Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast

1 February 2023


SUBJECTS: Independent Review into disaster funding arrangements; Hazard Insurance Partnership; China trade; UK Free Trade Agreement

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Each time the country is hit by a bushfire or flood the human and financial toll grows. In the past year most of the country has experienced natural disasters, and this morning the Albanese Government will announce an Independent Review looking at whether the way we fund disaster management needs to be overhauled.

The Emergency Management and Agriculture Minister is Murray Watt, and he’s our guest this morning. Minister, welcome.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: A pinch and a punch for the first day of the month.


PATRICIA KARVELAS: You’ve announced former AFP Commissioner and former leader of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency Andrew Colvin will lead the review. What will he be looking at? What are the terms of reference?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah well it’s important, I think, Patricia, that we do have a good root-and-branch review of our disaster funding system in Australia. We know - even from what we saw last year - that Australia’s only going to experience more frequent and more intense natural disasters due to climate change. And what we need to make sure of is that government investment is doing everything possible to protect Australians from those disasters and also to help them recover as quickly as possible. So what we want to go is have a good look at all Commonwealth investment, whether that be directly through the Commonwealth or joint funding with the states, from beginning to end -the investment we make in mitigation, the investment we make in adaptation and, of course, in recovery as well. To make sure that we do have a disaster funding system that is fit for purpose for the new age that we’re living in.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: OK that’s interesting. Are the states and the territories, are they on board? Because obviously if you’re going to look at all funding, they need to be transparent about it as well.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, they are on board. This is something that’s been discussed at the national meeting of emergency management ministers towards the end of last year. And we recognise that the states make significant investments in disaster recovery and prevention as well. And, I guess, what we want to make sure of is that collectively we are doing everything we possibly can to protect Australians wherever they might live from the worst of those disasters and to help them get back on their feet as quickly as possible. I think that there probably is more that we can be doing, whether we’re talking about federal governments or state and territory governments, to make sure that that investment is being spent wisely. You’ve probably seen the figures that show that 97 percent of disaster funding spent in Australia goes towards recovery with only 3 percent in mitigation. I think we can be doing a better job to make sure that we invest upfront, you know, to protect as many as people as possible and to reduce that damage bill that just grows every single year.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So for those listeners listening thinking ‘not another review’, what will this do that will change the way you do business in this area? And how quickly will it report so you can take action? Because the thing with reviews is they kind of kick the can down the road.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah and I have to admit, I mean, one of the reasons we got this started fairly early in our term is that the previous government did commence a couple of reviews of disaster funding that didn’t really lead anywhere, and we don’t want to be in that position. We do want this to be able to inform better practice.

I suppose there’s a couple of things in particular that I’d be looking for to come from this review. I do think that there’s more that we can be doing to streamline payments and to get money out the door quickly and efficiently to people. We have made some changes on that front since coming to office, but I think there probably is more that we can do there.

But if there’s one thing that I want to try and get out of this review it’s to really embed resilience into our disaster funding system more than it is at the moment. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with mayors or state government representatives or community figures around the country who talk about the fact that when the disaster hits funding comes from government to help repair the damage to a road or a bridge or something like that, but it’s only repaired to the same level and what do you know, one or two years later another flood comes along or another disaster and we’re in the same position – having to repair yet again.

So I think that there is more that we can be doing to use that money much more effectively to really prepare ourselves for the future disasters that we’re likely to see so that we don’t have to keep chasing our tail spending taxpayers’ money repairing things over and over again.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Late last year you announced the National Emergency Management Agency will allocate around $200 million in funding each year over the next five years on disaster prevention. Will that funding be reviewed? Will it be part of this?

MURRAY WATT: You’re right, Patricia, we did announce that Disaster Ready Fund, and applications are currently open to states and territories for investment in mitigation projects. We’re planning basically to look at all Commonwealth investment, whether that be investment that’s done through my agency or, of course, there are many other portfolios within the Federal Government that undertake investment in ways that have an impact on disasters, whether it be mental health funding after disasters, whether it be the way that we build infrastructure- build and fund infrastructure. We need to obviously make sure that as much as possible we take into account disaster risk there. So that Disaster Ready Fund that you mentioned will continue to roll out, but if there are ways that we can improve that system, then, of course, we’d take that opportunity as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: There’s been a lot of discussion, Minister, around a disaster assistance force that would be deployed instead of the Defence Force. Will this review examine what that could look like?

MURRAY WATT: No, there’s a separate piece of work underway on that, Patricia. And, really, what we’re trying to get to there is it’s a little bit, I suppose, in parallel. What this review is about is about the funding that goes out the door to either prevent or mitigate disasters or help people recover. But we also do have a serious issue about the need for more personnel to assist with that job. Again, you know, just as increasing natural disasters and increasingly severe disasters mean impacts on infrastructure and homes and things like that, it’s also putting a huge toll on the workforce that sits around disasters. So we’ve got some work underway with the Home Affairs Department and the Defence department looking at what we can do to build that natural disaster workforce of the future. I don’t really envisage a situation where we develop a national form of an SES. We don’t want to be duplicating the work that the states already do. But I do think we need to think about whether it’s changes to how we use Defence Force personnel or to paid emergency personnel or volunteers to make sure that we’ve got the personnel that we need to deal with these ever-increasing disasters.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Tomorrow you’ll be at the first of the Hazard Insurance Partnership meetings. The plan is to try to get government and insurance companies to share data and information. Is there also a plan to try and make insurance more affordable? We know that more and more people are unable to get insurance because of where they live and the reclassification of areas.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah that work on insurance, again, goes in tandem with the work that we’re doing through mitigation. And, again, just as I’ve lost count of mayors who tell me about roads that don’t get sealed, pretty much every disaster region I’ve been into over the last 12 months, there was already a severe insurance crisis before the disasters hit let alone the situation now. In the last budget Jim Chalmers, Stephen Jones and I agreed to fund this Hazard Insurance Partnership, which is really about trying to improve the information-sharing between governments and insurers about where there is disaster risk so that we can try to deal with this insurance crisis. We obviously want to do everything we can to make sure that Australians can obtain insurance in the first instance and that it can be affordable. And if governments and insurers can be having a better understanding about where the risk lies, that informs the sorts of investments that we can be making. We obviously want to, you know, use our money in a way that helps bring down those insurance costs as much as we possibly can.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just a couple of other questions, Minister; if we look overseas, Trade Minister Don Farrell is arranging a virtual meeting with his Chinese counterpart in the coming days. It will be the first between the countries’ counterparts in more than three years. Beijing says relations are moving in the right direction. But has there been any real, tangible changes for Australian producers?

MURRAY WATT: At this stage there are lots of rumours flying around but nothing really confirmed about changes as far as they apply to agricultural products. Obviously it’s an encouraging thing that our respective trade ministers can be having those discussions. And you’ve heard many people from our Government say that we want to make sure that that relationship is stabilised. We obviously do need to keep the pressure up on China though, to try to remove those trade barriers that they’ve imposed. And we’re coming-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: How are you keeping that pressure up?

MURRAY WATT: By communicating that directly to them whenever we have that opportunity. And I’m sure that Don will give that message in his meeting next week, just as the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have done already. When it comes to agriculture there are obviously products that have had tariff changes or other trade barriers imposed. But there are also products – and I’m thinking particularly meat exports – where there are technical issues that have been raised by China which have the effect of stopping imports. And we really need China to explain what it is that needs to be done at the Australian end to overcome those barriers.  So, you know, we’re going to be making sure that we push hard for our producers, and as you’ve heard many times, we’re not going to be sacrificing our Australian values in this process. But if there is a way of stabilising that relationship, that would be good for both Australia and for China.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Australian Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, is calling on all countries to play their part to prevent a catastrophic war in the Indo-Pacific region. It’s obviously a message about China. Does that message have an impact on your negotiations on trade bans, on agriculture?

MURRAY WATT: I think that all statements of ministers and all positions that our Government takes are interrelated, and what you’re seeing from the Albanese Government is a much more coordinated approach to our foreign policy and our trade policy compared to what we saw under the former government. We’ve obviously made sure that– and Penny has done this more than anyone else in broadening those multilateral relationships across the Asia-Pacific because we do think that by working together with other countries and encouraging the sort of values that we want to see in the region that’s the best way to make sure that our region stays prosperous and secure. And that’s something that we’ll all continue to do, no matter what our role in this Government over the course of the year.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: A quick one here on the UK Free Trade Agreement. Has there been any progress since your London visit earlier this month?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, there has been. And my visit obviously followed up the visit that Don Farrell undertook as the Trade Minister late last year. I met with the House of Lords committee that was considering the legislation that underpins the UK Free Trade Agreement while I was in London. And since I’ve returned that committee has actually passed and recommended the support of the legislation without amendments. There was some talk while we were in London that there would be a range of amendments to that legislation, which would have slowed things down. But whether it was because of the meetings we had or other factors, pleasingly, all those amendments were withdrawn. So it’s through the committee stage. It now has to go back to the House of Lords for its third reading. And we’re certainly working hard to make sure that the UK keeps its commitment to bring this agreement into force in the first quarter.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: How quickly could it be signed and finished?

MURRAY WATT: Well, at the end of last year both our Prime Minister and the UK Prime Minister agreed that it would come into force in the first quarter of this year. That’s something that we’re still keen to make sure happens. There’s a lot of Aussie producers who are keen to get more product into the UK, and having met with some of the importers in London, there’s lots of people in London who want to bring in our products. So the sooner we can make that happen the better.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, very quickly, you took to Twitter to clarify that sovereignty would not be ceded by a Voice to Parliament. That’s in relation to questions from Lidia Thorpe. Taking to Twitter and clarifying it probably, I don’t assume, will answer the questions of the Senator. Will you provide more clarity on this?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah look, we’re happy to provide whatever information is needed to any senator or any opposition leader –

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well just saying it isn’t enough, is clearly what Lidia Thorpe is saying. What else will you do?

MURRAY WATT: Well we have received advice, you know, from people, much more eminent lawyers than me, Patricia, that confirms this. And if that information hasn’t been provided to Senator Thorpe already – and I suspect a lot of it has – then, of course, we’d be prepared to do it. I think the disappointing thing is that there are some people out there both within the Greens and the Liberal and National parties that want to knock this proposal over. And whatever information is provided to them it won’t change their minds. But the positive thing is that I think most Australians still support this. The overwhelming proportion of First Nations people in our country support this. And I think this – you know, when we get closer to it, Australians will understand that this is a chance to take the country forward, not hold it back with the sort of divisive messages that we’re hearing from all quarters at the moment.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you for your time.

MURRAY WATT: Good on you, Patricia.