Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Questions without Notice: Additional Answers

Australian Bushfires

3:04 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Yesterday, in answer to a question from Senator Watt, I said I would provide additional information to the chamber in relation to the Emergency Response Fund. The fund provides an additional and sustainable source of funding for emergency response and recovery from natural disasters in Australia that have significant or catastrophic impact. The Director-General Emergency Management Australia is responsible for providing the minister with advice on accessing the fund and the design of programs to be funded. When that advice is received, the responsible minister will consider the most appropriate use of the fund, taking into consideration the other significant amounts being spent on resilience-building activities, which include the $261 million joint state-Commonwealth funding over five years for risk reduction activities in line with the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework; $88.1 million for a new world-class disaster resilience research centre; $25.9 million, annually indexed and ongoing, for the National Aerial Firefighting Centre; and $8 million towards the development of a public safety mobile broadband capability. For recovery, funding of up to $150 million per year may be accessed if existing recovery programs are insufficient. For resilience and preparedness or to reduce the risk of future disasters, funding of up to $50 million per year is also available.

The government committed an initial $2 billion for the National Bushfire Recovery Fund to coordinate the national response to rebuild communities and livelihoods after the devastating 2019-20 'black summer' bushfires. That amount far exceeds what was available from the Emergency Response Fund in any given year, and for that reason the fund has not been accessed for recovery. A formal decision of the government is required to access the Emergency Response Fund. Access to these funds is subject to arrangements detailed in the ERF guidelines tabled in the Senate earlier this year.

Public infrastructure such as toilets is covered under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements. Privately owned toilets are not covered under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements, but support may be offered through grants to small business and primary producers and through other mechanisms. I cannot provide any more specific advice without the details of the toilets you were referring to. The government is always willing to work with members of the opposition to support those recovering from natural disasters. I'm sure victims would prefer the opposition to work collaboratively with the government as well.

3:06 pm

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

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I thank the minister for returning to the chamber and answering this question that I asked yesterday. I must admit I was disappointed with her answer yesterday (a) because she didn't know the answer and (b) because she dismissed this Emergency Response Fund as 'some fund'. That 'some fund' actually matters very deeply to bushfire victims and to people who are threatened by natural disasters right across our country. It appears from all the weather forecasts that we are currently receiving that the greatest threat we face from natural disasters this summer is in the form of cyclones and floods, particularly in the northern part of our country, rather than bushfires. But, whatever funds the minister wants to refer to now as being available for disaster purposes, the fact remains that the government is sitting on a $4 billion Emergency Response Fund which was set up to allocate $200 million per year for disaster recovery and mitigation work, and not a single cent has been spent to date from that Emergency Response Fund.

We voted with the government last October to establish the Emergency Response Fund. This was something that the government announced in last year's budget, last April, which was 18 months ago. Eighteen months ago the government announced an Emergency Response Fund, a $4 billion fund which would provide $200 million a year for disaster recovery and mitigation efforts. Here we are here, 18 months on, and not a single cent has been spent.

It's not as if there aren't projects that this money could be used for. We referred to one yesterday in question time. In Bega, one of the towns badly affected by the bushfires last year, there is a community group that is currently crowdfunding to obtain funds to build new toilet facilities at their evacuation centre. You have to go upstairs to access the toilet facilities that they have in place at the moment and that they had to use in the last bushfire season, which means that elderly people and disabled people can't actually use these toilets when they're in an evacuation centre. It's completely unacceptable. These people are, of course, always threatened by the risk of bushfire. They live in an area which is at high risk. What is to say that we won't get more bushfires there this year and that elderly or disabled people will not be able to access toilets when they go to an evacuation centre?

What is to say, in North Queensland or the Northern Territory or anywhere else in northern Australia this summer, when we get hit by a cyclone, as appears inevitable, that there are no cyclone shelters that could have been built using these funds, or there aren't flood levees that could have been built using these funds? Here we are, 18 months on from this Emergency Response Fund being announced by the government in last year's budget, without a single cent having been spent. I really hope we don't get to this summer witnessing cyclones, witnessing floods and witnessing bushfires and wish that we had used the opportunity to use these funds, but that opportunity had been blown. We saw what happened last year when this government failed to prepare for the bushfires. They were warned repeatedly by climatologists, by ex fire chiefs, by the opposition and by all sorts of people that we faced intense bushfire risk. Yet, they didn't prepare. They didn't get the aerial firefighting in place that was required, they didn't take all sorts of other steps that were required and could have been taken, which would have avoided the tragic losses that we saw in last year's bushfires.

Now, here we are 18 months on from this fund being announced with not a single cent having been spent from that fund. We are now in bushfire season in northern parts of the country. There are bushfires happening right now in my home state of Queensland, as far north as Cooktown. So we are in bushfire season already, and we're probably a couple of months away from cyclones and floods. We've got this $4 billion fund that is sitting there completely unused, and there are projects that communities are using crowdfunding to build. This government have got to do better. They have got to be better prepared than they were last year for the disaster season that lies ahead. They have funds at their disposal. They should use them and they should stop community groups having to turn to crowdfunding to provide basic infrastructure to keep them safe.

Question agreed to.