SENATOR MURRAY WATT
SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT
LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND
SATURDAY, 5 MARCH 2022
SUBJECTS: Flood emergency; Shane Warne; Lismore flood victims abandoned by Morrison Government; Shane Stone MIA; Bridget McKenzie says unused $4.8 billion Emergency Fund is “like a term deposit”; Alan Tudge; impact of floods on housing stock; Labor’s Disaster Ready Fund.
MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Well, thanks very much for coming along here today to Milton State School, which is right in the middle of some of the worst damage that we've seen from the Queensland floods over the last week and a bit. Can I begin first of all, just by acknowledging the passing of a great Australian hero Shane Warne on overnight. I think after seeing the untimely death of Rod Marsh yesterday, I think any of us who saw this news this morning were pretty shocked that another Australian cricket great has passed away. And in Shane's case, in particular, so soon, so young. All of us remember, I think some of those great deliveries, the ball of the century, and the great play and great showmanship of Shane Warne and I know that he will be missed by so many Australians.
Of course, the floods have also contributed a terrible number of fatalities both here in Queensland and New South Wales. In Queensland, we have now recorded 10 fatalities and I understand in New South Wales there are now five fatalities and of course there are people still missing in both states. Our hearts go out to all the family members and friends of people who we've lost so far. And it's another reminder about exactly how deadly these floods have been, and will continue to be in the future. Here in Brisbane and in Queensland we're now moving towards recovery. And I want to thank on behalf of federal Labor, the thousands of Queenslanders who are out there today as part of the mud army, helping with the clean up. We can see here at Milton, there's a lot to be done and I know that's the case all around Southeast Queensland as well. In the last few days, I've been to pretty much every spot in southeast Queensland that's been flooded, including Gympie and the Sunshine Coast yesterday. I've done a bit of help cleaning up as well and I know so many other people are too. So we are seeing some fantastic community spirit on display, both here in Queensland and over the border in New South Wales as well. And I want to commend people for what they're doing.
The one group we aren't really seeing on the ground, though, is the Morrison Government or any of their representatives. The floods in Queensland happened over a week ago, they started on the Sunshine Coast, and it's taken until today before we've seen the Federal Minister for Disaster Management be seen on a flood zone anywhere in the country. And I don't think we've still seen the head of Scott Morrison's disaster agency, Shane Stone, be out on the ground, working with people about what needs to be done. I'm really concerned in particular about the scenes and stories that we're seeing emerge from Lismore. Lismore seems to be the worst affected spot in the country by these floods and I'm extremely distressed about the reports that are emerging about people feeling completely abandoned without any government support whatsoever. Some of the media reports we've seen today have Lismore locals basically saying where the f*** are they when they're talking about government support. Not seeing the army, not seeing other the government workers there to help them with the massive clean up effort that is going to be required, particularly in places like Lismore and northern New South Wales. So we really need to make sure that Scott Morrison pulls his finger out, gets support out there on the ground, we need to see Shane Stone on the ground. He gets an awful lot of money to run that disaster agency. The train wreck interview he gave with Sky News yesterday showed that he doesn't understand how his own funding arrangements work. We need to see the federal government visible, having a real presence and contributing all of the resources that are required to help people get back up on their feet.
The other thing that the federal government can be doing is finally making use of its dormant Emergency Response Fund. I've been saying a lot about this over the last few days and in fact, over the last couple of years, I've been asking questions of the federal government about what they are going to be doing with this Emergency Response Fund. It was set up three years ago with $4 billion in it at the time, it was put in place to allocate up to $200 million dollars a year for disaster recovery and disaster mitigation. And we're now in our third disaster season since that fund was established. We haven't seen a cent spent from that fund on disaster recovery. And we haven't seen a single disaster mitigation project built after three years. And I think all of us are sitting here wondering what good would that fund have done if Scott Morrison and his government were absolutely prepared to use it in the way that they said they would. Now I was astonished to see some comments by Emergency Management Minister Bridget McKenzie this morning in her press conference in Gympie, where she has referred to this Emergency Response Fund as being “like a term deposit, or like your superannuation savings”, basically something to put away there and never actually use. How out of touch is it for Bridget McKenzie to be talking about billions of dollars of taxpayers funds that could be used to help people right now, and talking about it being a term deposit, or superannuation, or some big piggy bank that grows out of control and actually does nothing to help people. This fund has earned the government over $800 million in interest over the last three years, but it hasn't spent a cent on disaster recovery and it hasn't built a single disaster mitigation project. For Bridget McKenzie to be now saying it's like a term deposit, it just shows yet again, that the Liberal and National parties think that taxpayers money is Liberal and National party money. This is not the government's money. This isn't Scott Morrison's money. This isn't Bridget McKenzie's money. This is taxpayer’s money. People have worked hard, paid their taxes to help establish this fund so it's available when we face these kinds of unprecedented natural disasters like what we're seeing at the moment. That money needs to be used to build flood mitigation projects and other disaster mitigation projects. And it needs to be used to help people in Lismore, here in Brisbane, and further afield to help get back up on their feet.
The one other thing I just want to comment on more broadly is the situation around former minister Alan Tudge. Now as usual, Scott Morrison sneaked out this report late on a Friday afternoon, in the middle of the floods, when he knew no one was looking, because he wanted to bury yet another scandal involving a minister in his government. This minister and this government have become so chaotic, that we're now getting used to this drip feed of bad stories about ministers late on a Friday afternoon in the hope that no one will see them. And the fact that the government wants to hide this until the election is made even more clear when you see Alan Tudge’s statement. Where he's given this mealy mouthed response saying that he doesn't want to return to the front bench before the election. Well, what about after the election? Is he going to be just swept under the carpet until the election and stop being a distraction for this government, only to be brought back on the front bench after the election? If Scott Morrison take these issues seriously about women's safety, particularly in the workplace, then he should rule out that Alan Tudge will come back onto his front bench after the election, whatever the result. It's not good enough to be sweeping these kinds of scandals under the carpet in the hope that people forget about them in the run up to an election and bring them back afterwards. Scott Morrison has got a terrible record and his government has got a terrible record when it comes to the protection of women. And this is another example of that involving Alan Tudge. Happy to take any questions.
WATT: Well, I'm pleased that the federal government has finally activated that support for Queensland businesses, farmers and other community groups. That's something that I was out yesterday on the Sunshine Coast calling for the federal government to do. These are just the usual disaster arrangements that happen after any natural disaster. So I'm not quite sure why the Federal Government thinks it should be getting a big pat on the back for just doing its job. The point about the Emergency Response Fund is that it has now grown to nearly $5 billion, because it's been basically just sitting there unused, earning interest for Scott Morrison and his government. There is a big bucket of funding there available to be used for large disasters. And if people don't think that we've been through a large disaster in southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales, they just haven't been looking.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned where have they been. Surely that doesn’t matter if the supports there.
WATT: Certainly having been into a flood zone basically every day over the last week myself, and having been with Anthony Albanese, our federal leader, who made it here within a couple of days of the floods this week, there is nothing like being on the ground, talking to people, to hear what is going on and what they need. I've certainly gained very useful feedback from people about the support that they need, whether that be financial support, or support from the army to clear things or mental health support, anything at all. You don't get that feedback if you're not out on the ground. It's one thing to be sitting in Canberra, in air conditioned offices getting briefings from people. It's another thing to be out here getting your hands dirty, in the, in the humidity, the muggy weather that we're experiencing now. That's how you actually find out from people and it's about time we saw some federal government presence that they were actually doing that.
WATT: Well, we've been saying for a long time is that this country is going through an affordable housing crisis and that existed well before these floods came along. Of course the floods are going to exacerbate it with so many houses being damaged and potentially unliveable over the next few months, Labor has already announced that if we're elected, we will set up a Housing Australia Fund, which will help build more affordable and social housing for those who need it in our community. And that need is going to be even greater after these floods. I should have mentioned this in relation to the Emergency Response Fund as well. Labor isn't just criticising what the federal government is doing, we're actually putting out positive solutions of our own. In January, during his trip through Queensland, Anthony Albanese announced that we would revamp this dormant fund that has done nothing from the federal government and turn it into a dedicated permanent disaster mitigation fund that will spend up to $200 million a year on things like flood levees, cyclone shelters, bushfire evacuation centres, better drainage systems. The kinds of things that we could have really done with in the run up to these floods. If we had a government that was prepared to plan ahead, look over the horizon, get prepared for what we know is coming, then we could be investing in these kinds of things, keeping people safe, keeping properties safe, and saving the billions of dollars that we now know taxpayers are going to be up for in terms of repair costs. Over and over again from Scott Morrison and his government we've seen that they don't plan ahead. With the bushfires, they knew they were coming and weren't organised, weren't ready to get act, a very slow response. With the vaccines, they weren't planning ahead and getting supplies for Australians. With rapid antigen tests they weren't planning ahead and making sure that we had them. And we're now in this laughable situation where Australian manufacturers are making rapid antigen tests and exporting them at a time when Australians couldn't get them. And here we are in the middle of floods, where yet again, we haven't seen that proper investment from a government that plans ahead. We know that as a country, we face more natural disasters in the future. That's why we've got to be investing now in the flood levees, the drainage systems, the cyclone shelters and the bushfire evacuation centres to keep Australians safe. Thanks, everyone.