Zali Steggall MP speaks about Disaster Ready Fund

26 October 2022

I rise to speak on the Emergency Response Fund Amendment (Disaster Ready Fund) Bill 2022. We know climate change is real for Australia and the rest of the world but in particular for us as we are a continent incredibly exposed. There are immediate and deepening risks to our natural environment, economy and way of life. I welcome the government's initiative in shifting disaster and emergency spending from reactive recovery to adaptation and mitigation measures. We need to start being a more preventative policymaking institution here. The governments of the day need to start focusing on the long, long-term planning that is required to tackle a challenge like global warming.

This bill changes the name of the Emergency Response Fund to the Disaster Ready Fund. It's sad to think that we have to be ready for disasters, but it certainly is a more preventative approach. It allows up to $200 million per annum to be debited from the Disaster Ready Fund for natural disaster resilience and risk reduction, allows the responsible ministers to adjust the maximum disbursement amount via a disallowable legislative instrument, facilitates the transfer of responsibility for fund expenditure to the National Emergency Management Agency, and streamlines administrative arrangements in relation to transfers from the fund. They're all quite administrative aspects, but, when we are trying to build resilience for communities to ensure they are ready for disasters, it is important that these processes are streamlined and not unnecessarily bureaucratic.

I welcome the commitment to proactively spend the money set aside in the fund. Mitigation and adaptation projects will tangibly benefit Australians by lessening the impact of extreme weather events brought on by the climate crisis. The recent floods across much of the east coast of Australia, less than two years after the devastating 2019-20 bushfires, are a reminder of those risks and the devastating impacts they have on our communities.

It was clear during the royal commission into our response to the bushfires that there had been warnings that had not been heard and heeded, and that there were aspects of preparation that could have been attended to that may well have mitigated the extent of some of the disaster for some communities. So it is really important that we shift towards a more preventative approach to policy.

We have to talk about the health risks of unmitigated climate change, which really cannot be understated. The WHO has classified climate change as a defining issue for public health in the 21st century. It's essential that we address these challenges head-on and do our best to mitigate the risks of climate change before they occur rather than spending so much, primarily on recovery, after disasters have already occurred.

There is absolutely no sense in hiding behind statements that these are 'one-in-1,000-year floods' or that these are 'unprecedented events'. The reality is that, as the science and so much of the global community have warned us time and time again, these events are going to be exacerbated, they are going to be accelerating, they are going to be more frequent and they are going to be more and more extreme and severe, which means they will cost more in human lives and in the lives of native birds and other fauna. They will cost more in disruption to our communities and they will certainly cost more in repair. So all work to do that adaptation piece is incredibly important.

In the Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2021, which I presented in the last parliament, I outlined the need—it was a key component of that legislation—for national climate change risk assessment to properly prioritise our next steps in mitigating climate change as a nation. During the course of the inquiry in relation to that bill, it was astounding that the New South Wales association of local government acknowledged that there was no coordinated national risk assessment process. It was astounding to learn that we have public infrastructure worth some $212 billion along the east coast exposed to global warming impacts. When I asked the then minister for the environment, who was responsible for that response to risk assessments, whether we had a national risk assessment process, the answer was no. I think it's really telling that, in a continent where we are so exposed, we're not even prepared to acknowledge, prepare for and assess the level of risk.

I welcome the government's commitment in yesterday's budget to establishing a national climate change risk assessment and the allocation of $9.3 million over the next four years to build climate risk management capabilities and systems. I strongly encourage the government to establish ongoing processes and five-year plans, as I proposed, to improve the mitigation programs that will be supported by the funds. We've heard many contributions in this place about how devastating some of the natural events we've had in recent years have been for those communities. We need to make sure there is a regular process of risk assessment, adaptation and planning that goes with acknowledging those risks.

Aside from informing mitigation and adaptation programs, the proposed five-year plans would allow an adaptive response to the identified risk, which is relevant both nationally and regionally for economic sectors including agriculture, biodiversity, national parks, marine parks, health, energy, transport services, education, planning, construction, infrastructure and so many more. Furthermore, proper risk assessments encourage investment in critical infrastructure to cope with the increase of severe weather events and to inform insurers and the community alike of the risks they face.

Once we assess the risk, we have to have a very clear and accountable process to make sure we put in place adaptation planning. It's something that, again, I had proposed, and I have had discussions with the minister in respect of the need to implement that as a regular aspect. Risk assessment and national adaptation planning, once produced, can include—and this is important for communities—the objective to protect against and mitigate those risks with strategies, policies and proposals for meeting those objectives; time frames to implement strategies, policies and proposals; and measures and indicators to monitor progress and how the strategies will be funded.

This bill comes at a crucial time. The CSIRO report into our future world predicts that, for the decade ahead, escalating impacts of unprecedented weather events highlight the urgency to invest in climate adaptation and preparation. The Insurance Council of Australia has indicated that insurance is already becoming more difficult to access due to the rising premiums after insurers recorded over $13 billion in claims cost over the two years following the Black Summer fires of 2019 and 2020. It was welcome that in the budget delivered yesterday there was some $25 million over five years to improve insurance availability and affordability. We know the predictions of how many households will be uninsurable by 2050. It is up to a million. That poses a serious question for communities and individuals. It poses a serious problem when it comes to lendability for credit for banks. The climate risk associated becomes too big for that mortgage portfolio. There are really serious questions that need to be addressed when it comes to those ongoing impacts of climate.

The Australia state of the environment report found that we're in rapidly changing climate with unsustainable use of our resources contributing to the deterioration of our environment. Immediate action with innovative management and collaboration can turn things around. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote to the then government, urging them to provide support to communities through the disaster recovery fund to assist with recovery from COVID-19.

We know that during lockdown periods it was incredibly important for governments, both state and federal, to come up with mechanisms to deliver assistance to local businesses as quickly and efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, the definition of 'natural disasters' did not allow for 'pandemic' to be recognised. Payments under the mechanism would have been effective and simple to administer using existing processes through Services Australia, and that would have been of great assistance during, for example, the Christmas lockdown on the northern beaches in 2020-21. Unfortunately, that request was denied on the basis that the definition of 'natural disasters' did not extend to pandemics, but we do know from the WHO that the risk of pandemics is incredibly increased as a result of warming global temperatures, so I think it is important for the government to consider the definition of 'natural disasters' and whether or not 'pandemic' should also be included to ensure we have a prompt process to roll out assistance. I encourage the government to consider broadening the definition to include pandemics as there is no other existing mechanism to rapidly deal with such dire situations as we found ourselves in on multiple occasions over the past three years. Further, I believe it to be appropriate for some of the Disaster Ready Fund to be invested in pandemic preparedness.

I welcome this bill and the government's commitment to proactive measures of mitigation and adaptation to natural disasters. The impacts of climate change are already baked into our environment, and we need to assess what the risks are, adapt to them and mitigate them as best as possible. Australians know that this is true. We are seeing this on a daily basis with the floods that have been running across the east coast of the country for the past year. I welcome the changes in this legislation, but I urge the government: (1) to develop a plan to conduct regular national climate risk assessments; (2) to develop regular mitigation and adaptation plans in response to those national climate risk assessments; and (3) to consider broadening the definition of natural disasters to include pandemics to provide a shovel-ready tool to distribute funds in the event of future events such as COVID-19.