Zali Steggall MP speaks on the Impacts of Natural Disasters on Young People (Grievance Debate)

27 February 2024 

I rise to speak in this grievance debate and, firstly, I want to discuss the impact of natural disasters on our children. This morning I was fortunate enough to host an event for Royal Far West and UNICEF Australia to discuss this very issue. We were lucky to have a range of experts, even those personally impacted by the Black Summer bushfires, including Scott and his son Ed, who came down for it. I'd like to thank them very much for what they told us of the experience for them personally—particularly how Royal Far West was able to help Ed deal with the impact of the bushfires, his attendance at school and the mental health impact and toll it has taken on the family as a whole.

I'm lucky enough to have Royal Far West in my electorate. It's coming up to its centenary celebration. It has been operating for nearly 100 years, assisting country kids. It's a local organisation with a national reach, delivering support for our regional communities and improving the health and wellbeing of our nation's rural and remote children by connecting kids to the care they need. And, yes, it has always been based in Manly. What has been amazing, with the advent of new technology, has been the use of telehealth and the provision of wraparound services for country kids. Unfortunately, they can't access these in some of the more remote areas.

We know that Australia is already facing more extreme weather due to climate change, and communities around Australia have already suffered the devastating impacts of bushfires and floods. Too rarely when we discuss those events do we consider how these events are so traumatic—the traumatic impact they have on our children and how they experience it. This is particularly in relation to their emotional and mental health. One of the most stark figures from our recent natural disasters that really stood out to me was that, according to a just-released UNICEF report by Deloitte, 1.4 million children and young people in Australia have experienced a disaster in an average year. And children and young people are more likely to experience disasters if they're in regional or remote areas, from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and/or from First Nations communities. The cost of the impact of the emotional and mental health trauma is staggering. Children and young people are, as a result of those disasters, 4.2 per cent less likely to finish their schooling to year 12. This means that the cost to productivity later in life, and to their own personal lost earnings, is some $3 million. Those children impacted are also between 1.3 and 4.5 per cent more likely to experience psychological distress, leading to $162 million in healthcare cost increases.

To build resilient communities, we need to consider the youngest community members and their needs, recognise the impacts that climate change are having on their childhoods and build resilience to climate change. Too often, from spring to autumn, we see various communities on the news that are at risk of or impacted by bushfire threats, and we'll get the news that the school is closed. How often do newsreaders—or does anyone—pause to reflect on what that means for that community? The school being closed means that children are left at home, sometimes unattended, sometimes at risk. It means that productivity stops because parents stay home as well. The impact to their educational journey and their failure then to meet milestones is considerable.

The UNICEF and Deloitte report had several key insights worth sharing that we need to take up with urgency. They include a nationally consistent approach to supporting children and young people in their preparation and response to disasters, and a risk informed approach to disaster recovery and resilience building for children and young people, because the impacts don't happen, as one might expect, straight after a disaster. The report found that, for children, the stress and mental and psychological impacts from disasters come to light on average about 18 months after a disaster. So when we have a government focused on delivering disaster relief within a two-year window after a disaster and expecting everything to be fixed, it shows how that model is inadequate for what happens on the ground.

Disaster recovery and resilience building funding should also be sensitive to the unique needs of children and young people. We must prioritise addressing those gaps and key services for children, investing in the initiatives that work, and addressing the need for sustainable future funding to care for children impacted by climate change. To that end, I have submitted to the government that they need to continue to fund organisations like Royal Far West for the very essential work that they are doing to support children around the country. Their work requires some $15.8 million in federal funding over the forward estimates. To date they've helped some 3,000 children from 60 schools, preschools and kindergartens in New South Wales and Queensland since the introduction of the community recovery service that commenced in 2020 in response to the Black Summer bushfires. It's clear that the assistance that those programs are delivering is incredibly important—and we heard that incredible testimony this morning.