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As blame-shifting continues over the slow response to the floods in northern NSW, Scott Morrison has gone quiet on a support package agreed to with the state’s premier. By Rick Morton.

Morrison failed to act on flood relief ‘handshake’

Scott Morrison visits a flood-affected property in NSW last week.
Scott Morrison visits a flood-affected property in NSW last week.
Credit: AAP / Dean Lewins

Last week, New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet secured a “handshake agreement” with Prime Minister Scott Morrison that they would do “whatever is required” to support residents devastated by floods in the Northern Rivers region.

Over the weekend, NSW ministers and departmental officials worked to develop and test a recovery funding package. The details were finalised on Tuesday, before being signed off by the premier and passed through an out-of-session expenditure review committee.

At time of press, however, there had been no response from the federal government. Morrison’s office has gone silent.

“I’m not sure what the hold-up is,” a senior NSW government source told The Saturday Paper. “We’ve signed our package, is my point. And the prime minister’s office or the treasurer’s office has not come back to us to say ‘Hey, we have a question about this.’ ”

On Thursday morning, the source consulted another person while on the phone, to see if there had been any movement on the package.

“Still nothing. We are still waiting on the prime minister,” they said, and then, to the other person: “Do we know what the hold-up is? He’s campaigning in Perth? Is that the actual answer?” The second person clarified they had been told simply that Morrison is “unavailable”.

“Well, is he unavailable to review the package? Or unavailable to sign it off? Or unavailable to do the media announce?”

There was a pause. “Okay. So he’s not engaging on it.”

 

This is a story about the politicisation of a national catastrophe, and the lengths Scott Morrison will go to in order to deflect blame while manoeuvring to collect credit for doing the bare minimum.

As February drew to a close and a slow-moving, devastating “atmospheric river” inundated parts of Queensland and northern NSW, the State Emergency Service leadership in Sydney says it did not “reject” an offer of help from the Australian Defence Force.

In fact, some troops were already on the ground.

“We got their resources in for sandbagging and doorknocking, which is what we do first to let the community know of the risk that is coming,” NSW SES commissioner Carlene York said on Tuesday.

“I am unaware of the phone calls that they [the Defence Force] are referring to but I know, and it has been confirmed by Defence today, that they made offers at a local level and they were accepted. I am unaware of any others.”

York was referring to “low-level” offers of support made by an ADF representative to SES crews in the Northern Rivers on February 25. Lismore has army reservists in town and these personnel were enlisted to help. At no point did the SES send the army away.

What may seem like trivial interagency bickering is now a crucial hinge-point in an emergency that has split the state and federal government and left thousands traumatised by apparent bungling. These new details also render moot the contention by Scott Morrison and his minister for Emergency Management, Bridget McKenzie, that the Defence Force cannot go into state jurisdictions without requests for help. There were calls, and the Defence Force responded, although not in numbers that matched the scale of the tragedy.

The crisis was also the first true test of newly legislated powers introduced by the Commonwealth in response to royal commission recommendations following the unprecedented Black Summer bushfires – powers expressly designed for immediate and unilateral action by the federal government. These were not invoked until the 10th day of the flood event, when Morrison was able to get out of Covid-19 isolation and appear in Lismore personally for the announcement.

“Always there will be a community response in disasters such as this, because the community is already there. The resources move and they come as you see them now, but they are not available on a moment’s notice,” Morrison told reporters on March 9. “It is unrealistic to have that set as an expectation. It has taken everybody, including the community, by surprise. No one expected to get to those levels.”

Certainly, the Bureau of Meteorology’s forecasts and river-height warnings for the Northern Rivers, especially in flood-prone Lismore on the Wilsons River, were dramatically below where the waters peaked. In the space of half-a-day the government weather agency revised its flood warning for the town from below 10 metres to 14.5 metres, with the Wilsons River peaking about 14.37 metres on February 28. At that point, the main reference gauge stopped transmitting data.

“We were taking our advice from the Bureau of Meteorology,” York said this week, “and placing our resources where we believed they were needed.”

As The Saturday Paper reported last week, a “number” of rainfall and river observation sites in the region have been offline since the 2019-20 bushfires, although these are largely operated and controlled by state and local governments under agreements to supply information to the bureau.

A member of the Lismore SES brigade, who spoke to this newspaper on condition of anonymity, said community members and business owners were “ready for the 1974 floods”, which peaked at 12.14 metres.

“They couldn’t get readings because some sites were already flooded, there wasn’t that much information coming through,” the volunteer said of the bureau. “And then when it does come through they’ve got to send it off to Melbourne [where the bureau’s national operations centre is located] and then Melbourne has got to send it back, and sometimes that takes up to half an hour.”

Everyone, including local emergency services, was caught off guard as a result. The local fire service, this volunteer said, had the only keys to the early-warning alarm system in town. They couldn’t be reached and so the alarm couldn’t be raised. “They were all in bed. So that is something that has got to change.”

The SES’s own incident management hub in Lismore was flooded. The leadership team moved the operation to higher ground and then eventually to a deck in order to continue overseeing the flood response.

After earlier informal conversations, the NSW government made an official request for ADF support on Sunday, February 27, the day before Lismore’s flood emergency. Subsequently, The Daily Telegraph ran a news report suggesting the Commonwealth couldn’t legally send troops. Many in NSW believed the story was briefed by the prime minister’s office.

“I don’t think anyone in NSW was saying, ‘Please don’t send the defence force,’ ” a high-level NSW government source tells The Saturday Paper. “Let me tell you that the premier was pretty pissed off that a story was briefed to the Tele saying that it was NSW’s fault that the ADF were not deployed quickly.”

There were three ADF helicopters in the air when conditions allowed on Monday, February 28, performing rescues of residents from their roofs and from churning floodwater. Clearly, any bureaucratic requirement for the ADF to become involved had already been triggered.

On March 4, the federal government offered NSW fewer than 300 Defence personnel for the flood crisis. The same day, Premier Dominic Perrottet read press reports that the Commonwealth was publicly saying as many as 2000 were “prepositioned and ready to be deployed when state governments request assistance”.

Although the version of events differs slightly between Commonwealth agencies, even the director-general of Emergency Management Australia, Joe Buffone, whose office reports to McKenzie, said discussions were being held with the NSW government on February 28 “in anticipation of a request”, which resulted in the ADF helicopters being sent in to rescue residents.

On March 5, almost a week after the Northern Rivers’ historic floods, the number of ADF personnel supposedly available for the response had more than doubled to 5000, although authorities could not explain where these troops were.

In a statement debunked by the presence of army personnel in Lismore, Buffone said the government did not “have legal authority to respond without being requested to do so by states and territories”.

The question was not about authority. That was given by multiple people, including by a formal request from the state government on Sunday, February 27. The issue was with the number of soldiers and the size of the response. Both were terribly inadequate.

 

When Scott Morrison and Bridget McKenzie arrived in Lismore on March 9, following the prime minister’s Covid-19 isolation period, they came armed with announcements. That day, a national emergency had been declared under the two-year-old act passed by the Australian parliament. McKenzie was later unable to explain why it had taken so long to trigger the declaration.

“There was no single event in this particular disaster because as you know, it started in Gympie and we’ve headed right down through Sydney,” McKenzie told Today co-host Karl Stefanovic. “There is actually a threshold trigger for calling a national disaster.”

Stefanovic pushed the minister for clarification: “I’m sorry, I just don’t know what that means. If something happens in Gympie and it’s already stretching into Brisbane and then when you see what happens in Lismore and then it’s still seven days before you declare a natural disaster, I’m not sure what the rationale is?”

McKenzie said the advice she received from her agency, Emergency Management Australia, was that a threshold was reached “and then the prime minister then has to consult with premiers, which he did”.

The act does not require this, however. In fact, it says the opposite: that the prime minister may advise the governor-general a declaration should be made, even without input from states and territories, if “the Prime Minister is satisfied that it is appropriate in all of the circumstances to make the declaration without a prior request from the relevant jurisdiction or jurisdictions”.

While on the ground in Lismore, and banning media from potentially sensitive encounters with angry residents, Morrison and McKenzie announced an additional two disaster payments for residents in the local government areas of Richmond Valley, Lismore and Clarence Valley. This would take emergency payments in these areas to $3000 for affected individuals, plus two additional payments of $400 for each eligible child.

Curiously, this additional support was not offered to similarly inundated residents in the Byron, Ballina and Tweed shires, who would only receive $1000 for adults and $400 for each eligible child. Residents in these council areas are almost entirely in the federal electorate of Richmond, held by Labor’s Justine Elliot, while those with extra support are in the seat of Page, held by Nationals MP Kevin Hogan.

In justifying the payments, McKenzie said, “The National Recovery and Resilience Agency and Emergency Management Australia have assessed the flood extent area, the proportion of the populations affected, the latest residential impact assessments and the proportion of population seeking assistance for disaster recovery payments to declare the Richmond Valley, Lismore and Clarence Valley LGAs are the highest impacted areas and in need of additional support.”

When asked whether these were appropriate criteria for assessing individual need – entire homes have been destroyed by landslides and floodwater in local government areas not included in the extra assistance – neither agency responded directly to the question.

In the legislative instrument made on March 11 by Finance Minister Simon Birmingham for the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment (Special Supplement), which would facilitate these extra funds, there is no mention of a criterion that requires support be contained within local government areas.

The full text of the instrument indicates that it is designed “to provide payments to persons who have been directly affected by a natural disaster event, such as flooding, as a measure that is peculiarly adapted to the government of a nation and that cannot otherwise be carried on for the benefit of the nation”.

 

On Wednesday night, NSW Liberal MLC Catherine Cusack announced she intended to resign from state parliament, in part as a response to the “unethical” disaster funding arrangements.

“The idea that being a flood victim in a National Party-held seat makes you more worthy than a flood victim who is in the Richmond electorate … is probably the most unethical approach I have ever seen,” Cusack said. “I can’t defend it and I am outraged by it.”

On Thursday morning, state Nationals MP Geoff Provest told ABC Radio that he is “disgusted with the prime minister” and added that “I would struggle to vote for him”.

“I just think the federal government have really messed this up; they’ve lost the faith of the people,” he said. “There is a real venom out there directed at the prime minister. This is like a remake of the bushfires some two years ago. To put Lismore in, and Richmond Valley, and exclude the north of the state is deplorable and really disgusting.”

Provest said he doesn’t except the excuses offered so far that the mismatch in support is “a bureaucratic thing”.

“What I’ve seen out there is just a failure of the federal government to listen and, more importantly, to deliver.”

Late on Thursday afternoon, more than a week after visiting Lismore, Bridget McKenzie announced matching disaster payments for the abandoned Tweed, Byron, Ballina and Kyogle shires, “as the full scale and impact to these areas in northern NSW is being realised”.

This was not part of the support deal being negotiated with Perrottet. There has been no effort to provide additional support to those affected by flooding in Queensland.

In Western Australia, where Morrison is yet to respond to the NSW support package, the prime minister is planning to attend a fundraising dinner with the state branch of the Liberal Party. Tickets were advertised for as much as $14,000 a head. On the other side of the country, it’s unlikely there would be many takers.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Morrison failed to act on flood relief ‘handshake’".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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