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Monday, 9 December 2013
Page: 2047


Mrs MARKUS (Macquarie) (11:17): I rise to speak on the private member's motion moved by the member for Chifley. Firstly, to the member for Shortland, on behalf of my constituents, can I extend our deepest regret for what you and your community have experienced. Having walked the journey with my community over recent months, I want to extend to you our thoughts. I particularly extend condolences to the family and friends of Walter Linder. In the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury we experienced significant devastation and loss, but, fortunately, there has been no loss of life, which is miraculous.

It is of deep sadness to me that the member for Chifley would seek to criticise and politicise at a time when the people of my community are trying to rebuild after what has been a devastating and traumatic two months. It has been my observation that those opposite are seeking to play politics with the emotions, minds and hearts of people rather than reaching out and providing help where it is needed. During the recent bushfires, the Leader of the Opposition was quoted during a press conference as saying, 'Matters such as these emergencies are above politics.' I am disappointed that the behaviour of Senator Doug Cameron and others opposite has proved this statement false. I do not have time now to list every time I have seen the senator behave in a very inappropriate fashion, particularly to my community, who are suffering at this time.

The impacts of the bushfires in my electorate of Macquarie have been significant. Two hundred and eight homes have been lost, with another 191 damaged. All three major fires—the Linksview Road fire, the Mount York Road fire and the State Mine fire—have resulted in significant damage and loss throughout the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury, and the impacts will be felt for some time to come. The fires hit hardest on 17 October. At the time, I was with my own local fire brigade getting ready to hop on a truck to head up to Bilpin when the seriousness of what was happening at Springwood began to unfold. I had to meander my way around closed roads and so on to reach the affected people at the Springwood evacuation centre, where I spent most of that evening with families, emergency services and NGOs.

Early Friday was a very emotional time. Escorted by police, I stood with members of the community in front of their destroyed and damaged homes, and many of these people are facing their own challenges already. In fact, there was one young mum whose daughter was in the hospital for that week for serious surgery, and while that was happening and her focus needed to be there she was losing her home.

Since that terrible day, I have been witness to the significant loss and hardship for the people of my community and have done my best to respond with whatever assistance is needed on the ground. What this motion fails to recognise is the incredible response on the ground by both the federal and state governments within the first hours and days following the disaster, not to mention the response by the community. I wish to enlighten the member opposite, as I failed to see him during this time. In the first 24 hours following 17 October, I was joined by both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Human Services on the ground in Springwood and Winmalee. In fact, the Minister for Human Services spent close to a week there, making sure that all the services that were required on the ground were there. The Minister for Human Services was quick to assess what was needed for families and acted appropriately. A mobile Centrelink was set up at Summerhayes Park in Winmalee. We had to ask them to move it as the fires came quite perilously close; it was an emergency that went on for more than 10 days. Centrelink officers were stationed at all evacuation centres as well as at every local Centrelink office. They were open all weekend.

On 18 October the state government announced the appointment of Phil Koperberg to lead the recovery efforts and the team. On 21 October, the Blue Mountains Bushfire Recovery Committee was established to begin work. Both the local member and I were part of this. On 22 October the recovery centre opened in Springwood. The centre has been a one-stop shop for Blue Mountains recovery, for all agencies and for people to access on a daily basis. Included in that recovery centre from the first day it opened were representatives from Centrelink, the tax office, other government departments, the Salvation Army and other NGOs providing vital services to people that were experiencing a very tough time and still do today.

I would like to address the false and misleading claims made by the member for Chifley and to point out the following information regarding disaster relief payments which have been activated: within 24 hours the federal government activated the Australian government disaster recovery payment so that those who had been most severely affected could get assistance right away. The disaster recovery payment allows families who have been severely affected by the fires, those who have a lost or damaged house, have been severely injured or have lost a loved one—fortunately we lost no-one—to access payments of $1,000 per adult and $400 per child. For the first time ever we activated the disaster recovery allowance, which provides 13 weeks of income support to those who have lost income as a result of the bushfires. Labor failed to do this. The disaster recovery payment is designed to be flexible assistance.

Labor's claim that the payments were removed is false and, in fact, seems to be criticising their own approach given that when in government Labor have also adopted this approach by activating different criteria for different disasters. In fact, Labor used the same eligibility criteria that we have put in place on five occasions while they were in government: in January 2008 for storms and flooding in Mackay; in February 2008 for flooding in Mackay; in November 2008 for storms in Queensland; in May 2009 for storms and flooding in south-east Queensland and New South Wales; and in March 2010 for storms in Victoria. Labor have incorrectly stated that we did not activate the payment for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the fires. Along with this, I have been approached by a member of the public who witnessed Senator Cameron at the recovery centre approach a distraught resident and hassle them about the disaster recovery payments—very inappropriate. This behaviour should be absolutely condemned.

Let me bring some very important figures to the attention of those opposite. I have the latest figures, as of 5 December, from the Department of Human Services. For the AGDRP, the number of claims finalised is 764, at $833,600. For the disaster recovery allowance, 44 claims have been finalised, with the payments reaching $21,977. The cumulative number of calls to the Australian Government Emergency Information Line is more than 1,000. These figures do not include the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements, nor do they include the raft of other measures: fast-tracking of tax refunds by the Australian Taxation Office; waived passport fees and streamlined processing of replacement passports; free mail redirection from Australia Post; and access to essential PBS medicines under the arrangement between the Department of Health and local pharmacists.

Following the impact of the initial emergency, the area of the Blue Mountains is now well into the recovery-and-clean-up phase. This is a very important phase. On 14 November 2013, the Minister for Justice made a joint announcement with the NSW government that we would be sharing the cost of cleaning up and removing debris from the bushfire affected properties in the Blue Mountains. This additional financial support came after an initial $1.4 million commitment by the state government, which funded urgent work to make safe sites containing asbestos in the bushfire zone. I also acknowledge that the Army was present on the ground, emptying unfenced pools, removing unsafe trees and also making sites safe in the weeks that followed. By taking these methodical steps in partnership with insurers, the state government is ensuring that 100 per cent of a homeowner's insurance payout is directed towards rebuilding, not spent on the clean-up.

Since the announcement on 14 November, the government has worked to move efficiently throughout this process, and it is estimated that between 40,000 and 60,000 tonnes of debris will be removed from the Blue Mountains. Based on similar tragedies in other jurisdictions, the clean-up operation could take months. It took five months to clear properties following the Tasmanian fires in 2012.

Let me also talk briefly about the business assistance that is available. We are absolutely 100 per cent committed to delivering on the $100,000 concessional interest rate loans. There is also additional assistance for businesses that are affected. Already, small businesses whose assets have been directly damaged by New South Wales fires may be eligible for concessional interest rate loans of up to $130,000. There is also additional assistance available from various sources. We also provided a holiday from PAYG.

We are progressing the $100,000 concessional loan as quickly as possible. Labor for six years failed to implement this. They never came up with that idea, nor did they attempt to deliver it. We are getting on with the job. We are committed to supporting our local communities throughout this whole process. There is no quick fix for recovering from a natural disaster of this magnitude. (Time expired)