Federal Labor says the legacy of the devastating 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires is failing to be marked with just 1.28 per cent of eligible Australians who fought during the fires receiving the National Emergency Medal nearly two years later.
In January 2020, before all the fires were out, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the eligibility for the medal was to be expanded to cover the 2019-20 bushfires for fire, police, ambulance and emergency services volunteers and workers, along with Defence Force personnel and reservists and overseas personnel, in recognition of sustained or significant service.
An answer to a parliamentary question on notice to the Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General shows that of the estimated 130,000 eligible recipients of the National Emergency Medal for the 2019-20 bushfires, there had been - at June 30, 2021 - 5069 nominations received and 1664 medals approved and dispatched.
That's 1.28 per cent of medals given out, based on eligibility - a figure that the Member for Eden Monaro, Kristy McBain, describes an "absolute travesty".
"It is basic stuff. The least you could do is recognise that the volunteers are the ones stepping into the breach," she told The Canberra Times.
"It's a bit of a kick in the guts to people. Our volunteers don't do their work for recognition, but there are hundreds of lives that have been saved by volunteers. There are properties and structures right across this country which would have been in a much worse position if not for these volunteers.
"And in every community that was hit by the black summer bushfires you will have people who will be thankful to the volunteers that assisted them and that should have been recognised by this government and those applications should have been fast tracked, they should have been dealt with in a timely manner so that these people could get the recognition that our community wishes them to get."
Ms McBain claims there are also many people who volunteered during and well after the Black Summer bushfires who are not eligible for the medal who she believes should be. She points to volunteer work relating to the 2019-20 fires which is still going on.
She says the National Emergency Medal program should be expedited and, at the very least, affected communities should be consulted about official recognition.
"There are a ton of volunteers who don't fit the mould or the criteria, but volunteered their time in evacuating kitchens for for weeks on end," she said.
"There are people that have been volunteering for 20 months now, assisting people with their basic needs of clothes and accommodation. There are people that have been assisting with filling out forms. There are a lot of people right across this burns scar of the country that are doing things where government should have stepped in and assisted already."
At the time of announcement, Mr Morrison said while priority was to go to rebuilding and recovery from the bushfire disaster, it "was also important that recognition was given".
The Governor-General David Hurley agreed to a recommendation from the Morrison government over the Medal that the 2019-20 bushfires be declared a nationally significant emergency.
Once the medals are dispatched, emergency agencies and organisations are responsible for presenting them. However, in May at Government House, the Governor-General presented the first of the National Emergency Medals to the families or representatives of fire-fighters and first responders who lost their lives in the fires.
Since the National Emergency Medal was established in 2011, thousands of medals have been awarded to responders and volunteers of Australia natural disasters including the 2009 Victoria bushfires and the 2010-11 Queensland floods.
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