NEWCASTLE earthquake survivor Jennifer Matthews has been rejected for assistance from the Newcastle Region Natural Disaster Relief Fund without the fund directors talking to her about her situation.
The fund has also rejected an application from Newcastle City Council made in September last year, when it wrote seeking $400,000 towards an $800,000 restoration of King Edward Park's Shepherds Hill Cottage, badly damaged in an April 2015 "east coast low".
Ms Matthews said she had been careful not to get her hopes but she was shocked that the directors were "not even interested" in talking to her or her doctors before making their decision.
The fund's latest actions have drawn further criticisms from federal Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon and state Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp, with Newcastle council chief executive Jeremy Bath calling on the federal charities regulator to "expedite" an investigation.
As the Newcastle Herald reported on January 11, Ms Matthews fell two storeys and had crush injuries including a badly broken leg in the collapse of the Newcastle Workers Club.
She has had chronic health problems in the decades since, including another nine quake-related operations.
She had believed the earthquake fund money was long gone and had been surprised to read in the Herald that about $1 million remained.
READ MORE: The Herald's 30th anniversary coverage of the 1989 earthquake
The original earthquake fund was wound up in December 1994 and its assets transferred to an "unlisted not-for-profit public company", the Newcastle Region Natural Disaster Relief Fund Trustee Ltd.
The relief fund trust deed says money can be distributed for three purposes.
The first is to assist anyone who "suffered mental or physical injury, distress or hardship in or as a result of a natural disaster, including . . . earthquake . . . whether occurring prior to or after the date of [the] deed", which was December 1994.
Money can also go to the University of Newcastle for research into "psycho-social trauma" and "social renewal, and to any "fund, authority or institution" that accepts tax-deductible gifts under federal tax law.
"The first category sounded like me when I first heard about it, and it still does, even after the rejection letter," Ms Matthews said this week.
She had hoped the board would "reach out" and contact her, but having heard nothing for a fortnight she emailed them on January 26.
Her email explained things as she saw them and assured the board she could provide any details they may request.
"Please call me back, so that I know what it is that I have to do next in regards to this formal application," Ms Matthews concluded.
Four days later, on January 30, the board replied, referring to a court case against the workers club and Newcastle council, in which Ms Matthews and the other 12 plaintiffs agreed to confidential compensation settlements.
The board letter also noted that the earthquake appeal fund had not existed since December 1994.
"Having regard to all of these factors it is the trust's view that we cannot assist you," the letter concludes.
A day later the board wrote to Mr Bath, rejecting Newcastle council's application for Shepherds Hill, which had been reported by the Herald on December 27.
A separate letter, also dated January 31, asked Mr Bath for information on Ms Matthews's 1994 court case.
"As this matter has been raised by the Newcastle Herald, I should be pleased if you would provide all particulars of the court case for the trust's records," the board wrote.
Mr Bath said yesterday that "the trust's lack of transparency and justification for their actions continues to be of significant concern".
"Emails go unanswered and victims of the earthquake remain unsupported, while more than $1 million remains in a fund controlled by three people who the community has no obvious way of contacting," Mr Bath said.
Having first raised his concerns last April, Mr Bath called on the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission to "expedite" an investigation, given the board had said it intended to wind up the fund and give the remaining money to a third party.
A charities commission spokesperson said legislative "secrecy provisions" meant it could not comment on individual charities but it took "all concerns seriously".
Fund director Michael Johns said "no decision has been made regarding the wind up of the trust but further investigation is taking place".
PART II: How this issue unfolded
WHEN I began looking for the money left over from the lord mayor's earthquake appeal, I assumed it would be a routine piece of journalism.
The 30th anniversary of the 1989 earthquake was approaching, and I'd imagined I would locate the Newcastle Region Natural Disaster Relief Fund, speak to its administrators, laud their good works, and tell a tale with a happy ending.
But the fund proved difficult to track down, and I soon realised I was not the only one with such an experience.
Jeremy Bath, the chief executive of Newcastle City Council and a man with a reputation as something of a human bulldozer, found himself unable to meet the board.
A chain of emails released to the Newcastle Herald attest to the difficulties Mr Bath had experienced since taking over the council's administration in December 2017.
Radio 2HD announcer Richard King said he had been similarly rebuffed more than a year ago.
"Michael Johns, the chairman, said he wouldn't, or couldn't, talk about the fund, and that was that," Mr King said. "I've talked about it on my show."
I did eventually establish contact with the board, but relations took a turn for the worse when I raised the case of New Lambton resident Jennifer Matthews, who I first met at Christ Church Cathedral after the 30th anniversary service on Saturday, December 28.
The result was a long piece on January 11 that outlined the 30 years of pain and suffering Ms Matthews had endured as a result of her crush injuries in the Newcastle Workers Club.
Citing a financial settlement she had received in 1994, the board made it clear it did not believe she should be assisted, a position the directors had stated publicly before she had written to them.
It is not my job to advocate for Ms Matthews but I believe it's worth asking why a disaster fund seeded with millions of dollars donated for the 1989 earthquake would reject someone without talking to them, when they appear to meet the eligibility criteria and their doctors are prepared to stand behind their account.
After meeting Ms Matthews, her federal MP, Sharon Claydon, said the administration of the disaster fund was "a significant matter of public interest"
"I have sympathy with the argument that the fund should not be wound up while survivors still suffer from damage inflicted on that day," Ms Claydon said.
"From an ethical perspective, I would like to see the trustees of this fund at least try to seek out potential beneficiaries across our community before closing it down."
State Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp has a similar view, saying "the money is there, and the right thing to do would be to help Ms Matthews".
Although the fund wrote to Ms Matthews saying it "assume(d)" she had signed a "no further claims" release in 1994, Mr Johns said yesterday it was "correct" to say the board could make a discretionary or ex-gratia payment should it wish.
The questions are: should it? And: will it?
IN NEWS TODAY
- Watch as emergency operation to save Stockton holiday cabins begins
- Quorrobolong farmer makes a splash as rain brings much-needed relief
- Singleton Council water warning expands to new suburb, water carters
- Residents want answers after water breach damages properties
- State opposition backs calls Stockton natural disaster declaration