March 07, 2022


SUBJECTS: Flood damage and recovery in NSW and QLD; Government’s inaction on climate change; Morrison Government can find money for rorts but locks disaster funding away.
MATT WEBBER, HOST: ALP senator for Queensland is Murray Watt, who also happens to be the Shadow Minister for Disaster Management. Given that title, he's been out and about inspecting damage, speaking to people, and we begin with me asking him what it is that he's seen what it is that he's heard. I spoke to him earlier on this morning.
MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Yeah, well, I've seen a lot of devastation across southeast Queensland over the last few days. Matt and pretty much every part of southeast Queensland, stretching up to Wide Bay, has been impacted by these floods and I think I've been to pretty much every spot that suffered major flooding. I was in Gympie and the Sunshine Coast on Friday, as well as Brisbane, Logan, Ipswich before that. Fortunately, while there was some flooding on the Gold Coast, it wasn't as effected as badly as most other parts of southeast Queensland. But really today's focus is Lismore and northern New South Wales, so I'll be joined by Richard Marles, the Federal deputy leader down there and we'll be catching up with Janelle Saffin the state Labor MP for Lismore and Justine Elliot that federal member for Richmond.
WEBBER: Brace yourself.
WATT: Yeah, it looks pretty horrific doesn't it, and I mean even back to when the floods were actually occurring I think the scenes that we all watched on TV about people being rescued from their roofs in Lismore, all the private dinghies which were being used to rescue people, people hiding in the cavities of their roofs while the floodwaters were rising -  that was just terrifying. I think that's going to have a huge impact on people for years to come and now there's an unimaginably huge recovery that is going to be required and I really want to make sure, more than anything, that people are getting the support from government that they need. We have had some reports over the weekend that people feel that they need more support from government and I want to hear firsthand from people what exactly it is that they need so that I can be I'd taking that up on their behalf.
WEBBER: Senator Murray Watt with me this morning who is also Shadow Minister for Disaster Management. Now, I think it's important to point out this is not the time for political potshots. There will be a time for a thorough and forensic look at how the response has unfolded to this particular way event. But as you say, there is absolutely no doubt that the anger out there is palpable. Communities mobilising seemingly a hell of a lot quicker than the usual government service providers you might expect to see on the ground. The Army in particular, a welcome sight in the last couple of days, but this was a significant and very slow moving system. Is it fair to express ADF personnel to be on the ground, if not preemptively, in the 24 hours after a call is made?
WATT: Yeah, I think as you say Matt, this is something that is going to have to be examined very closely as people start to recover and once the immediate trauma is passing. I can only really go on what I've been seeing go through the media and hearing from the discussions I've had with local members. You do get this overwhelming feeling that there just wasn't the level of government support, whether that be state or federal, to assist with the rescue in the first place and now with the recovery. Our defense forces do a fabulous job both protecting us from overseas threats, their main job, but also increasingly they've been used as a recovery and response part of the machinery. They did a terrific job after the Black Summer bushfires. I met many Army members and reservists, who were doing a great job there, and certainly no criticism of the soldiers or reservists. But I think we do need to look at how governments use these resources. They have incredible logistical skills, they have incredible equipment that is necessary in these types of situations and, as I say, you just can't help getting the feeling that it was a bit slow off the mark to get these people out there. So, again I'll be really interested to see with my own eyes today what level of Army presence there is and what jobs they're doing and if there's any gap at all then we'll be certainly taking that up with the government. Right now more anything people just need help. People need rubbish cleared. In many ways their homes are unlivable. I saw a report today saying that there are at least 2000 homes in northern New South Wales that are unlivable and that's in an environment where there's already a terrible housing shortage. There's a terrible shortage of construction workers and supplies. So the rebuilding effort is going to be massive and we need every possible government resource being directed to it. 
WEBBER: Do you think there's a discussion to be had too about the relevance of borders when it comes to responding to things like this? Lismore is a hell of a lot closer to Brisbane then it is to Sydney. Do you think that creates an unnecessary hurdle having that line between the Gold Coast and the Tweed?
WATT: Well certainly, in both in the immediate rescue effort and afterwards, I know that there's often sharing of resources between Queensland and New South Wales. I think probably one of the things that made it a bit more difficult this time I that southeast Queensland was going through it's own flood crisis at the time northern New South Wales was as well. So it may be that Queensland wasn't in a position to share resources as much as it might have otherwise. I don't know that and again I think that that's something that's got to be looked at. You and I both know that there are many tradies who cross the border each and every day between the Gold Coast and the Tweed and further south and I expect that there will be some sharing of resources. I think that we do face a real problem with this rebuilding job because anyone who's trying to get a building job done at the moment, whether it be in Queensland or New South Wales is struggling to get people - I'm doing a renovation of my own house which is taking forever because it's just impossible to get people and supplies. So I think we're going to need to all really apply our brains to working out how we can get this job done. 
WEBBER: Senator Murray Watt is with me. Obviously, this is all going to raise significant questions about our climate and our changing climate and particularly in the context of vulnerable areas. This is the third significant weather event in eleven years. When are we going to have a serious and productive discussion about how it is that our most vulnerable communities are going to stand up to what is an obvious challenge?
WATT: Look mate, I think that this is a conversation that is long overdue and unfortunately we have faced ten years of lost opportunity to take serious action on climate change as a country. At the risk of being political in these times we have a federal government that has only recently accepted that climate change is real and needs federal government action. We've got the rest of the world moving ahead, taking action, reducing their emissions in a very big way. But also importantly, grabbing the opportunities that come with that. The massive job and economic opportunities that come with renewable energy, the new jobs in manufacturing that can be powered by cheaper renewable energy. We are, on the one hand both abandoning our people by not taking action on this but we're also missing out on an enormous opportunity as a country. Unfortunately, as you say, it's not the three massive disasters in ten years. There are several other ones that are smaller in scale that happen every year as well. So the science is really clear on this that we as a country, because of climate change, face more frequent and more intense natural disasters and it's starting to happen before our eyes. You know, we can't blame any individual natural disaster on climate change, but the trend is clear. Unless we start playing a serious role as part of the overall global solution, and if making the investment in mitigation and adaptation as well, then we're going to be facing more of this. And you're right, it's most often regional communities that bear the brunt of these disasters. It's most often the vulnerable people in regional communities. You know, you don't tend to find the millionaires in our communities losing everything after a flood or a bushfire. It tends to be battlers, and we owe it to them as fellow Australians to take these climate change issues seriously and start making the investments and policy changes that we need.
WEBBER: Senator Bridget McKenzie is the Minister for Emergency Management, among a whole lot of other things in her specific ministry. She was out in Lismore over the course of the weekend. Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers was cleaning up in Brisbane, they spoke to Channel Nine.
BRIDGET MCKENZIE: Both the Queensland Government and New South Wales Government and the Federal Government have acted swiftly since this disaster began little over a week ago. We've had $100 million dollars out the door on individual payments alone since Monday, and we've just been able to announce with the Queensland Government the next tranche of support for small businesses and primary producers.
JIM CHALMERS: We've been saying for some time, certainly well before these most recent floods that it would make more sense to spend up to $200 million a year on fly mitigation. On flood readiness and cyclone readiness and bushfire readiness. The Government's failure to do that has made communities like this one, like the one that Bridget's in, and around Australia more vulnerable than they need to be.
WEBBER: Senator Murray Watt, this is a matter close to your heart. We know that money is available. There is a disaster fund. The idea though that that resource isn't being allocated in the right kind of way laid bare by what it is that we've experienced over the last week?
WATT: I think it is Matt and I have to say this is something I've been banging on about for over two years. The Morrison Government has what is now I nearly $5 billion fund, the Emergency Response Fund, which it's been sitting on for three years and has done absolutely nothing with. This fund was established back in 2019 - three years ago - at the time it had $4 billion dollars in it and it was set up to spend money each year on disaster recovery or disaster mitigation. Flood levees, cyclone shelters, bushfire evacuation centers Three disaster seasons have passed since that fund was created. Not a cent has been spent from this fund on disaster recovery and not one disaster mitigation project have even started being built, let alone being completed. The only thing the fund has done is earn the Government over $800 million in interest. Now, this fund wasn't set up to pad out Scott Morrison's budget bottom line. It was set up to protect Australians and help them recover from disasters and it's done nothing of the sort. All around Queensland and northern New South Wales you can look at the damage that we've now suffered and ask yourself, 'What would have happened if this fund had been used for the reason it was set up'? Now, Bridget McKenzie and other people from the government keep saying, 'Look, this is a last resort fund, it's only there if we really need, it's only there for rainy day'. Well, hello? Have they been noticing there's been a fair bit of rain over the last few weeks? Maybe now would be a good time to use this? This idea that the money has to be saved for a future rainy day, that is just nonsense. There is nothing in the legislation that says that. That is just something that the government has decided. Let's not forget this is a government can find money to build carparks in areas that don't need them to win political seats. It's a government that can find money for sports rorts, for carpark rorts, for regional rorts, for every other rort going around under the sun, but they can't find money to invest in flood mitigation or bushfire mitigation to protect Australians, protect their properties and avoid the massive cost that we incur in repairing the damage. That's why Labor has said if we are elected we will revamp this fund, stop it doing nothing and put it to work for Australians. We would turn this into a permanent, dedicated disaster readiness fund that invests in flood levees, cyclone shelters, bushfire evacuation centres, telecommunications equipment so that communities can communicate in a disaster and actually look after Australians. This is taxpayers' money. It should be used for taxpayer. It's not Liberal and National Party money to be a plaything to be used when they choose. It should be put to work to keep Australians safe.
WEBBER: Appreciate your time Senator thank you.