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Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Page: 3495

Ms KING (3:39 PM) —My question is to the Attorney-General. Will the Attorney update the House on progress made to establish a national emergency warning system in the event of a major emergency or natural disaster?

Mr McCLELLAND (Attorney-General) —I thank the honourable member and commend her, and indeed other members in areas affected by the recent Victorian fires, for the quality of their representation. The Commonwealth of course is doing its bit to support the reconstruction and working very closely with the Victorian government. On behalf of the government, could I make special mention and commendation of the work of the Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction, Bill Shorten, who is doing an outstanding job on behalf of the government in that respect.

The government is also doing its part in endeavouring to minimise the prospect of these events occurring again—a point made by a number of members speaking in this House. In that respect, the week before last there was a very significant development, and that was the agreement by the Council of Australian Governments to develop a national warning system. The Commonwealth agreed to fund the development to the tune of $15 million. It is a program that will be developed and implemented by the states. It will indeed be a significant development. It will have the capability of sending voice messages to landlines and text messages to mobile phones, and that will be a significant thing. It must be recognised that there are currently limitations in the system. Currently, landlines are obviously at fixed addresses. In terms of mobile phones, they will only, with present technologies, be capable of going to billing addresses, which of course may not be where the person holding the phone is located. To further advance those technologies, the Commonwealth and the states agreed to jointly undertake additional research to develop that capability of having geographic or location specific messages. The Commonwealth has agreed to not only fund that but also provide access to the Integrated Public Number Database by providing $11.3 million for those projects.

I heard an interjection which I did not take but which was valid, and that was that these measures are not foolproof. There will be areas where there are blackouts and power shortages breaking off phone connections, so these must be seen as an adjunct to other systems of warning. If power is on, obviously there will be warnings provided by television and radio, but sirens, doorknocking and other mechanisms are also being canvassed in the royal commission.

This is a very significant development. I really do commend the leadership of the state premiers. They rose above a lot of bureaucratic bickering that had crossed governments for a number of years. They really showed leadership. Finally, I commend and congratulate the Prime Minister on this very significant achievement in the area of disaster management.