Senate debates

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Australian Bushfires, Economy

3:00 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 answers given by Senators Ruston and Birmingham to questions asked by Senators Gallagher, Chisholm and myself today.

Right now, across Australia, we're seeing dozens of bushfires. There are some happening right now in my home state of Queensland, in particular on the World Heritage listed Fraser Island. There are also fires in New South Wales and other states. It's another reminder already that we are in the natural disaster season.

As well as those fires happening in some parts of the country right now, it's also coming to the time of the first anniversary, in so many parts of Australia, of the terrible Black Summer fires we saw last year. I'll give one example that I don't think anyone will forget: the town of Cobargo, devastated by fires, the scene of those embarrassing visits by the Prime Minister after he came back from Hawaii, forcing people to shake his hand and then scurrying off once they actually had something to say to him. Unfortunately, we still see residents and business owners in towns like Cobargo being left behind by this government, nearly a year after they experienced the devastating bushfires.

Only this week on the Q&A program, which was, among other things, looking at how people are coping after the bushfires, Cobargo resident Graham said, 'We've been politically and practically abandoned.' That's how bushfire victims feel one year on from the bushfires around which they were abandoned at the time by the Prime Minister and his government. The National Bushfire Recovery Fund is one example of that. This was the Prime Minister's great response to the bushfires when he pledged that he would spend $2 billion on a National Bushfire Recovery Fund to assist survivors of the bushfires recover. Of course, we discovered at Senate estimates earlier this year that this was in fact a notional fund. It's a fund that didn't really exist and would only ever reach $2 billion if it really had to.

Recently we've seen that the government is claiming to have spent $1.2 billion of that Bushfire Recovery Fund, but again at estimates we uncovered that this was another example of the government making claims that just don't stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the amount that the government claims to have spent from the Bushfire Recovery Fund includes half a billion dollars that it has yet to distribute to the states. I don't know why it's so important for this government to misrepresent what it's actually doing for bushfire victims. Why not just admit that what you've actually spent is $700 million from the fund and that you will be spending another $500 million, rather than going out there and claiming to have spent $1.2 billion when it's actually a lot less? This is why bushfire survivors find it so hard to trust this government and why they feel so abandoned and left behind by this government—it's because, for all the promises that the government have made to look after people, they continue to be left behind.

We're also seeing this government not only failing to respond properly in terms of the recovery from last year's bushfires but also, again, demonstrating that they are not prepared for the coming disaster season. Today I accompanied the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, and the member for Eden-Monaro, Kristy McBain, to Braidwood, an hour and a bit away, where we met with RFS cadets who are being trained through the local high school. That community was also hit by the bushfires last year and is doing a good job of recovering. By training up young people to assist in the RFS they're showing that they're preparing for what lies ahead this summer.

Unfortunately, their effort is not being matched by their federal government. To give just one example, 18 months ago, in last year's federal budget, the government announced the $4 billion Emergency Response Fund. We worked with the government last year to get the legislation through to establish that fund, and, here we are, 18 months after it was announced, while fires are already happening around Queensland and New South Wales—and not a single cent has been spent from that Emergency Response Fund. We are already seeing fires in this country, we know from the Bureau of Meteorology that we face above-normal numbers of cyclones and floods this year because of La Nina, and yet the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, has a $4 billion fund sitting in a bank account that was established to help communities prepare for disasters but that he hasn't spent a cent from! The answer we always get from the government is that 'there are other funds available to assist people'. If that's the case, why are people still living in caravans in Cobargo? Why are people in Bega and Cobargo crowdfunding to build evacuation centres and toilet blocks? The fact is, this government isn't delivering on its announcements yet again. (Time expired)

3:05 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise to take note of those answers. I would particularly like to hear from those opposite who have been involved in active firefighting; I have been, down on the farm and on my parents' property, and I know my good friend, Jim Molan, is actively involved in his local fire service. I would genuinely like to speak to those opposite who have been involved, because I think there is a really important level of knowledge to be gained from actually experiencing a fire front. It's truly an extraordinarily frightening and confronting experience. My father and I were protecting our property one day from a fire, and the pump stopped working literally 30 seconds before the bush fire brigade arrived. The gutters of our house were on fire. We both certainly know what it means to be in a dangerous fire situation. I say I'd like to speak to those opposite who have experienced that because I cannot believe that those opposite are politicising disaster preparedness in the way that they are here today.

Aerial firefighting capacity is not a silver bullet. Anyone who has been involved in firefighting and who's been involved on the ground in a bushfire zone, knows that, yes, it has a role to play but it is in no way a silver bullet that can replace people on the ground. When my father was a young man, there were thousands of people involved from the forestry industry where I grew up, down in Pemberton—thousands of mill workers. In fact, the Warren district at that point was a safe Labor seat, because the mill in town employed hundreds, thousands, of blue-collar workers. But when the Labor Party walked away from that industry, they walked away from those workers, and the bush lost an extraordinary capacity for on-the-ground firefighting.

At the same time, society has changed. We've developed the peri-urban areas. In the last decade something like 300,000 new homes have been built in the peri-urban areas of Australia—that is, completely surrounded, in most cases, by reasonably dense bush. That has created an environment where the risk of disasters of this sort, including climatic conditions, is having a massive impact. But the idea that this is something we should politicise or that this is something that in any way we should seek to make political points out of—it's very sad that the Labor Party has, quite frankly, stooped this low.

The Emergency Response Fund—as some of my colleagues have noted in disorderly interjections—was voted for by the Australian Labor Party. It cannot be accessed until advice is received that it is required and that all other funding sources have been depleted. That is its purpose. That is what those opposite and those on this side voted for. But we do provide significant funding for disaster preparedness through other means—$130 million in Commonwealth funds under the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, $37 million on telecommunications resilience. Again, we know how important it is if you can't contact your local fire brigade, your local bushfire service or your local emergency services in those situations. Being on your own in those circumstances is extraordinarily risky. There's $8 million to work with the states and territories to develop a public service mobile broadband capacity, $2 million for the emergency alert capacity. There's an enduring research capability with $88 million for a new world-class disaster research centre.

In the 30 seconds I have remaining, we also have to make sure that we listen to those who have the experience. Roger Underwood, from Western Australia, was a good friend of my fathers and spent a lot of time in the south-west forest of WA. He knew what it was like to fight fires on the ground. The people in this place have an obligation to listen to people like Roger Underwood, people like Rick Sneeuwjagt, people who have the experience of fighting these sorts of fires on the ground.

3:10 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Whilst I'm tempted to take Senator Brockman's opportunity to talk about my bush firefighting experience, I fear that it would be self-incriminating if I were to tell that story so I might leave that one for another day. What I do want to talk about is the economy. There was some welcome news that we saw today, which is encouraging. I want to actually go to the substance of the way this government deals with it. What we saw, and we saw it from the press conference from the Treasury and we saw it in this chamber today as well, is how quick they are to get out there and take credit. As soon as they are able to they get out there and take credit. We saw evidence of that from the question from Senator Gallagher today to the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Whilst there's some welcome news, there is still overwhelming evidence about how difficult it is for families out there as they try to recover from the COVID pandemic.

I think you have to look at how the government operates, because at the end of the day this actually goes to the way that they treat Australians and Australian families. We see it today with the economy. We also saw it earlier this year. As we've also highlighted through question time today, we saw it with their response to bushfires. We have also seen it in how they have responded to sports rorts—let alone robodebt, where there's a lack of accountability. There is a lack of answering the questions that we put to them, trying to hold this government to account so that Australian families can understand how they are responding to these challenges.

We also know that they avoid accountability. They go out of their way, whether it's by lodging PII claims, by not answering questions, by failing to front up and actually level with the Australian people. At the end of the day, when you're in government there is a component of that where you have to be up-front with the Australian people, you actually have to be prepared to answer some of those tough challenges. It's from the Prime Minister down. He takes the lead role in this. He's always there ready to announce the good news but never actually to be up-front with the Australian people or say, 'We got this wrong,' like he should have done at the start of the year with the bushfires and like they should have done in response to sports rorts. They should've been up-front with the Australian people and said: 'We've got this wrong. We're going to fix it up. We're going to fund those clubs that missed out.' We have seen it with the bushfires again, a failure—who could not be forced into action after what they saw at the start of this year? We're still seeing it today with those communities that are suffering.

We've also seen it in response to international events. All Australians were relieved when Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released. The foreign minister was all over it. She was all through the media talking about it. Yet this week we've got a massive diplomatic incident with our biggest trading partner and the foreign minister has not fronted the media once. The shadow foreign minister has, has been prepared to get out and talk about Australia's interests in this regard, but the foreign minister has been silent. They were all over the news the other week about Kylie Moore-Gilbert being released, but there's a failure to actually show leadership. The member for Dawson, George Christensen, has done more media about this than the foreign minister. This is our biggest trading partner. This is going to cost jobs. This is going to have a negative impact on the economy and the foreign minister is silent.

This is what we get from this government. When there's some good news, the minister and others will be out there taking credit, but when there's the tough stuff to deal with—whether it's the government's response to bushfires, taking responsibility for what happened with sports rorts or the outrageous behaviour with robodebt—the government is missing in action. Time and again this is what we see from them. We welcome the fact that there is some encouraging news on the economic front, but we know that the reality for Australians and for Australian families is that things are going to be extremely difficult over the next 12 months. We know that early next year this government will withdraw its support for those people who can't afford to be without that support. But that is what this government will do.

They don't make the hard decisions or the tough decisions and level with the Australian people. They don't have a Prime Minister who is prepared to talk in the national interest. For this Prime Minister, there is only one interest, and that's himself. That is all he thinks about. He never thinks about the national interest, he never thinks about what's good for Australians, he only thinks about himself. There is no better example of that than the fact that, when he quarantined, he quarantined with his photographer.

3:15 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I've been in this place for coming up to 18 months and it's been a great honour to serve the great people of Western Australia. But I think I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I've heard serious and legitimate questions from those opposite. Their questions are covered in smear and innuendo; very few of their questions go to a point of significance for the Australian people. Instead, time and again we see those opposite putting spin on particular topics and subjects to score a political point. I think there is nothing more shameful than coming into this place and trying to score a political point on something that is very serious for the people of this nation, particularly those who live in bushfire-prone areas.

This line of attack is typical of Labor. They think that blindly committing to spend money can solve a problem, with flashy promises and attack lines that really have very little substance. Labor's record on firefighting and land management is actually not very good. Senator Brockman spoke about the importance of understanding what's involved in dealing with bushfires and making sure that we are prepared for bushfires, but Labor members and their friends in the Greens continually hamstring attempts to perform adequate back-burning. We're seeing this in states controlled by Labor and where there's a real Greens influence. In 2015 and 2016, we saw disgraceful attempts by unions to unionise the volunteers of the CFA. That demonstrates that Labor sees bushfire fighters as just another political opportunity to boost union membership. Labor's record on politicising disaster relief is longer and stronger than their history of disaster management.

Senator Murray Watt, the shadow minister for emergency management, only last week accepted an invitation to have a briefing by emergency management experts on our seasonal preparation. I understand that meeting will happen later today, but today Senator Watt moved an MPI on this very subject. He asked questions and then took note of those answers without giving himself the opportunity to have the briefing.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Watt, on a point of order?

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

Senator O'Sullivan is misleading the chamber. The briefing that I'm receiving this afternoon is actually about new legislation that the government intends to introduce.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Watt. Please continue, Senator O'Sullivan.

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In any case, what we're seeing is the politicisation of a very, very serious issue being faced by this nation. It's as serious an issue as we've faced at any time in our history, really, when you compare previous fire seasons with the one that we had last year.

In the remaining time that I have, I want to give some reassurance to the Australian people of what this government is actually doing. We accept that the primary role in dealing with bushfires and bushfire management on the ground is played by state governments, and the Commonwealth government doesn't want to interfere with that at all but, rather, provide the necessary support and resources to assist. That can be done in many ways. One way is through the Defence Force. This year we're going to ensure that the ADF is poised to respond as quickly and efficiently as possible. The government has streamlined and simplified its processes for states and territories to receive that support. We've set up joint task forces for each state and territory. We've exercised and validated Reserve call-out processes, and we've conducted response planning exercises with the states and territories and with Australian government agencies, including the EMA and Services Australia. We've streamlined these processes so that we can act quickly when called upon by the states to ensure that that support is there.

There are many other things this government is doing. I haven't got time, in the 14 seconds I have left, to cover them, but I will say that Services Australia stands ready. We're ready to deal with any outbreak and of course to deal with people who require assistance from the Commonwealth government through services and funding, and that's there— (Time expired)

3:21 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today we've heard Senator Birmingham crowing about the state of the economy, literally shouting in this chamber about the government's achievements, when we know people are struggling to get back on their feet, when we know people are crying out for a big and bold jobs plan, when we know people want a big-picture plan of hope for their future, not slogans like the government's 'comeback' slogan—a slogan that got a great workout in the Senate today. While I was sitting in the chamber hearing this slogan thrown around, over and over and over again—the government's comeback—I had the chance to look up the dictionary definition of the government's new favourite term, 'comeback'. And here it is: 'a return by a well-known person, especially an entertainer'. An entertainer—well, Australians do not need an entertainer-in-chief. We don't need an ad-man-in-chief.

What Australians need is a leader to take the country through this crisis and a leader with a plan, not a leader with a focus grouped slogan. We need a leader with a big and bold jobs plan, a plan that we are yet to see from this Prime Minister and a plan that Australians need more than ever. The Reserve Bank has said it expects unemployment to stay high and to stay above prepandemic levels until the end of 2022. So there is nothing to crow about here, while people are still struggling to get back on their feet, while people are still hurting. There is no time for slogans while 2.4 million people are unemployed or underemployed, while the unemployment queues are continuing to grow and while in this country we continue to experience record-low wages growth that began well before the pandemic under this government. And there is no time to crow and shout in this chamber about achievements whilst three million Australians are relying on JobKeeper and JobSeeker to survive. Many of these people are the very people the Morrison government is leaving behind.

This government finds it all too easy to leave people behind. Just look at the millions who missed out on JobKeeper in the first place when they needed it the most: the casuals, the freelancers, the temporary migrants and so many more. Look at the hundreds of thousands of workers the government have just left out of their plans for the JobMaker hiring credit. Indeed, almost one million Australians aged over 35 have been left behind. Think about those Australians on JobKeeper and JobSeeker who will be left behind in just a few weeks time when their incomes will be cut while they are still struggling to get back on their feet. Their incomes will be cut despite the warnings from the OECD and despite the warnings from the Reserve Bank, the IMF and every prominent economist that you could name, who say that more needs to be done, that we need to maintain incomes and that we shouldn't be ripping support out of the economy too early. This government is leaving people behind in this recovery, just like the government is leaving behind people who have been devastated by bushfires in this country.

Let's think about what Senator Ruston said today. According to the minister, 'We're committed to standing by people affected by bushfires.' I doubt that people devastated by the fires last summer—who are still waiting for support, who are still waiting for the funding to rebuild, who are crowdfunding for the things that they need to rebuild and get their lives moving again—are going to be impressed or comforted by that statement. The minister said today, 'Communities received funding immediately.' Again, I doubt that devastated communities who are still waiting for support are going to be comforted by or, indeed, to believe that answer from the minister today.

Question agreed to.