Fire-affected land owners miss crucial funding help with rebuild

Fire-affected land owners miss crucial funding help with rebuild

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PLEA: Kate Birch, Jillangolo Park, Tonimbuk, with husband Mark Henneysee and son Billy, 11, has called for fire recovery funding to be reassessed.

PLEA: Kate Birch, Jillangolo Park, Tonimbuk, with husband Mark Henneysee and son Billy, 11, has called for fire recovery funding to be reassessed.

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Farmers say the guidelines are too restrictive.

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Farmers affected by the 2019 Bunyip bushfires failed to meet crucial criteria which would have given them access to thousands of dollars in recovery assistance.

Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangement guidelines for Victoria restricted farmers from accessing the Rural Finance funding if less than 51 per cent of their income was not from a farming enterprise, or turned over less than $50,000 per annum.

Third-generation farmer Kate Birch, Jillangolo Park, Tonimbuk, did not qualify for a grant because she worked off-farm during the fires.

"These guidelines need to be revisited because a lot of smaller farmers in our community failed to meet the criteria despite farming making up a large portion of their income," Ms Birch said.

"I've always worked off-farm but my husband Mark was working on the farm at the time of the fire so that financial assistance would have been a huge help."

Related: Regen ag aids bushfire recovery for Ingrid Green

Up to $10,000 of funding was available to primary producers in the program to help with the clean-up, labour costs, fencing, repairs, fodder purchases and more.

According to Cardinia Shire, most of the affected primary producers in the Bunyip fires were small scale or part-time farming operations "generating vital part-time income for families".

The council estimated of the 300 properties affected, 75 per cent of those were less than 60 hectares.

Grant uncertainty

Bullock fattener Barry Crees, Bunyip North, was also rejected for a same grant on the basis his enterprise failed to turn over $50,000 in the 2019/20 financial year.

"Farming income fluctuates up and down depending on cattle prices and when your stock is ready to sell," Mr Crees, who is also the Bunyip & District Community Bank branch chair, said.

"After speaking to Rural Finance, I ended up submitting my tax return for 2017/18 which qualified me.

"The problem is how many people go and get a government grant like this, especially after a bushfire."

National or state-based approach needed

Bunyip Complex Fires Community Recovery Committee president Tony Fitzgerald said securing funding support for victims of the 2019 fires had been a "constant battle".

"Only three houses of the 29 houses destroyed have been rebuilt and people really are struggling," he said.

"The big problem is there's no generic response nationally or at a state level to a disaster like this.

"If your house gets burnt down, there's no guarantee of the support you will get - it's the captain's call of the premier or prime minister of the day as to what financial support you will receive."

Mr Fitzgerald, who lost fencing and yards during the fires at Garfield North, said people in his community were still cleaning up fallen trees after the blaze.

"We do not begrudge any of the support given to the NSW and East Gippsland fires, but we should have been afforded the same assistance," Mr Fitzgerald said.

The state and federal governments were contacted for comment.

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