Sydney Times






MONDAY, 11 JULY 2022

SUBJECTS: NSW floods and recovery; John Barilaro; Harbour Bridge flags; NSW Population loss.

JENNY AITCHISON, MEMBER FOR MAITLAND: Hi everyone, I’m Jenny Aitchison, Member for Maitland and I’m really pleased to welcome Chris Minns, Leader of the NSW Oppositon to Maitland SES Northern Zone Headquarters today and also Kate Washington Member for Port Stephens. So we’re here today just to have a catch up on what’s been going on with the response and recovery to this flood event in the Hunter Valley. So this as SES headquarters, it actually goes right through to the north of the state up to Tweed and then down to the Central Coast. And obviously my concern is the local members been Maitland, we’ve had significant areas cut out there’s Gillieston Heights has got somewhere in the vicinity of 4,000 people stuck on an island. And then of course we have our rural areas Millers Forest, Duckenfield, we’ve also got Oak Hamptons and Mount Dee and Lands Dally, small isolated pockets of people who have just been cut off. There’s also been some people that have experienced damage to their houses. But the biggest I guess community wide concern at the moment is about trying to get around the city and get people the medical equipment and medical supplies, services and evacuations that they need and making sure that food and other essential items are provided.

So that’s probably enough for me.

KATE WASHINGTON, MEMBER FOR PORT STEPHENS: Morning, everyone, thanks Jenny. It’s great to have Chris Minns here today to see what’s been happening here in the Hunter because I know a lot of people have been doing it really tough. Whilst the skies have almost cleared there’s a lot of families that are still really wondering where their next meal is going to come from, and whether or not they’ve got enough medications in their house. So in the Port Stephens LGA, we’ve got communities still isolated and will be for some days to come, so they’re in Hinton, Woodville, Osterley and then you’ve got isolated farms as well. So very much top of mind right now is the welfare of residents. I went with the SES yesterday across the fast moving Hunter River to visit and speak to locals in Hinton and the stories they were sharing were horrendous, we could hear shotguns coming across the river of LLS culling cows and cattle that were stranded. It’s gut wrenching, and there are a lot of families still doing it very tough so they were so immensely grateful for the support that the SES is providing on a daily basis to ensure that emergency supplies are being provided and anyone that needs assistance is getting it.

So I’ll hand over to Chris now.

CHRIS MINNS, NSW LABOR LEADER: Thanks, Jenny and thanks, Kate. It’s wonderful to be here even if it is in obviously very difficult circumstances as communities in this part of NSW do it particularly tough, natural disasters have hit this community particularly hard and listening to Jenny talk about the community and Gillieston Heights. The fact that they’re isolated, that they’re struggling to get access to food and fuel and to keep essential drug suppliers well stocked to make sure that the community can survive what is obviously a very harrowing and difficult experience. And obviously talking to you a Kate as well about the communities in her electorate that have been isolated as a result of these rising floodwaters. I want to say from the get go that the work of our emergency service personnel, those volunteers and the SES and the Rural Fire service is first class, we have a huge debt of gratitude, they put themselves second and the community first, volunteering hundreds of hours worth of effort and time to keep the community safe, and to protect those who are in a vulnerable situation. I’ve heard scores  of stories right across NSW of just regular people who are putting their jobs and their family life to one side as they serve our community. And it’s a reminder that even in extremely difficult sets of circumstances, there’s a wonderful community spirit, particularly in the Port Stephens, Maitland community. So my hat’s off to them, looking forward to hearing about the community response and the resilient response in this part of NSW as we tour the area over the next couple of hours. And of course, I think the important part here is to make sure that when the floodwaters do recede in the coming days and weeks that these communities are not forgotten, that there’s funding and that there’s resourcing in place to make sure that communities can recover. We saw that in the Northern Rivers and Lismore, when the cameras left and the politicians packed up and hit the road communities were still devastated as a result of these natural disasters. We need to learn the lessons of the recent past and make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself, particularly in this wonderful community.

I’ll just make a few points about some extraordinary revelations in Sydney this morning as a result of Jenny West’s evidence in the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the appointment of John Barilaro to the New York trade position. This is what happens when an honest public servant stands in the way of a job for a mate. It’s clear that Jenny West has been treated appallingly by the NSW Government, offer withdrawn,  job terminated and then investigated by the NSW government after she’d in fact left her position in the Department of Trade and Investment in NSW. Jenny West has been treated appallingly by the NSW Government and I think the taxpayers of this state have been treated like mugs all to preserve the job to John Barilaro, many people thought we were free of him in any event. I think the Premier of NSW needs to stand up this afternoon and explain whether he still believes this appointment of the New York trade ambassador job was independent, at arm’s length and not part of the NSW Government or ministerial appointments scheme. If he does, he’s the last person in NSW that believes that. It’s clear that a qualified female candidate was sacked from the role in order to preserve a present for a politician, now that’s not acceptable in any circumstances and it’s certainly not acceptable today. My big fear is and I talk to people right across NSW that feel so cynical when they hear scandals like this one, that there’ll be no one held accountable for this situation and I suspect that’ll be the case today as a result of these latest revelations, but I do think that the Premier of NSW should stand up and explain why Ms. West was terminated from her role in the first place, and how we ended up with John Barilaro and why all the assurances that he gave to the people of this state that it was independent, honest and at arm’s length of government have proven to be completely incorrect.

We’re all happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Just on the flag on the bridge.

MINNS: A good common sense decision by the NSW Government this morning to fly the Indigenous flag, the Aboriginal flag on top of the Harbour Bridge. Of course, NSW Labor has been calling for this for many, many years, a $25 million flagpole at a point in time when we’ve already racked up $183 billion worth of gross debt, I think is an example to the taxpayers of this state that the government is not preserving money, so we need to make sure that common sense decisions are taken right across every government department to make sure that taxpayers are being looked after. This is a good decision, I’m glad it’s been made but it’s been a long time in the making.

JOURNALIST: NSW seen a huge exodus of people moving to other states in the past year or so, the biggest net loss of any of the states what do you think is to blame for that?

MINNS: It’s difficult to narrow it to a single factor. I think one of the things that’s been presented to myself and my colleagues is the extremely high cost of living in Sydney and in regional NSW. Increasingly, the cost of living for families is going through the roof, if you live in the metropolitan area, the cost of tolls is rising exponentially. I’ll give you an example, in places like regional NSW they’re seeing heating and energy costs go through the roof at the same time they may get a better deal in other states. That’s something my colleagues and I will hope to tackle if we form government in March 2023. To reverse that drain of people from this state because we don’t want to see our best and brightest leave NSW, we want to see them raise families, join communities, start businesses in this wonderful state, in this wonderful place, NSW.

JOURNALIST: Just on the local situation, we’ve seen in the last couple of, the last week, especially this sort of pick and choose approach to which communities are going to receive flood support. Kate Washington made a call recently for that support in her community, do you think the government could have handled this a lot better?

MINNS: The government needs to be cognisant of the fact that communities that have been hit hard by floods are watching what the NSW Government does for other communities and they want fairness across the board. So if you are going to declare a community as a natural disaster area, and therefore have it eligible for funding and grants from the NSW Government, if there’s an equally impacted area, particularly in the same region, we need to make sure the NSW Government’s making quick decisions about ensuring that those areas have the same classification because in the short run, it means that communities may miss out on essential resources from emergency services or Rural Fire Service. And in the long run, it might mean that those families and those communities don’t get access to essential grants that they need to rebuild their lives and rebuild their community. So it’s not, I think, a pedantic argument. It’s very important for these communities to make sure that the government of the day is listening to the situation on the ground and making a call about what resources and what classifications they have to – they will apply to that community. And in particular, that natural disaster designation.

JOURNALIST: Are you confident that can be expedited this time around?

MINNS: I guess when it comes to natural disasters, I don’t want miracles I do understand it’s a rapidly changing, fast evolving situation. But when you’ve got great local members like Kate Washington who humbly step up and say, look, you’ve made a mistake here, you need to rectify it. All we ask is that the NSW Government takes that into account listens to the local conditions and what people on the ground are saying, both the Premier and myself represent electorates in Sydney. My electorate, in a very minor part wasn’t affected by floodwaters. But we need to be talking to people who live in these communities about what their communities are going through before we make big decisions. I’m hopeful that the Premier has learned the lessons from the Northern Rivers floods earlier this year. And I don’t want to just jump all over the NSW Government response, I don’t think we can have a perfect response. Best thing we can hope for is the government’s listening to people who’ve been affected.

JOURNALIST: A lot of these communities are still recovering from the March 2022 floods. And councils are looking at infrastructure bills, potentially in the millions with the damage that’s been done to local roads, the Hunter obviously sends, you know, millions of dollars in mining royalties down to Sydney every year, should we be seeing that money back to help fix and rebuild these communities?

MINNS: Yeah, I’ve got absolutely no doubt that both Jenny and Kate and our colleagues who represent Hunter constituencies will be coming down to the NSW parliament, demanding their fair share of resourcing from the NSW Government. And if we’re lucky enough to win government in March 2023, the same onus will be on us, our obligation will be to make sure that the infrastructure is in place to serve these communities, you’ll often find that if the infrastructure is in place, particularly when it comes to levees and weirs and infrastructure related to flood mitigation, you can stop a big cost that will have to be incurred by the government in the future. So oftentimes, you’re spending money to save money in the long run. We’re seeing across NSW increasing instances of natural disaster. And it does mean that the infrastructure budget needs to keep pace with what is an almost fed up, set, I guess, a sped up series of natural disasters, whether it’s flooding, whether it’s bushfires, we need to make sure the infrastructure particularly in the region starts to flow.

JOURNALIST: As you just mentioned, these are no longer really, you know, one in 100 year events. These floods are happening more regularly in the Hunter communities that are now suffering from them. You know, on Friday night, we saw the potential for Maitland’s levee bank to fail which could have been absolutely catastrophic for this community. I mean, do you think that we were well enough prepared for something like this?

AITCHISON: In the last seven years, I’ve been representing the city of Maitland. We’ve been trying to ensure that we have the infrastructure and services we need. We’ve been fighting for better maintenance of the levee bank. We’ve been trying to get this message through to government. The Hunter Valley Flood Mitigation Scheme is an asset that $700 – $800 million worth of assets. It needs repairs. There’s still damage outstanding on that asset from March 2021 and subsequent floods in 2022 and late 2021. So they should have been prioritised given that we know that we’re in La Nina events, emergency service workers at that time did an incredible job to get that resolved. And I think that’s something that we need to definitely learn around especially with messaging. But if you look at things like Testers Hollow, that’s another area. You’ll ask me about that because it’s on everybody’s lips. I mean, this is again, a commitment we’ve looked for, we’ve got from Federal Labor in 2016. It’s still under construction in 2022. And the state government’s been working on it. But to my understanding, it’s could be just a flurry at the bottom of that moat at the moment. So we need to have a review into what’s going to happen with that, you know, 4000 people on that island at Gillieston. That’s tripled the number of people that were there in 2015. It’s flooded, and cut off that island community three times since 1978. But all of that, since 2007. There is real concerns there about how do you build a resilient community, they’re lucky they’ve got a shopping centre, they’re lucky they’ve got the hub now. And community members over there have really stepped up who aren’t volunteers. Normally, they’re just you know, soccer moms and dads who are just doing their help for their community. But we need to look at all of the resources they need, you know, they haven’t got a garbage truck, they haven’t got fuel. You know, they haven’t got some of the emergency services that they’re looking for. So I was over there all day on Friday. I’m going back there this afternoon. I’m on the phone to them all the time. We need to make sure that they can be resilient but they need support to get there and they need infrastructure on the roads. It can’t take three hours to get through Thornton or three hours to get through the CBD. And I’ve been complaining to the state government about the congestion on those roads for years. And we’ve only just seen tiny amounts come through in budgets in the last 12 months in some of the cases.

JOURNALIST: Maitland and Gillieston are one of the fastest growing areas in our region. Why do you think it’s not getting the state government’s attention, especially when we have communities up to 4,000 people being completely cut off from services? You know, do you think that is a little bit ridiculous?

AITCHISON: It is ridiculous. And I mean, even the school at Gillieston is still got no buildings from 1925, majority are demountable. That can’t be used at the moment really for an evacuation centre, because it doesn’t have mobility access. In the budget. We’ve got $1.73 million commitment for a, an upgrade and redevelopment of that site like it should have been prioritised years ago when we first started raising the fact that it needed it. You know, this is the problem, the government’s not been listening. And it’s not for lack of voices. And we will continue to do it. And I mean, we had the Premier up here earlier this week. I certainly had that discussion with him. And I will continue to do that. But the thing is, I think the community’s got to say it’s been seven years, they’ve known about the problem, they’ve done nothing. If you want change, you’ve got to change the government in March. That’s the only way we’re going to get that to happen.

JOURNALIST: Looking at the levee bank, did the Premier make any kind of commitment towards fixing that?

AITCHISON: I think at this stage, he was listening, but I’m hoping we get out of this emergency onto those topics. This is a problem. It’s the anxiety for communities, when they don’t see government acting on their concerns that they’ve raised before. Tripling of a population in a flood prone area, the people who were there in 2015, a lot of them massively traumatised, because they really thought that wasn’t going to be the same, but they’re still seeing some of the same issues occurring through lack of investment by NSW Government.

JOURNALIST: We’ve seen, you know, especially just looking at the government’s flood response. Obviously, the RFS and SES are doing a fantastic job. But there are community members literally living at the Maitland Showground, in the gazebos that only have two walls on them, you know, 13 dogs and all the rest of it, you know, is that good enough to have elderly residents quite literally camping out on in freezing cold temperatures?

AITCHISON: Look, I agree with you. And I’m really concerned and I’ve been following that up over the last 24 hours particularly as it’s come to my attention. The problem is that again, you get the siloing of government that shouldn’t happen. The showground is an area for animal welfare. But then you’ve got people who are there. And they need things like a kitchen, like a proper toilet facility, like a warm, dry space they can be. So one of the things that’s got to come out of this is that there is actually more integration in those areas where you’ve got [inaudible]. And I’ve been speaking to the showground manager today. And he actually raised this after the bushfires when they were talking about showgrounds as emergency service centres. So that’s again, something we have to get onto. I’ve put LLS in contact with them. I’ve told them the need, even to the animals that wasn’t bedding for the animal. The showgraund is a pretty wet flat places. So the horses. And I think they’ve got 100 there at the moment, they’ve got cattle, and it’s an area that doesn’t have a lot of resources in a good time. So we need to actually say this is going to be the designated animal shelter area for Maitland. It’s got to be up to standard so that in the middle of a flood people aren’t having to truck in water and sand shavings and gravel just so they can keep the animals safe.

JOURNALIST: And realistically, I mean, what kind of timeframe are we looking at? You know, to get these communities back on track in terms of infrastructure?

AITCHISON: That’s so – that’s a big question because there’s so much to do like even the assessments, I drove around all of Maitland yesterday, and so many roads are still underwater. So we don’t know what the conditions, even the SES they’ve got the [inaudible] vehicles going over but they don’t know the condition under the roads that water probably won’t go down for at least another week. I’d say it’s hard to know. So they’ll have to be assessments we’ll be working with council to make sure that that happens. And that we make a very strong case to the NSW Government and that we get them to listen to it.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the fact that you know, this is quite a significant Labor stronghold is perhaps having a negative effect on the funding that we’re receiving?

AITCHISON: If that’s the case, that’s a disgrace. I don’t care what people vote I have people coming to me and I know Kate and everyone does across the state. They they want help – it shouldn’t matter what colour jacket they’re wearing, what colour they voted, that’s ridiculous, we need to ensure that people who are in an emergency in a natural disaster get the help they need. If that’s not happening [inaudible].

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