In the weeks following Black Saturday, with the Victorian bush still smouldering, Western Australian mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest hopped on the blower to Victorian authorities promising a shipment of “1,000 dongas” (rudimentary temporary accommodation) to house the inferno’s victims.

According to reports, on 27 February, 40 dongas arrived from Fortescue’s Western Australian mining operations via rail. Fleetwood Homes, the manufacturer of Fortescue’s stock, donated 10 dongas of their own. But just 10 Fortescue dongas, or 1% of the promised total, have ended up in the bushfire zone, according to a Victorian government spokesperson. And there are no plans to order more.

Following our original donga expose in March, serious questions have emerged over the suitability of the donated shacks.

In Flowerdale, nine of the 20 single man units are laying idle, right where Twiggy’s logistics team left them — in Kinglake, with temperatures plummeting (they were hovering around zero last night), survivors seem to prefer caravans and bathtub fires.

According to insiders, public servants were dismayed by Forrest’s ad-hoc arrangements, with the Department of Human Services acting quickly to draw on its own centralised register using existing housing stock. DHS databases were apparently difficult to adapt. Other non-government initiatives, such as, drew intense criticism.

Bushfire victims were presented with three housing options in the wake of the crisis. After registering with DHS, they were offered a caravan if their land had already been cleared or, if not, a moveable unit or flatpack home. Twiggy’s dongas appear not to have made the cut.

A further complication could come from last year’s investigation into the presence of the potential carcinogen formaldehyde in some ready-made shipping containers provided to the NT Intervention. Fleetwood has subsequently conducted its own formaldehyde testing into the donated dongas, concluding they are safe for human habitation.

Still, it doesn’t appear to be a good look to be housing bushfire victims in the controversial converted containers. According to the FAHCSIA report on the issue, “there remain significant issues around managing community acceptance of the containers, particularly in light of recent media coverage of this issue”.

According to Twiggy, only direct philanthropic action can sidestep government “red tape”. But even if he’s right the statistics are less than encouraging.

Our stingy philanthropic rate means big business stumps up just 0.7% of GDP here compared with the Yanks’ 1.6%. That rate has been artificially boosted by one-off donations from the ailing Richard Pratt and Frank Lowy. Now, in the post-Pratt era, a new breed of donors are stepping up to fill the breach. Enter Twiggy.

Forrest famously launched, in addition to the donga donation, an “Australian Employment Covenant” to fix Aboriginal unemployment in outback Australia as part of an “alternative intervention” backed by James Packer.

The magnate already had some serious runs on the board, donating $80 million to his own children’s charity a few years back. Unfortunately, that donation was in stock, not cash, and the value of the shares rapidly slumped, leading to media speculation Forrest might have made money on the deal via the initial tax deduction. Similar speculation has surfaced over the dongas, with the related tax deduction meaning it could have been less of an imposition on the taxpayer for the Victorian government to buy the dongas outright.

A Fortescue spokesperson confirmed that the miner had delivered 10 dongas to bushfire victims, but was unaware of earlier plans to deliver up to 1,000.

Peter Fray

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