Bushfires and social security: be proactive 

During 2019, Victoria declared six bushfire disasters, culminating in the devastating Black Summer fires, which affected almost a quarter of Victoria’s Local Government Areas.  Victorian emergency agencies and others are warning of a heightened risk of bushfires in Victoria in the summer of 2023/2024. 

At SSRV, we have identified a relationship between bushfires and social security legal issues.  Our previous articles talked about the reasons why people in regional areas are more likely to experience bushfire-related social security legal issues; provided some examples of these sorts of issues from our work; and provided some tips for community lawyers and other helping professionals regarding disaster-related social security legal issues. 

In this article we’ve listed some steps people can take to reduce their risk of experiencing bushfire-related Centrelink problems.

1: Assess bushfire risk

Victoria’s Country Fire Authority has published a guide to a person’s level of bushfire risk. People living in regional areas can make a personal assessment of the likelihood that their home or community will be impacted by bushfire. 

2: Current social security arrangements 

We recommend including in any bushfire preparedness kit, Customer Reference numbers (CRN), payslips (if not in electronic copies) and identification documents. Identification documents will often be needed to access new payments available after a bushfire. Maintaining records of payslips is also important to avoid inaccurate income reporting to Centrelink and subsequent overpayments and debts.

3: Accessing Centrelink and MyGov

We recommend Centrelink recipients consider how they might access Centrelink and MyGov following a disaster. Many people rely upon saved phone passwords and 2-factor authentication to access important financial information. Phones may be lost in the urgency of a disaster. Keeping these details securely in a bushfire preparedness kit can make accessing Centrelink and finances following a disaster an easier process. Following a disaster Centrelink will often set up access hubs in local affected areas, but these hubs will need to be able to identify a person to assist them.

4:  After being impacted by bushfire

Taking these steps following a disaster can help prevent social security issues arising:

  • Informing Centrelink as soon as possible of:
  • any changes to postal addresses;
  • any changes to living arrangements, including leaving the principal home;
  • any changes to parenting arrangements;
  • any changes to employment and income.
  • If leaving the principal home due to a natural disaster, ensuring Centrelink is aware of this and has exempted the principal home from the assets test.
  • Consider whether mutual obligations have been paused by Centrelink for the affected region. If not, consider requesting an individual pause on mutual obligations to allow time to respond and recover. 
  • Consider eligibility for Disaster Recovery Payment, Disaster Recovery Allowance, Crisis Payment, or any other Centrelink disaster assistance.
  • Consider emergency payments released by the State Government by checking www.emergency.vic.gov.au
  • If affected by Centrelink debts or compensation preclusion periods, consider seeking help with these when possible.

Usually, Centrelink is the best first contact point. Look out for local Centrelink access hubs following a disaster, and dedicated disaster-related Centrelink phone lines.

SSRV can discuss and advise upon options, rights and next steps if any issues or questions arise relating to disasters and social security.

Other organisations that provide expertise in aspects of bushfire and disaster preparation

Victorian Government VicEmergencywww.emergency.vic.gov.au
Vic.gov.au www.vic.gov.au/plan-and-prepare
Country Fire Authority www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare   
Department of Health www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/bushfire-preparation-advice 
Local Government (example) Many local governments publish bushfire preparation guidance. www.knox.vic.gov.au/whats-happening/news/preparing-bushfire-season  Find your local council here: https://www.vic.gov.au/know-your-council
Commonwealth Government Services Australia (Centrelink) www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/natural-disaster-support
Insurance industry Insurance Council of Australia www.insurancecouncil.com.au/resource/preparing-for-bushfire-season/
Water Industry Greater Western Water www.gww.com.au/faults-works/maintenance-advice/prepare-bushfire-season 
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