Relief

A number of the relief activities undertaken in relation to the Hazelwood mine fire have been discussed in Chapter 4.6 Health response.

The State Relief Readiness Plan (previously called the State Relief Plan) was amended in February 2014 to address relief requirements relevant to the mine fire.14 The Plan provides a framework to enable planning, management and coordination of emergency relief and recovery activities.

At the regional level, the Regional Recovery Coordinator formally approved the Gippsland Regional Relief (Latrobe Valley Coal Mine Fire Incident) Plan on 28 February 2014. The Plan outlined Gippsland’s regional level relief coordination and management, and detailed lead agencies for relief functions such as planning food and water provision, and emergency shelter. It detailed procedures in the case that an evacuation was triggered.15

RELIEF PAYMENTS

DHS administers the Victorian Government’s Personal Hardship Assistance Program, which includes two categories of assistance:

  • emergency relief assistance (to meet immediate relief needs)
  • emergency re-establishment assistance (to assist in the re-establishment of a principal place of residence).

The Personal Hardship Assistance Program provides financial assistance to alleviate the personal hardship and distress suffered by eligible Victorians as a result of an emergency. This assistance is not intended to replace insurance or other compensation for loss.16

Emergency relief assistance is available to eligible applicants in the first seven days after a designated emergency event (primarily natural emergencies), for example fire, flood or tsunami.17 As the Hazelwood mine fire was started by a bushfire, the Personal Hardship Assistance Program was applicable.18 DHS activated the emergency relief and assistance program to assist those impacted by the Hazelwood mine fire.

Respite payments

DHS recognised that some Morwell residents experienced personal hardship as they tried to seek respite from smoke and ash.19 Consequently, DHS made a respite payment available to eligible community members.20

The respite payments were made available from 21 February 2014. The payments comprised of $500 per household, or $1,250 per household in exceptional circumstances.21

The respite payments were available to families who met the following criteria:

  • hardship experienced by the smoke related to the fire
  • a primary place of residence as a Morwell address
  • low income, for example pension or benefit
  • intention to relocate from Morwell for the purpose of respite.22

Additional factors applicable to eligibility for the higher payment included:

  • the size of the household’s membership
  • where a family or household would relocate for respite purposes
  • mode of travel
  • accommodation type, for example whether the applicant would stay with family or in paid accommodation.23

A second respite payment of $500 was made available to eligible Morwell residents on 7 March 2014.24

Relocation payments

After Dr Rosemary Lester, Chief Health Officer, issued an advice on 28 February 2014 that vulnerable residents living south of Commercial Road in Morwell should relocate, DHS announced a relocation payment to assist those residents.25

Temporary relocation payments of up to $1,250 (or $750 for single person households) per week were available to eligible households.26 Eligibility criteria included:

  • hardship experienced by the smoke related to the fire
  • a primary place of residence within the affected area
  • low-income, for example pension or benefit
  • need to relocate because of assessed vulnerability.27

In his statement to the Board, Mr Hall outlined that the relocation payments differed from the usual payments made under the Victorian Government’s Personal Hardship Assistance Program. These differences reflected the unique nature of the Hazelwood mine fire event and ensured assistance was targeted to the ‘at risk’ groups that Dr Lester had recommended relocate.28

Mr Hall told the Board:

…our instructions to staff were to take a liberal approach…to that definition and to use their judgment about the circumstances of individuals living in the proximity…of that boundary of Commercial Road and to take a generous approach, if you like, to how they assess claims for people.29

Approximately 65 per cent of all Morwell households received at least one financial assistance payment for respite or relocation purposes during the Hazelwood mine fire.30

COMMUNITY RESPONSE TO RESPITE AND RELOCATION PAYMENTS

During community consultations the Board was told that the ‘red tape’ around relocation and respite assistance meant that not all offers of assistance to the community were taken up. There was also community concern that the respite payment came too late and was not available to everyone.31

Ms Kylie Stockdale of Morwell submitted to the Board that her family had difficulty obtaining the relocation payment after they relocated to Perth: ‘There was a breakdown in communication between Department of Health and Department of Human Services. Each organisation was giving out different advice, and DHS employees on the phone were not aware of information provided by DoH [Department of Health].’32 Ms Stockdale also pointed out that the DHS office was located in the area south of Commercial Road, which was subject to the relocation advice.33

The Board heard that some members of the community were concerned about misuse of the respite and relocation payments. In her submission to the Board, Ms Rosemary Wigg of Morwell stated: ‘it was bad enough that $3 million was spent on relocation costs, only to have much of it wasted on people claiming it and not actually leaving.’34 She submitted that a few checks and balances on the government’s part should have been all that was required to prevent abuse of the respite payments.35 The Board also received a submission from Ms Maria Marino of Morwell who said that some people who claimed the assistance did not relocate but rather used the funds to purchase alcohol, televisions, and other items.36

The community also expressed confusion about who was eligible for the payments. Ms Tracie Lund, Morwell Neighbourhood House Coordinator, told the Board:

I didn’t actually understand who qualified for the assistance packages and who didn’t based on the information I was reading. So every person that we had spoken to, we just ended up giving them the, I think it was the 1800 or 1300 number at the time because we weren’t clear ourselves on who was going to qualify and who wasn’t. I believe that the community was very confused about this as well.37

The Board heard that there was a perception in the community that an individual was only entitled to the respite payment if they had a healthcare card. Mr Hall conceded that there was initial confusion about the eligibility criteria for the respite payment and the requirement for proof of low income.38

Ms Jennifer Barfoot of Morwell outlined in her submission to the Board that when she sought assistance from DHS, she was told that she was not eligible because she was not a pensioner or healthcare cardholder. She said that the lack of equity in administering payments divided the community and made a terrible situation even more stressful. She wrote:

Despite having a long history of admissions with asthma and I had a number of medical professionals who were more than happy to supply documentation to support this fact I was unable to obtain any assistance from the agencies who were advertised as supporting the public. As someone who did not have a health care card or was on a pension I was stunned at the discrimination I was given despite living 350 metres from the fire where the smoke was engulfing my home of 28 years for more than a month. Other members of the public were offered relocation assistance and a host of other benefits – I had to soldier on sleeping in the masks provided and putting up with the smoke or the expense of leaving town daily in my car equipped with my portable nebulizer.39

Mr Ray Whittaker of Morwell was concerned about the manner in which the payments were provided. He stated to the Board that he was made to feel guilty about receiving the payment and that there appeared to be an inequity about the distribution of the payments, as he received the payment but his disabled son was not eligible.40 Similar concerns were repeated at a number of the community consultations.

Ms Karen Andrew, Youth Suicide Prevention Counsellor at Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation and a member of the local indigenous community, outlined in her statement to the Board that she did not consider that the majority of the indigenous community made use of the assistance available to them.41

The timing of the relocation payment also raised concerns for the community. Ms Vicki Hamilton, Chief Executive Officer and Secretary of Asbestos Council of Victoria and Gippsland Asbestos Related Diseases Support, Inc., submitted that the announcement of the relocation on Friday afternoon meant that no one could apply for assistance until the following Monday, which left residents anxious all weekend.42

Mr Hall told the Board that payments were restricted to one per household. He also told the Board that DHS was open during the weekend of 1 and 2 March 2014, after the announcement of the relocation package, and that the telephone hotline was available all weekend and extended to late on Friday night. Mr Hall was unable to explain why some community members thought that they had to wait until Monday to apply for the relocation payments.43

The Victorian Government informed the Board that it intends to implement new technology for recording DHS emergency assistance payments.44