March 08, 2022



SUBJECTS: Morrison Government could have used its $5 billion Emergency Response Fund to protect people from floods; ERF is the ‘world's biggest piggy bank’ for the government; devastation in Lismore and south-east Qld; reinsurance pool bill subject to Senate inquiry hearing today; Morrison Government refusing to release modelling it says shows insurance savings in North Queensland.

MURRAY JONES, HOST: Now flood mitigation is something we’ve spoken about many times here on the radio station. The Federal Government’s first round of funding for the National Flood Mitigation Infrastructure Program in 2020 was capped at around $50 million. Now Queensland had applied for about 20 projects, five of which they said were priority projects. And we're talking about mitigating the impacts of just exactly what we've seen in the last couple of days. Of those five that were regarded as priority, only three were funded. Now the Federal Government has not been basically allocating up to the maximum of $200 million each year when it comes to this Emergency Response Fund. Would it have made a difference to the $2.5 billion that's just cost the State and of course, the people in the state as a result of that funding over the last couple of days? I guess that the answer to that particular question remains at large.

Let's find out a bit more about exactly where we're at, and the lack of funding by the Federal Government when it comes to actually getting money on the ground. It's something I've spoken many times with Murray Watt. And Murray, it seems that these discussions we've been having over the last two years or so, you've been 100% right to be honest with you.

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Yeah, good to talk to you again, Murray. It's a shame. I really would have liked to have been proven wrong about this. I really would have liked the government to have listened to what we've been saying about the need to use this Emergency Response Fund to protect people from floods, cyclones and bushfires. But as you know, you and I have been talking about this for a couple of years, and I've been raising it in Senate Estimates for a couple of years, to try to find out why it is that this government has the world's biggest piggy bank sitting there doing nothing, except earn interest for themselves. This fund was set up three years ago by the government, the Morrison Government. At the time it had $4 billion in it and you're right, it was allowed to spend up to $200 million a year on disaster recovery and mitigation. Over those three years, it has not spent a cent on disaster recovery and it has not even started building one disaster mitigation project, not one flood levee, not one cyclone shelter, not one drainage improvement. And now we can look around South-East Queensland and Northern New South Wales and think, ‘What difference could that have made?’ And look you know, in Cairns, you're still in cyclone season there, we don't know what's around the corner. There's every possibility we're still going to face a cyclone or flood in North Queensland, and this money has been just sitting there doing nothing, and the worst part is that by doing nothing with it, the government has invested it and they've earned themselves over $800 million in interest. What's the point in having an emergency fund, if you don't use it for emergencies? That's the situation we've got to.

JONES: Well I mean, you’ve got that money as you said in the piggy bank there, but we've just been faced with $2.5 billion worth of costs and that's just in the South-East corner alone, let alone around Lismore where I believe you are at the moment. What type of things are you dealing with in that northern New South Wales area?

WATT: Yeah look, I've got to say that the devastation here in Lismore has to be seen to be believed. There is certainly similar types of damage across South-East Queensland and I've spent several days in Brisbane, Ipswich and Logan looking at what's going on there and helping people clean up, but the thing that's different about Lismore is it just goes on street after street, block after block, of total devastation. Everyone's furniture out on the footpath waiting to be cleared. Every single business in the CBD of Lismore, which is a pretty big country town, every single business has been destroyed in the CBD. It is a mess. It is going to take a huge clean-up effort and again, you just wonder what could we have avoided if Scott Morrison had been prepared to use this disaster fund? The money's been available, they could have used it and they could have kept people safe.

JONES: Let's talk a little bit more about something that I believe is around the corner, and it was certainly something that I've spoken to the Prime Minister about. And you know, it looked like it had some positive impacts when it comes to actually, the reinsurance bill offering at least, you know, a beacon of light in the future for some people. What's the latest? Because I believe that they're actually having an inquiry, well Senate Estimates, you know, with respect to some of the companies and some of the people that will be integrally involved with this reinsurance pool. What's the latest with that?

WATT: Well this is progressing Murray. The government finally introduced the legislation for the reinsurance pool in the last sitting week that we had a couple of weeks ago. Now there's a Senate Committee having a look at the legislation and hearing from people who've got an interest in it to make sure that it's actually going to deliver what the government says it will. And look Labor has been very clear, we support this reinsurance pool because we're happy to get behind anything at all that can help people in North Queensland with their insurance costs. But what we do want to make sure of is that the government's telling the truth about what's actually going to happen here. And one of the things I was concerned about when we had Senate Estimates recently, I was asking ministers and Treasury bureaucrats about the claims that the government had been making, and no one can provide any proof to back up those claims. A few weeks ago, we saw federal ministers claiming that people in North Queensland will be saving, making big savings, on their insurance premiums, but when I asked to see what evidence they have for this, they say that they've got modelling that proves it, but they won't let anyone see it. I said, ‘well, why aren't you going to release it and let people in North Queensland see your proof?’ And they say, ‘Oh well, it's not in the public interest to release it.’ I mean, that's a pretty insulting thing for people in North Queensland, that they can't be trusted to see the modelling that the government's relying on.

JONES: How can it not be in the public interest? I mean…

WATT: That's a good question, Murray. I mean taxpayers’ money has been used to commission the modelling and now the government's hiding it, not letting people see the proof. If you're going to go out and make claims to people about how much they're going to save, you should be able to back it up. And when you look at the fine print of what the ministers said at the time, they said that people basically who have the most acute cost pressures will save up to 46% on their insurance premiums. And I asked ‘well, what does that mean? Who are these people with the most acute cost pressures? Are we talking about five people or 500?’. And again, they said that's in the modelling, but we can't show you. They won't tell us how much the average homeowner in North Queensland will save. I mean, it just makes you really suss on the whole thing, but as I say, we're happy to back this in because you know, the insurers say it’ll work, local government say it’ll work, there's a lot of consumer groups say it'll work but, I think the government owes it to people in North Queensland to be upfront and be really clear about what people will actually save, rather than giving out all this spin and marketing that doesn't seem to be true.

JONES: I mean, especially when you look at the fact that, you know, the actual by-product of exactly what this will provide is not going to occur until after the federal election. Certainly, that wasn't made clear right from the word go.

WATT: That’s right.

JONES: you know, there are concerns about exactly how it's going to fall, fall either way.

JONES: I know you've got to go. I'm going to disappear as well. It's been a really, I guess a busy day, with so much happening and I think of you in Lismore, you’ve got a lot of things to attend to as well. He's the Shadow Minister for Disaster and Emergency Management, also Shadow Minister for Northern Australia, Senator Murray Watt. Have yourself a fantastic day and thank you so much for your time again this morning.

WATT: Thanks Murray, good to talk.