Senate debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Ministerial Statements

Australian Natural Disasters

3:50 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

As has been noted before, and as is noted in the minister's statement, the recent summer bushfires were obviously a devastating experience for so many Australians. Tragically we saw 33 lives lost, over 3,000 homes destroyed and millions of hectares of land and forest destroyed, along with the deaths of millions of animals and other species—not to mention the incredible psychological trauma inflicted on so many Australians.

As I have done before in this chamber, I place on record the opposition's incredible gratitude towards firefighters—both professional and volunteer firefighters—all of the community groups and all of the government representatives who worked so hard over the summer, and before and after, to assist bushfire victims. But it is important, now that we are several months on from the bushfires themselves, that work continue to ensure that communities recover. From the opposition's point of view, we think that it's vital that we continue to hold the government to account on what it is doing right and what it is doing wrong in terms of bushfire recovery. We wouldn't be doing our job as the opposition if we were not holding the government to account and speaking up for the bushfire victims who are still waiting for the support that has been promised to them.

Right now, there is a hand-painted sign screwed onto the back of a ute in Bega, a town devastated by summer's bushfires. The signs read: '$2 billion bushfire fund—where is it?' 'Homes, farms, businesses are rubble and ruins. Communities and charities are helping out. The ADF has come and gone. Was that it?' 'Bushfire survivors—forgotten people.' I'm afraid to say that the sentiment expressed in those signs is one that is shared by many bushfire victims across much of the country. Obviously, a lot of attention did focus on the bushfires that were, particularly, experienced in the south-east of New South Wales and the East Gippsland region in Victoria. But we need to remember that these fires actually occurred in many, many, many parts of this country over a very long period of time. From the conversations I have been having with bushfire victims themselves, and their representatives, I have to say that many people do feel forgotten months after the fires have passed.

Right now, in many parts of the country, we are seeing bushfire victims—families—living in caravans and sheds next to the blackened remains of their homes. To give a couple of examples, Troy Pauling from Yowrie is living in a caravan with his family, metres from his ruined home. The wreckage has still not been cleared. 'The kids cry. They don't want to be here,' he says. 'If we got this cleared we'd have the ball rolling. But it's just way too slow.' Again, that sentiment is one that is widely felt—that the recovery process is way too slow.

If you listen to the government and to the Prime Minister you would think that everything was running smoothly. On Monday, just this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison praised the bushfire recovery effort of his own government as 'sensational' and 'tremendous'. I'm sorry, but that is just not the experience of so many bushfire victims. Bushfire victims are telling us that this recovery is moving too slowly. Many don't even trust that the money is actually there. I have to say that bushfire victims are right to be suspicious of the government's $2 billion National Bushfire Recovery Fund. This is the fund that the Prime Minister announced at the height of the bushfires in January, when he was under extreme political pressure. He said at the time that the funds would be ready immediately. He said that the funds would be ready to hit the ground in communities where the fire front has passed, to help them rebuild. Well, as time has gone on, unfortunately we've been able to see that the Prime Minister's promise has not been real. At Senate estimates not that long ago we were able to expose that this $2 billion fund is simply a notional fund—it may or may not be paid; it may or may not exist. That is not what bushfire victims heard in January when the Prime Minister made his promise. And just this week we finally received answers to questions on notice that we had lodged, which revealed that less than $260 million from the $2 billion Bushfire Recovery Fund has actually been paid out, months after the bushfires. Only one-in-eight dollars of the money promised from this bushfire fund has actually been delivered. With such an underwhelming recovery effort, it is no wonder the bushfire victims feel forgotten by the Prime Minister and his government.

But, recently, something has changed. Just this week in parliament we've seen a sudden flurry of activity in the bushfire recovery space. On Monday, the Prime Minister and the emergency management minister spruiked new announcements from the National Bushfire Recovery Fund, and, today, Minister Littleproud has re-announced additional funding for the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, which the Prime Minister confirmed over four months ago. It is almost as if some political event is emerging, something in a bushfire-affected region that has prompted the government to finally recognise that they need to get moving with the bushfire recovery. It has prompted the government to recognise that they have not done enough—that they haven't lived up to the promises that they made to people. Is it remotely possible that a by-election in the electorate of Eden-Monaro is what has prompted the government, all of a sudden, to recognise that bushfire victims do need help? Is it a by-election in Eden-Monaro that has prompted the government to finally listen to the complaints of bushfire victims, the complaints that we have aired and have been accused of politicking for having aired them? If there is any politicking going on, it is the sudden interest that this government is showing in bushfire recovery now that we are facing a by-election in Eden-Monaro.

We can't see this government's failure to prepare for the bushfires repeated, when it comes to bushfire recovery. We know, again from Senate estimates, that the Prime Minister and his government were warned on multiple occasions about how severe the bushfires would be, prior to their hitting, and they continued to fail to take action. We can't see that repeated with the recovery. It is vital that we give bushfire victims the support that they need. It is simply unacceptable that months after the bushfires hit, as winter approaches in some of the coldest parts of our country, bushfire victims remain living in caravans and sheds, waiting for rubble to be removed so that they can just begin the process of rebuilding. Whether it be a by-election or any other reason, the government has got to make a decision that it will take this bushfire recovery seriously, that it will dedicate serious resources to it and that they, at last, will get over this temptation they always have to be full of marketing, full of promises and full of spin. Enough of the spin, enough of the marketing; it's time to get on with real action for bushfire victims to help them with their recovery.

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