Senator BOSWELL (Queensland) (4:08 PM) —I rise to support all my colleagues on all sides of the house on this motion before the chamber. The floods and Cyclone Yasi have proven—if proof were needed—that our greatest resource is the innate instinct that Australians have to help each other out and to step up to the mark. There were not just one or two heroes around in the days after the floods and the cyclone. There were not just hundreds or even thousands. There were tens of thousands of anonymous Australians being local heroes.
The images of the queues of volunteers with their mops and gloves should be in our minds as we legislators act to make the recovery mobilisation the best, the smartest and the swiftest we can. The parliament has been shown the way by legions of examples of selflessness—many of which have been documented in the media. The media also deserves high praise for the commitment, leadership and courage with which they brought us the stories of these floods and Cyclone Yasi. The faces of key reporters and newsreaders will be etched into our memories of this time, and the networks, producers, editors, photographers, reporters, chopper pilots and all those behind the scenes who handled the logistics to bring us these stories should be congratulated and thanked.
But we do not need to look to anyone famous or powerful for a lead on how to act. We need only to look at the mud army who turned out in Brisbane and Ipswich to help their fellow Australians. We need only to look at the Indigenous boys at the Abergowrie school in Far North Queensland who were isolated for days without power and water. The Bremer River at Ipswich has been gouged by giants who took the silt away with them high above the train tracks, which are themselves flooded. Now commuters look down at the furniture items still caught in the trees and on the slopes way above the river.
It is nearly four weeks since the flood peaked. There were the dramatic and concerning images of frenzied activity in the cleanup that followed. There were piles of flood-damaged property and trucks everywhere. But now if you go back and look up these same streets there is silence and abandonment. Streets are paved with white gyprock dust as the inside drywalls have been gutted and taken out of the houses. There is still the occasional hazard tape in yellow or the danger tape in red and white stripes. The power poles are ringed with another red tape, signifying work that had to be done. The front yards have been torn to shreds by the vehicles that have lifted up the damaged property and taken it away, leaving white dust and the occasional fluffy pink batt behind. Gloves disappeared from supermarket shelves at the time and some are still to be seen on fences—who knows where the owners of the hands that were in them are now.
There are streets that lie empty and where houses have only exterior walls but nothing inside—just skeletons. Some have water tanks installed by water-saving residents that are now full of mud and some have dirty solar panels that will never see eye-to-eye with the sun again. In these deserted streets it is odd to see that wrecked letterboxes, all askew and some roofless, are still receiving mail—but there is no-one at home. It is like walking through a crime scene on a massive scale. That is especially so on a brand new estate promising affordable riverside living where some speccy houses have been built and not even lived in yet. There is nothing affordable about living there anymore.
There are signs up in these suburbs that have no place in normal suburban life as we know it: ‘Tetanus immunisation’, ‘Mobile laundry—free washing and drying’, ‘Mobile chaplaincy’ and ‘Asbestos removal’. There are a couple of thank-you signs that are now fading. A t-shirt with ‘bugger’ written on it hangs on a fence. An older sign at Fail Park says, ‘Beware of the magpies’—what a safe world that sign belonged to. The only colours amid the drab grey and dusty houses and yards come from the Australian flags that hang defiantly on so many flood-destroyed properties.
The residents have faith that Australia will see them through and that their personal disaster will be recognised and put right because they are Australians. Where are these valiant flag-waving people now? Are they with relatives, friends or work colleagues in caravan parks? It is our duty as legislators to see that they do not remain hidden and that their show of faith and flying of the flag is returned in full measure.
First on the recovery scene is local government and then the state government, with some federal funds being triggered for massive rebuilding and recovery. For there to be meaning in such widespread suffering—and remember that three-quarters of Queensland is a disaster zone—we must design better preparation, assistance, recovery and prevention strategies. To safeguard future lives and property we must vigorously examine and learn from these disasters, just as we did in many ways from the 1974 floods. There will be much to learn from Cyclone Yasi in terms of building codes and the management of utilities, assets and services. Decision makers who preside over development approvals in flood prone areas must be held to account as much as those who may have mishandled water assets.
The generosity of Australians was very evident in the wake of the flooding and Cyclone Yasi. The courage and resourcefulness of emergency services and law enforcement and ADF personnel made a mammoth difference to the recovery effort. All these Australians have shown us the way. It is time to roll up the sleeves if parliaments are to deserve the people they are meant to serve. Legislators should cling like gyprock dust to these people and make sure they are looked after.
Questions remain as to why banks would lend money on uninsurable houses. All these institutions legitimised and profited from others living in flood prone areas. It truly is a crime scene when a brand new estate is heavily inundated, as occurred at Ipswich. Residents in the south-east were told to have confidence in the Wivenhoe Dam holding back extreme flooding. They built and lived on the strength of that confidence. They made lives and families with that confidence. They personalised their homes and landscaped their gardens not knowing, because no-one ever told them or warned them or made laws to stop them, that it was all a dream that would one day end in a terrible nightmare, taking everything they owned.
The costs are still not in yet. We have only really begun to comprehend the rebuilding and recovery required. It is not just about building a new house over an old site. It is about what job the owner of the house will have if there are no bananas to pick or there is no sugar to mill. It is about how the resident will get to work safely since the roads are so cut up. It is about how the kids will get educated if their schools are badly damaged. It is about how to keep on the teachers, the workers, the doctors and the small business owners so they will underwrite the small towns where so much has been destroyed and there is no money. Queensland will take years to recover. It is not just bricks and mortar; it is multidimensional. Our job is to help make that recovery so good that affected areas will be even better than before.
The government have tried to make much of a levy that will play only a small role in the big task ahead. They are also paying a lot of attention to a carbon tax and a mining tax. These are the two major threats on the horizon for Queensland’s recovery because we are a powerhouse state in mining and agriculture. For that we need infrastructure investment, not taxes and disincentives to invest. We have to get our goods to market without extra costs or we lose our competitiveness, whether it is coal or cabbages.
If the government was serious about getting Queensland back into shape, it would announce an immediate moratorium on any carbon price or mining tax. Queensland, unlike other states, is a decentralised state with a matrix of small communities. The whole state works because of localised private industry. Whether it is mining, agriculture or tourism, roads, dams, rail and port infrastructure link them all together and enable the product to reach its market. Without private industry and sufficient infrastructure these communities cannot exist. New taxes and a disaster zone simply do not mix.
The Queensland Treasurer confirmed that Queensland’s economic recovery has been swamped by the floods, wiping nearly two percentage points from previously expected growth, and that was before Cyclone Yasi. He said:
Our economy will take a hit, wiping almost 2 percentage points off forecast growth …
The biggest hits will come in mining and agriculture, with tourism also facing losses.
Mr Fraser also said royalty income would be hit hardest this year:
Royalties will take a bath - lost production and a rampant Aussie dollar have delivered a $286 million write down this year …
The Queensland Treasurer should make his federal Labor colleagues stop the carbon and mining taxes now and give Queensland a break from disasters.
With regard to the damage done by Cyclone Yasi, banana and cane growers have called for federal and state governments to boost financial assistance to help them recover. They need to increase the size of the low-interest loans, which are now $250,000, or freeze the interest rate at four per cent for six to 12 months to help growers get back on their feet. Banana growers who took out $250,000 to $500,000 disaster relief loans after Cyclone Larry have to worry about servicing them, let alone qualifying for further assistance after Yasi. Other rural leaders are saying that only straight-out grants will help the situation.
The final damage bill to the sugar industry is likely to exceed the $500 million preliminary estimate. The total damage bill for primary producers from the cyclone will top $1 billion. Then there are all the small businesses in the affected towns. They must be looked after as well. They service and rely on viable farms and a critical mass of population. The flood repair bill for Queensland local councils had already reached $2.2 billion before Cyclone Yasi. Their biggest challenge will be accessing equipment and supplies like gravel, lime, concrete and bitumen spray. They will be competing for supplies with main roads and the private sector, particularly the mining communities. The Queensland Treasurer said the Cyclone Yasi damage bill to mining alone could go over $500 million.
I visited Emerald just after the inundation that displaced thousands and wrecked many farming properties. The Central Highlands Regional Council was declared a disaster area for the third time in one year. Eighty per cent of their roads have some form of damage—and they have 5,000 kilometres of roads. The Central Highlands latest repair bill is likely to top $70 million—more than half the council’s annual budget. I met with the Burnett family. They have lost a $2 million cotton crop and suffered the loss of infrastructure that is worth between $2 million and $3 million. Most growers will have to try to deal with forward contracts of sale for a crop that no longer exists.
I also went to Bundaberg and met with the river front business owners. They stand to lose millions of dollars in personal investment in businesses that they have built up over many years with employees and suppliers, such as commercial fishermen. All of them will be affected. Lorraine and Russell Hausler of Bundaberg Slipways said that it will cost $800,000 for them to rebuild. Ray Foley of Midtown Marinas said that he suffered a $3 million infrastructure loss. Seth Parker, a fish processor, of ASP Holdings has lost $800,000. Somehow, low-interest loans of up to $250,000 are not going to plug the enormous gap. This is the economic environment that the federal Labor government wants to poison further with carbon and mining taxes.
The parliament has a solemn duty to communities who have lost their livelihoods to not repay them with taxes that will prevent them from recovering. There has to be some intelligent, courageous and far-seeing policy action in the insurance area—as well as in the flood mitigation area. Many homeowners believed that they had comprehensive insurance but then they found that it did not cover flooding. This situation must be addressed and, at the very least, policyholders must be clearly informed as to whether or not their policy includes flood insurance. I have flagged the issue of a national insurance pool so that everyone is covered in extreme events. A national disaster fund has also been mentioned as a solution.
There is one crucial aspect that cannot be delayed, and that is the management of waters from the Wivenhoe Dam. There have been too many questions raised about the timing and scale of water release during the flooding. The blacking out of key parts of reports is a sign that the Queensland government is trying to protect itself rather than the rest of Queensland. Yesterday, the Australian reported that the blacked-out pages in the Queensland flood mitigation manual for the Wivenhoe and Somerset dams contain nearly all the key strategies for the Wivenhoe Dam, such as gate settings and water release levels for the days before and during the deluge. The blacked-out table, as reported in the Australian, says:
... Wivenhoe Dam needs to be kept at a level below 75.5m, the level at which the emergency spillway is triggered.
The proposed action is to “retain water in Somerset Dam” and bring the gate open sequence forward to increase discharge from the dam. Somerset, which was finished in 1959 and holds back the Stanley River, was identified in an unrelated 2007 state government report as having cracking and stability issues associated with its main wall.
On January 11 and 12, Wivenhoe rose to at least 74.7m, 80cm below the fuse plug or the emergency spillway—a scenario that would have seen an uncontrolled release of thousands of megalitres of water in order to ensure the safety of the dam wall.
Should one of the fuse plugs be triggered, the dam should be drained as fast as possible ...
This raises two alarming new dimensions: firstly, that Somerset Dam requires some investigation; and, secondly and most alarming, that we came close to the disaster of all disasters, with Wivenhoe on the cusp of being drained in the middle of already devastating floods. These issues must be urgently and openly examined now and not left to a commission of inquiry to report in 12 or 18 months time. We are in the middle of the cyclone season and another disaster could happen. People are worried. People who lease buildings and those who lease from them are worried; they want to know what action is required here in order for them to be confident that the dam release was handled properly. This has to happen urgently: it has to happen in the next two or three weeks. Leaving this as an unanswered question is causing everyone a great deal of concern.