Speech: Floods are the reality of climate change
I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Cyclone and Flood Damage Reinsurance Pool) Bill 2022 and I want to associate myself with the comments made by my colleague Senator McKim. As I speak, communities in many parts of Lismore in New South Wales have been ordered to evacuate again as heavy rains continue to batter the North Coast in my home state. Residents in Lismore and surrounds—North Lismore, South Lismore, low-lying parts of Kyogle, Tumbulgum and other low-lying areas—were given until 10 pm last night to leave their homes. My heart goes out to people who have had to leave their homes yet again, faced by yet more life-threatening flooding. Weary residents in parts of flood-ravaged Queensland are also on high alert again. So many of these people have already faced severe floods. They have lost their homes, their lifelong belongings and much more to these floods. And here they are faced with even more catastrophic weather, with dangerous and life-threatening flash floods lapping at their doorsteps yet again.
The floods in New South Wales and Queensland remind us that this is the everyday reality of climate change. This is what we have been warned about over and over for decades now—not a day or two, not a week or two, not a year or two, but decade upon decade. The climate crisis is here and now, and it is not just on people's doorsteps; it is in their homes and it is impacting every aspect of their lives. The damage and suffering caused by these floods reminds us of the continued and deliberate inaction of the Liberal-National government to address climate change. They have in fact fuelled climate change by subsidising fossil fuels and approving coalmine after coalmine.
It's not as if we didn't know, as I said earlier, about these impending disasters and the devastation they would cause. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report, which said, 'Climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying, and some trends are now irreversible', sounded a code red for humanity but was completely disregarded by this government. The same report warned us that extreme weather events caused by climate change will increase in both intensity and frequency—and here we are, with a dire warning that is being played out in my home state of New South Wales and in Queensland right now. They have witnessed what a climate emergency looks like firsthand, and they are devastated. Yet the Morrison government have ignored all warnings. Yet they have failed to tackle the climate crisis. Yet they keep talking about 'variable climate'—we heard that this morning from a government senator—as if it has nothing to do with their actions. They're obviously being wilfully ignorant because they don't want to act on coal and gas, lest they offend their pals and donors—the fossil fuel billionaires.
Much has been said about the scale of these floods. They are massive. People who have lived through other floods in that area talk about never having seen anything like this. Warehouses were fully submerged underwater. And they are right. As my friend Lismore resident and soon-to-be member of the upper house of New South Wales Sue Higginson wrote in the Guardian, 'This is more than a flood; this is a catastrophe.' She goes on to say:
We need to look towards the future and decide what kind of future we want. Climate change has happened, it is going to get worse—the decision is how much worse do we want this to get. Strong action on climate change is not simply a flood plan or a fire plan, it means no new coal and gas, decarbonising our economy, making our planning system climate centred and keeping people safe.
That's why support for the Greens in that area particularly is growing. Our Greens MP for Ballina, Tamara Smith, has stood and supported the community, as has our federal candidate for Richmond, Mandy Nolan. They haven't been shy to call it as it is—a climate catastrophe, a climate emergency—and they are with the people who are suffering the most.
In addition to its failure to address climate change, the government is now picking and choosing who gets covered under the reinsurance plan proposed by this bill. The bill would require the public to maintain a $10 billion fund to underwrite the contingent liability associated with nationalising reinsurance for cyclone and related flood damage. But that's where it ends. The bill does not include other climate disasters. We know that severe weather events caused by climate change are making insurance costs skyrocket in many parts of the country. Yet this bill as currently drafted will not cover insurance for the people of New South Wales and Queensland who have just experienced and continue to experience devastating floods. There is no doubt that the damage caused by cyclones should be covered; of course it should be. But there is no reason that flooding for other reasons shouldn't be covered.
Despite the indisputable truth of climate change induced disasters, the government has not mentioned climate change in introducing this bill. The term is used in the explanatory memorandum but only when quoting references. And we know why that is the case. The Liberal and National parties are still full of climate-denying criminals. Their seats in parliament are funded by dollars from fossil fuel companies, so they have their heads deliberately buried in the sand.
The government is utterly failing to acknowledge the universal nature of the threat posed by the climate emergency by proposing, in this bill, to nationalise reinsurance for only a particular class of what have traditionally been called 'natural perils' but that are now, very clearly, anthropocentric climate disasters caused by the actions of humans, caused by the actions of the Liberal-National government.
To do this, the bill is drafted in a way that is both inequitable and short-sighted. The climate emergency is pushing up the cost of insurance all over the country. If a government's reinsurance pool is to be established, all Australians should be afforded the benefit. The bill is so limited in its scope, and my colleague Senator Nick McKim has circulated several very sensible amendments to address this problem and cover people who have experienced damage caused by flooding. The government's reinsurance scheme proposed by this bill should cover all climate disasters and people affected by them right across the country.
The Greens want a statutory review to consider fully nationalising reinsurance for all climate disaster related property damage. Fully nationalising reinsurance would directly expose the government to the costs of underinvestment in public works that are required to mitigate the impact of climate disasters, because they are here and now. We are exposed to these risks one way or another anyway. They should, at the very least, be transparent. This would hopefully create a direct incentive for the government to invest in climate adaptation works all across the country as well as better data collection, and better land use planning and coordination with state and local governments.
The Greens have another excellent amendment, that the money required to establish and maintain the $10 billion reinsurance pool be backed by taxation on entities extracting and combusting fossil fuels. The logic here is pretty simple and straightforward. The burning of fossil fuels is what has created the climate emergency, so those who profit from the burning of fossil fuels should be made to pay for the cost of the climate emergency.
Finally, I want to speak about this government's response to climate disasters, particularly the one that is unfolding still in northern New South Wales. People in flood-stricken areas like northern New South Wales had to wait and wait and wait for the federal government to respond, for any help to arrive. They were desperate to save what they could and who they could. Local people had to take on the extreme risk of trying to save their neighbours from severe flooding. I'm so proud of that community because every time a disaster happens they work with each other. They put their lives at risk to help others. Community members stepped in and stepped up for each other, when the government was nowhere to be seen.
'That's not my job,' said Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who declared the floods in New South Wales and Queensland a national emergency a full nine days after Lismore was submerged, and the local anger was palpable. I was hoping this would be a wake-up call for Mr Morrison, but his arrogance and the arrogance of the Liberal-National government knows no bounds. Even the support payments announced initially were carved out by local government areas and refused to cover all the flood ravaged parts of northern New South Wales and refused to include many people who were hit by the floods—as if floods just recede at LGA boundaries and decide to not hit the homes of migrants, international students or seasonal workers who were also left out of the support. It was: 'What a shame.' How disgraceful.
The government that remembers to pinch pennies when helping people who have been hit by severe flooding but continues to subsidise fossil fuel corporations to the tune of billions of dollars is not a government that anyone wants. This dismal lack of support and preparedness on what climate disasters will look like, what climate emergencies will look like, is rooted in the climate denialism inherent to the coal-loving Liberals and Nationals. There is no climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience plan, and, sadly, we do not expect one from this government either.
The community is really tired of this fossil-fuel-loving government. This is why we have to turf them out at the election, which isn't very far away. I, for one, can't wait to do that. The Greens in the balance of power will push the next government to move further and faster to tackle the climate crisis, to end coal and gas, to do more on mitigation and resilience, and to protect people and the planet.