Federation Chamber

I’d like to recognise Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Minister David Littleproud for an excellent speech on disaster risk reduction [on March 2, 2020].

He outlined an eminently sensible policy framework that says we shouldn’t just respond to disasters after they happen, but should reduce risks upfront and ensure communities are resilient before disaster hits.

And he was extremely clear that climate change is driving these disasters, making them worse, and will continue to threaten the fundamentals that make Australia a wonderful place to live.

He said:

Climate change is causing an increase in frequency and intensity of heatwaves, fire weather and contributing to drought.

Our world-leading science agencies have told us that we can expect more extremes into the future, longer disaster seasons, and compounding events.

I was pleased to hear the Minister lay this out so unequivocally. It is important for Australians to hear this from our leaders.

It is also important, as we pivot into rebuilding after these fires, to consider what disaster resilience really means for regional Australia.

The Minister said yesterday:

When things are going well we may value efficiency and cost-effectiveness; but when faced with disruption the need for safety and security comes into sharper focus.

For many communities in Indi, these fires have brought into sharp relief how much more needs to be done to build resilience before the next disaster hits.

Minister Littleproud and I spent (January 22) touring bushfire-affected communities of Indi and I believe he has heard this message loud and clear. Because in Indi, like across much of regional Australia, these fires have exposed the brittle skeleton that sits beneath many of our regional communities.

Stretched health and mental health services, poor-quality health facilities; farmers who have lost stock, property and fencing; communities totally reliant on a single electricity transmission line; small businesses with just a few weeks of financial buffer before they have to shut up shop; young people who have not had the opportunity to access skills and training.

Reducing the risk of disasters is not just about buildings and firefighting, it’s about fostering stronger communities.

To properly ensure we reduce the risk of disasters and build resilience in regional Australia, these fires need to herald a step-change in the Government’s approach to regional Australia.

First, we need to support proper research into how to adapt to our rapidly changing climate.

The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre, established in 2013, is due to have its funding expire in the middle of next year. The Bushfire CRC has done important work in building our understanding of how to manage bushfires.

CRCs are supposed to be funded only for set periods, but there is established practice of extending them when there is a pressing national need. I believe there is such a need and the Government should consider extending their funding.

But adapting to a changed climate is about more than bushfires. We need proper research into adaptation and resilience in regional Australia.

It is a shame that the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility had its funding cut in 2017. The NCCARF could play a significant role in helping this country prepare for our future. In the next budget, they should have their funding re-instated, and establish a sister facility in regional Australia to complement their existing base in the Gold Coast.

We mustn’t just respond willy-nilly. We have to respond smartly. Ensuring these two research centres are properly funded will be a gift to the nation in the coming decades.

Second, building the resilience of regional communities means we need to properly invest in regional communities across the board.

We need a national strategy to adapt our agricultural sector to climate change, including support to transition to climate resilient crop strains, upgrade farm infrastructure and much more. I called for such a strategy last September, and it’s now clearer than ever why we need one.

We need to properly invest in rural mental health. Our mental health services are beyond breaking point in regional Australia. There are not enough trained personnel and it’s too hard to access services.

The mental health impacts of bushfires are immense; we need to ensure our communities are mentally healthy to take on those challenges.

Our councils, who are the first to respond in these crises, are starved of funds to build critical infrastructure and community facilities, which in a crisis people depend on for their lives.

We need to restore financial assistance grants to one per cent of federal tax revenue to ensure rural and regional councils are investing in communities and are empowered to respond in crises.

We need to properly fund the ABC which saved who knows how many lives this summer with their excellent, reliable emergency broadcasts.

And we need to ensure our regional towns have energy security. Places like Corryong were completely cut off from the grid for several days during ‘Black Summer’, after the transmission lines burned down. This meant everyone in the town including the hospital, lost power.

Many in Corryong are calling for investment in a mini-grid to ensure that will never happen again. An investment of just $12 million to build a small scale solar array, batteries, and mini-grid technology, would not only mean Corryong has a brand new source of income for the community, but means it would never again be reliant on a single, fragile wire connecting it to grid.

I’m calling on the Government to create a fund to support the development of community renewables, not just in fire-affected areas, but across regional Australia. In fact I’m working with local community energy experts in my electorate to design such a proposal and I look forward to working with Government to make it happen.

Will all of this cost money? Yes. But as the Minister said yesterday:

The economic cost of natural disasters is currently estimated to be $18.2 billion per year. The costs of disasters are projected to rise to $39 billion per year by 2050 even without accounting for climate change.

If you put the investment in upfront to build your resilience, then you’re more likely to get through and the overall cost could ultimately be less.

We need to heed Minister Littleproud’s call, and ensure that these fires herald a new wave of investment in regional Australia.

[March 3, 2020]

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