Tuesday, 4 March 2014
Questions without Notice
My question is to the minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Abetz. My question is related to the ongoing disaster at the Hazelwood coalmine in Morwell, Victoria. The potential threat to the health of the residents was immediately obvious when this fire began on 9 February. Residents have been exposed to smoke containing dangerous levels of particulate matter and other toxic substances. They have been told to avoid exposure to this toxic smoke, yet until recently they were denied any assistance or support to evacuate.
Minister, when was the government contacted by the Victorian Premier? Why did the Prime Minister wait until just last weekend to announce limited Commonwealth assistance? And what further assistance will the government make available for the residents of Morwell?
I will try to answer all of the questions that the honourable senator has asked in relation to when there was contact between the Prime Minister and the Premier. That I do not know from the brief that I have before me. But I can inform the Senate that, on Sunday 2 March, the Prime Minister announced that relocation payments will be made available to assist eligible local residents in Morwell's south to temporarily relocate to avoid exposure to smoke and ash from the fires currently burning. Temporary relocation payments of up to $1,250 per week are available to eligible households under the joint funding arrangement. The package is a joint initiative between the Commonwealth and Victorian governments under the natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements. Residents seeking assistance are advised to contact the Department of Human Services on their hotline 1800006468.
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The owner and operator of the mine, GDF Suez, have refused to take responsibility for the Morwell coal fire disaster as we speak. Will the government hold the mine owners to account by ensuring that they pay for the damage caused by the fire, for the emergency response effort and for the costs incurred by the Commonwealth? Will the government consider revoking carbon permits issued to the mine operator equivalent to the emissions this ongoing fire has caused?
Once again we have a whole range of questions from the senator. Until we know the actual reason for the fire causation et cetera I think it is somewhat premature to assert who should pay and who should be held accountable and responsible. I think due process should take place, and I am sure that, in cooperation with the Victorian government, it will take place. In fact, I understand that there has been an inquiry announced by the Victorian Premier in relation to certain matters regarding this very, very unfortunate situation that exists with this coal fire. What I would simply say is let's not jump the gun, let's not talk about revoking carbon permits et cetera. Let's wait to see causation, circumstances et cetera and then take a cool and considered approach. (Time expired)
Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Minister, in the light of the coal fire disaster at Morwell will the government respond to last August's report by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee into the health impacts of poor air quality by adopting all of its recommendations, including improving air quality standards and monitoring, especially for people who live near coal fired power stations, and reducing coal dust exposure for families who live near coalmines and coal transport corridors?
It might surprise all honourable senators that I am not fully acquainted with all the recommendations of the Senate community affairs committee report—I apologise to the honourable senator and the Senate for that—and, therefore, I am not willing to commit the government to all the recommendations of that Senate committee report. But I understand that the committee is ably chaired by one of your fellow Greens, so we will give that report due consideration, and as is the wont with all Senate committee reports, the government will respond in due course.