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Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Page: 1027

Mr WINDSOR (5:28 PM) —I support the condolence motion. I think all Australians are aware of the absolute disasters that have occurred in some parts of our country in recent months. I say so in the context of the disaster that has occurred in recent hours in Christchurch, New Zealand. It brings home to all of us the very significant point that we live in a natural environment and occasionally very unnatural things occur. I hope that we learn from the recent events, irrespective of which state they occurred in, in terms of some of the planning processes et cetera that will mitigate some of those circumstances in the future or ensure that we do not—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 5.30 pm to 5.44 pm

Mr WINDSOR —I do support the condolence motion. I think it is very significant that so many members have spoken or intend to speak on this motion. It is obvious that the nation has been touched by the tragedies that occurred, particularly in Queensland, where the loss of life of such magnitude occurred, but also in Victoria. We saw some awesome events unfold in that period of time. It was really brought home to a lot of people because we live in an age of television, and historically we would not have witnessed many of the events that are now captured on our television screens. Even though many of us were not in flooded areas, we felt as though we were very close to the floods because of the media coverage.

Queensland obviously has been the most affected. Having relatives in Brisbane and watching the magnitude of the flows that were in the Brisbane River, and watching the occurrence and the aftermath within Grantham Toowoomba and the other towns that were affected in the Lockyer Valley, really brought home the power that nature does have and can unleash. The electorate of New England, like a lot of electorates, did have some flooding. In the main it would be considered normal flooding except, in my view, for one particular area which was right on the Queensland border; from Tenterfield through to Mingoola and around the Bonshaw area, and further through around Texas towards Goondiwindi, Yetman and those areas.

I do thank the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry for taking the time a few weeks back now to call in on his way back to Brisbane and have a quick look at the area. He was restricted in time and I appreciated his visit. He was able to talk to a small group of farmers and, very importantly, to see the damage that occurred to infrastructure. Thankfully, there was not any loss of life but there was an enormous destructive effect to infrastructure both on-farm and public assets. Relatively new bridges were absolutely destroyed. There were 22 inches of rain in 24 hours, which is a lot of rain in anybody’s language, and it proceeded down that relatively small catchment—a sliver of land in a sense—where the absolute disaster occurred. It was, as I said earlier, really part of the Queensland flooding. Even though it is in New South Wales it is just over the border from Queensland.

Other towns and districts did incur some flooding but nothing of the magnitude that occurred there. I am deeply grateful to the minister for being there because I think he needed to see that it was a Queensland event occurring on the edge of New South Wales. I have raised with a few ministers that any assistance for that particular sliver of land, people live there of course, should be treated much the same as Queensland because it was an event that was not just demarcated by state boundaries.

The people of Mingoola are still working to clear up the area from Bonshaw right back through the Mole River to Tenterfield. There was damage in Tenterfield itself but it was particularly downstream. As other members have indicated there was an enormous outpouring of concern from people who were not flooded. A lot of people from my electorate did travel to Queensland and other parts to help, assist, care, show their concern and make a contribution, and that happened in this valley in my electorate as well.

There is one group I would like to particularly single out. They are called the BackTrack boys. The founder of the BackTrack boys is a man called Bernie Shakeshaft from Armidale. A few years back now Bernie brought together young Aboriginal people who were on the verge of probably not being the best citizens. They were a little bit lost, they may have been having difficulties at school, within the family or within the community. Bernie brought this group of young people together and through his leadership they have gained an enormous number of skills in welding et cetera. If I can, in the next few weeks I have to pick up a beautifully made bush barbecue that the boys put together. They are also responsible for training sheep dogs and other dogs I think, but sheep dogs in particular.

Bernie has done an incredible job in the way in which these kids have lifted themselves, the spirit that they have and the skills that they are gaining. They volunteered to go out to the Mingoola area that I described and worked for nothing at various properties, clearing fences, putting up fences, doing a whole range of jobs. They have gained enormous respect and regard from the people who live in that area. I extend my congratulations to the boys and I intend to thank them when I pick up my barbecue. I also thank them for the concern that they showed for people. Obviously, when a tragedy of any magnitude occurs, money is important and I am sure there will be assistance granted to those who deserve it in an appropriate way. Some of these people were actually living in shock for days because of the event that had occurred, and I think it is just as important for them that they see people who actually care for them who have come to help them out. That is a true expression of mateship, and we need to preserve that mateship and recognise when people assist and help out. As I said, I pay particular regard to the boys and look forward to talking to them.

There are a number of issues that will be raised in the parliament about what we do with natural disasters. In fact, in my maiden speech I raised the issue of the need for a national natural disaster fund, and I think what we are seeing at the moment with the proposed flood levy and the cyclones is that the way in which we respond to these disasters, in my view, has to be addressed in the future. Irrespective of whether climate change is a reality or not, there will be significant events—almost unnatural events, disastrous events, not normal floods. There will be events that occur from time to time that require a massive injection of public funds, and I think we have to put in place some sort of arrangement. It may well involve the sorts of things that Senator Xenophon is talking about, such as reinsurance at the state level. If this disaster had occurred in New South Wales, for instance, I think the New South Wales government would have had somewhere between $3 billion and $4 billion worth of insurance to cover the flooding. I know the cyclone is slightly different. Queensland did not in fact have those sorts of issues addressed.

Part of what will occur later this year is that people will start to inquire into what happened and what we do when it happens again, because I think there is a lesson out of Queensland that we should take notice of. There were floods in 1974, there has been flooding in 2011 and there will be floods of that magnitude again at some time. We should take notice of that and learn from it. It is a great tragedy. I am critical of the administration of Brisbane, particularly at the local government level but also the state level. Over the years they allowed a massive building program to take place in the area where the 1974 flood occurred. There was this assumption that the mitigation of the dam would stop that from ever happening again. Well, it will happen again. Now we have a massive bill, not only in Brisbane but in other parts of the state, and others are being called upon to make a contribution too. I do not have a problem with that at all, as long as we learn and do not just repeat the sins of the past. There are things that can be done to mitigate natural disasters. Some of my electorate is on flood plains. Most of the towns have organised themselves in terms of levees. With the reconstruction activity that is going to occur, we should look very closely at whether some engineering work should be put in place to mitigate some of these occurrences.

Our family experienced two floods at a property we have at Coonamble. It is about 250 kilometres from where I live. My son operates that property. He had two floods go across about 5,000 acres of cropping country. About 1,700 acres had not been harvested at the time. He was able to salvage a little bit but probably lost in the vicinity of half a million dollars, I would imagine, in income. Some farmers are suggesting that there should be recompense from government for those sorts of flooding activities. I disagree with that. We bought country on a flood plain because it floods. If you do not want to live on a flood plain, you should go and live on a hill, but obviously you cannot carry out the cropping activities on a hill that you can on some of the magnificent flood plains we have for agriculture.

So I think we have to be a little bit careful, at a political level, that we do not start responding to any natural event as a disaster. A lot of natural events are quite welcome. At any time but harvest time the natural event at Coonamble would have been very welcome. I do not think we should bracket those sorts of events as being disasters. Even though they might be a disaster to individuals on a particular occasion, they should not in my view be included in some sort of long-term natural disaster response. I think that, if we do set up something for the long term, it has to be about extreme events, not normal ebbs and flows in flooding, droughts and other natural activities.

The other thing I want to raise before I conclude my contribution is that there are other natural events that occur from time to time that we, as governments, will witness over a period of time. I was in the New South Wales parliament for 10 years and I saw a gradual disintegration of past practices, but fires will occur. After a very wet year like this, fires will occur again. We have seen recent disasters, particularly in Victoria but most recently in Perth, where fires destroyed lives and property. At some stage we have to recognise that the planning process has to kick back in, as it should have in Queensland all those years ago. People have been allowed to build on flood plains. The process should kick back in for the mitigation of fire risk as well. A man who is not in the parliament anymore but with whom I was communicating today—the Hon. Wilson Tuckey—made some memorable speeches in this place in the past about fire, fire mitigation and the prevention of death and destruction. Victoria has had a major inquiry into what happened down there. It will be very interesting to see what sorts of practices are put in place to mitigate the next disaster. I think we have to be very careful in this place to avoid repeats of some of the tragic events that have occurred in the past.

To conclude, I convey the sympathies of my electorate to those families that have been affected, particularly those who have lost loved ones through the various tragedies that have occurred, and also to the people of New Zealand, who are experiencing a disaster as we speak. I am sure that those people who are impacted would respect and regard the parliament for taking the time it has taken to participate in this condolence motion.