Senate debates

Thursday, 10 December 2020

Ministerial Statements

National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework

7:43 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In respect of the ministerial statement on the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

This is a really important document that has been tabled here today. The coalition government has implemented for the first time in our history the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, which provides a guide to national action to address existing disaster risks and also to look into the future. We learnt many, many lessons from last year's catastrophic summer of bushfires. One of the things we did learn and understand is that, as a nation, we need to get better at coordination. We need to work cooperatively with the states to be prepared, to have an eye on the future and also to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Our National Partnership Agreement on Disaster Risk Reduction has agreed to invest $261 million over five years for these risk reduction initiatives. But one thing that I am particularly proud of in this framework, that I think is so vitally important, is that what we did learn from last summer's bushfires was how dependent we are on our emergency services—on our paid emergency services but, more importantly, on the volunteers and the charities and the not-for-profit organisations that come together to assist those paid personnel and then to support the communities in their recovery activities. And for the first time we are truly recognising those organisations, but we're also focusing a lens on their mental health and their wellbeing, because these people put themselves out there on the front line. I don't care if you're an SES volunteer, a rural fire service volunteer or a Red Cross volunteer pouring tea and being the support person for the other personnel at the end of a really tough day—you feel what you're going through, you're working day after day and you are seeing the ravages of the emergency on your friends, on your colleagues and, most importantly, on your community.

Last year, just after the bushfires, I travelled around the state of New South Wales and went to many bushfire affected communities. I went down to Malua Bay and I spoke with the volunteers who were coordinating efforts to provide people with the day-to-day essentials, people who'd lost everything. I went to Cobargo and I met this amazing woman who was coordinating recovery efforts for stock. She was coordinating getting stock feed in from all over the state and then distributing it on a triage basis to those who needed it most, and her efforts should be absolutely commended. I went to Rylstone and I met with personnel from Indonesia who'd come over with the Indonesian defence force to help with our efforts in our bushfire recovery. I also travelled to Wagga where I met our own Defence Force personnel and I met evacuees who had been rehomed temporarily at our RAAF base in Wagga. They said the RAAF personnel were their blue angels. They really spoke so highly of them. What I saw was that when these people put themselves out there, and they weren't thinking about themselves; they were thinking about their community.

But in the wash-up of all of this, we need to think of those people. We need to think about how they are doing in that wash-up, because during that time they absorbed all of the anguish of their communities and now it's time for us to help them. I'm so proud of our government and of the Nationals for working hard to invest over $15.9 million to support the mental health of emergency services and workers and their families. We're doing this by providing $11.5 million to the Black Dog Institute and to Fortem Australia, so that they can provide specialist mental health support services for those who responded to the 2019-20 bushfires and support for their families. We're also developing the first-ever mental health national action plan for emergency services workers, so that we can work to reduce suicide and mental illness among these vital personnel and the people who put themselves forward first when we're in times of need.

Further to that, our framework is also looking at critical incident planning capability so that next time we are better prepared and we can effectively respond to these critical incidents, not just bushfires. These incidents could be floods and other catastrophes, like cyclones in Queensland. We need to better understand and build resilience and develop our critical systems so that our first responders are better prepared and better able to hit the ground running. We're also investing in a number of management capabilities to assist in this. We are putting $88.1 million towards disaster and resilience research. This is vital money going to research into not only what causes catastrophes but also how best to address those catastrophes. We're also investing in streamlining our fire danger rating system, because at the moment, from state-to-state, we all use different terminology and different rating systems. We need to get better at working together as a nation. If we've learnt anything through COVID, it is that we are one nation and that borders, when they become hard borders, make life incredibly hard. When you don't have something like a pandemic—when you've got something like a bushfire—it doesn't give a toss about a line on a map or about where a river flows. That bushfire is going through regardless. It is so important for us to have the same language in that situation. We have responders who are doing the same job so we need the same language. It is vitally important that we get that right.

The National Coordination Mechanism and Emergency Management Australia are also leaning into a number of substantial challenges that we collectively face across this nation. But what we are also doing—and this is really important in the current environment—is incorporating COVID-safe guidelines. This is something we don't think of when we talk about emergencies in Australia. Last bushfire season people were evacuated. They went to the school hall. They're all crammed into that building. The Red Cross came along and served them tea. The Salvation Army brought them food. It was fantastic. Imagine if that happened right now in the time of the pandemic. We are already working on developing on how we adjust our response to ensure that we can do so in a COVID-safe way, to ensure that we have the hand sanitiser and to ensure we have enough space between people but, importantly, also to ensure that those people are safe from the emergency and safe from COVID.

We are learning all the time. This is not a silver bullet. This framework is an ongoing living document, and that is so important, because we know that, as technology gets better, as we get more data and as our knowledge gets better, we are going to improve how we respond to emergencies. This government is working really hard to make sure we are on the front foot and ready to go, ready to adapt.

I commend this framework and the report on it to the chamber and I encourage you all to read it. Please, as we go into summer and we go off for our summer holidays, remember to be bushfire ready. If you live in a regional area, like I do, have your bushfire plan ready, clear your gutters out, get your hoses ready and be prepared, because it's really important. If you're not safe, you're not going to be around to help your neighbours. So I commend the framework to the chamber. I wish you all a merry Christmas and a very safe bushfire-ready flood-ready season. Thank you.

7:52 pm

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

I also would like to take note of the ministerial statement regarding the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework. I must respond to some of the things that my friend Senator Davey has said today. She has made a valiant effort to put forward her party and her minister's position on natural disasters and our preparedness for them, but I am afraid that there are some pretty important points that she missed in that statement and which do need to be put on the record.

We found out only yesterday evening that Minister Littleproud was intending to make this ministerial statement about the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework. It can only be interpreted as another desperate attempt by this minister to distract attention from his failure and his government's failure to prepare for the coming disaster season. I have been on the record now for months—as has the Labor leader, Mr Albanese, and many other members of the Labor team—warning this government about the weather conditions we face this summer and our lack of preparedness for them. We are not doing that as some political manoeuvre. What we are doing is bringing to the government's attention a number of reports and pieces of advice that have been given to this government over the last few months about what we are facing this year.

The warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology, among other groups—the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, for instance—could not be clearer. This summer we face above-average bushfire risk in parts of Western Australia, particularly in the south-west, and also in western New South Wales. If we need any reminder that we need to take these warnings seriously, just have a look at what's happening on Fraser Island, in my home state of Queensland, right now. Almost half of the World Heritage listed forest is destroyed by bushfire, and this is before we get to the height of the disaster season in our country.

We know from these warnings that we face bushfire danger in a large proportion of the country this year. But potentially even more concerning is that, due to the La Nina conditions we're seeing, we face very serious and above-normal risks of cyclones, particularly in North Queensland and other northern parts of the country, and floods spreading basically right down the east coast. These are serious warnings. We remember the Prime Minister received similar serious warnings last year about the kinds of fires that were likely to occur in so much of the country, and that's exactly what happened. After last year, with the devastation, the loss of life, the loss of property, the loss of species, the loss of forests and the huge embarrassment and humiliation to this Prime Minister when it was demonstrated that he just didn't prepare and take these warnings seriously, you would have thought we would be facing something different this year. But we're not.

What the minister has attempted to do in this ministerial statement that he's delivered today, is say: 'It's all okay. Forget about what Labor's saying, because we have got this National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, which shows that the government is taking natural disasters seriously and is investing to protect Australians.' Well, let's have a look at what's actually happened through this National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework. We all know too well that we can't take at face value statements that ministers in this government or the Prime Minister make about what they claim to be doing, because we know that what they do is they make an announcement, they make a statement, and it never actually happens. When you dig into it just a little bit, it crumbles, and it is exactly the same here.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework was announced by this government in 2018, two years ago. They didn't commit any funding whatsoever for it for another 12 months, till mid-2019, and took another year to get money out the door. So it took two years after this National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework was announced and was claimed to be the solution to protect Australians from natural disasters for a single dollar to be got out the door and, even now, two years on, not a single dollar has been spent in the Northern Territory, in New South Wales or in Western Australia. So there are a number of states which haven't received a single dollar and they just happen to be the states and territories that are most at risk from disasters this very summer. As I say, New South Wales and Western Australia are at above-normal risk of fire, and the Northern Territory is at above-normal risk of cyclones, and yet they haven't received a single dollar from this government to help keep them safe through this National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework.

So, yet again, we have statements from ministers in this government who say that they are acting to protect Australians from natural disasters, but you don't have to scratch too deeply to see that it's not actually true. That shouldn't be surprising to any of us because, as I say, we know there's a tendency by this government to make an announcement and not actually deliver. Even in this space of natural disaster management, it happens. The classic example is the Emergency Response Fund. The $4 billion fund that this government announced 18 months ago was set up to spend up to $200 million a year on disaster recovery and mitigation. Eighteen months on, how much has been spent? Zero.

We had this ministerial statement from Minister Littleproud today because he knows and the government know that they've been caught out failing to invest the funds from the Emergency Response Fund that are needed. He's trying to distract attention and point to anything that suggests he's doing something about natural disasters. But, as I say, the problem for him is that it's taken two years for money to get out the door and, even now, there are a number of states and territories that are most at risk from natural disasters this year that haven't seen a cent of it. This minister, this government and this Prime Minister have got to stop talking about doing things. They've got to stop claiming to have done things that they haven't. Just make use of the funds that are available.

There is a very serious risk of cyclones and floods, particularly in the north of our country, this summer. There is a bucket of funding that was set up with the opposition's support last year to prevent exactly the kind of damage that we're likely to see in a few weeks time. We shouldn't have to be coming into the chamber repeatedly to point this out to ministers—that they've got funds available that can be spent—and we shouldn't have to see what is likely to happen in a few weeks time, which is that Australians are impacted, yet again, by disasters that could have been prevented. It's not too late for the minister to spend some of those funds that are sitting there available. He should get on and do it now, rather than making ministerial statements that attempt to distract attention and overclaim for things that he has done.

8:01 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the report from the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management on the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework. I appreciate that the chamber is tired and wants to move on as quickly as possible, but I could not sit and let the comments by Senator Watt pass unnoticed.

It is a tragedy for those of us who live in the part of the country where we see a lot of natural disasters—floods, bushfires, cyclones—that we have people from the Gold Coast making commentary around what are primarily state based risks. Unfortunately, in Queensland, we've just seen Fraser Island burn to the ground. The locals have been begging the state government to take appropriate action to prepare for the bushfire on that World Heritage listed island. They have been begging the state government to utilise the water-bombing plane. And yet: nothing. But this government—the federal government, guided by the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, has been providing the very tools that we need to provide assistance and support to Australians who've been left unprotected by their state Labor governments, primarily. There are things like telehealth for mental health services and things like additional radar, weather bureau measurements and flood monitoring.

In Queensland, it was the LNP government that built levies around towns like Goondiwindi, Charleville and Roma that have saved people from flood risks and floods since they've been built. In north Australia, it is very difficult to get insurance. There are people who are underinsured or not insured at all. The ACCC has made several recommendations to provide ways to reduce the costs for northern Australian people. Yet the Queensland state government and others won't take the necessary steps to reduce those costs by at least 9½ per cent straight off with the removal of state stamp duty. So I could not let Senator Watt make such outrageous comments about what is required from the federal government, when the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, as presented by the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, has provided $2 billion of support for Australians to manage natural disaster resilience. I commend it to the Senate.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion to take note of the ministerial statement relating to the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework be agreed to.

Question agreed to.