March 01, 2022


SUBJECTS: Flood emergency; Government fudging figures about disaster support; Scott Morrison’s unused $4.8 billion disaster fund; gas-fired power.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN, HOST: Senator Murray Watt. He's part of Anthony Albanese’s team. He's the Shadow Minister for Disaster and Emergency Management. He's also in the Brisbane flood area. Good afternoon Murray Watt.
EPSTEIN: How's Brisbane, first of all. How's it going?
WATT: Well, we're sort of gradually recovering. There's a lot more cars on the roads today, as one indication of things getting quite a bit back to normal but the floodwaters across southeast Queensland, including Brisbane are still pretty high. And we've got other towns like Maryborough which are facing rising flood levels. There's a lot of flooding still around the Logan and Albert Rivers as well. But there's people that are very eager to get in there and clean up. But in a lot of places, the water just hasn't come down enough to allow that to happen. So hopefully we'll be able to get people back in their homes and back on their feet as quickly as we can.
EPSTEIN: How's the federal government doing in the immediate response? We seem to be pretty good at saving people's lives and getting resources in there.
WATT: Yeah, certainly in Queensland, I haven't really got any criticism of the way the federal or state governments have managed the immediate response. A couple of times I've been out inspecting different areas and literally seen SES crews in the water, rescuing people and just checking in on others. So that seems to have been well organised. I think all of us were pretty disturbed by the scenes that we saw in Lismore, the number of people who were you know, needing to be rescued from roofs and things like that. So I think we've got to have a good look at how the sort of response went there. But I wouldn't profess to know a huge amount about that given I'm not on the ground there. So the immediate response, I think seems to have been pretty well organised, the concerns we've got more about, you know, recovery and also what we're doing to prevent these things happening in the future.
EPSTEIN: I’ll come to climate change, perhaps let's focus there is an agency called the National Recovery and Resilience Agency. They do say on their website, they've spent about $17 billion on disaster relief. Now I understand a lot of that is on COVID but would you agree they have still spent billions of dollars dealing with things like floods and bushfires. There is significant money being spent is there not?
WATT: There is but I mean, I think it tells you all you need to know about this government's effort when it comes to disaster recovery support that when they try and put out figures about what they've provided, they have to roll in something like 13 or $14 billion of COVID payments. I don't think anyone in their right mind would think that COVID is a natural disaster and the fact that they've got to include all the money they spent on COVID support payments in what they classify as disaster support really just draws attention to the fact that they just haven't done enough. I mean, there's no doubt that federal governments, state governments provide disaster recovery payments after every natural disaster. But I think most people who paid attention, particularly in the Black Summer bushfires but other natural disasters as well, would say that the support has been inadequate and too slow. We've still got people living in caravans, living in temporary accommodation in the Black Summer bushfire areas. I've met some of them recently myself on the south coast of New South Wales. So for the government, constantly patting itself on the back and saying they're doing everything they need to do with disaster recovery. I just think shows that they're really out of touch with what's happening on the ground.
EPSTEIN: People who remain in homes after bushfires and floods for years, that's often an under insurance problem, isn't it? That's fair. They're not always easy issues for a federal government to fix.
WATT: That's true and sorry for the fire engine going past, there's a bit of that in Brisbane at the moment. What we've found is that a number of people, whether it be near flood areas, or bushfire areas sometimes don't have the amount of insurance they require for them to rebuild if they do lose their property. And I think there are some real issues that we need to look at as a country around what kind of buildings we approve and where we approve them for. Because, you know, we are getting to a point with climate change and the increasing frequency of these disasters that some places are just becoming uninsurable. And there's a massive issue in North Queensland in my state, around the inability of people to get insurance because the risk of cyclones and flooding is now so high. So yeah, so I think insurance is definitely an issue. But as I say, I think there's just much more we can be doing as a country to get ready for these things.
EPSTEIN: Can I draw you to something that you frequently bring up? You have a job in terms of Estimates keeping the government to account. I’m a big fan of the Estimates process, however, there's a fund of about $4 billion that is managed essentially as savings. It's called the Emergency Response Fund, but it's managed by the Future Fund, the same people who look after superannuation. Why do you want them to spend more of that? That money is there not to be spent but just use the interest that is earned. That's not normal budget dollars. Aren’t you sort of effectively asking the government to sell silver?
WATT:  Well, that's what the government always say, is that it's a fund of last resort, but I challenge anyone to find me that in the legislation or any of the documents that went with it. This is something that the government have sort of invented as an excuse, after we have continued to draw attention to the fact they haven't used this fund. As you said it was set up by the government three years ago, initially with about $4 billion in it. It's actually now grown to $4.8 billion because the government has earned over $800 million in interest by investing these funds. And three years after it was created. They haven't spent a cent from it on disaster recovery, and they haven't built a single disaster mitigation project, which is what the fund was created for. I just don't understand why we would have these funds set aside earning interest for the government…
EPSTEIN: For the long term investment isn’t it?
WATT: I mean, I think we all acknowledge that over the last couple of years, we've seen some of the most serious natural disasters this country has ever had. So if we're not prepared to use this fund to assist people in these kinds of disasters, I'm not sure when we would use it. I mean, as I say, the point of this fund is to be investing in either disaster recovery or mitigation. But all it's really been used for is to pad out Scott Morrison's budget bottom line, and I think that's just a really unfair way to treat disaster victims and those who are at risk on future disasters. 
EPSTEIN: It doesn’t go to the budget, that money doesn’t go to the budget.
WATT: What I'm saying is that it just continues to grow and create more funds available for the government but they never use it. I saw Bridget McKenzie, the Minister, was in the media today, saying that this fund is working exactly as it was intended. What does she mean, that there's a fund that will never be used? We are one of the most natural disaster prone countries in the world. There is no shortage of projects that we could be funding to limit the damage from future natural disasters and instead we've just got this thing that grows like topsy and doesn't actually help anyone. 
EPSTEIN: You're listening to Senator Murray Watt. He’s in Brisbane right now. He's also Anthony Albanese’s Shadow Minister for Disaster and Emergency Management. Senator I know the ALP says, touts, that you've got a higher emissions goal than the government, but you're still doing what the government does. You're backing a gas fired power station to be built by Snowy in New South Wales in the Hunter Valley. If you’re all for action on climate change, why are you going to support the idea of a gas fired peaking plant in the Hunter Valley?
WATT: Well we've listened to the experts on energy supply who say that gas will need to be part of our energy supply mix for some time to come. I mean, we're big supporters of renewable projects and there's lots of them being built in my home state of Queensland at the moment, but the reality is that we do need gas and other technologies to firm that infrastructure.
EPSTEIN: You don’t need a gas power plant do you? There's 10 times what's needed, proposed in renewable investment in that state. So why a gas fired one?
WATT: The point more broadly is that we do need gas. In relation to that particular project, what we've said is that we would require it to also be available for hydrogen production. I mean, the reality is the government has now signed that contract. That project is done and dusted. It's going to go ahead. I mean, the option we would have is to say that we terminate the contract and put taxpayers up for huge amounts of compensation which we don't think would be responsible. And so what we have done, though, is say that the project will need to be built in a way that it can be used for hydrogen as well. And we think that's a responsible way and a lower emissions way of making use of this kind of facility that the government has signed taxpayers up for.
EPSTEIN: Good luck in Brisbane. Appreciate your time.
WATT: Thanks a lot Raff.