Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National Breakfast

27 February 2023


SUBJECT/S: NSW flood anniversary; flood recovery; NSW road betterment; home buy backs; EU Free Trade Agreement
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: It's been one year since flood waters ran along the streets of Lismore, destroying homes and displacing thousands. Many residents continue to live in limbo, sleeping in caravans, tents or with friends while their houses remain uninhabitable. This morning, the Federal and the New South Wales government have unveiled a $300 million disaster recovery program in a bid to end the region's cycle of repair damage, repair cycle, this goes on and on. Murray Watt is the Minister for Emergency Management and Agriculture. He joins me now. Welcome back to Breakfast.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So a report out in January estimated the cost of the Northern Rivers flood disaster at close to $10 billion. Is this fund essentially a drop in the ocean?
MURRAY WATT: Well, I think that everyone understands that this was a massive disaster, that the Lismore and Northern Rivers region, and, of course, that followed days of flooding in southeast Queensland as well. So, it was always going to take a very long time to recover from an event of this size. And the funding that governments - both state and federal - have put in, I think have made a substantial difference. But the reality is, as I say, that the damage was immense and it can't be fixed immediately, that we will continue to invest in road repair, in home repair, in business repair and things like that. And I guess what's different about the funding that we're announcing today with the New South Wales Government is that we're not just repairing roads and bridges and causeways to the same standard they were, which only guarantees that they're going to flood again in the future. We're actually making them more resilient so that when we do face future flooding, we hopefully can protect people a lot better than they were protected last time around.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: OK, so how does this differ? What will actually be built or repaired that does it differently in years past?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah well, traditionally, what's happened with federal and state funding after disasters is that things like roads and bridges get repaired to the same standard they were before a flood occurred. And of course, the problem you have with that is that every time another flood comes along, you're back in the same position, repairing things again. What we're seeking to do through this new, betterment funding is actually improve the standard of roads and bridges and other things so that they can withstand future flooding as well. I mean, we all know that every time we see one of these massive flood events, it does take a long time to recover. And what we're much better off doing is investing in that kind of prevention and mitigation to actually protect people from these kind of events when they do happen in the first place.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: 57 projects will be funded under this, how were they decided?
MURRAY WATT: Basically, there was an application process for councils in 26 different council areas that were eligible for this funding. They put forward projects that they thought would work best. And the state government in New South Wales has assessed those independently. And basically what we're trying to achieve through this is to fund the project that will make the biggest difference. As I say, it's partly about reducing the cost of that kind of recovery work every time we see these floods. But of course, what we want to do is be able to limit the kind of interruptions for supply chains and people being cut off and in fact, people being able to evacuate from floods when they come along. So this kind of long-term thinking is something that we haven't really seen enough of at the federal level. And we're now partnering actively with state governments - we've approved similar programs in Queensland and other states as well. Because we want to make sure when we are spending what is literally billions of dollars recovering from these events, that we actually think about the future and try to limit that damage for further down the track as well.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So what are you doing to address the practical reality that climate change means some parts of the country, like the Northern- the Rivers, that this particular region are so disaster prone that it's going to be difficult to rebuild, even with that new structure that you've talked about?
MURRAY WATT: Well I guess there's a few things we're doing to try to acknowledge the reality of climate change. Of course, our Government has now put in place much stronger emissions reduction targets to try to tackle the root cause of these increasing natural disasters and that will make a difference over time. We're also, as I say, investing in that kind of disaster mitigation. And one of the other things our Government has done since being elected is overhaul that failed emergency fund that the Morrison Government had and we've turned it into a permanent Disaster Ready Fund, which will invest up to $200 million a year around the country, matched by states and territories, to build that kind of infrastructure.
We're also, of course, undertaking buyback programs in the most flood-prone parts of both New South Wales and Queensland. And you'd be aware of the work that we're doing with the states through the National Cabinet around floodplain development because I think all of us shake our head at the fact that we've seen these sort of developments continue to be approved and we've got to have climate risk as part of the planning process. And that's now starting to happen through the National Cabinet.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: You spent much of the last week in Lismore. Why is it that a year on, there are still thousands of people displaced?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah I was back in Lismore again last week, Patricia. I think that was my 7th or 8th time I've been back since the floods. And I'll be back tomorrow night for the memorial as well. I think, again, you know, it's important to recognise that there has been substantial progress in the recovery. When those floods hit we were talking about something like 18,000 people who'd been displaced from their homes, and obviously the numbers now are far fewer than that. But we have to be honest and acknowledge that there are people still living in situations that none of us would want to be living in. So we do continue to work with the New South Wales Government to get people back in their homes as quickly as possible. But I guess it does reflect just the sheer scale of this event. I mean, I'll never forget the scenes that I saw in Lismore when I arrived there. It really was a war zone, whether you're talking about the CBD or particularly places like South and North Lismore, which were just completely destroyed. And unfortunately, as much as we might like to think that people would be back in their homes immediately, it does take a bit of time. But every time I go there, I'm reminded of the urgency of getting things moving, and I had another meeting with the New South Wales Reconstruction Commission when I was there last week to say, ‘look, if there's anything we can be doing at a federal level to expedite help, we’re there to help’.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: And did they ask for anything?
MURRAY WATT: Nothing in particular. I mean, I think most of our discussion was about the buy back program, which of course is probably further- well, definitely further advanced in Queensland than it is in New South Wales. But fortunately, those offers have started being made in New South Wales now and I think they're aiming for around 300-400 offers to be made by the end of April. If the Queensland experience is any guide, once those offers do start being made, they do accelerate and I'd certainly be hopeful that will happen in New South Wales as well.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Some residents in Lismore are calling for the New South Wales Premier to appoint a dedicated recovery coordinator to deal with some of the bureaucratic processes that they're dealing with. Do you think that should happen?
MURRAY WATT: Well effectively, that is what should be happening through the creation of the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation that the New South Wales Government announced after the floods. I understand they've recently appointed the permanent head of that, who either has just started or will be starting shortly. And I think that will make a difference to have some permanence in that organisation because, again, this recovery is not going to be finished even by the end of this year. It's a very long term, years-long recovery and having that kind of dedicated organisation with high-quality staff, I think will make a really big difference to get things happening.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now you mentioned buy backs earlier, I just want to get into that. Both New South Wales and Queensland have been working on these buy back programs just because of the flood and the consequences of the floods, but let's just focus on New South Wales. Fewer than ten offers have been made on vulnerable homes and early this morning, we actually heard how in Lismore, some residents are so desperate they're actually selling their homes on the market and obviously, you face a lot of financial losses by doing that. Are you concerned by those numbers?
MURRAY WATT: I definitely would have liked to have seen the buy back program move a bit more quickly in New South Wales than it has-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: What’s going wrong?
MURRAY WATT: Well I think part of the issue, again, if you compare it to Queensland, was that the Queensland program started sooner than New South Wales. And it obviously would have been great to have that program start sooner in New South Wales than it did. But I have to say that once the program has started, it has started moving quickly. I think one of the other things- I don't want to be sort of making excuses for New South Wales, but we do need to remember that last year they were also contending with consecutive flooding right across the state. And I know that that was putting enormous strain, whether it be on their Ministers or their officials, to have to be dealing with constant flooding across the strait while also dealing with recovery. But as I say, I don't think people want to hear excuses. They do want to hear that everyone is pitching in to get this thing moving. And as I say, as a federal government, we have offered any assistance we possibly can to get this program moving quickly. I know that they've now engaged private consultants as well to speed up the assessments. So it does look to me that there are a few things that New South Wales is doing to try to get this program moving more quickly. But of course, we want it to happen as quickly as we can because people need some certainty about their future.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just moving on to another subject before I let you go. Your other portfolio, Agriculture; you've been in negotiations with the EU over naming rights from products like Prosecco and Feta under the Free Trade Agreement, and the dairy industry has been pleading for the Government to protect them. How are negotiations progressing?
MURRAY WATT: Well the negotiations, I would say, are progressing well, and I've been working closely with Don Farrell, the Trade Minister, on this. What we want to make sure of is that this deal that we eventually strike with the EU is the best possible deal for Australian producers in terms of the market access that we can get. Obviously, the EU is a very high-value market. It's a huge market, it's quite an affluent market, and if we can secure much bigger quantities of produce to get into the EU, that will make a huge difference for all producers in Australia, no matter what part of the sector they come from. In terms of those what are known as geographic indicators, things like Feta and Parmesan and Prosecco are probably the most common examples. It's been made very clear to us by the EU that that's a really big issue for them, but we've been pushing back and saying, well, it's a big issue for us as well. There's a lot of Australian producers of these products who've literally brought those products, or vines and things like that, from Europe, from their own family history. So we'll be doing everything we can to push back on that, while at the same time making sure that we do try to get the best market access, whether it be for beef or sheep or sugar or dairy products or anything else.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So we're going to blink?
MURRAY WATT: Well, as I say, we're pushing back. We're trying to say: look this is-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So we want to keep using those names. Is that what we're insisting on?
MURRAY WATT: That is our position. And there were negotiators from the European Union who were over in Australia only a couple of weeks ago, and we continue to make that position while at the same time really trying to keep a focus on making sure that we get the best market access for as many products as possible.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: We're out of time. Thank you, Minister.
MURRAY WATT: No worries, Patricia.