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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 306

Mr McCLELLAND (Barton—Minister for Housing, Minister for Homelessness and Minister for Emergency Management) (16:07): The member for Lyne does indeed raise an important matter of public importance. I commend him for it. Natural disasters are part of our natural history. They are just that: they are natural. But they have significant impact on our economy—for instance, last year in Queensland the cost to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth was about $5.7 billion. But that cost obviously pales into insignificance when we consider that there have been 35 lives lost in floods in Queensland since November 2011.

These are very significant issues indeed. The member for Lyne is essentially talking about two events: one in late January affecting South-East Queensland and north-east New South Wales—I was able to visit there on 27 January and I headed down to the member's electorate in the days following that—and the other as a consequence of the monsoonal rains that we are seeing in south-west Queensland and north-west New South Wales. Again, with the members for Maranoa and Parkes, I visited their electorates with the Minister for Human Services on Tuesday. I should also indicate that I had support from the member for Moncrieff and the member for Richmond on the previous visits.

In terms of the relief, I will explain to members—I know the member for Lyne and other members participating in this debate will be aware of this; this is for the public record—that there are two streams of benefits that are available in the event of a natural disaster. Firstly, there are the joint Commonwealth and state arrangements—the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. In respect of those arrangements 20 local government areas in Queensland have been declared and 21 in New South Wales. An additional four were added today. Those entitlements are essentially community based and individual entitlements—for instance, for the immediate response in assisting the community in the refuge centres and for the longer recovery and repair operations. That was the substantial focus of the honourable member's presentation. There are also individual payments with respect to hardship by way of assistance for business and property owners and even for non-government organisations. Depending on the status declared by the state government, the Commonwealth essentially, after a threshold, shares the cost of those.

Secondly, there is a stream of payments in respect of Australian government disaster recovery payments. They are exclusively Commonwealth. They entitle individuals who have been badly affected to a payment of $1,000 and for children, $400. Essentially, the activation of those payments is based on the consideration and expert advice provided to me regarding numbers of people affected, the uniqueness of the event and the extent of the impact on the local community, including the percentage of the local community affected—for instance, in the town of St George effectively the whole town was evacuated; obviously, that town was significantly impacted—and also whether a state has declared 'category C' under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. Essentially, the philosophy behind these grants that were initiated by the former government was that the event was a very severe event and so impacted on the local community that it really required an injection of resources, not only to ease the suffering of individuals but to inject resources into that local community to sustain it.

I should say that there is some degree of overlap between the two systems, as you would anticipate, but the point I am making in listing these benefits is a subsequent point that I will make with respect to what I believe we need to constantly refocus on—that is, preventative measures.

I can accept the honourable member's points with respect to administration although I should place on the record that the working relationship I have had with the state ministers in this respect has been absolutely outstanding. Mike Gallacher in New South Wales and Neil Roberts in Queensland are both fine ministers and decent men. We have had ongoing and constant communication regarding these events.

I appreciate the input—I will take it on—that the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements are complicated. There is no doubt about that. You could study them for three years and obtain a degree and still not know how they applied in specific circumstances. I think that is a fair estimate that has been put to me. In particular there are complications with respect to such things as eligibility criteria. These events do not always fall precisely over one line, so judging where that line exists is often a difficulty. With respect to low-interest loans that are available to businesses and primary producers, we recognise that there are complications, particularly in circumstance where those affected will not have the resources to engage an accountant or a lawyer to prepare the necessary records.

All these points are valid points and we will take them on board. I do not have the figures for New South Wales; however, in terms of getting the country back in order, in the broad—there will obviously be issues of substance, as has been raised by the member for Lyne—in Queensland there were 9,170 kilometres of roads that were damaged and 8,482 kilometres have now been repaired. There is obviously still a substantial amount to repair but nonetheless that is quite a solid piece of work that has been done. In Queensland 4,748 kilometres of rail line were damaged. That is now fully functional. Eleven of Queensland's 20 ports were damaged. They are now fully operational. In terms of schools, 411 were affected; they are now fully open. And 89 bridges and culverts which were damaged have been restored.

I commend the Queensland government for that effort. Obviously, in terms of the Commonwealth government's assistance and oversight, we have been able to work with them on that. That is not to say that there will not be individual circumstances that require attention. In respect of that, part of the problem, I suppose, is that there are often several agencies involved. Again, for members of the public who are interested or concerned, perhaps the best starting point for information regarding the relevant agency that they should apply to, for either an individual payment or a business grant that they may be entitled to, is the Commonwealth government's website, which is

The other aspect of the culture we have in Australia which is tremendously significant is that culture of volunteers. The member for Lyne, as I am sure will other members, commended the counter-disaster effort by the professionals and also the volunteers. Volunteers certainly are not amateur these days; they are highly professional in terms of their level of skill. Representatives of the state emergency services of New South Wales and Queensland came out of the woodwork from all locations around the states to help those areas that had been affected. It was the same with the rural fire services in their assistance. The non-government organisations are absolutely outstanding in the way they get in and assist the community, not only to staff the evacuation centres but also to doorknock and provide food to those people who are cleaning up, as are the local governments. I have been so impressed with the community leadership that is shown by the local governments and, indeed, the contribution of federal members. Our military has also been outstanding once again. A special mention has been made of the communication and assistance in keeping civil society on the road through the ABC.

Having discussed the benefits that are available, I should say that we need to ensure that that is not our primary focus. Obviously the media focus and the focus of this House is, understandably, on these events after the natural disasters occur, but we really need to refocus our emphasis on prevention. To return to the example I referred to, Queensland has suffered $5.7 billion in damage, but $840 million was paid out by way of those individual payments. They were in addition to the natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements, the personal hardship payments and the joint federal and state benefits that I have referred to. There was certainly a substantial effort put in and substantial resources involved in these past-event personal payments. Obviously they are justified—these are people who had been through a tremendous amount of hardship—but we historically have not spent anywhere near enough or focused our attention anywhere near enough on prevention, and that is where I think we should shift the culture. There is no doubt that mitigation does work. I went to Charleville, for instance, and stood on one side of the levee with my feet dry, looking over at little more than head level at literally miles of swiftly moving water. The levee had saved the town. Lismore is another example and there are numerous examples elsewhere. They think that in Cunnamulla the levee will save the town—we all hope and pray—from the floodwaters which will move there.

These mitigation measures do work. When flying over the town of Murwillumbah, I saw that the old construction technique of building properties on stilts works. The township was inundated, but certainly the contents and the building structures of the properties that had been elevated remained sound—old lessons that we can apply. There is much we can do. By way of further commendation, I commend the Financial Review for the editorial stance that they took today. They again acknowledged the loss that had been sustained but pointed out that we do need to focus on prevention. Again, planning decisions are vitally important and reference was made in the article to the fact that very expensive properties were built in Brisbane along the lovely riverfront, but if you look at the photos from the 1970s you see that the area was completely flooded out. A graphic photo was shown of a power station that had been flooded. Clearly, properties should not have been bought there.

I am not sure of the view of the member for Maranoa on this matter, but, looking at Roma, the people on these properties have gone through so much for three years in a row. It was not their fault, but clearly careful attention needs to be given as to where properties are constructed if they are going to go through that sort of trauma on an annual basis, or at least for three years in a row. We need to look at that sort of thing. We are looking at states such as Victoria buying back properties vulnerable to the fires. We are looking at Queensland. Again, I commend them in the area of Grantham, where they are buying back properties and allocating others. These are the sorts of things that we need to factor into our mitigation strategies. In the area of zoning, we need to identify risk factors, and we are in fact working with the states and territories to identify, mark and note areas according to their particular risk factors so that, in turn, we can have areas zoned according to their risk and building codes applied appropriate to that risk as designated. Some areas, of course, will be designated as quite inappropriate to build on. But, by going through this systematically and methodically, we will be able to make our country far more resilient.

There will, of course, be legacy issues with these properties that have repeatedly been flooded and, again, we need to systematically work through those with the state and local government areas so that we can take preventative measures. Whether it is a levee system or other preventative steps, we need to work through these issues and we need to plan for the future. So while it is entirely appropriate that we show empathy, as we do again today, for those who have suffered in natural disasters and we are all keen to provide that assistance post-event which is so necessary, I think we need to have a debate in this House and it is a debate I intend to have. A discussion I need to have with members, particularly those who have the local experiences to feed in, is what more we should be doing and how we refocus all that we can reasonably do to protect and prevent further damage and loss of life into the future.