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Thursday, 14 February 2013
Page: 1553

Mr CHRISTENSEN (Dawson) (13:13): I thank my colleagues on both sides of the chamber for their valuable contributions on this matter of natural disasters. Firstly, I wish to comment on the natural disaster that we witnessed over the last month, then, to address two important issues that arise from that disaster and which require urgent attention from all levels of government. These are important issues to raise now while the images and impacts of this natural disaster, particularly in Queensland, are fresh in our mind so that issues arising from future disasters might be avoided or, at least, their impact is minimised. I will provide a more Queensland perspective on the disaster as it affected my electorate of Dawson.

Our nation's history and our culture is embroidered with heroic battles against Mother Nature. We have always been a sunburnt country, both relieved and challenged by flooding rains, and in the months just gone obviously Mother Nature has challenged our continent with fires throughout the south and flooding rains in the north.

Our hearts go out to the residents who are faced with the task of rebuilding their lives in the embers and ashes of Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and, more recently, Western Australia. Our thoughts and prayers also go out from my electorate in north Queensland to the people and their neighbours—in central, southern and western Queensland—who could not hold back the tide that was sadly delivered by ex-tropical Cyclone Oswald. We have the strength of our nation and culture, the determination and resolve forged through centuries of heroic battles by Australians with mother nature, and the bonds of mateship and of lending a hand in the time of need.

Thankfully, north Queensland was spared from the worst of ex-tropical Cyclone Oswald. Having lived through Cyclone Yasi and Cyclone Ului, and the devastating 2008 flood in Mackay, we offer understanding to those in need today and we are also there to lend a helping hand. Just as the helping hands arrived in north Queensland during our time of need, I note that the favour was returned. Certainly, SES crews and volunteers from right around north Queensland were on the ground in some of the worst-hit areas of our state. I note that Mackay Regional Council staff members were working in flood-prone areas—particularly around the Bundaberg region and the Burnett region—along with a team of SES volunteers from local SES units in Mackay, Calen, Midge Point and Sarina.

I would also note that groups like the Mackay Church Of the Nazarene, led by Pastor Robyn Geiger, made up and donated community care packages, which are very good for people who go through these disasters. When something horrendous like this happens in your life, you forget the small things. The packets were made up of toothbrushes, soap, shampoo—just small things like that to help people out. That was done by that church and sent on down to north Bundaberg.

My electorate did not escape entirely unscathed, as was evidenced by the boats—there was no damage to human life or serious damage to homes—which were smashed against the rocks and destroyed in the Whitsundays. I happened to be down there giving a certificate to a volunteer at the VMR at Airlie Beach when the storm system was passing overhead. It was a frightening thing to see the size of the waves that were pounding those boats. We actually watched and could do nothing as one of them was smashed right up against the rocks; it was basically split in two in front of our eyes.

Turning from that to the issues of what we can do in the future, there are two significant concerns that I have in the aftermath of these disasters. One is the breakdown of the telecommunications network that basically happened everywhere above Bundaberg, although it was a natural disaster and these things do happen. Somewhere above north Bundaberg there was a bridge that came down and took out the fibre-optic cable there, which was the main service line for all telecommunications in central and north Queensland. Then, unfortunately, the backup system to that was taken out by a landslide in Kingaroy. We had the main line and the backup line destroyed, and there were no Telstra telecommunications services.

But the serious issue arising from that was the breakdown of the 000 emergency service from all Telstra phone lines, including mobiles. That was out for about 20 hours, which was extremely, extremely concerning. I was very distressed not only by that event but to read a few days later in my local newspaper—the Daily Mercury—that there was actually an emergency that occurred in Proserpine during the time that those emergency numbers were offline. Fay Craigie—a 75-year-old woman with a serious lung condition—collapsed in her home and she was there for probably more than 12 hours on the floor, trying to get help by hitting her personal emergency alarm button. These things route through to a nominated person and then another nominated person, but when they do not get to those people they go through to 000—and 000 was down.

So this poor woman lay on the floor for 12 hours. When help arrived it was in the form of her daughter, Anne-Marie Rankmore, who found her and took her to the hospital but, three days later, Fay Craigie passed away from that ordeal and the complications that she already had.

Another situation happened in Mackay around the same time. An 81-year-old gentleman by the name of Colin Gray had a heart attack, he hit his personal alarm button and he was eventually found by, I understand, his daughter. Unfortunately, he passed away as a result of the heart attack but also because of the lengthy delay in getting medical treatment that should have happened. So I am quite alarmed that the triple-0 actually went out. I understand that there are measures, when the phone system went down, for the triple-0 services to remain active. While I am told that there was another emergency number that people could contact, the fact is that not even I know what it is. When people who probably have more information than most in the community do not know this phone number, how are people in the general community to know it? They said it was being sent out via mobile phone text, but the mobile phone system was not working. How on earth are people to get this number? It is quite serious.

I am having a meeting tomorrow afternoon with the daughters of both of the people who sadly passed away. We are going to get a petition together that will come to this place and hopefully put some pressure on the government and the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and the Minister for Emergency Management to liaise with Telstra and the other telcos about ensuring that this does not happen again. There has to be a way that we can have surety of service with that triple-0 number. I have already written to both of those ministers about that. No-one is blaming Telstra for that incident, but the fact that these people could not get through to triple 0 at that time of need, and the fact that the personal alarm system went down as a result of that, is quite distressing.

The second issue is the Don River, which is a river that flows to the side of Bowen. Due to years of erosion from the hills upstream, there are large sand deposits in that riverbed. One deposit is right near the mouth of the river, and it is so big that locals actually call it 'the island' now. It effectively provides a blockage to water as it flows out the mouth and into the sea. A five-metre flood in that river used to cause some problems, but I have got to tell you that a 4.5-metre flood or less now causes flooding issues particularly in the rural part of that community. In the event of a five-metre, six-metre or higher flow coming through that river, I believe we would actually see homes wiped out in the Queens Beach area, which is a sizeable suburb. I note that the Whitsunday Regional Council has recently received $104,000 in a grant from the Queensland government through their floods response subsidy to develop a floodplain risk and management study for the Don River. That is good; that needs to happen before any work can take place to ensure that, if they are going to remove this bit of sand, it will not cause a problem in another part and cause more damage to homes. That study will supply options for flood mitigation works in the Don River, but I am concerned that the study probably will take some months. We need to get going straight after that. If we leave the works that are recommended by the study to languish, if we leave them beyond the next wet season, we could get a flood through that river which could change the hydrology and the sand movements, and then we would be back to square one and we would have to do a sub-study or something like that to find out what is going on.

The Queensland government provides funding through its Floodplain Security Scheme—part of its Royalties for the Regions program—for flood mitigation works like this. But there is actually no federal equivalent. I know they are liaising with the federal government at the moment to try to get some funding to help in these sorts of instances, but it is not there right now. The people of Bowen do expect that all levels of government—council, state and, indeed federal—where we do not have any bucket of money for this type of project, to assist. We want them to assist in preventing a natural disaster that could be caused by the Don River breaking out and flooding homes. So, in the spirit of prevention being better than the cure, I say to the government: invest in the flood prevention works so we can fix the Don River before it is a problem.