Anthony Pratt\'s Visy wins $10m
Despite promises that the fund would be simple and accessible to smaller community groups, bushfire-affected residents are struggling to navigate the complex grants processes – requiring the assistance, in some cases, of professional grant writers or full-time volunteers to even apply for money.
In bushfire-ravaged towns such as Cobargo, NSW, where one-third of the village commerce precinct was lost, local residents are struggling in the face of a grants application process layered in complexity and bureaucracy.
The Cobargo Business Recovery Group’s vice-chair, John Walters, is one of those leading the community’s bid to access funding to rebuild its main street and commercial buildings, a job that has relied on hundreds of volunteer hours and the help of pro-bono architects.
He describes the process as “absolutely exhausting”.
“You’re supposed to be putting together $5-10m projects that involve architectural works, engineering works, and you haven’t got any money,” Walters told Guardian Australia.
“You’re doing this on a wing and a prayer hoping you’re going to get a grant, so thank goodness for some pro-bono [help] and some local funding that we’ve obtained from our own community fund to fund some of this work.
“It has been exhausting and it continues to be exhausting.”
Further north, in NSW’s northern rivers region, Melinda Plesman, who lost her house of more than 30 years in Nymboida, said many of her neighbours are still living in shipping containers. She said the rebuilding process was moving extremely slowly, held up largely by council processes.
“I think people are really struggling,” Plesman said. “A lot of people are staying and trying to rebuild, they are living in shipping containers, they live in caravans, they live in sheds that they’ve now put up.
“Not one of them has a new house in Nymboida … they haven’t been able to, it hasn’t moved that fast.”Funding for Pratt and Cayman Islands-linked forestry group
Others though don’t appear to have the same difficulty in accessing government funds.
The industry assistance stream of the local economic recovery fund has already handed out a staggering $10m to Visy, one of the world’s biggest paper companies owned by Australia’s second richest man, to upgrade its technology to boost productivity at its Tumut mill.
Pratt’s Visy packaging and recycling empire is a multinational giant, with operations spanning across the globe. Last year, Guardian Australia revealed that a key holding company in the business empire had legitimately paid very little tax since 2013 despite reaping profits totalling more than $340m over the same period, according to corporate and tax records.
Pratt, a friend of Donald Trump’s, donated more than $3m to the Liberal and Labor parties prior to last year’s federal election, giving roughly $1.4m to the Liberals and $1.6 million to Labor through his company Pratt Holdings.
The Visy Tumut mill was not damaged by fire, although the broader forestry industry was hit hard, largely through the widespread loss of plantations, with 62,000 hectares of NSW state forest timber plantation lost. The plantations around the Visy mill were decimated and the Snowy Valleys Council mayor, James Hayes, has previously predicted years of difficulty for the site and its workers.
The fund, administered by the NSW government, has also handed $275,000 to the Snowy Mountains Forests Australia Trust to replace a bridge on Tarcutta Creek and Baga Creek, near Tumut, which will help improve accessibility into plantation areas to enable the harvesting of burnt timber.
The trust trades as Snowy Mountains Forests Pty Ltd, which owns roughly 23,600 hectares of softwood plantation in the region.
Corporate documents show that entity is wholly owned through the Cayman Islands, and is registered to the office of an offshore legal firm, Mourant Governance Services, also in the Cayman Islands.
The company said it is owned by an international investment fund, which uses the Cayman Islands to accept “investments from investors in multiple jurisdictions”, before deploying the capital into projects in countries across the globe, including Australia.
A spokesman for Snowy Mountains Forests Pty Ltd said the money, which was matched by contributions from the company, was critical in upgrading its log haulage route in the area, taking trucks off main roads and improving access for heavy fire fighting equipment in future fires.
“Snowy Mountains Forests will utilise local contractors to undertake all of the upgrade works associated with this grant, providing a boost to the local economy,” the spokesman said.
The NSW Department of Regional NSW, which awarded the funding to Visy and the Snowy Mountains Forests, said both projects met the strict guidelines and criteria of the grants program and the Local Economic Recovery Fund framework.
“Both projects were assessed and recommended by department assessment panel that included an independent probity adviser,” a spokesman said. “Both projects will provide wide-reaching economic impacts for local communities in the Snowy valleys area that rely heavily on the forestry and timber processing industry.”
The funding was designed to help industry-wide recovery and rebuilding in forestry and five other key industries, which were decimated by the fires. The Visy project will support the creation of 30 full time positions, the government spokesman said, and will help retain 1,200 positions for local forestry and forestry-related manufacturing. It is being matched by $10m in industry funding.
“These sectors were targeted following an economic impact assessment that showed they were the most critical to support regional economic recovery in NSW,” a spokesman said.
“The focus of the program is job creation through projects that build industry sustainability, increase value-add production, support supply-chain efficiencies as well as product diversification and market expansion in the medium to long term.”
<figcaption>Donald Trump, Anthony Pratt (centre) and Scott Morrison at Pratt plant opening in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</figcaption>