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Thursday, 25 November 1993
Page: 3655

Mr HARRY WOODS (11.35 a.m.) —I welcome the opportunity to speak here today on the motion moved by the honourable member for Indi (Mr Lieberman). I appreciate the concern which drives the honourable member for Indi to move this motion, supported by the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd). Going to the flood-ravaged areas of Victoria at a time close to the peak of those floods, and again during the subsequent wash-up, gave me a clear understanding of the needs of the people of Benalla, Myrtleford, Shepparton, Numurka, Nathalia and the other flooded areas in the Echuca and Wodonga regions. It gave me the opportunity to speak to the people of the flood-affected areas whilst they were dealing with the event and subsequently when they were trying to come to terms with it, both emotionally and financially.

  I know that the honourable member for Indi has also experienced the immediate and the after-effects of the flooding and is acting in the interests of his constituents when he puts this motion to the House. I think it is a concern that is shared with the people of that area by the honourable member moving the motion and by all members of the House.

  For the past few years I have been involved in organising delegations from the New South Wales flood mitigation authorities to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy to discuss flood problems in New South Wales and the role the Commonwealth may play in helping to mitigate flooding. In 1990 I organised for a delegation to meet New South Wales parliamentary Labor Party members whose electorates had flooding problems so that they could help in pushing for greater assistance.

  The vast majority of the New South Wales electorates with a substantial flooding problem are Labor electorates, and so it is a problem that affects not just Liberal Party or National Party electorates. My electorate of Page has some of the most serious flooding on the east coast of Australia. Lismore suffers the most dramatic flooding. Floods regularly inundate the main commercial centre, causing damage worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to business and interrupting agricultural activities in the surrounding rural areas.

  Most honourable members would be aware that I was a publican in a former life. The hotel that I own at the moment, which is a recent building in Lawrence on the Clarence River, becomes an island during flooding on the Clarence. In the previous hotel patrons would stand knee-deep—or thigh-deep—for their daily drop. On one occasion I recall serving a beer to a chap who was sitting in a boat in the bar. Everything surrounding that hotel was under water—cane farms, dairy farms, beef properties, homes—and the loss of personal effects and production capacity of the agricultural areas was massive.

  The residents always have an amazing resilience. Floods do seem to bring the community together, and although they may have suffered financial loss the community seems stronger as a result. On the Clarence flooding is something the residents have come to terms with. It happens regularly, so they just deal with it in the best possible way they can, but the recent flooding in Victoria was something different.

  A 100-year flood, as the terminology suggests, does not happen very often. If it happened in my electorate base of Grafton, the town would be devastated. Levy protection there has given a false sense of security that leaves residents vulnerable. If we had the same type of 100-year flood that Victoria suffered, almost every home and every business would be inundated and the loss of personal property would be inestimable. It was this type of flooding or, more appropriately, the frequency of flooding which caused so much trouble in Victoria.

  Flooding of that magnitude just cannot be planned for adequately, and this government recognises the need to make sure every avenue of assistance available to the people of the flood-ravaged areas is delivered as soon as possible. That is why the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Crean) and the honourable member for Murray—the former Deputy Leader of the National Party—together with myself and a number of other members of this House travelled to those areas, along with the then member for Indi, and that is why I made a point of taking the Prime Minister's rural and regional task force on the first visit to that area to determine how effective government programs had been in providing assistance to the people in need.

  It is reasonable to say that whatever is done can always be done better. I think we can do better as a government. If presented with the same circumstances now, I am sure the program delivery from the federal government agencies would be better. As chairman of the rural and regional task force, I have recommended a number of measures which should be implemented by the government. I will outline those recommendations.

  The federal government should allocate additional rural counsellors, perhaps on a temporary basis, in the flood affected regions to help local families return to stability and profitability. I believe that is partly being addressed through the appointment of a temporary officer at this stage. The Minister for Social Security (Mr Baldwin) should investigate the possibility of introducing special disaster provisions, such that retrospective benefits may be paid to those who have been affected by natural disasters. This is also, I believe, being addressed through the Department of Finance.

  Personal counselling services should be seen as an important part of the recovery process for those affected. Therefore, a commitment to providing adequate coun-selling services to those in need is essential. This may also be done through rural counselling schemes. The Minister for Employment, Education and Training (Mr Beazley) should look towards the jobskill and LEAP programs for proposals that will assist the flood affected communities. I think that is also being explored.

  The Commonwealth should investigate the possibility of producing a readily available emergency information guide that would be suitable for people in these types of disasters, with details of what to do, et cetera. A meeting between the Murray-Darling Basin Commission and other relevant bodies should be set up so as to minimise further difficulties experienced during the summer months with the growth of algae in the local waterways around Benalla, due to the increased levels of nutrients which will be deposited in the waterways.

  The Minister for Primary Industries and Energy should investigate what assistance and funding could be directed to assist in the restoration and repair of damage caused to land and vegetation in the flood affected areas under the national landcare program. The Commonwealth should also look at ways to enter into discussions with the Victorian state government in order to ensure that the people of the flood affected areas receive the necessary assistance they are entitled to under national disaster relief arrangements.

  I am sure the honourable member for Indi will recognise the importance and worth of these recommendations. I am confident that many of the concerns will be addressed. These recommendations, along with the report, will be given to the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) today with a request that they be implemented without delay.

  I think the benefits from the Department of Social Security is one of the honourable member's main concerns, and it is a realistic concern. People whose lives have been shattered by floods or any other natural disaster are hardly going to have a visit to the Department of Social Security at the forefront of their minds when they are getting their lives back in order. However, at present if they do not apply early they miss out.

  As far as the national disaster relief arrangements go, that does put a threshold on state expenditure before Commonwealth funding comes in. I believe that type of mechanism is appropriate. It puts the onus on the state to prioritise the importance of disasters. It does this in monetary terms. As the major land and infrastructure managers, it is the states which are in the best position to assess the damage and prioritise it. Whether that is best done in monetary terms, as it is now, or whether some other mechanism could be found to do that effectively, I think should be explored.

  Under the present arrangements, the federal government is automatically committed to massive funding if the states place importance on it. If, for instance, the $200 million mentioned by the honourable member for Indi were the figure that was spent under the NDRA, the majority of that would be federal government money. Of the $200 million, under the funding arrangements, in the vicinity of $120 million would be federal government money. So the question is: how should we prioritise? That is up to the states. It is done by the states in monetary terms at the moment. I think it is worth examination to see whether there is another appropriate method that could be used. At present, the priorities are with the states and it is their responsibility. (Time expired)