Doorstop interview with Minster Shorten outside Services Australia Liverpool Smart Service Centre


BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Good afternoon, everybody. I'm very fortunate to be here at one of Services Australia's smart centres.

Since the terrible floods, which have devastated New South Wales in the last few days, we've had 5,000 hardworking Services Australia staff, process and complete 295,000 flood compensation payments. This has helped 414,000 individuals receive some very timely money as they have been dealing with damage in excess of $20,000 on average at their house or where people have been rendered homeless.

So I think it's been a great job and very, very quick turnaround. It's quite amazing to think that from 2pm Thursday, when the 26 LGAs had been declared the disaster zones, the Albanese Government has been able to put out support to 414,000 Aussies caught up in the floods, completing about 295,000 claims.

What this has seen is about $341 million paid to people who have had their worlds tipped upside down since these devastating floods. So it's a great job by the Australian Public Service and the Albanese Government to help Australians in need in a quick and timely fashion which is only fair and reasonable. Happy to take any questions.

REPORTER: How does this compare to previous schemes for helping people in natural disasters in Australia? Is it a record payout in terms of the timeframe it's happened?

SHORTEN: I think what is record, is the speed with which Australians, householders mums and dads and kids have been able to receive a modest $1,000 payment for adult $400 per child when they've been the victims of pretty devastating flood damage.

One of the criteria is that you have to have an excess of $20,000 damage done so this is a disaster. In a flood, unless you've been flooded, you can't quite appreciate what it means. Speaking to residents earlier today, we've heard heartbreaking stories; family heirlooms and photos which simply can't be reproduced again, gone.

When you get water across the floorboards of the house and it gets into the carpet, it stinks. It's dirty. It's expensive to fix up. Countless groceries and fridges just wasted, food wasted because of flood damage and storm damage.

So I'm really pleased that since Thursday at 2pm, 414,000 people who have been flood affected have received modest compensation payments. Ninety per cent of this has been done online, which is quite remarkable.

Sadly, I also think one of the reasons why we've had such a quick capacity is on one hand, Services Australia staff have become experienced in dealing with natural disasters. So there's a lot of lessons from previous disasters we're seeing applied now.

Another thing of course, is that plenty of the people making a claim in these floods were flooded only in the last couple of years. So unfortunately, they have become veterans at making sure that the modest support is distributed in a timely fashion.

REPORTER: Do you expect that, and as you have said people's lives have been upended, and although the money makes a difference they could probably do with a lot more. Is it likely the Federal Government will announce another pot of funding in months to come?

SHORTEN: Well, first things first. For the people who are cleaning up the flood damage, it's just taking out the wrecked furniture and the wrecked carpets to be cleared up by the garbos. It's sorting out whether or not your valuable paperwork, your birth certificates and marriage photos and school photos are retrievable or not.

This package of support, and I should just make it clear to the people who are not flood affected. These payments are not a king's ransom. It's $1,000 bucks, which may sound a lot to begin with but if you're looking at tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage, when you’ve had to move out of your home, when you're trying to find some suitable accommodation and housing of course is at a premium in Sydney… these are modest payments. What we do going forward will be the subject of Cabinet discussion.

REPORTER: With the disaster relief payment ending, which really benefits those casual workers that don't have a safety net when they have to take time off due to COVID. Are you worried that workers will stop testing for COVID and that they will go to work since they're not having these disaster leave payment and it is going to result in further spread of the virus?

SHORTEN: The pandemic leave payment was a measure introduced by the previous government, which Labor supported at the time. It's a measure jointly influenced by both Federal and state governments. We can't keep making emergency payments to everyone on a permanently ongoing basis. It was due to expire on the 30th of June.

What Labor has done since then is invest an extra $750 million to help, I believe, the hospital system that the states run. So that's been an excellent investment and long overdue.

The other thing we've done since the 30th of June, of course, was the announcement today by the Minister for Health that we're going to make antivirals, the little tablets which help you mitigate the effects of COVID, available to a lot more Australians.

We'd announced that for people over 70, the antivirals will be available. But if you're seriously immunocompromised, if you're 50 and over, now you'll be able to access the antivirals. It's going to reduce the cost to people enormously, it will just be on the PBS now. I think it's about $6 for some of the antivirals. So I think those two measures are very important. As the Minister for Health observed this morning, we'll keep watching what the latest variants of COVID do and we'll just keep an open mind on whatever is going to be done based upon health advice and working cooperatively with the states.

REPORTER: So what would you say to that worker who's just tested positive for COVID and faces a week of lost income? What's your message to them?

SHORTEN: It’s tough. First of all, I'd say we want you to get better. We don't want you to be working when you're sick. That's the same as I'd say to people who have other health conditions which can be infectious. You've got to think about your colleagues, but it is tough. And so I'm not about to give someone a lecture and say that it's good news because it's simply not.

REPORTER: Minister Shorten, just a quick question on the floods. The inevitability of another flood is present. Is the Government going to support, offer support payments in the future, in other flood events?

SHORTEN: What we've seen I think, and this is fingers crossed… is in the 2022 New South Wales floods, the ones which are happening right now in July and in June. We're seeing probably the quickest rollout of support that Australians have received. The Federal Government provides a safety net for people affected by natural disasters. I've got no doubt that will be ongoing.

In terms of other things, which might be involved in reconstruction or remediation, just keep in mind that one of the best ways to stop flood damage is to have preventive works put in. So making sure that we can help flood proof and improve the chance for residences not to get flooded in the first place. It's one of the great, sort of tragedies really, of the last 10 years, that we spend, appropriately, taxpayer money which is important, on supporting people who are in trouble from natural disasters. But the more that we can remediate and make our community flood proof and fireproof from natural disasters, then we won't need to necessarily have to put 5,000 people into the field like we're doing today.

REPORTER: Just on insurance, the Australian Apartment Advocacy Group is worried that apartment owners are going to be the ones to pick up the tab for a major jump in insurance costs as insurance companies are shying away from these areas where there have been repeated flooding. They say more needs to be done in this $10 billion fund to help bolster insurance, is the Federal Government looking at that?

SHORTEN: The best thing which can be done to put downward pressure on insurance premiums is to help make sure our communities have preventative flood works put into place to begin with. And that's involving making sure the planning decisions have green light houses and properties being built in appropriate floodplain zones. That's right through to making sure that we have the right system of levees and remediation works, which stop future floods from happening. That's the best long-term solution we can do to keep downward pressure on insurance premiums.

REPORTER: So that’s a no?

SHORTEN: In terms of the best thing we can do for the insurance industry. Best thing we can do is decrease the risk.

REPORTER: Minister, there's been a lot of low-lying areas inundated continuously throughout the last few flood events. Is there a solution to this? Given, like raising the dam wall, New South Wales Treasurer Matt Kean made it clear that if he was to split the costs between the New South Wales and Federal governments, that you would consider, you know, getting construction underway with raising the dam wall. Is there going to be any progress with this?

SHORTEN: The raising of the Warragamba Dam wall has been a topic, which has been kicked around by experts from hydrologists to politicians, to local councillors for a very long time. My job today is to make sure that the relief is getting to the people who are flooded. Do I think we need to invest more in remedial works which stop future floods? Absolutely. But I'll be guided by the best science and by the experts. I also think that in the future, we have got to make sure that when planning permits are issued, that we don't see future housing developments in places which are prone to excessive flood or prone to high bushfire risk.

REPORTER: Just the point I was getting at as well was the Government can't just keep continuing to offer these free payments. It's got to sort of come to an end somewhere?

SHORTEN: Well, let's be straight. The previous Federal Government had a dodgy fund to do remedial works to help decrease the impact of natural disasters. Practically nothing happened. So do I wish we could turn the clock back 10 years ago and put in some of the ideas we had then? Yes, I do. Do I wish the previous Federal Government actually invested more in remedial works so we don't have to keep making payments to people affected by natural disasters? Yes, I do.

We are where we are. At the last election, Prime Minister Albanese promised to invest more in helping flood proof the nation. That's what we'll do now. Can't make up for the last 10 wasted years but we can try and do more to make sure we decrease risk.

If we can decrease risk, we decrease government payments, we decrease the cost of rising insurance premiums. It's about, do we wait for the disaster to happen or do we take action ahead of the disaster? That's what federal Labor is committed to.

Thanks very much, everybody.