House debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Ministerial Statements

Australian Natural Disasters

11:59 am

Photo of David LittleproudDavid Littleproud (Maranoa, National Party, Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

          12:13 pm

          Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

          I'm pleased to respond to the ministerial statement on behalf of the Australian Labor Party. Over the past 12 months, Australians have witnessed the wrath of mother nature: extreme drought, catastrophic bushfires and then the arrival on our shores of COVID-19. All three have been particularly challenging for our regional communities. During these national emergencies, Labor has acted in the national interest. We have been constructive. We have put forward ideas. I have engaged directly with the minister on these challenges. But we have had some differences and we have pointed them out as well, and we'll continue to try to improve the government's response because improvement is needed.

          With the drought, what began as a crisis for our farmers quickly became a crisis for many rural and regional towns running out of water. It also became a threat to our nation's food security. At the Bush Summit held in Dubbo last July, I offered Labor's support for drought funding for communities suffering from the devastating impact of the disaster. I did it on the spot, as the minister well knows. The Prime Minister pretended he hadn't heard or seen that happen at that time. I spoke of the tragic human consequences and praised the resilience of our farmers. I pointed to the need to respond to the science of climate change, to better manage water and provide both short-term assistance and a long-term drought strategy.

          In October I wrote to the Prime Minister proposing a special drought cabinet to get bipartisan support as a vehicle for progressing the joint effort, working together to foster consensus around the drought responses most likely to deliver success and value for taxpayers' money. My colleague the member for Hunter has led Labor's response on these issues. That idea, of a bipartisan approach, was of course rejected, and the Prime Minister chose to double down on politics instead. He created a new drought fund, but the funding wasn't new. The funding was taken, rather than being new and additional support, from the Building Australia Fund, the very fund that builds infrastructure in regional New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. It was taken from one fund to another. And, as of today, not a single cent has been spent from that fund, not a dollar. And in the minister's statement today, he announced that $100 million will flow from next financial year. But the money was there—from memory, it was around $3.9 billion. So he took $3.9 billion out of a fund, created another fund, pretended it was new, gave it a different name and then just left it there in consolidated revenue. Then we're meant to say that $100 million next financial year is enough. It's not good enough.

          By the middle of November last year, the fire situation was catastrophic. It had gone—I'd already visited northern New South Wales. I'd visited Queensland. I'd visited parts of our great country that were burning. And it was clear that there were multiple warnings about the extent to which this would be a bushfire season like we had not seen in our lifetime. And indeed that occurred. The warnings were there. The experts, the former firefighting chiefs, couldn't even get in to see the Prime Minister with these warnings. The government was complacent in spite of those warnings.

          The tragedy that occurred over the summer, with 33 deaths, with nine firefighters losing their lives, including three brave Americans who came to help us here in Australia, was tragic. Some 3,000 homes were lost and hectares were lost around the country in South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. But the whole country really impacted in WA. The whole country was impacted by the smoke. I don't think any one of our generation who saw the photos and the videos of those kids and families on the beach in Victoria or New South Wales will ever forget that. It shook this country to its core, and it did shake the government out of some of its complacency.

          Greg Mullins, the former head of New South Wales Fire and Rescue, wrote to the Prime Minister in April, May and September, and he still hadn't had a meeting at the point. I notice today that the government is announcing increased funding for aerial firefighting. That's a good thing. I wrote to the government in November last year, calling for just that. Labor went to the election in May last year calling for just that and committing to just that. It didn't come from nowhere; it came from a request from the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, which provided a business case in December 2017. But there was no response: no response during the fire crisis; no response in January, February, March or April; and no response until today. I wonder what's happened. What's changed between then and now?

          Mike Kelly has resigned as the member for Eden-Monaro. We now have ministerial statements. We now have funding for aerial firefighting. We now have a change in attitude. I've spent a bit of time in that electorate in the last few weeks but beforehand as well. I was on the ground, as the minister knows, in areas affected by fires. I did press conferences on Christmas Day and every day over December and January, talking with communities. I say that a couple of weeks ago on the day when the Deputy Premier of New South Wales was still a candidate for pre-selection for Eden-Monaro temporary accommodation pods arrived with cameras, when people had been living, and continue to live, on their land without any houses, in caravans, in temporary accommodation, as it gets colder, over this season. People were very right to be cynical was the feedback I got when I was in Merimbula, when I was in Bega, when I was in Cooma and when I was in Murrumbateman with Kristy McBain, our candidate for Eden-Monaro—a candidate who was with her community each and every day; a candidate who no-one ever rejected the opportunity to shake her hand and say thank you; and a candidate who wants to enter this place to carry on the tradition, which Mike Kelly created, of standing up for her community.

          These communities and the communities of East Gippsland, of Kangaroo Island, of the Adelaide Hills, of the North Coast of New South Wales, the communities around the Blue Mountains, which I visited with the member for Macquarie, and the communities further up the coast, which the member for Gilmore and I have visited and spoken with—so many of those communities feel like they've been forgotten. When the television cameras left, so did a lot of the political support, and they deserve better than that.

          During the coronavirus crisis, the entire Australian community has shown remarkable commitment and courage. People have stayed at home in order to help their fellow Australians. But, during the bushfire crisis, people were doing something else. Volunteers weren't just passively retreating from activity in order to protect their fellow Australians. These volunteers were running into danger to protect their fellow Australians. I'll never forget having breakfast in Bilpin and talking to the people there who'd been up on the North Coast and up in Tenterfield. They'd been fighting fires for such a long period of time. I will never forget being in the Adelaide Hills in the electorate of the member for Mayo. The fires there had devastated those communities for three weeks. Those fires had started on the North Coast of New South Wales as well. The people there moved down and helped out in the Blue Mountains, and they just kept going. These remarkable Australians cannot afford to be forgotten.

          In terms of the government, one of the times I met Kristy McBain and thought she was pretty impressive was when she came here, along with every mayor from the Canberra Region Joint Organisation of councils, which includes every council in the Eden-Monaro electorate, from East Gippsland in Victoria all the way to Goulburn. They couldn't get a meeting with the Prime Minister. It was after the focus and the spotlight had gone off. I thought that Kristy McBain was pretty impressive in that meeting. She impressed me. That is one of the memories I have that encouraged me to very much encourage her to take the next step, that step up. She was a leader of her community. She was able to advocate in a passionate and articulate way what the needs of that community were. But, in spite of their visit here, all of those mayors—I don't think any of them were Labor Party members at that time—told me that they had received support of $1 million per council. Despite the pressure those councils were under, that was the drought relief for the people on the ground.

          The area from Batemans Bay in the electorate of Gilmore, down further south, around Merimbula, around the beautiful beaches of the South Coast, as well as the areas around the Snowy, rely upon tourism as a major industry. Agriculture around Batlow and other areas has been devastated. The wineries of South Australia and the wineries around the Canberra region have been devastated. What they really needed was tourism support, but the tourism money that had been allocated in response to the bushfires was taken off them and sent interstate to areas impacted by the coronavirus. Again, rather than there being additional expenditure, that's what occurred. We are a better nation than one that takes money off communities while they're trying to recover from a crisis. Whilst many of those communities could have expected an influx of visitors and economic activity and a bit of a bounce back from the bushfire crisis, they were then hit by the coronavirus. So, it's a triple whammy.

          These people do feel forgotten, so it's a good thing, to be frank, that the government has remembered them. But we need to remember them every day, in every place—not just as a matter of politics but as a matter of humanity. That is the opposition's approach to these issues. We'll continue to advocate strongly. I look forward to having Kristy McBain in this chamber to advocate strongly on behalf of those communities that have been impacted.

          Debate adjourned.