House debates

Monday, 18 February 2019


Queensland: Floods

11:29 am

Photo of Cathy O'TooleCathy O'Toole (Herbert, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) Townsville has experienced the worst floods in recorded history;

(b) Townsville received a year's rainfall in nine days, with 1,134 millimetres recorded up to 9 am on Monday 4 February 2019, reaching over 1.65 metres;

(c) the Ross River Dam reached a record breaking 244 per cent capacity; and

(d) more than 22,000 homes and 110 roads in Townsville were affected by this extreme weather event;

(2) acknowledges the:

(a) professional and skilled work undertaken by the Townsville Local Disaster Management Group;

(b) dedicated and collaborative work undertaken by the Australian Defence Force (ADF), Emergency Services and State Emergency Services (SES) in rescuing stranded residents in dangerous circumstances;

(c) commitment and hard work of the ADF in the massive recovery clean-up process; and

(d) amazing work of the SES, Ergon Energy, Townsville City Council workers, businesses and the thousands of community volunteers for their efforts to assist the many people whose homes were inundated; and

(3) calls on the Government to end the confusion related to the disaster recovery payment and assist the thousands of distressed Townsville residents during this difficult time.

This has been a very difficult time for the people of Townsville. Just imagine a wall of water about the same height as me coming towards you and your home. What Townsville has experienced is truly unbelievable. We've gone from a dam that was well down to a dam with record-breaking 244 per cent capacity. People's livelihoods, their belongings and their homes have all been destroyed.

Last week, the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, and I visited the Townsville RSL. I was shocked to see the extensive damage to one of the largest RSL clubs in Australia. Around half a metre of water had rushed through the lower level of the building. The carpets and many of the club's awards, historical memorabilia and artefacts had been destroyed by the water and/or mould.

Before coming to Canberra for the past week of sittings, and over the weekend, I visited many residents, assisting in the clean-up and helping people to access disaster relief funding and make their insurance claims. It was heartbreaking to visit residents whose household goods and belongings had been piled up on the footpath because their houses were covered in water, mud, mould or sewage. On top of that, I heard one consistent message: people had been denied the federal government disaster recovery payment. This shocked and angered me, because I could see the devastation of people's homes. I could smell the mud and the mould and the sewage. I walked across muddy floorboards. I asked myself the question: how is it that Townsville residents are being denied assistance when they need it most?

The more people and homes I visited, the more complaints I heard, and they were from people who lived in the red zone. Their homes and possessions had been destroyed but they were denied federal government assistance. I am talking about people like Cherrie Vitali. Cherrie lives on Queens Road in Hermit Park. The water came up and into her home. There was mud everywhere. I saw her damaged washing machine and other whitegoods on the footpath. If the LNP government doesn't believe me then there is plenty of evidence to show that this is a fact. Cherrie was so angry that she used one of her flood-damaged tables to express her outrage at being denied the LNP government disaster relief money that is rightfully hers.

Cherrie is just one of many. I visited Elaine in Railway Estate. She lives in an old, two-storey Queenslander. Her pool was full of mud and sewage. Her entire bottom floor was covered with water. Her irreplaceable family antique furniture had been ruined. Elaine has also been denied the disaster recovery money, because this LNP government has put restrictions on the principal place of residence. Because Elaine's bedroom and kitchen were on the top level, the damaged ground level was not recognised as part of the house and Elaine was not able to claim the federal government assistance.

I also visited an Aboriginal family in Roberts Street, Hermit Park, and this was very distressing. The family of two parents and four children, who had relatives visiting from Normanton, were renting a Queensland Housing flat. One of their visitors was blind. The water had come up past their windows and they'd had no power for six days. The mud smelled and the mould was growing. They had lost everything. The Salvation Army had delivered beds, and the family were waiting to be relocated. They had a very small esky with some ice and soft drinks but very little food. They were denied assistance because they reported that the water came through their window. Unfortunately, they did not understand what 'inundated' meant.

What sort of nonsensical and nonsense response was that? Why were they not entitled? It shouldn't matter how the water came in—through your front door or back door, through the roof or through the window. The fact remains that the water came into their home and they lost everything. Surely, if water comes in through a window, it has come in through the doorway first in a flood situation. In this case, clearly, it is not so for the LNP government.

There was then Theresa and Tony at Kirwan, who have three times been denied any federal assistance due to the water not being deemed as 'rising water'. There is Tarnie of Cranbrook, who was also told she was not eligible. That was even though she had water coming through her windows, her carpets were flooded and she had lost her furnishings. She was told that she was ineligible because she was not in one of the marked flooded areas. Well, here's a thought: water doesn't always follow flood maps. There was Brett in Stuart, who has described having a waterfall through his house; but he was not eligible. He has no idea why he was ineligible.

During a time of natural disaster, people are stressed and they need help immediately. Just to help this LNP government understand that, there are people in my community who have no home, no food and no electricity—they have nothing. This disaster relief funding is not there for the government to be stingy; it is there to help people in distress immediately. These restrictions are not the fault of Centrelink staff. These restrictions are purely the fault of the federal government. Labor understands that when you experience a natural disaster and you lose your home and belongings then you need immediate assistance. That is why, under Labor in 2011, after Cyclone Yasi, we made it easy for Townsville residents to be able to access the help that they needed immediately. Labor's disaster relief funding was simple to access. If you were locked in or could not access your home for 24 hours, you received vital assistance. If you had no power for more than 48 hours, you received vital assistance. It was just that simple.

This LNP government set out the following restrictions for the people of Townsville: you had to be seriously injured; you or an immediate family member had to have died; there needed to be major damage to at least 25 per cent of the interior of your principal place of residence; your principal place of residence had to be breached, exposing at least 25 per cent of the interior of your residence to the elements; or your principal place of residence had been declared structurally unsound. That is a very stingy set of criteria.

After a massive backlash, the LNP government decided to make some changes, but the criteria were still completely unreasonable for flood affected victims. Townsville residents still have to prove that floodwater has covered the interior floor of their principal place of residence—and this is a problem when you live in a two-storey building—even if their principal place of residence has been declared structurally unsound, which is why Elaine in Railway Estate is still excluded because of the government's strict eligibility requirements. How does someone not eligible when she lives in the worst affected area, her pool was destroyed and her entire bottom floor and all her belongings in it were destroyed?

This LNP Prime Minister was making updates to the eligibility via Twitter, leaving Townsville residents frustrated and confused. The Department of Human Services' staff were also confused. I am angry on behalf of my community. So far, 17,466 people have signed a petition against this government's ridiculous restrictions, which hurt Townsville's residents during our time of need. There is then the LNP's out-of-touch requirements regarding proof of eligibility. Under Labor in 2011, residents were just required to show their Medicare card and their driver's licence. Under the LNP government, you must provide evidence of damage, including photos. This is very difficult for some people who had no power, no access to power recharge their batteries to take the photos on their mobile phones or no access to cameras.

If you are a Townsville resident, you cannot walk into one of the Centrelink offices to ask for assistance with processing. That's because we only have a line to Melbourne to ask for assistance. This is an absolute joke and an absolute slap in the face to the Townsville Centrelink staff, who do a remarkable job every day. But those staff have been forced to make decisions for residents that are not at all helpful to the people in my community.

I am asking the LNP government to, please, not kick us when we are down. Townsville survived 1.65 metres of water. We don't need the LNP's ludicrous restrictions. What we do need is an LNP government to take immediate action to remove the restrictions and employ more Centrelink staff. Labor has committed to 200 more Centrelink staff for Townsville, and now is the time for the LNP government to match Labor's climate and get the resources and staff on the ground to help the people of Townsville who have been affected by these devastating floods.

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is there a seconder?

Photo of Susan LambSusan Lamb (Longman, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion moved by the member for Herbert and reserve my right to speak.

11:40 am

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I come in here not to make any political statement, but, unfortunately, what we have just heard from the member for Herbert is a disgrace using politically the disaster that occurred up in North Queensland that people are still recuperating from as a political attack. She should hang her head in shame. She should be on her knees and asking forgiveness for all of those people who have been through this natural disaster. To come into his place and use that for cheap political point-scoring is absolutely disgusting. You should be ashamed of that, Cathy—very, very ashamed.

I will make this call to all of those people that she's just named as being knocked back by Centrelink. I'm getting calls like that about the state government administration, about Centrelink administration. I tell you what I've done as the local member for areas affected, such as Idalia, Oonoonba, Annandale and Giru. I have gone and contacted those people and I have helped them actually get the payment they deserve. To all of those people who were named bid the member for Herbert, who obviously is not doing her job helping these people: if you live in Dawson or if you live in Herbert, contact my office: 0749440662. If water has come into your home, you are eligible and we will get you the payment that you deserve. Forget about the member for Herbert; she just wants cheap political point-scoring. We will get you the payment that you deserve and we will help you with your insurance queries. I've got to say the LNP candidate for Herbert, Phillip Thompson, would also be interested in talking to people in the Herbert electorate.

This is a shocking event that we went through up there. I walked through the home of Samantha Doyle, a young mother, with the Prime Minister. There was, I would guess, about a metre of water—maybe a bit less than that—that had gone through her home. It had left mud and muck everywhere. It looked like it was sewage contaminated water that had gone through the home. She was uninsured. You saw the human heartache there that impacted upon that young family. What you have to think is that the key facts of this is that the council has advised that the flood levels here were greater than a one-in-500-years flood event, not just a one-in-100-years event. In some parts, rainfall recorded at a 1 in 2,000-years level. The height of the Ross River Dam surpassed anything that we have ever seen, up to almost 250 per cent. And you have to say that dam did a pretty good job, given it got up to that level.

There's been a lot of focus on Townsville. I want to mention the communities in my electorate. Giru was flooded. They are often forgotten but not forgotten by me. I went down there and talked to residents there. I'm going to be helping some, particularly the community kindergarten. I also understand the police are still searching for a man missing at Groper Creek after the boat he was travelling in crashed near a jetty close to Hinkson Esplanade. My thoughts are with the family and friends of that man. I guess that we're all starting to worry about his safety and wellbeing at this late stage.

Thoughts are with the smaller communities both north and south of Townsville and also out west, where the disaster is still unfolding. The facts are that the government has provided $1.9 million in community recovery payments. That's payments that have been made. Sixteen thousand applications for assistance have been made. Most of those have been approved. Again, my office is keen to help those who are finding it difficult. That's what local members are there for. As of this morning, insurance companies have received 13,560 claims, with losses estimated at $165 million. They have already paid out more than $16 million in support and emergency accommodation. That's good, but I have heard from some people that they are getting a raw deal from their insurers with the wording of the policies and not covering tiles and things like that. Again, my office is here to help. This nation is watching, this place is watching and I am carefully watching what these insurance companies do. We will be acting for flood victims against insurers.

The one bright light out of this terrible event is the community support. The North Queensland Cowboys, for instance, went out and lent a hand, along with a lot of other boaties at that time. We had John Asiata and Antonio Winterstein, who used their boats, along with a flotilla of other boats from the community, to go out and rescue people from their houses, which had just started to become inundated. The Salvation Army's emergency services section served hundreds of meals across three evacuation centres to residents that had to evacuate their homes from more than 20 suburbs. We had the Red Cross out there on the ground helping people.

We had volunteers from the Seventh-day Adventist Development and Relief Agency filling a thousand sandbags for local residents. The Catholic Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Townsville, Tim Harris, who's own home was inundated, went out of his way to help others. He made some comments recently praising the efforts of the community, working together, including the Army, the police, the council and even the local paper. He described the story he heard of an 80-year-old man who had grown 'these beautiful flowers that he'd nurtured'. When rescuers came to evacuate him from the home, the man was reluctant to leave the flowers. What the old fellow said, the bishop relates, was, 'Cut that flower for me; it's too beautiful to leave.' I met up with people at Calvary Christian Church—Reverend James MacPherson and Renee Vucetic, who were providing a collection centre of goods for families affected by floods to come and collect the stuff they needed, like linen and towels and some things like that, and they also provided free meals to the people in the community that needed it. So our Christian churches really stood up and did a great community effort.

Commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Judd Finger and 92 Army personnel from the amphibious 2 RAR rescued more than 400 people from flooded homes in Idalia. Lance Corporal Sean Price, who worked with Senior Constable Ben Pearson from the Queensland Police Service, rescued hundreds of people, only to return home to find that his own home had been flooded. Thirty-one Team Rubicon members—ex-Army or Defence Force personnel—flew up from places like Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and the Gold Coast to bolster the numbers of their Townsville branch helping people. Ingham helicopter pilot Josh Liddle spent two weeks in Hobart fighting bushfires and then returned home to help Townsville residents with flood relief. Alicia Populin and her family took 16 families into their two-storey home. More than 60 people were accommodated, as well as their cats, dogs and guinea pigs. The community support for their neighbours was tremendous.

Tow truck driver Steve Gurney pulled 15 cars to safety, all without charge. Tracie Davis Nieass opened her beauty salon for evacuees to get dry and warm in, and she also manned an impromptu evacuation and support centre at Annandale. Ryan Lacaze, who rides his jet ski to raise money for children's charities, put his machine to another good use, rescuing people who were caught in the rising water. Zane Biffanti and his neighbour Scott responded to pleas for help on social media with their kayak. Bushland Beach resident Ashley D'Silva and her friends rescued more than a dozen pets from Idalia and Fairfield. Teenager Trayeden Fulmer started a Facebook page to rally volunteers. He ran a crew as a 16-year-old, or a teenager, rather, of about 60 volunteers, including one of his teachers from Kirwan State High School. Dozens of doctors volunteered. We had residents from Innisfail help, like Inderjit Singh, who rallied volunteers from the UNITED SIKHS. Some even flew in from Melbourne to assist in Townsville. Businesses like the Pavilion Cafe, the Warfighter Cafe, Adani, PVW, The Coffee Club, Domino's and Fasta Pasta all helped.

To recognise these people for the great community work that they and so many others did, I've launched a flood hero website,, where people can go on and nominate someone who was a flood hero. My office will be in contact with the people who nominate. We want to officially recognise these people who've done so much for their community.

11:50 am

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As Australians we are fortunate, I believe, to live in the best country in the world. As many Australians know, when natural disaster strikes the consequences and impacts on peoples lives, homes, families and communities can be cruel. We only need to look back at recent times—our nation has seen more than its fair share of floods and fires that have had devastating impacts right across our country.

I thank the member for Herbert for raising this important motion, and note that her community and the member for Dawson's community have been particularly hard-hit over the past couple of weeks, with Townsville experiencing the region's worst floods in recorded history. Included in the thousands and thousands of homes that have been affected was the member for Herbert's home. Her mother's home was also flooded.

These floods exceeded expectations set by experts on what they said would occur in a once in 100-year flood event. The water levels were higher, the rain was more intense and the impacts were far greater than anyone had expected. Regrettably, the floods have claimed three lives. Very sadly, the first of two men, both in their early 20s, was discovered in a stormwater drain near the Aitkenvale Library on Tuesday 5 February. Another life was also taken as receding floodwaters left people exposed to disease, through a soil born bacteria that was stirred up by heavily contaminated floodwaters. I know every member of this House sends their condolences to those individuals and their loved ones.

This is still very much an active situation, with authorities warning residents to be careful when cleaning flood affected buildings. They've advised people not to walk through dirty water, to clean wounds after being in the water and to wear protective clothing with boots and gloves to minimise the chances of further lives being lost.

Thousands of people have been unable to return to their homes, with the State Emergency Service receiving almost 1,200 calls for help in the 40 hours at the peak of the situation. Townsville received a year's rainfall in nine days—a year's rainfall in nine days—with 1,134mm recorded up to 9.00 am on Monday 4 February 2019, reaching over 1.65 metres. This included a staggering 1.8 metres of rain falling in the suburb of Upper Bluewater in just seven days—amounts of rainfall that we simply cannot fathom.

However, it is the stories of people and families on the ground—as we heard from the member of Dawson and the member for Herbert—who lost everything that reveal the true damage inflicted. There are stories like that of Dr Michael Clements, who established his medical practice in Townsville. Prior to this, when he checked the area's flood history—he hired surveyors and spoke to the council—they all said there was little to worry about. However, after floodwater came through the Fairfield Central shopping centre and Dr Clements and other shop owners attempted to lodge insurance claims, most found their policies did not cover floods. I know this is something that all members of this House will be carefully following. Dr Clements said:

We as a family heavily invested in Townsville and … we thought Idalia was an ideal suburb and environment. We certainly did look at the flood history. We talked to our conveyancers and solicitors and planners. They said you’re well above the level, so flood is not a predictable and regular occurrence.

There are many, many more stories like this.

In the clean-up of this event, I call on insurance companies to be compassionate when dealing with and assisting claims. If there is an opportunity to help people who are in dire need, it should be done. On that note, I wish to echo the words of the member for Herbert and other previous speakers and acknowledge the professional, dangerous and skilled work undertaken by the Townsville Local Disaster Management Group, the ADF, the SES, Ergon Energy, and, of course, the Townsville City Council, which did a magnificent job, led by mayor Jenny Hill, who has been on the frontline of the disaster every single day, helping residents and businesses get back on their feet.

I also want to congratulate, and acknowledge the work of, the Palaszczuk state government, who were quick to act to ensure the region was as prepared as possible for this major flooding event. They've also been leading the way in a massive recovery effort, including $10.48 million in emergency hardship assistance which has benefited almost 60,000 people, and more than 300 community recovery workers on the ground in Townsville, Cloncurry, Julia Creek, Hughenden and Winton.

When times are tough, Queenslanders get behind each other. We roll up our sleeves and get the work done. It's true Queenslanders are a remarkable bunch of people, but it is perhaps in the toughest times that the true Queensland spirit shines. My thoughts are with all of those rebuilding their lives. I know this parliament, and every member of this parliament, will continue to help those people get back on their feet.

11:55 am

Photo of Michelle LandryMichelle Landry (Capricornia, National Party, Assistant Minister for Children and Families) Share this | | Hansard source

Across our lives, we have seen remarkable weather events, whether they be fires, floods, cyclones or droughts. Each time we experience one, we can hardly believe it—or the raw power Mother Nature can deliver. Recently, in the north of Queensland, we have seen such an event. This was a devastating event, with many areas from Townsville to Cloncurry smashing previous records of seven-day rain totals. Many areas received well over one metre of rain in a week—houses ruined, property lost, lives lost, livestock lost, and flooding in previously high and dry areas.

Like in any natural disaster, the shock of the event and the devastating damage take an instant toll on those involved. While the fallout in Townsville has been severe, the devastation in rural areas in the north-west was the focal point for the fallout from this tropical low. Hundreds of graziers in the north-west had the euphoria of drought-breaking rains when a tropical low came to dump bulk moisture on the drought-ravaged lands of the Flinders and upper Diamantina catchments. Entering a seventh year of drought, nothing could have been sweeter than a couple of days of good soaking rain. Euphoria soon turned to fear as flooding began, with the tropical low simply refusing to move and continuing to dump heavy rain. Many experienced weather-watchers say they've never seen a weather pattern like this.

Any cattleman will tell you that cattle can handle floods. In a bad flood, you might loss a few head, but most will float downstream and turn up when the water drops and neighbours start the post-flood muster. This event was much more than just a flood, though. This was a week-long onslaught of rain, with heavy cloud cover and wind—strong, continuous, buffeting winds. It was nothing like the normally hot, dry conditions of the tropical interior. Tropical cattle breeds are very well suited to tropical conditions, but a week of standing in water with the wind blowing and no tree cover is a recipe for disaster. Estimates suggest hundreds of thousands of head of cattle now lie dead in paddocks across the region. This is obviously devastating for families who not only love their animals but rely on them for their livelihoods. Families across the north are now left wondering whether all manner of household bills will be able to be covered and whether they can stay in business at all.

On the matter of household costs, I took part in a recent meeting between independent schools and the Isolated Children's Parents' Association regarding very big concerns about school fees. In rural and remote areas, the option of boarding school is often taken as the only feasible manner for kids to get a decent education, due to the tyranny of distance. When things get tough, like they are now for so many in the north, costs become difficult to cover, and school fees often become a bridge too far for country families. It would be awful to see these families have to remove their children from school because of this catastrophic flood. The flow-on effects would be long felt in these rural and remote communities if these children's life options narrowed. I congratulate the ICPA on their constant support for rural kids and their education, and I trust this meeting will lead to something positive in the coming weeks.

Government always plays a role in recovery. It has swung into action quickly, delivering physical support through mobilising the military, and it has already delivered more than $42 million in recovery funding. It is vital there are not undue hold-ups in delivering recovery funding. Processes have improved to help communities get back on their feet more quickly. Over 40,000 calls for assistance have been answered, with financial support and coordinated efforts delivering support across the north.

Regardless of the government's understanding and support, recovery always comes down to local communities. To see our Prime Minister visit Cloncurry last week donning a cap from a local trucking company owned by the Pratt family, it was obvious the community is fragile. But the community is resilient. I am sure that, while there are difficult times ahead for beef producers across the state and while the communities on the northern line have a great deal of recovery to do, they will do it. They will recover and be stronger than ever, and I look forward to seeing them do it.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.