Townsville Press Conference (1)

January 22, 2021





SUBJECT/S: Disaster preparation; unspent $4 billion disaster fund, insurance costs in Northern Australia; Scott Morrison not taking responsibility for quarantine.

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Can I thank John and all of his team for the tour that they've given us today to show us really some of the world-leading research into cyclone mitigation that is occurring right here in Townsville. We are so lucky to have a world-class university like James Cook University conducting research that is really saving homes, saving lives, saving properties, not just here in north Queensland, but all around the world. So congratulations to you and your team for the excellent work that you're doing.

As I was walking around, it sort of reminded me that with being in the middle of cyclone season, all around us we can see people in North Queensland who are taking steps to be prepared for cyclones and floods at this time of the year. Yesterday, I was in Cairns and caught up with SES workers there and the Council as well. I know that there's a lot of work that's been going on to avoid the worst of cyclone season and floods. And so far we haven't seen the worst, which is really good news. We're seeing universities do what they need to do. And of course, North Queenslanders are doing what they need to do, to be prepared for cyclones and floods.

We know that we're not out of the disaster season yet, and it's likely we will be still seeing more cyclones and floods before the season is over. So really, the one group that we now need to come to the party, step up and do what they need to do, is the Federal Government.

It's really important that universities, north Queenslanders, councils, SES workers, aren't left in the lurch by the Federal Government when it comes to disaster preparation. And that's why it's so unfortunate that Scott Morrison and his Government continue to sit on a $4 billion fund that they announced nearly two years ago, that would be used for disaster recovery and disaster mitigation. We've now basically been through two disaster seasons since these funds were available, $4 billion that was available to the Federal Government to spend on things like cyclone shelters, on flood levees, on evacuation centres, on more research like what is being conducted here at JCU. And they haven't spent a single cent of that funding. Not one project has been approved. Not one project has been funded. Not one project has started. And we've been through two disaster seasons. And that failure of the Federal Government, to actually deliver on its promises, now actually leaves North Queenslanders at risk. Who can think what other projects could have been built that, if we do see cyclones and floods here over the next few months, could have been avoided, if the Federal Government had just been prepared to actually spend what it says it will do?

Scott Morrison, he likes to get out there and make an announcement and so often he doesn't follow through. And this is another example of that. What North Queensland needs is the Federal Government building a wall of steel to protect itself from disasters in the future. And instead, it's just got Scott Morrison running around with a newspaper headline and a photo of himself. Well, I'm sorry, Prime Minister, but having a photo of you isn't going to save North Queensland from cyclones and floods. It actually needs real funding provided now.

And this failure to spend the funds that have been announced, it isn't some trivial issue. It actually has a real cost here in North Queensland. What it means is that every time we do see a disaster, we end up spending billions of dollars to repair things. And of course, what it's doing is making insurance costs here in North Queensland more and more unaffordable for people. And we're getting to the point that people just can't afford insurance or can't get insurance. I've met businesses in North Queensland that, because times are tough economically, have decided to cut their insurance premiums. They can't afford to pay it anymore. So what happens to those businesses when we do get a cyclone or a flood? They're going to be left stranded. So this has got a real cost for North Queensland. We need to see the Government step up and deliver on its funding rather than just see it gather interest in its own bank account.

JOURNALIST: So the disaster fund is one element of what the Federal Government could be doing, but what else do you think any level of government could be doing to help mitigate insurance issues that we're having in North Queensland?

WATT: Well, for a start, I'd suggest that the Federal Government actually implements the recommendations of the ACCC report that it just commissioned. Over the last three years alone, we've had three different reports from the ACCC, making recommendations about what can be done to reduce insurance costs. And the Government hasn't implemented any of them. I mean, every single day you've got George Christensen and Phil Thompson running around huffing and puffing about how they're going to fix insurance costs and how it's got to be done. Well, hello, they're actually in Government, they can actually do some of these things!

Again, there's not much point in them carrying on about what a big problem this is when they've actually got their hands on the levers to start making some changes. Again, just them running around saying things, isn't going to fix things, they've actually got to do something.

Just before we wrap up, I might just add one thing about the quarantine issues that are being discussed at national cabinet today. In the last couple of days, we've obviously seen a big fight emerge, unfortunately, it looks like Scott Morrison's back to sledging Annastacia Palaszczuk about COVID issues and how she should manage things.

All I want to say to the Prime Minister is - quarantine is your responsibility. I was having a look at the Constitution this morning, and it is crystal clear in the Australian Constitution that quarantine is a federal government responsibility.

So what we actually need is the Prime Minister stepping up, using national cabinet to work with Premiers, come up with a viable solution for quarantine, rather than just sitting on the sidelines throwing rocks at people. I really hope that we can come up with a sensible solution at today's national cabinet. That, of course, keeps people in regional Queensland safe, but also manages to set up a quarantine system so that we can see those tens of thousands of Australians who are stranded overseas finally get back home, where they want to be.

JOURNALIST: What do you think of Bob Katter's Dunk Island idea?

WATT: Well, I saw Bob made those comments the other day. Bob has a lot of ideas. Again, sometimes he has a bit of trouble actually following through and delivering them. I mean, I think the major problem with the Dunk Island suggestion is that it's right in the middle of a cyclone zone. If we were to set up a quarantine facility on Dunk Island and we get a big cyclone come through, how are we going to evacuate, you know, a thousand people who might have COVID in a quick manner of time. I appreciate Bob making suggestions. I don't think this one is particularly practical.