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Chapter 22: Delivery of recovery services and financial assistance


22.1 Responsibility for recovery is shared across Australian, state and territory, and local governments and the broader society. The provision of recovery support seeks to restore and improve the lives of individuals and communities by addressing the diverse and varied impacts of a natural disaster. The provision of this support must carefully balance supporting those in need, while ensuring that it does not create disincentives to properly prepare for disasters. To date, the costs of recovering from disasters far outstrips expenditure for natural disaster mitigation, preparation and response. It is for this reason that recovery is increasingly seen as an opportunity to build resilience in our communities – in effect, to ‘build back better’.

22.2 Financial assistance is an important means to help individuals in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. However, the 2019‑2020 bushfires have demonstrated that we need to improve how this assistance is accessed. Navigating the complex system of recovery support can be traumatising. The assistance measures that are currently provided should be evaluated to ensure they are accessible and cover the range of needs and circumstances that arise following a natural disaster. In addition, delivering recovery support in a more accessible way, adopting case management services, and more effective communication can improve the recovery process.

22.3 The trauma experienced by individuals needing to tell their story multiple times to different recovery assistance providers highlights that personal information needs to be shared more effectively. Information sharing arrangements and platforms should be improved, while also appropriately balancing the need to protect personal information.

22.4 Self-mobilised community responses, providing a sense of purpose and essential relief, have increasingly become part of the recovery system. Ensuring that these responses are established safely and in a coordinated way will enhance recovery processes for future disasters and strengthen resilience of communities.

22.5 The Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA) is the primary mechanism for the Australian Government to provide financial assistance to state and territory governments in response to a disaster. However, state and territory governments should not rely solely on the DRFA to provide recovery support to their communities – they too must have appropriate funding arrangements in place.

22.6 There is scope of Australian, state and territory governments to improve the DRFA. Greater consistency of programs, and the development of pre-agreed programs, will facilitate the provision of more efficient and effective support to individuals, businesses and communities. DRFA processes should be streamlined to better incorporate the principle of ‘build back better’ to strengthen resilience in communities.

Recovery support for disaster affected communities

22.7 Natural disasters can disrupt communities or exacerbate underlying issues within them. Recovery measures attempt to restore and improve the lives of individuals by addressing the physical, economic, health, social and cultural impacts of a natural disaster. These impacts are often interlinked and tend to be long term and costly to individuals and their communities. [2387]

22.8 A common myth of recovery is that disaster affected people cannot look after themselves and need someone to ‘make it better’. We heard very clearly that individuals and communities want to be empowered to manage their own recovery through access to practical assistance. Responsibility for recovery is shared between governments, industry, businesses, insurers, non‑government organisations, communities and individuals. While these responsibilities may not be equal, collaboration with impacted communities is necessary to provide a range of recovery services.

22.9 Recovery support is intended to assist people in need, to help them ‘get back on their feet’, not cover the cost of replacing lost assets or income. It is not a substitute for being properly prepared for disasters, particularly by obtaining appropriate insurance. Recovery support should not create a disincentive for appropriate risk management. [2388]

Recovery in action following the 2019‑2020 bushfires

Figure 89: Recovery in action following the 2019‑2020 bushfires [2389]

Resilience and recovery

22.10 Recovery represents a significant proportion of disaster-related costs for governments and is only expected grow – as result of demographic changes and the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, driven by climate change. [2390] The anticipated collective cost to governments of recovery is forecast to increase to an average of $3.8 billion per year by 2050. [2391] This average does not include emergency response costs and does not factor in the consequence of a significant one‑off disaster. Funding provided for recovery significantly exceeds funding provided for mitigation. The Productivity Commission found that:

Government investment in mitigation is insignificant compared to post-disaster expenditure. For example, Australian Government mitigation spending was only 3 per cent of what it spent post-disaster in recent years. Mitigation expenditure by state governments is likely to be higher, but information on this expenditure is not comprehensive. Overall, the clear impression is one of insufficient investment in mitigation. [2392]

22.11 Greater investment in mitigating the effects of natural disasters and strengthening resilience can reduce the overall cost of recovering from them. This has been recognised in a broader whole‑of‑society shift to disaster resilience and risk reduction. The National Strategy for Disaster Resilience, developed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2011, established a national resilience based approach to disaster management. [2393] In 2015, Australia and other members of the United Nations adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 – 2030, which emphasised the importance of a ‘build back better’ approach to recovery. [2394] In March 2020, COAG endorsed the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, which included a national priority for enhanced investment in disaster risk reduction and resilience to decrease future disaster recovery costs. [2395]

22.12 Increasingly, natural disaster recovery has been recognised as an opportunity to build resilience in disaster affected communities [2396] – in effect, to ‘build back better’. Building back better, to a more resilient standard, will help communities withstand the impacts of future disasters. [2397]

22.13 In recognition of this, a number of state and territory governments have developed specific strategies that are focused on resilience. For example, one of the key focal points of Resilient Queensland, the implementation plan of the Queensland Strategy for Disaster Resilience, focuses on seeking new opportunities to reduce risk by improving disaster preparation, response and recovery. [2398] Similarly, Victoria has developed the Resilient Recovery Strategy in order to guide its recovery programs and services. [2399] Resilience NSW was established in the aftermath of the 2019‑2020 bushfires in order to focus investment, strategy and policy around building resilience, across different hazards, for disaster planning, preparation, response and recovery. [2400]

Recovery support

22.14 Recovery support to individuals in the early relief stage includes material aid to address basic needs, such as water, food and clothing, emergency and temporary accommodation and shelter. Once the immediate crisis passes, recovery support generally includes financial assistance and specialised services, such as legal assistance, insurance, financial counselling, building advice and primary industry or business assistance. Recovery can include a range of programs and initiatives aimed at addressing impacts across the built, social, economic and natural domains. The coordination of relief and recovery effort is discussed further in Chapter 21: Coordinating relief and recovery. Observations on typical recovery needs and services are in Appendix 25: Recovery Needs.

22.15 During and after the 2019‑2020 bushfires, a monumental level of recovery support was provided to disaster affected communities across Australia. We have conservatively estimated that, to date, over $8 billion has been provided for recovery; this is likely to be an underestimation – see Figure 90. This support was provided by all levels of government, non‑government organisations, charities and the private sector, to disaster affected individuals, small businesses and primary producers.

Recovery related expenditure for the 2019‑2020 bushfires

Figure 90: Recovery related expenditure for the 2019‑2020 bushfires [2401]

Financial assistance

22.16 A wide range of financial assistance measures are available for eligible individuals, small businesses and primary producers to support their recovery following a natural disaster. Financial assistance can take the form of grants, loans, payments, vouchers and in‑kind assistance – see Table 11. This assistance is provided to individuals and businesses, by Australian, state and territory governments and charities, such as the Australian Red Cross, St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army.

22.17 The Australian Government makes recovery payments directly to individuals affected by a disaster: the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment (AGDRP); the Disaster Recovery Allowance (DRA); and related ex-gratia assistance. [2402] During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, the Australian Government introduced an additional discretionary payment, the Additional Payment for Children, of $400 per eligible dependent child. [2403] This was a one-off payment automatically paid to principal carer parents eligible for the AGDRP. [2404]

22.18 As at 31 August 2020, a total of $252.3 million (204,596 claims) had been paid under AGDRP, DRA and the ex‑gratia equivalents for the 2019‑2020 bushfires. [2405] Further, as at 17 May 2020, a total of $33.8 million had been provided for the Additional Payment for Children (84,403 payments). [2406]

22.19 In addition to the AGDRP and DRA, the Australian Government may make alterations to other support payments. In the past this has included: making advance payments for income support (such as Austudy, Youth Allowance and JobSeeker Payment); altering the eligibility requirements for specific payments (such as creating an exemption to the Child Care Subsidy activity test for a specified period); or changing reporting requirements (such as creating exemptions to mutual obligations and automated reporting applicable to income support payments). [2407]

22.20 State and territory governments also provide financial assistance, specific to their jurisdiction. Common forms of assistance include: tax, rate and levy relief, emergency accommodation and other recovery programs – see Appendix 24: Recovery Supports for a list of measures provided during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. For instance, the SA Government is providing grants of up to $5,000 to eligible landholders, impacted by the Cudlee Creek bushfire, to help protect and restore natural resource assets, including soil, water, native vegetation and biodiversity. [2408]

22.21 Charities such as the Australian Red Cross, St Vincent de Paul Society and the Salvation Army also provide financial assistance to disaster affected individuals [2409] – in part through donations from businesses and communities. For example, during the 2019‑2020 bushfires, the Salvation Army provided a range of grants, including significant loss grants (a maximum of $3,000 per family unit) and total loss of residence grants (a maximum of $3,500 per household). [2410] These grants were partially funded by the Australian Government – which provided funding for cash payments of up to $1,000 on a one-off basis per household, where other forms of assistance were not appropriate. [2411] The Australian Red Cross provided emergency grants of up to $20,000 to support a person whose primary place of residence was destroyed. [2412]

22.22 The business community, similarly, has supported relief and recovery efforts following the 2019‑2020 bushfires. The Business Council of Australia has estimated that businesses donated about $70 million in both funding and in-kind contributions. [2413] The support provided by businesses included: the provision of paid leave to staff volunteering for the firefighting efforts, waived or delayed debts, financial donations to charities, pro‑bono provision of services (such as legal services, business advisory services, and financial advice), donation of food, water, animal feed and other essential items and financial assistance grants to bushfire-affected individuals and businesses. [2414]

Non-exhaustive list of financial assistance to individuals, small businesses and primary producers
Table 11: Non-exhaustive list of financial assistance to individuals, small businesses and
primary producers

Accessing financial assistance for recovery

22.23 Australian, state and territory governments tailored recovery assistance programs in response to the needs of affected communities. For example, in response to low take up of the $10,000 small business grants in Victoria, Bushfire Recovery Victoria, with the support of NSW and the National Bushfire Recovery Agency (NBRA), made changes to its application forms to make them easier to access. The NBRA also promoted grants directly to around 8,000 businesses in eligible areas by email to ABN holders in those areas. These actions saw an immediate and significant increase in applications for recovery support. [2415]

22.24 However, there were a number of barriers to affected individuals, small businesses and primary producers seeking available financial support, including: [2416]

This is ridiculous. You know, your house is burning down, the last thing you think about grabbing is a utilities bill. [2417]

  • repeating information to multiple agencies – individuals may need to repeat basic information to multiple organisations in order to obtain financial assistance, which can be traumatising and tiring
  • engagement fatigue – navigating the various support programs can be confusing, overwhelming and impact the mental health of applicants at a time of particular vulnerability
  • eligibility assumptions – individuals might self-assess that they may not be eligible for available supports, so do not attempt to access them, and
  • documentary requirements – the application processes for some forms of support can be burdensome and, immediately post‑disaster, many applicants are often not in a position to meet the information or evidentiary requirements of assistance.

22.25 Further, there may be overlap between the various forms of financial assistance that are available to individuals. Similar financial assistance programs, provided by governments and charities, differ in the level of support provided and their eligibility and documentary requirements – see Table 12 for a snapshot of some of the financial assistance measures provided to individuals. There may be an opportunity to consolidate financial assistance provided to individuals (which would reduce the need for multiple applications, and provide greater clarity and certainty to those seeking assistance).

Table 12: Examples of some of the financial assistance measures available to individuals

Assistance provided

Evidentiary requirements

Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment (AGDRP) [2418]

$1000 per adult and $400 per child - one off, non-means tested payment for eligible individuals who have been adversely affected as a result of a major disaster.

An application form must be completed and includes proof of identification. Applications can be initially submitted without identification documents but must be provided within 28 days.

Some claims require supporting documents to be provided, such as proof of hospital admission or evidence of damage to principal place of residence.

Emergency relief assistance in Northern Territory

(DRFA) [2419]

$507 per adult, $256 per child and up to $1,276 per family - assistance to meet basic needs in the first few days after a disaster.

A hard copy application is completed and a statutory declaration is included in the application to confirm information is true and correct. Territory Families can verify details through other government agencies. Photo identification (such as passport, drivers licence) or combination of non-photo identification is required.

Total Loss Grant (The Salvation Army) [2420]

$3,500 per household - to provide assistance to individuals and families in bushfire-impacted areas whose primary place of residence has been destroyed or rendered permanently uninhabitable.

  • At least one of the following must be provided:
  • building impact assessment
  • referral from state or territory staff
  • receipt of the AGDRP
  • local government confirmation of loss or level of damage
  • loss verified by combat agency or outreach worker
  • claims assessment from an insurer
  • letter from employee, or
  • identification with primary address of the disaster affected residence.

22.26 A number of state and territory governments have raised concerns about the effectiveness of existing financial assistance, such as concessional loans; noting their low uptake following a disaster. [2421] However, there have been limited evaluations to examine the effectiveness of different types of financial assistance measures. Evaluations are important in understanding whether recovery support provided to individuals, small businesses and primary producers is reaching the right people and is achieving its objectives. Several local government associations have suggested that any evaluations into the effectiveness of financial assistance measures should involve local government. [2422]

22.27 There is scope to improve the availability of assistance, to cover relative differences in need and level of impact, including indirect impacts. The Australian Government and most state and territory governments have agreed [2423] that there is merit in developing a broad spectrum of financial assistance to support the recovery of disaster affected communities. [2424] Ms Jennifer Westacott AO, Chief Executive Officer of the Business Council of Australia, told us, in particular, that there is value in early financial payments to deal with the disruption of income that follows a natural disaster. [2425]

…I talked to the friends of ours that run this business up the road and their first two weeks of January trade is normally [$60,000 to $70,000] and they had $6,000… and then it was like ‘Oh well, you know, you weren’t impacted because you weren’t burnt’. But people couldn’t get here and that was why they were impacted as much… [2426]

22.28 We agree that establishing a broad set of recovery assistance measures that are tied to the level of impact will ensure governments can quickly deploy assistance as the effect of a natural disaster becomes known. It would also promote consistency in the treatment of affected individuals and businesses and provide greater certainty to communities by avoiding changes in recovery policies and changes in eligibility months after the disaster (and in some cases after the worst of the economic damage had been suffered).

22.29 Consideration should be given to understanding recovery needs that are common to natural disasters and developing a broad suite of pre‑determined forms of assistance for individuals, small businesses and primary producers. This could include developing financial assistance models that scale according to the severity of impact on individuals to help address a broad range of needs and circumstances. There is also merit in regularly reviewing these measure to ensure they are effective.

Recommendation 22.1 Evaluation of financial assistance measures to support recovery

Australian, state and territory and local governments should evaluate the effectiveness of existing financial assistance measures to inform the development of a suite of pre‑effective pre‑determined recovery supports.

Delivery of recovery assistance

Recovery centre model

22.30 One of the most common methods to deliver streamlined recovery support following a natural disaster is through a recovery centre. A recovery centre is intended to be a single point of entry for disaster-affected individuals in which services and assistance from a range of recovery entities is provided – a ‘one stop shop’. [2427] The responsibility for establishing recovery centres varies between jurisdictions, with responsibility resting with either local governments or specific state and territory agencies. [2428]

22.31 The 2019‑2020 bushfires highlighted a number of limitations to the establishment of recovery centres and the provision and access of services from recovery centres. In particular, physical limitations and barriers, such as road closures, meant that some locations were inaccessible and recovery services were limited or slow to arrive. [2429]

22.32 A lack of space in recovery centres also limited the delivery of services. For example, the Salvation Army advised that they were unable to deliver emergency relief and financial counselling services at Parndana recovery centre (Kangaroo Island, SA), due to insufficient space when the recovery centre was established. [2430]

22.33 While a recovery centre is intended to be a ‘one stop shop’, in effect it can be a single location where many unintegrated recovery agencies are present, with little coordination between them. [2431] This was evident during the 2019‑2020 bushfires, where there was limited sharing of information, even between agencies present in the same recovery centres (see Information sharing in recovery below). In addition, we heard from the community that information sharing issues occurred due to a lack of sufficient handover processes and procedures when staff rotated through a recovery centre. [2432]

22.34 The recovery centre model assumes that those who need assistance will come and seek it. However, this could exclude large groups of disaster affected individuals. Following a disaster, individuals may be reluctant or unable to travel to the location in which a recovery centre has been established. [2433] This could be for a range of reasons: the impact of trauma, a lack of financial resources to travel or pay for fuel, loss of vehicles and telecommunications, and social isolation. [2434] Registering for call‑back (where a person provides their details to receive a call from a recovery worker at a later time), may also face some of these limitations. [2435]

22.35 Some governments conduct outreach to complement the delivery of services at recovery centres. For example, in NSW a number of local councils created mobile recovery centres which provided access to recovery services, normally available in fixed recovery centres, to isolated communities. [2436] Similarly, Services Australia and Service NSW deployed Mobile Service Centres to bushfire-affected communities, providing access to financial support. [2437] We heard that there is support for the expanded use of mobile recovery centres for future disasters. [2438]

22.36 While the support offered by both fixed and mobile recovery centres was acknowledged, we also heard concerns relating to their operating hours. Services Australia’s Mobile Service Centres, for example, typically operated between 10am to 3pm, seven days per week, [2439] making it difficult for some individuals to access recovery services while they also addressed other immediate recovery and personal needs. [2440]

22.37 The accessibility of recovery centres could be improved by expanding the use of mobile recovery centres and flexible or extended operating hours.

22.38 We heard even greater concern about the challenges in accessing information about the extent of services and assistance that were available, [2441] which can compound the effect of existing vulnerabilities. For example, recovery related information was often available through digital and online platforms, which may not be appropriate for groups with lower digital literacy skills, and may not reach, or be accessible to, those who do not have power or communications due to disaster-related disruptions. [2442]

22.39 During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, state and territory governments attempted to improve the communication and experience of accessing recovery support. For example, a number of state and territory governments adopted case management services (where individuals were provided with a single contact for advice and assistance, regular contact, follow up on enquiries, and given referrals and advocacy support) [2443] and a single point of contact for some recovery services, such as the assistance measures that were provided by Service NSW. [2444]

22.40 We heard from the Australian Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul Society that adopting a ‘one front door’ and case management system for recovery assistance should occur earlier in the recovery process. This would allow an individual to connect with a single recovery entity to access direct relief assistance and avoid multiple assessment processes; [2445] but this requires the sharing of data in order to be effective – see Information sharing in recovery below.

22.41 The early adoption of case management services and direct communication of available recovery support can improve experiences in accessing recovery support.

Self-mobilised community responses

22.42 During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, we observed self-mobilised community responses which were not connected with state and territory or local government arrangements. [2446] These responses, such as establishing community relief centres, provided affected communities with a sense of purpose, essential relief and provided governments and non‑government organisations with valuable local knowledge and community insight. [2447]

22.43 Self‑mobilised community responses were also established before formal government services arrived within the community. For example, we heard that a community-initiated recovery centre was established in Lobethal, SA following the 2019‑2020 bushfires. This informal recovery centre was established immediately after the threat of the fires passed. Due to the isolation the community had experienced, many were fearful of travelling 26 kilometres to the nearest regional centre in order to obtain recovery assistance. As such, the informal recovery centre fulfilled the community’s needs and operated for 16 days before a formal recovery centre was fully established within the community. [2448]

22.44 Self‑mobilised responses reflect the importance of community‑led recovery, as identified in the National Principles for Disaster Recovery. However, at times there were tensions between self‑mobilised community responses and formal recovery centres established by local or state and territory governments. These tensions centred on whether these community responses were necessary once a formal recovery centre was established. [2449] Certain attitudes within some parts of the emergency management sector may contribute to these tensions. These attitudes may include an overconfidence in standing operating procedures and perceptions that ad hoc responses are counterproductive following a disaster. [2450]

22.45 However, the emergency management sector must ensure the safety of the community. Communities may not be aware of health and safety requirements or have relevant training, such as how to deliver services in a trauma informed way. [2451] Therefore, it can be difficult for the emergency management sector to support the establishment of community relief centres where they are not confident that services are being delivered safely. We heard that self‑mobilised community responses could be supported through the provision of guidance material. [2452]

22.46 Integrating community responses in formal recovery processes can leverage existing community effort and goodwill.

22.47 State and territory governments and local governments should consider how to best to integrate self‑mobilised community responses in formal recovery arrangements. This could include easy to understand and accessible guidance on establishing a self‑mobilised community response.

Cobargo Community Relief Centre in NSW

Figure 91: Cobargo Community Relief Centre in NSW [2453]

Information sharing in recovery

…I was passed around from organisation to organisation. I had to spend days waiting in line to fill out forms, explain my situation to lots of different people and then wait wait wait to be told no. [2454]

22.48 We heard from affected community members of their frustration and the trauma of repeatedly recounting their experience to access assistance. [2455] Individuals seeking assistance were often re‑traumatised and fatigued by providing the same information to multiple relief and recovery organisations to obtain help. [2456]

22.49 This frustration appears to stem from the inability, or perceived inability, of different levels of government, organisations, and non-government organisations to share information with each other. We heard that the lack of information sharing significantly impacted the ability to plan recovery activities for communities, [2457] has hindered ‘certainty of assistance’ in recovery, [2458] and delayed support to some community members. [2459] We have identified a number of reasons why information was not shared: privacy obligations; a lack of awareness that information could be shared in certain circumstances; internal processes to verify information; and an absence of an effective information sharing system.

Privacy arrangements

22.50 In providing assistance, recovery agencies and organisations generally seek personal information and advice on disaster impacts, such as damage suffered. This information is typically sought to ensure that the appropriate level of assistance is provided, that the person is entitled to that assistance, and to mitigate against fraudulent claims – in essence, to ensure that the right help gets to the right people.

22.51 The Australian Government, and most state and territory governments, have legislation regulating the collection, use and disclosure of personal information. Use of personal information is generally limited to the purpose for which it was collected or for a purpose that is reasonably incidental to the original purpose. This becomes relevant in the recovery context when organisations collect personal information to assess eligibility for the recovery services they provide. However, because of privacy obligations, organisations are not able to provide the collected personal information to another recovery organisation, even if the personal information allows the second organisation to assess eligibility for their services.

22.52 The legislation governing privacy considerations are not uniform across Australia, [2460] and some state and territory privacy legislation restricts cross‑border information disclosure. [2461] It can be difficult for organisations to understand whether the disclosure of personal information in certain circumstances is permitted under one or more relevant privacy frameworks.

22.53 Charities, government and the private sector told us that the legal requirements regarding privacy acted as a barrier in the sharing of personal information. [2462] The NBRA indicated that the interplay between privacy legislation at state and federal level, constitutions of different agencies and operating governance arrangements can also be barriers to information sharing. [2463]

22.54 Some organisations and agencies err on the side of caution in relation to privacy obligations, even though legislation may not actually inhibit their ability to share information. [2464] We also heard of a lack of awareness of mechanisms that afforded greater flexibility in information sharing, such as a declaration made under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (Commonwealth Privacy Act).

Emergency declarations and consent

Australian Government emergency privacy declaration

22.55 On 20 January 2020, the Attorney-General, the Hon Christian Porter MP, made an emergency privacy declaration under the Commonwealth Privacy Act in relation to the 2019‑2020 bushfire season. The declaration was intended to allow the faster sharing of information about bushfire-affected individuals who needed immediate support. [2465] We note that, except for the NT, state and territory governments do not have an emergency declaration framework under their respective privacy legislation. [2466]

22.56 The declaration permits Australian Government agencies and private sector organisations subject to the Commonwealth Privacy Act to collect, use or disclose personal information that they might not otherwise be able to do for purposes related to the emergency or disaster. [2467] This includes, for example, assisting impacted individuals to obtain services such as medical treatment, health services, financial assistance or other humanitarian services. The declaration was credited with allowing greater information sharing between some parties, in particular, it allowed Services Australia to share information with the Australian Red Cross. [2468] It also allowed officers of the NBRA to ‘speak a little more comfortably when talking to their state partners about individual cases.’ [2469]

22.57 The emergency privacy declaration allows Australian Government agencies and private sector organisations, subject to the Commonwealth Privacy Act, to disclose information about affected individuals without their consent. However, this can only occur if the requirements in section 80P of the Commonwealth Privacy Act are complied with. These requirements include: that the agency or organisation reasonably believes that the individual may be involved in the emergency or disaster; the disclosure is for a permitted purpose; and the disclosure is to a relevant entity or agency. [2470]

22.58 The emergency privacy declaration does not, however, facilitate personal information sharing between state and territory agencies, or allow state and territory governments to share personal information with Australian Government agencies. [2471] While efforts were made to publicise the emergency privacy declaration, [2472] we heard that general awareness of it was limited. [2473] The last privacy declaration prior to the 2019‑2020 bushfires was in 2011, and the Attorney-General’s Department has said that, in 2020, most stakeholders initially had a limited understanding of the purpose or utility of the declaration. [2474]

Consent-based approaches to sharing information

22.59 The NBRA advocated for a ‘no wrong door’ and ‘one‑stop‑shop’ approach to recovery. [2475] Given full effect, this would allow an individual to access all relevant assistance regardless of the agency they approach, and would only need to tell their story once. [2476] These approaches require processes to enable the exchange of personal information between recovery service providers.

22.60 Some states have adopted a consent-based approach to the sharing of information to streamline recovery support. For example, NSW agencies sought consent from individuals to allow Service NSW to share personal information it collected with a select number of charities to facilitate the provision of recovery services following the bushfires. [2477]

22.61 A potential limitation of consent-based approaches is that they are only effective where consent is in fact given. This would, for example, make it difficult to use information for the purpose of proactively offering support to people. Consent must cover all the agencies and organisations with which the information is to be shared (or be otherwise able to be shared in accordance with the relevant privacy arrangements).

Improvements to sharing of personal information

22.62 Greater information sharing would improve the provision of recovery assistance and services. This would assist individuals in applying for government financial assistance, [2478] enable proactive contact of affected individuals, [2479] improve local government recovery support delivery, [2480] and support the verification of claims for support. [2481] Sharing personal information between insurers, state and territory government agencies and non-government organisations may also be beneficial, given that insurers have information relevant to recovery needs from their engagement with their customers. However, while there are benefits from greater information sharing in the recovery process, these must be balanced with the need, and obligation, to protect sensitive personal information appropriately.

22.63 The ability for recovery support organisations to facilitate a ‘no wrong door’ approach through the appropriate sharing of personal information will depend on the legislative provisions for consent and the circumstances in which, and the extent to which, information can be shared.

22.64 Better sharing of information would also benefit from technical solutions that facilitate this. State governments and non-government organisations have identified the need for an information sharing platform. [2482]

22.65 The NBRA considers there to be merit in exploring, together with States, Territories and trusted charities, the potential of national technology and mechanisms to assist to shift the burden from individuals having to chase support, to a national bureaucracy coordinating and proactively delivering support’. [2483] The challenges in developing and delivering technical solutions spanning across governments and the non-government sector are great [2484] – successive reviews in unrelated contexts draw out the technical, legal, financial and practical challenges in information sharing platforms – but, having regard to the trauma caused, merit consideration. The NBRA indicated that it is proactively taking steps towards this goal.

22.66 There are also other innovative solutions being explored. Services Australia has suggested that there may be opportunity to ‘harness real time geospatial mapping to assist streamlining claims and determine eligibility around the proximity of an applicant’s principal place of residence to areas burnt by bushfires’. [2485] The Digital Transformation Agency’s ‘NationalMap’, which allows public access to geospatial datasets uploaded by public and private sectors, [2486] could be part of that solution.

22.67 In addition, the Digital Transformation Agency, in partnership with the WA, SA, Queensland, Victorian and NSW governments, will map and analyse the end‑to-end experience of a person interacting with governments during a natural disaster, including the individual steps a person needs to take to access services, and identify problem areas and gaps in data sharing. [2487]

22.68 Technical solutions for information sharing to improve delivery of recovery should be explored by all levels of government, business, charities and others providing recovery assistance.

Recommendation 22.2 Appropriate sharing of personal information

Australian, state and territory governments should ensure that personal information of individuals affected by a natural disaster is able to be appropriately shared between all levels of government, agencies, insurers, charities and organisations delivering recovery services, taking account of all necessary safeguards to ensure the sharing is only for recovery purposes.

Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements

22.69 The Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA) is the primary national funding arrangement which supports recovery efforts following a disaster – replacing the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (NDRRA). The DRFA is a joint agreement between Australian, state and territory governments to alleviate the financial cost of disasters and facilitate the early provision of assistance to disaster affected communities. [2488] The DRFA is a funding mechanism; it is not a framework for recovery and resilience. [2489]

22.70 The existence of the DRFA recognises that these events can result in significant costs which can overwhelm the financial capacity of state and territory governments. The DRFA acts as a safety net for state and territory governments. It is premised on providing support when the impacts of a natural disaster are likely to test or exceed the ability of state and territory governments to respond directly themselves.

22.71 The DRFA specifies four categories of assistance – Categories A, B, C and D – see Table 13. The Australian Government provides partial reimbursement for assistance measures, provided by state and territory governments, which fall within these categories. [2490] State and territory governments determine which affected individuals and communities receive assistance and the nature of the assistance available. They are also responsible for the delivery of DRFA measures, although this could occur through a third party, including local government.

22.72 State and territory governments are not, of course, limited to funding assistance provided under the DRFA. They can provide whatever assistance they deem appropriate to support the recovery of disaster affected communities. [2491] However, only measures identified in the DRFA are able to be reimbursed by the Australian Government.

22.73 In general, Australian Government funding under the DRFA is provided on a reimbursement basis. This means that state and territory governments must first incur the costs of recovery and then submit a claim to the Australian Government for reimbursement. In exceptional circumstances, the Australian Government may provide pre‑payments (or advance payments) for specific recovery activities or measures. During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, the Australian Government provided advance payments to NSW, Queensland, SA and Victoria totalling over $75 million. [2492]

22.74 State and territory governments have approximately 24 months to submit a claim for most assistance measures (an exception is that they must submit a cost estimation for the reconstruction of essential public assets within 12 months). State and territory governments must have a claim audited before it can be submitted to the Australian Government.

Table 13: Assistance measures under the DRFA [2493]



Category A

(Clause 4.2)

Assistance to individuals to alleviate personal hardship or distress arising as a direct result of a disaster, such as emergency food and essential housing repairs.

Category B

(Clause 4.3)

Assistance to the state, territory, and/or local governments for the restoration of essential public assets and certain counter-disaster operations. It also includes concessional loans, subsidies or grants to small businesses, primary producers, non-profit organisations and needy individuals.

Category C

(Clause 4.4)

Assistance for severely affected communities, regions or sectors, and includes clean-up and recovery grants for small businesses and primary producers and/or the establishment of a Community Recovery Fund. Category C assistance is only made available when the impact of a disaster is severe. Requires the Prime Minister’s approval.

Category D

(Clause 4.5)

Exceptional circumstances assistance beyond Categories A, B and C. Category D assistance is generally considered once the impact of the disaster has been assessed and specific recovery gaps identified. Requires the Prime Minister’s approval.

22.75 The DRFA also enables assistance at the local government level. State and territory governments have arrangements in place with local governments, which largely mirror the DRFA – see Appendix 23 – Recovery Arrangements. For example, the South Australian Local Government Disaster Recovery Assistance Arrangements assist local governments with a range of costs, including counter-disaster operations (such as sandbagging and bushfire control lines) and the reconstruction of essential public assets. [2494] These jurisdictional arrangements outline eligible costs for local governments which can be reimbursed by the state or territory, and ultimately, through the DRFA.

22.76 Further information on the recovery supports provided by each state and territory government during the 2019‑2020 bushfires, under the DRFA, is at Appendix 24: Recovery Supports.

22.77 The DRFA provides financial assistance to state and territory governments for eligible disasters, which is natural disaster or terrorist act for which: a coordinated multi‑agency response was required; and eligible state or territory expenditure exceeds, or is expected to exceed, $240,000 per event (the ‘small disaster criterion’).

22.78 The DRFA is automatically triggered for Category A and Category B assistance once eligible state or territory expenditure exceeds the small disaster criterion – Australian Government action or approval is not required. [2495] When this occurs, the state and territory government notifies Emergency Management Australia and a joint media release is issued announcing the particular assistance that has been made available. [2496]

22.79 The level of Australian Government funding provided under the DRFA, for Category A and B, is dependent on state and territory expenditure exceeding specified financial year thresholds. [2497] The first threshold for a state or territory is 0.225 per cent of its general government sector revenue and the second threshold is 1.75 times the first threshold.

22.80 These thresholds reflect the fact that the DRFA is intended to be a safety net for state and territory governments; supporting them when the impacts of a disaster can overwhelm their capacity. Figure 93 provides a simplified overview of the DRFA process and the interaction of the small disaster criterion and financial thresholds.

22.81 Financial assistance under Categories C and D of the DRFA requires an application by state and territory governments and the approval of the Prime Minister. [2498] The rate of Australian Government reimbursement for Category C is 50 per cent of costs and is not dependent on financial thresholds. Reimbursement for Category D is typically 50 per cent of the costs of those measures but is ultimately at the discretion of the Australian Government.

22.82 In March 2020, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to review the DRFA. [2499] Subsequently, in June 2020, emergency ministers across Australia agreed the scope of the review would focus on exploring opportunities to streamline processes, ensure consistency in the assistance available to communities, develop pre‑agreed recovery programs and better incorporate betterment and resilience. [2500]

Hailstorm damage in Canberra, January 2020

Figure 92: Hailstorm damage in Canberra, January 2020 [2501]

Reimbursement under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements

Figure 93: Reimbursement under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements [2502]

Funding under the DRFA

22.83 Since 2014‑15, the DRFA (and its predecessor, the NDRRA) has been used to provide financial assistance for recovery for over 250 natural disaster events. Over this period, state and territory governments have identified approximately $5.6 billion in eligible expenditure for which they are seeking partial reimbursement under these arrangements [2503] – see Figure 94. This amount is expected to grow significantly as a result of the 2019‑2020 bushfires. Initial estimates, submitted by state and territory governments in May 2020, contain bushfire-related expenditure totalling $2.6 billion. [2504]

Comparison of eligible state and territory expenditure under the NDRRA and DRFA.

Figure 94: Comparison of eligible state and territory expenditure under the NDRRA and DRFA. [2505]

Thresholds and activation of the DRFA

22.84 In the context of the 2019‑2020 bushfires, we heard that small communities were unable to access recovery assistance as they did not reach the $240,000 threshold (in physical damage) for assistance. For example, the Norseman Bushfire Complex burnt approximately 546,000 hectares in the Goldfields‑Esperance region of WA, affecting the Shires of Dundas [2506] and Coolgardie. [2507] We heard that this was, at least in part, because impact assessments do not capture less tangible impacts, such as the effect of the closure of the Eyre Highway [2508]122 – which links WA to the eastern states.

22.85 However, in instances such as these, we consider that state and territory governments should have recovery arrangements in place to allow for the provision of financial assistance to affected local governments. State and territory governments should not solely rely upon the DRFA as a means of providing financial assistance to support the recovery of disaster affected communities.

…we only got to $105,000. Now, keeping in mind $240,000 is 10 per cent of my revenue that [the Shire raises] in every year. So - and that for us that is significant. [2509]

22.86 We heard that the ‘small disaster criterion’ has a disproportionate impact on the less populous state and territory governments. The loss or damage of eligible assets in these areas is likely to have a relatively greater impact than the loss of the same assets in more populous jurisdictions.

22.87 If the ‘small disaster criterion’ is not reached, smaller local, state and territory governments would need to absorb a higher percentage of recovery costs when compared to larger jurisdictions. [2510] Further, the ‘small disaster criterion’ is based on single events and does not take into account the cumulative financial impact of responding and recovering from small scale but frequent or cascading disasters. [2511]

22.88 However, Victoria and WA consider that the ‘small disaster criterion is set at an appropriate level’. Victoria argued that lowering the criterion could result in assistance being provided for small scale incidents and may act as a disincentive for personal risk management. WA suggested that there may be merit in reviewing the types of impact which should contribute to the small disaster criterion.

22.89 We heard other concerns about the DRFA financial thresholds. SA has noted that the first threshold (0.225 per cent of total government sector revenue) is a high barrier. [2512] The Local Government Association of Queensland has recommended the financial thresholds should be reduced, [2513] and Emergency Management Australia considers that financial thresholds merit review. [2514]

22.90 We note that some state and territory governments have developed recovery arrangements that cover natural disasters in circumstances where the DRFA does not provide cover. For example, in Queensland, the State Disaster Relief Arrangements provides for a broader range of disaster events than the DRFA. [2515] Similarly, the Victorian Natural Disaster Financial Assistance scheme does similar assistance measures to the DRFA for disaster events in excess of $100,000. [2516]

22.91 There should not be an expectation that the DRFA will apply to all natural disasters or cover all loss and damage from these disasters. While the DRFA is a safety net for state and territory governments, it should not take away from the responsibility of state and territory governments to provide recovery assistance to their disaster affected communities.

22.92 Recognising that the DRFA is intended to be a safety net, state and territory governments should have recovery arrangements in place which provide financial assistance in circumstances when the DRFA does not apply.

Recommendation 22.3 Review the thresholds and activation process for the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements

In reviewing the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements, Australian, state and territory governments should examine the small disaster criterion, and financial thresholds generally.

Consistency in financial assistance measures

22.93 Categories A and B of the DRFA provide a range of financial assistance measures for individuals, small businesses and primary producers. These are measures that state and territory governments can provide and which the Australian Government is willing to partially reimburse. State and territory governments have the flexibility to set the type and amount of assistance provided. As a consequence, the level of assistance provided varies between jurisdictions [2517] – see Table 14 for an overview of Category A assistance provided by state and territory governments. The variation in the type and level of assistance can raise issues of equity across geographical areas, [2518] which can be particularly acute for those living in border communities.

[in Towong] we have a number of properties that span the NSW and Victorian border… in many cases they had a NSW address rendering them incapable or they were simply told they were unable to apply for the Victorian grant… [2519]

22.94 In addition, changes to the level of assistance provided between natural disaster events can result in inconsistencies in treatment over time.

22.95 Some state and territory governments did not have the administrative processes and guidelines to provide some forms of assistance. For example, the ACT, due to its limited experience with natural disasters, did not have systems in place, prior to the 2019‑2020 bushfires, to provide recovery grants and loans. [2520] The inconsistency in financial assistance measures across jurisdictions was one of the reasons why Australian, state and territory governments worked together, during the 2019‑2020 bushfires, to create nationally consistent loans and grants for small businesses and primary producers. [2521]

Damaged road in Queensland as a result of ex‑Cyclone Debbie in 2017

Figure 95: Damaged road in Queensland as a result of ex‑Cyclone Debbie in 2017 [2522]

Table 14: Snapshot of standard Category A assistance provided by state and territory governments

Emergency assistance


NSW [2523]

Immediate assistance, including food, clothing, personal items and emergency accommodation. Typically provided as in‑kind assistance.

Assistance may be in-kind or in the form of a cash grant depending on the approved applicant’s circumstances.

VIC [2524]

Individual: $560 (adult) / $280 (child)

Max: $1,960

Emergency relief assistance - to meet the immediate needs of families/individuals for emergency food, water, clothing, medication, transport or alternative accommodation.

Household: $42,250

Re-establishment assistance - assistance is provided where an individual’s principal place is rendered uninhabitable or inaccessible for more than seven days. The home must be uninsured and expenses or losses not covered by compensation or other forms of assistance such as charitable donations. Assistance is means tested.

QLD [2525]

Individuals: $180

Families: up to $900 (family of five)

Emergency Hardship Assistance - a grant to address immediate needs. Applicants are required to complete an application form, certifying they are suffering hardship and provide proof of identity and residency.

Single adult: $10,995

Families/couples: $14,685

Structural Assistance Grant – assistance applies to owner-occupied home, that are not insured for the damage caused by the disaster, and where the income test criteria is met.

WA [2526]

Individual: $200

Family: $800

Emergency assistance grant and in-kind assistance for temporary living arrangements. This assistance helps support people who have been evacuated or are stranded to meet their immediate and basic needs.

Household: $10,000

Caravans: $5,000

Assistance applies to owner-occupied homes and is means tested.

SA [2527]

Individual: $280 (adult) / $140 (child)

Max: $700

Personal Hardship Grants - provided to people who have had to evacuate their homes and for those who cannot yet return home because roads remain blocked.

Household: up to $10,000

Re-establishment grants – assistance for house repairs is provided to owner-occupiers where an income test is met, and losses are not being met by insurance, compensation or other assistance measures.

TAS [2528]

Family: up to $1,000

Emergency assistance grant - grants to assist people to obtain essential and appropriate shelter, clothing, food, transport and/or personal items.

Household: up to $9,400

Repair and restoration grant - must be unable to occupy their principle place of residence due to severe damage, and satisfy means testing.

ACT [2529]

Individual: $200

Emergency financial support - immediate assistance grants and in-kind assistance for temporary accommodation (two days, which can be reassessed and extended based on need).

Not provided.

NT [2530]

Individuals: $507 (adult) / $256 (child)

Families: up to $1,276

Immediate Relief Payment - assistance to meet basic needs in the first few days after a disaster.

Household: up to $14,036

Essential household repairs – assistance for properties in the impacted area and impact to property is likely to have occurred by the event. Assistance is means tested.

22.96 We recognise the arguments put forward by some state and territory governments [2531] of the importance of retaining flexibility in the DRFA to provide recovery support based on genuine need, rather than aspire for consistency between jurisdictions. [2532] However, creating more nationally consistent financial assistance measures, including eligibility criteria, application and administrative processes, would help create a common Australian experience when recovering from a natural disaster. [2533] Consistent financial assistance measures under the DRFA would not preclude governments from providing additional financial assistance should the need arise.

Recommendation 22.4 Nationally consistent Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements assistance measures

Australian, state and territory and local governments should develop greater consistency in the financial support provided to individuals, small businesses and primary producers under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements.

Pre-agreed recovery programs

22.97 In addition to Category A and B assistance, the DRFA also allows for additional assistance for severe disasters and in exceptional circumstances – through Categories C (assistance for severely affected communities) and D (exceptional circumstances assistance for recovery). The cost of this assistance is generally shared between the Australian Government and the relevant state or territory government. [2534]

So, in some cases, you know, even with some of the [$10,000] small business grants, the announcements were made and we still had to do the work to finalise the guidelines, finalise the delivery arrangements in Victoria, which left a bit of a lag. [2535]

22.98 It is apparent that developing new recovery programs as a disaster is unfolding, as was the case during the 2019‑2020 bushfires, is inefficient. New recovery programs require the establishment of administrative processes and guidelines, which can delay assistance. [2536] It also leads to unnecessary and inequitable inconsistences in the assistance provided to disaster affected individuals.

22.99 For the communities in need of assistance, the rapid announcement and creation of recovery programs resulted in confusion. The roll‑out of the coordinated clean‑up program, co‑funded by the Australian Government and the governments of NSW, Victoria and SA under Category D of the DRFA, highlighted the community confusion. While affected communities and individuals appreciated the assistance, the scope and eligibility of the clean‑up program were not always clearly understood – the program at times delivered less than the community had anticipated [2537] and uncertainty contributed to clean-up delays. This was compounded by a perception of limited consultation and coordination with or between, governments and delivery agencies, prior to the announcement of the clean‑up program: [2538]

…a range of funding initiatives were announced by [the NBRA], to be implemented by the states…The lack of state consultation prior to the decision-making resulted in criteria that didn’t meet the current DRFA arrangements, states having to retrofit new processes into existing ones… [2539]

22.100 There are also gaps in the assistance provided through the DRFA in respect of certain needs that regularly arise out of natural disasters. We have previously noted that a number of social issues can emerge after a natural disaster, such as family violence, and this can lead to an urgent demand for legal assistance and social services. There is also the question of limited access to funding for environmental and ecological recovery and rehabilitation; or for indirect economic impacts, such as the loss of tourism following a natural disaster. [2540]

22.101 These impacts could be mitigated through the development of a suite of nationally agreed recovery funding programs. Establishing pre‑agreed assistance packages would ensure that governments can respond quickly, effectively and consistently. It would allow delivery agencies, as well as all levels of government, to train staff and develop administrative processes, including guidelines and eligibility criteria, prior to a disaster occurring. This would reduce the time from damage to decision to delivery, as all stakeholders would be familiar with the basic components of the recovery program. [2541]

22.102 Australian, state and territory governments have already recognised the value of pre‑agreed recovery programs – and this aspect is a key focus of the review of the DRFA. [2542] Emergency Management Australia is identifying common gaps in recovery assistance that are not currently addressed by standard recovery programs, and to identify where pre‑agreed programs are needed. [2543]

22.103 Pre‑agreed recovery programs can allow for the timely, efficient and equitable distribution of assistance following a natural disaster. Pre-agreed programs should cover a wide range of circumstances and needs and set agreed: thresholds for activation, extent of assistance to be funded, cost-sharing arrangements and eligibility criteria.

22.104 During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, a number of assistance measures were provided under the National Bushfire Recovery Fund. These measures include: coordinated clean­‑up assistance, immediate assistance to local governments and legal assistance services to support bushfire relief and recovery [2544] – see Appendix 24: Recovery Supports. These measures could be developed into pre‑agreed recovery programs, given the overlapping responsibilities between Australian, state and territory governments and the reliance on state and territory governments for the delivery of specific initiatives.

There may be more responsive mechanisms to target funding and other support to the legal assistance sector during and after a natural disaster. For example, consideration could be given to the use of pre-existing Commonwealth funding mechanisms with the States and Territories including natural disaster funding arrangements and legal assistance funding arrangements. [2545]

22.105 All levels of government should, after each disaster event, re-evaluate the types of recovery assistance that were provided to determine its efficacy and identify any lessons. This would allow for the identification of additional or updated assistance requirements that could be negotiated and included in a suite of programs under the DRFA.

Recommendation 22.5 Develop nationally consistent, pre‑agreed recovery programs

Australian, state and territory governments should expedite the development of pre‑agreed recovery programs, including those that address social needs, such as legal assistance domestic violence, and also environmental recovery.

Box 22.1 Family violence and natural disasters

… [it was] escalating to the point where I seriously feared for my life. I just thought, because he was so out of control, one of these days he is going to end up killing me - Survivor following the 2009 Victorian bushfires [2546]

Natural disasters are often linked with increased rates of family violence and have been qualitatively well‑documented, particularly from service providers. Natural disasters can increase the intensity of existing family violence incidents and can also trigger new violent behaviours in relationships that had previously been described as ‘settled and happy’ relationships. [2547]

Following the 2010‑2011 Queensland floods, the Ipswich Women’s Centre Against Domestic Violence reported a spike in cases of family violence. [2548] Similarly, after the 2009 Victorian bushfires, women residing in highly affected communities were seven times more likely to experience violence compared to low impact communities. [2549]

…people having lost their homes, having to live in cramped, temporary accommodation, unemployment, a lack of childcare, roads being closed … disruption to people’s routines — all these things can increase tension. [2550]

Many of the areas affected by the 2019‑2020 bushfires had high levels of domestic and family violence before the fires struck. [2551] For example, the Glen Innes Severn local government area had 673.6 domestic violence related incidents per 100,000 people (24th highest in NSW). [2552]

Stress is often cited as the key reason for increased family violence following a natural disaster. Increased homelessness, unemployment and financial stress and are common stressors and are characteristic of the recovery period. [2553] Natural disasters disrupt key social services, including family violence services, and in some cases these services may already be at capacity when a natural disaster occurs. [2554] Gender norms, particularly stereotypes of masculinity and loss of control, also affect the dynamics of family violence. [2555]

Research on family violence has emphasised the need for clear guidelines and strategies to address family violence, accurate family violence statistics recorded by all personnel responding to disaster, and training in family violence identification and referral. [2556]

Betterment and resilience

22.106 Increasingly, successful recovery has been recognised as an opportunity to prepare for, and build resilience to, future disasters [2557] – in effect, to ‘build back better’. Upfront investment in stronger infrastructure and more resilient communities can save money for all levels of government in the long-term. Building more resilient infrastructure is a responsibility of all levels of government and should not be limited to a single program or funding mechanism.

[for the DRFA] ‘betterment’ is considered to be the restoration or replacement of a damaged essential public asset to a significantly more disaster resilient standard than its pre‑disaster standard… [2558]

22.107 A concern put to us by state and territory governments and local governments, is the need to include the concept of ‘betterment’ within the DRFA. Reconstructing infrastructure to a more resilient standard will incur higher costs in the short term. However, over the long term, it can generate savings by reducing the likelihood of assets being re‑damaged in a subsequent natural disaster.

22.108 We have, however, observed some misconceptions and misunderstandings of the extent to which infrastructure can be made more resilient through the DRFA. [2559] Under Category B of the DRFA, funding for reconstruction is limited to that necessary to restore to a ‘pre‑disaster function’. [2560]

22.109 However, Category B does allow for the adoption of alternative, resilience‑based approaches to the reconstruction of damaged assets. The Australian Government has advised that this could include the: use of modern building, design and construction standards; use of contemporary building materials; use of different asset types (such as replacing a destroyed bridge with a culvert system); and relocation of an asset to a more suitable location. [2561] This means that essential public assets can be rebuilt to a higher standard, but funding will only be provided under the DRFA to restore the asset to its ‘pre‑disaster function’.

22.110 We are aware that the review of the DRFA is exploring opportunities for new national guidance on Category B reconstruction works and betterment, in order to generate greater investment in disaster-resilient infrastructure. [2562]

22.111 The DRFA also allows for funding to be provided for the ‘betterment’ of infrastructure – that is significantly improving its resilience – through Category D of the DRFA. [2563] Under this category, betterment funding is discretionary, to be agreed by the Prime Minister in exceptional circumstances. [2564] Betterment funding under Category D has only been approved on four occasions, all in Queensland and in response to damage from Cyclone Oswald in 2013, Tropical Cyclone Marcia in 2015, Severe Tropical Cyclones Debbie in 2017, and North and Far North Queensland Monsoon Trough in 2019. [2565]

22.112 Queensland has advised us that approximately 260 of the total 370 betterment projects that have been funded since the 2017 Betterment Fund have been impacted by 16 subsequent natural disaster events. Of these, 96% remained undamaged or sustained only superficial damage, representing approximately $145 million in avoided reconstruction costs. [2566]

…councils are very financially constrained in being able to source the additional funding that may be needed to enable betterment, and hence councils are very reliant on funding from the State governments or the Federal Government to close that gap… [2567]

22.113 Approval for betterment under the DRFA requires state and territory governments to put forward a business case for approval. This process can be administratively burdensome and requires a significant level of expertise to develop [2568] – Queensland has robust and internationally renowned resilience and betterments systems and processes, including a Betterment Framework, which have been developed over many years. [2569]

22.114 The absence of specific guidance on relevant criteria and national standards for betterment criteria makes it difficult for state and territory governments to construct compelling business cases for betterment funding. [2570] It is important for betterment funding to be targeted to areas that result in the greatest reduction in risk.

22.115 Given the objective of the DRFA, it is important that any changes to betterment, do not create a disincentive for proper asset management and maintenance. Emergency Management Australia has also raised the importance of developing betterment principles which promote the use of climate and disaster risk information to inform betterment decisions, and explore insurance options for ‘bettered’ assets. [2571] These principles align with a broader approach to disaster risk outlined in the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework and the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience.

22.116 There is value in the development of national standards for betterment and more explicitly support and betterment under the DRFA. These standards should include assurance requirements relating to proper asset management, climate and disaster risk and insurance requirements.

22.117 Most state, territory and local governments have argued that ‘betterment’ funding should be incorporated within the reconstruction of essential public asset provisions of Category B. [2572] This would allow for the consideration of betterment funding on a project by project basis, rather than state and territory governments having to develop a consolidated business case. [2573] This would allow for the more timely consideration of betterment components, which is consistent with community expectations that infrastructure will be restored quickly after a natural disaster. [2574]

22.118 To ensure accountability of taxpayer funding, appropriate decision-making and assessment frameworks would need to support any inclusion of betterment funding through Category B. [2575]

22.119 If Australian, state and territory governments include betterment provisions within Category B of the DRFA, we consider that it would be appropriate to include appropriate assurance mechanisms, such as: value for money, proper asset management, and insurance options for ‘bettered’ assets.

22.120 State, territory and local governments should have an appropriate understanding of the DRFA. Australian, state and territory governments should develop and provide national guidance and regular training on the DRFA. This could include a broad range of issues, including the eligibility of reconstruction works and betterment.

Recommendation 22.6 Better incorporate ‘build back better’ within the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements

Australian, state and territory governments should incorporate the principle of ‘build back better’ more broadly into the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements.

22.121 The DRFA currently does not incentivise or prioritise resilience. [2576] It is limited in its ability to funding greater resilience in communities through recovery. For example, Category D of the DRFA is intended to provide assistance in circumstances which the Australian Government considers ‘exceptional’. [2577] However, Category D includes a specific limitation which prohibits the development of new infrastructure, [2578] even if it was necessary to support the recovery of disaster affected communities.

22.122 As previously observed in Chapter 21: Coordinating relief and recovery, the recovery process is complex and multifaceted and provides an important opportunity to prepare for future disasters. Following the 2019‑2020 bushfires, the NBRA noted the importance of facilitating new economic opportunities and promoting regional development, including those driven by infrastructure; bolstering recovery at industry or sector levels; and reducing disaster risk and building future resilience. These priorities were identified by the NBRA through direct engagement with local communities. [2579]

22.123 The limitations in the DRFA meant that it could not fund all aspects of recovery and resilience building during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. [2580] Financial recovery support for 2019‑2020 bushfires was provided through both DRFA and bespoke programs to fund additional costs not currently within scope for DRFA. Maintaining separate funding programs to facilitate recovery is inefficient – each of these programs have different governance, delivery and audit and assurance arrangements. [2581] Reforming Category D assistance within the DRFA would help create a single fit‑for‑purpose program for recovery and complement and enable the development of pre‑agreed recovery programs.

22.124 For the reconstruction of public infrastructure, the DRFA places emphasis on reinstatement rather than betterment. [2582] However, the DRFA should not be viewed as the only means of creating and funding more resilient infrastructure. This is a responsibility shared across all levels of government and range of funding mechanisms. We note that any approach that is predicated on the ‘loss of an asset’ invites inefficiencies and inequities, particularly where new asset funding is made available.

22.125 Government funding provided for resilience should maximise risk reduction, scaled based on the level of investment, regardless of whether an asset has been affected by a disaster.

Recommendation 22.7 Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements recovery measures to facilitate resilience

Australian, state and territory governments should broaden Category D of the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements to encompass funding for recovery measures that are focused on resilience, including in circumstances which are not ‘exceptional’.

DRFA process and eligible expenditure

22.126 The granting of financial assistance under Categories C and D of the DRFA requires an application by state and territory governments and the approval of the Prime Minister. [2583] The sudden onset of disasters and their immediate impact requires governments to act quickly and to ensure the urgent provision of recovery assistance.

22.127 We heard that the current activation process for Category C assistance is administratively burdensome, which may delay the provision of recovery assistance to affected communities. The process requires state and territory governments to demonstrate impacts against pre-determined indicators, at a local government area level. [2584] Prior to being able to receive assistance, state and territory governments must demonstrate that:

  • the community is at risk of losing essential businesses as a direct result of the disaster
  • there is measurable loss or reduction in essential services in the community
  • there is measurable loss or damage to essential public assets
  • more than five community facilities have been destroyed and/or damaged, and
  • more than five community activities have ceased and/or been disrupted.

…fires don’t respect borders. Fires don’t respect Local Government borders. [2585]

22.128 The Category C activation process relies heavily on the availability of impact data. However, the data required for the Category C assessment process do not always align with impact assessments and situation reports conducted by state and territory governments – necessitating additional data collection during a disaster. [2586] The focus on demonstrating impacts within a local government area can also restrict the provision of assistance. To be eligible for assistance an individual or business would need to be located within a local government area in which the Category C indicators can be demonstrated – rather than an assessment on a needs basis. [2587]

…my view was I’m not really sure what is a postcode lottery around bushfires in terms of grant funding, and ideally there’s a package that’s put together that irrespective of what State line you sit on… [2588]

22.129 During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, given the difficulty in undertaking assessments against the required indicators while a disaster was unfolding, the Prime Minister, the Hon Scott Morrison MP agreed to a national exemption to the normal requirements of the Category C assessment process. This was to ensure that assistance could be provided quickly, and without diverting resources from the recovery effort for administrative purposes. [2589] The exemption allowed state and territory governments to make assistance available through an application and assessment process. We heard from many stakeholders that this exemption was very helpful and promoted timely recovery support. [2590]

22.130 On 8 September 2020, the Australia-New Zealand Emergency Management Committee agreed to trial a streamlined process to activate Category C assistance under the DRFA, over the 2020-21 disaster season. A key element of this process is the removal of the current impact indicators and a greater emphasis on contextual and qualitative information. [2591]

22.131 The provision of recovery assistance, under the DRFA, should be based on need within communities, rather than being based on geographical areas which meet predefined impact indicators. Any change in process needs to be clear, simple and consistently applied.

22.132 Given that Category C assistance requires the approval of the Prime Minister and the relevant First Minister, the approval process may inhibit the delivery of assistance to the community. In some jurisdictions a decision of their Cabinet may be required:

While there is standing approval for funding to be available for immediate response and relief measures…funding for all other recovery programs is sought through the South Australian Government Cabinet… Where possible, authority to make decisions about joint funding for DRFA eligible programs or services that are consistently approved in most events with well established guidelines (such as a community recovery fund), should be given to Senior Officers. [2592]

22.133 Activation of Category C and D measures could be further streamlined through appropriate delegations. This could allow for the faster provision of recovery assistance to disaster affected communities, for example, by delegation to ministers responsible for emergency management – particularly for measures which have been pre‑agreed.

22.134 Some state, territory and local governments expressed the opinion that the reporting, audit and assurance processes under the DRFA are overly onerous and burdensome. [2593] We are supportive of streamlining reporting requirements for the DRFA, however, this must be balanced against accountability and assurance requirements. In 2015, the Australian National Audit Office had previously found that:

...a much more active and disciplined approach to [Emergency Management Australia’s] administration of NDRRA is required so that payments are limited to those items the Australian Government intended to cover, given the significant quantum of funding that is involved. [2594]

22.135 The DRFA is also limited in the types of expenditure which can be claimed for reimbursement. We have received evidence from local, state and territory governments arguing that certain types of infrastructure, such as community halls, park facilities, water and waste treatment facilities and fire trails, should be eligible under the DRFA. [2595] Some of these matters remain state and territory government responsibilities. Repairing damaged community and recreational facilities can be an important component of disaster recovery, which helps restore social and community networks. It also helps the economic recovery and disaster resilience of local communities. [2596]

22.136 The costs associated with restoring community and recreational assets and bushfire trails are currently not eligible under standard Category B provisions. However, recovery funding can be provided under Category C. [2597]

22.137 Similarly, some state and territory governments have argued that the DRFA should fund firefighting costs (counter-disaster operations) related to the protection of environmental areas, in the same way that it allows claiming of costs associated with the protection of infrastructure and communities. State and territory governments are currently able to claim extraordinary firefighting costs associated with the protection of infrastructure and must reach specified expenditure thresholds before being eligible for any Australian Government contribution. Treating all firefighting costs the same under the DRFA may merit financial support as it would remove an arbitrary distinction in claimable costs. [2598]

22.138 Most state and territory governments have argued for the extension of the DRFA to specifically provide funding for rebuilding community infrastructure and certain counter-disaster operations. Care would need to be taken in expanding the DRFA, in light of state and territory responsibilities. Any expansion should be applied consistently.

22.139 Australian, state and territory governments should review the eligibility of expenditure under the DRFA. This review should seek to establish clear and coherent principles on eligible expenditure and clarify whether certain expenditure is solely the responsibility of state and territory governments.

Recommendation 22.8 Streamline the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements processes

Australian, state and territory governments should create simpler Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements application processes.

Interaction between recovery and insurance

Insurance for government assets

22.140 A key principle of the DRFA is that recovery assistance should not replace or discourage self-help and appropriate strategies of natural disaster mitigation. [2599] This includes in circumstances where assets may be covered by state or territory based insurance arrangements. Under the DRFA, state and territory governments have a responsibility to put in place insurance arrangements which are cost effective for the state or territory and the Australian Government. [2600]

22.141 Most state and territory governments have a captive state insurer and/or self-insurance fund backed up by additional commercial insurance or reinsurance arrangements for public assets – see Appendix 23 Recovery Arrangements. Some asset types are excluded (such as roads, stormwater assets and tracks) as, based on the evidence before us, insuring these assets may not be cost effective.

22.142 Some payments made under self-insurance arrangements for affected essential public assets may be considered ‘eligible expenditure’ under the DRFA. Therefore, costs associated with the restoration or replacement of that asset may be recoverable by the jurisdiction. However, retention levels exist for various state-based self-insurance schemes and any amounts claimed above this retention level are not eligible for recovery under the DRFA as they are likely covered under commercial insurance arrangements. For amounts below this retention level, the cost of reconstructing that asset, subject to other requirements in the DRFA, can be reimbursed. [2601]

22.143 Allowing for reconstruction costs below the retention level of self‑insured government owned assets to be claimed under the DRFA may undermine its policy objectives.

Delivery of fodder for livestock being escorted, following the 2019‑2020 bushfires

Figure 96: Delivery of fodder for livestock being escorted, following the 2019‑2020 bushfires [2602]

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