Darwin Press Conference

November 18, 2020
















SUBJECT/S: Northern Territory COVID-19 response; SA COVID-19 hotspot cases; Morrison Government’s unspent $4b Emergency Response Fund; Disaster season preparation; Brereton Inquiry; Cashless debit card.

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY, LABOR SENATOR FOR NORTHERN TERRITORY: Good morning and thank you for joining us here this morning. I'd like to acknowledge that we are on Larrakia Country and certainly pay our respects to elders past, present and emerging.

This morning, we have with us the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia, Senator Murray Watt. And I certainly welcome Murray here, along with Luke Gosling, our Member for Solomon. We firstly wanted to come and obviously commend the staff across the Northern Territory, in particular here at COVID-19 Operations Centre, for the work they continuously do to keep Territorians safe, but in particular, these last 48 hours or more that have been quite urgent in terms of elevating the concerns around South Australia and the hotspots that have been identified in relation to South Australia. So on that note, I'd like to now introduce Senator Watt.

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA: Thanks very much, Malarndirri. I also would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that we've gathered on today, the Larrakia people, their elders, past and present.

It's wonderful to be able to join my colleagues and good mates Luke and Malarndirri here in Darwin. They do a terrific job standing up for the interests of the Top End in Canberra, so it's great to be here to join them today. The purpose of my visit over the last couple of days is really to get a first-hand briefing on how the Territory is responding to COVID-19. There's obviously a lot of good work underway from the Territory Government with the Reconstruction Commission, the report's due out soon, mapping out a road map for the Northern Territory's economic recovery. And I'm keen to make sure that I can work with Luke, Malarndirri and Warren Snowdon to make sure that the Northern Territory's interests are put first in Canberra by the Morrison Government. So we've had some very useful meetings with the Chief Minister, industry groups, Andrew Liveris and others to outline what the road map is going forward.

For today, what we're focussing on is the combined risks that the Territory is now facing between COVID-19 and the approaching cyclone season. Even before COVID-19 and the most recent outbreak in Adelaide occurred, we have been aware that Darwin and Northern Australia in general faces a very difficult cyclone season this year. The Bureau of Meteorology has already issued warnings that say that Northern Australia is going to be facing higher than average cyclone risks and flood risks this summer, as a result of the La Niña conditions that we're currently facing. It's an issue in North Queensland, it's also an issue here in Northern Territory, and it will be in the north of Western Australia as well. Of course, the most recent outbreak of COVID-19 in Adelaide and the implications it has for the Northern Territory and the rest of the country only make the job of preparing for the coming cyclone season that much more difficult for the officers dealing with it. And we really thank Superintendent Gill for the tour that he provided to us and the advice that he provided to us today about how the Territory is preparing.

What this really highlights more than anything else is how urgent it is that we see a proper preparation plan from the Federal Government for the coming cyclone season. All of Australia, I think, was horrified last year when we saw what the Morrison Government's failure to prepare for the bushfires resulted in. They were warned well in advance that we faced unprecedented bushfires in the southern part of this country, and yet they failed to prepare and fail to take action. And we all saw the result of that, in the loss of life and the loss of properties and the loss of species that resulted from those fires. I'm really concerned that we face something similar this time in the north of our country, but this time from cyclones and floods. We aren't seeing the level of preparation from the Morrison Government for the coming disaster season. And in fact, they are continuing to sit on a $4 billion Emergency Response Fund that was announced by this Government 18 months ago and that they have not spent a single cent from. So 18 months ago, in last year's Federal Budget, the Government announced a $4 billion fund that was available to fund disaster recovery and disaster mitigation works. But not a cent of that fund has been spent, 18 months on. So it's another example of the Morrison Government only really caring about making an announcement and getting a headline and actually never following through on delivering on their promises. We've seen that in the Northern Territory on the NAIF, we've seen it on road funding and now we're seeing in emergency response funding as well. So time is running out for us to get properly prepared for this coming cyclone season. We've heard from the officials inside today that having COVID and the social distancing that that means, means that there are going to be fewer people able to be accommodated in cyclone shelters. The Federal Government knows all this, they know what's coming down the train. And yet they're sitting on these funds, not spending them and putting lives and properties in the Northern Territory at risk. They've got to get moving. We're running out of time. And I really hope that they listen to these warnings and take action, unlike what they did last year. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Of the $4 billion how much of that needs to be allocated to the Northern Territory?

WATT: There's no specific allocation for particular regions. The way that fund is set up is $4 billion in total and the Government is able to spend up to $200 million per year out of that fund on a mixture of disaster recovery and mitigation projects. So some of it is to repair damage and provide grants to people when they've gone through disasters. But when we know that we are going to be facing more natural disasters in the future due to climate change, there are funds that are available to build cyclone shelters, to build evacuation centres, to improve communications technology so that emergency services can communicate with each other more easily than they are at the moment. So that money could be being used right here in the Northern Territory as well as other parts of the country. I know that there are many parts of the Northern Territory, particularly in remote communities, where there are cyclone shelters needed. That money could have been used over the last 12 months to get ourselves ready for the coming cyclone season. But instead, they're still sitting in Scott Morrison's bank account.

JOURNALIST: Do you know how many more cyclone shelters we would need?

WATT:  Look, I've been given different reports of that, but I know that there are at least several remote communities that probably could do with better cyclone shelters than what they currently have. It wasn't that long ago that in Cyclone Trevor we saw people from the Borroloola community have to be evacuated and brought to facilities in Darwin to keep them safe. Obviously, it's much better if we can have the facilities in place on site in communities to keep people safe so that they don't have to go away from their traditional land and their loved ones.

JOURNALIST: Which remote communities were the ones that are needing new cyclone shelters?

WATT: Look, I've seen reports, including from the ABC, about a greater need for these sort of facilities in Borroloola and other nearby communities - probably better off leaving it to one of my local colleagues to give you that level of detail.

JOURNALIST: In terms of economic reconstruction and conversations you've had, tell me a bit about what conversations have been like so far?

WATT: Well, I really want to commend the Northern Territory Government for putting in the effort to get a really good road map about how the Northern Territory is going to recover from this recession. Obviously, every state and territory is different, they have a different industry base, COVID has impacted on them in different ways. So it's really important to have something that's really tailored to the needs of the Northern Territory.

It's pretty clear that the Northern Territory has potential to keep building on some of its traditional strengths, whether it be in areas like tourism, agriculture, mining and resources. But there are also newer opportunities emerging as well in things like renewable energy, in some of the critical minerals and rare earths and things like that. And I want to make sure that the Federal Government is putting its shoulder to the wheel, not just leaving it for the Territory Government to have to do this on its own. Obviously, the Northern Territory has a relatively small population and therefore has a relatively small revenue base. It's not going to be able to deliver on the Northern Territory's potential without a big contribution from the Federal Government. We've obviously seen the Morrison Government try to take away one of the House of Representatives seats from the Northern Territory to reduce the representation of the Northern Territory in Canberra. What they should be doing is exactly the opposite, they should actually be putting in more effort to develop the north, provide jobs in the north and keep building on the population increases that we're starting to see here.

JOURNALIST: Do you feel like that commission, or that group of people, do have a focus on renewable energy at the moment?

WATT: Yeah, I do. My impression from, again, meeting with the Chief Minister yesterday, Andrew Liveris, and speaking to other people who are involved in this Reconstruction Commission, is that they are looking at all options to develop the Territory and to provide jobs. I don't think they're in the business of picking winners, but they can see that whether we're talking about gas, whether we're talking about renewables, there are huge opportunities that still await the Northern Territory and huge potential to create jobs. Obviously, developments like the Sun Cable one outside Tennant Creek have incredible potential to supply power into South East Asia and provide local jobs at the same time.

And that's the message, I suppose, that Federal Labor is trying to get through, is that we don't have to be forced to choose between jobs and the environment. From the time he took on the leadership of the Labor Party, Anthony Albanese has been saying there are actually big job opportunities in the environment and in climate change, especially in regional areas like the Northern Territory. So we're very keen to work with the Northern Territory Government to deliver on those. And I'm really hopeful that Scott Morrison is prepared to as well.

JOURNALIST: Just in terms of the emergency planning, again. You talked a bit about telecommunications. From the conversations that you've had so far, do you feel like we're prepared in terms of that? What do we need to improve?

WATT: Look, I think from any jurisdiction that I've spoken to, whether it be here in the Northern Territory, or I was in Batemans Bay on the south coast of New South Wales last week talking about these issues as well. I think there is recognition that some of our I.T, phones, computer networks, do need upgrading. To be able to get the data through in an urgent way when people need it requires often better communication technology than what is currently in place. So I don't think the Northern Territory is unique in that way. Anywhere I've been around the country is operating in some cases with technology that really does need to be upgraded. I think it was the Blue Mountains that I was in last year where they were having actual problems just getting satellite imagery through to emergency centres because of the lack of broadband capacity. So making sure that people have instant information is critical to keeping lives safe and to saving as much property as we can.

LUKE GOSLING, MEMBER FOR SOLOMON: I just wanted to thank Senator Watt for coming to Darwin yet again - he's a frequent visitor to the Northern Territory. What he was saying is absolutely correct. We are going into a cyclone season. On the top of that, we have had COVID which is continuing to provide challenges. The people who are working here in the operations centre are doing an amazing job dealing with the South Australia/Adelaide cluster, and what that means for keeping Territorians safe is exactly what is happening in this building and around the Territory. I just want to commend the amazing job that they're doing.

We've seen with the Federal Government lots of announcements with very little follow through, whether it be roads, Kakadu. Funding announced on the never-never is not helpful. It was good this morning to speak again with Paul Henderson, the former Chief Minister, Andrew Liveris, the proponents from Sun Cable about that massive solar project for the Northern Territory. This is really game changing stuff for the Territory. We look forward to the report coming out in the coming weeks. But I think it bodes well for the Territory that, with the Federal Government's support, can really go ahead in leaps and bounds. Industry are ready to step up and drive the development we need. The Northern Territory Government's ready. We need the Federal Government to join us. If that happens then the future is bright for the Northern Territory.

JOURNALIST: In terms of the inquiry into alleged war crimes and given your past experience in defence, do you believe that there does need a change in culture in the way things are going?

GOSLING: What the Brereton Inquiry has shown is that there have been some very serious incidents by Australian troops in Afghanistan. It's obvious that there are some cultural issues that need to be dealt with, and I think from the Chief of the Defence Force down there is an acknowledgement that those cultures need to be addressed. So I think when the report comes down tomorrow, I think Australians can be confident that there's already been a lot of work done in defence to address these issues. What's really important is people get behind the outcomes of this inquiry. It's important not only to re-establish Australia's reputation in the world, but also we need to rebuild the capability. It's not only been tactical failures that have occurred. A lack of leadership at a tactical level, through the chain of command including into federal politics, we've had a situation where Special Forces troops have done multiple tours without enough rest and restoring themselves before going back into the fight again. I think what we've seen is that has led to some cultures that have had really bad outcomes. So I think there's lessons to be learnt not only at the tactical level with these junior commanders, senior commanders, and also we need to take lessons from this as a nation about how we commit our troops to battle and the support that we give them.

So what's really important now with this report becoming public is that there is support there for our people and for their families. Australians did a magnificent job in Afghanistan. Australian soldiers did a magnificent job in Afghanistan. A small percentage of troops have failed, have done the wrong thing. So the process needs now to follow through. We support the Special Investigation Commission and the work that it will do now to hold those who have failed to account. We need to support that process. We need to fix the issues. But we can be proud, Australia can be proud of our defence force. And I know that the Defence Force will take these matters very seriously.

JOURNALIST: During your time with defence did you ever experience that culture of intimidation and so on?

GOSLING: The Australian Defence Force is a robust organisation. What we're talking about here is Australians fighting for Australia and our interests in war, so the context for what has happened over in Afghanistan, it's been conducted in a war setting. But as a country that's proud of our international obligations, we signed up to conduct ourselves under rules of law in regards to the way we conduct warfare. What the inquiry has shown is that those rules of engagement were not followed in every case. But I stress again that the majority of the actions of our troops in Afghanistan, an overwhelming majority, has just been a sterling effort in doing a difficult job over many, many years. I didn't serve in Afghanistan with the Australian Army, but I worked there doing security roles and I understand how difficult the operating environment is. I think we let down some of these troops by sending them continually back, and back, and back, without the ability for them to rest, to recharge before going back into the fight again. I think we've learnt those lessons, I hope that we've learnt these lessons and we need to take this inquiry very seriously to make sure that these cultures are stamped out so that we can be absolutely 100 per cent proud of the work that our people are doing in our name overseas.

JOURNALIST: Malarndirri, we really want to talk about cashless debit, why doesn't Labor support it?

MCCARTHY: Well, the evidence is overwhelming that the card and income management does not work according to the rules of this Government. They have certainly done a review, paid $2.4 million to the South Australian university to do an evaluation of the current trials across Australia and said they would wait for that evaluation. The Government didn't wait. It made legislation and introduced it into the House of Representatives, ensuring that these areas of trials would be made permanent. Now, we've had numerous inquiries, which have been overwhelming - the evidence to our Senate committees - where the income management and certainly the card, the cashless debit card, does not work.

JOURNALIST: Why do you feel like they didn't wait for that research?

MCCARTHY: Well, you could ask the Government this, but they've certainly got form in this area. We continuously asked ‘what kind of consultation are you doing? Are you listening to the academics, the experts, to the people on the ground who use these cards?’ They don't want it. They don't want it. And then for the Government to go ahead and introduce legislation against its own, you know, evaluation report even being completed, it just shows the dis-compassionate nature of the Morrison Government towards people who are low socio-economic in terms of their life. 

JOURNALIST: What are people on the ground telling you, what are the impacts of having something like the Basic Card on their life?

MCCARTHY: We've seen with the Basics Card over 13 years, there has been no evidence to show that that has actually worked either. And these are important evaluation records that have shown us, well, if that particular form of income management hasn't actually worked, then why move on to the cashless debit card, which is going to increase your income management from 50 per cent to 80 per cent, with the Minister having discretion to take 100 per cent of your income so you have no cash? It's completely unfair. It's certainly not based on evidence. And again, it shows that there is no compassion whatsoever for any other Australians who are living very disadvantaged lives.

JOURNALIST: We're hearing the amount quarantined won't actually increase for Territorians on the Basics Card when they do transition. Can you explain how exactly that would work, because we're hearing from the Government that it would give them greater flexibility and so on.

MCCARTHY: But it doesn't say that in legislation. You see, this is the problem that we're having, the Government saying one thing out there talking to people, when in actual fact, if you look at where this legislation is going, we know that this legislation is about trialling the 25,000 people in the Northern Territory purely for the purpose of rolling the cashless debit card right out across Australia and eventually targeting people like pensioners. Already we are seeing the real concerns of this cashless debit card. We've heard from people who've been close to committing suicide on this. I mean, is this going to be Robo-Debt Number Two?

JOURNALIST: For a lot of people this system, which was designed to discourage people from spending welfare on alcohol and cigarettes, would sound like a good idea, why do you think it's not working? Why's it not discouraging that?

MCCARTHY: Well, there's no evidence. There is no evidence to show that those comments in relation to alcohol and gambling or lessening that, that there is no evidence showing that that actually works. Yet the Government still chooses to go ahead and to punish people who are less than them in terms of the wealth that they earn or don't earn, and in terms of the disadvantage that they're already experiencing. It's disgraceful behaviour by this Government to keep pushing down the most disadvantaged Australians in this country. And that's all people who are living on some form of Centrelink support.

JOURNALIST: We're hearing from people that they feel it's racist. Would you agree with that?

MCCARTHY: Well, it certainly looks that way. If you compare here in the Northern Territory in particular, most of the people who were on the Basics Card are First Nations people. So, of course, out of the near 25,000 people we're going to see are going to be First Nations people. But let's remember, this isn't just about race. At the heart of all Australians those who do not earn the same as the Ministers in this Government are going to be punished. If you are a disability care worker, if you are a single parent, you are going to be on this cashless debit card. If you are a pensioner, be prepared, because no doubt the Government is coming for you for this cashless debit card. So anyone who requires support, as they might rightly need in terms of our system of supporting those who are less able to support themselves, this Government is punishing them for that very fact.

JOURNALIST: And obviously, they'd have to spend a lot of money to transition. Do you think that money wasted?

MCCARTHY: Well, let's have a look at it. I mean, because the cashless debit card is around $12,000 per participant. I mean, do the maths on that for 25,000 people just in the Territory alone. And then let's have a look at the cost the Government says that they're going to put in for transition, $15 million or thereabouts, we could certainly be using that kind of funds for the establishment of houses across the Northern Territory. There are better ways of using that kind of funding.