Bridget McKenzie has been given the power to distribute bushfire funding where she sees fit. It looks like the funding is already going one way.
You could be forgiven for missing this among the hurly-burly of rolling COVID lockdowns, the fall of Afghanistan, the release of the terrifying report by the International Panel on Climate Change and whatever inevitable new crisis volcano that’s erupted between when this was published and when you read it, but on August 3 the newly-minted Minister for Emergency Management and National Recovery and Resilience, Senator Bridget McKenzie, was asked an interesting question.
McKenzie’s name might ring a bell because she’s the most high-profile woman in the federal National Party, or because she was recently returned to the front bench by new Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce following his successful challenge to hapless Wagga Wagga MP and transparent political spectre Michael McCormack.
Or, most likely, you know the name because of the very high-profile reason that she was forced to step down from her sweet ministerial gig: her office’s involvement in the “Sports Rorts” scandal in which federal grants for sporting and social clubs were deployed to Coalition-held areas and marginal seats which the government of Scott Morrison hoped to win at the 2019 election, almost completely ignoring the needs-based recommendations made by Sports Australia.
McKenzie wasn’t the only MP implicated in the alleged pork-barrelling and the scathing report by the Auditor-General, but her approval of a $36,000 grant to a shooting club of which she was a member seemed like a transparent conflict of interest.
But back to the question: it came from SA Labor senator Don Farrell, and the question was this: “My question is to the new Minister for Emergency Management and National Recovery and Resilience, Senator McKenzie. How many discretionary grant programs is the minister responsible for in her new roles of Minister for Emergency Management and National Recovery and Resilience and Minister for Regionalisation, Regional Communications and Regional Education?”
99 per cent of that NSW spending was spent in non-Labor held seats – meaning areas like the fire-ravaged Blue Mountains initially missed out altogether while McCormack’s hood of Wagga Wagga scored a very welcome $40 million.
That might not sound like a mic drop moment, but it was curious that McKenzie then spent the next several minutes being pulled into line by the Speaker for seemingly attempting to run out the clock rather than answering the innocuous-sounding question.
McKenzie eventually explained that she, as the responsible minister, had either complete or significant discretion over Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements, the Emergency Response Fund, the Black Summer Bushfire Recovery Grants program, The Local Economic Recovery Program, and restocking, replanting and on-farm infrastructure grants among others before the time ran out.
One she didn’t mention was the Preparing Australia Program, a pool of $600 million for “households and communities to ensure they are better prepared for future disasters”. It was established in the wake of the bushfires for property owners to get a significant proportion of their property improved to protect from natural disasters – fire shutters, for example – and has been criticised for not having any clear guidelines on what it covers, what it excludes, and how to access the money. Unsurprisingly, since its establishment, the fund has reportedly paid out a total of zero dollars to Australians and/or their preparation.
It’s especially interesting given that the fires were 18 months ago and yet, as the Senate Bushfire Inquiry chair Tim Ayers pointed out in one (ahem) fiery exchange, the government is only getting around to handing out urgent recovery fund dollars now.
Another of McKenzie’s responsibilities is the Local Economic Recovery and Complementary Projects program. That’s a $448 million fund which, according to an analysis by the Saturday Paper, is ostensibly available to all states and territories affected by bushfires, which is literally all of them, and yet has spent more than three-quarters of its money in NSW.
More pointedly, 99 per cent of that NSW spending was spent in non-Labor held seats – meaning areas like the fire-ravaged Blue Mountains initially missed out altogether while McCormack’s hood of Wagga Wagga scored a very welcome $40 million.
Another of McKenzie’s responsibilities is the Local Economic Recovery and Complementary Projects program. That’s a $448 million fund which is ostensibly available to all states and territories affected by bushfires, which is literally all of them, and yet has spent more than three-quarters of its money in NSW.
It follows the establishment of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in May 2021, which he declared will “help communities rebuild and recover from natural disasters, helping many Australians in their greatest time of need, while strengthening our defences against future major disasters.”
And it certainly has the resources to do so. For a start, it administers the $2 billion from the bushfire recovery fund, plus absorbing the funding of the former National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency. And it’s notable that the government made a transparently partisan appointment with the agency’s head: the Country Liberal Party’s Shane Stone, former NT Chief Minister and top-notch operator in northern Australian conservative politics.
There’s also the eyebrow-raising decision to plonk the Agency in Queensland – a state in which Morrison’s star has been on the wane and where an unkind observer might think a multi-billion dollar emergency fund might prove an especially tempting election war chest to a government in peril.
After all, the Labor government of Annastacia Palaszczuk wasn’t initially predicted to survive the last state election and yet increased its vote in the state while the Liberal-National Party dissolved in petty in-fighting. And normally Labor wouldn’t be much of a threat in the northern half of the state but there are ominous signs that the LNP is at risk of having the right-wing vote split around them, which would make it far easier for Labor or a popular independent candidate to win historically secure LNP seats.
Those threats range from Pauline Hanson’s still-locally-popular One Nation to Katter’s Australia Party (whose titular hear Bob still maintains a stranglehold on the massive northern seat of Kennedy) to whatever chaos Queensland’s vengeful trickster god Clive Palmer decides to wreak with his billions. And there’s also been the announcement by former LNP premier and cloud of furious vengeance Campbell Newman who recently quit the LNP and announced plans to run for the Senate as the lead candidate for the Liberal Democrats, which may well syphon off some of the LNP’s angrier voters.
So, in other words: we have a large pool of public money earmarked for but not necessarily available to desperate people in catastrophic circumstances, which is under the discretionary jurisdiction of the only Coalition minister to have faced consequences for distributing public money along transparently political lines, and held by an organisation being moved to a state and region which the Coalition has a particularly acute interest in shoring up their flagging vote, headed by a Coalition loyalist.
Meanwhile, people are still living in caravans and sheds all over the country.
Watch this space.