March 07, 2022






SUBJECTS: Northern NSW floods; flood recovery; Morrison Government’s failure to invest in disaster prevention; housing; crippling insurance prices; Labor’s Disaster Ready Fund; Morrison fails to lead in a crisis, yet again.
PATRICK DEEGAN, LABOR CANDIDATE FOR PAGE: It's really good to have our federal and state colleagues here in Lismore today, to understand what it's like here on the ground for this disaster that has unfolded in Lismore and right across the region. There is a job to be done. There's the immediate job to respond to the emergency, and then there's the longer term job to be done to recover and rebuild. I'll now hand over to our local state MP Janelle Saffin.

JANELLE SAFFIN, STATE MEMBER FOR LISMORE: Thank you, Patrick. I'm really pleased to have my colleagues here from State Parliament, but also from Federal Parliament, all in shadow ministries, portfolios, because I want as many people as possible to come here who can shine a light on this humanitarian disaster. I've been through 40 years of floods, I've never seen anything like this. It requires a very different response to the normal disaster response. It requires a Reconstruction Commission, it requires money for private infrastructure, it requires a rethink for how we do insurance because most people don't have insurance in this area, and a whole rethink about how we support business to stand up. I've said to everybody locally, we'll get through this. We can do it and we will. But our locals have proved just how wonderful they are, all the rescues they did. But what we need is the government to step up. And we particularly need them to open their chequebooks right now. I'll hand over to the Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles, my former federal parliamentary colleague.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thank you. It's great to be here today with Patrick Deegan Labor's candidate for Page, Janelle Saffin the state Member for Lismore, Senator Murray Watt, Labor's Shadow Minister for Disaster Management and Jihad Dib, the state Shadow Minister for Emergency Services and flood relief. It is a very confronting experience to see what has happened here in Lismore. Today, we've heard completely harrowing stories of survival, but very heroic stories of survival as well, within a community which has clearly gone through a deeply traumatic experience. As was said to me during the day, floods are a way of life here, but what's been experienced in this phenomenon is not just floods, this is a catastrophe. And a catastrophe of an unprecedented scale. And you can look around the main streets of Lismore and that is very plain to see. Can I say that all of those who are here in uniform, those in Australian Defence Force, those in the police, state emergency workers, have done an incredible job helping this community. Volunteers have been remarkable in the way in which they have demonstrated the Australian spirit, but more than anything that people of Lismore and the Northern Rivers have been exceptional in the way in which they have demonstrated what 'Australian community' means. To look after each other, and to get people through an unimaginable crisis. And there is something inspiring in hearing those stories. 

But the scale of what we're seeing here makes clear that normal responses are just not going to cut it. This is a disaster on a national scale, which demands a national response. You're talking about the need to provide food, accommodation, debris removal. We need to make sure that people are safe in terms of their health, in relation to disease, which is now going to be an issue. We need to make sure that money is flowing for businesses to get back on their feet. For individuals to get back on their feet, people who have seen their life's work literally be washed away, and their dreams removed. This is an unbelievably dispiriting event for everyone within this community. And it's critically important that funds are made available in order to help people get back on their feet. And in making those funds available, it's really important that this is not a moment to be miserly. This is not a moment to be mean, this is a moment when generosity must reign. All of these are the issues which are facing people right now. And so what's absolutely critical and what is not present right now is national leadership. It's absolutely critical that we have national leadership on the ground, which is providing a response for people. Which is giving people a sense of where decisions are being made, how coordination is occurring, and what steps are being taken to get this community back on its feet. It is not enough to treat this as just a normal disaster, and business as usual. This is a catastrophe on a huge scale, which demands national leadership and national coordination right now, which is missing. 

Now, we've seen Scott Morrison go missing before in the middle of a crisis. For the sake of this community, and for all of those who have been affected by this disaster, it is critically important that right now Scott Morrison stands up and makes clear how that national leadership will be given a presence here in Lismore and the Northern Rivers. I might just pass on to Murray Watt and we'll come back and answer questions in a moment.

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Thanks, Richard. Very happy to take questions in a tick. Can I also thank Janelle and Patrick, at the local level, for the incredible leadership that they've been showing working with the local community to help them get through what is an incredibly traumatic experience. Lismore is not unknown to floods, there have been floods in Lismore before, but every single person that we've spoken to today tells us this is a flood the likes of which they have never seen before. I've been spending a lot of time on the ground over in South East Queensland over the last few days at all of the different flood sites there, and the damage in South East Queensland is immense as well. But the thing that really strikes me now being here in Lismore is the scale of it, the extent of it. I mean, we're standing in the middle of the Central Business District here in Lismore, and every direction you look, there are hundreds of metres of wreckage strewn across the streets, buildings. Every single building in the CBD here in Lismore has been flooded. This is going to have a profound economic impact on this town and this region for a long time to come. 

Already this morning we've been to one of the evacuation centres at Southern Cross Uni, and as Richard says, the stories that we were hearing from people were harrowing. Stories of people literally having to dig their way out of their house by putting a knife in a roof to dig their way through as the floodwaters were getting up towards their necks and even higher. People are severely traumatised by what they've done. And the universal message that we have received today from everyone we have spoken to is 'where is the government? Where is the Morrison Government? Where is the New South Wales Government?' This community feels deeply abandoned. And I want to pay tribute to the community members, the SES people, the universities, the community service groups, and now the army personnel who are joining this work as well. But we don't see any real presence from anyone in authority in the Federal Government or the State Government. This needs- as Richard said, this has been a national scale disaster, and it needs a nationally-led recovery. We need to see not just army boots on the ground, we need to see every arm of the Federal Government in here providing leadership, providing people with hope. When people have been through a disaster like this, they need to feel that their government is standing with them. And at the moment they feel completely abandoned and that they've been left on their own. We saw this from Scott Morrison after the Black Summer Bushfires where communities felt completely abandoned. And I've been into some of those bushfire areas in recent months, and two years on they still feel abandoned because they're still rebuilding. 

And let's not forget that Scott Morrison continues to sit on a nearly $5 billion Emergency Response Fund that has never spent a cent on disaster recovery in three years and has still not built a single flood mitigation or any disaster mitigation project. The Federal Government has resources at hand, they have people at hand, they're just not here in Lismore, and they're just not anywhere in the Northern Rivers. They've got to get moving today, because people need this rebuild to start today. They need hope and they need leadership from their government. There's just one more person who's going to speak to you - Jihad Dib, the Shadow Minister in New South Wales and then we're happy to take questions.

JIHAD DIB, NEW SOUTH WALES SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY SERVICES: Thank you, Murray. Well, good afternoon, it's not the circumstances that we'd like to do a visit to Lismore, but this is probably the most important visit that any of us non-locals could make to the place. And I want to, in the first instance, recognise and just say how inspiring my colleague Janelle Saffin is. We've all heard her story, but we've spent a morning with her, and the local community she represents, and there's a lot of love for Janelle because she's genuine, sincere, and we're so honoured we have you as a colleague. And Patrick, I look forward to the moment that you get elected as well, because we've seen that leadership. 

Obviously, we're here to listen today. But it's more than just listening, it's what we can do with the action. We've seen the devastation, and previous speakers have spoken about that. I've never in my life seen anything like this - and I've tried to imagine what it would be like, based on the images I'd seen, based on the stories that I'd heard. But until you actually step foot here, you realise the absolute magnitude of this catastrophe. And it is a catastrophe. This has up-ended the entire community, it has changed lives, it has taken lives, and of course, our condolences (are) with those who have lost loved ones. And our love and, I suppose, all of the efforts that we can make for those who have lost their homes, their businesses. The one thing that really comes across very clearly, is that indistinguishable spirit that is this community. And whilst there were some people that were missing in action, it's the local community that was the first one that conducted some rescues, who conducted support, who open their homes for people to take shelter, and those who provided food. That's what makes a community. But the community, based on what I've heard today, is exhausted. And they're at breaking point. And they've done all they can. And it's always a wonderful thing that community will step up, but it's important that every single possible government agency steps up. And they need to step up - state level, federal level. And I want to give a shout-out to the local level who are doing the big clean-up here. 

What we're here for, is not only support, but to say that action needs to take place. This needs to be a watershed moment where we say 'what do we do better in the future? What do we do to make sure that we keep the community going? What do we do to support a community? And how do we rebuild?' And I just want to finish off with this final point; the thing that we've heard over and over again - apart from the heroic stories and the harrowing stories, and the incredible stories of courage - is the fact that people feel that they've been left. Particularly for those smaller communities that have been isolated with the floodwaters, there was a feeling that they'd either been forgotten about, or they've been abandoned. In addition to that, the other story that we've heard is that whilst there have been supports that have been announced, those supports haven't come out the door. People need money in their hands, people need access to things that they can't get at the moment, we're talking about every single possible thing. So it's all good to make an announcement, but we need to make sure that those announcements materialise as quickly as possible. We need to make sure that there's a coordination. And we saw the coordination being pretty much volunteered by one of the local universities, Southern Cross up the road. And what they've done at the evacuation centre is phenomenal. It's great that they do it, but it shouldn't be up to them to take on all that responsibility. So we need to see a proper concerted effort, we need that support, and we need a plan that puts the community at the very heart of where we go to from here.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask you a question while you're there, Jihad? Given your portfolio, I'm sure you're aware of the situation on Monday morning, when there were thousands of people needing urgent rescue from rising flood water. Triple zero - they couldn't get through. SES number - they couldn't get through. Extraordinary situation, it must have been terrifying. What's your take on that?

DIB: It's absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking. And only an hour ago, we heard the similar stories where we were talking to a couple of people who were stuck on their roofs for hours. One managed to escape just by somehow inflating a raft, and other one whose partner actually had to go through the roof itself. They were there for up to six hours. 

And I think there's a real worry in the sense that we knew that something was happening - maybe we didn't think it was going to be as big as this, and people kept talking about they thought it was 2017 and [inaudible] - but we've got to be better prepared than this. And we've got to respond a lot better. I can't imagine what it would have been like to be on your roof, in the dark, the water's rising, the rain's falling, you're screaming for help, and yet none is there. That's not who we are. That's not why we established these emergency services. It shouldn't always be up to the volunteers. As I said, we can talk about all the things that went wrong, and we will, and in the fullness of time we've got to actually look at this with a proper microscope. But it was the local community heroes who, I suppose, went against the grain and many of them got in their own kayaks, (despite) being told not to, just so they could save their neighbours, their friends, their fellow citizens. We need to be better than this. You should not be in a situation where you ring triple zero and someone can't get to you straightaway.

JOURNALIST: You talk about putting that situation under the microscope, what would be the appropriate way to do that?

DIB: Well in this instance what the first priority has been obviously we're moving into a recovery phase, there's still a lot of clean-up to be done here. There's a lot of people to try and make sure we get them back into their homes. We need to go through the emergency accommodation, try and get a bit of a semblance of normalcy. But I would dare say that once this is over, or once we start moving forward along the recovery, there will be some form of inquiry, there has to be. There's got to be questions asked about what went wrong, how did it go wrong? What was the response? Why did it take nearly one week to get proper government responses in terms of support for communities? Why did people go missing in action that shouldn't have been missing in action, and how do we make sure that we create a better community in the future?

JOURNALIST: Mr Marles, should the Prime Minister be [inaudible] here at some point?

MARLES: Well, I think what really matters is that there is federal government leadership on the ground right now. Scott Morrison needs to make clear what his plans are for national coordination of what is being experienced here in Lismore, in the Northern Rivers and indeed, throughout the flood zones in South East Queensland, and Sydney as well. I mean, this is a national disaster on a national scale, and it demands a national response. And that requires coordination. And the thing we need to be hearing from Scott Morrison right now is how is that going to manifest in Lismore today? And it's really important that he does that.

JOURNALIST: Is it important, though, that he gets up here and does what you've done and chats to people that were directly affected?

MARLES: Well look, I'm obviously mindful of the particular circumstances of the Prime Minister at the moment, but seeing this, listening to the stories that people have, the degree to which this has been a traumatic experience on a scale, which to be honest, I didn't appreciate until coming here today. It's really important that our leaders do that. And from there, I think what really people want is that national coordination and that national leadership put in place and that's actually the decision that Scott Morrison needs to take. Right now he's not taking it and, you know, far too often what we see with this Government is reacting to events all too late, rather than getting ahead of events. And right now, when you look around the streets of Lismore, in the CBD here, this is a moment where the Federal Government has got to get ahead of this. There's a whole clean-up which needs to occur here on a scale I couldn't have imagined, and there are so many issues that need to be coordinated and brought to bear that it requires national coordination which Scott Morrison must provide.

JOURNALIST: Is Mr. Albanese making plans to come to the region?

MARLES: Well Anthony Albanese was in Queensland last week, touring the flood-hit areas there. So he's seen firsthand the experience- what the devastation of the floods there has been. He's in regular contact with Janelle Saffin, the Member for Lismore, a good friend of Anthony's, so he's getting constant briefings about what's happening here. And obviously, our Shadow Minister for Disaster Management is on the ground right now, and is providing that information to Anthony Albanese as well. I mean, Anthony, is really clear about the significance of this event, it's why he wanted me to be here today. And we are very cognisant of the need to get national leadership in place here as soon as possible.

JOURNALIST: Janelle, you talked about, I think the phrase was a 'Reconstruction Commission', could you tell us how that would potentially work?

SAFFIN: We need one body that can take control of what our needs are. We've got to do a massive rebuild, and we've got to work out what we do about the houses that are unliveable, where we house the people in the evacuation centres. They can't stay in motels, a lot of them were flooded, Airbnbs. So the housing - Crown Lands have already been tasked with looking for land, I've asked Councils as well. And also make sure that it's a whole of government response. I don't want agency by agency, that's fine, but a whole of government response, because that's what we need. You know, our community's pretty tough, we're pretty good, and I've assured them that we'll get through it, and we need that sort of support from the Government to do that.

JOURNALIST: Can ask you maybe for a bit of clarity on some things we're hearing, I've heard that there might be 2000 shops and homes that are unsafe to go in at the moment or classified as unliveable. Does that necessarily mean they have to be knocked down and you start from scratch or they just have to be made safe before they could go in and be repaired?

SAFFIN: It's a mixture, Bruce. It's a mixture of things because some of them have gone off their stumps, or they've twisted or they've moved, obviously, they're unsafe, you know, we can't go in there. I was just talking to people over in Elliott Road where, you know, the diesel's gone through, and some of them can be made liveable again. But some people also will want them more flood resistant, even higher some voluntary repurchase. That's why we need one body that can come together and say 'this is a humanitarian disaster we haven't experienced (before)', and come up with the requisite response. That's what I'm calling for. I don't want it agency by agency. It's different to what we had before, we need a different response.

JOURNALIST: So when a place is initially assessed as being unliveable, that doesn't necessarily mean 'OK, you got to knock it down and start again'?

SAFFIN: Yeah, it doesn't necessarily. It means it is for now, because there's so much wrong with it, and then we do further assessments.

JOURNALIST: Ms Saffin, I've heard some business owners saying that their flood insurance premiums have been in excess of $20,000, $25,000, $30,000? What's your approach to fixing the insurance issue to ensure that even [inaudible] communities like Lismore can bounce back and businesses can return?

SAFFIN: Yeah, that's been an ongoing issue. I know, in Northern Queensland - Murray would know about this more - but in Northern Queensland, after the cyclones and that they did a particular insurance response, in a sense that people were backed up by government, they're some of the issues we need to talk about. I've been talking to the Insurance Council of Australia, the CEO, we've now got an office being set up here today at SCU with the 15 agencies. But they're the conversations that we need to be having, because people were priced out of insurance, we all know that. And, you know, the poorest of us in our community were priced out, but some of our businesses, because they're just regular people who earned wages, they were priced out of insurance. And we have to have that Category D assistance, which is for public infrastructure, extend to private infrastructure so that we can help them get back on their feet.

JOURNALIST: Is there any precedent for that happening?

SAFFIN: Not that I know of but so what? I'm going to make it happen, Bruce!

WATT: Can I add something on the insurance, if that's OK? Janelle is right, the issues around insurance in North Queensland have been a big problem for a long time. It's got to the point up there that not only are insurance premiums unaffordable, but some people will just can't get insurance because insurers won't cover them. 

One of the things that Federal Labor has said, and Anthony Albanese made this announcement in January this year, is that if Labor is elected, we will set up a new Disaster Ready Fund, which will invest up to $200 million a year in disaster readiness and mitigation. If you speak to any insurer or any local government, what they'll tell you is that one of the best things we can do to keep insurance premiums under control is invest in flood levees, in better drainage systems. When it comes to bushfires, it's about evacuation centres, it's about household resilience. There are all sorts of things that we could be investing in, in terms of infrastructure that protect people, protect their properties, and protect the taxpayer from the billions of dollars that we incur in repair costs after every one of these disasters. So we think that that will go a long way to assisting with the insurance premiums that people are experiencing here in the Northern Rivers, just as it will in places like North Queensland as well.

JOURNALIST: Have you had any conversations with experts in regards to examining to what extent climate change has had on [inaudible]?

WATT: Look, I think anyone who has paid attention to the science, or just read a newspaper or open their ears in recent years, understands that climate change is having a direct impact on the number and intensity of natural disasters that our country faces. Australia is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, and it's generally regional Australia that bears the brunt of natural disasters, whether they be floods, bushfires or cyclones. The link between climate change and increasing numbers of, and intensity of, natural disasters is crystal clear. The argument is over. And for anyone to deny that is denying the science, is denying the facts and is denying the piles of rubbish that we see here in Lismore's main street right now. So it's about time this Government - this Federal Government - woke up, took serious action on climate change so that we can protect people from these kinds of things happening again in the future. Under the Morrison Government, we have had a lost decade of action on climate change. We have not taken serious action to reduce our emissions, we have not taken serious action to increase our use of renewable energy. We have not taken serious action to invest in disaster mitigation. And we have walked away from the rest of the world as they try to tackle these issues. So we have got to take these issues seriously. We have got to get our emissions under control as part of a global solution. Otherwise, we're going to be having these kind of press conferences more and more often all over Australia in the future.