Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast

17 November 2022


SUBJECTS: Flood update; disaster mitigation; agriculture trade with China; Svitzer

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Can you imagine fleeing your home as floodwaters rush in? Now imagine having to do that over and over again. Flooding is affecting communities across the eastern states. For many people it’s just the latest disaster they’re having to endure.

The Minister for Emergency Management and Agriculture, Murray Watt, has been visiting some of the areas affected, and he joins us this morning. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Good morning, Patricia. Good to be with you.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The situation in parts of New South Wales is pretty dire. The Lachlan River in Forbes is expected to reach almost 11 metres today. There have been evacuation orders for parts of the region. And it’s tipped to reach the highest flood level in 70 years. Minister, how much is this flooding event likely to cost the country?

MURRAY WATT: I think it’s realistic to think that we’re looking at billions of dollars in damage and cost to the taxpayer in repairs, Patricia. It’s a bit too early to be able to put a precise figure on it, but even if you look at the disaster payments which we have provided to people so far, the bill is really racking up. And that is before we look at the immense cost of road and infrastructure repairs which lies ahead. So yeah- and I guess the worst thing is that this isn’t over yet. As you say, there’s communities who are currently facing, you know, their fifth, sixth, seventh flood even just this calendar year. And we know that there’s probably a lot more bad weather yet to come. So it’s going to be a very expensive damage bill unfortunately.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So billions of dollars, and you’re saying – what – that the Commonwealth will end up having to step in and foot the bill for?

MURRAY WATT: Most of these payments are shared jointly between states and federal governments. But certainly, when we’re talking about road and infrastructure repairs, which is really where you see the very largest bills, they tend to be shared on a fifty-fifty basis. And many of the individual payments that are paid out now are shared jointly with the states and federal governments as well. Of course, local governments chip in as well. There’s insurance costs, let alone the huge damage bill that individuals are going to be incurring themselves. So I think everyone is unfortunately going to have to put their hands in their pockets for this unfolding event that just won’t go away.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is your department and the Treasury now quantifying what all of the flood events – and there have been so many since the start of the year – will cost the national budget?

MURRAY WATT: Well I remember before the Budget was handed down a couple of weeks ago, Jim Chalmers put some figures out there that indicated that there was going to be a drop to the national GDP figures as a result of these events. And Jim also said that we had provisioned $3 billion at that point for flood payments and other damage bills. We don’t yet know whether that will be enough, but that provision has been made as part of responsible budgeting. But, I mean, I think it’s reasonable to expect that you’re going to be looking at at least that kind of cost just to the Commonwealth budget let alone state and territory and local government budget as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, given that a lot has happened since the Budget was delivered, which is just unthinkable to think that so much could happen in just a couple of weeks, but it has, it would have to exceed that amount, right?

MURRAY WATT: I think that would reasonable to expect, you’re right. We’ve obviously seen a lot more flooding impacting on different areas. I was actually in Adelaide yesterday to meet with the Emergency Management Minister there because we know not only did they see wild storms over the weekend – and I saw some pretty horrific scenes with trees on roofs in suburban Adelaide – but we’ve obviously got all that water coming down the Murray River into South Australia as well. So even if we weren’t to get any more rain, we’re going to be looking at even more damage from the existing floodwaters. And, as I say, I think we’re likely to see more.

We’ve also got to remember that we haven’t yet seen the cyclone season start, whether that be in, you know, North Queensland, Western Australia or Northern Territory. So unfortunately, I haven’t got a lot of good news for people except for the fact that there is unlikely to be a lot of rain over the next couple of days, so that’s a good thing at least.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah we have to take anything we can get, right?


PATRICIA KARVELAS: You’ve spoken about a permanent and dedicated workforce to assist with natural disasters, and you say it would take pressure off the Defence Force. What’s the timeline for that? And what kind of level of urgency are you putting on it given, you know, there’s a not one-in-100-year events, they are ongoing.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, this is something that I’ve been working closely with Richard Marles as the Defence Minister on over the last couple of months. And we’ve got our departments working on it now. I guess the idea is that as we now face more intense and more frequent natural disasters as a country due to climate change, we do need to really ramp up the workforce that sits around that. Obviously, disaster response is led by state governments, and that’s why you see so many terrific SES, fire service and other personnel out there at the moment. But the ADF does certainly play a role particularly in the recovery phase.

And just yesterday we activated more defence forces to go into western New South Wales to assist. So over the next couple of days, we expect to see 200 Defence Force personnel helping there to top up these state-based services. But the reality is all of this is putting a huge amount of pressure, whether it be on those state-based services or the ADF. And that’s why in this Budget we committed over $30 million to a volunteer veteran organisation called Disaster Relief Australia to sort of top up the kind of services that are available for communities, particularly in that clean-up phase. I’ve seen that organisation out in the field both around Lismore and last week when I was in Rochester, they had people there as well. So, they’re doing a really good job to help top up the state-based services and the ADF.

But we’re going to be keeping on doing some work on this, about what we need to put in place as a country to supplement the ADF. And I’d be hopeful that we might be able to bring that to a conclusion around about the Budget next year.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Last month the New South Wales and Federal Government announced $800 million in funding to buy back 2000 flood-destroyed homes in the New South Wales Northern Rivers region. Are you looking to expand that to other parts of the country that we’re seeing ravaged by floods?

MURRAY WATT: Potentially, Patricia. And I guess that’s something that we need to have some discussions with the state governments about. Really, the two areas where we’ve seen those sort of commitments now – which are south east Queensland and northern New South Wales – have really been focused on areas where we’ve seen repeated flooding over the last few years. I mean, I think no matter what any government does, the reality is we are going to be having floods and fires and cyclones and other disasters in the future. But what we know is there are certain areas in the country that are prone to repeated flooding. And it often ends up actually being more cost-effective let alone avoiding the emotional heartbreak if we can move some of these people to higher ground.

I can certainly think of other areas of the country where these kinds of approaches might be needed. But we need to sort of sit down and work that through with some of the state governments before we can commit more funding.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: OK, so can you tell us where you might think that might be necessary?

MURRAY WATT: I probably wouldn’t want to earmark any particular areas at the moment, but I think we all know there are parts of the country that we’ve seen repeat flooding in recent years. The other thing, though, is that, you know, in some cases I think those home buybacks are the right approach to take, but you’d be aware that we have committed a significant amount towards disaster mitigation funding as a new government through the new Disaster Ready Fund we’ve created.

I think you and I spoke about the former government’s Emergency Response Fund before the election, Patricia, the fund that didn’t actually do anything even though it had billions of dollars sitting in it. So we’ve converted that to being a permanent Disaster Mitigation Fund that will be up and running from the middle of next year and we’ll be able to invest in things like flood levees, drainage improvements, bushfire evacuation centres. So I think when it comes to mitigation there’s a range of approaches we can take. But what I can assure your listeners is that they now have a federal government that’s taking these issues seriously and is prepared to put serious money on the table to back it in.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do we need stronger laws preventing construction in disaster-prone areas, or even regulations to make homes more resilient to natural disasters given this is now a permanent feature of our lives?

MURRAY WATT: Yes, I think we do. I’ll give you a really straight answer on that. I think that all of us can see past development decisions that have been approved by different governments which we all now shake our heads about. And unfortunately, that kind of thing continues to go on around the country. It didn’t get a lot of publicity, but when the Prime Minister announced the home buyback scheme with the New South Wales Premier in Lismore recently, one of the other things he announced was that New South Wales Government would be leading some work for national cabinet about how we could revamp our planning and development laws across the country. In some ways, you know, we’ve got all these legacy decisions that have been made by past governments about approving development in flood plains, and that’s where the mitigation and buybacks can play a role. But what we need to do at a minimum is stop approving developments in areas that we know are going to flood. So that work, as I say, is going to be led by the New South Wales Government for consideration by National Cabinet. And, you know, the discussions I’ve had with emergency ministers around country I think there’s a real appetite to get moving on this. It’s something that’s been in the too-hard basket for too long, and we’re all literally paying the price of that now.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Let’s move now to the G20 in Bali. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met with the Chinese President on Tuesday night, bringing up the $20 billion worth of trade sanctions China has imposed on Australia. What hope do you have that those bans will be loosened or removed altogether?

MURRAY WATT: Look, I think it’s certainly a very positive step that the Prime Minister had what seemed to be a very constructive meeting with the Chinese President. I actually spoke to the Prime Minister about it the night he had had that meeting because I was about to address a conference of wine growers in Adelaide and, of course, the wine industry has been one of the major losers out of the deterioration of our relationship with China. So, you know, there’s a huge amount of interest in our agricultural communities about the opportunities to reopen some of those blocked trade paths with China.

But, at the same time, I think we need to be realistic that this is not something that’s going to happen overnight. You know, I think it is very encouraging. We’ve seen a huge impact particularly on agriculture, products like beef, cotton, wine, lobsters, barley, where we’ve seen massive drops in our exports because of the China market effectively being closed. So, it would be a very positive thing if we can reopen that, but I think we just all need to be a little bit patient and recognise that this is going to take a bit of time to work through.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just one quick question if we can turn, still to your agriculture portfolio; tugboat operator Svitzer is threatening to lock out nearly 600 workers at 17 ports across the country from tomorrow. It's due to a three-year long industrial relations dispute. If Svitzer does lock workers out, what kind of impact could it have on the agriculture sector, like grain exports?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah well, you would have even the comments from Tony Burke on the Government’s behalf saying that we’re far from happy with what Svitzer is doing, and I think it would be realistic to think that that would have an impact on our freight networks. The tugboats play a really important role with our container vessels, and if we want to be able to get grain or other agricultural exports out of the country, we need those tug boats operating. So, I think it’s really unfortunate that this dispute has got to the point that Svitzer has decided to lock out its workforce. And I’m hoping that the Fair Work Commission can play a really constructive role here.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thanks so much for your time.

MURRAY WATT: Good on you, Patricia.