Bureaucratic blockade

BUREAUCRATIC challenges have been blamed for the 18 homes which remain unbuilt after being destroyed in the 2009 bushfires which swept through the region.

A Latrobe Valley victim of the Black Saturday bushfires has slammed the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund for “dragging their heels” in distributing about $300 million in emergency, housing, physical, bereavement and psychological support gifts.

The victim, who wished to remain anonymous, said VBAF had made the application process so stringent, the elderly, disabled and “psychologically broken” could not access eligible funding.

“There are people from Hazelwood to Traralgon South who haven’t rebuilt yet and half of those people are incapable of rebuilding on their own,” the victim said.

“About half of those people haven’t gotten over the day of the fires; they are so psychologically impaired they haven’t been able to move on and they haven’t had any assistance (applying for financial support).

“There is money available to those people, but it is too difficult to access.

“The government has a responsibility to help rebuild these people’s houses because these people are incapable of doing it themselves.”

However, VBAF government member Pam White defended the process, arguing the stringent measures was a “hold your hand” approach to rebuilding.

Established on 8 February, 2009 by the State Government in conjunction with the Federal Government and the Australian Red Cross, the VBAF financially supports victims of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, which was the worst natural disaster in Australia’s history.

“There are (now) more steps in place in comparison to the way money was allocated than (stage one),” Ms White said.

“I think the panel made the decision that they wanted to ensure the last gift got people into housing.

“This time it is not about getting money quickly out the door, this is about solving their housing problem once and for all and this is the last bit of money in the fund to do that.”

The fund is now fully committed with nearly $314 million supporting affected individuals and families following the closure of the Further Housing Assistance Gift Stage Two which was announced in December last year.

Twenty-three people from the area affected by the bushfires have applied for the last round of funding support, with 18 applications still pending and three in the final stages of receiving eligible funds.

Ms White said applications for eligible funding immediately after the fires had “less conditions” and less emphasis on what bushfire victims did with their gifts.

“We thought at that stage, in a way we were making a contribution to those people who were distressed,” Ms White said.

“We were confronted with people in quite difficult and distressed situations; we wanted to get money to them as quickly as possible.”

However, almost three years on from the horrific fires which claimed 173 lives across Victoria and more than 2000 houses, Ms White said the panel was focused on housing the “more complex cases”.

“In comparison, when we first gave out money, we asked ‘Have you had your house destroyed? Are you homeless? Okay, this is how much you are entitled to, here is your money, go away and build your life,” Ms White said.

“(Stage Two) is about ‘Where are you at?’; we want this money used for helping you (rebuild).

“We see it as ‘hold your hand’ others may see it as bureaucratic.”

In response to whether the VBAF panel had approached the initial allocation of money too loosely resulting in an excessively stringent application process in the second stage, Ms White said “you can always learn something from the experience”.

“I have been involved since day one and I think we tried to strike a balance between getting this assistance to people quickly and their ability to recover,” Ms White said.

“If we had gone a year without giving a cent, had we been more bureaucratic up front there would have been criticism about going through that process.”

For stage two applications a financial assessment and eligibility test is conducted, before approved applicants are referred to their housing association which works with the applicant to detail their pathway, “step by step” to permanent accommodation.

Despite the rigorous process, Ms White said the panel was determined to ensure all affected received the support they were entitled to.

“Some people are in a very complex situation; some people who we thought would have been known to us earlier haven’t put their hand up until now and there is more work than we thought,” she said.

Last week, VBAF announced submissions for pending applications for housing recovery plans close on 31 December.