Topics: Flood mitigation; Morrison Government’s actions to support Australia with cost of living.
MATT WEBBER: As always, there is much to discuss when Minister for Home Affairs, Member for McPherson, Karen Andrews joins me every second week. It’s no different this morning; Minister, hello to you.
KAREN ANDREWS: Hi Matt, how are you?
MATT WEBBER: I’m going okay. There’s a lot on the agenda to talk through. Stuff that’s significant to your portfolio we’ll get to in a few moments. But petrol prices and flood response front and centre of our conversation this morning. High-ranking former emergency services chiefs attacking your Government for what they say is ‘bungling’ the flood disaster that still affects communities along the nation’s east coast. Greg Mullins is a former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW. He’s been speaking to media this morning.
GREG MULLINS: It ignored the warnings yet again. Its own agencies, Emergency Management Australia, were briefing states and territories and charities in October and November that we could face flooding catastrophes, and maps showed the very areas that were impacted.
[End of excerpt]
MATT WEBBER: Quite the criticism of your Government. Where do you think you went wrong? And what could you do better?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, Matt, let me start with saying that what has happened – particularly in southeast Queensland but also along the coast in New South Wales – is nothing short of tragic. Lives lost; people’s livelihoods wiped out; and I understand there will be a range of views about what could and should have been done better; I do genuinely understand that. I am focused on what we can do here and now to support people. I do think we need to look at how all levels of Government, how communities can do things better. This is not going to be the last flood, sadly; we’ve had floods before. There’s a range of issues that need to be considered – flood mitigation measures. But I’m really keen to focus on what we could do better in the future. Now, we’ve got to help Lismore get back on its feet. Lismore has just been devastated and the water that went through there, particularly in areas that had not previously been flooded, was beyond anyone’s expectations. So let’s focus on what we can do better. I know there’s been a lot of criticism of various responses, whether that be local, state or federal. But let’s look at what we can do better, because we’ve got to look at the fact that we will have bushfires; we will have floods; we will have droughts; and how do we get ourselves in the best position to deal with that? I recognise and I accept that people have been critical of the response to date. I think there’s been many good things that have been done by various governments, but I absolutely appreciate it – if I was one of those people that had lost my house, had lost my business, then I would be wanting to get as much help as I can. I know that people have talked about the response times to get the ADF in there and that people were relying on the community to help them. I would say to that, we’ve always been – as Australians – very keen to help each other, and there will always be – there will always be – a need for us to continue to do that. Many people have put their hand up to help because they want to, and I would not want to take that away from them and say this is purely ‘how does the government fix this?’. This is communities and governments coming together.
MATT WEBBER: We know the degree of the devastation. We’ve seen it. We’ve witnessed of it. Many of us on the Gold Coast have been down south of the border or up in Brisbane helping with clean-ups. We can still smell it Minister. If you’re telling us this morning that you want to focus on what can be done better, what’s the answer to that question? It was my initial question. What can we do better in the circumstances?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I think we need to look at flood mitigation – if we’re talking floods, because there’s also the broader emergency response issues – but if we’re talking about floods, it’s ‘what are the flood mitigation strategies that can be put in place’? Now we know several years ago there were issues with the Wivenhoe Dam and the timings of the release of the water that was coming from Wivenhoe Dam and the impact it had downstream in greater Brisbane. There were changes that were made. There were procedural changes that were put in place to help protect Brisbane. Now we all need to evaluate whether or not that was as successful as it was anticipated it would be, because now we’ve got some real data that we can add to what we had before. Now, on the southern Gold Coast, there are parts of the southern Gold Coast that were quite affected by flooding, and sometimes in areas that had not been deeply affected before. I do think we all need to look at what those issues are and what is the flood mitigation strategies that need to be put in place? It is particularly relevant which you get into the Northern Rivers. When you look at northern New South Wales, Lismore floods regularly; they have a range of strategies in place. This event was not just a one-in-a-hundred-years; this is a one-in-500-years flood event. So what else can we do? What should we be doing? Where do we look at the support that these people need to rebuild their lives? Should they be rebuilding where they are now? Should they be looking at others opportunities? I think we’ve got to look at this sensibly, not just go through a finger-pointing exercise of who got this wrong.
MATT WEBBER: Minister, we’ve been through these sorts of flooding events a few times in the last decade – three times in the last decade – of various degrees of severity. I mean, you’re a Queenslander. You’re also an engineer. Do you not get frustrated at – well, do you understand the frustration that people must be experiencing when it seems that the people who are there to lead us through these issues don’t seem to learn from what it is that has happened in the years previous?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I feel the frustration that many people do about how to best deal with the situation in which we find ourselves. I was on the Coast when major parts of the esplanade areas, whether it be through Burleigh but particularly around about Palm Beach, were washed away almost every January, and that impacted the houses along there. Now action has been taken to try and deal with those issues. But we are always going to have floods, and there is no one hundred per cent solution that is going to deal with that. So we can sandbag, we can look at how we can open up areas that are above flood plains. But on the Gold Coast, for example, there’s a lot of reclaimed land, and it does flood. So there are some lifestyle issues that we need to actually get the community to have a look at. We have to have a look at where our cities, our towns are going to be developed to try and best protect us from the well-known national disasters that we encounter almost every year – whether it’s flood, drought, or whether it is bushfires.
MATT WEBBER: We were chatting this morning on this program – and I appreciate that you weren’t necessarily privy to the conversation, although I do like to think that you tune in from time to time, Minister – but we were chatting to Karl Mellon. He’s from a mob called Climate Valuation, and he pointed out to us that in terms of climate change risk, three electorates on the Gold Coast are at the top of the list as far as impending issues are concerned, yours among them. What do your constituents tell you in relation to your Government’s response to climate-relevant matters like these?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well – and I should say, by the way, just before I answer that question – Matt, I am a Neil Young fan, so I have been listening, I think I probably do have Harvest somewhere.
MATT WEBBER: Good to hear. But to climate-change-related matters, I mean, if your own electorate is at significant risk moving forward, I’m curious to know what it is that your constituents tell you about concerns related, for instance, to the canal system or to, you know, rising sea levels and the like?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, look, I think that everyone across Australia is concerned about the environment. Specifically, about climate change, I am well on the record probably two years ago now where I came out and said it’s about time we stopped talking about whether or not climate change was real and get on with addressing some of the issues. Now, when I talk to people in my electorate, they are very concerned about the environment. They’re very concerned about local wildlife issues and the impact on those, and, quite frankly if we’re talking the environment, they talk to me about koalas and the fact that you know, transport changes are likely to impact on their habitats. When they talk to me more generally from an environmental point of view they are interested in the Great Barrier Reef, they are concerned at impacts on the reef. They’re also concerned about that from a tourism point of view, people who come to the Gold Coast, they actually also look at other tourist destinations. So we don’t want to be impacted by, I guess, negative changes at other tourist destinations, particularly in Queensland. People don’t raise generally flooding in relation to canals with me. They would probably most likely raise those flooding-related issues directly with council and their local councillors. But when they talk to me about climate change they want us all to do better.
MATT WEBBER: Is it time to change the direction of that conversation, though? And rather than have it as a subject of debate among your colleagues make it a priority to make it front and centre so that we have a future to look forward to that is chock-full of mitigation infrastructure projects, that is chock-full of policy direction that protects Australia and its economy against the inevitability of climate change?
KAREN ANDREWS: Without a doubt, we need to look at adaptation and mitigation strategies. I’m also on the record as having talked about that before. But let’s put this into perspective. Because Australia is a continent that has had wild fluctuations for a long period of time with droughts, bushfires, flooding, we’re actually very good at our mitigation and our adaptation strategies. That doesn’t mean that the problem is solved or it has gone away. So every time we start to look at what strategies should be put in place, we always need to allow time to revisit, to reflect and then look at what the next steps are. It is going to be a never-ending issue for us, which is making sure that we are protecting the environment in which we live and work.
MATT WEBBER: If we can move on, petrol prices – they’re going through the roof. Now, I presume now is not really a convenient time for the federal government to be losing a significant income stream. But how and why should consumers endure $2.25-plus a litre? Is it reasonable to expect that you will take steps to either reduce momentarily or remove momentarily the fuel excise?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I understand how concerned people are with fuel prices. And I was watching them myself over the weekend as they were hitting around about the $2.20 and it didn’t matter really whether it was unleaded or it was diesel you were looking at – it was still around about that $2.20 a litre. Yes, that is high and that impacts on our cost of living. It’s also come at a time when more people are starting to go back into work, not doing so much work from home, people are starting to look at what their transport costs are going to be. So I do understand everyone’s concern. I think there’s a qualifier that we really need to be conscious of – and that is that the fuel excise goes to support our transport infrastructure and to make sure that our roads are in good shape. We’ve seen a lot of the roads be cut or damaged as a result of the flooding. It is an ongoing issue. We see upgrades to major motorways happening. It is an ongoing issue with transport infrastructure. So I think we’ve got to be very conscious of whatever we do with fuel excise, because the money to support our transport infrastructure – and that is only going to increase – is largely funded by the fuel excise. If you reduce that, you take it away, how are you going to fund the transport, the road infrastructure? I think that is a big concern. Now, at the moment we are in a particularly difficult situation because of what’s happening with Russia and Ukraine. That is affecting crude oil supplies and basically, the cost of fuel in Australia and worldwide is dependent very much on what the cost of crude oil is. It’s gone up about a third since Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s now sitting at about $110 US a barrel, so it is significantly higher than it was just even a couple of months ago. That will have an impact on the cost at the bowser. We have, as a Government, taken action to increase our fuel storage capability. We’ve got I think it’s close to 2 million barrels – it’s around about 1.7, I think – barrels of oil that we actually hold in the US in their strategic petroleum reserve. So we have good storage there. We’re looking at increasing our fuel security here in Australia. That actually protects us well. So if you look at mitigation strategies for floods, this is the mitigation strategy against rising fuel prices. The storage capability is important and finding capability is important here in Australia. We are concerned about cost of living for businesses but, importantly, for our families. But let’s not look at just fuel excise; let’s look at the other things that have already been put in place and what potentially can be looked at for the future – and that is support for child care and it’s a whole range of things that we have put in place strategies that reduce the cost of energy. So all of those things go towards the cost of living. And we try and get as much of a balanced approach as we possibly can.
MATT WEBBER: Why not just call an election? Everyone’s in campaign mode, Minister. Why not just call it?
KAREN ANDREWS: Because we’ve got a Budget at the end of this month. I am sure the election will be called shortly after that Budget is handed down. But we couldn’t and we wouldn’t do that pre-Budget at this point in time. I mean, our Budget is important, a lot of work has gone into it; it sets the scene for our future. But a Federal election is imminent.
MATT WEBBER: Why not hang your hat on the Budget and put it to the people that you will either live or die by it?
KAREN ANDREWS: The Budget will be one of the things that we take to the election. But we’ll also be taking to the election what we have done to support Australians, particularly as we went through the pandemic. I know and I’m very pleased that people are starting to move on from the pandemic and now they see it very much as something of the past. But Australia’s response was fantastic, quite frankly. Australians have a lot to be proud, and it was led by the Federal government working with the states, but it was leadership from the Federal government that put us in the position that we are in now, which means that we’re economically performing well. The future is actually looking really good. That light at the end of the tunnel is within our grasp, and that is because of the position that the Coalition Government has put us in.
MATT WEBBER: Minister, the last time you used the word imminent on this program was to do with national borders opening up, I believe. You said they were opening up imminently, there’d be an announcement imminently. It was that afternoon. Can we expect the announcement of an election today?
KAREN ANDREWS: I wouldn’t think so. But I take your point – I understand your position completely.
MATT WEBBER: Imminent means imminent.
KAREN ANDREWS: I apologise – I desperately wanted to tell you that morning. I feel really bad about it, Matt. I actually do.
MATT WEBBER: Appreciate your time, Minister. Thank you.
KAREN ANDREWS: No worries. You take care.