Bushfire affected communities

Mr CLARE (Blaxland) (16:26): I thank the Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government for his update to the chamber. I want to ask him some questions about local government and, in particular, how it interacts with some of the bushfire affected communities. A couple of months ago I told the parliament the story of Paul Parker, the firefighter from Nelligen who was on all of our TVs in January giving the Prime Minister a mouthful. I mentioned that at the local pub in Nelligen, the Steampacket Hotel, the publican had been getting people ringing in from all across the country offering to put money on the bar for Paul Parker. They called it the ultimate pub test. People were angry that the government had been so slow to act to help bushfire affected communities. I got an email from Paul on the weekend about what’s still happening in that local community—and I’ll get back to that in a moment.

A lot of people on the South Coast of New South Wales, people like Paul, felt abandoned in the bushfires and still feel abandoned now. It’s almost 12 months since the fires came through. The bush is growing back. Many of us who have driven through that area in New South Wales would know that’s true. But the local community still feel like the government’s response is too slow, and in some cases nothing at all. In the budget there’s $100 million for a regional recovery fund to help rebuild parts of Australia that were hardest hit by bushfires, drought and COVID. It applies to 10 areas that the government has selected. In that list of 10 areas there’s no mention of the South Coast of New South Wales, even though, by any estimate, it was one part of the country that was hardest hit by the bushfires. More of it was burnt than in almost any other part of the country. Certainly more houses were destroyed on the South Coast of New South Wales than in any other part of the country.

My first question is: how is this possible? It might be a question that the Deputy Prime Minister can help address as well. How did the South Coast miss out on this funding? How is it that they weren’t one of those 10 areas selected? A place hit harder by the bushfires, hit by drought and hit by COVID. Think about the farmers down there. Think about the tourism industry up and down the South Coast. How is it that that local community didn’t benefit from that fund?

The people on the South Coast need our help, particularly those people who had their homes burnt down, and there are hundreds of them. I was in Cobargo a couple of weeks ago with Kristy McBain. I met with some of the people who’ve had their houses burnt down. They’re trying to rebuild and they’re caught in a quagmire of red tape, whether it’s local government red tape, state government red tape or federal government red tape. They don’t give a stuff what it is, to be honest; they just want the red tape cut. I met a bloke named Graeme. Here’s a story for us all to contemplate. He’s building a granny flat on the property where his house burnt down. He has built the granny flat there so that he can live in it while he’s building his house. He’s been told by the council that when he builds the house he has to demolish the granny flat. The council says, ‘Sorry, but that’s a state government rule.’ That just doesn’t make sense. I met another woman who had her house burnt down. She has been told by the council that she can’t rebuild at all. She has a small insurance payout. She can’t afford to build anywhere else. She can’t afford any other solution than to rebuild where she is.

I mentioned Paul Parker and the email he sent me on the weekend. He’s doing okay. He’s been able to rebuild the part of his house that was damaged by the fires, but not all of his mates in Nelligen are in the same situation. He told me about a bloke called Ronny, one of his mates, whose house burnt down. I spoke to Ronny yesterday. He wants to rebuild his house on a different part of his property to where the original house burnt down in the bushfires, but he’s been told by the council and by the RFS that he can’t do that, because, looking on a map, building in another area looks more dangerous. According to Ronny, he wants to build the new house further away from the bush and closer to a neighbouring property, which is just an open horse paddock, but no-one has been to the property to look at it to see whether that makes sense. They’ve just said it’s a bigger flame zone and he can’t build there. My second question to the minister is: what can you do, working with local councils, to help sort out problems for people, like Graeme and like Ronny, who are caught in this quagmire of red tape?

The third point I want to emphasise here is that a lot of these people are going to miss out on the $25,000 HomeBuilder grant too, because they can’t sign a contract by Christmas. Is there anything that the government can do, maybe working with the housing minister, to get an extension for them so that the 3,000 people who had their homes burnt down and are caught in this mess don’t miss out on the 25 grand that will help them to rebuild?