Interview with Warwick Long, ABC Victoria Country Hour

11 November 2022


SUBJECTS: Flood update; impact on farmers; Disaster Ready Fund; agriculture industry growth

WARWICK LONG, HOST: We’ll stay in Rochester right now, and we’ll hear from one of the people making a lot of big decisions in terms of recovery and especially for the federal government response – that is federal Emergency Management Minister, Murray Watt, who is touring that region today and heading to Echuca.

I spoke to Murray Watt a short time ago as he was travelling between the two places, and I started by asking what he’d seen in Rochester today.

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT, AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES & FORESTRY: Yeah so far today I was in Rochester Secondary College there. Unfortunately that school, which has about 300-400 students in it, has been completely destroyed. They’ve had to go through and remove all of the furniture that’s been destroyed. They’ve been tearing down walls. They’re having to wash out all of their manual [indistinct] buildings, their home economics, their science labs. They’ve lost all their chemicals. And the students there are now being – are basically taken to Bendigo every day for their classes, which is, you know, a real toll and a fatigue issue for a lot of the students and the staff there. So there’s a lot of work to be done to get that school back up and running for the new school year.

And we’ve just come from the local recovery hub in Rochester and I had a chance to catch up with everyone from the Services Australia staff who were helping with payments. There’s financial counsellors there. I managed to catch up with some dairy and cropping farmers who’ve lost a lot of their crops and had a real big impact. So it’s just been very helpful to get a first-hand picture of what the damage is and what needs to be done.

But, as I say, my sense is that both the state and local governments are working really effectively to get support out to people. But everyone can be assured that the Federal Government will be standing there with them as well.

WARWICK LONG: Yeah, and there is already assistance out there for primary producers and so forth on the $75,000 flood recovery grants and otherwise. But are there holes in terms of assistance and programs that you are learning about as you go into areas that are moving into recovery?

MURRAY WATT: My sense is that the financial support that’s being provided to people directly is probably about where it needs to be for the moment. And, as you say, we recently reached agreement with the Victorian Government to provide grants of up to $75,000 for primary producers and up to $50,000 for small businesses. So they’re reasonably significant grants to help people get back on their feet.

I think the big thing that we’re waiting to see now is what the damages bill is going to be in terms of infrastructure. I think that’s one of the big differences that you see with floods that come through rural areas compared to the big cities. The big cities get a lot more homes that get flooded, but in rural areas it’s roads and bridges and things like that that get badly damaged.

So the state government is now working with councils to try to establish, you know, what repairs are needed and get those sort of things happening. And we will, as a federal government, help fund those repairs. I think that’s the next big thing that we’re waiting to see, what the cost will be, and all I can say is that I know it’s going to be big.

We have now provisioned $3 billion in the federal Budget for disaster payments just for these events, and who knows really whether that’s going to end up being enough. We’ve got to wait and see how much more rain we get.

I think it’s another reminder that we do need as a country to be getting much better prepared for these events compared to what we’ve seen in recent years. We’re well on the way now to establishing a new Disaster Ready Fund which will enable the federal government to invest up to $200 million a year in disaster mitigation, and we’re hoping that that money will be matched by states, territories and local governments to spread it even further because we just haven’t seen that level of federal investment in disaster preparedness and mitigation that we need given the disasters we keep seeing.

WARWICK LONG: The idea of a disaster readiness fund - is that really going to form part of the Government’s response to things like climate change, flood levees, fire refuges, other pieces of infrastructure?

MURRAY WATT: Definitely. We see it as a crucial part of adapting to climate change. Obviously, our Government has passed legislation to put in place much stricter emissions reductions targets to try to tackle the root cause of these disasters and bring down those emissions and hopefully try to put a cap on climate change. But the fact is that the climate has changed and we do need to be adapting to it. And that’s where making sure that we do have those flood levees and telecommunications systems to make sure that people can be kept safe when we do see these disasters happening more regularly, that’s an important part of it, too.

WARWICK LONG: And you’re off to Echuca this afternoon?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I’m on my way to Echuca right now actually. So again, I haven’t been able to get there yet since the floods, so I’m looking forward to Mayor Amos showing me around and showing me what needs to be done. We all know that Echuca has been pretty badly hit. The levee protected a lot of people, obviously there are other people with different views about that and I want to get on top of that. But, again, the more you can get out in those communities and see and hear from people directly, I think the better.

WARWICK LONG: And just quickly, the much-vaunted by - the National Farmers' Federation, $100 billion worth of value for Australian agriculture, is that going to take a hit this year given the flooding situation?

MURRAY WATT: I think it probably will. I mean, we are still on track, I think, to hit that $100 billion goal which the NFF set and which we’re certainly behind as a government. The reality is, you know, the impact of these floods on particularly grain is going to have a hit, and it’s so unfortunate because people were looking at a really bumper season, good prices, high yields, and there’s a lot of people who still will be able to do that, but there’s many farmers around who are now really going to be hurting.

Some of the farmers I met with this morning in Rochester, they’ve suffered losses of probably half a million dollars just in terms of the crops that they lost that was feed for their dairy cattle, and they certainly know other people who’ve suffered a lot bigger damage. So yeah, it may not end up being quite the season that we’d hoped for, but obviously overall conditions are still pretty good for farmers in Australia, and that’s a great thing for the whole country.

WARWICK LONG: Murray Watt, thanks for your time.

MURRAY WATT: Good on you, Warwick.