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Tuesday, 9 March 1971
Page: 699

Dr PATTERSON (DAWSON, QUEENSLAND) (4.33) Mr Speaker, the New South Wales Grant (Flood Mitigation) Bill 1971 has been introduced into the Parliament by the Minister for National Development (Mr Swartz) under what has been called the new national water resources development programme. The Government has agreed to a request from the State of New South Wales for a grant of up to $9m under the programme to assist in flood mitigation works on 11 New South Wales coastal rivers. The history of the flood mitigation scheme in New South Wales has been well documented in the Parliament, particularly in early 1964 when the needs for the programme were debated at some length in the Parliament.

There can be no doubt that floods have presented a serious problem in eastern New South Wales ever since those areas were first settled. Of course, the same comment applies to other river valleys in eastern Australia as well as in other parts of Australia. In this Parliament many sound debates have taken place concerning the need for flood mitigation work. Considering the work that has been undertaken by the Corps of Engineers in the United States of America and by other federal authorities which are greatly concerned with flood mitigation, there can be no doubt of its value. In fact, one thing that rather amuses me is to hear the trenchant criticism by some newspaper people of water conservation when it is needed to protect areas in periods of drought by minimising losses. But rarely do we hear any criticism of conservation works - whether they be levees or reservoirs or small or large dams in the upper reaches - either to control the flow of the river or to control the level of silt coming down the river to minimise losses. But the basic principles of the objectives are the same irrespective of whether we are considering drought or flood, it is a question of measuring the costs as against the benefits to the nation. Of course, there are some very qualitative differences. In periods of drought one rarely sees loss of life or destruction of communities or assets which one sees in times of floods. There can be no doubt that in terms of devastation and loss of physical assets through sheer force, floods have been a very significant factor, particularly in eastern New South Wales.

Looking back over the record of the Parliament it can be seen that many honourable members in this Parliament have taken a very active interest in this matter. On the Opposition side the previous honourable member for Cowper, Mr McGuren, from time to time spearheaded debates in the Parliament on this matter. I thought that the Minister might have given us some information as to the benefits, if any, which have accrued. Obviously some benefits must have accrued from the time when the first scheme was introduced up to the present time. This would give us some idea of the benefits in relation to costs. We could make a quantitative assessment of the scheme - particularly as it affects the various river valleys. We could make an assessment in quantitative terms rather than simply in qualitative terms. It may be that it is too early to make an assessment in many areas because a period of time is needed in order to demonstrate the advantages of flood mitigation work.

I thank the Minister, for the explanatory document which accompanied his second reading speech. This trend has developed only in recent years. These explanatory documents give honourable members an opportunity to become more conversant with some of the technical aspects of a scheme which - otherwise' are not available to the Opposition or to the public. There are some interesting aspects - of this scheme. Again I repeat that .we would have liked to receive an evaluation of the benefits which have accrued since the original programme was introduced. :

The constructing authorities, as set out in the Bill, are principally the shire councils in the river valleys. 1 make the constructive suggestion that perhaps' the' Minister might consider making available in the Parliament from time to time progress statements on what is happening in these river valleys, because although it is to be a 3-way contribution by local authorities, the State Government and the 'Federal Government, nevertheless the Federal Government is to invest funds iti- this scheme, and it is essential that this Parliament should be alive to the 'value not only of this flood mitigation scheme, but also of the beef roads scheme, the brigalow scheme and the water development scheme. We want to know more about the Federal moneys which are being spent in the field of national development. ° I think this is a fair suggestion because, after all, if Federal funds are involved we are entitled to know how efficiently they are being spent. This is not to suggest that Federal funds are being spent in anything but an efficient way.

I think that this information would be of interest to those honourable members who do not live in the particular area concerned. For example, I should imagine that honourable members who represent electorates in eastern New South Wales would have a far better knowledge of what is being done in those areas than would honourable members who do not live in those areas, in the same way as I have first hand knowledge of what is being done with the beef roads scheme or the brigalow scheme or the water conservation scheme in northern Australia. It is simply noi enough to allow Parliament to debate more constructively the issues involved.

Mr Swartz - We will do that.

Dr PATTERSON (DAWSON, QUEENSLAND) - The Minister said that he Will do this and 1 thank him. This is something which we need to debate from time to time: at least it is something that we should have access to from time to time. Over the years there have been estimates - some accurate and some best estimates - of flood losses in the various east coast river systems.' 1 suppose it depends on how one measures in quantitative language the benefits and costs. However, if we take the crude measurement of benefits and the value of losses and also take into account what could be saved in terms of steady growth if there were no floods and compare that with the costs, I do not think that anyone would argue that this is not a good investment from a national point of view.

From the figures I have seen, before I was a member of this Parliament and since I have been a member, flood mitigation work in eastern New South Wales has always been considered a sound investment from the national point of view. Of course, economists can argue about what values one places on benefits. For example, let us consider a severe loss in dairy production. Usually the loss to the town in real terms is the current value of the butter lost, the current value of the milk lost or whatever it might be at that point of time. Some economists would argue that one should take the import parity price and the cost of subsidies involved and so forth. On technical grounds perhaps one can justify this. However, on the practical grounds of demonstrating losses to an established community, whether rural or urban, these losses are valued at a common current denominator. The point I am making is that the cumulative losses already sustained over the years far outweigh the costs involved in flood mitigation work. Therefore, in terms of a benefit cost ratio there can be no argument that this is a sound investment.

I cannot claim to have first hand knowledge of floods in eastern New South Wales. However, I have seen several major floods in this area. During the war years I had the misfortune to be caught in a troop train at Casino for 7 days following a major flood in that area. I point out, however, that this is not the only area in Australia that suffers from severe flooding. 1 would hope that the Government will give serious consideration to extending this work into other areas of Australia that suffer severe flooding. During last weekend in north Queensland I was caught in a flood between 2 rivers. If one can imagine 27 inches of rain falling in 24 hours that will give some idea of the density of rain which fell in the area where I happened to be, unfortunately, last Saturday night, Sunday and Sunday night. I emphasise the force of water and the damage it can do in a matter of hours. A stream can be suddenly transferred from a dry sandy bottom to a raging torrent. It can break its banks and its course can be completely altered if the force of water is strong enough. In this way a great deal of flood mitigation work can be completely wrecked. This has happened with some other rivers.

There are other areas of Australia besides New South Wales where great damage is being done by flooding. The Fitzroy basin in central Queensland is an area in which there is frequent flooding and considerable damage. The Herbert River in north Queensland is another. A proposal was put forward years ago to divert waters from the Herbert River into the Burdekin River. This would minimise the flow of water and minimise floods in that area. I hope that the Department of National Development is considering these schemes in its long term planning. One can see the types of losses that are suffered in the sugar industry and the dairy industry, for example. Flood can do much damage to the sugar industry in northern . New South Wales. This is despite the fact that sugarcane is one of the toughest and hardiest of all crops. However, severe losses to sugar production result from lodging, loss of ces through harvesting delays and the drowning of the root structure. Losses have been sustained by the dairy industry in New South Wales through the flooding of pastures, loss of livestock and alterations in the lactation period of cows. As a cumulative loss this amounts to a very large sum of money over time. Taken by and large flood mitigation work of the type which is being carried out and supervised by State governments and the local authorities is, in all areas, of tremendous benefit to the regions concerned. Over the years the Hunter River area has suffered tragic losses.

Mr James - I am glad that you raised this.

Dr PATTERSON - I hope the honourable member did not think 1 was going to forget. It is very pleasing to see that a,t last the magnitude of the losses have been recognised by the Government. Not only have losses of a rural nature been suffered in this area but also there have been tragic losses in relation to road works, bridging, reservoirs and in the community itself in which many poor 'people have been homeless. All of these are losses to the nation. This is particularly so in respect of the human side. I suppose there is no area in eastern New South Wales which has suffered more from floods, on the human misery side, than the Hunter River area. Many types of work are being carried out in flood mitigation. One of the basic works is to try to keep the channel from the upper reaches of a river to the estuary deep or straight so that there can be a minimum of water actually ricocheting from the sides of the river and overflowing into levees that have been constructed to facilitate the flow of the river or to enable drainage works to take place if in fact the river does break its banks. There are other measures such as the construction of reservoirs or small or large dams. I understand that a lot of work is being carried out in the form, of river alignment. Work is being conducted to align a river to give a very acceptable flow in terms of cusecs. This is being done by the planting of trees and shrubs. It would seem, certainly in some parts of the Hunter area, that this has been highly successful.

Areas will be affected whether a flood is small or large. Of course, a large flood will involve more areas and a larger loss of property and perhaps greater loss of life. I would like the Government to give some inkling of what its future ideas on this matter will be. This is what one might call a second stage programme. It must be accepted that although local authorities are able to plan for the worst type of flood, or perhaps the highest flood in their records, it is accepted technology throughout the world that no flood mitigation work is 100 per cent proof. Whatever is done we will always get freak floods or flash floods that will cause havoc to flood mitigation works and which will again break the banks of a river and do damage.

The Minister has referred to his intention to give the House more information. I ask the Minister to look at some of the work which has been carried out in the United States. 1 refer him particularly to a report to the United States Congress by the Committee on Public Works which deals with river, harbour and beach erosion and flood control projects. This is a document, presented to the Congress, that gives details of the various flood mitigation, beach erosion or harbour trust works in the United States. The report presents analyses as to what has been done with respect to this work, what are the benefits and costs of each project and, later, a progress report is given as to the funds spent. The report also gives comparative benefit-cost analyses in terms of the limited amount of money that is available to be spent. This is something at which I think the Government might look. The document certainly is an interesting one. I am sure that the Parliament would find it most interesting insofar as Australian conditions are concerned.

I have mentioned previously that the Opposition believes that flood mitigation work - that is, minimising the effect of floods - should really be in the realms of national disaster work. In support of that point of view, I intend later lo move an amendment to the second reading along the lines that this type of programme should be expanded and that it should incorporate other disasters. When a flood occurs, the usual procedure is for the local authority concerned to assess the damage and to make an approach to its State government. The State government then makes an approach to the Federal Government. This takes time. Time and again in this Parliament we have heard impassioned speeches by honourable members on the subject of droughts or floods. Those members have tried to obtain some action quickly. In most cases, we do get some action but often it is a very long time coming.

The Australian Labor Party believes that a national disaster organisation should be established. That organisation should have at its disposal necessary moneys so that immediately a national disaster occurs it can swing into action without the problem of all of the red tape that is the trouble now. That organisation should be able to make available to local authorities if necessary the money that is needed. Such an organisation in respect of a national disaster, be it a flood, a cyclone, a drought or a tidal wave, would streamline the lines of authority which often become entangled in State and Federal parliamentary structures.

Mr Graham - Does the civil defence organisation do this now?

Dr PATTERSON - Civil defence does this in some States. It does in New South Wales. Its powers are most limited in terms of finance; it has manpower. In Queensland, the civil defence organisation is recognised only when a national emergency, for instance, an atomic attack, occurs. The civil defence organisation has no legal power, for instance, in relation to a cyclone. Tn Queensland, when a flood, a cyclone or a drought occurs, all areas are divided into zones under the classification of police inspector's districts.. The civil defence organisation has not (he same power in Queensland as it has in New South Wales.

Because of this deficiency in our makeup, I believe that in relation to national disasters of this type the laws relating to civil defence at least should be uniform throughout the continent. If the laws are good enough to apply to the work done in New South Wales and experience shows them to be worthwhile, these laws should be applied also in other areas of Australia.

It is necessary to recognise also. I think, that not all floods are bad. We are inclined to take the view that every flood is bad for the area in which it occurs. Looking at the world situation, we find that a significant proportion of the world's agriculture is produced on the flood plains. Particularly is this so in Asia. Those who have seen the flood plains of Asia often wonder whether it is worthwhile year after year for thepeople to grow rice, for instance, in the paddy fields when they see all of their labours wiped out when a major flood occurs. In China tremendous floods have occurred in the Wang Ho river. Those floods have wiped out millions of acres of crops. But when the floods have subsided it has been found frequently that the fertility content of the alluvium is of a higher value than it was before the floods came. In actual fact it is possible that floods in certain areas will bring periodic benefits to those areas. I think it must be accepted that the alluvium levels in a number of our rich river flats have been established through floods. I think that ail honourable members will accept the fact that it is far better to control waters in areas in which floods may occur than to permit uncontrolled periodic floods which do an increasing amount of damage as the agriculture in those areas becomes more itensified

Another danger that occurs (ti areas following floods - I have seen this in most areas where flooding occurs - is pollution and, with it, disease. The threat of disease has been quite common in the Hunter River area. I have seen areas in Northern Queensland where, after severe floods, the danger of pollution and the spread of disease has been present simply because good fresh water was not available. Other factors, including the stench of rotting carcasses and sewage 'breakdown.

The other point that J would like to make is that the Opposition believes that in this programme the Nambucca River in New South Wales should be included in the river systems. We have had representation to this effect. The argument could be put that a need exists for further surveys to be carried out to determine whether the Nambucca River should be included. But through siltation alone enough evidence is available to suggest that a strong case can be made for the inclusion of the Nambucca River in this programme. During the Committee stage the Opposition will move an amendment to this effect.

Those are the main points that I wish to make. The Opposition supports this Bill. Bills of a similar nature have been supported by the Opposition on the previous occasions when they have been introduced. My friend, the honourable member for Macquarie (Mr Luchetti), has spoken on such Bills several times. I think I am right in saying that the right honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Calwell) has spoken on this legislation several times in support of the remarks of a former honourable member for Cowper, Mr McGuren, stressing the great need for flood mitigation work in the Cowper electorate.

The Opposition does not beat around the bush. It says that this is a good programme which should be supported and which, the Opposition believes, should be expanded. Also - and perhaps this is more important - the Opposition believes that the Government should give some indication that this work will be continuous not only in eastern New South Wales but also in other parts of Australia. Although this work is of tremendous benefit to eastern New South Wales as regards flood mitigation, minimising losses and also with regard to employment, I believe that the injection of this money into local authority areas will give a great boost to employment, particularly .in seasonal industries. This is something which is in the interests of national development. It is something which is causing our national income to increase. It is something which we on this side of the House believe should be expanded. Flood mitigation work should embrace all " major- river systems, particularly those in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, where evidence of losses exists. I am not conversant with the flood position in South Australia, but I do not think that South Australia suffers much damage from floods.

Mr Foster - We would love a flood down there.

Dr PATTERSON - My friend from South Australia tells me that the biggest problem there is that the State has not sufficient water. All these areas in eastern Australia - in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria - are highly susceptible to flooding as well as to drought. I refer to the coastal streams as well as to some of the inland areas. I mention the Fitzroy basin, the Darling River and the border river streams. All of these areas experience national losses. Therefore, I stress again that the Government should give serious consideration to expanding this work to include other parts of Australia. In conclusion I move an amendment as follows:

That all the words after -That' be omitted with a view to inserting the following words in place thereof: 'whilst welcoming the proposal for the purpose of flood mitigation works in New South Wales, this House is of opinion that the assistance offered is inadequate and should form part of a larger scheme to deal with national disaster and that, accordingly, a joint select committee of the Parliament should be appointed to inquire into the practicability of the establishment of a national disaster organisation.'

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