New legislation will be introduced to change the way money donated to the NSW Rural Fire Service can be spent, in a bid to ensure $51 million raised by comedian Celeste Barber can be distributed to volunteer firefighters and affected communities. A bill to amend the Rural Fires Act will be introduced to NSW Parliament by the Greens on Wednesday, seeking to change the way donations to the RFS and Brigades Donations Fund made between November 1 and February 1 can be used.
Source: Pallavi Singhal, Fairfax Media
New bill will seek to change how RFS can spend $51 million raised by Celeste Barber
Under the existing trust that governs the use of the fund, money can only be used to purchase and maintain firefighting equipment and facilities, provide training and resources and cover administrative expenses.
The bill will expand the existing act to say donations can be used to support the families of any RFS volunteers killed or injured while on duty, help bushfire-affected communities and individuals and support people and organisations providing care to animals that have been injured or displaced.
About 1.3 million people donated a total of $51.3 million to Ms Barber’s Facebook appeal but the money remains unspent.
The RFS said last week it would seek directions from the Supreme Court on how it could distribute the funds beyond its own operations.
However, Greens MP David Shoebridge said the problem was “unlikely to be fixed by any court application”.
“It really needs a legislative fix,” he said.
“We want to ensure the intentions of the more than one million donors are respected and this record donation is able to be used to do more than offset government expenditure on the RFS.”
Not one cent of the $52 million raised by comedian Celeste Berber has been donated to bushfire victims.
Mr Shoebridge said the Greens are open to discussions with other parties and Ms Barber on the drafting of the bill.
“The extraordinary generosity of ordinary Australians needs to be matched by some commonsense politics and that means opening up these funds to the firefighters, fire impacted communities and wildlife careers who so desperately need assistance,” he said.
Philanthropy expert and industry fellow at Swinburne University of Technology Krystian Seibert said legislation to vary the application of trusts law is more likely to succeed than the RFS’s Supreme Court approach.
“The Supreme Court can agree to what’s called a ‘cy prés scheme’ in limited circumstances. That allows funds held in a charitable trust like the RFS donations fund to be used for different purposes,” Mr Seibert said.
He said it’s more likely that the Supreme Court will reject the bid because the money is able to be spent in the way the trust specifies.
Mr Seibert said passing legislation could be the only option left if the court rejects RFS’s bid.
“Otherwise, the eventual outcome may be that the funds can only be used by the RFS for equipment, training and administration,” he said.