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Wednesday, 23 February 2011
Page: 1212

Mr CROOK (5:15 PM) —The events of this summer will go down in history as some of Australia’s worst-ever natural disasters—possibly only rivalled by the Cyclone Tracy tragedy that levelled Darwin on Christmas Eve in 1974. As this House sits we currently have a cyclone off the Western Australian coast that has already done significant damage to the town of Karratha by way of a mini tornado and crosses the North West Cape as I speak. Unfortunately, I have a real concern that the wroth of this summer is not yet over. Cyclones, floods, fires and freak storms have literally taken all before it with devastating disregard for life and property. I offer my sincere condolences to those who have lost loved ones, property and irreplaceable personal effects.

The first week of parliamentary sittings this year saw an outpouring of raw emotion on what had happened over this devastating summer. There is no doubt that all Australians have felt the pain of those who have suffered. We saw the grief-stricken families who have lost loved ones, those who have lost everything they own apart from the clothes on their back, cars washed down roadways like corks, roads and bridges just disappearing. We all watched the television in awe, seeing millions of dollars worth of infrastructure and private property crashing down the Brisbane River, ending up in the bottom of Moreton Bay. Further south, towns in Victoria and New South Wales were enveloped by massive expanses of water and communities were isolated for days without power and other services. Members of this House in affected areas have struggled to recount the numerous stories of extreme sadness that their constituents and friends have endured. The sheer enormity of this summer’s devastation could not have been more raw and palpable than when the member for Wright recounted the devastation and loss in his electorate and state. The events of this past summer have literally ravaged communities, physically and emotionally, and it is beholden upon this House to act.

In this debate on the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and related bill so much has been said about the government’s mismanagement of the insulation program, the Building the Education Revolution program and other projects—criticisms that I have also levelled on occasions. We need to remind ourselves that we have had an election since that time and this government was returned—not by my hand, I would add. There have also been calls for the Building the Education Revolution program to be scrapped, which I totally disagree with. During the election campaign, I considered making some political mileage, as many others did, out of the apparent waste and lack of value for money. The minute I approached a school or a parents and friends group, the shutters would go up, simply because these schools were getting some much-needed infrastructure. It may not have been exactly what they wanted and it may have been seen to be too expensive and lacked value for money, but it was much-needed infrastructure all the same and it had been a long time coming. If you go to many of these schools now they proudly show you their new buildings. It would be now totally unfair on those schools that are at the end of this program to not be included. By all means, the government needs to ensure that the remainder of this program is managed in a prudent and professional manner, but certainly not for the program to be cut to the detriment of those waiting schools.

This government are well and truly on notice that this levy and the infrastructure spend associated with it will define them in this term of government. If they are to put the insulation program and the Building the Education Revolutions program behind them, this infrastructure rebuild needs to be successful. Approvals and expenditure must be timely and prudent. There will never be a better time for them to get it right. To this end, I welcome the appointment of John Fahey, former New South Wales Premier and federal finance minister, to oversee the recovery project. I worked with John during the days of my involvement with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and I am confident that the reconstruction effort will be well served by him.

The fearsome bushfires of Lake Clifton and the Perth hills, bringing the devastation much closer to home, were a stark and further reminder that this summer has thrown nature’s worst at us. Fortunately, no lives were lost in those fires, but the anguish of property loss and the loss of never-to-be-replaced items can never ever be reconciled. I would like to make mention of the people of the Gascoyne region of Western Australia who were devastated by floods in December and have been threatened on several occasions since—and, as I speak, Cyclone Carlos crosses the North West Cape. My thoughts are with this very resilient community. I would like to recognise the state member for North West, Mr Vincent Catania, for the tireless work that he has undertaken in the last two months in Carnarvon and the surrounding areas.

There has been much talk in this debate of a natural disaster fund being established, mainly via the media, and this will no doubt be given more credence following the tragic turn of events in New Zealand. I would take this opportunity to echo the sentiments of others in this place on that tragic event. This notion of a disaster fund is worthy of further consideration; however, it should not be intrinsically linked to this debate. Whilst such a measure may prove beneficial for future governments and future disasters, we have a situation here and now that requires the government to take action.

I must say that I feel for those members who have had infrastructure projects cut or delayed as a result of the response. It is not easy to have projects delayed or postponed and explain that to your constituents looking forward to improvements in their communities. I hope that the Australian community will understand that, given these exceptional circumstances, hard decisions had to be taken.

Some members of this House from Western Australia have taken shots at the disaster response saying that Western Australians affected by disasters will not receive any assistance from the levy or indeed the Australian government. This is simply wrong. The Natural Disaster Recovery and Relief arrangements are jointly funded between the Commonwealth and the state. These arrangements include hardship and distress payments, income recovery, interest rate subsidies, freight subsidies for primary producers, professional advice grants and clean-up and recovery grants for small business and farmers.

The Liberal-National government in Western Australia, led by the Hon. Colin Barnett as Premier and the Hon. Brendon Grylls as Minister for Regional Development and Lands, is supportive of the flood levy. They have commented publicly that the WA state government will not be calling on the federal government for financial assistance through the Natural Disaster Recovery and Relief arrangements and instead have opted to fund the infrastructure repair and replacement process from state revenue. This commitment by the state government should in no way preclude them from making a request of this government in the future and that request being honoured.

I have sought and gained assurances from the Prime Minister that victims of the floods and fires in Western Australia will be exempt from paying the levy; furthermore, that there are no plans to cut infrastructure spending in Western Australia. This assurance highlights, in my view, the importance of Western Australia to the national economy, a topic that will no doubt be the subject of another debate in this House. I support this one-off levy because it is the right thing to do. There could never be, in my mind, a better time for Australia to take such an action to help rebuild our nation after what has been and continues to be a relentless and fearsome summer.