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 BRISBANE WITH REBECCA LEVINGSTON
THURSDAY, 3 MARCH 2022
SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison’s unused $4.8 billion Emergency Response Fund that could have built flood mitigation projects; Peter Dutton’s Go Fund Me page; Labor’s Disaster Ready Fund to spend up to $200 million per year on disaster mitigation.
REBECCA LEVINGSTON, HOST: The $4.8 billion Emergency Response Fund. This is your money. It is accumulating millions of dollars in interest. What is the trigger for using that cash? I've invited Senator Bridget McKenzie, the Minister for Emergency Management and National Recovery and Resilience onto the program. I'm hoping she'll speak to you a little later this morning. Senator Murray Watt is the Shadow Minister for Disaster and Emergency Management. Senator, good morning.
MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Hi Rebecca, how are you?
LEVINGSTON: I am well, thank you. First of all, did you fare okay in the floods?
WATT: Yeah, not too bad. I live at Ashgrove, we actually back on to Enoggera Creek so we certainly got lots of water well into our backyard. But compared to some of the other people on our street, who got flooded, we've got away pretty lucky. But I know all around Brisbane and obviously further afield there's lots of people doing it pretty tough.
LEVINGSTON: 190 suburbs, every single one impacted to varying degrees. And Senator, you've been out and about, you know just how disastrous this has been. Why aren't we using the Emergency Response Fund? It's billions of dollars, it's the public's money, why isn't that being used?
WATT: It's a very good question, Rebecca. And it's one that I've been asking the government now for probably two and a half years. This fund was established by the Morrison Government back in 2019. So three years ago. And it was set up at the time with $4 billion in it, to spend up to $200 million a year on a combination of disaster recovery and disaster mitigation. And since that time, there has not been a cent spent from the fund on disaster recovery. And there is still not one disaster readiness or mitigation project that's been built, despite the fact we've been through three disaster seasons since it was created. The only thing this fund has done up until now is earned the government over $800 million in interest. So it's now approaching $5 billion, sitting there with nothing to show for it. And meanwhile, you know, just look around. There's floods everywhere, we've had bushfires over the last couple of years, there's been cyclones in parts of the country. That money could have been used to limit the damage that people are experiencing now and to help people get back get back on their feet, in terms of disaster recovery.
LEVINGSTON: How can that money not have been used, even like looking outside of Queensland at the bushfires? There was a trigger for it to be used then?
WATT: No, the only restrictions really on how the government can use it or when they can use it is that it can only be used after a disaster event. And to be honest, that's one of the things that we criticised at the time this was established. In terms of disaster mitigation or prevention, the best time to use those funds is actually before a disaster. But that's what the government chose to do. They set it up like that. And so all that has to happen is for a disaster to have occurred and then the government has every right to go ahead and use it. Now they've decided to call this fund, a “last resort fund” and to say that it can only be used when all other funds are used up. There is nothing in the legislation that limits it in that way, that is entirely a decision of this government. And even if that was right, if you look at the last couple of years, this country's had what people have called unprecedented bushfires. We're now having unprecedented floods. If we're not going to use this fund for disasters that people think are unprecedented, when on earth is it ever going to be used?
LEVINGSTON: Senator Murray Watt, the Shadow Minister for Disaster and Emergency Management. Bridget McKenzie argues that given all the funding already available, there's no need to tap into this now, as you say, nearly $5 billion Emergency Response Fund. What was bizarre, according to some people's observations, is that Peter Dutton, the Defence Minister started a Go Fund Me for his local community. When Senator McKenzie says we will use this money when all other sources of funding had been exhausted, is she talking about Go Fund Me arrangements?
WATT: Well, I assume she's probably talking about government funds. And again, she's ignoring the fact that there just haven't been government funds invested in disaster mitigation over the last few years. I mean, I've sort of said to other people, I'm not going to criticise Peter Dutton or other people for setting up, sort of GoFundMe pages. If people want to help out, help do charity stuff, that's up to them. But I think the fact that MPs like Peter Dutton and Luke Howard set up these GoFundMe pages, I would have thought they'd be getting their government to fund some of the disaster recovery using funds that are already there before they're actually calling on people to put their hands in their own pocket. I just wanted to mention, Rebecca, there's going to be a really clear distinction between the parties when we go to the next election on this issue, because while Albo was in Queensland during January, what he announced is that we were going to revamp this Emergency Response Fund. Actually get it working for people. And what we've said we would do is invest up to $200 million a year in disaster mitigation. So building things like flood levees, drainage improvements, cyclone shelters, bushfire evacuation centres, the kind of things that the government could have been doing for three years now. Which would frankly have saved lives in some places, it would have saved properties, saved the billions of dollars that we now know we're going to incur yet again in recovery costs. If we actually start having a government that looks ahead, plans ahead, prepares for the future and invests now that will go a long way to saving people's lives, properties and dollars into the future.
LEVINGSTON: Okay, mitigation is one thing and people can make their decisions at the election in May on whatever date that happens to fall. Perhaps that's something that the Prime Minister is thinking about, as he isolates with the COVID-19 at the moment. But what you're saying is this, this $5 billion Emergency Response Fund cannot be used now to help people who are homeless, who haven't got insurance, who have lost everything. We have a multi billion dollar fund collecting multi millions of dollars and it can't be used to help people now?
WATT: Sorry, if I was confusing there, Rebecca, the point is that money can be used. All that needs to happen before this fund can be used is for a disaster to occur. And let's look around, there's a disaster happening right before our eyes in Queensland and much of New South Wales. So the government absolutely has the ability to use that fund for disaster recovery costs now, just like it did after the Black Summer bushfires, just like it did after cyclones and floods that we've seen over the last three years. It is entirely their decision to just leave that fund, accumulating interest growing into the world's biggest piggy bank, approaching $5 billion, rather than actually helping people, which is what we need right now.
LEVINGSTON: Senator, there will be people listening to you just, I don't know, pulling hair out, rolling eyes and probably some other words that you can't say on the radio. I will put some of the assertions you're making and ask similar questions to your counterpart, Senator Bridget McKenzie. In the meantime, appreciate your time. Thank you.
WATT: Thanks, Rebecca. I hope you get some answers.