March 09, 2022


SUBJECTS: Lismore flood rebuilding; community frustration at Morrison Government’s slow response; three things Scott Morrison must do in Lismore - apologise for abandoning flood victims, explain why he hasn’t used Emergency Response Fund, declare national emergency; Morrison waiting for TV cameras before declaring national emergency; resources industry and climate change.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: Let's return to what's happening in New South Wales and the Prime Minister is about to tour Lismore and surrounds, many of which are still underwater. Residents there have vented frustrations with the slow ADF response and apparent lack of readiness from many of the agencies designed to help them. Joining me from Lismore is Labor's Shadow Disaster and Emergency Management Minister, Murray Watt. He's been in the region for three days now. Thanks for your time. So what have you seen?
MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Well, Tom, I really think you've got to see it with your own eyes to understand the scale of the destruction here, both in Lismore and pretty much in every surrounding town on the Northern Rivers. Yesterday, I went out of Lismore for a look at some of the other towns, Coraki, went up to Chinderah with Justine Elliott, the Federal Member there, to look at what's happened to the caravan parks that people live in. It just feels like almost every town in the Northern Rivers has been completely decimated. Here in Lismore, the main street, there's been some good progress made with the clean-up, but as you can see behind me there's still so much more to be done. And I think we're kind of getting to the point now where people are starting to think about their future. There are, as of yesterday, there were about 2,500 homes just in Lismore that had been declared uninhabitable and this place already had a housing crisis before now. So I think there's some real questions for the government about how they're going to house people, how they're going to rebuild the economy, it is a war zone down here. And as I say, unless you're here it's really hard to describe.
CONNELL: So ‘thinking about their future’, by that do you wonder about how many people might leave the town and surrounds? Does that open up a conversation around how we rebuild, whether some areas are relocated?
WATT: Well, my sense is that most people do want to stay in Lismore and in these towns, because they often have family ties going back generations, many of them have got businesses here, they brought up families here, and towns like Lismore have a really proud history that we shouldn't let go of easily. I think there probably will need to be a debate about how we build and where we build, but as I've said over the course of the last week, it's not helped by insensitive remarks that blame flood victims for the situation they find themselves in. But look, more than anything, what I'm hearing from people is that they just want their government to show up. I think everyone understands that Scott Morrison has been in isolation with COVID for the last week and he couldn't be here physically, but there's nothing that stopped him picking up the phone to his colleagues, ordering more resources in here, ordering in a genuine Army presence, rather than the small number of people that we've got here. There are so many things that his government could have done. I've been here three days now, I haven't seen a single Federal Minister or a single Senior federal official on the ground, coordinating things, offering support, and people are angry. They've been through so much. They feel like they've been left to fend for themselves. They look over their shoulder when they're exhausted after eight days of cleaning up, and there's still no one from the government here standing with them.
CONNELL: Well, let's just mention one element there. So the presence of the ADF, the numbers I've been given by the government, they suggest 1,200 ADF personnel already deployed in northern New South Wales, and today that will swell to 2,500. That doesn't sound like a small number.
WATT: It just doesn't gel with the reality of what you see here, Tom. Again, it's not just me saying this to score some political point. If you speak to people, if you're on the ground here, like Federal Government Ministers haven't been, they would be hearing from community members saying ‘where are the ADF?’. Like, it's not that there's none of them here. I've seen some, but they're few and far between. And people are very grateful for the assistance that the Defence Force personnel…
CONNELL: But 1200 sounds like there’s a few up there. There’s only so many that can be sent out across the country, right? A scale of this size, it’s always going to stretch resources isn't it?
WATT: It has to be so much more than what is actually here on the ground. And over the last couple of days, we've seen stories emerge that, you know, when the Prime Minister says that there's 1,200 people deployed, what he actually means is that most of them are on standby waiting to be actually used. I just think the Prime Minister needs to be straight with people about what is actually happening here, and deliver the support that people want. He's going to be here in a couple of hours himself, and I think there's three basic things he's got to do while he's here. He's got to apologise to people here, the flood victims, for his government having been MIA and having abandoned them, particularly through the clean-up. He's got to explain to people, secondly, why he hasn't used that $4.8 billion Emergency Response Fund for three years, which could have been building flood mitigation measures and instead has just earned interest for his government. And thirdly, he's got to declare a National Emergency and deliver the swift and decisive action that he promised he would deliver when he got these powers. Now I've heard over the last couple of hours that he is talking about declaring that National Emergency.
CONNELL: That’s our understanding, that it will happen. So he will be there today…
WATT: Then why hasn't he done it? Why hasn’t he done that over the last week Tom? This has been going for days Tom…
CONNELL: So a couple of things to jump in on. Let me make a couple of points, so Bridget McKenzie and Stuart Robert have been in the flood zones so far up there, so it's important to mention that some federal ministers have gone there and they're two of the more relevant ones. So it's not a case of no ministers. He’s declaring it today…

WATT: There's been a couple, I haven't said that there's been no one here at all. What I have said is in the three days that I've been here, I haven't seen anyone. There have been a couple of fleeting visits by those two Federal Ministers and that's good, but why is there no ongoing support?
CONNELL: Okay, what changes from Scott Morrison declaring it?
WATT: And this point about declaring a National Emergency; he’s been locked up in isolation, but he could have done it.
CONNELL: What would that have changed?
WATT: Well, what it would have changed, well, go back to Scott Morrison's words when he asked parliament to give him these powers. He said it would deliver “swift and decisive action”, it would cut through red tape. This power was given to him after the Black Summer bushfires when he tried to blame the states about the difficulties getting the ADF in, and he said if he had these powers, he'd be able to come over the top of the states, get people on the ground quickly; this is what he said. And he's been sitting in isolation over the last week, at any point in a week he could have picked up the phone, declared a national emergency, got these things happening. Has he got to wait until he is surrounded by TV cameras before he does it? Or has he been too caught up with the New South Wales preselection worries to actually focus on the job at hand?
CONNELL: Okay. I want to get to another couple of topics quickly. Paying for this, it's going to be expensive, and that flood fund or emergency fund you spoke about only allows $100 million a year, so that won't do it. Do we need to think about how we do this on a permanent basis? Julia Gillard brought in a flood levy to pay for the Queensland floods all those years ago. Are we going to need levies in the future?
WATT: Well, just on a technicality Tom, it's up to $200 million a year that it can spend on disaster recovery and mitigation, but obviously the damage bill is going to be significantly higher than that. Earlier this week, the Queensland Treasurer said that the damage in South-East Queensland is in the order of $2.5 billion and I expect it to be at least the same here in northern New South Wales. So I think the government is going to have to think about how it's going to fund it. But you know, using those funds that it's had at its disposal for three years, could have built a lot of flood levees, could have improved a lot of drains, and that would have been pretty handy anywhere in South-East Queensland or northern New South Wales.
CONNELL: What do you think of levies? What do you think of levies for the repair bill?
WATT: Well look, I just haven't even had a moment to think about it Tom, there’s just so much happening here on the ground, but clearly it's up to the government to come up with some viable long term funding to rebuild these communities and get money in people’s pockets.
CONNELL: Just finally, so you've got your Shadow Disaster and Emergency Management hat on at the moment, you’re also Shadow Queensland Resources Minister, so there is a lot of talk around climate change and whether this makes these types of emergencies more likely to happen again. On that, as far as I can tell, Labor's approach in Australia for coal exports, which is our biggest contribution, it’s our exports, not what we use, is that any coal we dig up that someone wants to buy, we'll sell, including new coal mines. Does that make you uncomfortable wearing those two different hats?
WATT: No, it doesn’t Tom, and I don't think that those positions are inconsistent. I mean, what we've said in terms of coal and resources is that we will continue mining those resources and supplying them to the world market for as long as there is a market for it. And when it comes to Queensland coal, the vast majority of that is actually used, is exported to make steel. And so, I think no one's really talking about a viable alternative to that in the near term. So we do support our mining industry and we support continuing exporting those resources as long as we can, but it doesn't mean we can't take action on climate change. And you know, we've had a lost decade under this government of action on climate change, and we need the sort of targets and policies that Labor's putting forward for the next election.
CONNELL: We’ll leave it there, Murray Watt, thanks for your time.
WATT: Thanks Tom.