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Establishing the Disaster Ready Fund

Earlier this year I visited Lismore. I saw the devastation with my own eyes and heard stories of horror and survival from the local community. One young woman told me how the floodwaters trapped her, her mother and her two dogs inside their own home. The water rose to within inches of the ceiling. As the hours passed, she thought she would die. This is just one story, and there are thousands more which are never told.

During the most recent Lismore floods, waters reached 14.4 metres. The worst previous flood reached 12.3 metres in 1954. These disasters used to occur decades or even centuries apart. However, it is now clear that climate change is causing climate breakdown, and Australia is at the front line of these impacts, experiencing more devastating fires, floods and storms more often.

Just in the last couple of days and weeks, communities in five states were under flood warnings. Communities in Victoria and along the Murray River are reeling as we speak, while, sadly, authorities have reported a woman has died in the floodwaters in western New South Wales. The ongoing clean-up has been amongst the most expensive in Australian history, and people are still living in tents and makeshift accommodation following the floods and the Black Summer bushfires a few years ago. In the May budget, it was estimated that $6 billion would be spent on relief and recovery following the Queensland and New South Wales floods. As we heard in the budget speech last night, the latest floods have caused a downgrade of 0.25 per cent in GDP growth this quarter.

The McKell Institute estimates that extreme weather in the previous 12 months cost every Australian household, on average, $1,500. This is estimated to grow to $2,500 by 2050. The government has put aside $5 billion for this coming summer, with authorities warning that flooding is likely to continue for months. There were many lessons learnt from the Lismore floods. These include the need to provide up-to-date weather warnings for communities, the need to deliver evacuation orders faster and the need to dispatch emergency services faster. It also showed the desperate need to redesign and adapt our infrastructure for a warming world.

I'd like to thank those at Resilience Lismore for explaining to me the web of complexity they faced in accessing government funding and support services. Overwhelmingly, one thing was clear: community groups who have recovered from these natural disasters need to be consulted and funded to actively participate in developing a blueprint for recovery of the communities. Those local community organisations should also be funded now, before the next disaster. We need to build resilience to enable preparation for effective, community-led response to future events.

However, what has become clear is Australia has not put aside adequate funding to help communities adapt to these climate change fuelled natural disasters. In 2019, the then coalition government legislated the Emergency Response Fund Act. The ERF was set up with seed funding of $4 billion. It was designed to release $150 million annually to disaster recovery and resilience, except that, by the time the flooding events occurred on the east coast last year, the ERF had only dispersed $50 million, and this was despite having generated $800 million in interest.

Is it any wonder communities were not prepared?

Despite this fund, the then Minister for Home Affairs set up a GoFundMe page for flood affected Queensland communities and suggested that people crowdsource for their own protection. At the time, the former government said it had spent $17 billion on disaster response. But they did not tell us that, out of that $17 billion, over $13 billion went to pandemic response, $3 billion went to bushfire recovery and $1.5 billion went to the floods in northern Queensland in 2019. The argument by the coalition was that the ERF was not set up to respond to every natural disaster. But, as families were left stranded on their roofs, the fund's interest rate was going through the roof. This was a failure of public administration on an enormous scale. We were dealing with life and death.

So how do we move forward?

This bill picks up the pieces and will rename the ERF the Disaster Ready Fund, increasing the fund's annual expenditure to $200 million, which the states and territories will match. The government have committed to disbursing the funds faster than the coalition, and I look forward to holding them to that. This is a start, and we know that, for every dollar invested in resilience, the return is far greater. Unfortunately, this increase will not touch the sides of what is needed. The Insurance Council of Australia estimates that we will need to invest $1.8 billion a year in disaster resilience by 2050. Every $1 million in funding results in more hospital beds, more emergency vehicles, more microgrids and more flood- and fire-resilient homes and communities.

There are three things that can be done to fund a safer future for Australians. First of all, we need to look at repurposing our current spending on fossil fuel subsidies and shift those funds towards supporting disaster adaptation to prepare our communities for the future. Every good health carer knows that prevention is better than a cure and far cheaper. It's high time we stopped handing out taxpayer money to companies that are making these disasters worse.

Secondly, Australia must ensure that we stop multinational oil and gas companies from avoiding the payment of their fair share of tax. We can do this by closing the enormous loopholes in the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax, or PRRT. Multinational fossil fuel companies are raking in enormous profits currently, using our resources, and Australia is not benefiting as it should. These profits have been turbocharged by the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and come at the expense of Australian energy consumers and our environment. As former Treasury secretary Ken Henry said, 'There is simply no economic reason windfall profits could not be taxed.' This already happens in Norway, which is how they built their $1.7 trillion sovereign wealth fund.

Finally, we also need to charge a reasonable rate of royalty on our resources. Queensland is already doing this, and the federal government should follow.

Although this fund will assist with adaptation efforts, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that, if we continue emitting greenhouse gases at the rate we currently are, we will reach a point where adaptation is futile. Climate change is the driver of catastrophic floods that have inundated the east coast. The Prime Minister admitted this in comments this week, and I praise the Prime Minister for recognising the impact of climate change on fuelling natural disasters. However, if we don't reduce emissions quickly, we do face a dark future.

As Australians, we must accept our responsibility for making these disasters worse, both here in Australia and globally. Australia is the third-largest fossil fuel exporter in the world. According to an analysis by the Australia Institute, our exported emissions account for almost five per cent of global emissions. While some actions are being taken to reduce domestic emissions, the government is still approving coalmines and recently approved the $1.9 billion taxpayer funded Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct in the Northern Territory. Middle Arm will link up with gas fields in the Beetaloo Basin and will power gas manufacturing at the hub. Environmental scientist Dr Michael Petroni estimated that this precinct could generate 50 million tonnes of carbon emissions per annum. That's almost the pollution of 7.7 million cars on the road in a year. We need to stop approving these fossil fuel projects if we want a safe future. This bill is the start and not the end. We can do so much better. The people of Mackellar believe we can safeguard communities from natural disasters, that we can become a renewable energy superpower and that we cannot waste a dollar more on fossil fuel subsidies.

I will finish by thanking the local rural fire service volunteers and brigades in Mackellar and our local SES volunteers, ambulance drivers and emergency workers. They do a phenomenal job in what is turning out to be a very tough job, indeed. I hope that by passing this bill we provide them with the support they need and deserve. I commend this bill to the House.


Watch my speech on the Disaster Ready Fund here