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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 303

Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (15:52): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your wisdom in choosing a very important and serious motion that reflects a disaster that is still unfolding in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. I know from private conversations with members on both sides that not every member with an electorate that is affected will be able to speak. There is a lot of concern from local members about their local constituencies and there is concern generally for impacts in constituencies outside their own. I think that is appreciated by many.

On an administrative matter, we are nearly 30 minutes behind where we probably should be. It is disappointing that events on Australia Day have seen that time go. Again I pick up on the point that this is an important topic that the parliament should be debating at length this week. For anyone who is wondering, my view on Australia Day—and there are plenty of views out there—is that no-one comes away with clean hands with regard to events on Australia Day. Many Australians whom I have spoken with were both saddened and frustrated by the events and the coverage as it unfolded, and I am pleased now that proper processes of the House are being used to get issues of importance up. If that is a debate that others want to see happen in this chamber, there are proper processes to use, and I encourage them to do so in a sensible way.

This is a disaster that is still unfolding. There are thousands of Australians who are outside their homes and evacuations are in place in many locations in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. We have hundreds of thousands of dollars in question with regard to the damages bill, both public and private, that will have to be assessed and paid for somehow over the coming days and weeks.

The other point that I want to get some reflection on from the chamber is not just the impact of this flood but the cumulative impact of this flood on the back of the flood last year. In some locations in Australia—I think the member for Maranoa will be making this point if he speaks—this is a flood on the back of a flood on the back of a flood. We have been having a rolling natural disaster over the past three years in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, and it is that cumulative impact that the natural disaster relief payment schemes and policies will not and do not reflect and manage as we try to struggle our way through as communities dealing with these natural disasters in the best way possible.

This is an opportunity for a local member to put on record a few thanks before getting into some policy issues. From my perspective, I would very much like to thank the volunteer network of the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, who have once again kicked in and worked extraordinary hours for no gain over the last month. The SES is the most obvious organisation, but many people who have helped neighbours and friends are not part of any organisation. Thank you to all of those who helped someone other than themselves and also to those who are paid to do the job—the police, the ambos and the many services that went over and above during the past month. Thank you once again for the work that has been done. It is a rare comment these days in this place, but thank you to many of the media outlets, in particular the ABC on the mid-North Coast, who pretty well ran a 24/7 service which was very important for many people in getting up-to-date information, including evacuation orders, at various times.

There is still assessment going on in my region, and that is adding up to quite a substantial bill. That is the lead-in to the broader point that makes this an important matter of public importance discussion. In the Manning alone, there are probably still around 20 bridges out and unusable until damage assessments are done, and that will more than likely take a long time. A bridge is the point of engagement for many people who are living up valleys and off the coast. If they cannot get in and out, then their business is affected, their family is affected and basic things are affected, like getting kids to school. Yet more than likely it is going to be not weeks but months before many people will be able to get access to things that we all take for granted in modern Australia. That is just from this flood alone—really over the last week and a half. But this comes on the back of the natural disaster of last year that still has not been dealt with.

Whilst I certainly welcome new national disaster declarations by the New South Wales Premier today, and I think there are three of them—and it is all bipartisan and very welcome when they are made—the long period of time that it takes for money to come on the back of those declarations, for assessments to be done and for communities to just get back to where they were rather than getting anything extra is way too long. Also, the actual amount of money does not now meet the actual bill that is coming in.

From June last year, one council in my area, Greater Taree City Council, put in an application for damage at 400 sites—a $19 million application—yet they only found out last week, when in another flood, that the money will not come through in full. At best, between $10 million and $15 million will come through in response to the application that was put in eight months ago. So not only is there a time lag problem, and not only are we now seeing a flood on a flood and so damage on damage, but we are also getting the message through that the application that went in last year will not be fully funded. Around 50 to 75 per cent will be met. That says the system is buggered. That says natural disaster is not reflective of what it should be. Through state, federal or whatever means possible, we should get full payments back to a community affected by natural disaster, which is through no fault of their own, no matter where that natural disaster occurs in Australia.

That is one example and I am sure there are many others, not only in New South Wales but also throughout the country, where there is frustration about time lag and frustration about the lack of money coming through. That is a public sector example of road damage, in particular, from one local council. The other example is from the private sector. Some of the classifications—such as category C funding for farmers who have stock loss or fence damage—have a cumbersome and frustrating process, even for those who are eligible. It is a process that needs some policy rethink and some renewal and reflection. Hopefully, it will be much more efficient in responding to need, much more timely in getting funding through and much more generous in the way that government communicates with farmers in the private sector when there are genuine applications for damage to property, whether they be for fences or stock loss.

Last year, in the Macleay Valley, we had a category C application rejected. Due to public outrage and pressure the government reviewed the decision and category C funding was then put in. That is not the way the process should work when we are talking about natural disasters and trying to get payments through to people. Farmers should not have to stand outside local members' offices and call for a change in the way an application is made. But that is exactly what happened last year, and I am concerned that we are about to see it again, now that we are getting pretty well the third flood in three years on the mid-North Coast.

I use those examples at a very local level to try to encourage a national debate about how we can get a better structure between the Commonwealth and the states in natural disaster payments and engagement with the community in both the public and private sectors. At the moment, the evidence points to a cumbersome, burdensome and failing system, even though it is very welcome when a natural disaster declaration is made.

I also make a broader point. It is the same one made on the back of the last floods and through the flood levy debate—one that I did not support. I hope that, on the back end of this and the expected bill to come, we do not have another debate about a one-off flood levy coming through this place again because this chamber has failed—again—to recognise that natural disasters are part of life in Australia. We should therefore plan appropriately within our existing tax base, our existing budgets, for natural disasters happening relatively frequently.

I know that around the edges of this place, in policy, there is debate about a sovereign wealth fund. There is an opportunity, and it is the call that I and others made last year. My colleague the member for New England has been making this call for a long time. We need to establish a broad pot of money that is a natural disaster fund so that whether it is fire or flood—or whatever form the natural disaster comes in—we as a country are ready. We must do the preparation work so that we are not scrambling around about how to pay for something. Sure as night follows day, as much as we do not like it, there will be natural disasters, relatively frequently, into the future.

I once again put that on the record for consideration and hopefully for some debate. It is something that happens in isolation in the Commonwealth. All of this needs to be very much in partnership with the states—not so much a legislative process, not so much a House of Representatives and Senate process, but more of a COAG type process, where the Commonwealth and the states put together a partnership agreement or equivalent. Then it starts to really deal in a substantial way with what will happen in the future: another natural disaster.

I plead with the minister at the table, the Minister for Emergency Management, as well as the government generally. Please assist in applying as much pressure as possible to make sure that, firstly, this flood gets dealt with as efficiently as possible and that the needs of the community, both public and private sectors, local councils and the road network—when the assessments are complete—get dealt with as quickly as possible and that as much financing comes through as is required on the ground.

Secondly, there is the cumulative issue. We need to look at the policy question of why natural disaster payments from the last flood are not being fully funded and start to provide pressure on the states, provide assistance to the states and provide whatever is needed for councils such as the Greater Taree City Council. They might be slightly outside some guidelines but the need is real. Four hundred sites were damaged eight months ago and this is a council still in need. It is not the only one in Australia in this situation. I am sure there are many members who have similar stories. I hope this is something that the government will take as seriously as possible.

Thank you for allowing this MPI and debate on this flood emergency that is still underway. I welcome a response from the minister at the table and all assistance in the coming weeks as we go from clean-up mode to assessment mode through to recovery mode in the coming months.