Sep 17, 2019

Bills – Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019, Emergency Response Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019 – Second Reading – Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (12:41): I rise to speak in support of the amendment moved by my colleague the member for Sydney. The member for Sydney has pointed out correctly the flaws in the government’s approach, which go to the flaws in this government’s approach post 18 May. They were successful in being re-elected to office. But it was like the most surprised people in the country were they themselves, because they, on the government benches, continue to act like an opposition in exile. They continue to sit down in their strategy and tactics meetings and, surprisingly, announce to the public that the objective of any particular sitting of parliament isn’t to advance the national interest. The objective is not to promote legislation; it’s to promote ‘wedgislation’—it’s about trying to find legislation that the Labor Party will oppose. This is a great example of it. It’s a government really in search of an agenda and a plan.

This week, like in too many weeks in this country, we unfortunately are reminded of the crises that occur with regard to natural disasters. Bushfires, floods and cyclones impact far too regularly on Australian citizens and on communities. What that requires is sober and mature leadership from government. What we had from the Prime Minister yesterday on the floor of this parliament was something that I haven’t seen before. The Prime Minister rose in response to a Dorothy Dix question from his own side and sought to politicise the response to the natural disasters that occurred when we were in government: the floods in Queensland and the bushfires in Victoria. People died in those disasters. The impact was devastating. Towns like Kinglake virtually disappeared. Floods in Brisbane and in other parts of Queensland had a devastating impact. For the Prime Minister to have tried to seek political advantage, at a time when there are bushfires raging in northern New South Wales and Queensland, was quite extraordinary. It showed that there is no limit to how low this Prime Minister is prepared to go in order to seek political advantage. But it did something more than that. This legislation, the Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019 and the Emergency Response Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019, highlights yet again that, in spite of the fact that we on this side of the House have indicated very clearly that we will be a constructive opposition—for example, I want to be known as the Labor leader, not the opposition leader—and that we will put our hands across the table on issues of national importance in order to secure outcomes in the national interest—I mean, everyone supports a response to natural disasters and increased assistance. It is appropriate. There’s no issue there. But, with this legislation, the government has linked emergency responses to an Education Investment Fund that’s about higher education infrastructure. There’s no link between the two whatsoever.

If the government wanted to have funding, of whatever level—and I say that with some trepidation. Oh, the shadow Treasurer isn’t here, which is good, so I can say this! Any level of funding that the government wants to put into an emergency response, we will do. Appropriation—bang, straight through. That’s not in question here. That’s not in question. But why is it that, in order to fund drought relief, you have to take $3.9 billion away from infrastructure funding now in order to give $100 million back in two years time, and, in this case, take $4 billion from the Education Investment Fund so that $150 million per year, at a maximum, can be provided to fund recovery measures? That’s $4 billion out and $150 million back in. I know they have difficulty judging whether emissions are going up or down, but these are pretty simple figures: $4 billion versus $150 million. So the level of the support is one issue.

The ERF also supplements the assistance that’s already there for the community—the disaster recovery funding arrangements, including the Australian government disaster recovery payment and the disaster recovery allowance. There has been longstanding and genuine bipartisan support for these programs from the Commonwealth and state, territory and local governments, with the funding relationships dependent on the nature of the disaster. So it’s quite extraordinary that the government have linked the two things rather than dealt with the issue on its merits. It’s also extraordinary that they’ve restricted it to up to $150 million, given the amount they’re taking out of the Education Investment Fund.

We should remember, of course, that they also tried to link both the Building Australia Fund and the Education Investment Fund to the National Disability Insurance Scheme and a range of other things. But, if you don’t support getting rid of funds that are there to build infrastructure—based upon rigorous processes, including Infrastructure Australia’s approval for the Building Australia Fund, and the rigorous processes in place for the Education Investment Fund to make sure it goes to projects that make a real difference to people’s lives—then that wouldn’t be appropriate. So there is that issue. The other thing that’s extraordinary about this is that it only allows for funding of mitigation infrastructure after a disaster has occurred. Now, that’s not mitigation. By definition, that’s not mitigation. So the very design of the fund appears wholly inadequate to ensure that there’s sufficient focus on making the investments that are needed to properly prepare communities for disasters.

In 2015 the Productivity Commission reported to this government that the current intergovernmental arrangements that determine the extent to which the Commonwealth, states and territories each contribute to disaster are contributing to poor outcomes when it comes to rebuilding communities. That was a recommendation in the Productivity Commission report. It said:

A major problem is that the arrangements are highly prescriptive, with funding only provided to restore assets to their pre-disaster standard.

This makes it difficult for state and local governments to rebuild assets in a way that improves resilience to future disasters …

By subsidising recovery, the arrangements can also discourage states from undertaking mitigation or taking out insurance.

The government—this third-term government—has had this report for four years but still has not dealt with any of this in this legislation, despite the fact that the PC report is very clear.

I indicate from personal experience the difference that this can make. This is something that came out of the floods when we were in office and I was the infrastructure minister. I pay tribute to the member for Kennedy. Whilst I have some differences with him from time to time, he is a genuine advocate for his local community. At the time the towns of Karumba and Normanton in the gulf were cut off, as they were regularly. Every time there was a natural disaster in that part of the world, those towns would be cut off, food would be flown in and hospital services would be done by air at an enormous cost. Then they would build the same bridge that was washed away in the flood.

We provided, through the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program, $31.5 million to permanently fix the issue of the Einasleigh River Bridge. We did that through local government. Not only did the local government do it on budget and on time; they came back to us and said that they had done it with about $14 million left over from the funding that was granted to them. That was because they had local knowledge, local suppliers and local workers fixing a local problem. So we said to them, ‘You can build another couple of bridges as well to really fix all of the problems around.’

That was something that didn’t fit in with any of the arrangements that were there in terms of natural disaster relief. It was funded through the department of infrastructure and through local government directly. It has made an enormous difference. That one-off investment saved money. That’s the key. If you raise a levee in places, as we did in Roma, Charleville and Launceston, through that one-off capital expenditure you actually save money on an ongoing basis.

Ms Swanson: That’s mitigation.

Mr ALBANESE: And that is called mitigation. That’s how you fix it, as the member for Paterson knows. But what we have here is legislation that abolishes the Education Investment Fund. There is no linkage there whatsoever. It undermines education infrastructure in this country. It’s a very sensible program, as the member for Sydney has pointed out. You have $4 billion taken away, but a maximum of just $150 million in any year put back. You have it done after, not before, there’s a natural disaster, so it’s not mitigation. How do you come up with this? You’d only come up with this if you were thinking: ‘They weren’t prepared to abolish these funds to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme. We’ll link it to natural disasters.’ These issues should not be the subject of partisan politics; they should be the subject of the national interest—that’s what should matter—and they should be supported by everyone in this House.

To be clear: the Labor Party, just like with the drought fund, is not going to be against emergency responses and providing extra funds. But we do say that the government have time to think about getting this right. We won’t oppose these bills in the House, but there is time in the Senate to examine the natural disaster recovery arrangements that are in place, to improve them and to make a positive difference, if that’s their priority. They also have the capacity, if they’re not against investing in education infrastructure, to provide an appropriation in a sensible way which treats it on its merits. If they do not do that, are they saying that emergency responses are not worthy of funding in their own right? I say they are. Labor says they are. Labor will treat this on its merits.

I say to the government: stop playing politics with everything, stop doing short-term tactics, stop thinking before every parliamentary week, ‘How can we provide tests for Labor?’ and start thinking about acting like a government that is in its third term and faces real challenges dealing with the economy, climate change and energy, and the decline in living standards. Real challenges are occurring, as we’re hearing before the aged-care royal commission and, starting today, the disability royal commission. Real challenges require a mature response from a government that is in its third term. (Time expired)