October 27, 2021



SUBJECTS: Morrison Government’s unspent $4.7 billion disaster fund; disaster-prone regions being left vulnerable

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO, HOST: An Emergency Response Fund was set up, $4 billion is sitting in what was meant to help those recovering from disasters like bushfires and floods. But despite natural disasters occurring, no one has been able to access this money as yet. Murray Watt is the Shadow Minister of Disaster and Emergency Management and joins us now. Murray, good morning.

MURRAY WATT, LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: G’day Stephen , how are you going?

CENATIEMPO: Is this just typical bureaucratic red tape? Or is there some structural problem with his fund?

WATT: Well, to be honest Stephen, what I'd say is it is another example of this federal government that we've got loving to get out there and make an announcement and then not following through. As you said, this emergency response fund was set up two years ago, and I shouldsay with Labor's support, we backed it in, we thought it was a good idea. But we're sitting here now two years on, and not a single cent has been spent from this fund. So that's $4 billion that’s been available either for disaster recovery or mitigation. And in fact, probably the worst part is that because it's been sitting unused, it's actually earned the government over $700 million in interest in that time. So no one else is getting any benefit from this other than the Morrison government and their bank account.

CENATIEMPO: I mean, that's our money, Murray, so I’ve got no problem with making money on it. But who's eligible for this? Is it something that local governments have to apply for? Or who's actually eligible to apply for money from this fund?

WATT: It's pretty wide. I mean, basically, the intent was really set up to assist community organisations and local governments with their recovery efforts. But the eligibility criteria are very broad. So there's all sorts of options for how the government could be using it. As you would know, there are still people recovering from the black summer bushfires in this region and still need support, it's really disturbing that we still get reports of people living in caravans and temporary accommodation. But the other part of it, I think it's a real worry that these funds can also be used for disaster mitigation. So building, whether it be flood levees, or fire breaks or investing in telecommunications, that will mean that we don't suffer as bad disasters in the future and that people are protected. And we don't sort of suffer the billions of dollars of losses that the taxpayer has to pick up. So it's not much good, this money just sitting with the government, it should be being used, as it was…as we were told it would be used - to help people on the ground.

CENATIEMPO: Yeah, absolutely. Do we know how many people have actually made applications to get access to these funds?

WATT: Well, what has happened so far is that the government finally agreed to release $50 million of the funding for a flood mitigation program. And they have taken applications. And my understanding is it was really oversubscribed, which just shows you the number of people around the country who want to do these kinds of things. The government has now made an announcement about the grants that will be provided and from memory it's 20-odd people or 20-odd groups who will receive funding. But what we found out from Senate estimates this week is that none of those groups have yet received funding. So even, you know, they made their announcement two years ago, haven't delivered. They've announced a flood mitigation fund a few months ago, haven't delivered. We're about to enter another disaster season. We're about to have the third disaster season in a row since this fund was first established, and we haven't seen a single project even started, let alone completed.

CENATIEMPO: Which is counterproductive. Who's the Minister responsible?

WATT: It’s now Bridget McKenzie, so previously it was David Littleproud, the Emergency Management Minister and Bridget McKenzie took that on in the recent reshuffle. So I was asking some questions about it, the other night at estimates with her and her bureaucrats. And I have to say the answers weren't very satisfactory.

CENATIEMPO: What answers did they give you? Because I mean, if the money is sitting there, I mean, there's actually I mean, apart from the fact that, you know, there's interest being earned or not, but $700 million sounds like fairly good earn to me. There seems to be no rationale why the government wouldn't release this money?

WATT: Well, the first answer from Bridget McKenzie was that she's only recently come into the portfolio and she can't be blamed for anything before. So that old one. But once we get beyond that, the answer that the government usually gives is that these funds were only intended to be used when all other funding sources were used up. But my answer to that is, if they've got other funding sources available, why are they not using them? Why are people still in caravans and temporary accommodations? Why are we not seeing flood levees, firebreaks, cyclone shelters being built if there are other funds available? The whole point in this fund being created was to provide specific funds so we didn't have to raid the budget every year, and we could make these kinds of investments. So it's not much good, with that money just sitting there unused, earning interest for the government. It should be being used for what the government promised it would be used for.

CENATIEMPO: Absolutely. Well, we'll make some inquiries of our own Murray. I really appreciate you bringing this to our attention this morning.

WATT: Good on ya Stephen, nice to talk.