Doorstop Interview - Renmark

03 Dec 2022
Prime Minister, Premier of South Australia
Flooding in South Australia; flood preparedness; flood levees; energy prices; Taiwan visit; Brittany Higgins; Socceroos; FIFA World Cup.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Well, thanks very much for joining us this morning. I’ll start off and then the Premier, my good friend Peter Malinauskas, will have some comments and then the Commissioner will add to those comments as well. Can I say we have been visiting here today in Renmark, talking to business operators, talking to local community members about the challenges that this community is facing. It is expected that the waters here will peak for the first time on 14 December. What we have seen is a preparedness that is being put in place for that event. What we are also seeing is the resilience of the local community. I'm always so proud to lead a nation where, at the worst of times, we see the best of the Australian character. People helping each other out. Our emergency services, our SES, our volunteers, and I want to pay tribute to all of those who have made an astonishing effort to prepare this community for the coming days, weeks, and indeed months.

This week, the Commonwealth provided a declaration of eight local government areas for disaster relief payments. That is very important, that the Commonwealth is prepared to provide that support. And I want to say today that we will continue to work with the South Australian Government, but also with local government, to deliver support for these communities, not just in preparing for the events that are coming, but also with the recovery which, no doubt, will require significant investment. I earlier on, weeks and months ago, I visited, of course, the areas of New South Wales, like Eugowra, Parkes, Forbes and areas of Victoria like Bendigo and Rochester. What you are seeing here is the floodwaters going into the Murray from both the north and the south, from both New South Wales and Victoria throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, that will all flow through here into South Australia.

This is a difficult time. But I have been really heartened by the optimism of this local community and just the sheer confidence that this community can be resilient and can get through this difficult time. I do want to say not just to other South Australians, but other Australians as well, that the businesses here need your support now. They actually want people to come and to participate, to bring economic activity to this region which will be important while this difficulty is happening. But will be perhaps even more important as the recovery period comes. So, on that, I will hand over to the Premier.

PETER MALINAUSKAS, PREMIER OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Thanks very much, Prime Minister. On behalf of South Australians and particularly River communities, can I thank you for your support of the substantial effort that is being undertaken as we speak, but we also know that will be required into the future. The decision of the Commonwealth during the course of this week to release additional funding is an important part of the package of support that is operating in conjunction with the State Government's $51 million package to support River communities in our state during their time of need, particularly that we know it is going to get tougher from here.

You've seen, Prime Minister, firsthand today the extraordinary work that has been undertaken by Local Government in conjunction with State Government to build levee banks where we reasonably can to try to protect the Renmark township in this instance, but also community along the River. To that end, I do want to acknowledge Peter Hunter, the local Mayor who is with us this morning, and the whole community around Renmark in particular that has done a lot of work to try to mitigate the risk where we can. But we also know that there is an inevitability, unfortunately, to approximately 3,500-4,000 properties being inundated as the river peaks throughout the course of this month. To that end, it is more about preparation and preparedness from individuals themselves to address that effort. We announced, Prime Minister, at the beginning of the week, that an unprecedented effort by the South Australian Police would see to the doorknocking of every home that we reasonably know will be affected to make sure they are wear of what is coming, to make sure plans are in place for those individuals, but also to ensure that where they are not ready, where they have no alternative accommodation, that the State Government is providing that support where we can, where we do have a comprehensive strategy in that regard.

I do want to thank the South Australian Police for that effort and the Police Commissioner will speak to that in just a moment. And then, of course, we will hear there from the SES chief, Chris Beattie. I do want to thank Gayle and Craig for having us here at their place at the caravan park in Renmark. This is an astounding and beautiful facility and you do see families having a really good time, kids playing in the amazing water park enjoying themselves. And there is still the opportunity to do that here in the Riverland, as the Prime Minister mentioned. But to you, Craig and Gayle and everyone in your situation, we do want to acknowledge that this isn't easy. No one would be particularly looking forward to building a levee bank right out the front of one of the most beautiful and picturesque scenes in a summer in South Australia, and that brings with it challenges, but that's why it is so important that the rest of the state and indeed we call on the nation to back this community in because it is still absolutely stunning and safe to observe. So, to the extent that you can lend your effort and visit a place like Craig and Gayle’s this summer, that's a good thing, but the Government stands ready to provide a lot of additional support to bring businesses like this one back up on their feet once the waters subside. And we have a very substantial multimillion-dollar package specifically to support the tourism sector and the Riverland given that they are being hit during the course of the summer months. Thanks, Craig and Gayle. Can I just say this as well, you should be proud of what you've done here? Building a levee like this in quick time is not an easy enterprise, but there is a whole suite of contractors throughout the state that have been mobilised not to work against each other, but to work with each other. We are seeing contractors that are ordinarily competitors come together to build levees at a pace that is really unprecedented in the state's history, and they are worthy of recognition as well.

I do want to invite the Police Commissioner to explain where we are up to with that doorknocking effort. Because it has been incredibly useful, useful for the individual whose can be reassured that the State Government is there to provide the support that is necessary, but it has also been very powerful to the State Government itself by being able to get a really finite sense of exactly where the need is required, and where we can allocate specific support to individuals in their time of need.

Just before we hear from the Police Commissioner, I will acknowledge something that is worthy of public contemplation. And that is we have received advice this morning that has been very reassuring that our forecasts and models continue to be accurate. We are anticipating that 180 gigalitre level to be reached in mid-December, as the Prime Minister mentioned, and the latest advice that we have received this morning says that that is still on track. And we will continue to update the community as that evolves. But one thing that we continually act to monitor and are conscious of is that we are starting to see the level of the water increase to a level that is now consistent with around the 1974 flood here in Renmark. And that is to say that the flow modelling is proven to be accurate, but we have to continue to monitor how that operates relative to the height of the river itself.

It has been 50 years, more or less, since the 1974 flood level. And of course, since then, there has been an extraordinary amount of work undertaken, up and down the river, including on private land holdings, which is informing the way the flow of the river operates and what happens to the height of the river that. That is something we continue to monitor quite closely and we certainly have planned for. I will invite the Police Commissioner to update on the doorknocking effort and, again, thanks SAPOL and the SES and those agencies for that substantial undertaking.

GRANT STEVENS, SOUTH AUSTRALIA POLICE COMMISSIONER: Thank you, Premier. As the Premier said, we have identified over 3,600 premises that we believe need to be visited to make sure firstly, that those premises are either vacated or that families who are living there have an awareness of the situation and have a plan in place in relation to remaining on their premises or having an alternative accommodation plan in place. As of just half an hour ago, since Tuesday, we have visited over 3,300 premises and communicated with a lot of the occupants in a lot of those premises and established that at this point in time there are about 185 families who will require some sort of emergency relief accommodation which would equate to about 400 people. So, that work is now being undertaken to make sure we have the ability to accommodate those people in the short-term and then work out the medium to long-term for those individuals. The doorknocking effort has been undertaken, coordinated by the South Australian Police, but with significant assistance from the SES, the CFS as well as PERSA and local council employees as well, so a tremendous effort as well, but still more to be done. We've identified about 700 premises that are water-locked and now have about 10 vessels visiting those premises to make sure they are either empty or the occupants have a plan in place. In addition to that, over the last couple of days we have identified about 610 houseboats that will be visited to make sure that those people have a plan as the levels rise. Significant amount of work being done across the several agencies but more work to be done at this point in time. Thanks.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Commissioner. I will ask the Chief Officer of the SES, Chris Beattie, to make some comments as well.

CHRIS BEATTIE, CEO OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA STATE EMERGENCY SERVICE: Thank you, Prime Minister. As the Premier said, we have been monitoring for some time now the flow rates and river height levels. And I can advise that this morning the river height level in Renmark did reach the 1974 flood level, and significantly more higher than we had originally anticipated with the forecast flows. Again, as the Premier said, over the last 50 years there has been significant infrastructure change, change in the landscape and that necessarily changes the way the river performs when it has seen peak flow.

In terms of our actions from here, we do have hydrologists and hydrographers from the Department of Environment and Water that are on the river today to better understand and to better measure what these changes have been. We are not expecting any significant change in outlook in terms of that peak flow or the forecast time-frames for the peak flow, but we do have contingency plans in place and all agencies are ready to respond should the need arise. In terms of what we would like to message to the community on this, it is probably a timely reminder that we are calling on all households and businesses to take action now. It is good to understand whether or not your property is in an at-risk area. We have a number of interactive mapping products available from the website. If you are in an at-risk area, make sure you’ve got your plan, understand how to prepare or secure your property, secure your valuables, and move your furniture to higher ground and plan when you are going to leave. As the Premier said, that early preparation is absolutely critical to ensuring that properties are well prepared and we can minimise losses. Equally, a prepared property and prepared family means that there is less resources required from across the emergency services and the other community to respond to people who are found caught short. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much, Chris. I would just ask Gayle from the BIG4 Caravan Park here who, together with Craig, is doing an extraordinary job.

GAYLE GUDGEON, BIG4 RENMARK RIVERFRONT HOLIDAY PARK MANAGER: Good morning, everybody. Thank you very much to the Premier and the Prime Minister for visiting our park. What an incredible honour. I wish it was under better circumstances, perhaps welcoming them as a guest. I would just like to say thank you sincerely to the guys, the local trades who have helped us over the last six weeks or so in building the levee. It is quite the construction. Obviously, our primary aim is to keep our property safe and back to business as usual as soon as we possibly can. Whilst we are very grateful for the guests that have still been visiting the Riverland and exploring the region, we are very mindful that we can only do this whilst it's safe to do so. Obviously, that day will come. We are just not sure when, but, thank you to everybody. The SES, the local police, local council, local trades, everybody, our guests, the local community. We've had so many people offering to put their hands up if we need them. It's just been an incredible community show of support. I guess they all realise how important the park is to the community. But they also are just showing fabulous community spirit. Thank you to everybody concerned.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Gayle. I want to acknowledge Tony Pasin, the local Member for Barker. I rang Tony and told him that we were headed here on very short notice. Parliament was due to sit this morning, but we got through our agenda yesterday, so I got here as soon as I could.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, as the water is rising, there is this energy relief plan that is on the table from your Government. Will you compensate the states for a price cap on gas and coal?

PRIME MINISTER: We will make an announcement when we make an announcement.

JOURNALIST: It is a pretty important issue.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, it is, which is why it's important we get it right. And that's why we're consulting with industry, with states and territories. We are getting proper advice, working these issues through. We will make an announcement prior to Christmas. We said that. And one of the things I would say is that much of the speculation I read, if people write a different story every day, then by definition some of those stories have got to be wrong.

JOURNALIST: Will there be a price cut?

PRIME MINISTER: We will make an announcement when we make an announcement.

JOURNALIST: Is the Federal Government open to compensating New South Wales and Queensland for a coal price cap?

PRIME MINISTER: The Federal Government is working these issues through cooperatively with state and territories. I've had contact with all of my state and territory colleagues. That's what we do. We are having a meeting this week. We understand the pressures which are on. I met with, as people would be aware, I met with Sanna Marin, the Finnish Prime Minister, just yesterday. This is a global phenomenon that is occurring as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have had a considerable rise in global energy crisis. Australia is dealing with that, as other countries right around the world are. We are dealing with it constructively. We are working it through. And you work that through by engaging with experts. You don't work it through at a press conference.

JOURNALIST: Can you guarantee your plan will reduce power prices?

PRIME MINISTER: You can ask the same question and you will get the same answer.

JOURNALIST: That is not the same question.

PRIME MINISTER: It is the same question. What we are aimed clearly at doing is putting downward pressure on prices for both business and households.

JOURNALIST: Have you left it too late?

PRIME MINISTER: No, we are working these issue through with states and territories. Clearly, there are limits on what the Commonwealth can do by itself. That's why we are working this through co-operatively.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, can you tell us about the trip to Taiwan, the bipartisan effort? And do you think that will inflame things with China?

PRIME MINISTER: No, there have been backbench visits to Taiwan for a long time. This is another one. This isn’t a Government visit. There remains a bipartisan position when it comes to China and when it comes to support for the status quo on Taiwan.

JOURNALIST: What are the intentions of this trip?

PRIME MINISTER: I have no idea. I'm not going. You should ask them.

JOURNALIST: What do you make of the latest developments in the Brittany Higgins case?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, I will be careful about comments, given the circumstances which are there. But I think that what I would say is that I wish Brittany Higgins well. She is a woman of considerable courage. She is a woman who has been very brave. And I wish her all the best.

JOURNALIST: Is there a suggestion that there may be a need to review how these sexual assault cases are handled?

PRIME MINISTER: I think that, inevitably, these issues will be examined. Now, the appropriate response that I have, as someone who has had the privilege of meeting with Brittany Higgins, of meeting with her on a couple of occasions, and seeing what a brave, smart, resilient woman she is, is just to wish her all of the best. My thoughts are with her at what has been a very difficult time.

JOURNALIST: Have there been some tough conversations with the Premier of Queensland and Premier of New South Wales?

PRIME MINISTER: No. I've never had a tough conversation with a premier or chief minister, because it is not the way that I operate. The way that we operate is to be co-operative and to be consultative and to talk issues through. That's the way I deal with this man here, Premier Peter Malinauskas, and I regard the relationships with both Annastacia Palaszczuk and Dominic Perrottet as being very good, as I have good relations with all of the state premiers and chief ministers.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you have seen the damage this water has caused upstream in some of those communities in New South Wales and Victoria. Can you reflect on the fact the fact that you are here at a levee bank in South Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, quite clearly, what we have seen here is an extraordinary effort to prepare. Both the levee here and the levee that we visited near the hospital before here show the extraordinary work that has been done by local government, by the South Australian State Government, but also by the contractors and the people who have done the hard yards. And I've got nothing but praise for them. This morning, I flew into Mildura and then flew along the Murray to here at Renmark. You could really see the rising water levels and some of the flooding that has occurred right along the length of the Murray. Over the past couple of months, I have been to Parkes, Forbes, Lismore, Eugowra, Rochester, Bendigo, too many places, as well as northern Tasmania, and seen the impact of the floods.

But the Murray-Darling Basin is a great national asset. It is an environmental treasure, but with it comes, of course, the third season that we've seen of additional rains, is having an enormous impact. And what we are seeing here is the best of planning. I congratulate Premier Peter Malinauskas and the local council here and all who have been involved in the preparation and the hard work which is there. This morning, we arrived pretty early. We went to a coffee shop and talked to a whole lot of locals before we went and visited sites. And people are optimistic, they are resilient, they know that there are challenges ahead. But this is a community which has spirit and it has been on display this morning. Thanks.

JOURNALIST: Are there lessons to be learnt from upstream? Do you think we are prepared enough? Is there more we could be doing?

PRIME MINISTER: I think the preparedness has been put in place. You can't, as the Premier has said, we can't wish away these issues, and pretend that there won't be inundations as a result of this flood event that we are seeing. But the lesson, I think, which we as a Government have already legislated for, is to have a $4 billion disaster-ready fund. What that is about, and the Mayor raised this with me just earlier when we were standing on the levee there, is, wherever possible, how can we better plan for these events? It is far better to mitigate and to get ahead of disasters than it is to respond to them after the event. Now, sometimes that is not possible. Eugowra, it was not anticipated that would occur. Forbes has had five floods in recent times. And I don't know what it takes to have all of the Parliament wake up that climate change is real. Climate change is real. We need a long-term response. And it needs to be a global response and Australia has got to be a part of it. And I've witnessed since I've been Leader of the Labor Party, I've visited areas of tropical rainforests that have never burnt before that have burnt during the bushfires, during the summer of 2019 and 2020. That came after, of course, a period of drought. Now, we are seeing flooding in areas where, when you have a one in 100-year flood that happens every few months, then there is something happening with the climate. We need to address. The South Australian Government, can I say this, of going back to Jay Weatherill and Mike Wran, and in that fine tradition, Peter Malinauskas, has been ahead of energy policy, has been ahead of every other state in the Commonwealth, frankly, in understanding the need to act when it comes to climate change. And I pay tribute to that. But we need national action. And we need global action. And that is one of the common things that we have. It amazes me, when I go internationally, as I did talking to people like Rishi Sunak, the new Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, they scratch their head about why Australia, of all places, there is still a debate about whether we should be responding strongly to climate change. Because in most parts of the world, including in Europe and North America, that is not a debate. People know that it's happening. They know we need that long-term response. They know also that we need to put in place readiness for what will occur because of the climate changing. And they know as well, of course, we need to deal with immediate issues which are there and provide support for people when they need it. That's something my Government wants to do. And that's something I look forward to working with the different levels of government to achieve. Thanks very much.

JOURNALIST: Will you be watching the Socceroos game tonight?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I stayed up the other night to watch the Socceroos. And there were a few people who were a bit dusty in the Parliament the morning after. But it was a magnificent victory. Matthew Leckie's goal was quite extraordinary. But all Australians will be standing and cheering with the Socceroos tomorrow, whether they're at live sites around Australia, or whether they're watching it tucked up in bed on the telly at home or listening to it on the radio. I sent a message to the Socceroos overnight. And I look forward to tomorrow morning. I think it's pretty early, but it's not as early, I think it's 6am. Lionel Messi is, of course, a legend of the game. But a good team always beats a good individual. And I look forward to the Socceroos continuing to make Australia proud. We're proud of them. They were written off. They had a tough draw with the first game against the World Cup champions in France. And they learnt from that. They picked themselves up with magnificent victories over Tunisia and then, of course, the other night over Denmark. All I say is that all Australians will be cheering on tomorrow morning. Go the Socceroos.