Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 September 2017


Cyclone Debbie

8:49 pm

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak on behalf of Queenslanders who've been let down by the Turnbull government. Specifically I want to talk about how the Turnbull government has let down Queensland local councils. Whether it was the freezing of the Financial Assistance Grants for years, the inaction on the NDRRA funding or leaving regional Queensland to fend for itself when it comes to digital connectivity, the Turnbull government has left local Queensland councils and regional Queenslanders behind. The way in which communities in regional Queensland have been treated time and again by this rabble of a government can only be described as abhorrent. Queensland—the Sunshine State, the Smart State—has been left in the lurch again.

The estimated damage caused to many Central Queensland communities by Cyclone Debbie is astronomical. According to international reinsurer Munich Re, Tropical Cyclone Debbie was the second largest natural disaster in the world in the first half of 2017, with overall losses of US$2.7 billion and insured losses estimated to be US$1.4 billion. The burden felt by business and the broader community is reflected in the latest Sensis Business Index report, showing a sharp drop in confidence among small and medium businesses in regional Queensland in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Debbie.

We often hear from those opposite that they support small business. Indeed, one of the Treasurer's favourite taglines is, 'Small business is the engine room of our economy.' But what did this government do? They abandoned small business in North Queensland and Central Queensland. They abandoned Queenslanders. They abandoned the very people who ensured their electoral survival. They do not commit themselves to restoring prosperity in regional Queensland and, in doing so, they admit that they do not care about regional Queensland.

Just over a year ago, the Prime Minister sent us all onto the election hustings for one of the longest and most enduring election campaigns in Australia's recent history. He promised Queenslanders jobs and growth, but what he has delivered suggests otherwise. He delivered a tax cut for millionaires and a tax hike for working people. He delivered cuts to school funding. He delivered a slower and more expensive NBN. He delivered a cut to the wages of Australia's lowest paid workers. He delivered for himself and for himself alone. He certainly hasn't delivered for Queensland.

Here we have a situation where the federal government is short-changing people off the back of Cyclone Debbie. All Central Queensland LNP MPs should have intervened much earlier in the wake of this disaster. They should have reached a concrete agreement with the federal government to revitalise towns affected by the storm. On the day, they were happy to take photos and smile with the victims of the disaster, but when it comes to rebuilding our communities, they're noticeably absent.

The situation became so serious that the Local Government Association of Queensland took the extraordinary step of writing to the Prime Minister to request a meeting to discuss his government's gross mishandling of disaster relief funding for the Whitsunday, Mackay and Rockhampton regional councils. The mayors of the three affected councils, along with the LGAQ, all called on the Prime Minister to immediately revisit the affected areas to see just how important these projects are to the people in these communities. When it comes to funding councils—the governments who are on the ground—this government continues to play catch-up. I wrote a number of times in regional newspapers about how beneficial unfreezing the indexation of the Financial Assistance Grants for local councils would be for our regional communities. I'm pleased to say that, after a mammoth campaign from the Australian Local Government Association and Labor MPs like Stephen Jones, the government changed its tune and supported our position.

Hopefully we will eventually see a similar outcome for this disaster relief funding. The Queensland government has already said it will stump up $110 million for disaster relief through the NDRRA. That's a commitment. All Queenslanders are asking for is for Mr Turnbull to match the commitment—not match a quarter of that commitment, not match half of that $110 million commitment; match the whole commitment, dollar for dollar. I note that the Prime Minister recently announced an extra $18 million for reconstruction in Central Queensland, but I also note that the head of the Local Government Association of Queensland last week again called on the Prime Minister to match the Palaszczuk government's $110 million package. He indicated that the extra funding would only go part of the way to meeting Canberra's responsibilities under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. He made the point that this decision should be above politics, and that we're talking about getting regional economies back on their feet. It's interesting that he made that point, because it's similar to the point that the mayor of Mackay Regional Council made to me on this particular issue when I met with him on 17 July.

I note also that Greg Williamson, the mayor, went much further. Later, a few days after I met with him, he commented on the Turnbull government's initial response to the NDRRA funding, which was extremely disappointing. That response from the Prime Minister indicated that they are not going to match the funding because there has not been enough evidence provided to establish the need for the measure. Greg Williamson made the comment:

To say there is no damage is outright lies. The community has got to pay for the damage somehow. Nobody can believe the Feds would play this game at this stage.

That's typical of what we are up against. Mr Hallam, from the LGAQ, called on Mr Turnbull to match the Queensland government's funding. This could be over in an instant. It could be a done deal. We could have more jobs, more investment and more infrastructure across Central Queensland, but we don't. It looks like the federal government is expecting Queenslanders to foot the remainder of the bill.

The same thing happened last year when Mr Turnbull was dragged kicking and screaming to help pay for recovery efforts in the wake of cyclones Oswald, Marcia and Ita. Queenslanders shouldn't have to go through this every time there is a natural disaster. In January this year 34 regional councils were exposed to a plant and equipment hire risk from disasters in 2013-14. This government refused to reimburse councils for work undertaken to the tune of $3.63 million. Most of the councils at risk of exposure were some of our smallest and underresourced councils—like Barcoo, Winton, Barcaldine, Longreach, Blackall-Tambo and Boulia. Again, the Queensland Labor government quickly and effectively committed to ensuring councils received the appropriate funding under the NDRRA. The federal government at that time remained missing in action. The angst in these communities has only been exacerbated by the complete lack of response from the Prime Minister, the minister responsible, Minister Keenan, and their offices.

This is telling of a government that's more concerned with factional infighting than the livelihoods of the people they purport to represent. The government's response to disaster relief applications from the Queensland government is absolutely shameful. It shows a complete lack of understanding by the government of the significance of the effect Cyclone Debbie had on these communities. The three councils have spent a lot of time and resources compiling scoping documents, master plans and engineering reports to support these priority projects, yet Justice Minister Keenan said the application was not worth the paper it was written on.

More than four months after the event, these communities should not be the subject of this level of uncertainty. This government's total lack of empathy along with its inability to resolve the category D application issue speaks volumes about its inability to govern. These communities are not being treated fairly. Many have been funded for category D in the past. In 2013 the federal government approved a Newman government application for Bundaberg in two days, with a letter and a three-page table, and that was an agreement to cost-share $121.6 million of a $248 million package.

If you go back to 2011, there was $20 million approved by the federal government to fund the Toowoomba flood mitigation project; $18 million for relocation of Grantham; $15 million for the Cassowary Coast support package, including $9.5 million for Cardwell foreshore; and $145 million approved for Brisbane ferry terminals and riverwalk replacement. That occurred in 2011. The difference back in 2011 was that we had a federal Labor government, a government that delivered for Queenslanders and a government that Queenslanders could rely on.

The Turnbull government has left regional Queensland behind. Whether it was freezing of regional assistance grants, failure to help with disaster funding or failure to provide decent communication services, regional Queenslanders and their local councils have been let down. It is about time we had a federal government that had the back of these local councils.


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