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Thursday, 25 June 1998
Page: 5423


Mr BROADBENT —My question is addressed to the Minister for Finance and Administration. With regard to the extensive flooding in the East Gippsland area, could the minister outline what Commonwealth assistance is available for those people affected? I thank this government for the support of farmers right across both areas of Gippsland at this time.


Mr FAHEY (Finance and Administration) —I thank the honourable member for McMillan for his question. I can indicate that I and my colleagues in government recognise the close association that the member for McMillan has, along with the member for Gippsland, with this issue and how they continually bring forward rural issues generally. As the Prime Minister indicated, the member for Gippsland is currently travelling in the flood affected area, his electorate, where a state of emergency was declared last night by the Victorian government.

I think it is important at this point to indicate to the House the extent of this damage. There are record flooding levels in East Gippsland in Orbost, Lakes Entrance and the Paynesville area. Several of the areas in that region have become isolated due to floodwaters. There have also been some significant wind storms associated with the heavy rains, and that has damaged homes and knocked down trees. In addition to that, the stock losses are expected to be very high because many farmers have been unable to move their stock to higher ground due to the swiftness of the rising water.

Perhaps most importantly—and, again, the Prime Minister indicated this—as a result of the region having been subjected to an extended drought period over the past 3½ years, a huge amount of land degradation has taken place. What has occurred is that topsoil has been lost and river banks have been eroded—that is enormous and follows on from the drought. The member for Gippsland has indicated only just this morning that particularly hard hit is the Omeo Valley.

We have noted, and appreciate very much, that some 500 state emergency services staff and volunteers have been out attempting to combat the floods and storm damage. They have worked tirelessly, saving lives and saving property over the last several days, and we are all grateful for that particular effort. As I indicated, last night the Victorian Premier announced a state of emergency and indicated that he would do whatever it takes to assist the residents.

I think it is important to indicate briefly what the Commonwealth role is in cases of natural disaster. We provide assistance on a dollar for dollar basis when each of the states and territories exceed a threshold. At a certain point, over another threshold, we provide some $3 for every $1 the states provide. Specifically, the Commonwealth will reimburse Victoria for 50 per cent of all outlays in relation to the provision of personal hardship and distress relief. That includes emergency food, clothing, accommodation and home re-establishment grant Debate interrupted.

We will provide 50 per cent of expenditure in relation to psychological counselling relief. We will provide 50 per cent of expenditure incurred in the repair and restoration of essential public assets. That includes roads, railways, schools, hospitals and government buildings. We will provide concessional loans to the Victorian government on very favourable terms, with concessional interest rates if they wish to on-lend to persons for home rebuilding, for voluntary non-profit bodies—such as churches, et cetera—and for farmers and small businesses who are unable to obtain commercial finance.

I conclude by saying, as has already been indicated in the House today, that the cruelty of natural disaster visits our communities from time to time and governments must respond. It reminds us of that vulnerability that this nation is subjected to through those adverse weather conditions that visit us all too frequently. I note that, earlier this year, the Northern Territory had a problem with flooding in Katherine. Only last week, we paid out $28 million to the Northern Territory government and we anticipate that $42 million will be paid from Commonwealth funds to the Northern Territory. That is on top of the rescue package announced by the Prime Minister at the time of approximately $10 million to assist individual families and to assist in the repair of the national highway. Governments must respond and ensure that, when communities are in trouble, we are there to assist wherever possible.