ADDRESS TO THE NRRA SUMMIT
AUSTRALIA’S CALL TO ACTION TO REDUCE SYSTEMIC DISASTER RISK
WEDNESDAY, 29 JUNE 2022
Thank you very much for that. What a great pleasure it is to join such a big and diverse crowd for what, I think, is a really important event in terms of how we all collectively approach the issues around natural disaster risk reduction going forward.
Could I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of this land and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.
Thank you very much for having me along today to share with you the new Albanese Government's priorities and views on opportunities to help Australia cope with and reduce the impact of natural disasters.
While I've given one or two keynote speeches in my agriculture role, this is the first major speech that I've delivered as the new Minister for Emergency Management.
So you've actually got to think about what you want to say in your first big speech! People tend to notice.
I'm noticing the fact that while I could walk around in Opposition and mouth off about other people, all of a sudden when you’re Minister, people really pay a lot of attention to what you say. So hopefully, there's nothing in here that will involve me putting my feet in the wrong place.
Thank you to the NRRA and the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience for hosting this summit.
And thank all of you for being here.
I know that we've got a lot of people from a wide cross section of governments, industries, community organisations. And that just shows how many people, from a range of backgrounds, it takes to ensure that our nation and individual regions are well prepared for the natural disasters that, whether we like it or not, are coming our way.
I suppose the first thing I want to recognise is that I am here as a representative of a new Australian government. And the new government, whoever it is, whatever party they're from, obviously brings change. It brings fresh eyes to old problems and brings new opportunities to do things differently. And in fact, to do them better than how we had before.
As the new Minister for Emergency Management in the Australian Government, I want all of us, government and non-government, to do things not just differently, but better. Better than we had in the past, and in fact, transformational in terms of how we approach these issues.
All of you know that one of the greatest challenges we face both here in Australia and across the world is to reverse the trends of changing climate and the amplifying effect it’s having on natural hazards, and subsequently the disasters that they can trigger. I'll touch on this more during my address.
But over the last three years, I've lost count of the number of times that I've heard people talk about particular disasters being unprecedented.
It's a phrase we've heard over and over again, as I say, particularly during the last three years.
We had the Black Summer bushfires, which not only destroyed about 3000 homes across the country and tragically cost 33 lives.
But those fires destroyed rainforest, particularly in my home state of Queensland that had never burned before.
We saw Cyclone Seroja, bringing cyclonic conditions to parts of Western Australia that have never seen them before.
And of course, more recently, we saw the devastating floods in New South Wales and Queensland, bringing record breaking floods, to areas that are well versed in floods, over the last couple of months.
Now, as many of you might be aware, in my Shadow Minister role, I travelled regularly to the bushfire and flood zones, both before the election and before being sworn in as the Minister, and obviously been back more recently as the new minister.
And as I assured to all of those communities, I assure you that I am 100 per cent committed to working side by side with all of you and with those communities to recover and build resilience into the future.
And I also want to thank all of you for the hard work that you've done by preparing for those disasters and assisting those communities in the job of recovery.
Now, of course, just because these disasters were unprecedented, it doesn't mean they were unexpected.
We knew that we faced extreme fire danger, months before Black Summer. You'll remember the ex-fire chiefs who tried to warn the then-Government, but couldn't even secure a meeting to talk about their concerns.
We knew last year before the floods that we faced intense flooding from La Niña conditions.
But again, we saw parts of our country caught unprepared, and funds that had been set aside for disaster mitigation, remaining unused and doing nothing more than $800 million in interest for our predecessors.
Recent disasters such as the floods have challenged all of us and they've revealed the underlying vulnerabilities that exist across society - whether it be housing, power, supply, chains, health and wellbeing, business, economies, and even the way governments work. And this disruption and loss that disasters are causing Australians is obviously heartbreaking.
I see inclusive and collective disaster risk reduction efforts and action as key to building community's resilience.
It is not inevitable that risk continues to grow.
We need people like you and me in the positions that we hold, to stop that risk from growing or emerging in the first place, or at least doing our best to mitigate that risk to create a future that we all want to enjoy and live in, no matter what part of the country we're in.
I think this starts with an acceptance that climate change is real, it is here and that we must act.
As I said, a new government brings new thinking and new opportunities.
And this is possibly the biggest single policy difference between the Albanese Government and our predecessors.
You are no doubt aware of some of the commitments that we've made in the climate change space, not only committing Australia to reach net zero emissions by 2050, but actually having ambitious but realistic targets in the interim at 43 per cent by 2030. And we've obviously come out with a comprehensive plan as to how we intend to deliver that, particularly for serious investments in renewable energy.
Now, I know this is not a climate change conference, but the issues we're talking about are directly related to climate change. So I think it's worth just taking a moment to explain to you what that acceptance of climate change and action on it means from our Government’s point of view.
To start with, I think it means that we can stop the nonsense that we've heard from too many in the political class that climate change isn't real, that it may not be human interest.
Those sorts of comments and those sorts of attitudes is what has led us, as a country, to have a last decade of action on climate change.
And it is these communities that are affected by disasters that are in the frontline of experiencing the results of that attitude, and that level of denial. So that has got to stop.
It also means that we can take action as a country by reducing our emissions and adapting to the new reality that we live in. It means that we can limit the damage for a serious investment in disaster risk reduction in partnership with many of you in the room. And on a more positive side, acceptance that climate change is here and is real and needs action also means that we can take the opportunities that action on climate change brings, especially through cheaper, cleaner energy sources. Now that's something that will be, that whole package is something that will be a whole of government focus.
And I expect to be working closely with colleagues such as Chris Bowen the Climate Change and Energy Minister, his Assistant Minister Senator Jenny McAllister, and the Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, and of course many others as we tackle this challenge going forward.
Now again, I know this isn't a climate change conference, but I think it's really important when you’ve got a new minister from a new government to give you some sense of the direction that we want to go down and why we're looking to do it.
You all know that we need to be better prepared nationally for any scale of event from any source of disruption. While natural hazard events are inevitable, catastrophic disasters don't have to be.
We can work together to take harm out of the system, and reduce the impact of events like bushfires, floods, storms, and cyclones.
Now, in addition to managing disasters through our world class emergency management capabilities, we do need to get ahead of the game and try to stop disasters from impacting people in the first place.
This means targeting and supporting communities and people that are most vulnerable because of where they live, their personal circumstances and the support that's available to them.
When things are going right, our economic, political and social systems lead to a socially thriving and environmentally sustainable Australia.
But when we make poor development decisions, or do not have the right governance and accountability mechanisms in place, we do create vulnerability, leading to people living and working in unsafe and insecure places.
Disaster risk, as all of you know, is growing faster than we are reducing it.
So while infrastructure like flood levees and evacuation shelters will be critical for us to invest in, we need to address the root causes of disaster risk as well.
Issues like poor population and land use planning, underinsurance, poor governance or lack of accountability will be critical.
And what I'm also aware of is that people experiencing poverty and inequality are at greatest risk from disasters. More often than not, it's not the wealthy people living in the cheap land on the floodplain, it’s the people who can't afford to live on top of the hill. And that's very much in my mind, because they do tend to be impacted first, worst and longest.
And most recently, I've seen that with my own eyes in Lismore, that these people are the ones who have the least access to resources to cope, to adapt and recover.
Now we're going to spend a little bit of time talking about this year's flood event, which came of course off the back of the of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Summer bushfires and other significant disaster events, as well as the long-standing drought before that.
As all of you know, the recent floods were tragic. And I know many of you in this room have been impacted in some way. I also know that many of you that contributed to the response that relief and recovery efforts and will continue to stand with communities for as long as it takes, again, I thank you for what you've done.
Now, through the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements, the Commonwealth has committed more than $3 billion to the flood recovery. And I've made a point since taking office and being sworn in just under a month ago to really speed up some of the other measures that had been announced by the former government, but hadn't yet been implemented, at least partly because of an election getting in the way.
So recently, I signed off on the Northern Rivers Resilience Initiative in northern New South Wales, to undertake a rapid study of the region with the CSIRO to focus on better understanding the climate catchment and hydrological drivers are flooding the region. This will inform future investment in the Northern Rivers region to address key issues and reduce future risks.
This is the type of work that we need to see happening all across our nation. I'm also committed to building back better.
And that's why I'm progressing a review into the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements.
I know there's been a couple of reviews announced previously, but they haven't been completed, we want to get that moving. And that's to ensure that our recovery is quicker and more streamlined, but also to see how we can build resilience into this multi-billion dollar program.
Another priority for me is to progress priorities from the Royal Commission into natural disaster arrangements, which found that we need to collectively work together to drive disaster risk reduction outcomes, as well as improve data sharing, warning systems, construction and coordination, both before and after a disaster event. But of course, this is not just a job for the Commonwealth, we need to work together to achieve those Royal Commission outcomes.
And that brings me to the point of shared responsibility. Because we all do have a role to play in reducing disaster risk, whether it be individuals, families, communities, institutions and governments.
All of us have a role and we have different capacities to influence that.
Now, Australia's current National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework points out that reducing disaster risk is everyone's business, well beyond the traditional emergency management sector.
Disaster risks cannot be reduced by individual agencies or sectors on their own. While individuals and communities have important roles to play, they don't control all the levers that are needed to reduce disaster risks. And that's why we do need to see governments at all levels and industry taking coordinated action to reduce that risk. Now, this will only happen if we encourage through collaboration and cooperation. And hopefully, this is something that you've been hearing from the new Government, from the Prime Minister down.
I've seen myself on a number of occasions, the Prime Minister talk about wanting to bring back a spirit of cooperation that into Australian public life, Australian politics, the Australian Parliament.
Because I think we can all agree that we have seen a lot of conflict in recent years.
I’ll put up my hand and say I’ve contributed to it. Both sides of politics have done, all levels of government have done it, particularly outside government as well.
But I certainly picked up particularly when it comes to disaster management, a real sense of conflict fatigue. And I think some of the displays we've seen from politicians at different levels of government, from different parties trying to blame others, finger pointing and not holding hoses is the last thing that disaster victims want to see when all they want to know is that someone is backing them when they want to get back up on their feet. So we are trying to bring back that spirit of cooperation into disaster management.
And I’ll just give you two examples on a personal level.
When I went back to Lismore after the election, for the first time, 10 days after I was sworn in, as the Minister, I made a point of making sure that my very first meeting there was with Kevin Hogan, the federal National Party member for the electorate, Janelle Saffin, the Labor state member for the electorate, and Steve Kreig, the independent Mayor of Lismore.
Because I thought that would send a really powerful message to the community, that no matter what level of government we were in, no matter what party we're from, our focus was going to be how we could work together to mobilise resources and mobilise the organisations under our control to help that community recover. And since that time, and even before that time, I've spoken on a regular basis with all three of those people about how we can collectively improve that region's fortunes.
And even over the last two or three days, over the weekend, I've been speaking to the New South Wales Deputy Premier, Paul Toole, a National Party member about what the region needs and what each of us can bring to the table about the economic recovery in that region.
And again, I think that's what people want to see.
You know, even in the last couple of days, I've had media outlets interviewing me wanting me to take a shot at the New South Wales Government about things. People don't want to see that, people want to see us working together.
Now, I'm not naive. I've been around politics a while. I know that there's going to be times when we're going to have to have a blue, and I've said this to each of those people. But I think what people want to see us do is actually try and work something out before we go to blue. If we have to have a blue, we have to have a blue. But how about we first workout starting to find a solution before we resort to that? And that's certainly the attitude that they were displaying as well. And I think that's a really positive thing for the country.
Now under the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, Australia has established a 2030 vision aligned to the Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction, and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
In addition to our national efforts, keeping an international perspective is important.
Because again, these issues can't be solved by one country acting on their own.
And there's a lot that we can learn and share with other countries.
So I'm really pleased that Brisbane, my hometown, will be hosting the Asia Pacific Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in September. That's the first regional meeting of that organisation since the onset of the pandemic.
This is a key event, which brings together senior representatives from the world's most disaster prone regions to review risk reduction and resilience efforts.
Again, it's an opportunity for more and better collaboration, this time at the international level.
Again, you probably would have seen that the new Government is putting a lot of work into rebuilding some of those relationships with our Asia Pacific neighbours.
And the most obvious benefit of that is in the trade space, the national security space.
But it also matters around issues like disaster risk reduction as well, I think there's a lot of benefits that can come from that.
As you've already heard, this morning, Australia implements our National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework through action plans. And I know that this summit is one of the fundamental inputs in developing the second national action plan. And that will provide the vehicle to drive the actions under that framework forward. All of you know the immense cost that we all bear every time there is a massive natural disaster. And implementing these frameworks through the action plan is a good way of reducing that risk, reducing the cost to the taxpayer, reducing, of course loss and suffering to individuals, and reducing the future costs of disasters.
So just a couple things I should mention in terms of new things that the new Government is doing to progress this as well.
I am already progressing plans to establish a Disaster Ready Fund which will provide up to $200 million per year on ongoing basis for disaster prevention, resilience initiatives.
You might have seen us talk about this in the run up of the election. And I was very critical of the former government's Emergency Response Fund, which now sits at about $4.8 billion and hadn't built a single disaster mitigation project in three years and hadn’t spent a single cent on disaster recovery.
I didn't think that was acceptable and I still don't.
So what we've said is that we would revamp that fund, and actually put those funds to work.
Rather than using keeping them for a rainy day, let's actually start using those funds now to invest in mitigation strategies that we need to keep people safe, to keep their property safe, and to reduce that enormous burden on taxpayers every time we have to spend billions of dollars repairing disaster costs.
So we're already in the process of getting amendments to legislation to try to get them through as quickly as possible so we can convert that fund into something that is a permanent, ongoing, dedicated disaster mitigation fund with a significant amount of money from the federal government that will hopefully be matched by state and territory and local governments as well.
In addition to that, many of you are probably aware that as a result of the change of government and change in departments, there have been some machinery of government changes and one of them affects the NRRA and EM directly. Starting from the first of July, being Friday, the NRRA will move from its current home in Prime Minister and Cabinet to Home Affairs, which is where Emergency Management Australia sits. And the rationale for that is to bring those two agencies closer together, so that we have an end to end disaster management agency that can focus on everything from preparedness to resilience to recovery, as well as immediate response at the Commonwealth level.
So having those two agencies sit within the one department, we think, is a good move to try to streamline those sorts of processes within government. So there is a bit happening already in this space from the Government, even though were still freshly minted.
So in conclusion, can I just wrap by emphasising that I'm incredibly excited about this opportunity.
It is a serious topic that we're talking about.
But I think all of us are drawn to work in this space, because we do have an incredible opportunity to help our fellow Australians.
We have an opportunity to save them from some of the catastrophic damage that we've all seen, the incredible mental anguish that we've all seen, and that slow, painful road to recovery that we've all seen all around the country.
That is an incredibly exciting opportunity.
And I do say that with the change of government with a renewed focus on climate change, and all that comes with it, we have the best opportunity we've had in a very long time to make some serious changes that will assist our communities be better prepared for disasters recover, more quickly and be more resilient to the future disasters that we see lay ahead.
So as I say, I'm certainly going to be taking up a spirit of collaboration with different levels of government, with different political parties with different organisations outside government.
And I'd encourage you to do the same thing. I know that many of you do that already.
But we do have an incredible opportunity now to really see that spirit of goodwill that I think is alive and well within in the Australian community, to do the work that all of us do that little bit better so that it can really make a difference on the ground.
I know that none of us can stop the fires, the cyclones, the floods, or the earthquakes that we know are going to happen.
And we don't want to see people suffer from it. But on behalf of your new government, I give you my commitment that we will be doing all that we can to help Australians be they're prepared, to do a disaster risks and be more resilient in the future.
And I look forward to working with all of us do exactly the same thing.