Just four per cent of Australians in areas impacted directly or indirectly from the 2019-20 bushfires have received government aid, a parliamentary inquiry has been told.
National Bushfire Recovery Agency deputy coordinator Major General Andrew Hocking told a Senate committee examining issues in regional Australia on Tuesday an estimated 7.1 million people lived in local government areas impacted directly or indirectly by the fires.
However just a fraction had received government support.
"I can tell you that about 291,000 people have been supported through disaster recovery allowance and disaster recovery payments," Major General Hocking said.
The agency's other deputy coordinator Rina Bruinsma also told the inquiry only 288 businesses had been approved for a concessional loan as part of the government's bushfire recovery package.
Small businesses in fire-affected areas could apply for loans of up to $500,000 with no repayments or interest for the first two years and a concessional rate after that. However only $17 million in loans have been approved.
Around 1500 businesses and not-for-profits had received bushfire recovery grants of up to $50,000 - $41.6 million in total. The grants were for businesses which suffered direct damages to their premises or equipment not covered by insurance. The grant also did not cover lost business income.
Meanwhile around 17,000 businesses had received a small business support grant of $10,000. The eligibility for that scheme is much wider, with businesses in nominated areas and a revenue downturn of more than 40 per cent able to apply.
All up, only $219 million of the $362 million allocated to demand-driven bushfire recovery programs has been spent.
Independent MP Helen Haines, who is part of the committee, urged government to spend the remaining $143 million.
"If there is a genuine underspend in a designated program area then this money should go to the Local Economic Recovery Plans, so our local communities can decide how to spend it. The government could make that commitment today," Dr Haines said.
The eligibility criteria for the $10,000 grants was recently widened to cover more local government areas. Dr Haines called on the government to explain why those areas were excluded in the first place.
"What stings about this is that much of this money should have been delivered months ago. The $10,000 small business grants were supposed to provide rapid cash to businesses that lost income from the fires. But in my electorate, small businesses in bushfire-impacted Indigo, Mansfield and Wangaratta local government areas that lost summer trade were excluded from these grants. It's now June.
"How many businesses won't be accessing the grants because they have shut forever waiting on the support they were promised? The Indigo mayor has told me only today that in the past week three businesses have shut their doors in Beechworth - usually a thriving tourism town."
Meanwhile former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, who is also on the committee, argued that the rules should be relaxed to build more dams in bushfire prone areas.
Mr Joyce said access to water was a major issue while defending his parents' property over the summer.
"There should be some sort of common policy that in areas which are prone fires, there should be the capacity for the construction of dams and that should override stupid things such as fishing regulations where there's never even been fish," Mr Joyce said.