Australian Natural Disasters

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (1.31 pm)—I stand today following a whole host of members whose electorates and, moreover, the people they represent, have been flood affected over recent months.

I say ‘affected’ rather than ‘damaged’ because, even though many individuals, many families and many businesses did not endure, as some sadly did, walls of water rushing through their homes and shops, everyone in some regions has been affected in some way or other by the terrible events. Every state has experienced the devastating effects of the floods. Some were not as widely reported as others but that is not to say certain people in areas which did not make the national news were spared. 

The member for Braddon, Sid Sidebottom, my colleague on the Standing Committee on Regional Australia, conducting an inquiry into the impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in regional Australia, had to take leave of our recent tour to return to his Tasmanian home to sandbag his house and, I am sure, to help out others while he was there. The member for Wannon, Dan Tehan, and the member for Capricornia, Kirsten Livermore, were not even able to make the tour, such was the extent of flooding in their respective Victorian and Queensland electorates. 

It seemed almost incongruous for a committee to be going from regional town to regional town to discuss ways to save water and hear plausible arguments as to why water should not be taken from farming communities, when the nation was inundated with the worst flooding since 1974. The flooding in Queensland was especially disastrous. The rain came and kept coming, and as it moved south a trail of destruction and, unfortunately, death was left behind. 

The images of a four-wheel drive being swept along a Toowoomba street when flash flooding hit the city on 10 January are implanted in Australians’ memories. This image spread around the world. Few could believe what they saw. This was nature at its very worst. To then learn that the Brisbane River would spill its banks too shocked the nation and the state even further. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by these floods. They have lost their homes, their pets and their income and some, tragically, have lost their loved ones. Material possessions can be replaced, even if it is hard to accept that treasured mementos are gone forever. Livelihoods can be rebuilt. But the loss of human life is precious, as we all know. This is a flood which will never be forgotten. 

As people start to repair and rebuild their homes and businesses, some will be trying to repair and rebuild their families as they move on from this tragic event. Australians are resilient people; we knuckle down and get on with the job and, when times are tough, we put our shoulders back and chins up and find a way through. Queenslanders will do this, as will those from other states, but it will take time. 

Many people are saying now is not the time to discuss options to prevent future flooding. But if we keep putting this off then it will end up in the too-hard basket or be forgotten until next time a disaster strikes. We cannot and must not let this happen. To mitigate further flooding, possibly save lives and certainly store water, Australia’s water storage infrastructure must be improved. Flooding affects people’s livelihoods. We should be doing everything and anything possible to stop flooding such as this occurring again. 

No new major dams have been built in nearly a quarter of a century. In the Murray-Darling Basin, the last significant dam constructed was the Dartmouth in north-east Victoria way back in the 1970s. Dartmouth’s capacity is 3,906 gigalitres, similar to the amount the Murray-Darling Basin Authority declared in its controversial guide is now needed to be taken from the system for the environment. When proposals for dams are presented they are usually dashed by environmental concerns. In fact, since it was created after the 2007 election, Infrastructure Australia has not received a single proposal for a dam to be built. Dams offer more than just water storage; they are a potential source of emissions-free electricity and they are an important addition to food security. Dr Barry Croke, from the Australian National University, is a water catchment expert and says dams help to ‘delay, lower and broaden’ the impact of floodwaters on urban settlements. He says that, without the Wivenhoe Dam, floodwaters would have flowed into Brisbane much faster, with a higher peak occurring earlier. It is time the social benefits to communities are put before the environment and it is time we shake off our dam phobia. 

By no means as severe as the Queensland floods, my electorate of Riverina was also affected by flooding as 2010 drew to a close. For the past decade the Riverina has been devastated by drought and most farmers, not only in my electorate but everywhere else too, lost millions of dollars worth of livestock and crops. Families suffered, properties were sold and, in some overwhelming circumstances, lives were lost. Finally, in the autumn months, prayers were answered. The skies opened and the drought was broken. Farmers started preparing themselves for a high-yielding bumper season, a season which would hopefully start to pay off some of their ever-increasing bank debt. 

Livestock farmers were breaking records week after week and crop farmers were sowing soil wet enough to grow great crops yet dry enough for them to succeed. However, by 15 October, the rain had not stopped. The Riverina was fast exceeding its need for water. In my electorate, properties in Adelong, Collingullie, Tarcutta, Tooma, Tumbarumba and Uranquinty fared the worst. Towards the end of November, it was estimated that $500 million was wiped off the value of the $3.2 million New South Wales harvest; however, the rain and the flooding continued over the first weekend of December, making the damage bill much higher. Most crops around the Riverina, be it wheat, lucerne, lupin or canola, were either lost or severely depleted in value. By mid-December, the situation had become so dire, districts in my electorate were placed on the natural disaster list, homes were evacuated, livestock was drowning and crops were under water. But the cruellest cut of all was the realisation that what was meant to be a bumper crop was not going to happen. 

On 14 December, federal opposition leader, Tony Abbott, Leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, and shadow minister for agriculture, John Cobb, visited the Riverina to inspect flood damaged crops. Mr Abbott, Mr Truss and Mr Cobb embarked on a tour of properties west of Wagga Wagga near the village of Collingullie. The first property they inspected, owned by Adam Jenkins, once grew lucerne and soybeans, but with the current conditions and floodwater his crops were under water—a loss of $100,000 in soybeans alone. 

We then went across the road to the ‘Maroubra Park’ property of John and Anna Dennis and their sons. They are wheat and lupin growers. They had a wheat crop to strip. Its initial value of more than $300 a tonne was depleted by 14 December to significantly less, with the quality downgraded to mere feed wheat. Mr Dennis also had a paddock of lupins which was suffering from rain induced fungal disease. He was not alone. You can understand why farmers must have been thinking of those immortal words of Hanrahan in John O’Brien’s —or Father Patrick Joseph Hartigan’s—famous poem, ‘We’ll all be rooned if this rain doesn’t stop’. 

Many New South Wales farmers hardest hit by torrential rain, which has downgraded the value of their crops, are about to have their exceptional circumstances relief payments containing the muchneeded interest rate subsidy provision terminated next month. This program helped save them in the drought and is needed more than ever now and into the future. I was gratified to see the Prime Minister nod her head in understanding and agreement when Nationals leader Mr Truss raised this during his speech yesterday, and I would ask the government to consider extending these EC provisions. Farmers in Queensland have lost crops too and need support. Without these crops farmers were relying on, many will be hard pressed to find money to put food on the table, plant a crop next season or even meet loan repayments. The destruction of that state in a matter of days was unbelievable, and we must be prepared to do whatever we can to help circumvent any such devastation again. 

The December flooding of the Murrumbidgee River would have been far worse but for the wonderful efforts of our local defence personnel as well as various organisations, including the magnificent State Emergency Services and the Wagga Wagga Rescue Squad. The speed with which the councils and police in my electorate sprang into action was to be commended. On the very night our local Wagga Wagga Rescue Squad, from which the New South Wales Volunteer Rescue Association was formed, was commemorating its 60th anniversary, many of its members were doing what they could to help save the city from rising floodwaters. Sandbags were hastily made and installed where necessary, levee banks were strengthened, people were mobilised, communities at risk were evacuated and, unlike the flash floods of a few weeks earlier in smaller regional valleys, the floodwaters came and went without breaking the levees and without causing too much heartache or damage to urban areas. 

We have heard stories of heroism, stoicism and resilience; the Australian spirit at its best. There are many tales of mateship, individual bravery and effort in the face of unimaginable loss. We heard yesterday in this House, the member for Wright, Scott Buchholz, and the member for Groom, Ian Macfarlane, among others, speak emotionally about their personal experience of some of those people in their own seats, stories which have moved a nation to tears. I would like to mention one of my constituents who has made a real difference in these tragic times and who has, as have many others, gone above and beyond what would normally be expected of a person in his position. James McTavish, formerly second in command at 1st Recruit Training Battalion at Kapooka Army Base near Wagga Wagga, is now SES regional controller at Wagga Wagga. He coordinated the city-saving flood efforts at Wagga Wagga and he is still in Queensland as task force commander overseeing New South Wales SES teams. 

Speaking of my local SES, a group of volunteers from the Riverina will return to their homes today, having put in many hours in the clean-up efforts. Another group went to do what they could yesterday. Tens of thousands of dollars have been raised in the Riverina to support Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s flood appeal. 

The events of recent times show again the ageless cycle of nature, floods following droughts. This is not climate change. This is not—as one elected to this place who should know better ridiculously and inappropriately suggested—the fault of the coal industry. This is Australia, a continent of contrast and extremes, a very beautiful yet very harsh land. Australia can throw up its worst in a short space of time—bushfires, cyclones, floods, droughts, storms— but nothing can weaken the resolve of our people. I offer my condolences, and those of all in the Riverina, to those who have suffered the most in these floods. As a nation we will rebuild and we will survive, but we will not forget.

Cristy Houghton