Missing bushfire relief millions could be another government scandal

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The NSW Supreme Court ruled that money raised by Celeste Barber for bushfire relief can't be distributed to other charities (Image by Dan Jensen)

Millions of dollars raised for bushfire victims have seemingly disappeared with some calling for transparency in the Government's actions, writes Sue Arnold.

THE RECENT DECISION by the NSW Supreme Court preventing the distribution of $51.3 million raised by Celeste Barber to fire victims, wildlife and interstate charities is a major blow.  

The decision also raised major questions by many generous people and organisations over what’s happened to all the millions of dollars raised to help bushfire victims and wildlife and why the NSW Government has not provided transparency in the distribution of donated funds.

Questions like how much money has been raised in total? Where has all the money raised, gone? How was it spent? Who is in charge of distribution? Where are the records? Is there any auditing? What are the outcomes?

In reality, Barber’s fundraising is just a drop in an apparently bottomless bucket. A conservative estimate indicates way over half a billion dollars has been raised. Potentially as high as a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money in anybody’s language.

Some organisations are now in charge of millions of dollars, with no public transparency on how funds are spent or not spent.

Barber’s fundraising effort can’t go directly to bushfire victims. Nor can funds be distributed to any wildlife organisations.

Her response, according to mainstream media:

“Turns out that studying acting at university does not make me a lawmaker.”

It is unfortunate that Barber did not obtain the necessary legal advice, as funds raised may have been donated to the causes she championed.

In February, another event was organised known as the Fire Fight Australia concert, hosted by Barber. It raised almost $10 million, which was donated to the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal to help them support communities. Beneficiaries were listed as Bushfire Volunteers, CFS Foundation, FRRR, NSW Rural Fire Service, the Red Cross and the RSPCA.

RSPCA NSW advises on its website that $1.3 million was spent on the ground, rescuing and treating animals. There’s no information to indicate that the funds came from the concert.

Bushfire Volunteers, according to its website:

‘...is proud to have been the proud peak body for the incredible 26,000 women and men of Western Australia’s Volunteer Bush Fire Service for around 30 years.’ 

The organisation is:

‘A strong, independent and respected advocacy agency and the united voice for Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades in Western Australia.’

Exactly how Bushfire Volunteers, based in Western Australia, could assist in the catastrophic East Coast bushfires with funds donated from the concert remains a curious question.

The CFS Foundation claims it:

‘...provides financial immediate financial assistance and care to CFS volunteer fire-fighters and their families to offset suffering and distress caused in the line of active duty.’

The only mention on its website of any fundraising comes from a massive $500,000 raised by Sophie Guidolin

CFS website also notes that:

‘Drawing on our existing reserves, along with generous donations, we have distributed in excess of $1 million of financial support to affected volunteers and their families.’

However, it appears more than $100 million has been donated to the NSW RFS Donations Trust, an amount which includes the $51.3 million raised by Barber.

The FFRS website indicates funds are spent on strengthening rural communities and back to school vouchers. Their latest “grants in action” site fails to mention any funds from the Fire Fight Concert.

The Red Cross had received $115 million towards the end of January. No mention of funds from the Fight Fire concert.

Barber had also called for some of the funds raised by her appeal to be donated to animal welfare group WIRES.

The Supreme Court decision ruled out any donation to the wildlife organisation that has received in excess of $60 million by February. Rumour has it that approximately $100 million has been donated.  

The Sydney Morning Herald published a list of donations to bushfire relief in mid-January. At that time, over $226 million had been donated, including the funds raised by Barber. A further report by the SMH estimated that almost half a billion dollars had been raised.

St George Foundation Bushfire Assistance Grant teamed up with the Bank of Melbourne Foundation and Bank SA Foundation to provide support for communities impacted by the bushfires. The total funding amounted to $500,000.

Bendigo Bank, through its Community Enterprise Foundation, set up a bushfire disaster appeal. No information is available on how much money has been raised or how it has been spent.

One fact that is particularly evident is the complete lack of any acknowledgement of any funds received from the Fire concert on any recipient’s website. Not a word.

In January, at least 464 homes on the South Coast alone had been destroyed. The number of buildings destroyed in the bushfires by 5 January totalled 2,500. Six months on from the bushfires, people are still living in tents, garages, caravans and makeshift shelters.  

In some areas, as a result of a partnership between the NSW Government and the Minderoo Foundation, 200 six-person pods providing semi-permanent homes have recently been delivered on the Mid-North Coast. Who knows how the rest of the bushfire homeless victims are managing?

As for our stressed wildlife struggling to survive in burned-out ecosystems, less than quarter of the funds allocated by the Berejiklian Government to support wildlife carers has been spent on the intended target according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

The Government has spent only $220,000 of the $1 million earmarked for carers. $438,000 has been spent creating new positions within the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment to oversee wildlife carers.   

There has never been a more urgent need for a comprehensive audit of all the funds and grants made by governments and donors to bushfire victims, human and non-human. Where have all the millions gone?

Indeed, the missing millions are the stuff of massive scandals. Australian authorities have a moral responsibility to provide exquisite details of money spent. Donors need to be assured that their gifts have been spent on the targeted purpose.

Given that the NSW Government continues logging koala habitat in unburned forests, the Queensland Government is hell-bent on massive urbanisation projects which are bulldozing remaining habitat for koalas and wildlife, the outpouring of concern does not appear to have made one iota of difference to the survival of this country’s unique, iconic, wildlife.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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