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Speech on Disaster Fund Bill

On Wednesday 26 October 2022, I made a speech in Federal Parliament on the government's Emergency Response Fund Amendment (Disaster Ready Fund) Bill 2022. You can watch the speech here or read the full transcript below.

E WATSON-BROWN: Are we ready for disaster? Only last weekend, in Ryan, we thought we had to be again, a mere eight months on from the last one, from which so many have not yet recovered. The Bureau started sending out urgent warnings of impending possible flooding. There were pings on phones in the middle of the night. We're all hypervigilant at the moment. In Victoria, we've seen unprecedented flooding over the last month. Lismore was issued an evacuation order again, only eight months out from their last devastating floods. When this La Nina year ends, it will be bushfires again before too long, and my home electorate of Ryan, with its enormous stretches of beautiful bushland, is also at risk here. Climate change is here, it's getting worse, and we have to be ready.

We in our electorate office have been meeting, planning, taking advice from locals, getting a picture of what dozens of remarkable volunteer organisations across Ryan have been doing and building relationships so we can support them and help the community look after itself. That's how we see it; we see our role as using the resources of our office and our vast network of Greens volunteers not to replace the work of these groups but to complement and support them. In fact, one of the most encouraging things I've found since beginning this work is getting to understand the depth and breadth of community action in this area. It's actually quite astounding how many amazing groups there are doing this work. We have the Bellbowrie-Moggill Community-led Disaster Management Group, who are doing incredible disaster preparedness planning for the Moggil-Bellbowrie-Anstead area, coordinating resources, communication and crisis accommodation. We have the 4070 & 4069 Action Group building community in their areas, pushing for community led solutions to things like the isolation of the Moggil-Bellbowrie area during floods. There's SOWN, Save Our Waterways Now, keeping creeks and waterways healthy and flowing by removing rubbish and weeds and revegetating.

We recently met the amazing team at Brookfield Rural Fire Brigade, a volunteer run organisation protecting the large area of bushland in our electorate, including through hazard reduction. Other groups include: the Mandalay Progress Association—and I went to their festival the other day—formed after the 1974 floods and still going strong; the Gap Sustainability Initiative, which is pushing for a range of sustainability initiatives in their particular area, including energy security; Meals on Wheels, who fed so many people in need during the February floods; BrisWes Connect; and Transition Town. There are great environmental groups, like the Wilderness Society, Moggill Creek Catchment Group and Cubberla-Witton Catchments Network. We've got social assistance groups like the Indooroopilly Uniting Church refugee hub, who look after some of the most vulnerable, Picabeen community services, Lions and rotary clubs and women's groups. The list goes on and on.

This is just a sample of the extraordinary community initiatives across Ryan. There are so many more, as well as new ones forming all the time—great volunteer led groups doing essential work. In fact, 45 very worthy Ryan volunteer led groups applied for grants recently, and we were very happy to be able to award 23 of them. I really feel that all these groups are the social infrastructure of Ryan, and they're what gets our community through when disaster strikes. I also recently had the good fortune of meeting the incredible group of people behind Sweltering Cities, who are doing excellent work fighting to climate-proof Western Sydney—a great example of the type of community initiative happening all across Australia.

But, as amazing as all these groups are—rolling up their sleeves, putting on the gumboots, getting out the generators, organising sandbags, food, shelter and clean-ups, and proactively creating more sustainable and resilient neighbourhoods—they need real support. To do that, they need funding, and that funding needs to focus on preparedness, not just 'clean up after the fact' assistance.

This bill does propose to repurpose the existing Emergency Response Fund to focus on disaster mitigation and risk reduction, on building resilience and on preparing for future natural disasters. This is welcome. But there is one problem: there's no more money in the fund. It's just shifting the same amount of money from before, from disaster recovery to disaster preparedness. Anyone living in my electorate of Ryan or in places like Lismore or Melbourne, in fact, will tell you we need an overall increase in the funding for dealing with disasters. Anyone who lost their houses or who choked through the 2019 bushfires will tell you the same thing.

This new disaster readiness fund includes only $200 million a year for the whole country. I'm sorry, but that just doesn't cut it. Whole cities and suburbs need major redesigns of infrastructure, planning and development to prepare for the increased extreme weather events that are being driven by climate change. Emergency accommodation, escape routes, buying back properties on flood plains, building new evacuation centres, retrofitting homes to deal with heatwaves, creating new firebreaks, restoring creek ways and developing new drainage systems: all of this is going to cost into the tens or hundreds of billions. So any expenditure here has to be seen as an investment in the future. The Insurance Council of Australia has said that we need to spend $30 billion in large-scale coastal investment over the next 50 years. That's $600 million a year, every year, just to protect against storm surges, erosion and sea-level rise.

I'd like to bring it back home to what this means for my electorate of Ryan. We have an entire section of the electorate that gets totally cut off from the rest of the city in floods. This is the Moggill-Bellbowrie area. As a note, the word 'Moggill' comes from 'magil', meaning water dragon, and 'Bellbowrie' means 'place of flowering gums' in the original language, which are beautiful descriptors of the natural, original character of the place. These days, it's an area of high population with limited social infrastructure, relying on one road in and out. That's Moggill Road, which is cut off by floodwater at more than three points when it floods.

While the locals are doing that incredible job coordinating and looking after each other, they shouldn't be cut off in the first place. What many locals are calling for is very reasonable: a bridge from Bellbowrie and across the river to Wacol or Riverhills—a bridge that would operate for buses, cyclists and pedestrians in normal times but that, during emergencies, would function as an escape route from both floods and fires and a way to get crucial supplies to support the area. This is a really good example of essential, urgent disaster readiness infrastructure. The cost for a bridge like this, even at the lowest estimates, could be around $300 million—and that's one piece of critical infrastructure. How many similar projects are needed across the country? How is $200 million a year supposed to cover all of them? This doesn't even begin to cover the kind of community infrastructure that would allow that area to be more resilient, self-sufficient and prepared. We owe it to Moggill, Bellbowrie, Pullenvale and Anstead people.

Compared to the scale of what we need to keep our communities safe from the effects of climate change, this $200 million for disaster preparedness is obviously deeply inadequate. But, compared to what this government is funding in this budget, it's actually quite stunning. We've just seen Labor commit $2 billion of public money—new cash—for expanding the gas industry. The budget also contains $40 billion plus in fossil fuel subsidies. It contains $254 billion in tax cuts for the wealthy. The government is going to be spending upwards of $170 billion on nuclear submarines. Even just highway upgrades will cost this budget billions each year. But only $200 million a year for preparing for disasters that threaten Australians' lives and livelihoods and the economy? Come on, people! I think we've got to do better than that.

When the minister introduced this bill, she said that the management of climate change and its impacts was, and I quote, 'one of the most important issues that faces our country'. If that's the case, why does it rank so desperately low in the government's spending priorities? This government has a lot of rhetoric about addressing climate change, but, when you dig a little deeper, you find support for new coal and gas, and you find that the investment in keeping our communities safe just isn't there. When the original bill, which was the Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019, was brought in by the coalition, the Greens raised concerns not just about the inadequate scale of the fund but about the way the fund worked. These real concerns about the original bill, like ministerial discretion to expend significant funds with absolutely limited guidance and scrutiny, remain. In fact, we're concerned that those very issues may become more acute under the proposed pivot from reactive to proactive spending. The fund also suffers from the fact that the amount available each year is tied to the earnings on a capital fund. If the stock markets take a hit one year, we mightn't even be able to fund the $200 million. This money should be guaranteed, not reliant on the ebbs and flows of financial stocks and derivatives. Climate change won't wait for the stock market to recover. In the ultimate irony, among the corporations that this $2 million invests in—guess what?—there are coal and gas companies. The fossil fuel industry is the root cause of the problems. That is some kind of perverse, inverted, circular economy, I reckon, feeding off itself and creating ever-more-difficult disasters.

Instead of our disaster readiness fund investing in the very corporations who are causing more extreme and frequent disasters, another thing that the Greens said back in 2019 was that this fund should be expanded by instituting a levy on coal and gas corporations. Since then, we've had devastating, deadly bushfires and repeated, unprecedented floods. And, since then, we've also had record profits for coal and gas corporations. Coal and gas companies have known for decades that burning their products would lead to exactly the effects we're seeing today, but they keep doing it anyway. They have made, and continue to make, enormous profits while causing dangerous climate change. With that in mind, I think it's only fair and rational to impose a levy on these big corporations to fund the billions in disaster preparedness that Australia, obviously, desperately needs. That's the message: no new coal and gas, phase out fossil fuels and, in their dying days, tax these big fossil fuel corporations to fund disaster preparedness and renewables. I don't think that's a radical proposal. The radical proposal is that we can keep tinkering around the edges when the effects of climate change are bearing down on us and devastating our communities with predictable regularity.

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