Senate debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Ministerial Statements

Australian Natural Disasters

3:50 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, Minister Littleproud, I table a ministerial statement, Update on bushfire recovery and drought response.

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.

3:58 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As Leader of The Nationals in the Senate, I rise to support the statement to the House earlier today by the Minister for Agriculture and National Party deputy leader, David Littleproud. The statement reiterates and reinforces our government's absolute, solid commitment to rural and regional Australians, who have been doing it tough as a result of the drought in places like Queensland, for upwards of 7 or 8 years; floods, which devastated areas of Queensland and caused significant stock losses; and the bushfires that ravaged the east coast of our country over summer. They started prior to Christmas, but we saw the worst of it in January. Thirty-three people lost their lives. I, and the National Party team, want to thank our CFA, our RFS, our volunteer firefighters and indeed our volunteer emergency service workers, who really were the ballast in so many of those communities.

We saw the generosity of Australians who sought to assist our drought-affected communities and bushfire-affected communities by supporting small businesses, by purchasing products online, by booking holidays in these regional areas to stimulate economies. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, that local economic stimulus has been put on hold, but I know, once the pandemic is finished, the regions will look forward to welcoming Australians into their communities to stimulate their local economies and to help rebuild.

The Nationals, being part of a government that cares for families and businesses across rural and regional Australia, understand what it's like because we live in these communities. The spirit of regional Australia has been on display through these challenges—the resilience, the robustness, the determination to focus on recovery, rebuilding and to supporting each other. It is tough, day after day, getting up and having to deal with stock losses, getting up and looking at the burnt, charred remains of your family's home or your local business. That is why the government has also been supporting our rural and regional communities, not just with practical help in partnership with our state government colleagues and local governments, but by providing that essential mental health support to ensure that, when the rains come in those drought-affected communities, there will be a spirit of positivity on the ground to grasp that opportunity to plant the crop, to purchase and restock, to do what needs to be done to get back to full production.

Indeed, we've seen the mental health assistance that our government and state governments have been rolling out in those bushfire-affected communities be of much benefit. The Nationals are committed to keeping regional communities open for business. We have provided economic stimulus through the $301 million Drought Communities Program extension, an additional $138.9 million for drought-affected communities under Roads for Recovery, and $20 billion to keep kids from drought-affected regions at school. We're also looking long-term. From July, the Future Drought Fund will make $100 million available each year to build drought resilience and preparedness because this will keep happening—droughts are a part of farming in Australia. Cyclically, we go through drought periods, so building that resilience for future drought will really underpin local economies and agriculture more broadly. We have welcomed some great autumn rainfalls in many parts of New South Wales and Victoria, but so much of regional Australia still is gripped by the drought, and we are standing with these communities until that passes.

The government has allocated $2 billion to our bushfire recovery through the efforts of the new Bushfire Recovery Fund. Whether it was in Victoria, Tallangatta, Cudgewa, Gippsland, Mallacoota or South Australia, we saw the devastating stock losses, especially on Kangaroo Island. The smoke-taint affected harvests this year in the Adelaide Hills vineyards were destroyed as a result. In New South Wales, Batlow, Port Macquarie, and towns right throughout the south coast really struggled with the bushfire.

In partnership with the state governments we've been rolling out the bushfire recovery. My own communities of north-east Victoria where I live were heavily affected by the bushfires over summer. Andrew Colvin, who heads up the recovery unit, has been on the ground actively engaging with communities and affected small businesses to see what practical assistance we can provide as the federal government. Even in a COVID-19 environment, where he can't get to town hall meetings and meet the locals personally, he's been holding zoom meetings, online engagement, so that he can keep up to date with how the recovery is being rolled out right across these communities. We don't stop making sure that the bushfires and drought are front and centre for our government just because of COVID-19.

The more than $1 billion from the recovery fund is already working on the ground and includes more than $175 million for small business support grants, $40 million for recovery grants, $108 million for primary producer grants and $17 million for concessional loans. These grants and loans have been used by primary producers to re-fence, restock, purchase hay, rebuild hay sheds and that's also provided a lot of local employment for many in our communities. More than $228 million has been paid to more than 186,000 eligible individuals through the disaster recovery payment and disaster recovery allowance. Over $32 million worth of payments were made for over 80,000 impacted children as of 26 April.

We're proud to back our volunteer firefighters and have paid out over $10.4 million to them. We thank them for their service. We provided an additional $13.5 million in funding over two years to assist our Primary Health Networks to provide emotional and mental health support for bushfire-affected industries. Other changes we made as part of our drought response have meant getting telehealth services into regional communities, as it is more and more difficult for people to leave properties, for cost reasons or for work, to actually attend critical health services, particularly for mental health.

On 11 May the Prime Minister announced a further $650 million to support towns and regions hit by bushfires to get back on their feet. This will back local projects, recovery plans and initiatives that benefit all bushfire-affected communities. We want the solutions to be local. Rather than a top-down, Canberra-knows-best approach, the Liberal-National federal government knows that it is local communities who are living with the impacts and the results of these devastating bushfires that will have the best ideas of how they can rebuild. They will have the collective vision of what their community will look like well past recovery and what resilience they need to build into their local community for if this was to occur again.

As the daughter of a log truck driver in his youth, I'm very proud to be on the side of politics that supports a sustainable forestry industry in this country. What ever happened to the F in the CFMEU? Honestly, the forestry division needs to rethink who they're playing with, because there is only one side of politics that backs a sustainable forestry industry, and it is the Liberal and the National parties.

There is $15 million to assist that forestry industry transport burn salvage logs to surviving timber mills or storage sites in bushfire affected areas in Victoria and New South Wales. Wasn't that a battle to actually be able to salvage the already burnt logs, the already burnt timber, and get it to the sawmills—it degrades quite quickly over time—to keep people employed while they can? There's another $149.7 million to support communities and organisations taking on-ground action to protect native species and build knowledge for better land management. We've also got the National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency, which we then expanded to also encompass the bushfires.

To the communities of rural and regional Australia still struggling with the drought or who have got some decent rains and are in the process of getting excited about seeding if you're in WA and planting if you're on the east coast and to those affected by bushfires: our government is committed to standing with you and walking the path to recovery lockstep.

Question agreed to.