Interview with Annie Gaffney, ABC Southern Queensland Drive

5 May 2021

ANNIE GAFFNEY: I'm going to pause for now at 4.39 because we do have the Minister for Agriculture and Drought and Emergency Management with us this afternoon. David Littleproud is our guest. So I don't want to hold him up. Minister, thanks for having a chat with me this afternoon. Appreciate your time.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, thanks for having me.

ANNIE GAFFNEY: We've just been having a really interesting discussion, by the way, on a proposed paper at this stage, but just all about, you know, how we should fund a road system into the future if we're all driving electric cars and not pulling up at the bowser anymore, just basically scrapping it all the excises and registrations across all states and territories and just having a pay per kilometre system with maybe a differential tax rate depending on where you live if you're in a rural and regional area and driving lots of kilometres, like people in your electorate would. What do you reckon about that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, I think that's something we're going to have to tackle. Technology continues to evolve, whether that be motor cars or anything else. And our tax system is going to have to evolve with it. We have to have the money to pay for the infrastructure people expect, and that means that governments are going to have to evolve with society, with technology. And so, we expect the best infrastructure here in the country and we have to work out an equitable model on how that gets paid for.

ANNIE GAFFNEY: Now, I asked actually onto the program not to talk so much about a road system and how we pay for that, but about an announcement that the Government has made in the last 24 hours, and that was about the establishment of this new agency. It's called the National Recovery and Resilience Agency. And the Government's funded that to the tune of half a billion dollars. This was one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Natural, National Natural Disaster Arrangements, and one of these was that the government go ahead and establish this agency. So you're doing that. Tell us about the primary purpose of the agency, Minister.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Well, look, we were asked to start this out of the Royal Commission as you said, and we're not meant to start till 1 July, but we've been able to get it up and stand it up today. And effectively what we're doing is bringing together the Bushfire Recovery Agency that came from the black summer events of last year, along with the North West Queensland Floods and Drought Agency and we're bringing it to one natural disaster agency. That will be able to support, administer the programs that the Federal Government come comes up with but also support people on the ground. So they'll be boots on the ground right across the country. They'll be able to coordinate, not just Federal programs, but also state programs to make sure people don't feel left behind. And to kick that off, we've actually put out $600 million in mitigation works and programs that will be starting up. $200 million of that will go to households. So up to $30,000 for households to do renovations, to be able to get their houses up to cyclone proof or bushfire proof, and then $400 million dollars in mitigation works for public infrastructure, whether that be for flooding or telecommunication. We're asking the states to match us so the dollars will go further. Because we think that- well we understand that natural disasters currently cost the economy around $18 billion to $19 billion a year. That will go up to about $39 billion by 2050. So the dollars that we spend today will actually reduce that burden into the future, and this is just making sure that we get ahead of it and listening to the Royal Commission. In fact, we've now completed eight of the 14 Federal Royal Commission recommendations, and the last ones are being work on. Most will be done before 1 July. And there'll be two that'll take a little bit longer because of technology and working with the states, but we didn't want this report to sit on the desk like the other 240 since 1920 into natural disasters. We needed to leave a legacy to those men and women that tragically lost their lives and make sure that we just got on with the job of those recommendations and delivered them.

ANNIE GAFFNEY: When you're talking about future proofing people's properties because of cyclones, or the potential of floods or other natural disasters, fires or whatever, how will people be able to prove the need to do that where they live? If they- you know, is it about having been through one of these events already or is it specific to a geographical location? How is that determined?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, that's a great question and it goes to all of the above. And in fact, part of the other agency that we've created today goes around climate science, but bringing the climate science together with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, so that we in the future we'll be able to identify the cyclones coming across the coast. The Australian Government will be able to identify the number of houses that were built before 1983 and the number of occupants in it so that we can tell the states exactly what the risk profile will be. So a lot of that data is already there. And so, we'll identify those homes that can have the mitigation works done. And in fact, the state government and the Federal Government already have a program in place where we both committed $10 million to, that we're already rolling out in cyclone areas in northern Australia and northern Queensland. So we'll continue- this is just an extension of that. And so, this is about bringing all that data together, making sure that the people who need it. And again, on the bushfires, we know where the bushfire scar areas. We know where the bush risks are. It's collating that data, making sure the taxpayer gets value for money, because ultimately, the taxpayer becomes the insurer of last resort in a lot of these disasters, and what we want to do is make sure that burden is reduced every step of the way.

ANNIE GAFFNEY: Now, one natural disaster can quickly rack up billions of dollars in damages, which does make half a billion dollars look like a drop in the ocean when it comes to trying to help affected communities recover, or even prepare perhaps. How effective can this new agency, really be?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well it already has been. I mean, we saw in the northwest Queensland floods, where we were able to act quickly and put people in the ground, get grants out, restocking, replanting ground. So I sat in cattle yards on a 68-year-old man's property, a producer who had lost everything, and he basically said to me, had we not acted and had we not got people on the ground, he wouldn't be here today. And he was in tears, a hardened man that had seen so much. This isn't about governments or dollars. This is actually about people. And when you see the trauma that these people go through, this is actually about trying to help them, but also prevent it. So it's a measure of helping them on the ground when it happens, but also trying to prevent it from happening in terms of building better infrastructure, with respect to impacts. So that's why we're putting our money where our mouth is, with not just the agency but also the infrastructure payments that we want to put out there to build that infrastructure to keep people safe.
 
ANNIE GAFFNEY: Now, this agency is also going to manage the $2 billion-dollar Bushfire Recovery Agency's fund and the National Drought in North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency, that'll all go under this one sort of agency grouping if you like. But when it comes to the Bushfire Recovery Agency, the Government copped some criticism about how much of that money at the beginning of this year, still hadn't actually been handed out to fire ravaged communities, with many people still living in tents and caravans in those places. What guarantees are there Minister that this money you've allocated, half a billion, or anything that accumulates in this fund, will be handed out smoothly and effectively to the communities that really need it quickly?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well let me tell you about the bushfire. There's- last $280 million dollars in under spends. Of the $2 billion, we announced last week will go into the last of infrastructure spends for community projects that diversify their economic base. We spent the Australian taxpayers' $2 billion. And basically of the drought, we've also committed $11 billion of Australian taxpayers' money to support them as well. So with respect to any criticism, let me tell you, you can go on to the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and see quite clearly that the $2 billion has basically nearly been spent. We were only meant to spend 500 million of that by the end of this year- last year, I should say. We've done 1.5 billion and the last amounts are now being spent out. We will spend the $2 billion. In fact, we've spent more of the Australian taxpayers' money in supporting those people. So any allegations or assertion that money hasn't gone out is wrong, even when it comes to housing, the state governments have a responsibility around that, not the Federal Government. And we don't play in that lane and nor should we because that's not an effective use of the Australian taxpayers' money. So those people in New South Wales who still have issues, we are working with them to get the New South Wales Government to support them. And obviously, we expect every tier of government to live up to their responsibilities and use Australian taxpayers' money wisely.
 
ANNIE GAFFNEY: Now I guess I'm- what I'm making the point is, whilst you're acknowledging the recommendation, the royal commission, and implementing that key recommendation to form this agency, you've got a dam in your area, the Emu Swamp Dam I think? That is really aiming to sure up water security in your electorate, and replace the King Storm Dam. How much is that going to cost for instance? Because this is one of the things I guess that the Federal Government is doing through this agency. I should imagine to address drought, for instance, which is, you know, this is in effect water shortages of an ongoing drought in southern Queensland. So I mean, you look at the cost of doing something like that, how much would that cost?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, can I say it's in addition, that is a separate bucket of money. We as a Federal Government have put $3.5 billion of cash out there for state governments to build dams. One of those is Emu Swamp. The Australian taxpayers', through our money, is putting $47 million up, the producers there have put $23 million up and the State Government have put $13 million. And it doesn't replace Storm King, it's actually in addition to Storm King Dam.

ANNIE GAFFNEY: Okay.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Which is the exciting thing. So we are- we have said to the states, it is illegal for the Federal Government to pick a shovel up and dig a hole to build a dam across the country. Our constitution says the states are the ones responsible. But we've said to the states, that's okay, you turn the key on the excavator and we'll pay the bill. So that's why we put $3.5 billion. There's been 20 dams built in this country since 2003 and 16 of those have been in Tasmania. So we're trying to incentivise the eastern seaboard states to have a crack and to take our money and start digging dams, particularly like Emu Swamp. But also up in North Queensland where there's serious flooding from the monsoons, where there's opportunity to harvest that responsibly, environmentally responsibly and then use that water for agriculture.
 
ANNIE GAFFNEY: While acknowledging, you know, the work that this agency intends to do, as climate change ramps up we're told that we're going to have more frequent and more intense natural disasters. What's the plan then to keep pace with that prediction when it comes to the money available in this fund?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, again, there's additional money. We put $88 million to make sure there's additional money for research, to understand what the challenges will be. And can I tell you that every year about this time, all our state emergency service commissioners and bodies come together and plan for our disaster season, which starts around August, September every year. And I've got to say that all of them from every state and territory do an outstanding job. So our job is to give them the tools to plan to make sure they have the resources. We're not the professionals, they are and our job is just to provide them with the information to help us prepare. And you've got to say what our guys did across the country have been able to not only meet the demands of natural disasters this year but also do that through a COVID lens, and getting people across the country into areas like the New South Wales floods. We had Queenslanders down there and I was proud to be down in Northern New South Wales where Queensland Emergency Services were there supporting their New South Wales brothers and sisters. So that's why we work together. And I've got to say, we've got to be damn proud of our emergency service professionals. They're the best in the world and all my job is to give them the tools to do that with science, but also the equipment. And that's what both Federal and State Governments are prepared to do.

ANNIE GAFFNEY: Minister, really thank you for joining us this afternoon on ABC Southern Drive.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me. Thanks for the interest.