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Disaster Relief

In the wake of the wholly inadequate response by the Federal government to the unfolding and worsening bush fire crisis across the country, PM Scott Morrison announced a two billion dollar rural rebuilding fund.

There are three aspects of this I want to tackle.

1. International donations:
Whilst the money and the thoughts behind it are appreciated stretching from Hollywood to Hedley Wood, Australia is a wealthy country. We do not need the donations.

15,000 children under 5 years of age die every single day throughout the world - the vast majority from starvation and medical neglect.

Approximately 40,000,000 people are currently enslaved worldwide, with 80% of those being women and children. The types of slavery include those trapped in the sex trade, literal wage slaves in the restaurant and hotel industries, domestic workers, agricultural workers, travelling sales teams and in some places, even begging rings.

Many of the places where these issues are most prevalent do not have cute animals in need of rescue (a big factor in the generosity to Australia). But the money nonetheless should go to where it is most needed. Unlike bush fires, starvation and slavery or not seasonal issues. They exist daily and the numbers affected are just staggering.

2. The adequacy of the government funding announcement:
How far will 2 billion really go?

The estimated cost of rebuilding from the fires currently stands at around 2 billion dollars - the exact figure that has been earmarked. But we know the final damage bill will be a lot higher. As it stands, the 2 billion represents 0.11 percent of GDP.

In the 2005-06 fire season, we spent 12 billion, representing 1.3 percent of GDP. That was during a period of far less damage. But it is the breakdown of that 2005-06 spend that tells the real story. 57 percent went to mitigation, 29 percent went to response activities and 14 percent (in dollar terms, 1.68 billion) went to rebuilding. There were 75 houses lost along with around 400 other buildings and structures.

If the 2 billion currently on offer includes mitigation and fire-fighting capability, it will prove woefully inadequate (as opposed to just being south of enough). In any case, it is certainly not generous when comparing the percentage of GDP spent as a result of the 2005-06 fires with the current percent on offer. Nor does any other metric improve that appearance. 1.65 billion for around 500 buildings in 2006 compared to 2 billion for 2000 houses in 2020 should speak for itself.

I spent a lot of time talking to people in Cessnock; a town built on coal and chosen mainly because I was familiar with it. I got their feedback; their issues; their ideas. For my efforts, I got some cynicism, some blessings... and a respect for the dignity many maintain in the face of dysfunction and neglect.

To cut to the chase, I finally arrived at a policy based on the ideas around the Future Fund. We have, as a nation, 165.7 billion invested in this fund. But that is not the only fund we have. We also have a Medical Research Future Fund (17.6 billion) , a Disability/Care Australia Fund (16.6 billion) , an Education Investment Fund (4 billion), a future Drought Fund (4 billion) and an Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Fund (2 billion). There is no reason why we could not also have a Rural Community Parity Fund which could be used to assess needs of communities doing it tough, and look at innovative and cost-effective ways to address the shortfalls. Communities would self-nominate for assistance and once approved, one or two local representatives would have a seat at the table in formulating plans, with the whole process at arms length from the government of the day.

For somewhere like Cessnock, it would include transitioning away from coal dependency. It should be rebranded as the gateway to the Hunter Valley wineries and cater to tourists with modern cafes, boutiques and craft shops, along with parks and recreational facilities and upgraded accommodation.

Such changes would themselves bring in the services and infrastructure currently lacking. But if need be, incentives could be provided to doctors, teachers and other professionals to relocate.

One thing is for sure - if our PM could find a lazy 2 billion, ostensibly for rebuilding burned-out townships, but really to save his political hide, we can also help towns that are just as stripped bare in less visible ways.

Lets face it, all bets are now off for getting into a budget surplus in the time-frame announced.