Townsville Press Conference

October 30, 2020



SUBJECTS: Bushfire Royal Commission final report; Scott Morrison’s bushfire failures; lack of national leadership; lack of climate action; untouched $4B Emergency Response Fund.

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Thanks for coming along today. Today is a very significant day for bushfire survivors and really all Australians, because of the range of recommendations that have been made by the Bushfire Royal Commission.

First up, I want to acknowledge the incredible grief and suffering of so many Australians through the last bushfire season. The Royal Commission report, tabled today, acknowledges that 33 Australians lost their lives and perhaps even more due to the smoke inhalation that flowed from the bushfires. Of course, 3000 homes were lost, millions of hectares of land and three billion animals killed in last year's bushfires. And if nothing else, those figures tell us why it's so important that the Government implement these recommendations immediately.

What we've learnt from today's Bushfire Royal Commission report is really, it just confirms what Australians already knew, which was last year the Morrison Government failed to turn up for bushfire survivors and for bushfire regions right across our country. The Morrison Government failed to prepare for the bushfires. They failed to respond to the bushfires. And now they're failing with the bushfire recovery as well. I think everyone in Australia remembers that the Government was missing in action when it came to last year's bushfires. And the Prime Minister was literally not even in the country at the height of last year's bushfires when he should have been leading the country through those disastrous fires that we saw. And this report really exposes the shortcomings of the Government's preparation and response and recovery to those bushfires.

The Prime Minister failed to heed the warnings. He wouldn't even take meetings with the ex-fire chiefs who just wanted to give him advice about how we could prevent the damage. When it came to the fires themselves, he wasn't here to lead the country through them. There were problems calling out the army. We didn't have the aerial water bombing aircraft that we needed to fight the fires. And now in the recovery, we've still got so many people around the country who are living in caravans, living in sheds, still finding it hard to get back up on their feet.

One of the other things I think that's most concerning is that we're already seeing a repeat of the Government's failure to prepare, when it comes to the coming disaster season. The Bureau of Meteorology is telling us that the biggest weather risks the country faces this coming summer is not so much bushfires, but cyclones and floods, particularly in northern Australia. And despite those warnings, the Government is sitting on a $4 billion Emergency Response Fund that it created in last year's budget, 18 months ago, and that it hasn't spent a single cent from. That funding could have been used over the last year or so to help prepare Australians for the cyclones, floods and fires that we know are coming this season. And instead, the Government has sat on that funding, not used it, and is again leaving Australians exposed to the extreme weather that we are seeing.

The last point I think is worth making about this report is that it's very significant that the report notes that there is no doubt whatsoever that Australia is going to be facing more intense and more frequent natural disasters in the future due to climate change. And despite that, we still have a Government that has many parts of it that doesn't even recognise the science of climate change, and is certainly not taking action to try to keep Australians safe from climate change. I really hope that the Government implements all of these recommendations immediately, starts spending the funding that it's put aside to prevent disasters in the future and starts taking serious action on climate change to keep Australians safe.

JOURNALIST: What do you think of the recommendations, do they go far enough? Do you agree with all them?

WATT: Well, obviously, we've only seen this report in the last couple of hours. We haven't had it for the last couple of days like the Government has done. But in the time that I've had available, the recommendations seem pretty sensible to me. They're very wide ranging. They cover everything from climate action to better land-use planning, making sure that buildings go where they should, how we can make homes and other structures in our community generally more resilient for disasters in the future. The recommendations to me seem to have a lot of merit. What's important now is that the Government gets on with implementing them. We can't just have another situation where the Prime Minister just wants to turn up for an announcement, turn up for a photo op and never actually follow through. He's done it with the bushfires. He's doing it with emergency funding right now. He's got to deliver these recommendations.

I think, you know, one of the most damning lines in the entire report that I've seen so far is that "unprecedented doesn't mean you shouldn't be prepared". We all know that last year's bushfires were unprecedented. They were on a scale that the country has never seen. But the report makes very clear that that is not an excuse for not being prepared. We know that we're facing this kind of weather into the future. The Government has all the information it needs to protect Australians in the future. They should get on with that and keep Australians safe.

JOURNALIST: And, of course, some recommendations fall on the states and territories as well as them working with the Federal Government, do you think states and territories need to follow through as well?

WATT: For sure, I mean, the report makes clear that the primary responsibility for responding to disasters lies with the states and territories. But what it also makes clear is that that needs national leadership. We're now living in an age where disasters are becoming more frequent, when they don't respect state boundaries and where the Federal Government is the only arm of government that has the resources to tackle disasters on a national scale. So without doubt, the states and territories, and local government for that matter, will continue to have a lot of responsibility for dealing with disasters. But the report makes very clear that what we've missed in the past is national leadership, and that's what Scott Morrison and his Government have got to step up and deliver.

JOURNALIST: The Government is now going back to come up with a response, I guess, what's a reasonable timeframe for that response?

WATT: Well, I think it's really important that the Government gets out with a response in the next couple of weeks. We've already got bushfires happening in some parts of the country right now. Queensland, where we are today, has already experienced bushfires in its north and its south. We know there will be more fires in the future. And as I say, we know for certain that we are facing more cyclones than usual and more floods than usual, particularly in the north, and even this side of Christmas. So it's imperative that the Government gets on and implements these recommendations straight away. They cannot leave Australians stranded and not prepared like the Government did last year.