Investment Funds Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 Second Reading

December 01, 2021

I'd like to speak to the amendment relating to schedule 4, the Emergency Response Fund. I have had years of experiencing disasters. Having lived in the Blue Mountains for more than 30 years, I've experienced the fires, including the bushfire that took my own home in 2013. But let's go six years forward from my experience in 2013 to the Gospers Mountain fire in 2019. It was a longer fire. It destroyed more habitat, although fewer homes were lost. I have to say it affected far more people. More people were threatened, had near misses and endured extraordinary conditions, and the fire responders faced things they had never thought they'd see, ever. There are people only now realising the mental toll that it has taken, along with the cumulative effects of floods and COVID.

In between those two bushfire events was the creation of the Emergency Response Fund. I spoke in this place and welcomed the creation of that fund. But, two years on, the only thing that's happened is that the fund has got fatter. A small amount of money has been committed, but only a measly $50 million has actually gone out the door. The interest earned has been around $725 million, so the fund is sitting there getting bigger while the work that should be done to help prepare for the next fire, flood or other natural disaster simply isn't happening.

Now we know that there's a round of funding opening up in just a few days time, with the applications closing in early January, on 6 January. Community groups are expected to be able to whip up a proposal to spend $20,000 to $10 million in that time. I think what puzzles me most is that the Hawkesbury, the home of the Gospers Mountain fire, is not being given priority points for bushfire but only for flood. Under this funding coming from the Emergency Response Fund, only projects targeting flood will get priority. Without the bonus points in this competitive round, it's hard to see what fire preparation projects or strategies might be successful. The timing of this grant round is appalling. It's at a time when people want to relax with family and friends as we head towards Christmas. What you really have to wonder about with the timing is when the announcements of the successful projects will be made. No doubt they will be perfectly timed to suit a Morrison election campaign. The Morrison government is good at announcement, but as we've seen to date with the Emergency Response Fund—which is one of the subjects of this bill, the Investment Funds Legislation Amendment Bill 2021—their report card gives them an A for announcement and a D for delivery.

When I asked community members who were deeply involved in the fires and floods that we've had in the last two years about what fundamental changes there have been that would make something similar much easier to bear, there is a fairly unanimous shrug of the shoulders and a shake of the head. In fact, the last couple of weeks have been ones of intense anxiety for people who live on the river as they watch the Hawkesbury water rise from the Warragamba spilling.

There is no sense of urgency from this government about the Emergency Response Fund, nor from the New South Wales government in terms of making changes to laws so water can be better managed at Warragamba Dam. That is causing enormous anxiety, as are all the other things this fund could have been used for.

The Bells Line of Road is easily cut during heavy rain. The bridges go under. We could still easily find ourselves loading boxes of carrots into helicopters to get across the river should we see something similar to the floods that we had in March this year. Greens Road at Lower Portland remains unrepaired. People cannot get through. They are still travelling a dangerous dirt road. The Upper Colo Bridge is a long way from being replaced. Cornwallis has barely been looked at, and the riverbanks still have great big holes in them.

It is no clearer to me or others what has being done to improve the evacuation routes out of the Hawkesbury or what has been done to ensure that people know where the evacuation centres are. This fund could have done that. If there is a fire, the same thing applies. It's not clear to anyone that when the RFS rightly says to people in Upper Colo or Colo Heights, 'Now is the time to leave, and you should head to Wilberforce,' there is anywhere to go in Wilberforce that would be a safer place. In fact, there are no additional safer places in either the Blue Mountains or the Hawkesbury other than things that have been done through the efforts of local communities to upgrade their locally run facilities. These are the things that this fund could have done, but it has failed to do that. Nor do we have improved mobile coverage or good NBN.

The government did nothing to prepare for the 2019 Black Summer bushfires despite warnings. Once again, we are in another disaster season with nothing built, no jobs created and our communities no better protected. I know this Prime Minister doesn't hold a hose, but he should be doing everything possible to help my community hold that hose and fight the next fire or be ready to fight and deal with the inevitable next flood. This is the lost opportunity of the Emergency Response Fund to which this bill refers.

I want to take a moment to go into a little bit more detail about what residents at Greens Road in Lower Portland are experiencing. This is a road that was wiped out, let me remind you, eight months ago. Eight months ago, the floods took sections of this road. In that time, Hawkesbury Council and the state government have been unable to deliver any sort of temporary solution for people to keep the road open. All they have is plans. They open the road for a moment, and then they close it when there is 10 millimetres of rain. Of course, we have had weeks of rain now, and residents are profoundly affected by that. We have people living in this area in Lower Portland who are still trying to do repairs to homes that were damaged during the March floods, and yet here we are. They are unable to do those repairs. This is emblematic of the failure of every level of government to recognise the urgency that my community feels in getting action.

One might say that this is the responsibility of council and state government, yet the funding comes from this place. The funding comes through the things that we agree to. This parliament cannot ignore its responsibilities. When you are in government, you have a responsibility to ensure that the funds you allocate are properly spent and spent in a timely way. So I would urge the Morrison government not to step away from its responsibilities and say, 'There's the cash; over to you.' I urge them to step up and work with the New South Wales government and demand that the Hawkesbury City Council speed up the process so that people can get back onto their road and have a way to get to their homes safely without causing even more trauma and anxiety for their families.