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Tuesday, 20 March 2007
Page: 39

Senator IAN MACDONALD (3:11 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Human Services, Senator Ellison. Minister, I was in Innisfail on the weekend, handing over a cheque for $35,000 from the Minister for the Arts and Sport to the Festival of the Senses in that town. The festival fell on the first anniversary of Cyclone Larry. While I was there, people mentioned the great work that Centrelink had done, and I wonder whether the minister would inform the Senate of the role played by Centrelink in the Australian government’s response to that cyclone and also to recent cyclones in Western Australia.

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Human Services) —Senator Ian Macdonald, who comes from North Queensland, asks a very important question. It is the time that we mark the first anniversary of Cyclone Larry, which caused so much destruction in Innisfail and changed many people’s lives forever. Senator Macdonald quite rightly points out the great work done by Centrelink staff. Those opposite might be interested to learn of the great work that Centrelink staff have done in assisting people who have been affected by cyclones in this country.

At the time of Cyclone Larry, 400 extra personnel were deployed to the affected area and some 1,400 Centrelink staff worked to provide support payments and relief to those people. I think it is fitting that we reflect now on what has been achieved in the intervening 12 months. Through Centrelink, there have been 37½ ex gratia direct credit payments to victims and 1,119 ex gratia cash payments. The government has approved just over 12,000 business-assisted fund payments, totalling more than $150 million. There have also been income support payments for farmers and small businesses totalling just under $9 million and fuel excise relief totalling around $2.3 million. These are tangible benefits to try and put back on track the lives of many Australians who were affected by Cyclone Larry.

Senator Macdonald mentioned more recent events in Port Hedland, in my home state. Recently, we saw two cyclones in Port Hedland and across the coast, in the space of a couple of days of each other. First there was Cyclone George, a category 4 cyclone, in which, tragically, three people were killed. Again, Centrelink staff came to the fore; they were deployed immediately to the town. I attended a town hall meeting with Barry Haase, the member for Kalgoorlie, the Monday before last and heard firsthand the issues that face the town of Port Hedland and outlying areas. It is interesting to see that already 339 claims have been lodged as a result of Cyclone George. These have come not only from the town of Port Hedland but also from outlying communities and areas. You have to remember that there were mining camps and, as I said, tragically, three deaths in outlying areas. Indigenous communities were cut off, and there was damage to the town of Port Hedland and individual losses.

But what has been so important has been that Centrelink staff have responded quickly and have been on the ground helping people. I think those listening today, both in the Senate and elsewhere, should realise the great work that has been done by Centrelink staff above and beyond the call of duty. Staff were deployed to Port Hedland as soon as that they could get there—bearing in mind that the second cyclone, Cyclone Jacob, was crossing on Monday—and they arrived that Monday afternoon. They were stationed at the Port Hedland detention centre and were in action first thing the next morning dealing with the problems the townsfolk had in Port Hedland and the outlying areas.

This does not happen by accident. We have put in place the natural disaster relief arrangements working with state and territory authorities, and I want to acknowledge the great work that has been done by state emergency services, police and other state authorities across the nation in relation to disasters such as this. Local government also plays a very important role. I thank Senator Macdonald for this important question. I think it is a timely reminder for us all of the great work that is being done by so many Australians who rise to the occasion when others are in need as a result of a natural disaster.