March 08, 2022


SUBJECTS: Clean-up in Lismore underway but people asking ‘Where is the government?’; Morrison Government is MIA; Communities crowdfunding their own rescues and food drops; Morrison Government’s failure to invest in disaster prevention; Labor to invest up to $200 million per year in disaster mitigation.

DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Let's head south of that border now and in northern New South Wales communities are mopping up after widespread flooding and they're growing angry over the government's response. Jeremy Fernandez is in Lismore for us this morning, he joins us now. Jeremy, how's it look there this morning?
JEREMY FERNANDEZ, JOURNALIST: It's busy. Welcome to Molesworth Street in central Lismore, about 100 metres away from Wilsons River, which peaked at levels way over my head about a week ago. And this morning the clean-up has started on this street. The heavy movers have moved in there cleaning up these massive piles of rubbish. I'm joined this morning by Senator Murray Watt, Senator for Queensland and the Opposition spokesman for Disaster and Emergency Management. Senator, welcome to the region. You arrived yesterday and you've spoken to people here, what are they telling you?
MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: That's right Jeremy, I got here yesterday. I was here with Richard Marles, our Deputy Leader, and some of the local reps, and the really clear message from people is, “Where is the government?” I heard that over and over again yesterday. You can look around here and we can see private trucks, private contractors in here, but a total absence of the defence forces and a total absence of any other Federal Government support. What we've seen overnight is Scott Morrison is now talking about the different numbers of ADF people who are on the ground, but you dig into it a bit further and what it actually reveals is that people are on standby. So I know that locals are really grateful for the small number of ADF personnel who are here, but we need a massive injection of personnel and support more generally,
FERNANDEZ: The ADF says it was on the ground, the local members of the ADF were on the ground from day one, and they didn't send more in, neither did the SES, because it was simply too dangerous. You're not suggesting that they should have sent people in despite the danger that existed here?
WATT: No, no I'm not saying that they should be put in a dangerous situation. We wouldn't want to do that to any of our fellow Australians. But right now is when we need to see the khaki on the ground and a whole range of other Federal Government support. This is a national scale emergency. It's a national scale disaster. And the only way this region is going to be repaired is through a nationally led response. We've had a couple of fleeting visits from Federal Government ministers, but no real presence from ministers on the ground. The National Recovery Agency headed by Shane Stone is completely missing in action as well. This needs to be done today. People can't be expected to live with this rubbish in the streets outside their homes day after day.
FERNANDEZ: Do you really think people see this as a political issue at this stage of the recovery?
WATT: No, but what I do think is that people want to see their government stand with them. What I've seen with my own eyes, and frankly, helped with back in Brisbane, is the clean-up. Community members, flood victims, emergency personnel, volunteers out there doing the heavy lifting. And I think people are willing to do that as long as they know their governments are standing with them. And that's the bit that's missing. We've seen reports overnight that there are people who are having to crowdfund helicopters, so that they can do food drops and evacuations in some of the smaller outlying towns from this region. So I don't think it's necessarily a matter of party politics. People don't care who the Prime Minister is, or the government, they just want to know they're with them.
FERNANDEZ: Access to funding is one of the big issues right now. You've been suggesting, Labor's been suggesting, that money should be released from that particular fund, the Emergency Relief Fund to help pay for some of this. But that was really set up, the government argues, as a future fund, something to deal more with mitigation rather than immediate disaster recovery. What's your view on that?
WATT: Well, we have been calling for those funds to be used, and not just now, I've been actually calling for the government to use those funds, particularly to invest in disaster mitigation, for a couple of years now. And if the government had got moving on that much earlier, we could have had flood levees, better drainage systems, let alone all of the precautions we need for bushfires and cyclones as well. But none of that happened, and so people have been left stranded.
FERNANDEZ: But the Productivity Commission did find a few years ago in 2015, that Australia over-invests in disaster recovery and under-invests in the mitigation strategies, and Labor criticised the government for that. So really, the Emergency Relief Fund is not the place for that funding to come, it's from the other mechanisms that exist, right?
WATT: Well frankly, I don't think anyone would really care what funds the government used to put in place disaster mitigation. The problem is that they just haven't done enough of it anywhere with any funds. You might have seen through January, Anthony Albanese announced that if Labor's elected, we're going to revamp this fund, put it to work for disaster mitigation, because you're right, the Productivity Commission, insurers, local governments, and others, all say that we need at least $200 million a year in investment from the Federal Government in disaster mitigation, and that's exactly what we'll do if we win the next election.
FERNANDEZ: Senator, thank you.