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Tuesday, 8 December 2020
Page: 7128


Senator WATT (Queensland) (20:01): I'm just going to make a short contribution on this bill because I know we have a lot of legislation to get through tonight. I indicate at the outset that Labor does support the Defence Legislation Amendment (Enhancement of Defence Force Response to Emergencies) Bill 2020. We recognise that it will improve processes that the government needs to undertake in order to call out reserves to assist in a natural disaster situation.

I want to begin by thanking the ADF personnel who assisted so greatly in the Black Summer bushfires last year and those who have done so in previous natural disasters as well. Last year during the fires I had the privilege of visiting the Richmond air base to the west of Sydney to thank Air Force personnel for the efforts that they were putting in. I was joined on that occasion by the deputy Labor leader and shadow defence minister, Richard Marles; and the local federal MP, Susan Templeman, the member for Macquarie. On the same day we also visited some Army reserves who were clearing trees that had fallen down across roadways through the Blue Mountains, so that life could in some ways get back to normal for those affected by the bushfires. We thanked the Air Force and Army personnel for their efforts. For some of those people, it was their job to do what they were doing there, but many others, especially the reserves, of course, had given up other jobs in order to come and help their fellow Australians. So all of our nation owes all of our ADF personnel a debt of gratitude for the work that they undertook as part of fighting the Black Summer bushfires.

As I said, Labor do support this legislation, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that this is going to prevent future bushfires or failures similar to those we saw from this Prime Minister and this government in last year's bushfires. It is well recognised right around the country, and, indeed, around the world, that this Prime Minister and this government comprehensively failed to prepare for last year's bushfires. They failed in their response to the bushfires and they have, in the course of this year, continued to fail in the recovery from these bushfires. So, as much as the government might like to say that improving the processes by which the reserves can be called out will make all the difference—and I have no doubt that it will assist in terms of fighting future bushfires—we shouldn't pretend that that is the only thing needed to keep Australians safe from the sorts of disasters that we saw last year.

We know very well that the Prime Minister failed to prepare. He failed to even have meetings with people who just wanted to warn him about what was coming and what should be done to avoid it, and he failed to take the various steps that were needed to make sure that Australians were kept safe—and we saw the consequences of those failures. Tragically, we're actually seeing that from this government again. You really would think that, after what happened last year, after what Australians went through last year with those bushfires, the government would have learned its lesson and would be taking every step possible to make sure that we avoid similar disasters and the loss of life, loss of property, loss of fauna and loss of species that we saw in last year's bushfires.

We know very well, from advice that has been given to this government by the Bureau of Meteorology repeatedly this year, that we face this year another terrible disaster situation—probably not so much in the form of bushfires, although there are serious bushfire risks in some parts of the country. We know that, due to La Nina weather conditions, the north of our country, particularly North Queensland, faces more cyclones, and more intense cyclones, that it normally does. Cyclones are to some extent a way of life in summers in northern Australia, whether it be North Queensland, the Northern Territory or Western Australia. But, when you have advice consistently coming from the Bureau of Meteorology, along with other scientific and weather experts, that this year is going to be worse, you really would think that you would do everything possible to keep Australians safe and minimise the damage that is coming our way. But that is not what this government is doing. Just as they did last year, they are ignoring the warnings and failing to take the steps that are needed to keep Australians safe.

I'll just give a couple of examples. Probably the best example is this government's failure to spend a single cent from the $4 billion Emergency Response Fund that it announced in last year's budget, 18 months ago. It set aside $4 billion for a disaster response and recovery fund that could be spent on repairing damage, on paying grants to people who suffered loss and, importantly, on projects and all sorts of prevention measures that would limit the damage from future disasters. Even though this government has had the funds available now for nearly a year, it has not spent a cent. Think of the number of cyclone shelters that could have been built over the last 12 months. Think of the number of evacuation centres for bushfire regions that could have been built. Think of the improvements to communications technology that could have been achieved if the government had just been prepared to spend anything from this fund, which the opposition voted with the government to create. Instead, whether it's due to penny pinching, negligence or a lack of care, this government has not spent anything from that fund, and consequently we don't have in place the preventive measures that could have been delivered.

If we do see those cyclones hit this year or if we do see bushfires hit in places like south-western Western Australia or western New South Wales, as is forecast, we will have to ask what could have been avoided if the government had just used those funds that were available. It's not as if the government needs to go and find new money. This money is in the budget. It was announced. It was provided for. But yet again the Prime Minister doesn't actually care once the announcement is made. He's got his headlines. He's got his photos with Army reservists and with fire chiefs and fire volunteers. He doesn't care about the delivery, and, as a result, Australians are yet again being put at risk by this Prime Minister.

The other example I'll give is this government's failure to implement the recommendation of its own bushfires royal commission to create a national aerial firefighting fleet. Again, last year we saw what happened when the government didn't take steps to make sure that we had the water-bombing aircraft that we needed to put out fires and prevent new fires starting. We saw what happened when the government had to scramble around and try and bring in planes from overseas to try to put out fires and found that those planes were unavailable because they were still needed in other countries. Now we have a recommendation from the government's own bushfires royal commission saying that we should create our own national sovereign aerial firefighting fleet. What does this government do? 'Noted'. It leaves it with the states, even though the royal commission has said that is not an adequate measure to make sure that we are well prepared for firefighting.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that this government continues to do nothing about climate change. Whatever anyone thinks about climate change, it is coming. You have every possible scientific expert, including the Bureau of Meteorology—

Senator Hanson interjecting

Senator WATT: With respect, Senator Hanson, if I'm going to listen to anyone about climate change, I think I'll listen to the Bureau of Meteorology rather than you. Stick to what you know. We should not ignore the advice of the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO, who actually know a few things about this. What they tell us consistently is that climate change is real, it is happening and it is going to lead to more natural disasters in the future. Senator Hanson, if you were really a senator for Queensland, you would actually care about that. You should care about the people in our state who are going to be facing more cyclones in the future, more floods in the future and more bushfires in the future. We should all take steps to fix that.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Bilyk ): Senator Watt, your comments need to come through the chair.

Senator WATT: Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. In summary, what we need from the government is more than just announcements. We need more than a headline about the creation of a new emergency response fund. We need more than a photo op for aerial firefighting. We need more than false claims that this government is taking action on climate change. We need real action on all of these things to make sure that Australians are kept safe.

We commend the government on bringing this legislation forward. We will vote for it. We have secured amendments from the government, particularly to the explanatory memorandum, to address a number of the issues that the Greens and other civil society groups have raised and to make sure that these powers can't be abused in the future. We cannot kid ourselves into thinking that this is all that needs to be done. There are practical steps that this government could be taking right now, using funds that it has made available for this express purpose, to keep Australians safe. I can tell you that, if we see these cyclones hit and if we see more bushfires hit, we're going to be reeling out every single time that we warned the government that they could have done something about this. They've really got to get moving. We're running out of time. We're already seeing bushfires around the country, and cyclones are only weeks away. Time is running out. It's time to do more than make announcements. It's time to actually deliver.