We need to do disaster recovery better

February 16, 2022

This time two years ago, I was pleading with the Morrison government to provide bushfire recovery support for the communities hit by the Gospers Mountain fire. That was not just for the communities that burned, where people experienced the trauma of being surrounded by flames and saw their homes or their neighbours' homes in ashes and had their properties smouldering for days. And it was not just for the bushland in that World Heritage Area, where valley and ridgeline after valley and ridgeline were reduced to just blackened trunks, and where native animals—koalas, snakes and lizards, wombats, possums, kangaroos and birds—were all gone or dead. It was also for the small businesses whose hopes of a good summer went up in smoke as people stayed away long after the fires had stopped.

This time two years ago, 300 small businesses in the upper mountains had met with me to share their pain and their ideas about how we could move forward. Since then, fire affected communities from the mountains to the Hawkesbury have had to keep asking, keep waiting and keep holding on as they have come to terms with so much of the recovery from fire having to wait. Only last week I was able to connect another elderly landowner still without fences from those fires two years ago with the wonderful Rough Track kids, who've been helping to replace fences destroyed by fires and, more recently, floods.

There are some communities who'll be very happy to see projects announced in the latest bushfire recovery funding—from the tourism sector in Katoomba, grateful that the street heading down to the iconic Three Sisters will become tree-lined eventually and that the much-missed Winter Magic Festival gets a boost, through to the tough-as-boots Kurrajong Heights and Bilpin communities, who may end up with a community centre that actually meets their needs, and the Macdonald Valley, where the tiny St Albans and surrounding community are still finding their feet not just from fire but from two floods, and they'll see things like an upgrade to their community hall. I thank these communities for their patience. I know that the hundreds of times I've spoken for you and about you in this place—whether it was the nagging or the pleading, the anger or the despair—have been because I saw your resilience to what you'd been through as the months post disaster dragged on.

The projects that have been announced are the sorts of projects that those of us in bushfire areas have urged the government to fund, and the millions are welcome—although we could have seen them a year ago rather than on the eve of an election. I hate to consider the possibility that the Morrison government held off announcing this round of projects, which we were told would actually be pre-Christmas announcements, until now, a few weeks away from an election day. That would be absolutely disrespectful to my community, to what they've gone through. I also am aware that there are very good projects that have missed out, and we'll continue to work for the funding that these communities need.

There is a whole stage of work, though, that hasn't happened yet in our region, moving beyond recovery to preparation and mitigation, and that applies to floods, fires and storms. The Emergency Response Fund of $4 billion, which I have spoken about often—I voted to create this fund—I saw as an amazing opportunity to get mitigation and preparation projects happening in the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury. But not a single cent of it has been spent. It has accrued more than $800 million in interest in the two years plus it has been around. There have been plenty of opportunities for it to be invested, and it is a crying shame that it hasn't been spent on improving telecommunications, on creating safer places, on creating evacuation centres.

It is also a shame that the Prime Minister has not seen fit to visit any of these bushfire affected areas and speak directly to the people who are still recovering. Anyone who's been through a massive trauma like fires the like of which we saw would know that, two years on, it is still fresh; there's a really long way to go. I would urge him to speak with people.

When we talk about fires in the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains, we can't forget that we also face floods. A year ago, a really big flood hit the region. One hit the area two years ago, after the bushfires, but 12 months later it was followed by another one. At the weekend, I met a couple in Lower Portland. They have still not received a cent of support to restore their land. They have agricultural land, and they are two of a number of people. In an area like mine we don't necessarily have massive rural plots. They're small rural landholdings relative to other parts of the country. While there's been a lot of talk of funding, it just hasn't eventuated. The tightness of the rules means that things are designed for big rural properties, which leads to smaller farms and producers just falling through the cracks. For instance, people who are breeding prize-winning cattle or champion horses for dressage don't necessarily meet the criteria, and that means many have been overlooked. There really is no point in making promises to people, putting it out there, only for people to find out that they fall through the cracks.

I know we can do disaster recovery much better. I know Labor would do disaster recovery much better, with more flexibility so that you could consider a person's situation holistically. I will never forget that the day after my house burnt down in 2013 the Liberal government made a decision to reduce the amount of support available for people who'd been affected by that fire. That was a deliberate decision, and it affected hundreds and hundreds of people who, under the new rules, were no longer able to seek any emergency assistance. That set the tone for what I have seen from a disaster management perspective. I do want to acknowledge that David Littleproud as minister worked very closely with me in the early stages of the post-fire recovery; however, many of the promises have not been fulfilled. The relationship with New South Wales remains a challenge, and these are things that Labor can do better.

One of the things that leave my community most vulnerable in a disaster is mobile phone coverage and a poor NBN service. The NBN was never about downloading movies; it was about being able to do high-speed uploads and downloads so you could run businesses, you could access doctors via telehealth and, as COVID showed people who had no imagination to understand it beforehand, you could work from home, do school from home and stay connected to the world while stuck at home. Macquarie has had a mishmash of NBN technologies dumped on it. Not only is fibre to the premises not being used to its full potential but we have the dud copper based fibre to the node, the fragile fibre to the curb and two technologies that simply don't do the job, wireless and satellite. Wireless can't meet the data demands and is congested, while Sky Muster users remain frustrated by not enough data, high latency and dropouts.

The aim of Labor in government would be to increase the spread of fibre. We need to have fibre use spread way further than it currently is, and we've already announced that fibre-to-the-node customers will be able to upgrade to fibre to the premises as we'll run fibre past another 1.5 million homes. That's a start. The rollout of the NBN has been botched by the Liberals and has actually left many in my community more vulnerable during fires and storms than they were before. Fancy that—2022 and we are more vulnerable! Tens of thousands of FTTC and FTTN customers no longer have landlines and so, when the power goes, so do our phone lines. Don't just say, 'Use your mobile.' Filling the gaps in our mobile coverage has been one of the Morrison government's biggest failures of all. Its own regional telecommunications review, which I made a submission to, highlighted that under this government there's been a patchwork quilt approach to connectivity in the regions, including mine. The report found that in instances of natural disasters and emergencies, connectivity is significantly impacted by power and network outages. It reduces access to recovery and support, and that's what's so disappointing about the government's response to the natural disasters that we've had in the last few years.

There has been no significant investment in improving our ability to communicate. Despite royal commissions and inquiries, advocacy from fire affected MPs and a general hue and cry about it, all we see is the odd mobile phone tower being added and incremental improvements. The 2013 Blue Mountains fire was a wake-up call to improve telecommunications for places like Hawkesbury Heights, Winmalee and Yellow Rock. We lost no lives, but we could well have, and one of the key takeouts for locals was that we really need solid and reliable phone connections. The landlines we had back then meant people could phone neighbours, even when the mobile signal was crowded and only texts would get through. But today, eight years on, there are hundreds of people like me who are now without landlines and can't get a mobile phone signal in their home when the power goes off.

This government always leaves things till it's too late and then does too little. Surely it won't take a more deadly bushfire in our region for them to wake up to the need for mobile coverage with improved reach and resilience, with batteries that survive power cuts. Telstra doesn't always get the best rap, but I want to thank them for responding to my relentless push to have some of the issues addressed in the very rural parts of my electorate. Thanks to them there is some progress, but we're a long way from good enough, let alone resilient. There's so much more that a good government would be doing to keep the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury safe, and that's what Labor will do.

I want to talk about the recovery of koalas. Of course, when we talk about koalas we know that many other animals need the same habitat that koalas do, but we use it as an iconic species. Koalas have been under pressure from a range of threats, including chronic habitat loss due to development. That then drives other threats, like dog attacks and being hit by cars, plus diseases such as chlamydia, and now we have extreme weather events under climate change.

The Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury have turned out to be critically important for koalas. The work of Science for Wildlife since 2014 shows that the area is a potential refuge for koalas under climate change, as habitats out west become less suitable for koalas and habitats to the east, including in the Hawkesbury, are under increasing human-development pressures. We have the most genetically diverse koalas in the country, making them vital for conservation. Dr Kellie Leigh describes them as 'a hidden bunch of rule-breaking koalas who've not read the literature on koala ecology'. Thank goodness! They occupy habitats that we didn't even know they could use. They thrive on trees that grow in dubious-quality soil types, she says. Some live above 1,000 metres altitude, and they get snowed on.

The modelling that predicts the extinction of koalas by 2050 was largely based on land-clearing rates, and it was done before the bushfires. These growing populations were seen as a source of hope, free from the threat of development. The bushfires showed us just how big a threat climate change really is. Not only does the habitat loss have to stop; Dr Leigh says we need to actively manage koalas and their remaining habitats. Listing the koala as 'vulnerable to extinction' didn't reverse the trend of decline over the last few years, and the Morrison government failed to take the steps that were needed. Will uplisting to 'endangered' be enough for them to act? Looking at their track record, there is no evidence of that at all. To move koalas back off the endangered list and away from the threat of extinction, we need to increase koala numbers.

The government sat on the uplisting announcement for three months before turning it into a photo opportunity. When Labor's National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy ended in 2014, the Morrison-Joyce government never got around to replacing it—that's eight years of failure—and there is still no recovery plan in sight. This is a government that always does too little, too late, and doesn't listen to the experts. At a national level, the Liberals are not serious about saving koalas. At a local level, in the Hawkesbury, the Liberals are not serious about saving koalas. Anyone who claims to care about koalas but hypocritically supports measures to clear valuable habitat without seeking any expert input cannot be taken seriously. It does feel like the jeweller Tiffany, with fundraising from its diamond koala brooch, is doing more to save the koala than nearly a decade of Liberals has done.