Mackay Press Conference

November 06, 2020



SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison’s unspent $4bn Emergency Response Fund; Queenslanders at risk from failure to spend mitigation funds; Queensland disaster season.

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER & EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Well it's terrific to be back in Mackay, I think for about a third time in the last few weeks, and for starters, I just want to congratulate Julieanne Gilbert on her terrific victory in the state election on the weekend. She's worked incredibly hard over the last few years and has been rewarded with another term in office. And I also want to congratulate the other Labor candidates in the region, Angie Kelly and Shane Hamilton, who fought really hard, came up short, but gave it a good shot. So well done to Julieanne, looking forward to working with you for the next four years. Can I also thank Mayor Greg Williamson and Deputy Mayor Karen May for joining us today from the Mackay Regional Council.

The reason we're standing here at the Mackay Showgrounds is to really highlight the types of projects that the Federal Government could be funding right now to keep Mackay region residents safe as we approach this year's cyclone season. The Bureau of Meteorology's forecasts that have already come out are predicting a higher-than-average risk of cyclones and floods across North Queensland. Now we know that North Queensland always get cyclones and floods, but what the Bureau is saying is that this year we face a higher-than-average risk of those types of events. And in fact, we face the risk that they might happen this side of Christmas. We're used to cyclones hitting us in January, February, March. But what the Bureau is saying is that this year they're going to be worse and they're going to be earlier, so it's common sense to get prepared.

I think one of the disappointing things, though, from the Federal Government is that right now they're sitting on a $4 billion Emergency Response Fund, which was created with the Opposition's support to invest in disaster recovery and disaster mitigation. So there's a $4 billion fund there that was announced by this Government in last year's federal budget, 18 months ago, that they still haven't spent a single cent from. We've been through one disaster season last summer, where, of course, we saw bushfires in the southern parts of the country. And now we know we're likely to face floods and cyclones in the northern part of the country. Those funds could have been used to invest in projects that keep people safe and reduce the damage and the cost from those types of disasters.

And particularly one example of that is here at Mackay Showgrounds. In speaking to Julieanne I know that this is always used by the Ergon trucks to come and use as a control centre, basically for when all the power goes out, they need to get those trucks on the road to repair power lines and get the power back up and running. That does damage to the Mackay Showgrounds. And there's real issues with the access for those trucks into the showgrounds as well. So this is an example of the kind of project that could be funded from the Federal Government, from this fund, but instead they're just sitting on it, not spending a cent. This isn't something the Federal Government has to go and find money for. We're not asking them to spend more money. All we're asking is for them to spend the money that the Opposition voted with them to put aside for this purpose. And unfortunately, what we often see from Scott Morrison and his Government is that they love to get out there and make an announcement, but they never follow through. And this is another example of that, here in Mackay.

JOURNALIST: How frustrating is it for the people of Mackay to know that there is that, you know, cash pot essentially sitting there, but when it comes to a disaster, we may not be prepared or have the adequate resources?

WATT: I think it's incredibly frustrating, and I think it's incredibly risky for people in the Mackay region. We know that there are a range of things that we can be investing in, whether it be flood levees, cyclone shelters, upgrades to existing facilities that keep people safe and reduce the damage to the region. Every time we see a cyclone come through this region, like we did a few years ago with Cyclone Debbie, there is massive destruction, massive cost - a massive cost to the taxpayer. And we all have to pick up the bill afterwards. By investing these monies now, we can actually keep people safe and reduce that cost for this region in the future.

JOURNALIST: When this fund was set up, Murray, was there kind of a process that, you know, people would have to apply through a grant or how would the money actually be allocated?

WATT: Well, certainly the Federal Government has put out some guidelines. I don't know what sort of a job they've done in advising councils about that information - maybe that's something you can talk to the Mayor about. But certainly the Federal Government has put out some guidelines about the types of things that these funds can be used for. But to my knowledge, they still haven't even called for applications and we're about to start the cyclone season. So we went through one whole financial year that ended on the 30th of June, where they could have spent up to $200 million out of this fund on disaster recovery and mitigation. That opportunity went and now we're well into another year where they haven't spent this year's allocation. I think it must be just about propping up their Budget bottom line. But the problem is that they're putting people at risk through not spending that money.

JOURNALIST: Julieanne, what would you like to see funded here in Mackay from this government funding?

JULIEANNE GILBERT, STATE MP FOR MACKAY: Mackay is a great place because we always are ready with our plans, our shovel-ready projects. I know that the Mackay Show Association have got detailed plans and also the Mackay Regional Council, they are always forward-planning. They've got shovel-ready projects for disaster recovery and also for flood mitigation. We've only just finished some of the projects after Cyclone Debbie. Queen's Park has only just been finished. So it does take a long time to repair damage from a weather event. Let's prevent those weather events. Let's make sure that we put the mitigation in place so that we are not there building and rebuilding after we have flood damage. It is so sad when people have to repair their homes, when they shovel out all their belongings into mini skips, let's make sure that we protect as many homes as possible. If we roll out this money here in Mackay, that means that locals will have jobs, and that means that we can get these projects started straight away. I know that our Mayor has got projects on his books ready to go, and I've seen some of those projects - they're well thought out, they're well planned. Also, the Mackay Show Association, they have got very detailed plans ready to go. So let's get our tradies into work. Let's bring the money here into Mackay and let's keep everyone safe.

GREG WILLIAMSON, MACKAY REGIONAL COUNCIL MAYOR: It's great to have the Senator in town today and as the Shadow Minister, to bring to our attention the fact that this is $4 billion set aside for mitigation works. I've got to say, that's a little bit of an eye-opener to us. There has been certainly nothing come through yet from the Government to say 'here's a round of applications you can go through'. And we're ready, as you heard the Member for Mackay say, we are ready. We've got a $9 million levee wall which will complete the levee system in the Pioneer River. And that's been a 20-year job, you know, to do all the levees in the Pioneer River. We're ready to go with that. It's designed, it's ready to start. We just don't have the $9 million to do it. So, I mean, that's a drop in the bucket when you think that there's $4 billion in this mitigation system. And you might think that 'OK a hardstand at the Showgrounds - a $3 million hardstand - well, what does that contribute?' This is an area that is a staging post, not just for Ergon when they had those massive trucks in here after Tropical Cyclone Debbie to help the region recover. It's also a staging post for the military. We had a lot of military work moving up and down the coast after Tropical Cyclone Debbie and all of the floods that happened after that. It's essential to have areas like this ready to go. That's what mitigation is all about. We've got about 600 culverts in the Mackay Regional Council footprint, and those culverts all need to be raised so that people don't get stuck in floods and don't get stuck in cyclones. We've just done at Anthony's Crossing - $1.5 million. And so that's council expenditure. If we got some assistance to do that, we could go across the board and deliver, you know, another 50 or 60 areas that wouldn't get stuck in our cyclones and flood seasons. And so this is a really important fact for our area to understand that there's a mitigation fund available. And thanks to the Senator being here today, we'll be right on to it.

JOURNALIST: Murray mentioned that this money has been sitting there for essentially 18 months. Does it make you angry to know that we could have already been prepared for what is tipped to be quite a horrific cyclone season, yet those projects haven't even been brought to the table yet?

WILLIAMSON: Well, it's frustrating. It's frustrating to know that there is money available and we'll be asking questions of our people as well, of our staff, about 'did we know about the process? Did we know about how we go about making applications?’ But we now know and we will certainly be doing that.

STEVE GAVIOLI, MACKAY SHOW ASSOCIATION SECRETARY: With what we have here, it's a massive community facility. Every time there's a disaster in Mackay, the showgrounds is used in some form or another to help recovery work. As you've already heard, when Cyclone Debbie came through, there was probably about eight weeks of this ground being used to help people, get power back on, all sorts of different things. It would be good for the whole community if we could have a hardstand area here that we don't have to put back together again after every event. As the local Member here, Julieanne, said that it is just so costly after a weather event to put everything back together, to get it back to normal, to start moving forward again. If we had a hardstand here, the military, Ergon, the police, the fireys, they all use this facility. And it would be so much better if we had a hardstand here to move forward with.

JOURNALIST: Have you got plans for that project yourself, Steve?

GAVIOLI: Yes we have. Our forward-planning was done some 10 years ago. It has been revised and we're ready to start if we could get the funding tomorrow, and be finished by the end of the year.

JOURNALIST: And how much would it cost?

GAVIOLI: All up we're looking just on $3 million. That includes a solar energy network that would fit into the grounds as well.