March 07, 2022



SUBJECTS: Reports Scott Morrison may finally spend some of his unused $4.8 billion Emergency Response Fund; it takes a crisis before Scott Morrison acts; people in Lismore asking “where is the government?”; Labor will invest up to $200 million per year on disaster mitigation; Shane Stone is a partisan operative who should be sacked for not doing his job. 

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Let's go live to Lismore now and joining me is the Shadow Minister for Emergency Management, Murray Watt. Thanks for your time, Senator Watt. My colleague Andrew Clennell is reporting this afternoon that the government's planning to spend more of that $4.6 billion Emergency Response Fund in terms of mitigation and response. Do you welcome that?

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Well I suppose my question Kieran is, why does it take a crisis like the floods that we've just seen, for this government to be prepared to access a fund that it set up three years ago, which could have been helping people with past natural disasters and prepare for future ones? 

I've been banging on about this for a couple of years now, since this fund has been established. It was initially set up with $4 billion in it. It’s now earned the government $800 million in interest, so it's nearly $5 billion sitting there. It hasn't spent a cent on disaster recovery in three years. It still hasn't built or even started building a single disaster mitigation project, and now the government waits to see these floodwaters happen before they finally start using it. 

I mean, why does it always take a crisis, whatever the situation for Scott Morrison, to act? You know, the bushfires we had back a couple of years ago, he didn't get moving until the place was ablaze. We've seen it with vaccines, we've seen it with rapid antigen tests, things have to become an absolute crisis before we ever get any action from the Morrison Government. And unfortunately, it's Australians in places like Lismore that are paying the price of that.

GILBERTJust to provide clarity for our viewers though, the $4 billion fund that was set up, it’s like a future-fund type of arrangement to generate interest, and there was a cap, a legislated cap of $200 million to go out a year in terms of response. In hindsight, was Labor wrong to have backed that cap? Should it be much more openly used, this $4 billion-plus dollars now?

WATT: No, I think it was the right decision to set up this fund and it was the right decision to back it at the time. In fact, it was Labor’s amendments that secured a commitment from the government with this fund that they would actually also use it for disaster mitigation as well as recovery. When the government first proposed this fund, it was only going to be about recovery and we insisted on some money being provided for mitigation as a condition of our support. The problem wasn't about the fund being established. The problem is about the fact that the government has just had it sitting there, like the world's biggest piggy bank, just earning more and more interest for Scott Morrison as we see disaster after disaster hit. 

We have got to get serious about these issues as a country because we know that we're going to be facing more natural disasters in the future. And that's why in January when he was in Queensland, Albo announced that we would revamp this fund and turn it into a permanent, ongoing disaster-ready fund that invests up to $200 million a year in flood mitigation, bushfire mitigation, the kinds of things like flood levees, drainage systems, cyclone shelters, bushfire protections, the sort of things that keep Australians safe, keep their property safe, and help us reduce the billions of dollars that we incur after every one of these disasters. So I think the funds are good thing. The problem is that it's just been sitting there being treated like the world's biggest piggy bank. This is taxpayer’s funds. This is not Liberal National Party funds for them to just put aside to never use. And you know, if they want to say they want to use it for a rainy day, well we've had a pretty rainy day or two in recent times.

GILBERT: If they want to legislate to use some, or more of, the capital within the fund as opposed to just interest, will Labor back any legislative move along those lines?

WATT: Well I'd certainly be interested in seeing whatever proposal they've got there. I mean, we've obviously heard this reported on your network this afternoon, but we haven't heard anything official from the government. But there's no doubt that this fund needs to be used. We even saw the New South Wales Liberal Premier Dominic Perrottet out this morning in the media saying, if you're not prepared to use this fund after a disaster like this, when are you going to use it? So there's no doubt that we need to be accessing these funds. They keep saying that ‘it's a last resort.’ We are at ‘last resort’ stage. People need help. Having been here in Lismore today, the universal message I'm getting from people is ‘Where is the government?’ They can't see any sign of any government leadership to help them with this recovery and unlocking some of these funds to help people rebuild. This is going to be an enormous task and it's going to take support from everything from housing rebuilding, to telecommunications, to mental health support, to food shortages. There is so much that needs to be done and to have funds that have been sitting there unused is insulting to people who have gone through this over the last couple of weeks.

GILBERT: You called for Shane Stone, who's the head of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, you called for him to be sacked because of comments that he made in relation to where people have built their homes. He said in response, he's not being flippant, he says, we've got people in, examples he gave, he says, “we've got people in the bushfire zone who want to build exactly where they were before,” unquote. That's what he said. So is it fair to have this debate though? Did you go too far in saying he should quit? Is this a discussion we should have as a nation?

WATT: No, I don't think so. I think that Shane Stone has demonstrated that he is not fit to hold this job. He is the head of the government's National Disaster Recovery and Resilience Agency. It is his job to have accessed these funds that we've been talking about, to invest in disaster mitigation and also help people in recovery. And instead, under his leadership, this fund has just grown and grown and grown and done nothing to help Australians. And then he has the hide to turn around and blame flood victims for the situation they find themselves in. Of course as a community we need to have a debate about planning laws, about building laws, about where people build. My issue with Shane Stone is that he hasn't done his job and then he turns around and blames flood victims and said that it's people who want to live among the gumtrees. Who in their right mind would kick floods victims when they're down? The only person who has done that is Shane Stone. I don't think that anyone in Lismore or anywhere else that's been affected, can have any confidence that he's going to take these issues seriously, treat people compassionately and help them get back up on their feet.

GILBERT: The Minister, Bridget McKenzie, said that he's simply a straight shooter, and that this is a topic of conversation that comes up after every natural disaster. What's your response to that?

WATT: I think Shane Stone is a partisan operative. He is a close mate of the Prime Minister who seems to use his job as being a walking billboard supporting Scott Morrison. Every video you ever see from Shane Stone, some of the first words that come out of his mouth are what a great bloke Scott Morrison is. Now that's fine, he's perfectly entitled to his view. But he is an independent public servant whose job it is to get flood recovery money out the door and to build things that protect people from floods, cyclones and bushfires. He has demonstrably failed to do his job. Nobody's seen him here in Lismore. The floods happened here several days ago. He's made a couple of brief visits to the Brisbane floods. This bloke isn't doing his job. He seems to think his job is to help Scott Morrison get elected. That's not what flood victims in New South Wales or Queensland need right now. They need someone who's going to roll their sleeves up, take control and give some leadership, and Shane Stone just is not providing that, and nor is anyone from the Morrison Government.

GILBERT: Joining me live from Lismore, Shadow Emergency Management Minister, Murray Watt. Thanks for your time, appreciate it today.