seconds for which she had been speaking. Finally, there is time after question time when the merits of answers can be freely debated.
Thank you very much, Mr President. First of all, I would reject the premise that if you are referring to an individual and then you move to talk about a particular action that I should think otherwise than that you are actually referring to that individual and their experience. You were talking about people getting access to mentors and you were referring to Stephanie. I don't know whether the person you were referring to or other people have had access to these particular mentors. I assume they have. I am more than happy to find out for you, Senator Watt, as to the merit or otherwise of the accusation that you are making—that because the person that you are referring to hadn't had access to a mentor it meant that everybody didn't have access to a mentor. What I would say is that this government takes very seriously— (Time expired)
Last week, Mr Andrew Colvin from the National Bushfire Recovery Agency admitted that there was too much confusion around the bushfire recovery system and the current system was 'effectively retraumatising individuals'. Why is this government failing to deliver the promised help and instead retraumatising individuals?
Thank you very much, Senator Watt, for your supplementary question. The government is obviously very focused on making sure that we protect all Australians during this particular time, and that includes those people who have been impacted by bushfires. I would say that the substantial programs that have been put in place for the bushfire support measures are going a long way to assisting Australian who have been impacted by bushfires. But, as I said to you in answer to your previous question, we acknowledge that the recovery has been hampered in some areas because of the impacts of COVID. That doesn't mean to say that the extensive programs that have been put in place to take up the bushfire recovery efforts have not been very, very significant. The small business support that was put in place by Senator Cash, with grants up to $10,000 that people were able to get access to, the small business grants of up to $50,000 for many within the local government areas that have been designated— (Time expired)