Prime Minister of Australia

05/05/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 05/05/2021 04:15

Address, Townsville Chamber of Commerce - Townsville, QLD

PRIME MINISTER: Well, thank you very much, it's a very generous introduction. It's tremendous to be here with everybody today and to the other six people who graduated as economic geographers back in 1989. I'm sure they will appreciate your very sound exposition of what we were doing for those four years at university, back at New South Wales University, all those years ago.

Can I begin today by acknowledging the Bindal and Wulgurukaba people, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. Can I also acknowledge, particularly here in the garrison town of Townsville, any serving men and women who are with us, as well as any veterans, and of course Phil Thompson being one of many of them, and to say thank you on behalf of a very grateful nation for your service. I also want to salute the men and women who are here today and throughout this great city who are ADF Reservists. We have called on our ADF Reservists so many times through various operations and responding to natural disasters, bushfire assist, COVID assist, flood assist, all of these operations so well led, but on so many occasions it'd involve, and in one case with the bushfires, compulsory call up of Reservists, and they have responded. And I want to thank their employers as well, for the great support that they have given to our Reservists in being able to answer the call of their nation.

It's always great to be here in Townsville, it's one of my most favourite places. You might think I say that everywhere I go and it's pretty much true. Australia is my favourite place, and every corner of it. But I have a particular affection here, so much so people from the Shire like it so much here that Chad Townsend has decided to move to Townsville next year. We're sorry to lose him but I know he'll be warmly welcomed up here and I look forward to visiting him up here. He'll be wearing a different jersey and I do hope that his old jersey will be more successful.

Can I thank the Chamber of Commerce for hosting today, and to give Michael and the, and your leadership here of the Townsville Chamber of Commerce. Can I acknowledge of course Phil Thompson, the Member for Herbert, Senator Susan McDonald. Susan is here somewhere, I'm sure. She'll give me a wave in a sec. I know she was down at Beef Week as well, at Rocky, as has been Minister David Littleproud and I acknowledge him up here in Queensland, of course. To Joe Buffone, who is here, who heads up Emergency Management Australia. He's doing an amazing job. Joe was who we sent down into the second wave in Victoria when COVID hit, and he did an extraordinary job there leading up the Aged Care Response Centre under tremendous strain and trial and now Joe is heading up Emergency Management Australia and he's doing a terrific job. We were out in the floods, out in Western Sydney a few months ago, and it never stops, sadly. To Shane Stone, my dear friend over, over a long time now. It's great to be here with Shane, anywhere, but I want to thank you Shane for your leadership of the North Queensland Flood Recovery and Drought Agency and the evolution of that agency, together with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency led by Andrew Colvin, it's the reason why I'm here today to make the announcements I'm making. But I want to thank you Shane for your tremendous leadership, particularly here in North Queensland where I know it has meant so much to so many people.

I want to speak about national resilience today, and I'm speaking at a Chamber of Commerce event because as you've said, Michael, prosperity, the economy in Northern Australia is so dependent on our national resilience to disasters. And so I think it is a very relevant economic topic here in the north, and one foundational I think to life here in the north, and that is why I have chosen to be here in northern Australia to make these announcements today.

Resilience always starts with people, with people, families, individuals, communities. In March Jenny and I were visiting the stricken areas of Western Sydney that had been hit by the floods. Joe and I had been up in the chopper not that long before and surveyed, once again those floodwaters as it wrecked havoc across our country.

The scale of that disaster was immense and that day Jenny and I met an amazing family, the Magnisalis family. Nick, 83 and 70 year old Irene. They had built their dream home more than 40 years ago, raised their family there. As they gathered together on that afternoon, it was a Sunday afternoon, they were there with their family. I think they were having Kentucky Fried Chicken, they told me. And then the waters came in and then within hours, a few short hours, their home was underwater and they lost everything.

But the way their whole family gathered together following that event, working day and night on the clean up, demonstrated they had built something far more significant than the bricks and mortar of the home, the gardens that were there, in their wonderful place that they had built together. They had built an amazing family, something that floodwaters couldn't take away. And I remember saying that to Nick as we stood there together looking at the devastation of his property, and then looking at his family, and said, mate, that's not something floods can take away. But what you have built in your family and the resilience of your family.

I've seen this time and again and so often here in North Queensland when Australians are challenged we see the best in them. It was on full display when the raging floodwaters swallowed North Queensland several years ago. On that occasion I visited Robert and Jacqueline Curley at their property Gipsy Plains outside of Cloncurry in the wake of those devastating February 2019 floods, which took away 2,500 of their cattle in 48 hours. Another 1,500 calves died from frost or exposure. I will never forget the smell of those carcasses. I could smell them from the chopper on the way in. I keep the mask that I was given by the Defence Force on that day [inaudible]. I keep it in my office. I told Jac when I saw them at Beef Week yesterday. I said, I still haven't washed it, Jacqui, because it reminds me. She goes, you probably, you probably want to give it a wash, after two years. But it reminds me and it's important for us to be reminded.

And after the election in May of 2019 I came back, and I visited the Curley's again. And while there is still a massive rebuilding and restocking job ahead of them that will indeed take an entire generation to fully restore and they understand that, it took them a generation to build it, to come back and see their fighting spirit, truly extraordinary. And as I said I saw Jacqui yesterday in Rocky at Beef Week, and there she was smiling with her friends, talking about what they were doing to rebuild.

I was also here in Townsville with Phil as the North Queensland floods hit here in Townsville. Monsoonal rain, flooding rivers sweeping away homes, herds, lives. In addition to the Curleys I met many other families as they were returning to devastated properties. I met the men and women of the RAAF and the Army - the 3rd, 6th, 17th Brigade and the 1st Division who were helping evacuate people and move sandbags, even when their own homes were under water. The Cowboys were out too, North Queensland Cowboys, they were out there. They were out there supporting their community, such an amazing community club.

It was extraordinary. It was humbling, and it always is when you come face to face with the combination of grief and courage and compassion, that blends together in the wake and during a disaster.

Days later, I was at the other end of our country with then Premier Will Hodgman. While Townsville was under water, Tasmania was on fire. Bushfires roared through the Huon, and through more than 210,000 hectares in total, much of it in World Wilderness Heritage Areas. And hard as it was, Australians had experienced regular bushfires before, and we're no stranger to those extremes.

But then the Black Summer hit, shook our country to its core. Thirty four lives claimed, destroyed over 3,000 homes, burned more than 30 million hectares and killed or displaced nearly three billion animals. It scarred our land, it disfigured our skies and sent a pall of smoke across the country that lingered for months on end.

Former AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin was called back into Australia's service to head up the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, and I thank Andrew and all of his team for the tremendous job they have done. Shane Stone and his team continued to lead the National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency, particularly here in North Queensland, and the work that was being done here by drought-affected communities all across the country, and I again thank you Shane for the leadership of you and your agency.

David Littleproud, the Minister for Emergency Management, also did a herculean job, ensuring there were no gaps in our response. Disaster payments, small business injections, grants and loans, support for primary producers, tourism support, mental health support, back-to-school assistance, rural financial counsellors, local government infrastructure investment, support for local charities and community groups, roads cleared, properties cleared.

That continues today in Kalbarri, in the west of our country, and North Hampton and surrounding districts, after Cyclone Seroja tore through communities in Western Australia's midwest. I was there recently with Melissa Price. Roofs peeled back like sardine cans, a holiday town known to so many in Perth and across Western Australia.

Kalbarri Boat Hire owner Kat Deadman and her nine-year-old son Lachy came up to me while I was at one of the food support centres. Kat's business was totally smashed, she'd lost two-thirds of the boats. But her resolve had not been lost and her determination was very much there, as it was in her young son Lachy. The resolve of that little community to want to restore, that's going on now, and they will make it better, so accurately and admirably summing up the grit and spirit in the heart of every Australian when confronted by these crises. Resilience and resourcefulness.

Our capacity to pull together is quite unique. It's a truth about Australia, we draw that strength from each other, we draw it from the communities we create, individuals, each and every one of us. We draw it from the communities we create and the communities we sustain together. That's our strength. But we've got to go further.

Longer, hotter, drier summers, more extreme in our weather, we know this isn't going away. Addressing our collective resilience to natural disasters is a core component of our Government's response to climate change. The severity of these disasters, and in particular the Black Summer bushfires, was the reason I called the Royal Commission with clear terms of reference and called on Mark Binskin, former head of our Defence Forces, to be able to investigate.

We had to ask ourselves if the right institutional support was available? Could we be better prepared? Could our response and recovery be better coordinated? Mark Binskin has given his report of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, and I thank him and all of his team for their work, and it is his report now that leads us to the announcements and the actions that we will now take as a Government.

For most natural disasters, primary responsibility for response and recovery does sit comfortably and ably within the capability and responsibility of states and territories, and they do a tremendous job. This model works very well most of the time, and I commend those state and territory and local government counterparts for working together to help communities in those circumstances. And of course the Commonwealth has also always stood ready to assist with recovery funding. But for those extreme fires, floods and storms, or the events that clearly cross borders and jurisdictions, the Commonwealth does step up and we do play a more prominent role in how recovery is delivered and how risks are mitigated.

And I've got to say that is particularly the case in supporting our agricultural communities. I remember standing in the dairy shed along the Manning River on the mid-north New South Wales coast in those recent floods. This is, this went beyond their ability to mitigate what came on that day, and so much of our effort, as Shane's agency and Andrew's agency has shown, has not just been restoring the towns but ensuring that we restore the income producing capacity of our regions and our agricultural communities.

The Royal Commission noted no single government or organisation controls all the levers when it comes to disasters. We'd like to think that was different, and I think sometimes in the community there's an expectation that as a Prime Minister or a Premier, you can wave a wand and all of these things can come to bear quite specifically. No, our federation means we work together on these tasks. And so national coordination and leadership is crucial.

And so, taking this forward today, I am very pleased to announce that we are establishing the National Recovery and Resilience Agency. The Agency will be led by the Hon. Shane Stone and will have locally based staff in communities all around the country. The new agency will oversee a $600 million Preparing Australia Program, which will be in next week's Budget. The new program will enable the Commonwealth to directly fund projects that mitigate or reduce risk, that minimise the impact of large scale natural disasters like floods, bushfires and cyclones.

These programs will both support the locally identified and locally led risk reduction projects and help address risks outside communities' control. It will be informed by the Australian Climate Service, given the underlying impact of climate change as a driver of disaster risk. The new Australian Climate Service will draw on the expertise of our best and brightest minds from the Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia, the CSIRO and the Australian Bureau of Statistics to help the Government to better anticipate, manage and adapt to the risks that a changing climate will bring.

It will help us better prepare for natural disasters well before they occur, by not just looking days ahead but years and decades ahead, and that is critical. When a cyclone is bearing down, communities and businesses here in the north will better know where the strongest winds and worst flooding will be, what roads will be cut and for how long, and who in the community will be most affected. We will better know in advance what the impacts might be on food supplies, water, sewerage, fuel, electricity. It will help us prepare alternative routes and transport methods and backup logistics that can get our community back up and going again much faster.

The National Recovery and Resilience Agency, Emergency Management Australia and the Australian Climate Service will work together to support national decision making in a crisis and beyond. It will help us better target our spending under the Preparing Australia Program. It will also build on the existing five-year $130 million Disaster Risk Reduction Funding Package and the $50 million per annum available from the Emergency Response Fund for risk reduction, preparedness and resilience.

The program will comprise two elements, Preparing Australian Communities and Preparing Australian Homes. The community initiatives will be locally identified and locally risk led, and will help address risks outside communities' control. In the Home Program we will work with the insurance sector to identify priority activities and projects that will support beneficial reductions in insurance premiums.

The Agency will coordinate and align Australia's national capability to build on Australia's natural resilience, and better prepare for natural disasters and recover from all hazards. This will be locally led, it will be locally understood, it will be locally implemented.

The Agency will play a critical role in the recovery phase for severely impacted communities while working to design and revise policies and programs that will limit the impact of future disasters. It will bring together expertise in disaster recovery, working with affected communities and all levels of government, industry and not-for-profit organisations. The Agency will continue working with people and businesses and communities affected by the 2019 North Queensland Monsoon Trough, the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, and the drought. Those programs aren't changing, they're going ahead under the coordination and direction of the new Agency.

It will also start the important work of supporting the long-term recovery of communities in NSW and Queensland hit by the March storms and floods. And from 1 July, the Agency will incorporate the disaster risk reduction and recovery functions from the Department of Home Affairs, and its regional network will expand to include Rural Financial Counsellors.

The important role of Emergency Management Australia will continue under Joe's leadership to guide how the Commonwealth responds initially to disasters. So we're going to beef up EMA to ensure it has near real time situational awareness of events as they unfold, and give it better tools so we can improve how we manage and respond to national scale disasters. And EMA will work hand in glove with the Agency, as EMA already does with the predecessor agencies.

After the floods hit here in North Queensland I turned to Shane, who I've known for many years, and I asked him to come and help, and he didn't, he didn't tarry. He was there straightaway. And so as now again that I'm turning to Shane to lead this Agency, to further coordinate our response.

In his evidence to the Royal Commission, Shane said there were three things that we needed to do. First, the nation must have a mandated single Agency to oversee recovery and resilience. Tick. Second, we must be consistent in the way we respond and operate regardless of which government agency is involved. Through this Agency, tick. And third, the approach to recovery must be locally led, locally understood and locally implemented. That is their mandate. Tick. The Agency delivers on all these objectives and so I can think of no one better to take on the role than the person who suggested we go in exactly this path.

The most defining aspect of the way the North Queensland Flood Response and Drought Recovery Agency has operated is I've been, I think fundamentally to bring hope, and to deliver it in a timely and effective way. Cut through log jams of congestion around designing grants and loans, as indeed Andrew Colvin's agency has also, the form filling, monies paid, clearing the way on this. They do not claim to have a mortgage on all the answers and what works, but with their level of cooperation and partnership with local government and agencies here in Queensland like QRA and QRIDA, who I think did a, have done a fantastic job. All of this, working together to find those solutions has been, most significantly, applauded by those who have survived these disasters. The Bushfire Recovery Agency led by Andrew took a very similar approach.

The new single agency will bring together those experience across so many different disasters. We know it takes years, many years, for people to recover from these disasters, long after the coverage has passed, long after the evacuation centres have closed, long after the support officers are there and the cash payments have been made in the middle of the crisis. It takes years. The trauma, the dysfunction and disadvantage manifests itself in so many ways, as Shane has shared with me and his officers, foremost mental health issues, poor school results extending over years, underemployment, domestic violence, marriage breakdown, business collapse, the demise of rural and regional communities. That's what disasters do and the impact is not just immediate. In fact, the longer term impact can be far more devastating and often far more deadly.

People who have been hit by a disaster or two and are struggling under the heavy weight of prolonged drought, they want to talk to a real person, they want a beating heart on the other side of the table to talk to, someone who understands what they're going through. And that will be the heart of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency. It will have boots on the ground, and I'd add to that Shane, hearts at the table, through a national network of Recovery Support Officers who come from and live in and work in the communities they are part of helping and restoring.

These Support Officers will make sure people get the information they need and direct them to the help and support that is right there for their situation, connecting them to the support. Our experience has shown that having someone to talk to that understands the issues at a local level and what can be done to address them makes all the difference.

A key task of the Agency will also be to continue to provide advice back to me. Shane has my number and he knows how to use it, I can assure you. And not just to me though, to Minister Littleproud, the Cabinet and all their offices, and the feedback we get directly from the ground. This is what will help us prepare as well for future disasters.

The challenge of rebuilding and recovery, the importance of investing in resilience, that also is a massive task of this Agency. Shane was reminding me last night the Insurance Council of Australia says, as a nation we spend some 97 per cent on the clean up and 3 per cent on mitigation. Think about that. That's not a good equation. That doesn't add up. That has to change. And what we're announcing here today is about changing that equation here in this country. Of course we know living in this country we can never flood, cyclone, drought, fireproof our nation completely, but we can be better prepared and we've all got a responsibility.

Many are not prepared. In NSW, 13 per cent of households had no home insurance. In Victoria, it's eight per cent. In QLD, particularly here in the tropics, the situation is worse and a consequence of high cost of premiums, and so I thank you Michael for your recognition. I want to particularly commend Phil Thompson and Warren Entsch and others who have worked so hard on this. This is an important package, the Northern Australia Insurance Package. The package places a $10 billion guarantee on the reinsurance pool here in the north. Not just here in North Queensland but right across the north, the Top End, Northern Territory, up there in Kununurra, all across northern Western Australia and through the Kimberleys.

This package is important for resilience. It enables businesses and families to live successfully, vibrantly, in the north of our country. It includes the establishment of the reinsurance pool, but also we've committed $40 million for the North Queensland Strata Title Resilience Pilot Program. And these measures represent significant Commonwealth action.

Local communities also must seize their responsibilities in these areas and understand the risk. State governments, also local governments. Nothing should be off the table. Betterment is the order of the day.

Engineering strategies and drainage should be front and centre in flood zones. Levee banks, water diversion, dam redesign, as controversial as they might be that warrants a frank and informed conversation. Enforcement of fire reduction strategies must not be negotiable. Reducing the fuel load is not negotiable. Consistent town planning around flood prone areas is long overdue. Cyclone management including storm surges and saltwater intrusion in wetlands demands a consistent and coherent response across state and territory borders. Cyclone shelters in remoter parts of Australia and adequate cyclone proofing building standards should be the order of the day. It's a pretty long list and we're all involved in doing it.

We have a generational opportunity I believe to address the many challenges we as Australians face. I've gone into too many communities and seen the devastation as Prime Minister. People often say to me, it's been quite a run for you as Prime Minister. It's not about me. But whether it's from standing in the floodwaters at Gipsy Plains at Cloncurry, or most recently in the ripped off roofs of homes in Kalbarri, we've seen it too many times and I fear, of course, we will see it again. But we have an opportunity to prepare ourselves better and put in place stronger defences to deal with what's coming and to ensure that, in particular, that we learn from what has particularly occurred over these, these generations, and particularly in most recent times. That's what we owe to those who have suffered so much and lost so much, whether it's through floods or cyclones or droughts, bushfires, COVID. We owe it to all of those who have lost so much that we learn from those terrible sufferings and that we ensure that we seek to mitigate it as much as we possibly can in the future.

Australia has proven in the last year who we are, once again. I firmly believe that Australians have stood up in the past year and a half and, and longer. We have not so much rediscovered our great resilience and strength, we've just proved it again, and the world has watched it. They have seen it and I think they look on at Australia and the way that we deal, dealt with all of these challenges and they can do nothing but admire our national character, as indeed we admire the characters of other nations that have dealt with such significant calamities.

We've shown as a country we can do it, we will do it, because we know we must do it. We can't stop a cyclone, we can't stop a flood or any natural disaster, but we can learn, we can invest, we can prepare, so that when that disaster strikes, we are as ready as we can be. Thank you very much for your attention.