May 14, 2020

Ministerial Statements – Australian Natural Disasters – Thursday, 14 May 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (12:13): I’m pleased to respond to the ministerial statement on behalf of the Australian Labor Party. Over the past 12 months, Australians have witnessed the wrath of Mother Nature—extreme drought, catastrophic bushfires—and then the arrival on our shores of COVID-19. All three have been particularly challenging for our regional communities. During these national emergencies, Labor has acted in the national interest. We have been constructive. We have put forward ideas. I have engaged directly with the minister on these challenges. But we have had some differences and we have pointed them out as well, and we’ll continue to try to improve the government’s response because improvement is needed.

With the drought, what began as a crisis for our farmers quickly became a crisis for many rural and regional towns running out of water. It also became a threat to our nation’s food security. At the Bush Summit held in Dubbo last July, I offered Labor’s support for drought funding for communities suffering from the devastating impact of the disaster. I did it on the spot, as the minister well knows. The Prime Minister pretended he hadn’t heard or seen that happen at that time. I spoke of the tragic human consequences and praised the resilience of our farmers. I pointed to the need to respond to the science of climate change, to better manage water and to provide both short-term assistance and a long-term drought strategy.

In October I wrote to the Prime Minister proposing a special drought cabinet to get bipartisan support as a vehicle for progressing the joint effort, working together to foster consensus around the drought responses most likely to deliver success and value for taxpayers’ money. My colleague the member for Hunter has led Labor’s response on these issues. That idea, of a bipartisan approach, was of course rejected, and the Prime Minister chose to double down on politics instead. He created a new drought fund, but the funding wasn’t new. The funding was taken, rather than being new and additional support, from the Building Australia Fund, the very fund that builds infrastructure in regional New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. It was taken from one fund to another. And, as of today, not a single cent has been spent from that fund, not a dollar. And in the minister’s statement today, he announced that $100 million will flow from next financial year. But the money was there—from memory, it was around $3.9 billion. So he took $3.9 billion out of a fund, created another fund, pretended it was new, gave it a different name and then just left it there in consolidated revenue. Then we’re meant to say that $100 million next financial year is enough. It’s not good enough.

By the middle of November last year, the fire situation was catastrophic. I’d already visited northern New South Wales and I’d visited Queensland. I’d visited parts of our great country that were burning, and it was clear that there were multiple warnings about the extent to which this would be a bushfire season like we had not seen in our lifetime. And indeed that occurred. The warnings were there. The experts, the former firefighting chiefs, couldn’t even get in to see the Prime Minister with these warnings. The government was complacent in spite of those warnings.

The tragedy that occurred over the summer, with 33 deaths, with nine firefighters losing their lives, including three brave Americans who came to help us here in Australia, was tragic. Some 3,000 homes were lost and hectares were lost around the country in South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. But the whole country really impacted in WA. The whole country was impacted by the smoke. I don’t think any one of our generation who saw the photos and the videos of those kids and families on the beach in Victoria or New South Wales will ever forget that. It shook this country to its core, and it did shake the government out of some of its complacency.

Greg Mullins, the former head of New South Wales Fire and Rescue, wrote to the Prime Minister in April, May and September, and he still hadn’t had a meeting at that point. I notice today that the government is announcing increased funding for aerial firefighting. That’s a good thing. I wrote to the government in November last year calling for just that. Labor went to the election in May last year calling for just that and committing to just that. It didn’t come from nowhere; it came from a request from the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, which provided a business case in December 2017. But there was no response: no response during the fire crisis; no response in January, February, March or April; and no response until today. I wonder what’s happened. What’s changed between then and now?

Mike Kelly has resigned as the member for Eden-Monaro. We now have ministerial statements. We now have funding for aerial firefighting. We now have a change in attitude. I’ve spent a bit of time in that electorate in the last few weeks but beforehand as well. I was on the ground, as the minister knows, in areas affected by fires. I did press conferences on Christmas Day and every day over December and January, talking with communities. A couple of weeks ago, on the day when the Deputy Premier of New South Wales was still a candidate for preselection for Eden-Monaro, temporary accommodation pods arrived with cameras, when people had been living, and continue to live, on their land without any houses, in caravans, in temporary accommodation, as it gets colder, over this season. People were very right to be cynical was the feedback I got when I was in Merimbula, when I was in Bega, when I was in Cooma and when I was in Murrumbateman with Kristy McBain, our candidate for Eden-Monaro—a candidate who was with her community each and every day; a candidate to whom no-one ever rejected the opportunity to shake her hand and say thank you; and a candidate who wants to enter this place to carry on the tradition, which Mike Kelly created, of standing up for her community.

These communities and the communities of East Gippsland, of Kangaroo Island, of the Adelaide Hills and of the North Coast of New South Wales, and the communities around the Blue Mountains, which I visited with the member for Macquarie, and the communities further up the coast, which the member for Gilmore and I have visited and spoken with, feel like they’ve been forgotten. When the television cameras left, so did a lot of the political support, and they deserve better than that.

During the coronavirus crisis, the entire Australian community has shown remarkable commitment and courage. People have stayed at home in order to help their fellow Australians. But, during the bushfire crisis, people were doing something else. Volunteers weren’t just passively retreating from activity in order to protect their fellow Australians. These volunteers were running into danger to protect their fellow Australians. I’ll never forget having breakfast in Bilpin and talking to the people there who’d been up on the North Coast and up in Tenterfield. They’d been fighting fires for such a long period of time. I will never forget being in the Adelaide Hills in the electorate of the member for Mayo. The fires there had devastated those communities for three weeks. Those fires had started on the North Coast of New South Wales as well. The people there moved down and helped out in the Blue Mountains, and they just kept going. These remarkable Australians cannot afford to be forgotten.

In terms of the government, one of the times I met Kristy McBain and thought she was pretty impressive was when she came here, along with every mayor from the Canberra Region Joint Organisation of councils, which includes every council in the Eden-Monaro electorate, from East Gippsland in Victoria all the way to Goulburn. They couldn’t get a meeting with the Prime Minister. It was after the focus and the spotlight had gone off. I thought that Kristy McBain was pretty impressive in that meeting. She impressed me. That is one of the memories I have that encouraged me to very much encourage her to take the next step, that step up. She was a leader of her community. She was able to advocate in a passionate and articulate way what the needs of that community were. But, in spite of their visit here, all of those mayors—I don’t think any of them were Labor Party members at that time—told me that they had received support of $1 million per council. Despite the pressure those councils were under, that was the drought relief for the people on the ground.

The area from Batemans Bay in the electorate of Gilmore, down further south, around Merimbula, around the beautiful beaches of the South Coast, as well as the areas around the Snowy, relies upon tourism as a major industry. Agriculture around Batlow and other areas has been devastated. The wineries of South Australia and the wineries around the Canberra region have been devastated. What they really needed was tourism support, but the tourism money that had been allocated in response to the bushfires was taken off them and sent interstate to areas impacted by the coronavirus. Again, rather than there being additional expenditure, that’s what occurred. We are a better nation than one that takes money off communities while they’re trying to recover from a crisis. Whilst many of those communities could have expected an influx of visitors and economic activity and a bit of a bounce back from the bushfire crisis, they were then hit by the coronavirus. So it’s a triple whammy.

These people do feel forgotten, so it’s a good thing, to be frank, that the government has remembered them. But we need to remember them every day, in every place—not just as a matter of politics but as a matter of humanity. That is the opposition’s approach to these issues. We’ll continue to advocate strongly. I look forward to having Kristy McBain in this chamber to advocate strongly on behalf of those communities that have been impacted.

Debate adjourned.