We should applaud the bushfire response, but there’s room for more generosity

There is a special case to be made for extended generosity when it comes to compensating the front line fighters and victims of the summer bushfire crisis.

The Morrison government’s $2 billion Disaster Recovery Allowance pays bushfire victims 13 weeks of income support equivalent to the modest Newstart allowance.

As The Sun-Herald reports today, unions and some business groups want that allowance to more than double, from $279.50 for a single adult with no children to the $740.80 per week minimum wage.

The South Coast town of Mogo in NSW was devastated by fires in December.
The South Coast town of Mogo in NSW was devastated by fires in December.Credit:James Brickwood

Small business owners support the Australian Council of Trade Unions proposal, saying a bigger cash injection is worth considering to help revive bushfire-ravaged towns. Small businesses are also concerned their employees could be forced to move away if the $40-a-day allowance is not enough for them to pay the bills.


However, business groups have cast a sceptical eye over the idea. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is opposed to a fixed amount of compensation, saying it should be based on individual or community need, determined on a case-by-case basis.

The discussion resurrects a debate about welfare payments and where governments should set the safety net for those reliant on assistance.

The Business Council of Australia, former Prime Minister John Howard and welfare groups including the Australian Council of Social Service are united in their agreement that the Newstart allowance is too low to get disadvantaged people back on their feet.

When it comes to helping bushfire victims in battered economies, it is equally important that the benchmark to stimulate recovery is not set too low.

The federal government has made it clear that its bushfire relief effort, starting with the initial $2 billion outlay, will take priority over achieving a budget surplus. This has set the tone for a show of significant generosity when it comes to stimulating the economies of devastated communities.

While the national minimum wage might be considered too high a benchmark to meet, it is clear that $40-a-day is too low.

Caveats around compensation payments for volunteer firefighters have also been criticised as too restrictive. The payments of up to $300 per day capped at $6000 are only available in lieu of any lost wages.

Compensation is not available for any people who volunteer during their time off work or in retirement.

If they worked a morning shift before fighting fires or volunteered on a day off, they cannot make a claim. And that claim is limited to the actual amount of wages lost on a particular day.

Farmers who volunteer to fight fires are prevented from claiming any compensation if they cannot prove they have lost income by being away from their property. The federal government says it hopes that state governments administering the compensation payments show greater leniency to farmers, particularly those doing it tough in the drought.

No claims can be made for any wages lost after the first 10 days of firefighting. Eligibility starts on day 11.

People who work for a business that turns over more than $50 million a year in income are also prevented from applying for compensation.

This is because governments believe big businesses should do what they can to support staff who take time off to volunteer.

A growing list of businesses have responded to that call with donations of millions of dollars to relief funds and through the provision of uncapped leave for volunteer firefighters.

Repayments on loans, including on credit cards, have been suspended for up to three months and temporary interest rate relief provided for some bank customers affected by fires.

These efforts are to be applauded, but there is still more room for greater generosity in the national response to these unprecedented circumstances.

Source: Thanks smh.com