Subjects: Visit to Cairns; Far North Queensland floods; tourism industry; Bunnings sausage sizzle in Cairns; the Government’s shingles vaccination shambles; AUKUS; Australian Defence Force support during natural disasters; insurance; Christmas 2023 message.
First of all, thank you very much indeed, everybody, for taking the time to come out on Christmas Eve morning. I really bloody appreciate it, and I’d just like to welcome Senator McDonald, Senator for Queensland – I’d like to think you’re the Senator for far North Queensland, because you spend a lot of time here and you’re from the area – and of course to Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, and thanks Peter for being here. He was keen to get here earlier, but I asked him to wait until such time as the Prime Minister had been here. I didn’t want it to overlap because I think it’s important that first of all for the Prime Minister and the Premier, and then get a briefing here afterwards so that we know what is needed also by the communities, and we can support the Government in the initiatives that they are looking to implement, but also to encourage them where there is what we believe to be deficiencies, to encourage them to actually lift their game a little bit.
We’ve had a lot of experience, I have to say, in Government. The last, really, disaster that we had was not necessarily a natural disaster, but it was a COVID disaster and had that same impact on our businesses, and, you know, business were very appreciative of what we did, so we have some idea on what needs to be done and how quickly it needs to be done.
So we’ve had a briefing today with a whole broad range of business and communities. I actually had him cooking sausages out at Bunnings. It was a commitment that I had already made for the Men’s Shed early this morning, and Pete, you do a pretty good sausage, but appreciate that.
He’s also had the opportunity of travelling with the Mayor and going around and having a look at some of the devastation here just to get some concept, and we’ve just finished a meeting up here – a roundtable with all the tourism business communities, and so I’m going to step aside now and ask Senator McDonald to say a few words and then we’ll hand over the to the Leader of the Opposition.
SENATOR SUSAN MCDONALD:
Good morning, everybody. As the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia, I think it’s really important that we focus on the recovery period for this part of the world. We know that Cairns, Port Douglas, Mossman, Daintree – all of these places are world leaders. It’s the jewel in the crown for Queensland tourism, for Australian tourism, and of course the great agricultural produce that we have from the Tablelands.
It is critical that we continue to tie these families and workforce to this region, that we support them to allow them to have both an excellent Christmas Day tomorrow, but more importantly, going into 2024 that they have great support for their insurance, for wages, and that we recover strongly.
I just very quickly want to reflect on what happened in 2019 with the floods in Townsville and North West Queensland. We saw the Prime Minister on the ground in two days, we saw the sort of recovery that meant that those communities bounced back, and I think we need to expect at the bare minimum that we have the same response from the Federal and State Governments now, for Cairns, for Far North Queensland, as we did in 2019. It is not negotiable that we have that kind of support from this Labor Government as we saw under the Coalition, and that’s where I’ll be holding them to account.
First, Entschy, thank you very much to you for your hard work and leadership in the community at a time of need, and your community’s seen that action before, they’ve certainly seen it in action over the course of this natural disaster as well.
I want to say thank you very much to the Mayor of Cairns, Terry James. This morning, and also last night we caught up, went through some of the communities this morning. I’ve been the Defence Minister and the Home Affairs Minister and in Government over a long period of time. I’ve been to many natural disaster sites, it’s always confronting when you’re driving down suburban streets and seeing people’s belongings mounted on the footpath waiting for collection or being collected by bobcats and council workers and volunteers, taking away people’s lifelong belongings and things that have been important to them and dumped into the local refuge station. Those people are having their lives turned upside down.
We’ve also met this morning with some of the tourist operators who represent small and medium businesses here locally. These are small and medium family businesses who employ locals, employ backpackers, and my most important message today to Australians on the eve of Christmas is: please don’t cancel your reservations to the region here.
These are tourist operations who are still conducting their businesses and they want bookings, not cancellations. We were talking to one business who I think is reflective of many in the community at the moment. They employ 135 Australians and locals here, providing services in the tourism industry. They’ve laid off no people, but 18 people this morning already from that one business have decided to leave and probably go to Sydney or Melbourne looking for work there – not because the tourism operation is not viable, not because it’s not operating – but because people have cancelled their tours and cancelled their accommodation and cancelled their visit here to Cairns and to the greater region because they think the tourism businesses aren’t operating, but they are, they’re open for business and they’re absolutely dependent on Australians keeping those bookings and making new bookings. Because if those businesses continue to spiral, then when things do get back to normal, they won’t have the staff to rebuild their businesses and to open quickly, and so the grief compounds because we lose that economic activity, not just for that individual business, but for the local businesses. It’s the cleaners, it’s the accountants, it’s the local coffee shop proprietor, it’s the local car hire business. Everybody’s impacted by the ripple effect of those cancellations.
So, please discard what you’ve seen on the news, don’t listen to some of the hype, listen to the pleas from these local and small businesses who want you back in Cairns, in Port Douglas, in the greater region here in Far North Queensland. That is the most important decision that you can make. If you’re looking at booking a holiday in the latter part of January, if you’re looking at booking any time between now and Easter, please get online and book now. A lot of these businesses are having to fund refunds back to people that have had long-standing bookings and that’s another hit to their businesses. So, please delay any of that decision-making that you might have.
There are a lot of families across the country who are doing it tough this Christmas because of the cost of living pressures and it’s compounding in an area like Cairns and Far North Queensland, and further to the north, up through the Daintree, through Bloomfield, these areas are going to take longer to come back online, but if you’ve got a booking in Port Douglas, or you’ve got a booking in Cairns, you’ve got a booking in the greater region here, and if you want to talk to your neighbours about joining you on a holiday in Far North Queensland, have that conversation, or with your family members.
If you’re talking about a trip to Cairns or to Far North Queensland, to Port Douglas, or you’ve been putting off for a while – do it now. The reef is spectacular and it’s a great time to make one of those reef trips or to call up one of the adventure tourism businesses, to spend your money here locally. That would help out a lot of families who otherwise will do it particularly tough this Christmas.
A couple of other issues obviously around at the moment: the Government made a commitment in relation to the rollout of the shingles vaccine. That isn’t going to plan, and the Health Minister has been missing in action. We’ve heard nothing from the Prime Minister in relation to it. As the Government and the Health Minister rightly pointed out at the time, shingles can have a devastating impact on the lives of many Australians and there was a lot of promise and hype when the announcement was made. The vaccine needs to be rolled out and if there are problems in the rollout, then we just need transparency and honesty from this Government about what the problems are, how quickly they’re going to be fixed so that people, including health care providers, GPs and practice nurses, etc. can make the necessary arrangements and deal with those patients and the concerns that they have.
So again, thank you very much to Susie for the work that she’s done across North Queensland, Far North Queensland; to Warren Entsch, to all of those that we’ve met with. Thank you to the Men’s Shed people this morning – wonderful volunteers. We helped them out at Bunnings for a short period of time, but they work tirelessly every day of the year, and they’re like many volunteers who across Christmas – and particularly in Far North Queensland at the moment, will be rolling their sleeves up to try help their neighbours and help their local community recover from what has been a very significant impact.
I’m very happy to take any questions.
Obviously, you mentioned the Prime Minister was up here earlier in the week. They announced over $60 million in additional funds for councils, for primary producers, the tourism industry and that kind of thing. Is the amount of money that’s been set aside already, enough?
Well, firstly, I want to support the Prime Minister’s efforts and the money that they’ve committed to this so far. That’s a very important step, but it’s a first step.
We need water security here in Cairns. That is a non-negotiable item, because as we know from the Mayor here: Cairns came within a couple of hours of losing its main water supply, which would have meant the evacuation of two major hospitals. That can’t be allowed to remain as a threat and we need to make sure that that investment is made here in Cairns and we would support the Government in that commitment.
It’s the first step of many – let’s be very frank about it. When you look what happened with the flooding event in Townsville, in Western Queensland, you’re talking about a multi-billion dollar response here. The inflation since that time, the cost of infrastructure has escalated dramatically, it’s tight in the labour market, it’s tight to compete with what’s happening in Brisbane and elsewhere for the tradespeople that we need to get the work underway.
We were talking to Michael Kerr, the Mayor for Douglas, who’s doing an amazing job in very trying circumstances, but in one area north of Port Douglas, he’s talking about a movement of potentially 2,000 truckloads of soil to clear one section of the roadway – $60 million, it was not going to cut it for that project. We’re seeing water and sewerage impacted in other areas, and it is going to be a long term response, and it’s why I’m keen to get back up to this part of the world to visit Port Douglas and Mossman and elsewhere, to help just shine a light once the cameras have moved away back to Brisbane and Canberra, to make sure that those communities get the support they need in the recovery stage.
There’s a question mark over whether further assistance is required from defence assets: the engineers, those heavy vehicles and the excavators, the trucks, all of that may well be required, and no doubt the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister is contemplating all of that.
I pay credit, particularly at this time of year, to HMAS Cairns and to all of the volunteers. Those people that’ve given their support, their time, and they’ll continue to do so because they love their community and they’re a great credit to the Australian Defence Force, but I think there’s a lot more that’s needed for Far North Queensland, and Warren and Susie, and others, are talking with the Mayors about what that looks like, but it’s a multibillion dollar response that we’re talking here and it needs to be built back bigger and better so that when the next rain event does come – we live in the tropics here in Far North Queensland, I lived in Townsville many years ago. Those events have a significant impact on communities and they can be a regular thing because that’s the nature of the geography and the landscape and we need to make sure that where the assets are being rebuilt, where the infrastructure is being restored, that it’s built in a way that can withstand the next event as well.
The Government has boasted about work about to begin at Osborne. Is this welcomed news?
Well look, we welcome, certainly any investment going into the outcome from the decision that we took when we were in Government. We will underpin the national security of our nation for decades to come with the announcement that we made through AUKUS.
We need that capability because, as the Prime Minister rightly points out, we live in the most precarious period since the Second World War. But if you say that, you’ve got to deliver on it, and the problem is the Prime Minister’s very fond of telling everybody everything that they want to hear – but we need action, not words, from this Government.
I know the Americans are worried about the delays, the delivery of the submarines, the work at Osborne is necessary. I was speaking to somebody senior from Flinders University, only in the last week, or so about the ramping up of the capability, the studies, the undergraduate and postgraduate courses that are needed, the engineers, etc. All of that is crucial work, and time is of the essence. So, let’s get on with it and we support the Government in those measures as well.
Mr Dutton, I just want to go back to the actual original disaster. Monday morning, 3 o’clock, I’ve had phone calls from people in Wujal Wujal on their roofs, they’ve called 000, there’s been no response. I’m not being critical of emergency services because this was an unprecedented disaster, but it wasn’t until the Army was mobilised more than 24 hours later we we’re able to get to those people. Is it time for the Australian Government to have a special department of the Defence Force that actually manages with these disasters? Because we all want the Army to come in and help, but at the moment the Army’s not really set up for this kind of mission.
Well, one of the things that I was very conscious of as Defence Minister was to make sure we had assets pre-deployed before an event took place, and the council here has been very prudent obviously in placing assets, as no doubt the State Government has as well.
I don’t know the answer to your question in terms of what decisions Minister Marles and the Prime Minister had made in pre-deploying assets and making sure that those Defence Force personnel were ready to respond, how quickly the Chinooks were deployed from Lavarack and what other assets were available in the north. So they’re reasonable questions to be asked, but I think they’re rightly asked of the Defence Minister.
I think in relation to the response, the initial response, particularly when people were on their roofs, when there’s been an event that’s taken place that they didn’t expect to be as severe as it’s turned out to be, there are proper questions to be asked and there’s a time for all of that to take place as well.
The devastation that’s taken place now requires the response of the three levels of government, of non-government organisations, Defence Relief Australia and others who do an amazing job. They’re the organisations that can be moving into communities now, and I hope that the government’s providing support for that to take place.
The other point that I’d make, which I think is a very important point, and I hope that the Prime Minister can hear this plea from local businesses, that is that if the employees go from these businesses, if they take the small amount of money, but important money that’s being offered to them at the moment, and they leave Cairns because people are cancelling their trips and cancelling their tours, etc. and they take that money and they move to Sydney or to Melbourne – that’s of no assistance to the local communities here. The support that needs to be given to these medium and small businesses needs to require the businesses to be tended to the employees and the employees to be tended to the employers. That’s how we’ll deal with the immediacy of the issue and it’s also how we’ll deal with the aftermath and the rebuild, because we don’t want to find ourselves in March and April, go through Easter, into the middle of the year, and these businesses are still without those employees because the employees have left town. I think that is a very important design feature in terms of the assistance that’s provided to those employees and those employers, because many of those families who had been recovered from rooftops, many of those families who have lost their homes, we don’t want them in a position now where they’ve lost their jobs because they work for a local tourism provider who is missing out on business because people have cancelled their tours and their stay here in Cairns or in Port Douglas, etc..
So, I just again reiterate the importance of that support for local businesses and for those local – not just tourism businesses, not just those on the reef, but those who are providing inland services and land services with people movements, etc., etc.. All of that is vitally important to stay viable and it can only stay viable with support of the three levels of government.
I just wanted to say on the Chinook, I think there is a fair question which you asked in relation to this point, because from when the request was made to when they were actually able to deploy those two aircraft, was about 24 hours. I understand that one of the problems was actually they had to bring in crews to prepare the Chinook to allow it to be deployed, and that 24 hour period those people were stuck.
I think it’s a fair question to ask as to why did it take 24 hours from the request until the Chinooks were in a position to be able to be deployed from Townsville. There’s 24 hours extra that people were sitting on the roofs.
They couldn’t even refuel in Cooktown because there’s a problem with the refuelling system, so they had to go back to Townsville just to refuel, which cost much more time than what it needed to.
And they’re fair questions, they need to be asked, but nevertheless that 24 hour delay and why that occurred I think is not an unreasonable question to ask. I think it lines up with what the Opposition Leader said about making sure that you have assets available to be deployed at a moment’s notice, and there was an awareness in relation to the cyclone, not the flooding, but of the cyclone and one would have thought that there would have been assets and it had already been prepared, fuelled, warmed up and crews ready to go as soon as it was required rather than a 24 hour delay. So I think that’s a fair question to ask.
Opposition Leader, are you confident that the cyclone reinsurance pool will hold up and keep insurance premiums at a low after this event?
Well, we’ll certainly be putting pressure on the Government to make sure that they respond in an adequate way, not just in terms of the funding, not just in terms of the support that’s needed for businesses, but also in relation to the insurance pool as well.
I think there’s a lot of work that’s been done. Warren Entsch was central to making sure that what was a failed system was built into something that provided for the community, and I know that Warren and Susie and others have made suggestions about ways in which things could be improved.
If there are changes that the Government needs to make, well that’s what they got elected to do, and we will provide support to make sure that people here in Cairns, in Port Douglas, in Far North Queensland get the support that they need. This problem doesn’t go away because Christmas is upon us and all of the media rightly, understandably, will be concentrating on Christmas scenes and families and kids opening presents over the next couple of days, but there are people who are still cleaning out their houses, a lot of people who are looking at the bills that are piling up in their businesses at the moment and not sure how they’re going to get to the new year, and the important thing at the moment is to make sure that the insurance companies step up, provide support to locals as claims are being made and make sure the Government gives support in a timely way so that these businesses not only can survive, but that can come out stronger of what has been a very significant impact on the lives of people here in Far North Queensland.
Could I just finish by saying to all Australians: it has been a tough year for many Australians, but I want to wish everybody a merry Christmas to you and to your family. I wish you every success and opportunity in 2024, and we look forward to working very closely with communities across the country to make sure that our country continues to be the greatest on earth. We have natural disasters, we have tests of our national character on a regular basis, but Australians always have and always will stand up to those demands. I’m very proud to be here with two great Australians here today who really serve their local community in a great way as well.
Thank you very much.
Can I just finish on the insurance, it’s important to Susan and I? The issue here they’re talking about is 48 hours because it’s not enough time.
Can I say we identified that as a failing when the legislation was first introduced when we were in government. Immediately after there was a change in Government, and both Susan and I sat on the Committee and we actually requested and was to the credit of the Government, was given the opportunity to do a detailed insight into the effectiveness of one of the recommendations.
The first recommendations that we put up after the change in Government was that the flooding time go from 48 hours to 168 hours which is international standard. Now that was a recommendation that was put in probably 12 months or more ago as a recommendation. Now there were others as well, but none of those recommendations yet have been implemented.
So, first of all, it’s not fair to say, ‘oh, well, it was the previous government’s failing.’ We identified those – the recommendations are there. I also welcome the fact that Prime Minister Albanese, and I had a conversation with him, I sat down with him when he was here in Cairns, and he’s committed to making sure that he will hold the insurance companies to account, as we will. Absolutely. But there is an opportunity now to be able to implement those recommendations.
I understand that the pool cannot work fully. They’ve got until the 31st of December for all the major companies to be part of that pool. We’ve already agreed that we will have a full review of this early in the new year once all of the big companies are on, we will be using this example of what’s happened here as an example to see how effective it was and what tweaking we have to do.
So, believe you me, it is serious work in progress, there are opportunities for Government to fix some of these issues – like the 48 hour one, today, because the recommendations and it was a bipartisan recommendation, there was no dissenting from it. So it’s something that could happen today, and I think what’s happened up here has highlighted the fact that it needs to happen sooner rather than later.