March 16, 2022



SUBJECTS: Labor commits to cyclone shelters in remote Northern Territory communities; Labor’s Disaster Ready Fund will revamp Scott Morrison’s failed Emergency Response Fund; fuel prices; Labor’s cost of living commitments

KATIE WOOLF, HOST: Well we know we have a Federal election coming soon. Murray Watt is a Labor Senator, and also the Opposition spokesperson for Northern Australia. Good morning to you Murray.
MURRAY WATT, LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: G’day Katie, good to finally be with you in person. 
WOOLF: Yeah exactly, good to see you in the studio. I understand actually that you were out in Maningrida, where my mother lives, on the weekend making some announcements about cyclone shelters.
WATT: I was. I was able yesterday to join Marion Scrymgour, our candidate for Lingiari, and Malarndirri McCarthy, the local Senator, out in Maningrida yesterday. And we had the good fortune to start stumble across the woman who taught you everything you know! So it was great to meet Lesley and her team at the health centre, who are doing a terrific job. 
WOOLF: The woman can speak more than me, which I know a lot of people listening may be wondering if that's possible!
WATT: She's doing a terrific job out there, really important health services.
WOOLF: And she did actually point out, and I know others in Maningrida have also and in Milingimbi the fact that they do need these cyclone shelters. We know that they are areas, locations, that do certainly have to deal with weather events, major weather events. So tell me a little bit more about this announcement today.
WATT: Yeah, well, I was really pleased to join Marion and Malarndirri to make this announcement yesterday. You don't need me to tell you that the Northern Territory is extremely cyclone prone, and especially some of those coastal remote communities like Maningrida and Milingimbi. It's not that long ago that we saw Cyclone Lam come through Milingimbi and a bit before that Cyclone Monica, which really wreaked havoc in Maningrida, as well. And what we all know from the scientists is that we're going to be facing these kinds of intense weather events even more often in the future. And unfortunately, these remote communities, even though some of them have got several thousand people living there, don't really have proper cyclone shelters, to look after people and protect them when these cyclones come through. Both of those communities have only very small cyclone shelters at the moment. And having spent time driving around and meeting with people in Maningrida yesterday, a lot of the homes there are not cyclone proof. The newer ones are but the older ones aren't. And that leaves people really vulnerable. So what we've said is that if Albo and Labor are elected in May, then we will basically chip in 50% of the funding towards building cyclone shelters in both of those communities, with the Northern Territory Government picking up the rest.
WOOLF: And we know that these communities, Maningrida, for example, it's got more than 3000 residents. We know Milingimbi’s got 1500 people who reside there. So they are significant communities where they do need to have cyclone shelters, should there be an extreme weather event. But we also see at different times as well with some of those weather events, people then travel to the likes of Darwin, and they are here for quite some time in some situations and if there's not somewhere where they can shelter safely throughout those weather events, well, you can understand why.
WATT: No that's right. It's one of the things I think that's a bit unique about the Northern Territory is that people in those stressful sort of times do gravitate towards the big centres, both here in Darwin, and I've spent the last couple of days in Alice Springs before Maningrida. And there's similar issues there where people drift towards the big urban centres when they're in times of trouble and from time to time that can cause some social problems in the big centres. So if we can actually provide the kind of facilities that people need to have a decent standard of living in some of those outlying communities, it obviously helps those communities, but it also takes some of the pressure off our bigger centres like Darwin and Alice as well.
WOOLF: I think an announcement like this is a good one. I know that there has been some discussion nationally at the moment that Labor is making a lot of very localised promises in the lead up to the federal election. And the opposition, the Liberal Party I should say, then calling on Labor to really, you know, to outline how they're going to fund all of these smaller promises that are being made locally.
WATT: Yeah, no, it's a good question, Katie. And what we will be using to fund the cyclone shelters is basically using a completely failed fund that we've seen from the Morrison Government. I think you and I have talked previously about the NAIF, which is another big fund that they've announced that hasn't really delivered much on the ground. But the one we're talking about here is the Emergency Response Fund, that the Morrison Government set up about three years ago. At the time, it had $4 billion in it and it was set up to spend a couple of hundred million dollars a year on disaster recovery and mitigation. So things like cyclone shelters, flood levees, things like that. But we're now here three years on, it hasn't spent a cent on disaster recovery, hasn't even started building a single disaster mitigation project, let alone completed one, and all it has done is earned the government over $800 million in interest, sitting there being invested. So what we've said is that, if we’re elected, we will revamp that fund, put it to work to protect people in the Northern Territory and elsewhere, and basically set up a permanent, dedicated Disaster Ready Fund, which would spend up to $200 million a year just on disaster mitigation. So to be available for cyclone shelters, flood levees, bushfire evacuation centres, so that we can keep people safe and keep their property safe.
WOOLF: So you would be looking at changing it so that it is looking more so at that mitigation rather than the response after a weather event’s occurred?
WATT: Exactly. When we made this announcement in January we were very clear that we would continue to fund disaster recovery. So the sort of payments that people get and infrastructure repairs, and we would do that off the general budget, which is what the government do now anyway. But rather than having this fund sitting there doing nothing but earning interest for the government, let's use it to build some of these things that can keep people safe in the future, and reduce the burden on taxpayers in terms of the repairs. As a country, and people have looked at this, we spend 97% of all of our disaster management funding after the fact, repairing things, and only 3% in investing upfront to try to protect people and reduce the cost. So we think by having more of a focus on disaster mitigation, that'll be good for people, but it'll also be good for taxpayers.
WOOLF: Murray, one of the other things I'm very keen to ask you about this morning is the price of petrol, especially as the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia. I think that this is something that's hitting people that live in Northern Australia, very hard. I know those petrol prices are up right around the nation, nobody's disputing that. Today in the likes of Darwin, so in actual Darwin, not in any of our remote areas, you know, the cheapest that you're going to find your diesel today is at $2.18, the most you're going to find it is $2.29. You go out more regional and more remote, and those prices only go up. We were talking to business owners a little bit earlier this morning, who were talking about the impact that those freight costs are having right now. This discussion about the fuel excise being cut, it's happening right around the nation. Would Labor support that, that fuel excise being cut?
WATT: What we've said is that we're waiting to see what the government puts forward in its budget this year. We absolutely recognise the pain that this is causing people in their family budgets. And I think you're right. When you get into regional areas and remote areas, like here in the Northern Territory, there's an even greater burden on people's budget because for starters the prices are higher and also people tend to drive longer distances, so they consume more petrol and diesel. So it’s definitely having an impact. We have not yet made that commitment ourselves, but we're going to wait and see what comes in the budget. But what we have done already, is make some commitments about cost of living in general. So for instance, we've got a plan out there about reducing the cost of childcare, which is, again, a really big impact on people's family budgets. Our Powering Australia plan is about reducing the cost of electricity bills. Again, a major cost on family budgets and the work that we had done around that says that with investment from government in renewables, we think that we can save on average a household about $275 a year on their electricity budgets. And then the other part of the equation, of course, is what people are getting paid. You know, I think that's the fundamental problem people have at the moment is that their wages aren't going up but everything else is. Everything else is going up apart from their wages. And what we've said is that if we can be making people's work more secure and give them more confidence about hanging on to their job that will have an effect on people's wages, trying to crack down on some of the rorts around casualisation where people are actually permanent workers but are deemed to be casuals. So if we can actually get people's wages up, that allows them to cope with some of these increased costs, as well as reducing costs in childcare, energy and other things. 
WOOLF: Obviously something like that is going to be a good thing for those workers. But what about, you know, some of these businesses as well who are struggling to operate right now with these freight costs. Is it, could we have a situation here where we even look at doing something a little bit different for regional Australia?
WATT: I think we definitely do need to have special programs and assistance in place for regional Australia because the costs that people do face in daily life do tend to be higher in regional Australia, whether it be your groceries, because you are paying, you know, increased freight charges as well as your petrol just to get around town or go camping on the weekend. So as I say, we want to make sure that heading into this election that we are being responsible with the budget. We got a lot of criticism last time for spending too much and putting up lots of taxes and things like that. And we're deliberately this time being responsible with the budget. So we're going to have a good look at what the government puts forward but I can assure people we do really feel the pain at the moment.
WOOLF: Well, Murray Watt, Senator Murray Watt also of course the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia. We really appreciate your time this morning. And no doubt we'll talk to you again very soon.
WATT: Look forward to it Katie.