Interview with Greg Jennet, ABC Afternoon Briefing

28 February 2023


SUBJECT/S: NSW flood anniversary; CSIRO Report and mitigation projects; flood recovery; home buy backs; Macquarie Island Marine Park

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Well let's head to Lismore now, as we indicated we would. We are at or around the one-year mark when that city was engulfed by floodwaters unseen in the history of what's normally a very, very wet part of New South Wales anyway. A year on, some of the $150 million pledged from a federal fund is about to be unlocked. And Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt joins us live now from Lismore. Welcome back Senator, or Minister I should say. Just take us through the way that this initial $50 million is going to be carved up through the Lismore and surrounding district.

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: For sure, Greg, good to be with you from Lismore. I think it was important that as we approach the one-year anniversary of these floods, that we send a very clear message to people in the Northern Rivers, including Lismore, that just as our Government has stood by these communities as they recover from those floods, we're standing by them as we rebuild. And we obviously want to make sure that we build back even better to try to give people even more protection from future floods that we're likely to see in this region, whether we like it or not. And so what we've done today is announced the first $50 million worth of projects of what will ultimately be a $150 million commitment. And the projects that we've announced today are really about boosting the disaster, mitigation and resilience of this region for future flooding. So the kind of projects that we've announced today - and this is all based on a CSIRO study that has been conducted over the last few months - the projects we've announced today include things like upgrades to pumps and pump stations so that we can clear water more quickly out of drains rather than seeing those drains overflow and flood communities. It's about assessing evacuation routes in the region, because we know there are a lot of places that were cut off in those floods. It's about fixing some roads and making them much more resilient and lifting them so that they're better protected for future floods, as well as funding community resilience activities as well. So this is just the beginning and there will be more, but this is a big improvement to the mitigation of flooding in this region for the future.

GREG JENNETT: Yes, so just on the breakdown of some of those examples, it's absolutely true from my reading of it, that pumps and floodgates, the sort of hardware that you're talking about, does account for the biggest allocation - about $22 million. But among the next single largest are $3 million pots of money for community flood risk awareness and resilience programs. It's not quite clear to me what that buys - is that literally public information campaigning?

MURRAY WATT: In some cases it would be, Greg. And you're right, we wanted to make sure that as we fund future resilience, it's not just about building hard infrastructure to protect people, as important as that is. But what we do find every time we see these kind of massive events is that people don't necessarily have flood plans about what they need to do once a flood is coming their way. We don't necessarily have good systems in place for communities to be able to make sure that they've got the right stocks of groceries and things like that. So those kind of investments in councils, SES groups, community organisations to assist prepare those kinds of plans are all about making sure that communities themselves are more resilient when these kind of events come along. However much money that we spend on flood mitigation, it won't necessarily protect every home all around the country. And while we should do as much of that as possible, we need to make sure that people are as thoroughly prepared for those events and are able to cope with them in a much better way than what we've seen in the past.

GREG JENNETT: OK, there is one finding from this CSIRO-led study which probably will feed back into your thinking in other parts of Australia. It's around house-raising - putting houses on stilts, I suppose - versus house buybacks. It says it's economically viable for a considerably greater quantity of properties to be raised in comparison to them being heavily modified or bought back. How do you think that is going to feed into your thinking? Because we've been hearing a lot about potential buybacks. Might they now be scaled back in favour of the elevation of homes?

MURRAY WATT: Well I think it's all about getting a balance in this situation, Greg. And obviously the funding that we've announced jointly with the Queensland and New South Wales governments for buybacks has also included a substantial amount of funding for house raising and retrofitting homes as well to sort of rip up floors and put in more flood-proof flooring materials, to move essential electric equipment to higher parts of homes and things like that. I guess the home buybacks is the part of it that attracts a lot of the public attention, but we are very much investing in house raising and retrofitting as well. I think it makes sense that, of course, you can raise a lot more homes with a certain amount of money than buying them back because, of course, buying them back does cost more money. But I think the reality is that in a number of parts of Australia, we do see areas that are now so flood prone that the economically responsible thing to do is to buy back those homes and help move people to higher ground. Not to mention, of course, helping them avoid the kind of heartache that we see when they face the next flood. So I think it's about a combination of those activities rather than doing one or the other, and that's certainly the approach that we've tried to undertake. 

GREG JENNETT: Alright, I do want to take you to a question about a story we've been covering this hour to do with Macquarie Island in just a moment. But a quick final reflection since you are back in Lismore and the actual anniversary of the floods is nigh upon us, how does it strike you in its recovery as you inspected today?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah well, this is probably about the 7th or 8th time I've been back to Lismore and the Northern Rivers region since the floods last year. And every time I come back, you do see progress. But I think there's a long way to go and we've always said this was going to be a very long-term recovery just because of the sheer scale of the disaster that these communities face. It is going to be the one-year anniversary next Tuesday and I'll be coming back for the memorial of that and I think that that is dredging up a lot of difficult memories for people. So there is a lot of emotion around these communities at the moment and I think everyone can understand why that's the case. And again, I guess that's why I think it's really important for people in these communities to know that all Australians, whether it be their Federal Government or all of us watching this show, continue to remember what they went through and continue to support them.

GREG JENNETT: Yeah thanks for observing that and good to hear you will be back there next week. Look, just finally on that agriculture matter, we heard from Seafood Australia, unhappy, it seems, about what they claim was the consultation process around the redrawing of maps and protections - Macquarie Island Marine Park we're talking about. Do you think it was a thorough process and if not, will you be speaking to them now?

MURRAY WATT: Well I guess the first thing to say is that the consultation process hasn't ended. Obviously Tanya Plibersek has made an announcement today about her intentions regarding the marine park, but really this is now the beginning of a more intensive consultation process that will take a couple of months and there will be opportunities for people to have their say about that. But I know for a fact that Tanya personally consulted the two fishing companies who this affects. I've spoken with them myself on a number of occasions as well and I think it's important to recognise that- I recognise that some of those companies aren't necessarily happy about this decision, but they're not actually losing anything that they currently can do. There's been no limitation on the area that they can currently fish in, so we're preserving their rights but what we want to make sure of is that we do the environmentally right thing, but also make sure that we can continue to show that the fishing we do in our country is sustainable. The two companies involved are regarded as some of the most sustainable fishery operations we have in this country and we want to make sure that they continue to have that reputation. And that would potentially be at risk with overseas customers if they are seen to be able to fish in wider parts of the marine park. But as I say, this consultation process hasn't ended and Tanya will be leading that over the next couple of months and people will have a big opportunity to say more about that through that.

GREG JENNETT: Sure thing, all right. Sounds like there is a bit of common ground there somewhere to be teased out through further discussions. Murray Watt, really appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us there from Lismore today.

MURRAY WATT: Thanks Greg, good to talk.