SENATOR MURRAY WATT
SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA
SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT
SHADOW MINISTER FOR QUEENSLAND RESOURCES
LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND
ABC AFTERNOON BRIEFING
WEDNESDAY, 9 MARCH 2022
SUBJECTS: Floods; Scott Morrison waiting for TV cameras before declaring a national emergency; Scott Morrison doesn’t hold a hose and he doesn’t hold a phone; Scott Morrison is always missing when you need him; reinsurance pool; Labor will invest up to $200 million per year on disaster mitigation.
GREG JENNETT, HOST: Let's get to our political panel today and joining us are two Queenslanders. LNP Senator Susan McDonald's in Brisbane and Labor's Murray Watt is in Lismore. Welcome back to afternoon briefing, both of you. Murray you are very much the guy on the spot there. I don't think anyone could have missed some of your advocacy in recent days and weeks. For an emergency declaration, amongst other things, you're not going to be quibbling, I take it, with what the Prime Minister has put on the table today.
MURRAY WATT, LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: No, look, I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has finally declared a national emergency. To anyone who's been watching what's been happening in Queensland and northern New South Wales over the last couple of weeks, it is clearly a national emergency. I actually called for the Prime Minister to do this this morning. So I'm pleased that he has followed our call and finally declared this. I guess the question we've got is why does, why has it taken him this long to declare a national emergency and to finally start marshalling the resources that are needed here, both in Lismore, the Northern Rivers and southeast Queensland.
JENNETT: Murray Watt, aren't they two separate things that, declaring an emergency and marshalling the necessary resources. I think Shane Fitzsimmons was trying to tell us a moment ago, and I think, as the Prime Minister was trying to explain, he says he was doing one for many days and he's done the other just now.
WATT: Well, if you're here in Lismore, I can tell you to Greg, that no one has seen any Federal resources of any great note to date. There have been some army personnel here and they have made a difference. But there just has not been anywhere near enough, let alone all of the other federal support that's going to be needed for this community. Everyone understands that Scott Morrison was in isolation with COVID over the last week, but there's no reason he couldn't have picked up the phone, got more army personnel in here, got more valuable resources in here. And yet again, people feel that Scott Morrison is the guy who's gone missing in action when the nation has faced a crisis. It's too little too late. And people feel desperately abandoned.
JENNETT: Too little too late, says Murray, Susan McDonald, you as much as anyone are familiar with how these operations need to go, particularly through North Queensland. What difference does this emergency declaration or the extra assistance that comes with it, what difference is it going to make, do you think down south?
SUSAN MCDONALD, LNP SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: Well, what it does is it removes red tape, it allows for people to cut across government bureaucracy and make decisions more quickly. But I just don't stand by this idea that nothing has been happening. As we saw in Northwest Queensland and Townsville during the floods, there are stages of a disaster. The rain event, the post rain event, you know, it cannot all happen immediately. And so that is what we're seeing is the escalation of troop numbers into southern Queensland and northern New South Wales from 4370 at the moment, to 6000 by the end of the week. There has been a huge number of government services, who are on the phones, on the ground supporting people and I please beg people to remember when we talk about the government, what we're talking about is thousands of real human beings, some of whom have had their own homes flooded, some of whom have had their own desperate circumstances, and yet, they're still coming to work to support other Australians. So we have to be very careful in the language that we throw around. Because this is a whole nation tragedy, it's now extended from the Gympie region, which has been flooded twice within a month, now down as far as the southern parts of New South Wales. So you know we are working very hard. And as I saw in the northwest, there are just some elements that can't happen too quickly.
JENNETT: Let's put that back to you, then Murray. Surely there does have to be a phasing of support here. You can get bureaucrats responsible for payments to come in and assist but when you're talking about the heavy assets, an army truck here or there, a bulldozer here or there, you don't want them in on day two or three, do you you? You want them coming in on days, 9, 10 and 11 when the water’s actually receded, roughly speaking, that's where you are now.
WATT: Well, I've been here for three days, Greg, and the water has been receded at least in Lismore for all of that period of time. There are other outlying communities where there is still water, but all I can observe is that there were people from the Sikh community in Melbourne who drove up here days ago to serve meals to people, local people have been crowdfunding helicopters so they can perform rescues and do food drops even in the last couple of days. So I accept that it's not necessarily day one after a flood that you need or can get army support in here. But there have been days and days that that could have been happening and community members have managed to do it themselves. So they're all sitting around going, or not sitting around, they’re cleaning their homes, they’re standing around scratching their head saying if we can do it, why can't the federal government? I mean, I just think that people, you know, they watched this declaration of a national emergency today. They're asking why couldn't it have been done days ago. And everyone is starting to say, look, is this just because Scott Morrison wanted to have TV cameras around him so we could make the national declaration. As I say, he could have done that at any point over the last week while he's been in isolation. You know, through the bushfires, he was the guy who didn't hold a hose. This time, it seems he's the guy that can't even hold a phone and make calls to his colleagues to get moving.
JENNETT: Alright well there's a very exasperated looking Susan McDonald listening to some of those final jibs and jabs coming from you, Murray Watt. Susan, I won't ask a question. I'll just get a response. And then I want to move on to insurers and their responsibility and planning. We'll get to all that. But Susan, just on the Scott Morrison factor.
MCDONALD: Yeah, look, what I would say is that in a disaster like this, it is the local communities who are best served to identify the immediate needs of their Australian neighbours. Neighbours in the next house, the next street, in the next town, and they are the people who have leapt into tinnies who have been the first people on the ground. I think it is completely, it is political profiteering to start making these kinds of comments when we have seen Australians at their best when other Australians are going through the worst. And to make this a political point scoring doesn't cut the mustard for the Australians who are getting the benefit of the financial assistance. I mean, we have seen plenty of posturing from the Senator from Queensland who's now standing in in Lismore. Still plenty of flooding in Queensland, I'd remind him.
WATT: I’ve got to respond to that.
JENNETT: Murray, we’ll come to you.
MCDONALD: Queenslanders want to know about what financial assistance is available to them. Because he's putting out these statements saying that if you have a Queenslander and floods underneath that, then you're not entitled to any help. Well, you know, if you have a building that is open on the ground floor, then somebody could come in and take the couch you’ve left down there or the bike - that isn't available for assistance. But if you've enclosed your laundry, if you've built in and you've got bedrooms and buildings down there, that is absolutely covered. So you know, it's not helpful to try and make difficult circumstances more difficult when people are at their most desperate.
JENNETT: Murray, I think your defence, you want to leap to your own defence around the absence from Queensland. Do you? Is that the point you want to pick up just quickly?
WATT: I would like to respond to that and I'm surprised that Susan said that, because I am standing in Lismore, and have been for three days as the Shadow Minister for Disaster Management for Federal Labor. Unlike any Federal Government Minister. We haven't seen any Federal Government Minister here the entire time I've been here until Scott Morrison and Bridget McKenzie showed up today. And I came down here after spending an entire week helping people clean up and visiting every flood site, in every region, that was flooded in Queensland, including Gympie and the Sunshine Coast. So Susan, you know, if you want to talk about who's shown up, and who hasn't, I'm happy to have that debate any day of the week.
JENNETT: All right. Okay. Let's leave diary debates aside for one moment, I want to move on to insurance. And Susan, I know in the north of Australia, because of the frequency of very serious weather activity out there it became essentially unaffordable, in came Commonwealth support to underwrite insurance. Based on what you're seeing further south now, do you think that will need to be replicated in southeast Queensland or in Lismore? Where I'm imagining a lot of household policies are just going to be unaffordable for people on their premiums from here.
MCDONALD: Let me just start with what's happened in Northern Australia where premiums were two and a half to three times greater then they were in southern Australia. A number of insurers had left the market. And so it made it was very difficult to get an offer of a premium, much less an affordable one, which made a lot of people were either under insured or not insured at all, meant you couldn't get financed, and it has become a real market failure and crisis in northern Australia. Now that has not happened yet in in southern Australia and you know if that is the case that we need to intervene more broadly. Well, that is the conversation we should have. But I certainly don't want to see anything hindering this first step that we're taking with the Northern Australia reinsurance pool. It's a very complex issue, why insurance is so expensive in the north. We had universal acclaim for getting started with this step, which I hope will pass the Senate when we go back in a couple of weeks time. Yeah, but you're right insurance is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive.
JENNETT: Yeah, I don't think there's any suggestion at large that that would be undercut by what's happened further south. But, Murray, since you are on the ground, what are your own thoughts about the viability and affordability of insurance premiums for everyday people who were flood affected?
WATT: Well, many of the people I've been speaking to over the last three days, Greg, have told me they haven't been able to afford insurance here for a long time. So it's not even necessarily a matter of people who've got insurance now, who now won't be able to afford it. There's a huge number of people here who just can't afford insurance now, just as there is in North Queensland, where Susan lives. But I think that there's a bit of scepticism about some of the solutions that government is putting forward. And then let's face it, they've been in power for nearly 10 years, and they're only now talking about the reinsurance pool in North Queensland. There was a Senate committee inquiry about that yesterday that unfortunately, I had to pull out because of the floods. But again, the government refused to reveal any of the evidence that it says it has for the savings that people are going to generate from this reinsurance pool.
JENNETT: Alright, so you don't see any case for replicating that, on what we see presently, in replicating that further south?
WATT: Well, I suppose I'd like to see what proof the government has that the reinsurance pool it’s putting forward for North Queensland will work before we start thinking about doing it in other parts of the country. We've made very clear that we're going to support this reinsurance pool legislation because we're happy to get behind anything that's going to make a difference. But I think the government hasn't been very forward in providing enough evidence to back up its claims. The thing though, I would say, Greg, that really would make a difference to insurance premiums and flood events in general, is some serious investment from the federal government in disaster mitigation. Obviously, I've been talking about this a lot, not just over the last couple of weeks, but for a couple of years, I've been asking the government, what are you doing with your Emergency Response Fund? Why aren't you using it to invest in flood levees, drainage systems, bushfire prevention. That is a really effective way to keep downward pressure on insurance premiums, as well as obviously save lives and properties. And that's why Anthony Albanese has committed to spend up to $200 million a year on Disaster Mitigation if we win the election.
JENNETT: Yeah, you certainly have made that point so we won't labour it. In fact, I think we might wrap up here because there's a lot to digest. And we could go on for ages about what's in this package today. But I think, you know, broadly observing or setting aside the political arguments about what's going on in recent days. We do have both sides on the same page as far as the national declaration and the assistance that goes with it. So on that note, Susan MacDonald, we're going to thank you for joining us on Afternoon Briefing and Murray Watt who's out in the field in Lismore. They're part of our panel for today.