Press conference in Gold Coast, QLD

SUBJECTS: South East Queensland storm recovery; Far North Queensland disaster recovery; electricity reconnections; Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment activated; more support for FNQ farmers; Greens blocking housing; supermarket prices

STEVEN MILES, QUEENSLAND PREMIER: We've continued to see really good progress on the task of reconnecting all of the homes that lost power from the recent South East Queensland storms. There are now just 1500 people - 1500 households and businesses - remaining without power. That's down from a peak of 130,000. That means 99 per cent of households and businesses have now been reconnected. The number halved in the last 24 hours, so they connected 1500 people in the last 24 hours and there's a real hope that we can connect the remaining 1500 throughout the day today, leaving really only those who need their houses to be certified, waiting for that certification before they can get their power back on. Operation Energise, an effort of electricians out from tomorrow to assist those who still haven't been able to engage a contractor.

We've processed 59,476 grants of the 95,859 applications that have been received. So there's a massive task in processing all of those grant applications, across both disasters here in the South East and in the Far North. We've paid out $15 million, but $5 million of that was in just the last 24 hours, showing just how much progress we've been able to make since engaging about 400 extra public servants to do that processing. And I again like to thank them for volunteering to do that work on damage assessments here in the South East.

Ten homes have been completely destroyed, 152 severely damaged, and 406 have moderate damage.
I certainly welcome the support that we've received from the Australian Government. It's great to have Minister Murray Watt here today extending support for people here in the southeast affected by those storms. Those payments are certainly very, very welcome and he'll outline those in more detail. And then in the state’s Far North, we're also extending the primary producer support into three additional local government areas and our Minister Nikki Boyd will be able to provide more detail on that.

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Thanks very much, Premier. And it's great to hear that we are starting to see some real progress both here on the Gold Coast and South East Queensland and in Far North Queensland as well. And certainly talking to the staff in the disaster centre here, you can get that sense that things are starting to happen. It's terrific news that by the end of today, it's expected that all but everyone will have their electricity reconnected. That has been a massive task for Energex crews. They've done a fabulous job.

I think all of us know that the recovery from these two events in Far North Queensland and South East Queensland is going to take time. They are very significant events on a national scale, which is why the Albanese Government is taking such an interest in the recovery process and I want to assure everyone recovering from these events that the Albanese Government will be standing with you every step of the way. We are working very closely, night and day, with the Miles Government here in Queensland to make sure that this recovery process is as best as it possibly can be. It's not going to be able to be fixed overnight. There is very significant damage in both ends of the state, but we're committed to the task and committed to working with the Miles Government to get this job done.

You will have seen that over the last couple of weeks, both ourselves and the State Government have announced a significant range of support to assist individuals, homeowners, farmers, small businesses, who've suffered the impacts of these events. But I'm very pleased that we're able to announce further federal financial assistance for those impacted by the South East Queensland storms today. In addition to that support that we've already announced, from 2pm tomorrow the Albanese Government will be opening applications for two forms of financial assistance. The first is the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment and the second is the Disaster Recovery Allowance.

The first of those, the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment, is a one-off payment of $1000 per eligible adult and $400 per eligible child. And that's really intended to help those who've suffered some sort of significant damage to their homes or if they've suffered a serious injury as a result of the storms. That payment, for now, is being activated in about 27 suburbs across southeast Queensland. And the reason we've gone with those suburbs is they are the ones where we have damage assessments completed by the Queensland Government that tell us that those homes in those suburbs have experienced significant damage. I can run you through the list of the suburbs if you'd like me to, but that is all obviously set out on the press release as well. So, as I say, the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment is really intended for people who experience serious damage to their homes.

In addition to that, from 2pm tomorrow we will be making available the Disaster Recovery Allowance. Now that is a 13-week payment – or up to 13 weeks – at the JobSeeker level for those whose access to their workplace has been impacted. Some people we know have found it difficult to get to their work because of road damage or debris. Also, sole traders who are unable to get to their workplace or their workplace have actually been closed because of the impact of these storms. So this is a form of income support being made at the Federal Government level, as I say, up to 13 weeks to assist people while there's a temporary interruption to their ability to get to work or to their place of business. That allowance will be made available to all who live or work in the three councils affected - the Gold Coast, Logan and Scenic Rim. So we're not picking particular suburbs there, it's across the three regions. Similar assistance will be available for New Zealand citizens and we know that particularly on the Gold Coast and Logan, there's a substantial number of those. And the best way for people to access these payments is by going to the MyGov website, because it is a federal payment. If you need help with that, you can call the Australian Government Emergency Information Line on 180 22 66, and those who speak languages other than English can call 131 202 to receive translated services.

Now, as I say, that's on top of the support that we've already activated. So the support today is about if the payment for people who've suffered serious damage to their homes or interruptions with their ability to get to work or their business. And that comes on top of the financial assistance that's been provided already for people who, for instance, have lost power, have lost food, need to replace clothing, medicines, those types of things as well. And I'd really encourage people to hop onto the Queensland Government website to determine what they will be eligible for.

So, as I say, these are two significant events. They will take time to recover. But the Albanese and Miles Governments are working very closely together. We're really standing by Queenslanders and we want to see this state get back to what it does best.

NIKKI BOYD, QUEENSLAND MINISTER FOR DISASTER RECOVERY: Good morning. It has been another mighty effort from our frontline in terms of assessing and also recovering communities, both in the Far North and also here in the South East. From the South East, the SES received 4550 calls for assistance and of those, only seven are outstanding. So the SES is getting to the end of the work that they have been doing assisting people here in the South East corner. We're starting to see that interstate support that we have from Victoria and NSW start to stand down. They'll be going home shortly and we absolutely thank them for their assistance that they've provided to Queensland communities in our time of need. It has been a mighty job from our front line, from our rural fire services that are volunteering, the SES, Our Fire Service, the DRA and also community recovery as well.

As the Premier says, we've done damage assessments right across the state. We've completed 61,216 damage assessments across both of those events. And in Queensland, from both of those events, we've got 39 premises that are totally destroyed. Ten of those are in the South East corner, 29 of those are in the Far North of Queensland. Can I give a massive shout out to our Energex crews in terms of the work that they've been doing? We are at the very point in now with 99 per cent of premises reconnected. At the peak, we saw 130,000 customers disrupted from the power network. So it has been a mighty effort from Energex to get those customers reconnected. They've still got 1500 homes to go and aim to achieve that by today.

In terms of the rectification works that go along with that power reconstruction and rebuild, I just want to highlight that premises will need, in the cases of disruption, to get a licensed electrical contractor to do a safety check on their premises, to complete any works that may have happened and to provide to them an Electrical Defect Report. That then enables customers to get in contact with Energex and get their power reconnected. Operation Energise, as the Premier highlighted, is starting off from tomorrow. That is a team of electricians who are members of the Electrical Trade Union, who volunteer their time to come out into the community and to help people who need it most. They'll be helping people who are uninsured. They'll be helping pensioners, not for profit organisations and community groups as well. You can register for an appointment to get Operation Energise to come out and do that work for an Electrical Defect Report. If you fit into any of those categories, you register for an appointment through phoning 3846 2477 to register for an appointment for Operation Energise.

In terms of our financial assistance, we have seen a huge amount of people apply for financial assistance in the last 24 hours. Over both of the events, we've seen $15 million go out the door to people who are in need in eligible suburbs. So that's 85,000 people who have received a personal financial assistance payment from the Miles Government. In Far North Queensland, that's $4.5 million that's been paid out to almost 26,000 people. And in the South East corner, it's $10.5 million that's been paid out to almost 60,000 people. So, there is a massive amount of money that has gone to Queenslanders who have been impacted by this disaster to buy essentials to get them through.

We welcome the announcement today from the Albanese Government to be able to get Disaster Recovery Payments and Allowances to people who have been heavily impacted through this event - people who have experienced significant loss, who have seen their properties damaged or destroyed, or seen a real impact on their business or on their employment as an employee. Those payments and allowances will make a real difference to the South East communities, so we warmly welcome that financial assistance from the Albanese Government.

We're also expanding financial support to primary producers in the Far North today, so that will be going into communities of Hope Vale, Wujal Wujal and Yarrabah. We've previously activated this already for the local government areas of Cairns, Cassowary Coast, Cook, Douglas, Hinchinbrook, Mareeba and Tableland. It will mean that eligible farmers from those three shires of Hope Vale, Wujal Wujal and Yarrabah will be able to access extraordinary recovery grants of up to $75,000 to assist with immediate recovery while loans become available for repair and recovery of essential equipment and for loss of income as well. They'll also be able to apply for concessional Disaster Assistance Loans of up to $250,000 that can be used to repair and replace damaged equipment and plant farm infrastructure, or for the purchase of new livestock. They can also access Essential Working Capital Loans of up to $100,000 that's available for operational expenses, things like wages, rent, buying fuel and fodder and transportation. And also, opening to those three communities today is freight subsidies, which are up to $5000 that are able to alleviate the cost of moving stock and operational materials as well.

In terms of the assessments that we have made through the disasters from one end of the state to the other, while we are finishing in terms of the emergency support that people need in their homes and in their communities, of course, that damage assessment and that financial recovery will continue on into the future. We'll continue to support both families, primary producers, small businesses and community organisations, as well as communities more broadly into the future. And we'll be having future financial assistance announcements to make into the near future as well. Thank you.

BEN MARCUS, QUEENSLAND RECONSTRUCTION AUTHORITY: Good morning, everybody. Just in terms of reconstruction, I'll skip you through our priorities at the moment. As has been stated, 99 per cent of impacted customers will have their electricity returned to the house. And I want to acknowledge the tremendous effort by Energex on New Years Day, when it was absolutely pouring rain up in Mount Tamborine, we still had 300 Energex workers who worked right through that. Most days through the holiday period, we've had 1000 Energex workers on the ground. Their work doesn't end here. Even though we will have houses connected, we have networks that have been significantly impacted. And what you will see in areas is the local network that's not connected to the grid and that operates off large transformers that they have brought in generators. I know members of the community will be very, very pleased to stop running their own personal generators, and I know that it's been an absolute feature of this event. So Energex will continue to do that work.

We're now well and truly into the clean-up but it is a mammoth task. Our initial priority of clearing roads and road accesses, accesses to driveways and houses, is coming to a conclusion. Next, we shift onto the verges and then onto private property, parks and schools and things of that nature. It is an enormous task. We have a very large number of extremely large trees down on the ground, and I'd just like to acknowledge all of the people from SES, DRA, the Defence Force, Rural Fires and locals and volunteers who have done everything they can to clear that. They've done that over the Christmas-New Year period, and this has been an interrupted time of the year for most people in this part of the world, whether they were directly impacted or they have volunteered their time. Which brings us to the next stage of what we are planning to return the community to a sense of normality, and that is, in two weeks’ time, school goes back. We have got to make sure that the buses are running, that kids have got their uniforms, they've got their bags, that schools are OK. That is our absolute next focus.

And finally, can I just also personally thank members of the media for getting these messages through to the public. Every time we have asked for your assistance, you have met that instantly and it's sincerely appreciated. So on behalf of the community, thank you very much for that.

JOURNALIST: Just in terms of the rebuild, some of these homeowners have been told they could be waiting two years, just in terms of materials and that sort of thing. Do you have anything to say to that?

STEVEN MILES: We do know from our recent experiences of the Brisbane floods and the flooding event that we experienced last year, as well as the Springfield storms a couple of years back, that it will take years to get everybody's homes repaired. The construction market continues to be challenging in terms of labour and other supplies. We have a number of people in emergency accommodation. The Housing Department will continue to support people who need assistance with temporary accommodation while they get their homes repaired. But it's true, recovering from this disaster particularly when it comes to those severely damaged and destroyed households, that's going to take years.

JOURNALIST: Is there anything your government can do, particularly for the construction industry, to help ease some of that pressure?

STEVEN MILES: It's very challenging. We're continuing to roll out the household repairs from previous disasters, so that put great pressure on our housing market. We'll continue to do all of the things that we have been doing to work, to work with industry, to increase supply and availability, but there's only so much that we can do, and we acknowledge that some of these repairs are going to take some time.

JOURNALIST: Is there a way that I guess these builds could be prioritised over new builds?

STEVEN MILES: We need to continue new builds as well. The housing market is constrained right now. We've seen thousands of people move to Queensland from other states. That's put great pressure on housing supply, resulting in increased housing costs and rents. We need to do both. We need to be able to repair these houses while continuing to deliver the new stock that people need.

JOURNALIST: Is there any assistance on the way regarding fuel with prices still going up and so many people relying on generators?

STEVEN MILES: So the assistance packages that we've announced so far are designed to assist in the ways that we can. There will continue to be additional assistance packages negotiated between the state and the Australian Government. We'll continue to look at what the most appropriate support for people is, but we've really prioritised our investments and our efforts in getting people reconnected. That's been our focus and that's why we've managed to get to the point that we’re in now.


JOURNALIST: Premier, David Crisafulli wrote a column in the Gold Coast Bulletin, kind of criticising the government for not rolling out the waste levy exemption. Of course, the government did roll out the waste levy exemption. Do you have a message to Crisafulli?

STEVEN MILES: I don't pay too much notice of him. What I do know, is that when we were asked to provide that waste levy exemption, we approved it within a couple of hours. I think Queenslanders want to see their leaders demonstrating action and that's what we’ve sought to do.

JOURNALIST: There was a bit of a delay, though, between the rollout of disaster funding and assistance over that $1 million funding versus the rollout of the waste management. It wasn't on the site for a bit. Any explanation for why that was updated later?

STEVEN MILES: I'm not sure about that. But what I do know is that as soon as we received a request from Gold Coast City Council to waive the waste levy, we activated that, I think within a few hours. The additional million dollars of funding that we provided, that came out of a Queensland Disaster Management Committee meeting where we really wanted to make sure that all of the local government areas knew that they had the cash there, that they could draw down and engage contractors or do whatever else they needed. Throughout this entire event, we've sought to make sure that everything is in place to support the initial response and the long-term recovery. We've been through a lot of disaster events and there is a rhythm to these things and it's important to be delivering the right support at the right time.

JOURNALIST: A few questions for the Senator; the Greens say that they'll hold up passing the Government's Help to Buy housing scheme and push for a national rent freeze, are they playing politics with people's ability to buy a home?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, it's a real shame that every time Labor tries to build more homes, the Greens get in the way. The Greens inevitably vote with the Coalition to stop Labor from delivering home ownership and new homes for Australians when it's desperately needed. I mean, we've been talking this morning about the impact that natural disasters have on an already-stretched housing market. And that's exactly why the Albanese Government last year legislated the new Housing Australia Future Fund to build about 30,000 new homes just in the next five years. It took months of delay from the Greens and Peter Dutton before we were able to get that legislation passed. And right now, we have another piece of legislation before the Australian Parliament - the Help to Buy scheme - which is about helping renters into the housing market by having the government take an equity stake in that home. And instead of helping renters, which is what the Greens always say they're on about, they're getting in the way. It's just really unfortunate that for the Greens, it's always about playing politics rather than actually delivering solutions for Australians.

JOURNALIST: David Littleproud is calling for an ACCC investigation into supermarket price gouging of farmers. Will you hold an inquiry?

MURRAY WATT: Well this issue, as the Agriculture Minister in the Federal Government, this is an issue that I've been calling on the supermarkets to deal with for months now and I'm pleased that by the end of last year, the Nationals – the so-called party of farmers – decided to jump on board and support what we've been saying. The Albanese Government already has a review of the Food and Grocery Conduct Code underway and that's all about lifting the level of transparency from supermarkets about the prices they're paying farmers, their other suppliers, so that work is underway. I'm pleased that the Nationals now recognise there is a problem. I'm also pleased that supermarkets in some cases, have started reducing prices for some items. But they don't need to wait for any of these reviews to be completed. Supermarkets can do the right thing by Australian consumers today and start reducing their prices.

JOURNALIST: Senator, you mentioned there's like about over 20 suburbs across South East Queensland that have already had disaster assessments done. Can you just outline the ones on the Gold Coast and the ones that still need to be assessed?

STEVEN MILES: Sure. So this is for the payments that we're activating from 2pm tomorrow - the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment - which is the $1000 per adult and 400 per child. In the City of Gold Coast that will be available for those who've experienced serious damage to their homes in Arundel, Biggera Waters, Coombabah, Coomera, Gaven, Guanaba, Helensvale, Hollywell, Labrador, Maudsland, Mudgeeraba, Nerang, Oxenford, Pacific Pines, Paradise Point, Runaway Bay, Tallai, Upper Coomera and Wongawallan. In the City of Logan; it'll be for Cedar Creek, Cedar Grove, Cedar Vale, Flagstone, Jimboomba, Mundoolun and Tamborine. And in Scenic Rim region; Tamborine and Tambourine Mountain. Now, as I said in the opening, I'm conscious that is not a complete list of suburbs where damage has occurred to homes. These are the suburbs that at this stage, we have the damage assessments to demonstrate that people have experienced major damage to their homes. And I would expect in coming days, as we get more damage assessments, additional suburbs will be added to the list.

JOURNALIST: Wongawallan, but not Guanaba, which is right next to -

MURRAY WATT: Sorry, I did say Guanaba. I may not have pronounced it correctly, sorry.

JOURNALIST: No, that's all right.  

JOURNALIST: Senator, on a lighter note, our annual lamb ad comes out tonight. Should Aussies be eating more lamb?

MURRAY WATT: Absolutely! Again, as the Australian Agriculture Minister and as an Australian, I encourage you to eat lamb. I ate it twice myself over the weekend and look at me! [Laughter]

But no, I think those annual advertisements from Meat & Livestock Australia are a really fun way of advertising lamb consumption and production in Australia. They always provide really entertaining ads. But it's a serious note as well. I mean, I think most Australians have seen, in the last few months, we've seen a big fall in the price of sheep and price of lambs, and that's impacting on farmers' incomes. So, this is a great way that Aussies can get behind our farmers by buying more lamb, particularly through January, and then run up to Australia Day.

JOURNALIST: Just back on the supermarket fruit and veg prices and that sort of thing. Farmers are saying they're being ripped off by the supermarkets and they're better off selling their produce overseas. Is this acceptable?

MURRAY WATT: No, I don't think it is. I think all Australians expect the big supermarket chains to pay our farmers a fair price, and I think in too many instances that's not occurring. That's exactly why last year we commenced a review of the Food and Grocery Code. That's a national code of conduct that applies to supermarkets, wholesalers and farmers. And it's about making sure that the supermarkets are being fully transparent about the prices that they're paying farmers, so that farmers have a bit more of a level playing field when it comes to negotiating with supermarkets. I can understand that farmers will always want to take the best price available, and in some cases that's going to be our export markets. And it's really important for our national economy that we do export our fruit, veg and other agricultural production. But we also want to make sure farmers receive a decent pay from supermarkets when it comes to supplying the domestic market as well.

STEVEN MILES: Can I add to that? So in addition to the work that Murray has outlined that the Albanese Government is doing, last week I wrote to the CEOs of all of the major supermarkets in Queensland on behalf of the Queensland Government and I indicated to them that I was concerned with the growing gap in the prices being paid to farmers as compared with the prices being charged to Queensland households at the supermarket. The fact is these grocery stores are making very large profits and those profits are having an impact on the cost of living for families wanting to put food on the table, as well as for farmers trying to make a living. And so I've asked those CEOs to make executives available to meet with me and to discuss what efforts we might be able to do together to both address farm prices as well as food costs for families.