ABC SOUTH EAST - flood funding, telecommunications and Snowy Hydro

ABC SOUTH EAST - flood funding, telecommunications and Snowy Hydro Main Image

23 November 2022


SUBJECTS: Funding for flood repairs, telecommunications resilience in natural disasters, bonus payments to Snowy Hydro staff.

SIMON LAUDER, HOST: Time for our regular catch-up with the Member for Eden-Monaro, Labor’s Kristy McBain. Good morning.

KRISTY MCBAIN, MINISTER: Good morning, Simon. How are you?

LAUDER: Really well, thank you so much for joining us. Earlier this morning we were talking with the President of Local Government New South Wales about their state-wide road emergency declaration and calling for cooperation between Federal Government and state government and an increase in funding for roads from the Federal Government. Look, what’s going on behind the scenes in terms of planning for road repair when all the rain stops?

MCBAIN: Yeah, we know that rain really has impacted our road network right across the country. And obviously those councils directly impacted by floods are at the pointy end of that with very significant roads washing away and needing to be rebuilt. But right across the country the heavy rain has really created some problems along the network with potholes, but also the weakening of road pavement, which will probably impact on the life cycle of a road in total.

We are working with our state partners on a whole range of measures. We’ve acted pretty quickly and provisioned $3 billion out of the recent budget in response to the current flooding situation. There is a million dollars available to local councils for their recovery at the moment, which they can use immediately on whatever aspect of that flooding disaster they need to.

But we also committed $750 million to local roads and community infrastructure, of which the $250 million that we topped up in the Budget will be prioritised to regional local governments. You know that money can be used towards a range of projects, including roads, community facilities, bike paths and playgrounds, those type of things. Because we know that there is a range of infrastructure that’s been damaged with all the heavy rain. And on top of that we also have our Roads to Recovery program, which is $500 million annually that goes out to local councils for them to prioritise on whichever roads that they wish to.  But we’re always happy to work with state governments to make sure that our local councils can access funding accept in the height of a disaster.

LAUDER: And as you would know, in the Bega Valley, one of the solutions the council is proposing is a special rate variation, increasing rates by up to 90 per cent. You know, at a time when Australians are struggling with the cost of living, what do you think of that as the Minister for Local Government and Territories?

MCBAIN: Yeah in the electorate of Eden-Monaro we’ve gone three out of our six councils going through this same process. One of those six councils did that last year. So, there are a lot of local councils at the moment really struggling on the weight of multiple natural disasters and keeping up with the costs of goods and services to our regions.

As a government, we support councils every year through our Financial Assistance Grants Program – $2.9 billion of untied funding goes to local governments every year. But we know that there are some key challenges for them, including workforce, and funding is obviously a huge one. And we will continue our work with the Australian Local Government Association with those Commonwealth, state and territory ministers relevant. And Friday this week I’ve got a meeting with local government ministers from across the country to discuss some of those challenges, including roads, including financial sustainability. And I’m sure that cyber security is also going to come up as an issue.

LAUDER: And this week you put out an announcement about the installation of backup NBN Sky Muster satellite services, which are now available for SES units and Rural Fire Service brigades here in the South East. So better communications during emergencies. I’m just wondering, will they have backup power in the event that we lose power during emergencies?

MCBAIN: Yeah, so one of the things that is being done in a response to that bushfire royal commission and also highlighted in the New South Wales bushfire inquiry was the need to strengthen our telecommunications against natural disaster, which is where STAND comes from. So, we’re installed those backup satellites at SES units in Sutton, Braidwood, Captains Flat, Bega and Tumut, and we’ve also got them at RFS sheds in Braidwood, Bombala, Berridale, Bega and Queanbeyan East.

And the really important thing is that we’ve listened to what communities have told us that this needs to be available to them. All of those locations generally have backup power ready to go in the case of an emergency. And we know a lot of them are places of last resort in our communities anyway or they are a place where we know that there are a lot of people that will congregate. So, making sure that those first responders have access to ongoing telecommunications is really important, but making sure that the wider community has that access is needed.

So far there’s been around a thousand of these STANDs or satellites delivered across the country. And there’s still more to come, which I think is really important because, you know, we are really taking the advice that we received from communities after the Black Summer bushfires seriously, rolling out that infrastructure. And there is more to do, but it goes to show that we are trying to make our communities more resilient come the next natural disaster.

LAUDER: And I just wanted to ask you about some revelations from Senate estimates recently to do with Snowy Hydro. Of course, the Commonwealth Government being the sole shareholder of Snowy Hydro. And it emerged that the company had paid about $30 million in bonuses to staff in the financial year and a similar amount in the previous financial year. Is the government, you know, asking questions about whether these bonuses are deserved?

MCBAIN: Yeah, well, there are two shareholder ministers now – the Minister for Finance Katy Gallagher and the Minister for Climate Change Chris Bowen. And there’s been obviously a range of work going on with Snowy Hydro in regards to Snowy 2 and the Kurri Kurri plant that they received funding for in the last term of government. But I think one of the key discussions is going to be around, you know, whether that is in line with community expectations. I mean, we have already seen the Australia Post issue with bonuses being paid to executives, and I think, you know, it’s right to ask those questions and it’s right to request detail on that. And I think that there will be more work done on that making sure that there is some type of benchmark available for that and making sure that it is in line with community expectations.

LAUDER: And just to the Government’s legislative agenda as Parliament winds up for 2022, of course there’s the Industrial Relations Bill and the National Anti-Corruption Commission yet to pass Parliament. And it looks like more and more Senator Jacqui Lambie and independent David Pocock are going to be important on these. Are you making friends with David Pocock and Jacqui Lambie?

MCBAIN: Well, the way to get anything done is to negotiate with people. And I think it’s right and proper that people can scrutinise these bills, have conversations with a range of different stakeholders and then discuss those issues with the government. The Government’s already made a number of amendments on the IR and the national integrity commission bill. So, you know, good governments listen and tweak legislation to make sure that it is robust and takes into account a whole different range of views.

But, you know, I’m really looking forward to those two things passing. You know, we went to the election and a National Anti-Corruption Commission was one of the biggest issues for people right across the country. And I completely understand that. We’re the only level of government that doesn’t have that independent oversight. And I think it’s well past time that that happens. So, looking forward to that passing.

Obviously, the IR bill will be with the Senate and hopefully back to the House very soon. But I guess the most important thing across regional Australia is, you know, we’re home to about 716,000 businesses. Over 90 per cent of those have four employees or less, and the IR bill does not impact them whatsoever. So, you know, there has been a lot of speculation about how it will impact small business. But just for our own community’s sake, you know, those small businesses just aren’t impacted.

LAUDER: Kristy McBain, great to talk to you again. Thanks a lot.

MCBAIN: Thank you.

LAUDER: Kristy McBain, the member for Eden-Monaro, Minister for Regional Development Local Government and Territories.