The Investment Funds Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 contains four different parts which all deal with very different things. Firstly, I have really strong concerns about schedule 2 and I would like to see that schedule struck completely from this bill. Schedule 2 allows the Future Fund, Australia’s publicly owned sovereign wealth fund, to operate with an unnecessary level of secrecy. I oppose this part of the bill, and I urge and expect the Senate will remove it from the bill.
The second part of this bill makes changes to the Medical Research Future Fund, which puts money into medical research in Australia. The bill sets a limit of $650 million a year on how much that fund can invest in medical research in any given year. I spent 12 years working in the Department of Rural Health at Melbourne Medical School. Through that experience of my research in rural Australia, I think it’s a real shame that the government is legislating such a low limit on how much we can invest in our health. There are other very eminent medical researchers in this House—there’s one sitting over there. It’s an expensive business and it’s an important business, and I am really disappointed that this bill is legislating for such a small amount when there’s such a great need. In particular, there’s a great need in rural and regional Australia, where the comorbidities of chronic disease and people’s health outcomes are so much worse than other parts of more populated metropolitan Australia. There’s a lot of work to be done there and I think the government is being a bit lousy on that.
The government had originally envisaged that this fund would spend $1 billion per year. Instead, this bill is drastically cutting that amount. The reality is even worse. The government’s own policy is to spend an average of just $500 million a year on medical research over the next decade, which is half of what was proposed. That’s really not good enough. Less money going into medical research means poorer health outcomes for Australians.
As I said, regional Australians are particularly disadvantaged by this; we have such a great burden of disease that really needs addressing. We need to get our fundamental research in place in order to address the structural reasons for this and, indeed, some of the other key components that have been longstanding in rural health. And yet when I look at the projects that the Medical Research Future Fund has invested in I see that this particular need in rural and regional Australia has simply not been addressed in any substantive way. Only eight per cent of research funding is going into regional health research in Australia, yet regional Australia has 20 per cent of the population of this nation and a much greater burden of disease than any other population. Eight per cent of the funding is absolutely not good enough. Rural and regional health professionals and researchers have been calling for a better deal for a long, long time.
Another part of this bill relates to bushfires. Schedule 4 makes administrative changes to the Emergency Response Fund, making it easier for the Minister for Emergency Management and National Recovery and Resilience to access and distribute money from the fund. As an MP from a region that was heavily impacted by the Black Summer bushfires and as someone who has closely scrutinised the government’s bushfire response to make sure it is done effectively and fairly, I want to address these provisions directly.
The $4 billion Emergency Response Fund, or ERF, was set up in September 2019 by an act of parliament. The point of the ERF is to finance emergency response and recovery following natural disasters in Australia that have a significant or catastrophic effect. Under the original legislation, the government can spend up to $200 million a year from the fund—$150 million for emergency response and recovery and $50 million for resilience measures. The ERF can only be accessed when the government determines there is a need for additional support following a natural disaster. Any spending from the fund requires formal government approval and, under the ERF, the Minister for Emergency Management and National Recovery and Resilience has broad discretion over how the funds are allocated. Under the initial legislation, it was Emergency Management Australia that held administrative responsibility for expenditure of the fund. However, this legislation transfers that responsibility to the newly established National Recovery and Resilience Agency.
On a pure policy level, these changes make sense, and I support this part of the bill. But, in doing so, I must register my concern at the way the government has politicised and continues to politicise bushfire recovery spending. This bill makes it easier for the minister of emergency management to oversee the distribution of enormous sums of public money for national disaster recovery. Of course, we do that while this nation is still without a federal integrity commission that might provide reassurance to the public about the integrity of government grant schemes, particularly when there is so much oversight by the minister. So it’s essential to consider the government’s record on this issue to assess whether the legislation involves appropriate safeguards to prevent misappropriation or, indeed, abuse of any funds.
From day dot, I’ve had serious concerns about how the government has allocated bushfire recovery funding. I have raised public concerns: firstly, that the funding was delivered too slowly; and, secondly, that funds earmarked for bushfire recovery were used to fund projects hundreds of kilometres away from where the bushfires actually were and that some bushfire recovery schemes simply excluded areas that had been affected by fire.
Recently I raised concerns about a massive new bushfire recovery program that is directly relevant to this legislation. Since it was established, the NRRA has introduced two grant programs—the Black Summer Bushfire Recovery Grants and the Preparing Australia Program. With the Black Summer grants, there is $280 million available, but there are some serious problems with the program. First, any local government area that the government declares was affected by Black Summer fires is eligible for funding. But the list it has provided includes some locations which were kilometres away, so far distant from the nearest fire. The government has given no explanation for how it came up with this list of eligible locations. There seems to be no safeguard against pork-barrelling the whole pot of money.
Consider this: the locations that are eligible for grant funding have been put into two groups. The most affected places, called category 1, have a funding envelope of $4.5 million. The less affected places, category 2, have a funding envelope of $1.6 million. So, in theory, a heavily affected locality, like the Alpine Shire in my electorate, should receive around $4.5 million and a less affected one, like Wangaratta, should receive around $1.6 million—except that is not how it actually works. If you read the guidelines closely, those funding envelopes aren’t actually real. Anyone in either category 1 or category 2 locations can apply for a grant of up to $10 million, which is more than double the total funding envelope for the most affected places. If the government decides that a category 1 location, like Towong or East Gippsland, in the member for Gippsland’s electorate, or Bega, in the member for Eden-Monaro’s electorate, didn’t put forward an application of sufficient quality, it will simply redirect some of its funding to less affected locations. There appear to be no safeguards in the guidelines to make sure that this funding, a quarter of a billion dollars, actually goes to places that were most affected by bushfires—none at all.
We could see a project in Brisbane win $10 million while the entire Upper Murray community misses out. It’s possible.
Even the way the government has classified places as category 1 or 2 is completely opaque and lacks any logic. The Alpine resorts of Mount Hotham, Mount Buller and Falls Creek are classified in the guidelines as category 2, meaning they were only lightly impacted by the fires and are earmarked for less funding. But anyone who knows our area knows that the fires got within metres of Dinner Plain and nearly wiped out the Mount Hotham Airport. Both Mount Buller and Falls Creek had fires come within a few kilometres, were drenched in smoke for months and lost the entire summer tourist trade. Indeed, all three resorts are entirely contained within the Alpine and Mansfield local government areas, both of which were classified as category 1 and earmarked for more funding.
I also have concerns about the second grant program announced by the NRRA, the Preparing Australia Program. This program will award grants of up to $10 million to help communities build their resilience to natural hazards like bushfires, floods and tropical cyclones. The program has $150 million available over the next three years. Once again, this program has a list of priority locations which will get first dibs on funding. The priority list includes cities like Geelong, Hobart and the Sunshine Coast, but Towong in my electorate was left off the list. Towong Shire was absolutely slammed by the Black Summer bushfires. Forty per cent of the area was burned. One-third of all farming land was burned. Thousands of livestock animals were lost. I saw that the government has also excluded four heavily affected LGAs across the Murray. I am calling for Towong Shire to be added to the government’s priority list for the Preparing Australia Program. After everything that community went through, I don’t want to see them miss out on disaster preparedness funding. Preparedness is one of their key concerns. We don’t want to be in this situation again.
I would also like to raise my deep concern about the timing of the grants. The government announced just weeks ago that it would open applications for the Preparing Australia grants on 10 December and close them on 6 January. It is, frankly, pretty ridiculous. Who is expected to be putting in a $10 million grant application in a three-week window over Christmas and the New Year? I’m calling on the government to extend the deadline for these grants to give our communities a real chance to get in their applications. These concerns are highly relevant to this legislation because the bill before us gives considerable authority to the NRRA, the body that the government has entrusted with this grant scheme. I’m not the only one who has concerns about bushfire spending. The member for Gippsland, until recently a cabinet minister, said that the flawed design of the Black Summer scheme will ‘rip off’ his community. He said:
The Canberra bureaucracy and the Ministers responsible have clearly made a mistake and rather than stubbornly plough on and make it worse, they should increase the allocation to East Gippsland and any other Shire that was actually burnt.
His position was backed up by the state MP Tim Bull and local mayor Mendy Urie. I back the member for Gippsland on this and request that, if we are to give the NRRA and the minister more powers over bushfire spending, the NRRA listen. It must listen more closely to the bushfire affected communities.
I’m extremely pleased that the Coordinator-General of the NRRA, Shane Stone, has accepted my invitation to come to Indi to meet with me this Saturday morning in my Wodonga office. During the agency’s former iteration as the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, I was able to enjoy a very positive working relationship with that agency’s leaders, holding several tours of bushfire affected parts of Indi to hear directly about the concerns people have. These tours proved crucial in communicating to government our community’s needs in the immediate recovery, and it will be crucial this time for the government’s understanding of our needs for building longer term resilience. After meeting with Mr Stone this Saturday, I will be heading straight up to the Murray Valley and the Upper Murray to meet with bushfire affected communities around Corryong. I really hope that Mr Stone can join me on one of these trips in the very near future.
Australians are smart enough to judge the government not just by their words but by their deeds, and in their deeds we’ve seen a disturbing willingness to use public money to advance political objectives. It’s reasonable to raise these concerns because the government has shown since the Black Summer fires that it is willing to politicise bushfire recovery funding, and we simply can’t have that.
When we look at legislation like this it makes it easier for the minister and the NRRA to make decisions about allocating funding, so we are right to ask questions about that.
If we are to give the NRRA more powers with this bill to spend public money on an issue as important as bushfire recovery, I’m calling on them now to show greater transparency about their decision-making and to show a greater commitment to bringing funding where it is actually needed.