Scott Morrison’s National Recovery and Resilience Agency was formed in May to oversee an eye-watering $8 billion in disaster relief funds. Is it doing the job was intended to do? Callum Foote investigates the Prime Minister’s secrecy-loving new agency.
Fires, drought and floods. More fires, more drought, more floods. It’s as if nature has been trying to tell us something about climate change. In response, the Morrison government has tried to appear to be doing something. Last May it went big-picture, but it’s no sure thing that the public has noticed among the scandals that have beset this government.
The public may also not have noticed the secrecy that surrounds the new agency. For instance, it is yet to publish any data, apart from aggregates, on the recipients of the billions of dollars in funds it oversees. We do know that its boss, a familiar name to the political aficionado, is paid a lot.
Last May the government established the National Recovery and Resilience Agency (NRRA) from the amalgamation of two agencies: the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and the National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency.
Both those agencies were fairly new, and gave off a whiff of political expediency.
The bushfire recovery agency was established in January 2020, following the 2019-20 ‘’black summer’’ bushfires, a month after Morrison was roundly criticised for holidaying in Hawaii and experienced his lowest ever approval ratings, according to Newspoll.
The drought and flood agency was established by Morrison two months before the 2019 election in response to the Townsville floods. Townsville is in the electorate of Herbert, which is an important ‘’defend’’ for the Morrison government. Since the 1960s it has been a near-bellwether seat. In other words it is a seat that usually goes with the party that wins or holds government.
Put those agencies together, and you have a supercharged funding faucet to burnish the Coalition’s management of the national estate. And who better to lead it (on a $617,000 salary) than one of the Coalition’s best backroom operators, former Northern Territory chief minister and Liberal Party president Shane L. Stone.
Stone stepped into the role of Coordinator-General of the super-agency after serving as coordinator-general of one of its subordinates, the former National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency.
When asked in Senate Estimates what the process behind his appointment, Stone would only respond that he was informed of his new position at “the Prime Minister’s office by one of the very senior advisers.”
According to answers given in Senate Estimates, Stone remains “a life member of the Country Liberal Party and also of the Victorian Liberal Party.”
Politicisation of recovery funds
Labor’s Senator Murray Watt, the shadow minister for natural disaster and emergency management, told MWM: “This government has a long track record of doling out jobs to mates and treating taxpayers’ money like Liberal Party money. Former Liberal Party president Shane Stone is now responsible for overseeing billions in resilience and recovery funding for disaster impacted communities”.
`Watt has also raised concerns regarding what “safeguards we have, to make sure that these funds are distributed in a partisan matter”.
To guard against perceptions of partisanship, the NRRA’s funding decisions are overseen by the Business Grants Hub. However, Stone himself will chair an assessment panel which will consider the Grants Hub assessment and then advise the minister from there.
Stone also alluded to having far more control over various funds than previously expected, claiming in Senate Estimates in May this year that the minister at the time, David Littleproud, had delegated decision-making powers over various grant approvals to Stone.
Watt says that these funds “are too important to be politicised by the Morrison government or used as their re-election fund.”
Watt uncovered in Senate Estimates late last month that zero-funding had been allocated to the now $4.7 billion Emergency Response Fund. This was despite the fund being cleared to allocate up to $50 million a year on preventive measures such as flood barriers, cyclone shelters and bushfire prevention works.
It appears from answers given to questions asked by MWM by an NRRA media spokesperson that since then, $50 million has been allocated to build flood mitigation infrastructure.
As coordinator-general. Stone also has considerable influence on the unutilised $4.7 billion Emergency Response Fund as the Ministers funding decisions are made following Stone’s advice.
Since its amalgamation, the National Recovery and Resilience Agency has discontinued key transparency measures which were put in place by the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, such as monthly performance reports.
In fact, very little information regarding what the agency does is available on its website. With the only funding information available coming through infographics which only refer to funds spent “by the Australian government” on recovery and response measures and not specifically administered by the NRRA.
As one observer, media strategist Brent Hodgson, pointed out on Twitter, three of the NRRA’s five “performance measures‘’ according to the agency’s 2020-21 annual report are still directed at response measures to the 2019 Townsville floods.
Questions MWM put to the NRRA were put on hold over the weekend due to what a media adviser alluded to were changing funding arrangements which had originated from the most senior levels of the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
When asked what these changes were which necessitated the delay in responses, the media spokesperson refused to answer.
The NRRA did however state that they have direct responsibility for over a billion dollars in administered funding over the next four financial years.
The agency also claims responsibility over several other funds such as the Black Summer Bushfire Recovery Grants program, the National Bushfire Recovery Fund, and the Preparing Australia Program.
Each of which also involves the oversight of the AusIndustry Business Grants Hub and up to 10 other federal departments.
As mentioned, the NRRA has yet to publish any data, apart from aggregates, on the recipients of the billions of dollars in funds it oversees.
Callum Foote is a journalist and Revolving Doors editor for Michael West Media. He has studied the impact of undue corporate influence over Australian policy decisions and the impact this has on popular interests.