NSW Nationals leader and deputy premier John Barilaro faced tough questions at a Senate estimate hearing last week over his government’s response to the ex-Cyclone Debbie in March.
Labor MLC John Graham challenged Barilaro’s knowledge of the flood and questioned why the Category C funding for small businesses took much longer to be approved than other areas.
The Echo previously reported that Byron Shire was provided funding assistance much later than other LGAs.
Graham also asked why there was inequity for funding across the region. Graham told the chamber, ‘Category C funding started flowing to small businesses months after the declaration of a natural disaster.’
‘There was significant paperwork, even if some of the paperwork and computers had been washed away. There have been reports that small businesses in some areas were eligible for $15,000 in funding, some were eligible for $10,000, some received no funding and some were given grants of $25,000. Businesses across the border in Queensland were reportedly eligible for $25,000. Why did businesses in Tumbulgum receive less funding than others?’
In reply, Barilaro claimed his government, ‘responded more quickly than any other state,’ and ‘We were on the ground early through the Office of the Small Business Commissioner.’
Yet when Graham pressed Barilaro again on the question of when the first Category C payments begin to flow to small businesses, Barilaro admitted he didn’t know.
Instead, Small Business Commissioner Robyn Hobbs told the hearing, ‘Originally Tumbulgum and those other communities [Murwillumbah, Uki and Billinudgel] were not included. I made an application on behalf of the deputy premier to the Office of Emergency Management.
‘For the first time ever, those areas around the Tweed, including Tumbulgum, were opened up to category C funding. That had never happened before.’
Graham replied, ‘Yes, but not to an equal amount –Deputy Premier [Barilaro], are you satisfied with the timeline for when those businesses received funding?
Barilaro said he is ‘never satisfied with timelines.’
‘The impacts of the floods were significant. I visited after the floods to talk to businesses. That is why we announced not only category C funding…’
Graham interjected, ‘Yes, the talk started early. The trouble is the funding ended up being very late.’
Barilaro replied, ‘We announced the funding. On top of the $15,000 for which small businesses are eligible under category C, we announced a $1 million northern rivers business support package that allows more businesses to apply for further funding. We are on the ground. My deputy secretary was in the region only last week talking to businesses. This is not something we can fix overnight. I would love to see every business back up and running but there are many reasons why that is not the case. The government continues to be there to support those businesses.’