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Monday, 9 December 2013
Page: 2044

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (11:06): I move:

That this House:

(1) notes with alarm the burden placed on the bushfire affected residents of the Blue Mountains and Central Coast via the combined mismanagement of recovery processes by the Australian and New South Wales governments;

(2) acknowledges that while emergency personnel and volunteers acted swiftly and bravely to minimise the impact of the horrific October fires, the Australian and New South Wales governments have made decisions that have hurt families and businesses in the aftermath of the fires, namely:

(a) failing to extend full disaster relief support payments;

(b) presiding over a poorly executed response to the clean-up process; and

(c) breaking a promise by failing to provide consequential concessional loans to small businesses struggling to recover after the fires; and

(3) calls on both the Australian and New South Wales governments to urgently act to remedy this situation and assist homes and businesses to fully recover in a quicker timeframe.

I rise on an issue of prime importance to the people of the Blue Mountains in the wake of the devastating bushfires in October. It is now 53 days since these bushfires occurred. It remains evident that those affected by the bushfires, many of whom were left homeless, have been abandoned by the federal government. The clean-up effort has been tardy and the government has walked away from its commitment to meet consequential damage concessional loans to small businesses in the Blue Mountains—in particular, to tourism businesses in this internationally famous place of beauty, which have been crippled. Some business operators are reporting that revenue is down 80 per cent. Householders, left sifting through the ruins of their much loved properties, have had the body blow of being told they need to sign waivers accepting liability for the clean-up of their sites.

What is particularly disturbing about the entire saga is that it appears that little has been learnt from the devastating Victorian and Tasmanian bushfires when it comes to the disaster recovery effort. In Victoria, for example, some 2,000 homes were caught up in the raging fires, 10 times the number that were devastatingly lost in the Blue Mountains in October. In Victoria, a contract was enforced to have the debris cleaned up in 21 days, and that was with more homes affected. In Tasmania, where around the same number of properties were claimed by the bushfires as those in the Blue Mountains, the equivalent contract demanded the clean-up be completed within eight days.

I repeat: the Blue Mountains fires raged 53 days ago and the clean-up effort is at a bureaucratic crawl—and the Liberal Party has led this crawl. Governments demand plenty of their citizens, who pay their taxes, pay their levies and pay their school fees. So, when disaster strikes, it behoves government to support their own in a time of need—not to make promises and then walk away from responsibility. But, I hasten to add, this has happened in the Blue Mountains in the wake of these fires. The buck-passing has been there for everyone to see. It has been the governmental order of the day that devastated families and businesses have been the collateral damage. There have been few sadder and more heart-wrenching sights than watching families in the Blue Mountains return to what is left of everything they had—their homes—to sift through the rubble to find whatever they can take away to remind them of what they had; in some cases, it is the smallest trinket. What they did not need after that was to be left wondering what was going to happen next in their lives. They were left in a no-man's land between levels of government that could not or would not show leadership in this time of crisis.

For the federal government to impose new and restrictive criteria on government disaster recovery payments, as per the regime upheld by the Labor government previously, is mean spirited to say the least.

Mrs Markus interjecting

Mr HUSIC: Member for Macquarie, you may have private views on the changes to these processes but I have not heard you stand up and criticise your government on the way it has treated people in the past. I do not say these words lightly. As the record shows, when my party has been in government I have stood up to demand better for the people I am proud to represent. If you have any issue with the way that disaster recovery is being delivered, then you have a prime opportunity to speak up for the people of Macquarie in this chamber and demand that it is improved. It should be better. I read through the statistics and it has taken 53 days for the recovery process to get underway—and that is after what we have seen in Tasmania and Victoria. I have previously given credit to the federal government when they have lent people a hand. For instance, I was very quick to support the Filipino-Australian community—whom I now represent and you previously represented—after Typhoon Haiyan. Australia has been a fantastically generous international citizen. We do spend hundreds of millions on international aid where it is needed, but people also want to see the same speedy response that the Abbott government has given to Haiyan extended to the Blue Mountains. This is a classic case where the government has gone to great lengths to be seen doing the right thing internationally, but it needs to do more on our local patch.

I have previously mentioned the onerous restrictions on the clean-up effort, whereby the New South Wales Liberal government threw the ball to insurance companies, saying, 'You run with it'. That meant the recovery effort stalled, leaving affected home and business owners nowhere to turn. The responsibility, or at least the liability, for the clean-up was forced on property owners who were required to sign a legally-binding waiver. It is just more buck-passing by the coalition government. Only in recent days has this, fortunately, changed with the government agreeing to cover the costs of removing concrete slabs, for instance, where homeowners have decided to rebuild on a different footprint. In Tasmania and Victoria they seem to have got their recovery right, with a single contractor charged with organising and handling the clean-up and recovery effort. In New South Wales it looks as if it has taken longer for those lessons to sink in. This motion, in part, calls on the New South Wales government to engage in a single contract to fund the total clean-up and later to engage individual insurers to recoup funds that have been outlaid. It should have been done from the start. A lot of heartache could have been avoided; a whole lot of angst and bad blood could have been sidestepped.

The second area of concern is the treatment of small business operators in the Blue Mountains. Some operators, of which there are thousands, have reported downturns of up to 80 per cent. At the height of the fires people from outside the Blue Mountains were rightly told to stay away and there was a mass exodus of residents fleeing the fire grounds. The few roads that remained open were clogged with fire trucks and other emergency services vehicles frantically trying to limit the impact of these blazes. The financial pain for business operators has lingered: there will not be the annual throng of visitors to the tourist spots over the holiday season and so the businesses are not recovering. To add salt to the wounds of those affected, a muddled assistance regime from the federal government has effectively benefited businesses that lost trade on the fringes of the worst areas but nothing has been offered to those business operators whose properties were consumed by the fires. So, I ask the federal government: why? Where are the small business consequential damage concessional grants to these poor folk? Why have they been left with nowhere to turn? Their only instructions have been to deal with an insurer. This is not what good governments do. It is particularly ironic given that the Liberal Party prides itself on looking after business. As I have said many times in this place in recent weeks, it said one thing before the election and another thing after it—not just on school funding, but also on the Blue Mountains disaster and small business assistance packages. My colleague Senator Doug Cameron has put a great deal of effort fighting for the people of the Blue Mountains after these fires, and he estimates the federal government has perhaps ripped $4 million from small business assistance in the form of promised grants. Senator Cameron has put the microscope on the recovery effort in an area where, he knows too well, the state and federal governments have been found wanting. The finger of blame can be pointed even further down the line. I have heard of cases where residents were desperate to clear properties as the fire approached and took vegetation to the local waste management site only to be told they were required to pay more than $100 to offload a trailer of green vegetation. It is simply not right.

My electorate of Chifley sits close by. We could read about and see the fires, but we could also smell them and see the ash falling around us in Western Sydney. I take this opportunity to praise the brave efforts of the many emergency services workers and the RFS brigades in our area. The firefighters on the ground put themselves in great danger to limit the impact of these fires. There are three brigades in my area—Shanes Park, Eastern Creek and Plumpton. I understand that Plumpton put in 2,700 man-hours of work to help with the management of these blazes. Police managed traffic to avoid what could have been absolute chaos when ambulance officers were treating the injured and the smoke affected or those who were just plain exhausted. It is a testament to the skill of the emergency services workers that lives were not lost on a grand scale in October.

The harshness and ruggedness of Australia are features we are internationally famous for; they can also be our greatest enemy. No matter how many precautions are put in place, we do experience these terrible incidents where nature works violently against us. It pains me to see the efforts of volunteers who take time off work being undermined because of bureaucratic shifting from one level of government to another. I fully agree with the seven points in the motion. Recovery efforts have to be coordinated and improved, and they have to happen sooner rather than later. The dollar figure has to be sorted out properly and the penny-pinching by state and federal governments has to end now. The federal election has come and gone, but the suffering of the people still lingers. They should not be forced to endure any more.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mrs Griggs ): Is the motion seconded?

Ms Hall: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.