Press conference on Flood Warning Infrastructure Network with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

SUBJECTS: Flood Warning Infrastructure Network; flood gauges; disaster preparedness; National Stockpile; recycling.

MARK RYAN, QUEENSLAND MINISTER FOR FIRE & EMERGENCY SERVICES: What a breath of fresh air this new government is, the Albanese Labor Government. You know, I've been in these roles for, you know, almost seven years now so I've worked across a number of governments, and the commitment that we're seeing from this Government, this Federal Government already, is extraordinary. You know, taking responsibility for contributions to preparedness for natural disasters, you know, putting in place funding and support for the infrastructure and stockpiles that's needed.

I'm really pleased to welcome Tanya Plibersek here, Murray Watt, Tony Sheldon, Alison Smith from the LGAQ and Andrew from the Bureau of Meteorology. He was just outside before checking the weather in case someone wants to ask him for an update. But all people here showing support for this great investment from the Federal Government.

You know, the previous Prime Minister used to always say not his job, wouldn't help out, and we saw that in the emergency response and natural disaster space. You know, whether it was investment in flood gauges, you know, the approach of the previous Government was the say ‘it's everyone else's problem, we won't help out’. Whether it was in, you know, emergency comms, again, you know, ‘we'll hop off the network to a corporate provider, we won't claim the space, we won't contribute’. When it was an international messaging, you know, ‘someone else's issue’.

Every single time we wanted to work together the previous Federal Government said ‘not our job, we don't want to help out’. What a breath of fresh air this Federal Government is. You know, coming to the table saying ‘how can we work together? How can we build strong partnerships? How can we invest?’ And why is that important? Well we work best when we work together. The investment that they're making will ensure that communities are safer, communities are better prepared for natural disasters. And when natural disasters strike, communities are equipped and resilient to respond to those natural disasters.

So well done to these Federal Ministers. We really do work well together and the Queensland Government, along with all of our partner agencies, are really pleased with this investment that the Federal Government's making in flood gauges through the Flood Warning Network but also through the National Emergency Management Stockpile and the other investments that they're making around national comms and national emergency messaging.

It's a great day for all communities around Australia because this Federal Government is stepping up and saying it is their job to help out, it is their job to have partnerships, it is their job to support communities. So very pleased to be here. I'll now hand over to Tanya. 

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT: Thanks so much, Mark. Look, I do very much want to start by thanking Mark and thanking the Queensland Government because it's so important that we see the three levels of government working together to better protect our people at times of natural disaster.

Over the last ten years, there have been multiple reports saying that our system of flood gauges is just not up to scratch. That's dangerous because individuals and communities can't prepare properly when they don't know what's coming. It's also dangerous for our emergency service personnel. If they don't know what to expect during times of flood, the risk to them obviously increases.

We see flood gauges across Queensland that are owned by different levels of government, in fact, there are 1,400 flood gauges owned by 41 different councils. Some of the flood gauges are owned by different organisations, private organisations or individuals, they don't talk to each other. Many of them are very old, they're at the end of their useful life. Many of them are not working properly. The readings are inconsistent. They're just not good enough.

So what we're announcing today is $236 million over the next 10 years to roll out a national system of flood gauges that will be modern, state-of-the-art, fixed up where they've been broken in the past, that will be able to be read remotely, that will share their data with the flood gauges already owned by the Bureau of Meteorology.

At the moment, nationally, the Bureau owns about a third of the flood gauges in Australia. We want to make sure that other two thirds that are pretty patchy in the way that they're rolled out, maintained, and upgraded, actually also come under the Bureau's responsibilities so that we have a system of flood gauges that warns people when floods are coming, that tells them more about what they're likely to experience and that also better protects our emergency services personnel. The fact that some of the flood gauges that exist at the moment still require a manual reading gives you some indication of the sort of danger that we're putting our emergency services personnel in when we expect them to go out during the worst of weather to read those manual flood gauges.

This is just one of the investments that we are making to better protect Australians during times of natural disaster and my colleague, Murray Watt, will go through some of the others. But this comes after a decade of the previous Government being warned that the flood gauges weren't up to scratch, with multiple reports saying that the flood gauge system should be upgraded. Those reports ignored by the previous Government, acted on by the Albanese Labor Government. 

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Thanks very much, Tanya, and it's fantastic to have you here in Queensland to make what is a very big investment in flood-prone communities right across Australia, but particularly a very big investment in Queensland from the Albanese Labor Government. Can I thank Mark Ryan for his kind words? And I have enjoyed the fact that we've been able to have a very cooperative relationship, not just with Queensland but with every state government when it comes to natural disaster management since we came to power.

Today's announcement is the next step in the Albanese Government's plan to make sure that Australia is much better prepared for natural disasters than we have been in the past. You will have seen since we took power nearly 12 months ago, that we've been working hard to form those cooperative relationships with States and Territories, but also provide significant financial investment in making sure that we are much more disaster ready as a country. And where else would you want to make this kind of announcement but in Australia's most disaster-prone state being Queensland?

So today, as Tanya has said, we are announcing a $236 million investment over 10 years to upgrade and better maintain the flood gauge network right across Australia. I have lost count of the number of communities that I've been to since becoming the Minister where one of the most common complaints we receive is that people just didn't have the warning they needed about impending floodwaters to save themselves, to save their property, to save their animals. And these sort of investments will go a long way to making sure that we can keep Australians much more safe into the future.

You might have seen this is not the first investment of this kind that we've made. Last week or the week before, we also announced an investment to massively improve the communications warnings that we provide to Australians when they are in an emergency situation. At the moment, the SMS-based system that is used by disaster management groups and States and Territories is getting outdated and it can get very overwhelmed, especially in a large city like Brisbane. So we're investing to improve the communications technologies that will be available for Australians to hear about the fact that they're at risk. And now, through this investment in flood gauges, we will give the Bureau of Meteorology and our State and Territory disaster management agencies the tools they need to keep themselves safe and to get those warnings out much more accurately and much more quickly than they have been in the past.

We're also announcing today an $8.6 million investment by the Federal Government to create the very first National Emergency Management Stockpile that we've had in the country. You can see from where we are here at the QFES Deployment Centre, that State and Territory governments do a lot of great work to make sure that there's everything from emergency housing, to water purification systems, to emergency sleeping material for people, but we are getting to a point in this country with rising natural disasters, that we do need to see national leadership on that front, to back up the States and Territories when they need that help. So that's what that stockpile is all about and we'll be putting that together over the next 12 months in partnerships with the States and Territories.

So I might just wrap it up there but there are lots of investments in this Federal Budget that, as I say, are all about making sure that Australians are safer, and particularly Queenslanders in Australia's most disaster-prone State. And I thank the Fire and Rescue staff for having us along here today. I know that we're always very proud of the work that you do, and I hope that you feel proud of the really important community safety role that you perform in our country as well. I'll hand over now to Senator Tony Sheldon, the Special Envoy for Disaster Recovery, who has seen a lot of these situations as well. 

TONY SHELDON, SPECIAL ENVOY FOR DISASTER RECOVERY: Thanks very much, Murray. And one of the things that's clear, as a country we've had aeons of natural hazards and our First Nations people have been the first ones that have been working out the ways and means of responding. Of course, now we have cities and towns and communities that are built in many of those floodplains that our First Nations Peoples avoided. Of course, that pressure that now applies to so many communities means that those natural hazards that were managed before, are now becoming humanitarian disasters more and more often.

We've seen since 2019, 80 per cent of local government areas have been emergency affected - an emergency has been called. And just in the last 12 months, we've seen 60 per cent of local government areas, local communities, being affected by emergency responses and the need to take quick action.

Now this announcement today, and travelling to many of those communities in north Queensland, throughout south-east Queensland, northern New South Wales and across the country, with this announcement today means that those local communities can react before those natural hazards become humanitarian disasters of the past. This is a critically important part of a myriad of different- and a mosaic of different arrangements that we need to have to give local communities, regional communities, State and nationally, responses to what's happening to an ever-increasing number of emergency disasters. And that means the local communities can have more confidence about the future. It's an important announcement and an appropriate time for us to make sure that we make our communities more secure. And we're hearing that on the ground, we're hearing that from communities and it's important that this announcement, this step today is embarked on.

I would also like then to just introduce Alison Smith as the Local Government Association of Queensland (CEO) and, of course, one of the great advocates for this very important announcement that we're making today. 

ALISON SMITH, CEO OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT ASSOCIATION OF QUEENSLAND (LGAQ): Good morning, everyone. Alison Smith, CEO of Local Government Association of Queensland. Local councils right across Queensland have been calling for this announcement for years. It is vital that Queensland's flood warning early detection network is improved and is maintained consistently going forwards because this is a matter of saving lives. It's all about community safety.

Queensland councils can tell you their role when they sit and lead at a local level disaster responses at times of floods, that it is this network that stands between a community and rising floodwaters. It is so important that this network is maintained and upgraded to be able to provide that early warning that saves lives.

Queensland councils are pleased with this announcement. As I said, Queensland councils have been asking for this outcome for many, many years. In fact, in 2021, the LGAQ joined with the Queensland Reconstruction Authority and the Bureau of Meteorology to do a study on what was needed to improve and enhance the maintenance of this network. We are delighted that that report has now been reflected in this announcement. Thank you. 

TANYA PLIBERSEK: Any questions?

JOURNALIST: Minister Watt, I was just wondering, the Defence Strategic Review noted that we can't keep calling on the defence forces to come in at times of a natural disaster but it's clear from things like the Townsville floods or the recent floods here in Brisbane that they are needed. So, what is the solution?

MURRAY WATT: We've been very clear that Australians in an emergency situation can always rely on the Australian Defence Force to be there in their hour of need. But the issue we've got is that we do face a much more difficult and challenging strategic environment globally and we need to remember that the primary role of our defence forces is to keep the country safe. And every time we take ADF personnel into a disaster situation, that's time they're not doing their training and preparation for their primary job.

Now I've met many ADF personnel in many different disaster locations and they're always willing to lend a hand and they will continue to do so. But given that we do face more extreme weather in this country as a result of climate change, we do need to think about how we resource that in terms of personnel.

Obviously, and as I've said, these terrific State-based disaster personnel will always have the primary responsibility for preparations in responding to disasters, but as a federal government we want to back them up and one of the things that we've also done in this Budget is continue funding for an organisation called Disaster Recovery Australia and they are basically a veterans-based organisation who have volunteers who go into disaster situations to help with the clean-up work that the ADF have typically done. In fact, there are some in north-west Queensland right now helping to clean up around Burketown and other communities.

So our ADF will always play an important role but what the Defence Review said was that they do need to be seen as a last resort, not the first place that we turn to, but only used in a last resort and that's what we want to do going forward.

Can I just say one other thing about the flood gauge network as it relates to Queensland? What this will do is fix and upgrade flood gauges in around 40 different catchments across Queensland from the Albert and Logan Rivers in the south down towards the Gold Coast, through to Brisbane River systems, the Mary River, all the way north to the Daintree and Gilbert Rivers and out west to Diamantina, Paroo and many others as well. So this is a fantastic state-wide initiative that will really support communities right across Queensland. 

JOURNALIST: How will we define that last that resort? How will we define that?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I mean, what I've sort of found, I guess, in the 12 months that I've been in the role is that sometimes there are communities who instantly turn to the ADF as the source of the clean-up operations or recovery and the reality is that we do have enormous capability within our State Government-based services and also local governments also, who, of course, play an incredibly important role in recovery. So there will be situations where an event can be managed properly by a State or a Territory, a local government, sometimes with that volunteer capacity brought in as well. But when it's really needed, we will always provide the ADF to lend a hand.

JOURNALIST: So still going forward like we see with Lismore, it's going to be the ADF who are going to be choppering people off roofs when it's needed?

MURRAY WATT: I would think that in a situation like Lismore, you would absolutely expect to see the ADF playing a role, particularly in the response and recovery areas. I mean, the disaster in Lismore was one of the worst we've seen in our nation, that's exactly the situation when we would expect to see the ADF involved. But there are other situations that can be managed with local sources. There are other times when, as a federal government, we help state governments charter choppers and charter planes through the commercial market to be able to evacuate people as well. So it's horses for courses and we do want to make sure that the ADF are used when there really is no alternative and they bring special expertise and equipment to the job.

JOURNALIST: Where will the national stockpile be based?

MURRAY WATT: It's going to be the subject of a tender. So no decision has been made yet as to where the stockpile will be based. I assume that Queensland would have a pretty strong argument being, as I say, the most disaster-prone state in the country but we are yet to go through a tender for that.

JOURNALIST: Why is Queensland being prioritised when places like Lismore, as you said, were worst hit?

MURRAY WATT: Well, the reason we've prioritised Queensland for the flood gauge network is based on the advice that the Bureau of Meteorology which is that Queensland catchments do face a higher flood risk than what we see in other states. And when you think about a state like Queensland, the most decentralised state in the country, where we do have large communities in all of our provincial cities as well as here in the south-east corner, it's no surprise that the flood risk is higher in a lot more of this state and affecting a much larger population number.

Having said that, we do have money set aside to support flood gauge upgrades in other states. The other thing that Queensland has done - and I give the Queensland Government credit for this - is they approached us wanting to enter into a cost-sharing arrangement around the maintenance of these facilities. So once they're built and upgraded by us, they will be 50/50 paid for in terms of the maintenance with the Queensland Government and we hope to reach similar arrangements with other States over the next few months. 

JOURNALIST: How many flood gauges are being upgraded or renewed under this deal?

MURRAY WATT: Tanya might have the exact figures, but my recollection is it's in the order of 1,500 flood gauges across the country, in about 114-115 catchments. I might have those numbers slightly wrong but it's in the order.


MURRAY WATT: And we intend to get cracking on the Queensland component pretty much straight away.

JOURNALIST: What are the Queensland numbers, if you have the breakdown?

MURRAY WATT: In Queensland, there's around 40 catchments that will be benefitting from this and, as I say, they're spread from the very Far North to the south-east corner and out west as well.

ANDREW JOHNSON: I can answer any questions - if you've got any technical questions. Andrew Johnson from the Bureau of Meteorology. So as the Minister said, at the moment there's about 3,000 gauges in Queensland, about a third of them are owned by the Bureau, the other two thirds are owned by State and local government. As Minister Watt has said, about 60 per cent of those gauges that are owned by State and local government will be upgraded as part of this package and the others that don't require upgrading and are already fit for purpose and are part of the Bureau network. So it's a very, very significant investment over a huge area.

JOURNALIST: So when you say they haven't been communicating to each other, this particular upgrade, will they communicate back to the Bureau? How will it all work?

ANDREW JOHNSON: Yeah, so there's a number of factors, as Minister Plibersek said. Some of it involves communication between gauges out in the field in the Bureau's network. A number of the gauges, as has been said, also read by manual readers. So these are volunteers who go out in the middle of the night, often in very dangerous conditions, and obviously sometimes those conditions preclude their ability to take a reading. So we don't get the readings when those volunteer manual observers can't read the gauges. So this will automate the entire network and mean that we get those critically valuable data literally over a few minutes during the flood event. 

JOURNALIST: Do you anticipate any of these upgrades will be done before the next emergency season?

ANDREW JOHNSON: We don't know when exactly the next emergency season will be. But, of course, living in this great state there's always a risk. We're heading into a period, I think, of drying conditions, so it's a wonderful opportunity for us to get out in the field. As Minister Watt said, we will be commencing these works 1 July. We've already started discussions with our colleagues in the State Government about where that work will commence initially. So we will be hitting the deck running and I have every confidence that the next time we're back in the La Niña cycle we'll be much better prepared than what we have been in the past.

JOURNALIST: So will the Bureau then own these gauges?

ANDREW JOHNSON: Yes, that's correct. Yes, that's part of the problem at the moment is, as Minister Plibersek said, over 60 different organisations in Queensland have responsibility today for the maintenance and ownership of the flood warning network. This will bring this all into the Bureau of Meteorology's network. So we'll have consistency and high-quality data State wide, something we've never had before.

JOURNALIST: Is it fair to say that where those upgrades are occurring, have they been kind of like black holes for you guys?

ANDREW JOHNSON: There's certainly during certain events there have been significant data gaps where we haven't been able to get information about what's going on in some of those rivers. We have back-up procedures but nothing substitutes actually getting that data live from those reader catchments during times of crisis. 

JOURNALIST: Those gauges when they speak, I guess, back to computers, wherever they are, how do they-

ANDREW JOHNSON: So it's a radio network. So all the gauges are telemetted. They are able to communicate by radio and via satellite through to our network. We collect all that information and assemble it, use it in our flood forecasts and warnings.

JOURNALIST: So the shuttering of the 3G network will not impact the gauges?

ANDREW JOHNSON: We have back-ups for all of our telecommunications networks, whether it's the satellite feeds we take, rain gauges, river gauges, tsunami buoys, all of them have back-up systems so we're not dependent on one single information source.

JOURNALIST: Looking at previous disasters, how would you rate the level of frustration given the, I guess, inefficiencies of these?

ANDREW JOHNSON: Well, I think for all of us involved in the emergency management business, my colleagues over here that have to respond and for those of us who have to give them the information they need, it's been very challenging when you don't have full line of sight on the conditions as they evolve. And as Minister Watt said, in the last few years we've seen unprecedented weather, severe weather events right across our country, but particularly in this part of the world. So having this line of sight that we'll have now as a result of this fantastic investment by the Australian Government will make a huge difference to the Bureau's ability to issue flood forecasts and warnings for communities.

JOURNALIST: A question for Minister Plibersek. I just had a question, there's a story in The Australian today about the fact that Australia doesn't have, I guess, the capacity to recycle the aluminium cans that we are returning as part of the Containers for Change program. Is it the Government's plan to create a capacity like that or are you concerned about where these cans might go?

TANYA PLIBERSEK: No, I'm very excited about the investment that we are making right now in expanding our recycling facilities. So the Australian Government's investing around a quarter of a billion dollars in upgrading recycling facilities around Australia and that includes $60 million announced in the October budget specifically for soft plastics recycling which, of course, has also been a big problem.

The previous Government set some very ambitious targets for recycling. Sadly, they didn't actually make sure that we had a pathway to achieving those recycling targets. We're determined to make sure we've got the facilities on the ground. Right now we're building or upgrading 48 facilities around Australia, 11 of those have already opened and that's how we deal with the recycling issue in Australia.

We are working with State and Territory ministers to make sure we have a truly circular economy in Australia by 2030. We're investing to make sure that that happens. And I very much say to, mums and dads, kids, who are collecting their bottles and cans for recycling, please keep doing it because facilities are being built and we need to get better as a country at using less raw material in the first place, recycling more of what we use. Thanks.