Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 March 2023


Queensland: Floods

8:03 pm

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

The most recent flood in northern Australia has seen floodwaters extend from the gulf south for hundreds of kilometres. The complete lack of interest and support from this federal government is shocking, and it is frankly distressing. In opposition, Minister Murray Watt was full of advice on the speed of response and what the government should do—all advice that he has now completely forgotten.

As Australians we care about this region. It grows a huge amount of food and extracts significant resources. It is a critical front line of defence for Australia. Yes, it has only a few communities, but they are proud communities. Flooding is not new, and neither should the government's response be.

Owners of the Tirranna Springs Roadhouse 34 kilometres south-west of Burketown, Jill and Tim Wilson, their children, Hunter, six, and Holly, four, and their brother-in-law Mick Wilson, were rescued off the back of a truck by a mustering chopper. They have lost their home and their business. The fences are flattened or missing. The generators and pumps are gone. Their home and business is saturated and all their hard work of the past five years lies covered in mud. Three horses, pigs, poddy calves and poultry were all drowned. Now they're worried about the insurance company paying the $3.2 million dollar reconstruction bill.

I can tell you other stories. At Roxborough Station a young woman, Courtney McMillan, has done a terrific job talking about what they have done: building a levee around their property to protect the homestead, the station workers' quarters and a little bit of their country there. At Urandangi, the floodwaters swept that town away. There are stories like this right across the top of North Queensland and into the Northern Territory. There are people who have been rescued and plucked out of the waters by mustering helicopters. Neighbours have used heavy equipment to build defence walls and come to the aid of others, and communities have come together.

In 2019, we learnt lessons from flooding in the north. When the north-west monsoon event happened, we learnt lessons and we learnt them fast. Disaster relief payments were made quickly. We didn't have to wait that week or more until that $1,000 per person and $400 per child was announced by the emergency services minister. The Prime Minister came and the Defence Force was called in. The Army choppers dropped fodder to save stock, and 150 Australian Defence Force members were involved. There were 70 working in Richmond, Julia Creek and Cloncurry. They delivered 32,000 litres of fuel to affected communities using transport aircraft. Defence planners and advisers worked with local, state and federal government at Julia Creek. The ADF team included three engineering officers, an aviation officer, a vet, a logistics officer and an environmental health specialist. The RAAF delivered personal protective equipment and fuel drums where needed. The local transport department, finally, got approvals made to allow stock washed up against fences to be buried. The coalition pledged $3.1 billion in aid all up for North and north-west Queensland.

So why didn't the Queensland government ask for help this time? Why didn't they ask for the Army to be called in? People are angry. They're asking: 'Where are the Premier's regular press conferences? Where's the Prime Minister?' They're saying to me, 'Cattle don't vote,' and they're feeling abandoned. It doesn't matter what the government says it's doing; it's the perception of the people on the ground that's damning. That is important. We have to address this debacle that is preventing people from accessing funds. It's been nearly a week to allow them to release the special $1,000 payments for people who have lost everything—whose houses have gone, whose motor vehicles are underwater and who can't get work.

What is needed now? Most immediately, we need mechanics to go on to remote communities, stations and other places to repair generators, to get the power back on, to fix farm equipment, to get Toyotas and other equipment running. I thank, most sincerely, the civilian mechanics from as far away as Toowoomba who have volunteered their services. We are truly grateful.

In the future, we have to start thinking about what the infrastructure requirements are. Normanton had been cut off since 3 January because of the wet season. Can you imagine saying to Canberra: 'Giddy-up everybody. You will be out of contact for at least two months. You will not be able to drive out of this town, because of seasonal floodwaters'? Yet, that is what the people of Normanton are facing. We need better culverts. We need the Burke and Wills Roadhouse and the adjoining airstrip sealed, and we need wet season drops of 5,000 litres of diesel and 5,000 litres of jet fuel just to start to make sure that we have a launching pad for floods in the far north region of Queensland. That's because these communities are cut off every year. Kowanyama was cut off for six months of last year. Six months! Where else in Australia is that acceptable? I can tell you: nowhere else. They need that road sealed and they need bridges built up to cross rivers, allowing for longer crossing periods.

I'm afraid that the strength of being resilient, which is what happens in North Queensland and other parts of northern Australia, is also a weakness. Regional people have learned just to get on with it and not wait for help, but it's not good enough to let these people be isolated each wet season and then completely forgotten in a flood event. Regional and remote Australians are used to having to go to each other's aid and looking after themselves, and this flood has proven no different. I could stand here for hours and tell stories of neighbours assisting neighbours. I could tell you of families rescued, of moving stock and of properties protected. The importance of northern Australia must be reflected in this government's policy-making and planning, and I'm afraid that it is sadly, sadly lacking at present.

The northern Australian minister couldn't even be bothered to comment to the media about these floods, and Senator Watt turned up last Friday. The latest media release from the minister for northern Australia about northern Australia was on 2 February. There has been radio silence since. And that 2 February media release was about the floods in north-western Australia; there has been nothing about the Territory and nothing about North Queensland. Why? What signal does it send if the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia doesn't even care about these things?

It's sad that this Labor government spent years politicising natural disasters and demanding that more be done, and yet when the responsibility lies with them they're missing in action and full of excuses for why they're doing less. After so zealously and viciously attacking the coalition's response to the Lismore floods, you'd think Labor might get its own house in order. It takes a special level of hubris to follow such strident criticism with what they've offered in north-western Queensland. We know that state and federal Labor do not care about the regions. We know that they will not fight for regional communities, and these recent flooding events have just highlighted that once again.

People feel that Labor went missing in action when regional Queensland faced a crisis. Why is it that the Premier can so quickly respond to floods in South-East Queensland, a region full of Labor seats, but takes time to say anything else about regions they don't hold any seats in? When people have been through a disaster like this they need to feel that their government is standing with them. When they don't see any serious presence by the Prime Minister or the Premier, how do you think they feel? Why have they not been to Burketown, to Doomadgee or to Urandangi to offer real assistance to the people in need there? Is it because there's no red carpet to roll out and no flashy press conference? Why is Murray Watt not calling out the Queensland Premier for not visiting these towns and communities? I could quote Murray Watt all night, but in his very own words:

… no more excuses, no more obfuscation, no more blaming the states, just taking responsibility and delivering.

(Time expired)