Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Statements on Indulgence
Australian Natural Disasters
I rise on indulgence to update the House on the many floods and fires that have ravaged parts of our country in recent weeks and months. As we know, across our nation we are seeing incredible efforts from tens of thousands of Australians in response to the national disasters that we have faced. In north-west Queensland, flooding rains have brought devastating stock losses to lands and communities that were scarred by years of drought. The heartbreak that is occurring in those communities is hard for us to imagine in this place.
As a result of a monsoon low, Townsville's Ross River hit a record peak, with flood waters damaging thousands of homes and buildings. More than 7,700 damage assessments have been completed across the state. We know that two men lost their lives and another man is missing near Ayr, and our prayers and support are with their families. There is also a livestock tragedy in North Queensland currently unfolding, with stock losses at inestimable levels.
Right now, a whole-of-government response is underway, with Emergency Management Australia, the Defence Force, the Australian Taxation Office, Department of Health, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources all working with state and local authorities to direct the recovery and the response. The Defence Force has established a joint task force, which is working closely with local authorities and emergency services to help remote communities. They're helping farmers sustain livestock cut off by flooding and transporting patients and critical supplies. They are also involved in the removal, wherever possible, of the carcasses of thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of stock losses.
The ADF has liaison officers in Cloncurry, Julia Creek and Richmond to drop fodder to local communities, working closely at the direction of the local communities. The RAAF and the Army's 3rd Brigade, 17th Brigade, 6th Brigade and 1st Division—around 2,800 ADF personnel, all based in Townsville, many of them with flooded homes and properties themselves—have helped evacuate people and transport sandbags from Brisbane.
The Commonwealth government, working closely with the Queensland and local governments, has already contributed over $100 million in financial assistance to the recovery effort. That means payments to people whose property has been damaged to assist with their emergency needs; support for affected primary producers, raising recovery grants from $25,000 to $75,000, consistent with category D status; recovery grants for small businesses to help them clean up and reopen their doors; payments of $1 million each, as I announced yesterday, to the current eight council areas west of Townsville to help them with a broad range of recovery activities; and funding for the restoration of damaged infrastructure such as roads and bridges. As of two days ago, we've extended the availability of disaster recovery payments to eight flood-hit shires across western Queensland. We all know it is difficult to get things done when roads and communications are cut, and that's why I'm pleased at the speed of the response on the ground to date, but it must be maintained.
Over 33,000 claims for disaster payments have been processed in Townsville alone, already providing over $39 million directly into the pockets of those affected, and I particularly want to commend Home Affairs and the Department of Human Services for their swift action in getting that support to people as quickly as they can. As well, the government has extended a further $3 million to boost mental health services on the ground, complementing the support being provided by the Queensland government. My great concern is for those farming communities who are absorbing the horrible impact of this. They need our mental health support, and those services have been funded and provided and extended.
As we've seen before, while one part of the country is under water, another part is in flames. We've had fires in Western Australia and, as we gather, 28 bushfires are still burning across Tasmania. These fires have burnt more than 205,000 hectares, including almost 90,000 hectares in the World Heritage area. Firefighters have come from around Australia and across the ditch in New Zealand to help. Miraculously, no lives have been lost there. We've activated disaster recovery funding arrangements in the Derwent Valley, the Huon Valley, the West Coast and the Central Highlands to help cover the costs of firefighting and evacuation centres, as well as recovery payments for affected people and freight subsidies for farmers and producers. We have also activated the Australian government Disaster Recovery Allowance, providing assistance to employees, primary producers and sole traders who have experienced a loss of income as a direct result of the bushfires. There are also fires burning in Victoria, with three uncontrolled blazes at Walhalla, Thomson and Timbarra River. Again, there has been some damage and loss of properties, but thankfully no lives have been lost.
Every summer, as waters rise and fires rage, nature seems to hurl challenges and pose questions of readiness, courage and compassion that Australians answer in the affirmative every time, showing the strength and determination for which Australians are known. Once again, we have seen that response.
Our message to all affected, whether in the black-soil mud of western Queensland or the water-sodden houses of Townsville or the ravaged fire areas of Tasmania, is: as we've stood with you in this immediate response, we will stand with you in the recovery and we will stand with you in the rebuilding. Just as was said in the condolence motion relating to the 10th anniversary of the Black Saturday fires, this will be a decade worth of work, and perhaps more. I've engaged with local mayors throughout western Queensland and in Townsville itself. I want to thank all of those mayors. I must say that local government, state government and the Commonwealth government, from whichever political persuasion, have worked together hand-in-glove—no fingers pointing anywhere; just hands out to help each other. I want to thank in particular Premier Hodgman and Premier Palaszczuk, who have been open and direct and have been tremendous in their support, and we have responded in kind. There is much work to do and there is much rebuilding to do, and this place and our government will certainly support all of that.
I thank the Prime Minister for his words. We live in a beautiful country, but it can be very brutal. This summer has brought fires to Victoria, Western Australia and most severely to Tasmania, and devastating floods to North Queensland and Townsville, surging through western Queensland. When I was at the disaster relief centre in Townsville, I asked them to explain to me the volume of water which came through the Ross River Dam in those three days. It was said that, in three days, it was the equivalent of all of Sydney Harbour rushing through. Thousands and thousands of homes are affected. The member for Herbert's home was among them; her mother's home was flooded. But, like so many other residents, Cathy hasn't been focusing on herself. She's been everywhere, helping with sandbags and helping coordinate the volunteers.
I want to thank and commend everyone involved in the recovery effort, including the emergency services personnel and the council workers, led by the resolute mayor, Jenny Hill, and her leadership team, who turned out to help even though, in many cases, their own homes were underwater or damaged. I acknowledge the work of Premier Palaszczuk. Of course, we should acknowledge the members of the Australian Defence Force. Townsville is a garrison town. The locals see the ADF out and about more than most Australians. Their calm and professional presence and performance amidst the swift rising waters, in the pitch-black night and with sightings of crocodiles, was such a comfort and reassurance to those in trouble. That should be a source of pride to all of us. But perhaps what moved me most about Townsville was the image of a highway turned into a boat ramp. There, at the edge of the floodwaters, cars with boat trailers navigated to put the tinnies and the boats into the water—no easy feat. Literally tens and tens of boats were there from locals, just to help their fellow Townsvilleans get out of trouble.
I can tell Australians that the resilience and cheerfulness of the Queenslanders I had the privilege to speak to, whether they were cleaning up the local RSL or comforting friends in trouble, represent the very best of our country.
After these monsoonal rains, 800 properties from the outskirts of Townsville to Hughenden, Cloncurry, Julia Creek and Richmond and all the way to Winton are now in flood. After years of unforgiving drought, the stock is now drowning or dying in bogs or from pneumonia. This devastation is overwhelming. In the member for Kennedy's electorate, I know that many farmers have lost everything, and I know that he shares their pain and sadness. I saw on Channel 9 Jaye Hall from Julia Creek in his electorate simply say, 'This is the worst tragedy I've ever had.' But she went on to share the story of a note that she received from her two children, Madison and Wyatt. They wrote:
We are sorry about all of these cattle. If there is anything we can do to help you, let us know. Hope you start to feel better soon. If we need more money you could take mine out of my bank and put it in yours. … We love you very much!
Think of those words from those two children: 'If there is anything we can do to help you, let us know.' I congratulate Madison and Wyatt on summing up the mood of the nation, because that's what we want to say to all Queenslanders affected as a parliament and as a nation, 'If there is anything we can do to help, let us know.' I want insurance companies to hear that message loud and clear. After the floods, 13,560 claims have already been registered, and Australia is watching. Whether it's insurance, government payments or relief from bank loans, Queenslanders should just get the help they need, the compensation that they've paid for, as soon as possible, with no excuses, no delays and no hiding behind the lawyers—just the right thing done quickly. In terms of Australians visiting Townsville, give it a few weeks and then invest in the tourism of Townsville and the surrounding areas. That's a great way to help.
Of course, as we sit here, 486 remarkable people are fighting fires in Tasmania on the ground and in the air. A hundred and seventy-five people have come from interstate or New Zealand to help a friend in need. The scale of the task they confront is immense: 1,800 kilometres of fire edge, 205,000 hectares burning or burned out, homes and outbuildings levelled, and one of the great world wildernesses, a beautiful, distinctive part of our nation, reduced to ash in part. The economic consequences have also been grave. The fire at Zeehan has closed the road, and tourists have cancelled their bookings. Small businesses in Strahan, the gateway to one of the world's great wildernesses, have lost thousands.
But again there are things which always give us hope and heart. At the Huonville evacuation centre, I met Lachie. He's six years old. He's been helping make breakfast every morning, and that day he was busy preparing lunch for what he reckons were 300 firefighters. Sonya Lovell and her fantastic daughter Bronwyn, who run the Que Sera Sera Coffee cart, have been putting fuel in the tank for volunteers and emergency services personnel. Julie Collins also shared with me a message that she received from one of her constituents, a heartfelt tribute to the kindness of neighbours. It goes like this: 'When it was frightening or eerily quiet, there was always someone there for us to house and water our sheep, to see if we needed somewhere for our dogs, a place to leave our cows and caravan, a meal or drinking water to share, some information, a kind word or just to say, "Where are you?" and, "Stay safe." The Huon Valley is a tremendous community, and I've never been more grateful and humble than I am today.' We are all grateful and humbled by the spirit of our people, and we're humbled by their courage.
It is a very great honour to be able to say a few words on behalf of my homeland. My homeland gave to Australia Qantas, Waltzing Matilda, the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the labour movement—I doubt whether there's a single family in this place of old Australians that didn't receive a benefit from the great labour movement. Dame Mary Gilmore, who is on our $10 note, one of the great ladies of the Labor movement—I hope I'm not embarrassing the Prime Minister about his great-great-aunt—is buried in my home town of Cloncurry.
Briefly, what's this area about? It's one-tenth of the surface area of Australia. There are hardly any people living there: there are only about 12,000 or 15,000 of us. I think the best poem that sums it up was by Richard Magoffin, the great historian of Waltzing Matilda: 'For what do we strive? For what do we fight? For a slab of dirt on a windswept plain that'll keep us broke till we go insane.' And you say, 'Well, these people are stupid, aren't they.' My best friend is a guy called Ronnie Purse. When he went up into the wilderness there, there were no cattle. He and I owned half a million acres together. I contributed absolutely nothing, I must emphasise. I'm not saying that out of any humility; it's just the truth. By the time he'd finished 45 years up there, we were producing $50 million worth of cattle a year. These are the people that produce for you the fourth-biggest export industry in this country, and the sixth-biggest secondary industry, meat processing, is one of the biggest employers in this country.
I just want to quickly mention three families. One of them, whose family I went to school with right through, I'm going to call Gary. I knew his great-grandparents. One was Chinese and came out in the gold rushes; the other was an Afghan camel driver. They didn't have it easy, I can tell you. Nor did the Scottish Presbyterians. For five generations, they've battled it out there, starting with nothing. Even three generations ago, they were just shearing. Now they've got probably one of the biggest middle-range cattle stations. They went through the TB eradication program, which took 650,000 of our cattle off us. They went through the live cattle dispute, which halved our incomes for three or four years. They went through the Japanese embargo, which the Australian government did nothing to fight, where we got $1 a head for our cattle. It's normally $100 a head. They went through the '74 flood—the most unbelievable thing I'd ever seen in my life and maybe the worst flooding in Australian history. They went through Cyclone Ted. I lost half of my cattle in Cyclone Ted. There were 127,000 head of cattle, and maybe one-tenth of our entire herd went to Cyclone Ted.
They went through the fires. For those of you who haven't read Colleen McCullough's book: you've got a front of 60 kilometres; it's rolling at 60 miles an hour and it's 60 feet high. This family's neighbours did a wonderful thing—well, it was a terrible thing. He had a rifle in his hands, and the television interviewer said, 'You lost your father and your brother.' He said: 'My father and brother and the ringer. The ringer got tangled in the fence. They went back to save him, and all three of them were incinerated.' That was 20 years ago to this very day. He was loading his rifle, and they said, 'What are you doing now?' He said, 'I have to shoot my sheep.' The sun was going down; the sheep had their entrails hanging out. Bang, bang, bang! 'It's all over for us.'
In this case, I rang this bloke up and I said, 'Mate, I'm just on the phone to listen.' He said: 'Bob, I went down to one of the bottom paddocks. There were 2,000 breeders in that paddock, and I didn't count 200.' That's just one paddock. He's probably got about 12 or 15 paddocks. So you'd have to say he's gone; he's got absolutely no hope of surviving. After five generations, coming out with camels—the Chinese and the Scottish Presbyterians and all of it—there's nothing left. He didn't say, 'I want some money.' He didn't say, 'I want some help.' He just said, 'Bobby, I went down and counted the 2,000 breeders, and there are less than 200 of them left.'
The second case—and I'll try to be as brief as possible. This bloke's a real rough nut, a real hard man. He's one of the big men in the cattle industry in Australia. I was with him at the rodeo. A bloke knocked down three people, and he came over and joined us. It was his brother. I said, 'Why didn't you go and help him?' He said, 'Well, he didn't need any help, did he.' These are hard men. This bloke drove 200 miles into town for a rugby league meeting, to get it going. I said, 'Good of you to come down, mate.' He said, 'I didn't come down to town for rugby league. If the boy can't play football, he's not coming home.' That's the sort of people they are. I rang up one of his brothers. He's in a chopper. I said, 'I'm listening, mate'. He said, 'There's no hay in the country. Even if there was, there are no choppers to deliver it.' Then he made some emotional sounds, and the telephone blanked out. His brother—again, one of the hardest people I've ever met—on television broke down and cried. We don't cry in our country.
In the third case, an extremely good-looking young woman—in one of our many disasters, her father took Cromoxin, the cruellest way possible to die; his kids had to survive on a station out in the middle of nowhere—lost one of her children from a very strange disease that we have in these areas. I rang her up. She didn't cry. She just said, 'Thank you for ringing, Mr Katter.' They're selling up their stations, one by one. Presumably, they'd been wiped out—not by the banks. I'm not trying to condemn the banks, but that's what's happening. So they're watching them go, one by one. They're a fifth-generation family. They've lost everything. She was there at the meeting in a big straw sombrero. I kept looking at her and thinking, 'Thank you for ringing, Mr Katter.'
One-tenth of the nation's cattle herd is in this area. It's the fourth-biggest export earner the country has. In Cyclone Ted we lost 127,000 head, and they're telling us that the number will be four or five times those losses. And if we lose 300,000 calf factories, 300,000 cows, once you process them out you're looking at $600 million a year. If you say, 'Well, I'll capitalise that,' then you're looking at $6,000 million worth of losses. In passing, I must mention, Mr Prime Minister and Mr Leader of the Opposition, we need a centralised control. Peter Beattie was passionate and very good. He brought in General Cosgrove for Cyclone Larry. Finally, I can't help but say: 'Why are you stupid? Why do you keep going up there?' They say: 'Yeah, well, we're giving our country one-tenth of its entire cattle industry. Please, get behind us—for us to keep going.'
I praise the Prime Minister very greatly here. If we can hold a little bit of that water back it's not going to solve our problems, but one-tenth of that floodwater—where it's 30 or 40 feet over the bridge at Normanton, it will only be one-tenth less than that height. That's a big thing. If we do those water schemes that we're doing now—thank you, Prime Minister, and thank you, Mr Leader of the Opposition, because you people have been very positive towards it—in those three towns, the water is stored and we can grow fodder so that when we get in these situations we have an answer. The fodder is there. With each of these cattle stations—all of them—their creeks and rivers run every year. We're not like the rest of Australia. Our creeks and rivers run every year. Our wet season is compressed into a tiny month or two-month period. So if you give them that, on their stations and in their towns, we can solve these problems.
I can't speak today without mentioning the reconstruction authority. In every disaster in Australian history, up to 20 years ago, the government went in. They bought the debt off the banks. The banks wanted to offload it, so the banks would give you a 70 per cent cut. Your debt was immediately cut by 30 per cent. Then you'd have government interest rates. I don't know what they are now. They were a bit under three per cent last time I looked. And that's all you'd pay. These blokes are now paying, maybe, $100,000 a year. The banks are suddenly paying about $30,000 or $25,000 a year. That's how we brought all of our industries through. I speak with great confidence because that's exactly what we did in the sugar industry when I had responsibility for the same thing.
Finally, I hope, Mr Prime Minister and Mr Leader of the Opposition, that our country has not lost its vision. Surely we can see that we can hold back a little bit of those massive floodwaters drowning Townsville, regularly drowning Ingham, and send it out onto those barren western plains, which have the best soil in the world—that's the research station talking, not me—flat, rolling, treeless black soil. I'll finish on that note. There is a vision for the future. Out of all of this hardness and trauma and heartbreak, please let us be able to see a vision for our country.
I am a born and raised Townsvillean. It is my home. I have been through our worst natural disasters. I was there during Cyclone Althea and all of the subsequent cyclones, the massive flood of the late 1970s, the 1988 flood, which was dubbed 'The Night of Noah'. But nothing can compare to the disaster and devastation of the floods we experienced last week. Townsville experienced the worst floods in our recorded history. We received a year's rainfall in nine days, with 1,134 millimetres recorded up to 9 am, Monday, 4 February 2019, reaching over 1.65 metres. The Ross River Dam reached a record-breaking 244 per cent capacity. More than 22,000 homes and 110 roads in Townsville were affected by this extreme weather event.
Over the last week, I have been visiting the residents in the areas affected by this disaster—people like Elaine from Railway Estate, whose home has been destroyed and whose irreplaceable antique family furniture has been lost, and residents on Queens Road, Hermit Park, whose livelihoods and lifetime belongings have been left in piles on the side of the road. I understand what people are going through because my mother was seriously affected as well. I understand what it is like to stand beside a loved family member as they part with their precious belongings because their home has been inundated. It becomes simply overwhelming, and the slightest thing can be the tipping point. For my mum, it was a large wooden frog that was given to her by my brother. When I said to her, 'It's destroyed, Mum; it will have to go,' she simply burst into tears. So we kept it, damaged and all.
These floods have destroyed livelihoods, but they cannot break the spirit of Townsvillean people, because after the devastation Townsville is showing just how strong and resilient we truly are. The entire community has been out helping—people taking those who have been affected by the floods into their homes without a second thought; the entire city rolling up its sleeves to get on with the massive clean-up; and businesses donating food, tarpaulins, money, goods and shelter. Our Australian Defence Force, police and ambulance services, firefighters and other emergency services, the SES, council workers and Ergon workers were out during the lead-up to the awful night, rescuing residents in very unsafe conditions. They are still out there now helping to clean up. We had two policemen who hung on, one to a tree and one to a light pole, waiting for nearly an hour to be rescued.
To my volunteers who have been out since day one helping to shift the furniture and clean enormous amounts of mould—to all of the generous volunteers—I want to say, in this place, a huge thank you, because you are what makes Townsville great. Together we will recover and together we will get through this, and we will be better than we were before.
I will make my comments brief. I was shocked to see the devastation, so widespread across the Townsville region, that was caused by these floods, particularly in areas in my electorate of Dawson. Suburbs such as Oonoonba, Idalia and Annandale were hard hit, all of them suburbs that border on the Ross River. I wonder what was going through people's heads as they saw that tragedy unfold that night. They must have been thinking that it was the worst thing they'd ever seen. As the Prime Minister and I arrived in Idalia the day after the floodwaters had receded—it was Tuesday—people were coming back to their homes and looking at the mess. We walked through a couple of homes, and they were an absolute mess. I couldn't help but think, 'What is going through their heads?'
We walked through the home of a lady with a young daughter. Her home is uninsured. Without the generous payments that state and federal governments make available, she would have to bear extra costs, and there would have been many others just like her throughout the community.
What I went to tell all those people is that there is hope. There definitely is hope. The member for Herbert has just told us about the community effort. I saw that, too, from those who were on the frontline, whether it was police; our Australian Defence Force personnel, with the 3rd Brigade led quite ably by Brigadier Scott Winter; and other emergency services personnel, whether they were paramedics, ambulance or fire brigade. People who were directly affected themselves were giving up their time, while their homes were damaged, and going out and helping others. More than that—there were volunteers. I saw young veterans out there cleaning up the homes of people they didn't even know. That is the kind of spirit that Townsvilleans and North Queenslanders have.
I went to the Calvary Christian Church, where, within one day, they had amassed what looked like a warehouse of linen, children's clothes and a whole range of other things that people may have needed in the aftermath of this event. They were inviting people to come and get that stuff for free. On top of that, they were inviting them to come in and have a meal if they couldn't prepare one at home themselves. The Salvos actually went into all of the evacuation centres and prepared all the meals for the people there. The hope was there in those communities. The Cowboys were going out on boats and rescuing people in suburbs like Idalia and Oonoonba. That stuff is priceless. That stuff is what shines through in such a terrible disaster as the one we have seen. Yes, we have spoken about it here numerous times, including all the woes of insurance—I certainly know about that, having helped my community with Cyclone Debbie. All the woes of the insurance dramas are going to come through, and this place will be watching and ensuring the right thing is done by all of those who have copped the brunt of this natural disaster. But what I say to all of those people is that there is hope—it is there in your community—and we are looking out for you, and, if help is needed, this House will surely provide it.
Mr Katter interjecting—
I wanted to mention Townsville and the northern beaches area. On the first day, when I was working on sandbagging, there was a lady who was 66 years of age—I hope she doesn't mind me mentioning that—working on one side of me and two 13-year-old kids working on the other side of me. The rest of them were miners on rostered weeks off. They worked there all day long; there was about a quarter of an acre covered in sandbags. I found it very inspirational. I congratulate and back up the member for Dawson and the member for Herbert.
I speak today on behalf of my fellow Tasmanian federal members in this place and on behalf of our communities when I say thank you to the nation. Whilst the fire emergency might be extinguished a little in Tasmania, certainly the fires are not out. Tasmania continues to burn, as we have heard from both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. But Tasmanian communities have been strong. Sadly, we've been through it before. The 1967 bushfires in Tasmania are well remembered. The bushfires over recent weeks have re-traumatised some of the communities in Tasmania.
This fire was unusual. It was unusual in that the emergency went on for 2½ to three weeks. One of the hardest things I had to do during those few weeks was go to the evacuation centre and sit and talk to the local residents. One gentleman told me he wasn't so worried about himself; he was worried about his wife, who suffered from some anxiety. The constant packing up and being on edge—every day waking up, listening to the emergency warnings, hearing about where the fire was or wasn't and the change of direction from the wind—had put his wife and him on edge. It was the unknown day in, day out. They were waking up—or actually seeing light, because, of course, they rarely slept—and not knowing what the evening before had brought and what the coming days would bring. It was: 'You can go home. You may be able to go home. You can retrieve a few more of your things if you have time. We'll close the road only one way.' It was the backwards and forwards that was really taking its toll on these individuals and their families.
On behalf of Tasmanians I want to put on record thanks for the wonderful support that we have received from all across the country and from the fire brigades from other states and overseas. Support and help has come in from all over Australia. We say thank you to Australia for the support we have received.
I want to place on record my thanks to the local mayor in my Huon Valley. She has been extraordinary. She is a new mayor. She was elected only in October. She was at the evacuation centre every day for 2½ weeks, even though she had been evacuated from her own home. She was worried about her own community. She was there making sure that people got fed and that medications, mental health support and the practical things people evacuated from their homes with no notice or little notice needed day to day were available.
It has been an extraordinary effort by the three tiers of government, particularly by local government, which has borne a lot of the burden in Tasmania. I want to say a huge thank you to the volunteer fire brigade in particular. There is a story running about one of the firemen in my electorate who missed his son's first Christmas, his son's first birthday and his wedding anniversary because as a volunteer firefighter he had been fighting fires every day since Christmas Day right through till early February.
It has been an extraordinary time in Tasmania. These fires are quite unusual. As I've said, they are now mostly under control, but they continue to burn. They also of course continue to impact the World Heritage area and the tourism and small businesses in Tasmania. Tasmanian businesses would want me to say that they're still open for business. Most of the roads in Tasmania are still open. Most of our national parks are still open. People should still come and visit Tasmania because we need you more than ever at this difficult time as we recover. We are a resilient community. As I've said, we've been through this before and we'll get through it again. Thank you.