2019 Parliamentary remuneration and business resources: a quick guide
Updated 24 January 2020
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Social Policy Section
Australian Government financial assistance
during and following natural disasters can be delivered indirectly via the Disaster
Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA) with state and territory governments,
or directly through disaster recovery payments made under the Social Security Act
1991. For those receiving Australian Government income support payments
such as pensions or allowances who live in disaster areas or who volunteer
during state or national emergencies, special exemptions from mutual obligation
and debt recovery arrangements may apply.
This Quick Guide summarises the main Australian Government
disaster recovery payments, their eligibility criteria and key changes to the
criteria over time. It also sets out some of the special circumstance
provisions that can apply to those receiving other Australian Government
payments who are affected by disasters or who volunteer during a disaster
Details of the assistance available from the Australian
Government for specific events are available on the DisasterAssist website.
Disaster recovery funding and
The DRFA provide a basis for the Commonwealth to enter into
cost-sharing arrangements with state and territory governments where a disaster
presents a significant financial burden. Up to 75 per cent of state
expenditure on natural disasters can be eligible for reimbursement by the
Commonwealth under the DRFA. There are different DRFA
categories aimed at different groups or needs and which attract different
levels of financial assistance. Disbursement can be through grants or packages
relating to recovery from specific disasters or emergencies.
Separate to the DRFA, the Emergency Response
Fund established on 12 December 2019 allows the Australian Government to
draw up to $200 million in a financial year to supplement funding available for
emergency response, disaster recovery and preparedness.
Additional assistance may be provided through disaster
resilience programs, grants to local government and non-government
organisations, and special tax concessions or exemptions.
For more information on the DRFA and other disaster-related
programs, see the Parliamentary Library publication, Emergency
management and disaster resilience: a quick guide, by Helen
Australian Government disaster
There are two main Australian Government assistance payments
that can be provided via Services Australia (Centrelink) during or following a
The payments become payable after the Minister responsible
for emergency management and disaster assistance (currently the Minister for Water
Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management,
David Littleproud) makes a determination that an event is a major
disaster—separate determinations are made for each payment and, depending on
the disaster, one or both payments may be activated. Only determinations for
the AGDRP are legislative instruments.
The Minister’s determinations can set out specific eligibility
criteria and rates of payment—the rate of the
DRA cannot exceed the maximum rate of Newstart Allowance or Youth Allowance
(for those aged under 22 years).
The rate of the AGDRP has not been changed since it was
introduced in 2006. On 15 January 2020 the Prime
Minister and Minister for Families and Social Services announced an
additional $400 would be paid to recipients of the AGDRP child rate. It is to
be delivered through one-off payments of $400 to eligible recipients using
powers under the Financial Framework (Supplementary Powers) Act 1997. The Governor-General made regulations on 20 January 2020 to provide the one-off
payments. The rate of the AGDRP itself was not changed.
Both payments are generally only payable to Australian
citizens and permanent residents but some temporary visa-holders (such as
refugees/asylum seekers) are also eligible—see the
list of visa subclasses eligible for Special Benefit.
Ex gratia payments for New
The Prime Minister or Cabinet can also make a decision to
gratia payments to New Zealand non-protected special category visa holders
(i.e. New Zealanders in Australia who are not considered permanent residents).
These ex gratia payments will generally match the rates and conditions for the
AGDRP and DRA and it is now common practice for them to be granted alongside
payments to Australian citizens and permanent residents.
Expenditure on disaster payments
Expenditure on disaster payments varies significantly by
disaster and different payments may be activated for different disasters. Table
1 details AGDRP claims and expenditure by major disaster in 2018–19 and Table 2
details DRA claims and expenditure by major disaster in 2018–19.
Table 1: Australian Government
Disaster Recovery Payments, 2018–19
Far North Queensland floods 2019
Northern NSW bushfires 2019
Tropical Cyclone Debbie 20171
$117 749 400
$1 858 400
Payments paid in 2018–19 financial
Services Australia, Annual report 2018–19, Services Australia, Canberra, 2019, p. 120.
Table 2: Disaster Recovery
Allowance payments, 2018–19
Far North Queensland floods
Northern NSW bushfires 2019
Tasmanian bushfires 2019
Tropical Cyclone Debbie
$1 176 193
Payments paid in 2018–19 financial
Services Australia, Annual report 2018–19, Services Australia, Canberra, 2019, p. 120.
In 2018–19, an ex gratia AGDRP was activated for New
Zealanders ineligible for the AGDRP who were affected by the Far North
Queensland floods or the northern NSW bushfires. As at 30 June 2019,
Services Australia had paid more than 710 claims worth over $832,000. An ex
gratia DRA was also activated for the Far North Queensland floods, with 30
claims paid worth over $62,000 as at 30 June 2019 (Services Australia, Annual
Report 2018–19, p. 121).
Eligibility criteria for the AGDRP
The key eligibility criterion for the AGDRP is that the
person be considered ‘adversely affected by a major disaster’ as defined in the
relevant legislative instrument. For example, the criteria for the 17 January 2020 determination
for the New South Wales bushfires sets out the major disaster dates (August
2019 onwards) and the local government areas affected. A person is taken to be
adversely affected by this major disaster if:
person is seriously injured as a direct result of the disaster;
person is an immediate family member of an Australian who is killed as a direct
result of the disaster
person’s principal place of residence has been destroyed or has major damage as
a direct result of the disaster;
- a major asset or assets of the
person has or have been destroyed or suffered major damage as a direct result
of the disaster;
person is a principal carer of a child to whom paragraphs (a), (b) or (c)
The January 2020 determination provides that a person’s ‘principal
place of residence’ is a place where the person regularly lives with a ‘degree
of settled purpose’. A person may have more than one principal place of
residence but a secondary residence used for holidays is not considered a
principal place of residence. A ‘major asset or assets’ means one or more
assets with a total market value of at least $20,000 located at the person’s
principal place of residence. Examples suggested in the determination include
buildings, vehicles, caravans, water tanks, and machinery.
Seriously injured, for a person, means:
person has sustained an injury; and
of the injury:
the person was admitted to hospital; or
- under normal circumstances, the person would have been admitted to
Major damage means:
- for a residence
- damage to the interior of the residence; or
- that the residence is structurally unsound; or
- damage to the residence that exposes the interior of the residence to
the elements; or
- sewage contamination of the interior of the residence or of the water
supply to the residence.
- for a major asset or
assets other than a water tank—that it is burnt, or damaged by heat, ash or
smoke, to the extent that it needs to be replaced; or
- for a water tank—damage to
the extent that it needs to be repaired or cleaned, or the water replaced.
Changes in criteria
Other bushfires in 2019–20 for which the AGDRP was activated
used the same criteria. However, the AGDRP eligibility criteria have changed
over time with determinations for different disaster events using different
definitions. The Productivity Commission’s 2014 report Natural
Disaster Funding Arrangements described the gradual changes in
The AGDRP eligibility criteria have expanded over time.
Initially (in 2006), the payment was only available to individuals whose
principal place of residence was destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. By 2009,
eligibility had been extended to people who were unable to return to their residence
for 24 hours, and people who experienced a utility failure for 48 hours. The
eligibility criteria were subsequently tightened for the Blue Mountains
bushfires in October 2013 so that the AGDRP was available only to people who
were seriously injured, who lost family members or whose residence was
destroyed or sustained major damage. It was no longer provided to people who
lost access to their residence for 24 hours, were isolated in their residence
for 24 hours or experienced a utility failure. (p. 116)
The Commission found that ‘tinkering with the AGDRP
eligibility criteria has led to inequality and perceptions of unfairness (including
the perception that the criteria have been both too narrow and too broad)’ (p.
117). The Commission recommended the criteria for the payment be legislated and
that ministerial discretion should be removed (p. 42).
From 2008 to 2019, the definition of major damage used in
AGDRP determinations included criteria relating to the extent of damage to a
property. For example, the determination made for
the January 2016 bushfires in the Pell and South West regions of Western
Australia defined major damage as ‘damage to at least a quarter of the interior of the
residence’ or ‘damage to the residence that exposes at least a quarter of the
interior of the residence to the elements’. From February 2019, the ‘at least a
quarter’ minimum damage definition has not applied and any damage to the
interior, or which exposes the interior, has been considered major damage.
Damage to or the destruction of major assets has not
previously been included as a criterion for a person being adversely affected
by a major disaster. This new criterion was announced
by the Prime Minister in a press conference on 15 January 2020.
Eligibility for the DRA
The DRA is a short-term income support payment which can be
paid to those who can demonstrate that their income has been directly affected
by a disaster. It is payable for up to 13 weeks from the date at which the
person starts losing income as a direct result of a disaster. It is income tested,
taxable, and cannot be paid to those already receiving another income support
payment (such as a pension or allowance) or paid parental leave pay/dad and
While the payment is considered taxable income, recipients
can claim the Beneficiary
Tax Offset. In some cases, the payment may be made specifically exempt from
tax. On 8 January 2020 Treasurer
Josh Frydenberg announced the DRA paid to those affected by the 2019–20
bushfires would be made tax exempt.
In making a determination to activate the payment (under
section 36A of the Social Security Act 1991), the Minister responsible
for emergency management and disaster assistance must determine that an event
is a major disaster and specify either:
- one or more industries and the areas affected by the event or
- one or more areas affected by the event.
The determination is made in writing but is not a
To be eligible for the DRA, a person must derive income from
an affected industry in one of the affected areas, derive income from an
affected area, or reside in one of the areas affected. Their income following
the disaster must also not exceed certain cut-off limits. This means that the
DRA is means tested, but based on post-disaster means.
The rate of the DRA is set out in a legislative instrument
and can be varied by the Minister. However, under section 1061KC
of the Social Security Act 1991, the maximum rate of the DRA
cannot exceed the maximum basic rate of Newstart Allowance or Youth Allowance
(where the recipient is aged under 22 years). The Newstart
Allowance maximum basic rate for a single person with no children is
currently $559.00 per fortnight. For a couple it is $1,009.40 per fortnight
(combined). The Youth
Allowance maximum basic rate for a person aged 18 years or older who needs
to live away from home is $462.50 per fortnight.
determination issued on 19 January 2020 includes a rate calculator which is
significantly different to previous DRA rate calculators. Under the new rate
calculator, a person’s average income in the 13 weeks after the disaster is
compared with Australian average weekly earnings. If the person’s
disaster-affected income is less than average weekly earnings for a full-time
$1,634.80), then they will receive the maximum rate of DRA. If a person’s
disaster-affected income is more than average weekly earnings, then the person
will not be eligible for the DRA. The new rate calculator applies retrospectively
from 1 July 2019, but if any individual is worse off under the new calculator,
then the previous determination will continue to apply to them.
Under the previous ministerial
determination, the rate of DRA was calculated as the difference between the
person’s income in the 13 weeks after the disaster and what they would reasonably
have expected to earn in the 13 weeks had the disaster not occurred, up to the
maximum rate (of Newstart or Youth Allowance). Payment rates are calculated on
a fortnightly basis.
The previous rate calculator also applied an income test to
the DRA—income at the time the payment was claimed (their disaster-affected
income) could not exceed a certain threshold or the person would be ineligible
for the payment. The threshold was worked out according to formulae in the
ministerial determination. For single people with no children aged 22 years
or over, the threshold as at January 2020 was $1,060.67 per fortnight. Under
the new rate calculator, which compares disaster-affected income with
Australian average weekly earnings, a person would have to earn income over
$3,269.60 per fortnight to be ineligible.
Changes in criteria
The DRA was established
in 2013 and first
used in response to the October 2013 NSW bushfires. There were no
significant differences in eligibility criteria for the payment in response to
bushfires until the new rate calculator was issued on 19 January 2020 (see
previous section). In each bushfire for which it has been activated, the
criteria have set out specific local government areas in which those whose
incomes have been affected by the fires may be eligible for the DRA. The Services
Australia website (previously known as the Department of Human Services)
lists disasters, payments available and eligibility conditions, including the
local government areas where the DRA has been activated.
Exemptions and special arrangements
for income support recipients during disasters
During disasters and emergencies, special arrangements may
be put in place to assist those receiving income support payments, such as
pensions or allowances. This can include exemptions from mutual obligation
requirements, as well as allowing cashless debit card trial participants or those
subject to income management to access more of their payment as cash.
Australia can deploy staff to disaster areas and have mobile service
centres that can be used to provide access to payments and other services. Normal
pre-grant identity confirmation processes do not apply to victims of major
Exemptions from mutual obligation
requirements for those affected by a declared natural disaster
For those receiving payments with mutual obligation
requirements (including Newstart Allowance, Youth Allowance (Other) and Parenting
Payment), a special
circumstance exemption from these requirements can apply where they have
been affected by a declared national disaster. An official declaration that the
area has natural disaster status must be in place. An initial exemption of four
weeks will normally be granted but exemptions of up to 13 weeks at a time can
be applied. On 6 January 2020 Prime
Minister Scott Morrison announced that those affected by bushfires would be
provided with an initial exemption of two months and that this would be subject
to further review.
Exemptions from mutual obligation
requirements for volunteers in state and national emergencies
Similarly, for those volunteering during state or national
emergencies, an exemption from mutual obligation requirements can be granted
for up to 13 weeks. Payment recipients will need to provide proof of active
involvement, which can be a written statement from their fire service or State
Emergency Service commander.
of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business issued a media release on
13 December 2019 to reiterate that volunteer firefighters would not have
their income support payments cut while fighting fires:
When involved in an emergency response, volunteer firies on
income support are able to be released from their mutual obligation
requirements, under Special Circumstances Exemptions.
They just need to provide some evidence to Centrelink. This
can be in the form of a letter from their Rural Fire Services commander, for
The exemption from mutual obligations covers all of their
requirements, including Work for the Dole.
This applies to all firefighters responding to emergencies,
regardless of whether their organisation is on the list of approved volunteer
organisations with Centrelink or not (although many fire services have
registered and have been approved).
Being on the approved list is only necessary if a job seeker
wants to have their volunteering recognised as an ongoing activity that is
counted towards their mutual obligation requirements.
For a short-term exemption — up to 13 weeks — a letter is all
that’s needed to let Centrelink know.
It’s also possible to apply for an extension if required.
Debt recovery exemptions
During disaster events, Services Australia may suspend debt
recovery processes for those affected. The Secretary
of Services Australia, Renée Leon, told a Senate Estimates hearing that the
‘practice for natural disasters, and the practice in previous disasters, has
been to pause debt recovery for six months’. On 6 January 2020 Prime
Minister Scott Morrison announced that those affected by bushfires would
have any debt recovery processes paused for an initial two months and that this
would be subject to further review.
Cashless Debit Card and income
Income support recipients who are participants in the Cashless
Debit Card trials and those subject to income
management have a portion of their payments quarantined to a special debit
card or account that can only be used to purchase non-prohibited items.
Quarantined amounts cannot be withdrawn as cash.
of Social Services has stated that if, during natural disasters, card
payment systems do not work Cashless Debit Card participants may be able to access
additional cash from their quarantined funds via an online transfer from their
Indue account or by contacting the Cashless Debit Card hotline (1800 252 604).
Provisions in the Social
Security (Administration) Act 1999 also allow for restricted
income management amounts (quarantined amounts) to be used as an unrestricted
direct payment to individuals (including via a transfer to a bank account or as
cash), particularly in order for them to meet priority needs. While no specific
guidance is given in regard to natural disasters, the legislation provides for
amounts to be made available to withdraw as cash where the Department of Social
Services has deemed it necessary.
A key issue for those subject to income management or who
are Cashless Debit Card participants is that they will need to contact government
agencies to arrange for their restricted funds to be made unrestricted. This may
be very difficult in situations where communications infrastructure has been
damaged in the disaster.
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