By Nick Bonyhady and Jonathan Kearsley (Sydney Morning Herald 10 January 2020)
Confused and angry locals doing it tough in bushfire ravaged NSW towns have been denied government relief payments due to outdated maps and technicalities.
Upset residents told The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Nine News they applied for the $1000 tax-free disaster recovery payment, only for Centrelink to knock it back because their “guide maps” showing the fire zone were out of date.
Residents near Mogo say they’ve been denied disaster payments because Centrelink claims the fire didn’t burn there.
And several workers on the NSW South Coast whose employers have closed or reduced staffing levels due to a combination of fires, power outages, road closures and evacuations said they were also rejected by Centrelink.
Mogo resident Melinda Evans said she had been told by four Centrelink workers she was “not in the area [affected by bushfires] … They’re looking at their own map but if you look around here you can tell we’re in the thick of it”.
On New Year’s Eve, fire tore through her rural property, destroying sheds and fences and affecting the health of Ms Evans’ young son Michael.
“His breathing’s terrible, he’s stuffy, he’s got a cough. There’s nothing else we can do about it, there’s nowhere else we can go.”
Mogo resident Melinda Evans, with son Michael, said she had been told by four Centrelink workers she was “not in the area [affected by bushfires]”.
Amanda Canciani, who also lives in the area, lost farm machinery, sheds and play equipment.
“Being told my home and business aren’t in a fire-affected area hurts a bit at the moment,” she said. Other residents have also made similar complaints about the map blunder.
Sam Allison, a Batemans Bay chef, who has a pregnant partner and two-year-old son, lost $4000 in wages when his casual shifts at a local hotel dried up weeks ago after the fires hit.
“It put a lot of stress on the rental property I’m currently in, because I’ve very much struggled with rent. If I didn’t have my parents I would’ve been stuffed,” Mr Allison said.
Scott Morrison promised to do ‘whatever it costs’ as the federal government announced a $2b bushfire relief fund.
He said he had been told by four different Centrelink workers he was ineligible.
“Because the hotel didn’t get directly impacted by the fire … they said to me you’re not entitled because you are a casual,” Mr Allison said.
A fifth Centrelink worker confirmed Mr Allison was eligible but said the payment could take three to four weeks to arrive. “What if everyone who calls up takes the first person’s answer?” Mr Allison said.
People who “lose income as a direct result of the NSW bushfires” are entitled to the disaster recovery allowance, which is equivalent to 13 weeks of Newstart, while those who are “directly affected by a major disaster” are entitled to the $1000 disaster recovery payment.
What if everyone who calls up takes the first person’s answer?
A grandmother from Eden on the far South Coast said she had been told by a “very rude” Centrelink worker to apply for Newstart instead of the fire payments despite only being out of work because the holiday accommodation that employs her as a cleaner has shut while the town is threatened by fire.
“I just kept saying ‘I have a job’,” the cleaner, who did not want to be named, said. “By the time they arrange for me to get everything [on Newstart] I’d be back at work.”
She said she had planned to use the bushfire payments to replace blinds and bedding ruined by the acrid smoke that blanketed town over New Year, but gave up after failing to convince Centrelink she deserved the payment.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said, adding some of her colleagues had quickly received $1000.
The government has made more than $34 million in disaster recovery payments and allowances across more than 28,600 claims.
After persistent questions over the problem late on Friday, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert confirmed payments to Ms Canciani and Ms Evans had been rectified. He would not say how many other people could be affected.
“I understand Ms Canciani and Ms Evans have had their applications approved. I sincerely apologise for the delay,” Mr Robert said.
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