Senate debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019


Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019, Emergency Response Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019; Second Reading

9:31 am

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | Hansard source

I'll take the interjection from Senator Smith. One of the other benefits that are very often said to arise from investing in mitigation is that it is something that can put downward pressure on insurance premiums. I know Senator Green in particular has done a lot of work recently in northern Australia to highlight the exorbitant premiums that northern Australians have to pay. In fact, many people in North Queensland have difficulty even getting insurance in the first place. The more that we can invest in mitigation and reduce the impact of disasters, the more it is likely that some moderation will be put on insurance premium rises into the future.

As I say, Labor has called for further investment in mitigation for some time. We're not alone in doing that. A range of stakeholders have called for the government to make greater investment in disaster mitigation—everyone from insurers through local governments to the Productivity Commission, which handed down an important report on this matter in 2014. Just in the last fortnight we heard the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, APRA, also call for greater investment in helping communities prepare for and protect against the effects of natural disasters.

I'm happy to foreshadow that the opposition will be moving a number of amendments to the bill which have been agreed with the government. Under the commitments that we have extracted from the government, the government will increase the funding available under its proposed Emergency Response Fund from $150 million a year, which is what was in the original bill, to $200 million per year. As a result of that commitment, we have an increase of $50 million per annum to be spent by the government on disaster matters. More importantly, the government has agreed that that extra $50 million will be dedicated to improving disaster preparedness by funding a range of risk reduction works. That's a 33 per cent increase in the funds available that Labor has secured. This guarantees funding for mitigation works before the disasters hit. That extra $50 million could be used to pay for flood levees, seawalls, firebreaks and other infrastructure, which would reduce the financial and emotional toll of future disasters on residents, businesses and taxpayers.

Just to be clear, the bill in its original form established a new emergency response fund which would allocate up to $150 million per year for disaster recovery payments, for disaster recovery works. That will increase to $200 million as a result of the commitments that Labor has secured. The extra $50 million will go towards disaster preparedness or mitigation. That's an important improvement on the original bill, because, although the bill as it was originally structured did allow for spending from the Emergency Response Fund for mitigation works, that spending would occur only after a disaster hit. It always seemed to the opposition to be an absurd proposition that this fund would be used to build flood levees, cyclone shelters, fire breaks and other kinds of things, but only after a flood or cyclone or a bushfire had hit. By making these amendments we're making a distinct improvement to the bill by making sure not only that more funds will be available but that those funds can build the flood levees, seawalls, firebreaks and other things before a disaster hits, and therefore actually save money and save the emotional toll of these disasters into the future. Labor believes that, as a result of the commitments that we've extracted from the government, Australian communities will be better prepared to face the threats from natural disasters both this summer and summers—or winters, for that matter, if natural disasters hit then—into the future.

The other commitment that Labor has extracted from the government is a commitment to a new $50 million investment to upgrade TAFE facilities, to be matched by participating states and territories. Labor, along with a range of other stakeholders, has obviously been critical of this government's cuts to skills, to TAFE funding and to TAFE infrastructure across the country. We've managed to extract a commitment from the government to a new $50 million investment to upgrade TAFE facilities. That will be matched by participating states and territories. After years of federal government neglect, this funding which has been secured by Labor will be an important shot in the arm for TAFE facilities around Australia.

On the basis of those commitments around the amendments to this bill regarding disaster mitigation, and on the basis of the additional commitment in relation to upgrading TAFE facilities, Labor will support the government's Emergency Response Fund Bill in the Senate today, with those amendments that I have foreshadowed.

The other point that I should make is that this bill, as well as establishing the new Emergency Response Fund, among another things abolishes the Education Investment Fund. This is not something Labor is happy about. In fact, this is the third attempt that the government has made to close the Education Investment Fund, having previously tried to do so to establish the Asset Recycling Fund and to fund what it said were shortfalls in NDIS funding. The Education Investment Fund was an important creation of the Rudd and Gillard governments which did fund university and TAFE facilities around the country. We remain extremely disappointed and we think it's a retrograde step for the government to abolish this Education Investment Fund. But in light of the commitments that we have secured from the government in relation to disaster mitigation funding and an increased quantum for the emergency fund overall, in addition to the new commitment around TAFE investment, on balance we believe that the bill should be supported, with those amendments that I have foreshadowed. I look forward to making additional contributions later in the debate.


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