Address to the Australian Disaster Resilience Conference

Good afternoon.

My name is Jenny McAllister. I’m Labor’s Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy.

I normally live and work on Gadigal country - but I’m joining you today from the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have much to tell us about our climate, about our waterways, about our coasts and our forests. 

When we are speaking with our communities about the ways that our settlements interact with these natural systems, we have the opportunity to elevate the knowledge of First Nations peoples. 

In this spirit, I was very pleased to see my colleague Tanya Plibersek release the State of the Environment report recently, for the first time including an Aboriginal person as a lead author, and incorporating traditional knowledge in the core report. 

This afternoon I pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and I extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples here in our gathering.

I’m sorry I can’t be physically present, but. I’m really pleased to make a short contribution today.

Don’t worry - I’ll keep it brief. Video messages should generally be short and sweet!

I know that in your discussions this week, you’ll unavoidably be talking about climate change.

The truth is that emergency management professionals have been talking about the changing climate for a long time.

The problem to date has been that the former government - for reasons that are hard to understand - didn’t want to listen.

One of the first meetings I had after being sworn in as a Minister was with Greg Mullins, and other former emergency response personnel. 

We talked about changing fire weather - changes we’ve been documenting and observing for two decades now. 

We know that climate change is making fire weather more severe, and it means that the fire season starts earlier and runs for longer.

Chris Bowen and I had a very simple message - and it's a message that I want to share with you.

We believe the science.

We believe the personnel on the ground who have practical experience of the changes, and the new risks that these changes bring.

And we’re determined to act.

We’ll act to bring Australia’s emissions down, and in doing so build confidence and ambition in the global community so that we have a real chance of keeping warming well below 2 degrees.

And we’ll accept responsibility for working across the community, business, and government sectors to mitigate our risks and prepare ourselves for the changes to our climate that we cannot avoid.

The truth is, for those of you working with communities to manage disaster risk and improve our resilience, your job is getting harder.

Extreme weather events are intensifying and becoming more frequent.

Some hazards like cyclones are likely to be present in places they previously were not.

Even before climate change, our settlement patterns in many places exposed too many people to risk.

But this is increasing. Just yesterday the Commonwealth Bank released data indicating that $31 billion of their home loans are in areas exposed to increasing extreme weather events. 

And that’s just one bank. 

The RBA considers that 3.5 per cent of all Australian homes are at “high risk” from climate damage

The good news is that we know where our best solutions lie.

In a former life, I worked in a global engineering company that had strong expertise in climate risk. 

It meant I had the opportunity to work with many talented people here and internationally who worked in disaster management, some of whom had led their communities through enormously challenging circumstances.

The challenges we are dealing with are complex. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

However, universally, the solutions depend on a simple insight.

Our best chance at protecting life and property lies in shifting our emphasis from an overwhelming focus on responding to disasters, to a more balanced approach to investing across the entire cycle - mitigating risks, and preparing our organizations, infrastructure and communities.

I know you all understand this.

And I know it’s something Minister Watt determined to tackle.  

It’s why Labor has emphasised our Disaster Ready Fund.

The fund will make up to $200 million available annually for disaster resilience initiatives. 

This is more than any previous government has committed, and will be matched where possible by state, territory and local governments. 

The Government will continue to fund disaster recovery through the existing arrangements and cut red tape so money can get out the door faster. 
Our preparations for a changing climate are not confined to emergency management. 

My colleagues in health, in treasury, in national security and in financial services have all commenced projects that seek to bring insight about the impacts of climate risk to their policy work.

As a government we’re determined to ensure this work is informed by the best possible science, and that we truly grapple with its implications. 

I’ll finish with a personal reflection.

I was born in Murwillumbah. 

As it happens, I was born during a flood - although the flood in 1973 was not nearly as big as the devastating one that came in the following year. 

In the northern rivers of NSW we are not unfamiliar with disaster. 

However the recent flooding in the Northern Rivers has been devastating. 

It’s well beyond the historical record. And its social and emotional toll is stretching the capacity of the communities I love to cope. 

I know it's also stretching the capacities of the people and organisations you all care so much about - professional and volunteer.  

Unfortunately, we can be quite certain events of this kind will not be confined to the northern rivers.

We are in unfamiliar territory - and our response will require determination and creativity.

As leaders - whether in politics or disaster management - we will need to bring our best selves to this task. 

Communities require reassurance, empathy, and support. 

They also need to be respected. So does our workforce. 

Whether we are talking about response, recovery, resilience or preparedness - we will need to bring people with us on the journey.

I know that in your work, you see the very best of Australia. In disasters, Australians are brave, caring, and often selfless.

I also know that these same qualities are reflected in the culture and purpose of the organisations you work in.

I look forward to working with you in the coming years on this important tasks.