SATURDAY, 21 NOVEMBER 2020
SUBJECT/S: Scott Morrison’s unspent $4bn Emergency Response Fund; Australians at risk from failure to spend mitigation funds; approaching disaster season.
MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Thanks for coming along today. This month is the 10th anniversary of when the heavens opened up above Brisbane and above Queensland following a La Niña weather condition that brought huge cyclones, rains and floodwaters across the north of our state and right down into south east Queensland and northern New South Wales. We're standing above the Brisbane River and I think everyone around the country will remember the shocking images that we saw above the Brisbane River as it flooded, it broke its banks and tragically, 33 lives were lost. Thousands of properties, thousands of businesses destroyed, homes ruined, lives ruined as a result of those La Niña conditions that tore our state apart.
The reason we're talking about that is that this summer, our country again faces devastating La Niña conditions, which are expected to bring cyclones and floods, certainly across the north of our country, but also down south as well. The Bureau of Meteorology has already issued warnings to the Federal Government that say that this summer, because of La Niña, we face higher than average risk of cyclones and floods across the north of our country and into New South Wales as well. And that's, of course, in addition to warnings that we've received that we will be facing bushfires again in some parts of the country as well.
So it's very disturbing that despite these warnings that the Federal Government is receiving, they're asleep at the wheel and not adequately preparing for the disaster season that we face. We saw that last year in this country when the Federal Government and Prime Minister Scott Morrison failed to prepare for the bushfires that tore apart our country. They failed to prepare. They failed to plan. They failed to respond. And we all saw the consequences of that. Scott Morrison and his Government had the warnings last year that we faced unprecedented bushfires. And despite that, they refused to prepare. They refused to put on the aerial firefighters that could have kept Australians safe. They refused to even meet with ex-fire chiefs who just wanted to warn about the dangers that we faced and the action that we could take. And they're doing it again.
Despite these warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology about cyclone and flood conditions across so much of our country, the Government is failing to prepare. Right now, the Government is sitting on a $4 billion Emergency Response Fund that they announced 18 months ago in last year's federal Budget. And they have still not spent a cent from. That fund, a $4 billion fund, is available to fund disaster recovery and disaster mitigation projects right across the country. And now, even though we've got another La Niña condition bearing down upon us, they haven't spent a single cent.
Now just over the last few weeks, I've been in various parts of the country - in Batemans Bay which needs a new fire station, in Darwin just this week which needs new cyclone shelters across its remote communities, I've been in Mackay which needs funding to upgrade its showgrounds so that it can be properly prepared for disasters. And despite all of this evidence that there is a desperate need for this funding to happen to keep Australians safe, this money is still sitting in Scott Morrison's bank account.
I don't know what it's going to take for this Prime Minister and his Government to actually respond to warnings that it's receiving from its own agencies that we face incredible disaster conditions, for them to get off their bum and actually just start spending the money that they've put aside for this exact purpose. The longer that Scott Morrison and his Government sit on this funding and refuse to spend it, the more Australians whose lives are going to be put at risk and the more properties we stand to lose and other damage as well. Happy to take any questions.
JOURNALIST: Is it not the case that it's been legislated that the Government can only spend the ERF if all other funds have been exhausted?
WATT: Yeah, I know that the latest excuse that the Government has come up with is that the Emergency Response Fund can't be used until other funds are exhausted. Well, if there are other funds that are available for the Government to be using, why do we still have people on the south coast of New South Wales who are still living in caravans nearly a year after they experienced bushfires? Why is it that the Batemans Bay fire station needs upgrading and hasn't got the funds to do so? Why is it that right across the Northern Territory and North Queensland, there are communities that desperately need cyclone shelters and haven't got the funds to build them?
If there are funds available from the Federal Government so that they don't need to use the ERF, then get on and use them. In the end, it doesn't really matter what fund these projects are paid for from, as long as the Government actually gets on and does it. This is just another excuse from Scott Morrison and his Government. All they ever like to do is get out there and make announcements, but they never follow through.
JOURNALIST: So you're basically saying that we're woefully underprepared for this disaster season?
WATT: Yeah we are woefully underprepared as a country for the coming disaster season. We know from the Bureau of Meteorology that we face La Niña conditions, above-average risk of cyclones and floods, along with bushfires as well. And still, the Government is sitting on this fund, not willing to use it to keep Australians safe. It's not just me saying this, Queensland's biggest insurer, Suncorp, recently said that we face a devastating disaster season this year and that our country is no better prepared for the natural disaster season than we were last year. Now, we saw what happened last year when we weren't adequately prepared. I'm very concerned that we face more loss of life, more loss of property and more damage to businesses and homes as a result of the Morrison Government not preparing for this disaster season.
JOURNALIST: So Murray, you say that there's just a chronic underspend on mitigation projects?
WATT: Yeah, the Morrison Government is chronically underspending on mitigation projects. Only a few years ago, this Government received a report from the Productivity Commission that recommended that the Federal Government spend $200 million a year on mitigation projects. Now, the Emergency Response Fund can help with part of that, and they're still not spending those monies that are available to spend and to keep Australians safe. They are putting Australians' lives at risk. They are putting businesses and homes in danger when it just doesn't need to happen. We're not asking the Government to go and find new money to do this. Everyone knows that money's tight at the moment. But I just cannot understand why Scott Morrison continues to sit on a $4 billion fund that the Opposition voted with him to create and is not willing to spend that money. It's grossly negligent and it's putting Australians lives at risk.
JOURNALIST: When you voted to create that fund was it part of the legislation that it can't be touched until all the other funds are exhausted? That is correct, isn't it?
WATT: Yeah, it is correct that the legislation says that the Emergency Response Fund can't be used until other funds are used. And as I say, this is just an excuse that the Government has come up with to hide the fact that it's been caught out yet again, making an announcement and not actually delivering. As I say, if that's the Government's excuse, that there are other funds available, well, why are people still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt in bushfire areas? Why is the Bega community having to crowd-fund to build toilets at its evacuation centre? I know that because I've met with them. Why is it that so many communities don't have cyclone shelters? If the Government is relying on this excuse to stop using the Emergency Response Fund, well it must have funds available and these people don't need to be waiting. So get on with it. The summer is nearly here, we've already seen bushfires in some parts of the country. Sydney is facing flood conditions because its dams are nearly full. We've got grass fires a risk outside Canberra. Various parts of the country face different disaster risks. And still, Scott Morrison is sitting on this fund, not willing to use it.