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Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Page: 901

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (10:51 AM) —It has been a very tough start to the year for many Australians as we have been hit with devastating floods, cyclones and bushfires. The loss of human life is tragic and is very hard to accept. Also, the trail of destruction that these natural disasters left behind and the damage caused to people’s homes, property, businesses and stock is devastating. Australia has taken a massive hit, including in my own home state of Victoria. In Victoria alone, the losses to the farm sector as a result of the flooding are tipped to reach $2 billion. This is enormous, and it comes on the back of a decade battling the worst drought and bushfire that the state has ever witnessed. I recently went to visit the northern parts of Victoria to see the flood damage firsthand and to speak to those affected. Places like Echuca, Rochester, Kerang and Horsham all bore the brunt of Mother Nature. As a country it is important that we stand behind our fellow Australians and help rebuild those places that were badly affected. On this issue there should be no debate.

The government has proposed a combination of budget cuts and a means tested flood levy, while the opposition has been calling for deeper spending cuts but has had trouble agreeing on exactly what areas should be cut in the budget. Others have suggested we just extend the number of years the budget will be in deficit. Personally, I am wary about going down a path that extends the number years we are in budget deficit. All sides of politics acknowledge that we need to get on with the job of rebuilding our devastated communities and I believe that sharing the cost of rebuilding is the best way forward. Australians have a proud history of coming together and helping each other out in tough times, and that is exactly what is needed in this case. I am also pleased that the proposal from the Gillard government does not ask those earning less than $50,000 to contribute to the levy. That makes sense.

In regard to the discussion about the budget, I believe that the best way to insure against future disasters is to ensure we have future budgets in surplus and, in the longer term, to create a national disaster fund. Given the importance of helping communities to quickly recover, I do not believe we can leave flood, fire and cyclone affected communities hanging in limbo any longer, and we should not let the politics of parliament stand in the way of rebuilding all those communities that have been devastated by natural disasters. I am happy to say that after productive discussions with the Prime Minister, I have negotiated a $500 million prepayment for Victoria for recovery and reconstruction. This $500 million in funding is a huge boost for Victoria. Victorians will now be able to get on with the job of rebuilding the state and restoring things to how they used to be. It will give Victorians some peace of mind. It means the recovery can get underway immediately. It will be used for measures such as restoration of essential public assets and infrastructure, personal hardship and distress assistance, concessional interest rate loans for eligible small businesses and primary producers, and clean-up and restoration grants for small businesses, primary producers and not-for-profit organisations.

I have also raised with the government the important broader issue of the Commonwealth creating a national disaster fund. It makes sense that we learn from these events and make sure we have the appropriate safeguards in place so that we have funds to deal with these issues in the future—funds that could come from such a national disaster fund. I am pleased the government has assured me that it will take steps to examine whether the introduction of a national disaster fund would be appropriate. Family First will be supporting these bills and will continue to work hard to ensure the rebuilding process goes ahead without delay.