Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Statements on Indulgence
The images of the floods that we have seen in the last few weeks have yet again highlighted the resilience of the Australian people across the eastern states of Australia as we have borne witness, once again, to another natural disaster. We have all seen the pictures of abandoned cars, of houses full of silt and mud, of water up to the eaves of houses, of people driving around in boats where normally the main streets are, of stranded livestock and of people spending the night bunked down in emergency accommodation. These events seem to be occurring far more regularly than in the past. The CSIRO report that came out last night indicated that the world is going to get warmer and wetter in the future, so we will probably be seeing these very graphic and distressing images far more regularly. The thing that strikes home to us is the real impact that these situations have on people's lives—the huge destruction and the huge trauma that they cause to people across the nation.
As the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday, many areas in regional Australia are still bracing for the floods as the water makes its way towards their communities. I can only imagine what they must be going through and the trauma, the fear and the terror that they must be facing in having, possibly, their lives' work disrupted or ruined and the years it is going to take for them to recover from that situation. We had nothing on the scale of what we saw in New South Wales here in Canberra but we did get a little taste of it, particularly in Oaks Estate and Tharwa in my electorate, and over the border in Queanbeyan.
Last Monday I went out to Oaks Estate to see the impact of the floods there. There is a road that flanks the side of Oaks Estate that has been specifically designed for heavy traffic to drive around the edge as a shortcut from Canberra to Queanbeyan. That road is very low-lying and it has been completely washed away. Essentially it is one big river now with torrents of water running past it. I do not want to think about the damage bill. The community of Oaks Estate is a very small, tight and loyal community and they underscored to me the impact that it is having on their businesses. There is a successful floristry business there and the owner of that business said that this road being washed away has been an ongoing problem. He also highlighted the fact that as a result of large vehicles not being able to get to his business it has an impact on his bottom line of about $100,000 over a number of years, so they are significant figures for a very successful small business. As anyone knows who has been in small business, that is a significant sum.
I also went out to Tharwa that afternoon and the road crew kindly gave me a tour of the work that they have been doing, working overnight, 24/7 over that weekend while the rains were still coming, to get the bridges fixed out at Tharwa particularly at Angle Creek crossing just outside of Tharwa, again a very low-level bridge. Both sides of the bridge at Angle Creek crossing had been washed away so there was no way that people could get onto the bridge. The crew was working overtime to get the entry points onto the bridge built and secure so that people could make their way to work, because otherwise they had to drive a circuitous and lengthy route to get to work. I commend the work that those road crews were doing. They were doing a great job above and beyond to ensure that the people of the Tharwa area could use that bridge as soon as possible.
The impact of the floods in the Canberra region has been relatively significant but, as I said, nothing on the scale of what we saw throughout New South Wales. The real impact is on the infrastructure and the roads. Driving throughout Canberra you see potholes everywhere.
Also, the new Cotter Dam wall, only half complete, overflowed not long ago and the spill caused damage to equipment, further delaying the project. The delays are having an impact on the workers as well. As a result of the heavy rain, a number of workers have been stood down. My colleague Dean Hall at the CFMEU is very concerned about it and has been working closely with the company managing the building of the new Cotter Dam wall to ensure the workers are looked after. As I said, there have been road closures and parks and reserves have been closed due to dangerous conditions. Even Lake Burley Griffin has been closed.
Everyone in New South Wales would be well aware that many of the local shows did not take place. With Canberra being in the Capital Region, we are deeply connected to surrounding areas and we know the amount of work local communities put into their shows. They are one of the highlights of their social calendar. Even though those events were postponed, I understand many of them took place last week. I had planned to be with Tuggeranong Community Council on Clean Up Australia Day to help clean Lake Tuggeranong, which has also had some impact from flooding and severe rains. That clean-up also had to be cancelled because of the torrential rain—it was biblical. We saw severe weather warnings in Cooma, Queanbeyan and other parts of our region.
Today I want to focus on Wagga Wagga, given the connection with Canberra. As we know, a week ago we had news that Wagga Wagga was under threat from some of the worst floods since 1853. The thoughts and prayers of Canberrans went out to the people of Wagga. When I was at ANU, there were a lot of kids from Wagga studying at the ANU and now Canberrans go to Wagga to study. I am organising a number of forums with schools around Canberra in April and May to talk about the school funding review. I will be doing the government schools in clusters, the independent schools individually and the Catholic schools as a series of groups. So last week I was at St Edmund's College talking to the principal. I had a tour of the school and spoke to the school community for International Women's Day. The principal was telling me that a number of students come from Wagga to study at that school and that a number of the Wagga families had been affected. He was in a dilemma as to what to do, whether to send the kids home or to keep them here. The kids were naturally traumatised. They were concerned about their families and about the impact of the floods on their community. So floods have a knock-on effect right around the region.
Wagga was declared a disaster zone and almost 9,000 people were evacuated, as were smaller towns nearby. Thankfully the Murrumbidgee levee held and Wagga residents were able to return home, but the clean-up continues. I am sure there are many people who understand what the residents of Wagga are going through. I urge them to help. A Wagga appeal has been set up. I encourage Canberrans to contribute even a small amount to help the people of Wagga rebuild and get on with their lives. Canberrans are great volunteers. We have the highest volunteering rate in the country and we are also great contributors to those in need. So I encourage Canberrans to dig as deep as they can to help with the Wagga appeal. If there is anyone in the Canberra region who is still concerned about the impact of the floods I encourage them to call Canberra Connect on 13 22 81 for up-to-date information on road closures and bridge closures.
Finally, I have focused on the Wagga region for this speech. My colleague from Eden-Monaro will talk about Queanbeyan, to which we in Canberra are very closely connected. I commend the member for Riverina for the work he did during the floods. We saw him a lot on the television. I know from the experiences of the member for Eden-Monaro in 2010 that it is incredibly traumatic for the communities, and that that trauma is shared by the local member. I commend the work of the member for Riverina in looking after his community and trying to help them through this difficult time. Once again, I encourage Canberrans to donate to the Wagga appeal.
Natural disaster declarations have been made in some 63 local government areas in New South Wales and Victoria, which gives an idea of the scale of these floods. I acknowledge the work that has taken place from the federal government, state governments, local governments and, most importantly, from volunteer organisations, particularly in areas such as the Riverina.
Today, though, I take the opportunity to recognise the work that takes place in urban communities. I would like to recognise the contribution of the Marrickville SES in the recent rain and flooding in the inner west of Sydney. In my electorate the Cooks River flooded; houses were affected and cars floated away. There was a devastating impact in a way in which I, who have lived in the area my whole life, have never seen. It was the worst I have seen occur.
During the storms last week and the flooding that occurred in the inner west of Sydney, the Marrickville SES unit was involved in 47 flood and storm operations which included flood response, tree and debris removal, local road closures and traffic response. The Marrickville SES unit services the entire Marrickville local government area and is led by local controller Michael Carney, who has served our local community for 22 years now. It is important to recognise that these people are all volunteers. They give up their own time to go out whenever there is an incident. In the past, it has been more storm damage that they have had to deal with, including major storm damage some years ago.
The unit is involved in many local community events and provides a wide range of local education programs—there are committed volunteers at every single local community festival and event. On Sunday I attended Bairro Portugues, the Portuguese festival in Petersham hosted by Marrickville Council. There it was quite evident that the local community were going up to the SES, who were wearing their traditional orange uniforms, and thanking them for the contribution that they make. The NSW State Emergency Service is dedicated to helping people when they are in most need. In NSW, the service consists of 231 units and over 10,000 volunteers. I take this opportunity to thank those people, whether they be in rural communities or in urban communities such as mine, who make such a great contribution to civil society.
It is a privilege to rise to make a statement on indulgence, given what we have heard about the sterling and magnificent efforts of all our first responders and emergency organisations and the great work they have done in the context of the challenges—the extensive flooding—that have been thrown at our communities in two successive years. I would particularly like to add my thanks to and respect and admiration for the members of the SES, the RFS, the police and the ambos, who have all been extremely busy over this disastrous period of time in the last few weeks. I went to visit the SES headquarters in Queanbeyan. There are a lot of very fine men and women there, volunteers all, who have done some sterling work, including a large number of flood rescues. I think we saw something like 164 flood rescues performed by the SES in New South Wales during the last few weeks. One performed in Queanbeyan was a perfect example of the courage and dedication of our first responders. A gentleman who was caught in the Queanbeyan River flooding was spotted by the Queanbeyan police, who dived in to try and rescue him. They got into a bit of trouble trying to do that but were quite happy to put their lives on the line to perform that effective rescue. In the end, the SES were able ensure the safety of all of those people involved. We salute the service of those first responders doing a great job.
My region suffered terribly from the floods last year. I live on the Queanbeyan River and I watched nervously as it rose and threatened the homes around me and my own home. Fortunately, we avoided flood damage, but many others suffered the effects of that. This year Queanbeyan avoided the worst of that, but of the other councils in my region—I have seven councils in my electorate—five have been declared disaster areas: Palerang, Bombala, Cooma-Monaro, Snowy River Shire and Bega Valley Shire.
I was distressed also to see the damage and threats that were posed to the populations of the areas of Tumut and Tumbarumba, which were part of my electorate before the last redistribution. I would like to give special comment and praise to the member for Riverina, Michael McCormack, who is now representing those two areas and doing a very fine job of making sure he was out there assisting in relation to the flood damage in Riverina. We all salute the service that Michael is rendering to Riverina and those former parts of my electorate in Tumut and Tumbarumba. Well done to Michael.
The damage in my region has highlighted the sorts of challenges that are posed by these floods to local councils. It has also been a terrible disruption right across our region, because this is the show season. For the first time in its history the Bemboka Show has been cancelled. We have seen Dalgety, Delegate and Cooma shows all affected. This is a terrible blow to these rural and regional communities, who often focus on these events as a key way of promoting their produce, getting together and celebrating their success and results of their work and enjoying themselves. It has been a very sad time having those shows cancelled, and they also bring in a lot of income to these local communities, so we have forgone that.
A particularly bad blow in the region has been the loss of the Brown Mountain road, which is the main link to the far South Coast and the Canberra and capital region. Many people use that road to come up to the ACT for vital health services, work and education. It is an absolutely critical artery, and we have seen the total subsidence of a section of road on Brown Mountain. The estimate from the RTA is that they may not have that road open until Easter. That is going to be a very significant impediment and blow to all of the people living in that far south region to not only their amenity of life but the towns of Nimmitabel and Bemboka particularly depend on passing traffic—the bakeries and the famous Bemboka Pie Shop, whose wares I have savoured many times; I particularly love their pepper steak pie and recommend it to everyone—and are suffering very badly from that loss of traffic through the area. We are seeing significant impact around my region, and the disaster relief assistance is going to be very much appreciated for the repairs, principally to the roads and bridges.
There has been a lot of farm damage. In the last year I toured around areas of New South Wales and visited a lot of farmers and councils as part of my portfolio responsibilities formerly in agriculture, fisheries and forestry. It was a terrible tragedy then because last year's crop was going to get people back on track after having suffered through so many years of drought. We saw a real knock-on consequence of not being able to get the headers moving south from Queensland to Victoria and getting bogged down; the roads preventing those whose crops were not flood damaged from getting to market; and the many kilometres of fencing that were destroyed, which poses a huge problem for farmers. Over in the Wagga area I remember visiting one farm where the flooding came down from the Tumbarumba region and had washed a huge quantity of gravel over the topsoil so that there was about a metre of gravel over the top of that topsoil, denying the farmer even access to his productive soils. Interestingly, too, we have seen a lot of infrastructure that was obviously many decades old being exposed for the faults of the civil engineering technologies of the time. One particular bridge I saw there had the approaches completely washed away, though the bridge itself was intact. What we also have to focus on in response to these disasters is what people refer to as betterment. As we rebuild these bridges and roads, we should look to the best possible civil engineering technology and the latest advances to prepare ourselves for these major disasters, which appear to be a pattern that we will be having to deal with in a wash-out, if you will pardon the expression, from the climate change effects that we seem to be experiencing—the situation where our weather events are increased in intensity and significance.
This poses a planning challenge to all our councils, and the federal government is very keen to work closely and directly with local councils. It is one of the reasons why we really enjoyed working with them directly through the Australian Council of Local Governments. We are hoping now to see a referendum go forward which will give local councils status under the Constitution and through that mechanism enable the federal government to get even more closely involved with supporting them. They all face big challenges in their operational budgets, and I work closely with Mayor Walter Reynolds and his general manager, Peter Bascomb, in Palerang; Mayor Bob Stewart and general manager Don Cottee in Bombala; Dean Lynch in Cooma-Monaro and his general manager John Vucic; Mayor John Cahill and his general manager Joe Vescio in Snowy River; and of course Tony Allen, the mayor of Bega, and his general manager Peter Tegart. We have got fine men all doing great work for their communities, but the challenge of their operational budgets and sustaining infrastructure is getting beyond a lot of councils and we need to find a better way of supporting them in the years ahead.
I commend all those who are out there working hard in the councils and our first responders, but also, given my current responsibilities in the Defence portfolio, I would like to pass my thanks to our wonderful men and women of the Australian Defence Force who have been out there rendering great assistance in support of our superb member for Riverina, Michael McCormack, who has been at the forefront of his community's efforts. I know he has appreciated the presence of the ADF and in particular Colonel David Hay, who is out there. They are doing great work in sandbagging—which obviously we have a fair bit of experience with in the Defence Force—evacuations and transport operations and supporting the efforts of the SES and the emergency personnel around those affected areas. I like to make sure that the Australian community is aware that the Australian Defence Force provides this sort of disaster assistance and relief and support to the community on a regular basis. There is rarely a time when some element of the Defence Force is not involved in some way in supporting the community year-round and deploying the assets and the heavy-lift capabilities that the Defence Force is capable of in support of our own communities. We do welcome their involvement and I salute and praise their services as well.
I am heartbroken to see some of the damage that has been caused all around our region and, as I said earlier, my former areas of Tumut and Tumbarumba, which are now being well looked after by the current member. But the silver lining to the cloud is seeing the way this Australian community and our volunteer services respond to emergencies of this nature. It is extremely heart warming and I think it is a rare thing in this world. As you travel around and see the problems international communities face, I think they would give their right arm to have the sort of voluntary support that we experience in this country. I salute their service.