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Wednesday, 28 October 2009
Page: 11255

FRAN BAILEY (3:19 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Is the Prime Minister aware that under the highly centralised, inflexible model of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, imposed on the communities in my electorate of McEwen, local residents are denied the ability to determine how their communities should be rebuilt? Given that current research of disaster recovery clearly says that top-down, inflexible and standardised approaches are ineffective and dysfunctional, and given that the Commonwealth has invested many hundreds of millions of dollars for the benefit of affected communities, will the Prime Minister provide a commitment not just to my communities but to any future communities affected by disaster that models for recovery funded by the Commonwealth ensure flexibility and give priority to local knowledge and expertise when deciding when, how and where community infrastructure will be rebuilt. Further, will the Prime Minister initiate a COAG agreement on flexible community driven models for disaster recovery?

Mr RUDD (Prime Minister) —I thank the member for McEwen for her question and I also acknowledge the representatives of her community from Marysville who are with us today in the public gallery. I had the opportunity, together with the member for McEwen, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and the Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction, Bill Shorten, to meet with representatives of that community prior to question time today. It was a good meeting and we discussed some of the matters which have just been raised by the member for McEwen in her question.

Marysville was appallingly hit in the bushfires, as we know. I am advised that 34 people died in Marysville and four in Narbethong. Around 530 properties and 95 per cent of the retail businesses in the commercial centre of Marysville were destroyed. The primary school, the retirement village, the community centre, the post office, the medical centre and the police station were also destroyed, as well as a large number of accommodation places, including conference facilities.

I also thank the group for their presentation to me of a Wallangarra gum both as a token of their appreciation of support from various levels of government but also as a symbol of what they described to me as the toughness and resilience of their own community. I indicated to them that we would make arrangements to have that gum planted at the Lodge.

On the specifics of the honourable member’s question, which go to flexibility in recovery and reconstruction projects on the ground, I noted very carefully what the honourable member said. She was not critical of the level of support from the Commonwealth on these matters; what she is concerned about is the flexibility of the implementation of these programs on the ground. In the discussion we had before question time with representatives of the Marysville community I said the following—and I am happy to repeat it publicly: we need to find in the future a better balance in what is necessarily a highly centralised command and control system for dealing with the immediate occurrence of a natural disaster like a bushfire and the immediate aftermath. As you enter the recovery and reconstruction period, how do you then intelligently devolve greater responsibility and therefore flexibility to local communities to give effect to the best way of getting those communities back on their feet? That is a principle which I instinctively respond to.

How do we actually make that work into the future? This is a much more complex task, as I am sure the member for McEwen will fully appreciate. But she asks in good faith if the government can now examine how this could be reflected for the purposes of learning into the future from natural disasters. My undertaking to her is that we will now undertake such an examination.

In terms of the usefulness of using COAG to frame that for future purposes, my response to her on that question is that, once we have examined her proposal and, based on the principles that I have just reflected on behalf of the government, reached a conclusion on it, we will then advise her as to whether we think that can be properly advanced through the COAG process as well. The key, and I think the honourable member agrees with this, is that we have to get the balance right between the sorts of responses which are necessary early in dealing with these challenges and then the sorts of flexibilities which are necessary later on.

The good representatives of Marysville, for example, gave me a very important fact before in their presentation to me, namely that a large number of the houses in Marysville are in fact owned by—and I use their term; I hope I do not offend anyone else by using this term—part-timers: those who reside in Melbourne but have a second house in Marysville itself. How do we therefore make it more possible for those houses to be rebuilt? That is a really tricky and practical challenge which we are now going to wrestle with and see if we can do anything more on, because the existing arrangements deal with owner-occupied dwellings and principal places of—

Opposition member interjecting—

The SPEAKER —Order!

Mr RUDD —I believe that the character of this discussion is very much a bipartisan one, and I would hope we can continue in that manner.

The member for McEwen has rightly asked these questions. As we have sought to do since February of this year, we will continue to work with her on a bipartisan basis on the two specific proposals that she has put forward.

Finally, I inform the House and the community which is here represented that, under the recovery plan, projects for Marysville and surrounds, as I am advised, that have been identified for funding support are as follows: $5.2 million for the Marysville community learning, health and recreation hub; $9.2 million for the restoration of Lake Mountain Alpine Resort as a major summer and winter tourist destination; redeveloping and upgrading Stevenson Falls, $2.6 million; reconstruction of Marysville police station, $2.4 million; construction of the Marysville Rebuilding Advisory Centre; development of the Marysville and Triangle urban design framework, $500,000; restoration of the Marysville caravan park, $500,000; construction of a Marysville skate park, $150,000; and construction of a Triangle walking and cycling trail connecting communities in the Marysville area. There are also other projects which I will not list.

This, for the community at Marysville, is still very much the beginning. I have spoken about physical reconstruction. As the parliamentary secretary, the minister and the member indicated to me earlier today, as did members of the community themselves, with the emotional and psychological scars of what occurred back in February, the deep and difficult process of healing has barely begun. Our responsibility as a parliament, as both the Leader of the Opposition and I said at the time when this natural disaster occurred, is to maintain our solidarity with these communities brick by brick, house by house, school by school, community by community, until these communities are restored. That remains the commitment of the Australian government.