Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Australian Natural Disasters
I want to make some reflections on some issues arising out of the natural disasters which are currently affecting our country. As we speak in this place, large parts of particularly the Murray-Darling Basin are under water and we need to ponder the role that the Commonwealth can play in improving the lot of Australians who find themselves in that very difficult position. I want to touch on two key areas in improving the Commonwealth's contribution towards that kind of resilience: firstly, the question of how we alert Australians to impending natural disasters or other disasters and, secondly, how we generally make ourselves more resilient in the face of disaster of one sort or another.
It has been a number of years since the Commonwealth invested heavily in new technology that allows the sending of messages to both landline and mobile telephones to alert people to the fact that there is a disaster unfolding in an area close to them. The Emergency Alert system has been put in place through a very significant Commonwealth investment—some $26 million to build and design a system that allows people to have early warning of problems. In the wake of the Victorian bushfire disaster in 2009, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to develop a telephone based emergency warning system. Western Australia already had a system of its own and it has stuck with that system, but it is a very similar system. Emergency Alert became operational on 1 December 2009 and has been very valuable. It had been used some 344 times up until January this year and has issued some 7.2 million messages. The Commonwealth is putting more money into the system to enhance it by providing a capacity for the messaging to go not merely to landlines and mobile phones that appear to be within a particular area based on where they are registered but to mobile phones that are actually within an area potentially affected by a disaster of some sort. For example, members of this chamber have telephones registered to the Department of Finance and Deregulation, which is in Parkes, ACT. But if a member had their phone and was located in an area of the country which was not close to Parkes ACT, they probably would not get a message alerting them to an impending disaster in that area. The government, therefore, is investing in a process—and it is working with the Victorian government to do so—to ensure that messages will go to mobile phones in the affected area. That is a significant improvement, and I commend the government on that attempt.
But we need to be alert to the fact that there are still problems with our Emergency Alert system which need to be addressed. For example, last year there was a major fire at a chemical factory in Mitchell in the ACT, where the Emergency Alert system apparently substantially failed. It was reported that some 80 per cent of the emergency phone calls programmed by ACT Emergency Services were never made and that 32 per cent of the text messages programmed to be sent by Emergency Alert were never sent. As it turned out, the fumes from the Mitchell fire were not particularly toxic and did not greatly affect the safety of animals or people who were not alerted to this fire and the fumes it generated, but it might have been different and we need to ask ourselves whether we can afford that kind of failure rate in any system. The debate about who was responsible for that goes on. The Commonwealth have certainly made it clear that they consider that some failure on the part of ACT Emergency Services contributed to the system's failure, but that is a debate for another day.
We need to make sure that every technological intervention is used that might assist in solving the problem of reaching people in affected areas, and we need to make sure that Australia invests in that system to an adequate level to ensure that everybody is covered who can be covered. It is the case at the moment, for example, that only one telephone company, Telstra, has actually reached an agreement with the Victorian government on behalf of other Australian governments to ensure that their customers receive location based emergency messages in the event of a crisis. It concerns me greatly that customers of other telephone companies at this point in time may not receive a message to alert them of an impending disaster.
We also have alternatives to telephone based messaging at all, systems that rely on radio technology, systems like YellowBird Alert and Sentinel Alert in Western Australia. We need to make an appropriate investment in discovering whether those kinds of alternatives might be better than a telephone based system.
The second issue I want to touch on is the question of how we generally make ourselves more resilient as a nation. As we saw from recent cyclones, many, many buildings in tropical Australia are not cyclone proof and, in the lifetime of senators in this chamber, we have seen people die in earthquakes in this country. We still find many, many Australian homes built into the Australian bush, where they are particularly vulnerable to bushfires, and we have seen billions of dollars of damage done by flooding in this country. I note that, when devastating flooding occurred in Brisbane in 2010, many of the areas that had been flooded by the 1974 floods—you would be aware of those, Mr Acting Deputy President Furner, being from Queensland—were again devastated. And housing in the same places was again devastated, despite having been wiped out in 1974. We clearly have a long way to go to make ourselves disaster proof, and we need to reasonably invest in such an outcome as there are still some significant problems we have to face up to.
This financial year the Commonwealth is investing some $38.8 million in disaster prevention and mitigation. I commend the government for that investment, but I also note that last financial year the Commonwealth spent between $5 billion and $6 billion in making payments for recovery and restitution for flooding and other disasters that occurred in that financial year. So, with $38 million in prevention and $5 billion to $6 billion in mopping up after disasters, we have a serious question of imbalance in that kind of public investment.
We also have some clumsy arrangements within our national disaster relief and recovery arrangements. For an example, it is theoretically possible for a public asset which has been damaged in, say, a flood to be rebuilt better than it was before the flood occurred, but in practice this almost never happens. In fact, after the floods of 2010-11, I asked the Attorney-General who was then responsible how many different applications had been funded by the Commonwealth under these provisions, and the answer was just one. A swimming pool in Adelong, New South Wales had been raised above the flood level, and that was the total sum of improvements in public assets which had been made pursuant to those betterment provisions. We are not doing very well in that regard and we need to lift our game.
It is of course impossible to prevent the implications of disasters. We may find ourselves—and many people say we find ourselves—in a world where such disasters are more likely to occur than not, whether it be climate change or an increase in the spreading of the population to areas which previously were not considered for domestic or other uses. Whatever the reason, we find ourselves more vulnerable as a nation. It follows from that that we need to invest more in making sure that in the future we are less prone to the consequences, particularly the consequences leading to the loss of human life, that flow from the fact that we are more exposed to natural disasters. Today we are facing the prospect of hundreds of millions, probably billions of dollars of damage by this season's floods and other natural disasters. If it had not been a wet season, we might have been looking again at many millions of dollars lost and possibly lives threatened by bushfires, a perennial Australian problem. We cannot afford to assume that we can muddle through these issues. There is a role for the Commonwealth in better hardening the target. Of course the states have a very large responsibility in this area, but the Commonwealth must play a role. I urge the federal government to consider ways in which that target can be hardened.