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ABC News – Interview

Friday, February 7, 2020

JOE O'BRIEN: Now, Australia has had a terrible summer of bushfires. Andrew Colvin is the head of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and he joins us now on the phone from Kangaroo Island.

Andrew Colvin, welcome and thanks very much for fitting us into your schedule, which I'm sure is extremely busy. Now, you've been in place for about a month. What's the broad picture you're getting of the scale of this?

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah, good morning, Joe, and it's nice to be on. Yes, we've been in place for about a month. Look, I think the size and the magnitude is what certainly has taken me by surprise. But I think we knew that it was a bushfire event that had touched large parts of Australia but what we're also finding of course is that the community needs across those bushfire-impacted areas vary greatly. So, it's important for me to get out and listen and I'm here on Kangaroo Island today to talk to the local community and see the impact of the fires and what we can do to help them recover.

JOE O'BRIEN: And so, looking at that big picture now, what's some of the latest on those national figures? Do you have numbers like on the number of homes lost, number of businesses lost, the numbers of people affected?

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah. Look, I mean, clearly, the headline figure that we can never lose sight of is we've lost 33 lives across the country in this fire event and that's tragic, and of course, our thoughts always have to turn to those 33 lives and the nine firefighters that are in that. But also, more broadly, over 3000 homes have been lost. Many, many more outbuildings, sheds, parks, toilet blocks, sporting facilities have been lost and damaged. We know that there's over 11 million hectares of land. Now, that's a big figure, but we also need to keep in the context that Australia is a big land and it's about 1.5 per cent of the total land mass of Australia has been impacted. So, you know, stock losses on Kangaroo Island, where there's been huge stock losses. Well over 45,000 head of stock here on Kangaroo Island alone have been impacted.

So, we're still doing damage assessments and our state and territory partners are working through that, and that's going to take time but we're starting to get a better picture emerging.

JOE O'BRIEN: The Government has said whatever it takes. Does it look like that could mean more than the $2 billion that has been allocated?

ANDREW COLVIN: Look, the Prime Minister's been really clear to me on that, whatever it takes. And yes, it may be more than that $2 billion. Now, obviously, these are public funds. We need to make sure that they're getting to where they're going to make the most good and do the most good. But if we need more than $2 billion across this country, then I'm sure that will be made available.

JOE O'BRIEN: How much money has actually got into the hands of people? The Prime Minister was very specific on that as well when he announced his program. He wanted this to happen fast. So have you got any figures of that - small business grants and people signing up for loans? Because that's the federal portion of it, isn't it? The emergency grants, so it's like $1000 emergency grants, that's a state issue?

ANDREW COLVIN: Well, the actual- there's a range of things, Joe, to be honest. But there's about $110 million from the Commonwealth alone has already made its way into families and individuals' pockets and bank balances. So, that's about 80,000 families or individuals that have received a direct injection from the Commonwealth Government, and these vary from what we call disaster response payments or disaster response allowances. That's $110 million that's already gone out the door and it's hit people's pockets. But we're also now focused around what we can do to help small businesses and primary producers. And at last count, where over $11 million already has gone out the door in grants for primary producers and small businesses. But that number is going to go up significantly, I think, over the next days and weeks, because those programs have only just begun to be rolled out.

So, here in South Australia, I know that about $2 million has already made its way out. Sorry, about $1 million has already made its way out to affected primary producers and that number is going to continue to go up, and we need to help people access those grants.

JOE O'BRIEN: Yeah. And what about money for businesses that were cut off by the fires for a month or so, but those businesses themselves weren't burnt? That's an issue I've come across in the people I've spoken to. Are those businesses going to be able to get access to those small business grants?

ANDREW COLVIN: So, Joe, that's a really good point and it's a clear message everywhere I travel that this fire event, this natural disaster has had an impact unlike other natural disasters that we've faced in this country and it's that indirect impact - so yes, there are businesses who are hurting, not because they've lost property, but because they've lost trade.

Now, we're working to see what we can do to help them. They can access the concessional loans which we're hearing now are very productive and a lot of people are starting to want to access them because that helps with that immediate cash flow so they can keep their doors open, they can keep their staff on and they can start to regenerate their business, which we need to help them do as well. And there's some wonderful campaigns around about Holiday Here This Year, and help our local communities to rebuild after these fires.

More broadly, yes, we've got to try and work out how we can help them - tax incentives, for instance. The Tax Commissioner has announced a range of relief arrangements to help people with their BAS statements for this quarter and little things like that make a big difference to small business.

JOE O'BRIEN: Yeah. But will those businesses be able to get access to cash grants as well? Because I've spoken to people who say there are businesses closing in their communities right now because they lost so much trade. So, is there any likelihood that those businesses that haven't been burnt but had been affected by loss of trade might be able to get access to those cash grants?

ANDREW COLVIN: So they can access the concessional loans. The small business grants themselves require there to be a direct impact on the business. So at the moment, no, if you're indirectly impacted the small business grants are not for you. But we're working and we continue to work with the community to see what other options might be available to help these indirectly affected businesses.

JOE O'BRIEN: So is there any scope that they will be able to eventually get access to those grants? Because that's something they are pushing for.

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah, no, look it is and Joe, we're very conscious of it. At this stage, as I say small business grants aren't available

to those that are indirectly impacted but I don't want to, I don't want to draw a line under that. We need to continue to work with the community; we need to work with the Business Council of Australia who are also working with small business to see what other ways we may be able to improve that bottom line for them.

JOE O'BRIEN: And Andrew Colvin there are people who've lost homes and businesses. They're traumatised and extremely frustrated with the process now. These disaster recovery centres have been set up in places like Batemans Bay, but people say it's just so - and I'm sure you've come across this as well - people say it's just so complicated when they go to these centres, that it's raising anxiety all over again. Have you come across that? And do you, have you, can you see ways where that can be simplified somehow?

ANDREW COLVIN: Look Joe, I think that's the immediate impact and that's the trauma. Yes, we have come across that. There's certainly anger at times, there's frustration, there's exasperation too. There's also a lot of hope, let's be honest. People are looking for ways to rebuild.

Yes, I think I can help working with my state and territory colleagues wherever we possibly can see bureaucracy or red tape getting in the way, that we're removing it, we're taking out- we're making the forms that people need to fill out be smaller, simpler. We're lowering the thresholds of what people need to be able to satisfy government before money is paid.

And by in large we're seeing that that is flowing. I mean, if somebody makes contact with Services Australia for instance, money can be in their account within half an hour; it's not a difficult process. But, I am seeing those frustrations and I want to work with individuals to understand their experiences and where we can fix it - which I'm sure we can - we will do, we will do everything we can to fix it.

JOE O'BRIEN: Yeah because I know, I've been down to Batemans Bay and there are people- I've spoken to one woman who's clearly lost her business been obliterated- her home's been obliterated and she hasn't got access to any of that - even the small business grant yet. So there are clearly issues still with the process. Are you going to be able to get to Batemans Bay and have a look around there?

ANDREW COLVIN: Yeah we will. In fact, I'm hoping to get down through the South Coast again next week. I've been down there already, as has my team, and we'll go down there, hopefully next week, with my New South Wales counterpart.

 I did see that story that you had yesterday and I mean I want to help these individuals. Without getting behind their story to see what it is that's causing the blockage, it's hard for me to give an iron-clad commitment now. But that worries me because if somebody's lost everything, or even if they haven't lost everything, they've lost a lot of things then we need to help them. And there's systems in place to help them and I need to find out why it's not working and we'll talk to individuals wherever we can.

JOE O'BRIEN: Yeah, okay. Andrew Colvin thanks so much for talking to us and good luck with your work over the coming year or so.

ANDREW COLVIN: Thanks Joe. Appreciate it very much.

JOE O'BRIEN: Andrew Colvin speaking to us there from Kangaroo Island.