Celeste Barber became the face of Australia’s catastrophic summer of bush fires when she kicked off a Facebook fundraiser which raised a staggering $51 million dollars. Since then, the money has not helped a single charity or individual due to legalities surrounding who can receive it. Now, the NSW supreme court has ruled that all of the $51 million dollars must be donated to The NSW RFS (Rural Fire Service).
The Australian people banded together this summer in a way that I have not experienced in my lifetime. While our Prime Minister was holidaying in Hawaii, the people of Australia came together as a collective to help weather one of the worst natural disasters in our nations history. By the time the fires were finally under control in early march, an estimated 18.6 million hectares of land had burnt and nearly 10,000 buildings were destroyed. 34 victims perished in the fires and a staggering 417 Australian’s died due to related causes; like smoke inhalation.
But through all the hardship, testaments of Australian mateship and the battler attitude rung true. The fact that a relatively unknown Australian comedian (at the time) was able to bring in such an exorbitant amount of money through social media is a tribute to this. The money was contributed by ordinary Australians, for ordinary Australians.
Understandably, with such a large amount of cash raised, Barber and those that donated were keen for the wealth to be spread to different charities, states and people that needed it. Unfortunately, this is where issues began to arise.
When Barber began fundraising, she nominated the NSW RFS as the beneficiary of the campaign, with a goal of raising $15,000 dollars. However, as the money raised continued to meet and exceed targets, and the bush fires continued to devastate, it became clear that this money could do a great deal of good to a great number of organisations and people.
While the bio for the fundraiser stated:
I’m raising money for The Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund and your contribution will make an impact, whether you donate a lot or a little.
The fundraiser outgrew it’s initial purpose, and the dominant perception with the public was that the money would instead be spread throughout the country. In the months following the fundraiser, Barber and her legal team have been working hard to make this happen.
On Monday, these efforts were finally put to bed when the NSW supreme courts ruled that the total money raised must go toward the initial beneficiary, The NSW RFS.
“Some donors may have intended or hoped that the money they donated would be used for purposes beyond those which the court has advised are permissible,” NSW Supreme Court Justice Michael Slattery said.
However, whilst this is not the outcome Barber and the public were hoping for, there is still a silver lining. Initially, the RFS trust was restricted to training, resources and equipment only. Now, the NSW Supreme court has at least allowed the trust to be expanded. Injured NSW firefighters and the families of NSW volunteers who were killed will be looked after for “years to come”.
The biggest beneficiary of the money will be volunteer firefighters, with 70, 000 members across the state receiving new helmets, according to the NSW RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers. A piece of equipment which is essential in keeping our firefighters safe. Fire trucks and vehicles will also be updated with state of the art safety features and firefighters will be equipped with new types of respiratory protection.
As expected, the response to the Supreme court’s decision has been mixed, with Barber even receiving some of the backlash.
“If I could cancel my donation, I would. Never again will I donate to a celebrity fund, no matter how well intentioned. [sic]”
While the Supreme court’s ruling may not be the outcome people were looking for, the fact that the money can finally be put to good use is a relief for many. The ‘black summer’ saga is finally over.
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