Thursday, 14 May 2020
Australian Natural Disasters
by leave—I rise to speak on the bushfire recovery and our response to the drought.
Update on Bushfire Recovery and Drought Response
We have gathered together this week, as the elected representatives of a great, proud nation, at a time when coronavirus continues to change the world in ways that were unimaginable mere months ago. Yet here, in Australia, we have a proud tradition of dealing with, and making the best of, unprecedented challenges. The Australian government has continued to work, to ensure that where possible it is business as usual, to ensure that we can meet the demands thrust upon us by coronavirus, and to ensure that we all get through this—together.
Madam Deputy Speaker Bird, as you know, in my portfolio I have responsibility for both drought—the crippling drought, which in some parts of Australia is in its seventh year—and emergency management. Despite the challenges of recent times, few Australians would be able to forget living through, or seeing on their screens, the ferocious flames of the 'black summer'.
So today, I rise to address all Australians about how we, as a nation, are recovering from a devastating bushfire season and continuing to deal with one of the worst droughts in living memory.
Australia's 2019-20 bushfire season, our 'black summer' ended just over a month ago. We will continue to feel the toll of all that was lost for some time to come.
Tragically, 33 members of the Australian community—including nine firefighters, three from America whom we proudly recognise as our own—lost their lives. Our thoughts remain with their families, friends and broader communities.
Across the country, we lost over 12 million hectares of land, 3,000 homes, and over 7,000 facilities and outbuildings, and masses of native flora and fauna perished.
And of course, for several years before these disastrous fires, numerous regional towns and communities across the country have been battling enduring drought which has been just as, if not more, devastating to our regions—albeit through a long, slow and painful multitude of years, as opposed to the fierce intensity of the bushfires.
Although we have recently seen some good rainfall bring hope to some, there are still many parts of the nation who have had little or no rain at all.
The road to recovery for many communities continues to be a long one, especially for those communities that have been hit doubly hard by drought and fires.
Communities and primary producers across an enormous tract of northern Queensland have been recovering from devastating damage and losses caused by widespread torrential flooding associated with the February 2019 monsoon trough.
The reality is that communities across the country are impacted uniquely by drought and natural disaster, and they are all at different points in their response and recovery journeys.
As if that wasn't hard enough, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up new challenges for those same communities, and for us all.
What we have seen throughout all of these challenges has been an unwavering Australian spirit.
We see that spirit every day in the work of our emergency services workers, farmers and primary producers, teachers, doctors and nurses, mental health workers and charities, just to name a few.
I want to make it clear that through these challenges, the government is continuing its commitment to supporting drought and fire affected communities, and will stand shoulder to shoulder with them until the job is done.
As many of my colleagues have outlined, the government is working quickly to support Australians dealing with lost jobs, lost businesses and lost profits because of this pandemic. But we will not forget those battling with drought and those recovering from natural disasters.
I acknowledge the work that went into preparing for last bushfire and disaster season.
Emergency Management Australia, EMA, part of the Department of Home Affairs, engaged year-round with all states and territories to equip them with the latest forecast insights, maintain the emergency alert messaging capability and refine the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements.
In recent years the government has provided additional funding to the National Aerial Firefighting Centre of $11 million to supplement our ongoing support to the aerial firefighting fleet. Last fire season we contributed an extra $20 million, to take the total to $46 million, in recognition of the resources needed to combat the widespread and severe 'black summer' bushfires. I am happy to announce today an extra $11 million in annual Australian government funding. This will bring the government's total annual funding contribution to aerial firefighting to $26 million, which will be indexed into the future to provide certainty for those critical frontline resources.
The responsibility for being prepared doesn't just rest with governments. We are working more closely than ever with industry sectors—power, water, food and groceries, telecommunications, transport and logistics—each of which have critical functions to sustain during a crisis.
In the midst of the bushfire crisis, we established the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and committed a $2 billion fund to kick-start the road to recovery for those affected. We have already spent more than the first $500 million that was allocated to us this financial year from that $2 billion fund, and by the end of June we expect that we will have spent close to $1 billion.
Together with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, we announced on Mondayover $650 million in local recovery and development measures, as well as building resilience to future disasters.
This funding will help regenerate landscapes and species, improve telecommunications capabilities during disasters and ensure communities can access critical mental health support.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, the agency is working with all levels of government, local communities, industry, businesses and charities to make sure the help gets to where it is needed.
At the recent Council of Australian Governments meeting, all leaders agreed to review and if necessary update how governments apply the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements.
This is a timely development in the history of these arrangements as we experience more destructive disaster seasons.
Every step of the way, the National Bushfire Recovery Agency has been working with the relevant state and territory governments to make it easier for people to receive assistance.
And it, crucially, has been listening to locals on the ground. We are engaging affected communities, and have responded to changing conditions and the needs of individuals, local governments and communities.
We reacted quickly to streamline and simplify application processes, while making sure that communities are built back better for the long term, and there is an even playing field where affected Australians are treated consistently and fairly.
As of yesterday, 13 May 2020:
I encourage anyone who thinks they may be eligible for assistance to contact Services Australia, or their state or territory government.
We understand that not all communities are at the same point in their recovery journey; some are starting to consider longer term planning.
Additional medium and long-term recovery needs will be considered by the government as part of October's budget process so we can be ready to support them with opportunities to rebuild.
I am a passionate believer that investment in critical mental health services will support the individuals that form the social fabric of our communities.
The Australian government is backing primary health networks with additional funding over two years to provide critical, localised mental health support for bushfire affected victims.
The measures I have mentioned are just a snapshot.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, we are working with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency to press forward on responding to community recovery needs with greater flexibility and speed.
Unfortunately, in these extraordinary times, it can feel like issues important to regional and rural communities have taken a back seat. That is not the case.
I want to reassure people that we are here. We are working for you. We haven't stopped. And we won't stop.
I've said this many times before, and I don't care if I sound like a broken record—strong regional economies benefit all Australians. They are the lifeblood of this nation.
We have seen throughout this pandemic that our farmers have continued to provide the country with good food and produce, and they have reassured their fellow Australians that they can supply more food than we, as a nation, need.
Australians can rest assured that we will always eat well, thanks to our farmers and the communities that support them. I also want to acknowledge the work done by the government to ensure drought assistance is being delivered where it is needed most.
The Australian government has consistently scaled up that assistance in response to worsening conditions.
We have committed over $8 billion in assistance and concessional loans to help individuals, businesses and communities through this current drought and prepare for future challenges.
Since the election, the government has committed more than $1 billion in grants and payments to support drought affected farmers, businesses and communities.
This includes support provided to people through the farm household allowance, which gives farming families the assistance they need to put food on the kitchen table, and additional funding for the highly popular $3,000 cash payments for farmers, farm workers and farm suppliers in hardship. I commend the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul Society for their assistance in delivering these cash payments to those in need.
In November, we announced a further $709 million package which has gone towards better regional roads, greater support for councils, a drought focused round of the Building Better Regions Fund, and helping country kids stay at school and in child care. The Regional Investment Corporation continues to roll out concessional loan assistance to farm businesses and eligible small businesses, giving them the capital they need to work through this drought or to start their recovery.
There should be no doubt—we are taking the effects of this drought very seriously.
The national drought and flood agency has consulted with drought affected communities across the country to see how they are coping with the long-term impacts of drought and the now the COVID-19 pandemic.
The agency is putting in place eighteen regional recovery officers across the country to ensure we understand the local challenges and issues and can work with communities on the best solutions for them.
This team is made up of livestock farmers, experienced farm workers, beef producers and even a former regional mayor—they understand from their own experiences what the opportunities and challenges are for regional and remote communities battling through drought.
The agency will be conducting community outreach activities to help communicate what government assistance is available for drought affected communities—because what has been made very apparent throughout this drought is that clear communication on how people can get help is just as important as the assistance itself. As part of these activities, Rotary will distribute $500 vouchers to help locals buy everyday essentials from local businesses
While we meet immediate needs, we have our eye on helping farmers into the future as we plan their recovery and prepare themselves for the next drought.
As part of our commitment to long-term drought assistance, we are making available from 1 July the first $100 million of the $5 billion Future Drought Fund program, which will provide secure, continuous funding to build resilient communities into the future.
The agency is also leading the ongoing North Queensland flood recovery, working extensively on the ground and across government agencies to implement a long-term recovery and preparedness strategy.
As at the end of April this year, around $655 million has been paid directly to individuals, businesses, communities, local and state governments as part of the government's North Queensland flood recovery package. Almost $47 million in grants has been approved to go towards restocking, replanting and on-farm infrastructure, to help our primary producers get back to business.
The Australian government will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with regional communities on this journey, and we will work together to ensure that the assistance being provided is hitting the mark.
While the government and the nation are rightfully occupied with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, I would assure Australians affected by fire, flood and drought that we are working for you, and we will not stop working for you.
Short-, medium- and long-term responses and recovery to these challenges remain our priority, as they were before the pandemic set in.
We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the challenges that future disasters and drought will inevitably bring.
There is a lot of very important work happening now to prepare Australians to face future threats to our lives and livelihoods with greater resilience.
Emergency Management Australia is spearheading the implementation of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework to reduce the risk and impact of disasters on Australians.
This provides an important opportunity for governments, industry and community players to come together and address the mutual challenge of accelerating disaster risk reduction efforts.
All of us will be accountable through the National Action Plan to ensure we stay on track to address the priorities and meet the outcomes in the framework.
Research is the foundation to better understanding Australia's evolving risks and vulnerabilities, including those associated with climate. We need rich and relevant research to drive our risk reduction and resilience-building efforts, and the government, through Emergency Management Australia, is committed to securing it.
The recent pilot of a national disaster risk information capability lays the pathway towards combining expertise from across government, academia and the private sector to help the government make timely, appropriate decisions during disasters.
Our drought measures like the Future Drought Fund will help farmers and regional communities to build resilience into the future. And the national drought and flood agency will continue to listen to drought affected communities and make sure they know what support is available.
Australians will always face the possibility of catastrophic natural disasters in the form of bushfires, cyclones, and floods. And drought will remain a key feature of our landscape.
Through some of the toughest times in recent memory, this government has shown the will and the capacity to adapt our ways of working and getting on with the job of supporting affected communities to get back on their feet.
Despite the challenges thrown at us by drought, bushfires, storms, floods and now the COVID-19 pandemic, Australians can be assured that this government, your government, is standing firm with you on the long and challenging road to recovery, and that together we will get through this.