Decision made on Celeste Barber’s $51 million bushfire fund

NSW RFS Commissioner Rob Rodgers has revealed how the $51.3 million raised by Celeste Barber in response to the devastating bushfire crisis will be spent.

Speaking to host Waleed Aly on The Project on Monday night, Mr Rodgers said given NSW was hit hardest by the fires, the mammoth donation was still desperately needed, particularly to support the families of those who lost their lives.

He suggested he didn’t see it necessary to “gift” a proportion of the funding to other states, adding that it “wasn’t his position” to advocate what goes before parliament should legislation be passed to make it legal for the RFS to divvy up the money.

Mr Rodgers’ comments come after the NSW Supreme Court handed down its decision on the millions raised by Celeste Barber, declaring the funds must stay with the NSW Rural Fire Service.

“We want to do are things that directly benefit firefighters,” he said when asked how the funds would be allocated.

“Things like helmets, respiratory protection, and whilst they are things we would normally fund, what this gives us a chance to do is actually accelerate that funding. The other things that we’re thinking of is retro-fitting fire trucks to make sure they have the latest protection equipment on them to make sure that our volunteer firefighters are protected as best as we can make if for them.”

He went on to say the ruling would enable the NSW RFS to provide ongoing support to the families of firefighters who were killed or injured in the blaze.

“We’ve seen the traumatic impact that those deaths have had in this last fire season and we want to make sure people are looked after and their kids are looked after for the many years to come. And this money helps us to do that.”

When asked why the NSW RFS went to court over the enormous donation, he said the organisation were trying not to “alienate a proportion of the population that gave so generously”.

But when probed over what his reaction would be if the NSW government requested the funds be “given as a gift” to states hit hard by the fires, he maintained that NSW needs it most.

“What would your reaction be if, for example, the NSW government said, ‘You’ve just got this big windfall, we will adjust your funding next year by a small amount of that, and give it as a gift to the states that were hit really hard by the fires?’,” Waleed asked.

“To be quite honest, I don’t think there’s any state that has been hit harder than NSW in this last fire season … We had the most losses of life, losses of property. So I don’t think there’s any state that has done it tougher than NSW.”

He also said: “The RFS role is to respect the decision of courts, and to start enacting that.”

On Monday, Supreme Court Justice Michael Slattery said the massive sum, which had already been transferred by Paypal into the RFS Trust, could only be used on the volunteer organisation and could not be passed on to other charitable causes.

“Some donors may have intended or hoped that the money they donated would be used for purposes beyond those which the court has now advised are permissible,” Supreme Court Justice Slattery told the court.

“Despite the (RFS’s) wish to honour those intentions or hopes, the law provides principles that make sure a degree of certainty in the application of trust funds, including charitable trust funds, and the court has applied these principles, and giving its advice and these reasons.”

Supreme Court Justice Slattery described Barber as a “public spirited citizen” and described the fundraiser as a “spectacular success”.

He also recognised the RFS had wanted to help Barber distribute the funds across the country but the laws of the trust prohibited that.

The RFS Trust asked the court four questions relating to how the money could be used.

Supreme Court Justice Slattery only said no to one.

“Can the trustees pay money to other charities or Rural Fire Services, whether in NSW or the other Australian states and territories to assist in providing relief to persons and animals affected by bushfires?” the NSW RFS asked.

The court answers that question no,” Supreme Court Justice Slattery said.

The law however will allow the RFS to give some of the $51.3 million to the families of NSW volunteer firefighters killed during our horrific bushfire season.

Speaking on the ABC this afternoon, RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers said Barber would have “full visibility” of where the money is spent.

“We express our extreme gratitude to Celeste Barber,” Commissioner Rogers said. “She did an incredible task, raising a huge amount of money for the RFS.

“I think I along with the community would join in thanking her very much and we will look forward to working with her and her team and making sure that she has full visibility of where all this money goes, so that she can report to her followers as far as who is given the money and what it’s being used for.”

Jeremy Giles SC told the Supreme Court last week that the RFS would give “anxious consideration” to a trust benefiting injured or fallen firefighters.

“This application is not about Ms Barber’s appeal and what was said during that appeal to the public,” Mr Giles said.

“Ms Barber’s appeal was a spectacular success and the citizens of this state, of Australia and more broadly throughout the world were extremely generous in a time of considerable need.”

Barber in January prompted an outpouring of goodwill and donations from across the world when she launched the “Please help anyway you can. This is terrifying” appeal on Facebook.

She nominated the NSW RFS as the beneficiary of the campaign and set a funding target of $30,000.

Barber — who boasts 7.1 million followers on Instagram — raised $51.3 million, the largest fundraising drive in Facebook’s history.

After far exceeding her fundraising goal, she subsequently stated on social media that the money would also be distributed to rural fire services from other states, including Victoria and South Australia, victims of the summer bushfire crisis as well as wildlife funds.

But the terms of the RFS Fund trust deed limited the donations to being spent on purchasing and maintaining firefighting equipment and facilities, training and resources as well as administrative expenses.

The court earlier heard there was agreement among lawyers for the RFS and NSW Attorney- General Mark Speakman that the money could not be contributed to other charities and interstate rural fire brigades.

Commissioner Rogers said he welcomed “the certainty” that the court ruling brings.

“The trust has allocated some $20 million to brigades around the state so they can get local equipment needs, get modifications done to their stations, we’ve identified we want to get respiratory protection, helmets, and retro-fitting appliances to make sure they have the latest protection standards,” he told the ABC.

“They are things we’re recommending to the trust for appropriate uses to make sure volunteer firefighters directly benefit from this money.

“The other thing that the court announced is we can this money for the benefit of deceased and injured firefighters and their families to support them. That’s a big thing we can do to look after these people, not today and tomorrow, but years to come.”

Court documents revealed a high level of confusion among people who donated.

While many posted on Barbers’ social media supporting her drive to raise funds for the NSW RFS, others expressed a desire for their donations to go elsewhere.

“Is all this money going to the fire services or is it actually going to the victims who need this money????” one person said.

Another wrote: “My family and I donated because we love animals”.

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