Doorstop Interview Transcript: Floods; flood support; health workers industrial action; public transport

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CHRIS MINNS: Chris Minns, NSW Labor Leader and I’m of course here with the member for Lismore, Janelle Saffin. Look a few words off the top. Janelle has gone through so much over the last four or five weeks and shown real empathy, dedication and leadership to communities on the Northern Rivers in particular her hometown of Lismore. It can’t have been easy, but notwithstanding the fact that she had to swim for her life in the early hours of the morning of the flood, then watched her own house be inundated with floodwaters, nothing has stopped her fighting for a community and it’s wonderful to have her here today to speak directly to the NSW Government and the opposition and the media about the real emergency facing communities on the North Coast. A few things I want to say before I hand over to Janelle.

First up, there is obviously a serious emergency on the Northern Rivers at the moment, there’s flooding in Murwillumbah, Lismore has been evacuated there suggestions that the river height could get to 10.6 metres by later this evening. Our message to communities on the Northern Rivers is listen to emergency service broadcasts. It’s essential in saving your lives. Don’t drive through floodwaters. It’s enormously dangerous to yourself, to your passengers, and of course, anyone who is sent to rescue from these very dangerous conditions. Listen to the emergency services on the NSW North Coast. Listen to the senior police officers who’ve taken charge of the emergency situation, it’s essential that we don’t lose any lives and that people are safe during this very difficult period.

Notwithstanding the immediate emergency threat, we also have the serious business of reconstruction on the Northern Rivers. And in light of that, and consistent with what is – what is unfolding in Janelle’s community at the moment, we need to make sure that serious effort is made by the NSW Government at reconstruction. We’ve been calling for changes to the reconstruction effort from the NSW Government in particular the waiving of fees and charges for communities up on the NSW North Coast. We believe stamp duty should be waived for those residents that are changing houses or moving locations to move to safer ground, that wouldn’t necessarily be affected by flood waters. We’re calling on the state government to use their influence with the Commonwealth Government to bring back JobKeeper. It’s essential that money is in the pockets of community on the Northern Rivers says that the economy can restart as soon as those businesses are able to open. And of course, we’re calling for more resources and training for SES units on the NSW North Coast. I want to make this point very clear. I’ve got zero interest and Janelle has zero interest in playing gotcha with the NSW Government. We don’t want to just point out failures with the emergency response. We genuinely genuinely want action, no political party, no person has a monopoly on good ideas. All we care about is what works. And that should be the overriding bipartisan approach to this natural disaster on the NSW Northern Rivers.

Janelle.

JANELLE SAFFIN: Thank you, Chris, and thank you for being in our community and just being there and listening to people and then reflecting their needs back to Sydney. I’ve done that with you. I’ve done that with the Premier. As you say I do everything that’s needed for the community that I’m proud to represent. The event that happened at the end of February, it was a flood but it was more than a flood. It has virtually wiped out our central business district in Lismore – North and South Lismore, wonderful suburbs, where a lot of you know everyday people live, great suburbs, East Lismore where it’s never flooded before, and these houses it’s never flooded before. The businesses in town, they packed up even in north and south to the 2017 level. They packed up, they did what was required and everybody still got smashed and our local community came out you know flotilla, the tinny army, they rescued them, and they’re still doing it in the recovery. What I’ve been – and Chris mentioned and some of you would know that yes, with two friends I swam out after we hung off the rafters and realised no one was coming. But worse, my husband was in my house, and I thought he drowned. And because there was no boat going for him, but two of my neighbours managed to get – one of them got to him in a canoe, a canoe I’d given her because [inaudible] on the river and managed to hold him up. And so all of this was going on, but that wasn’t just for me. I highlight that because that was happening to so many people right across the community. And they were on roofs – they were in attics, can you imagine being in an attic with your children, and not being able to get out onto the roof? And I know, one woman rang, you know, one of her old bosses and said, I’m stuck in the attic with the kids. What do I do? So there are a whole lot of things like that. This really was a horrific event. I said, there’s heroes and horror stories, and it’s all mixed up. Okay. And it requires a very different response from government, any government, the machinery that government puts into play is not fit for purpose for this event. Some of the programs are fine, but we’re running into red tape. I get told other members get told. So I know when I’m speaking, I have backing of other members up my way. When people – I get told everybody who wants to be housed somewhere is housed. Well, how come yesterday I got a call from a family of seven at the Lismore showgrounds with a baby, with their niece, with three dogs and they weren’t housed, they were in a tent? And we made sure, you know, my office we’re case managing people, we do it well, that’s not my job. But we’re doing it because no one else is doing it. I’ve sought an urgent briefing on issues like that today. Then there’s the business grants. Yep, you get $15,000. Then the next 35, you’ve got to show you spent the money, there is no cash in the CBD. It’s not happening. There’s no cash flow, how can they go out and spend $35,000 to stand their business up when they’ve been totally smashed? We need a grant that is a grant. And if you stand your business up, you’re acquitted. And if you don’t, well, then you know you have it’s dealt with by the government. So these are the things but we don’t have one chain of command. And I’ll keep banging on about it. We need what I call a reconstruction commission. The government can call it what they like, I don’t care. I don’t have to announce it. As long as it comes. Because we’re dealing with agency after agency agency agency, everybody, it’s not working. It’s clearly not working. Look at how many people applied for business grants. Thousands. How many have got it, just a few. I mean, the list goes on. And I really – some of the people were housed in a motorhome that were told they had to go to a certain place. And then I get contactedy, somebody who’s got serious cancer. The woman can’t climb into the motor home, you know, who’s case managing that, we are. Do you know. And these are the things that are happening right across the community. Look, I could talk a lot more on this. But I’m sure you want to ask some questions. And I’ll just say this – it two things in the – And I came here today to make sure that I was in Sydney. I want people to listen to us. We always listen when Sydney has a lot of you know, disasters and problems. We listen in the regions. I’m here to make sure Sydney hears us and the government as well. And in the house. Two things. I put a notice of motion in the house today. And it was on the reconstruction commission. I said we need one chain of command. I want one general, one person in command, you know, allow Assistant Commissioner Mal Lanyon to really run it, not just have him there in charge of the recovery and having Resilience NSW with wonderful people getting in the road, get them out of the road. And I noticed in the house, there’s a Greater City’s Commission Bill. I’m sure it’s a great bill. Sure, it’s a great bill. I want a reconstruction commission bill in the house as well. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] in terms, we know that there was, you know, we – one it was quite obvious that the chain of command wasn’t working there. But it was, you know, it was confusing. [inaubible] Why are we a month later, do you think and it seems to have not sorted out?

SAFFIN: It needs – well it needs government to make a decision and say what we’re doing is not fit for purpose for the response that’s required in the community, and we’re going to change it and we’re going to have one chain of command for a start. That’s the first thing and not have Resilience in charge of recovery; have Assistant Commissioner Mal Lnyon in charge of recovery. I said you can’t have two generals on one turf, if it doesn’t work. So that’s the first decision. And the second one is if we don’t get a single body and I don’t want another department, God forbid, I want a single body that actually is charged with the reconstruction for the physical, the financial, the emotional, and the environmental. And they can cut across all the agencies, a lot of the agencies do terrific work. I’m not dissing them. But each agency has its own way of operating.

JOURNALIST: It seemed that the Premier was very keen – he was on the ground. He was keen, and he wanted to get things sorted out. So what what’s happened? Like, why hasn’t he been – has he not been listening? Or was he not made enough changes or implemented enough of the things that he saw on the ground? And so – I’m just trying to work out -he went in so gung ho to try [inaudible] it hasn’t.

SAFFIN: Well, the – and I’ve said this to the Leader of the Opposition, the housing announcement, I said that to the Premier, I said, we need that immediately. And I did that with him, you know, the stand up media conference, because that was fine for an immediate, you know, response. And I did it, so I said, the announcement was fine. The implementation is just appalling. It’s absolutely appalling. And I, like the Premier is on parental leave. We all respect that, because we support that. So I’ve managed to leave him alone, somewhat. But my God, I wish he was here too today with us so that we could all have this conversation. So the Acting Premier needs to.

JOURNALIST: What have you been hearing out of your electorates today, given the renewed flood threat?

SAFFIN: It was like, I won’t quote the Betoota Advocate. It never ends. It was, it was just like, oh my goodness, here we go again, you know, and that feeling, but I have to say, the, the response at the end of February, it was all hands on deck and our local community really saved our community. The local SES who were there were fantastic with their seven boats, only two that could be, you know, operated, and a few people. But this time, there was more organisation, you know, it wasn’t perfect, but there was more organisation, people were – there were people knocking SES, army knocking on doors, saying evacuate, evacuate all of that. But only about 15 per cent of people had gone back to North and South and some of those areas. So there weren’t a lot of people there. It was traumatic for the people who were in motor homes, in tents, etc, having to move again and back into evacuation centre, when we still haven’t sorted out, you know, the first lot. I’m worried about, we still haven’t moved everything. I know, don’t call it rubbish, but people’s lives are out on the footpaths. And that’s still there. I know at my property is. And my husband saying it’s gonna be everywhere. And I said, that’s the least of our worries. But it is a worry for people, you know, I’m just reflecting what they’re saying. And it’s like, what else is coming?

JOURNALIST: In terms of resourcing, though, you’re quite happy with how it’s been resourced at this present moment in terms of – if it gets really bad, you know, tonight, that there is adequate, you know, people on the ground to help.

SAFFIN: It seems to be adequate, the briefings I’ve been in, and also the Leader’s Office was in the briefing as well. So we’ve all been in the briefings, and it appeared to be we need more timely information out of the SES. I actually have what I call my weatherman, who’s different to them. And – Jeff Spash, but he’s now been patched into SES I’m told. Yeah. Yeah. So I have my own weatherman. He’s good. He was SES. He now lives in Queensland. Sorry, I’ve named him.

JOURNALIST: Up in the Northern Rivers, there is a sense that the centralisation of the SES has been part of the problem. And I mean, you just said that you’ve got your own – like the weather systems up there are a bit different to the weather systems on the South Coast. With SES being based in Wollongong, do you think that was part of the problem, you know, of why the response wasn’t adequate on the 28th of Feb?

SAFFIN: I do, we don’t want the system based in Wollongong. I know every system has a central core. I get that that’s how things work. But we need a regional core and we need to be responsible, at that local level, it needs to be more timely. One of the recommendations of the Owens review post 2017 of that event from cyclone Debbie did say that you’d have the BOM, the Bureau of Meteorology, someone always in SES, et cetera. They’re there. That’s not enough. It’s clearly not enough. We need more local knowledge, more local input, but we need – SES needs better resourcing, I had raised that with the minister earlier about the training. And the training needs to be a very specific skill set for events like these. They’re not just floods, they’re disasters. This is a humanitarian disaster, and it’s a human security disaster. And we need to have the machinery of government responding in that way to – it’s the economic and the social damage is quite extreme across my communities. I mean, I’ve got Murwillumbah too, I’ve got Kyogle. You know, I’ve got Tweed Valley, I’ve got all of these areas. So we do need – I’ve gone off track. I know. But I want to say what I want to say.

JOURNALIST: Chris, Janelle  was just saying that  you know, not having the Premier here. Obviously, everyone understands why he’s not here. He’s on parental leave. But of course, you know, she did say I wish he was here –  has the ship being rudderless, do you think has the Acting Premier not met the mark as to what he’s needed to do in this period?

MINNS: Look, I’ll take what Janelle said at face value. At the end of the day, she’s been the liaison for the 75,000 people that live in Lismore with the NSW Government. And if she’s not getting the responses and communications that are required from senior levels of the government, that’s a major concern. Now, hopefully that can be remedied this afternoon when that meeting takes place with senior ministers, but there are serious issues that need to be addressed immediately. The first one is there’s $10,000 for a household that has a single; $20,000 for a couple to rebuild your house as a grant from the NSW Government, now, in Queensland that number is $50,000. That’s the figure that’s going to be required to fix houses that have been completely smashed and damaged in downtown Lismore. Janelle’s been talking about that for weeks quietly at first behind the scenes at first in meetings with senior government leaders at first, but now we need to bring it to parliament’s attention and the media to get results. That’s the first issue. Second one and this was repeated to me by Janelle and business leaders. In fact, the Chamber of Commerce from Lismore, which was we were told there would be $50,000 grants to rebuild our small business. But as Janelle pointed out, it’s it’s paid back by the NSW Government. So the business has to provide receipts to the government to have the funds transferred to them. Most businesses don’t have $50,000 on hand, they’re not going to be able to go to a bank and borrow $50,000 in order to spend it. So as a result, it won’t be spent. And my concern is that disconnect between initial government announcements for immediate flood support and recovery and the actual implementation is falling over. These are specific examples. I think Paul Toole would say okay, well the opposition’s raise these issues we asked them to be specific about it. There’s two examples. Hopefully we can sort them this afternoon.

JOURNALIST: Janelle, just finally, if Lismore is having two major tonight ended up being a major flood, which is predicted to be – two major floods in the space of four weeks. Does this prove that Lismore needs serious flood mitigation?

SAFFIN: Lismore has always needed flood – Yes, it does. Lismore always needed flood mitigation. I had taken that issue up with the government previously, on behalf of Tweed Lismore Kyogle council because I’d gone to them and said give me your list of priorities in terms of flood mitigation, the things that they could afford to do, because councils have that responsibility put on them. They don’t get enough resources to do extensive hydrological engineering reports, etc. So I’d put those to the government and it was all flood mitigation. There were 18 projects in Lismore, Tweed had a lot. In the Tweed area in fact, they sought $27 million to re voluntary repurchase homes. There is a scheme that exists. It’s house raising, and it’s house repurchasing. And it’s got about $2 in it. So the answer is yes.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] tinkering out the edges – what councils can afford to do is not good enough, what the state government could afford to do could actually save lives and homes. So do you call now on the state government to act on flood mitigation?

SAFFIN: Look, I do and to restore the budget that’s been cut because the budget was about for flood mitigation project grants. It was about $20-something million 20 – just over 20 million in about 2014. By 2018, it was about $9.8 million. So these are not new issues to me. I live in areas where it floods. I’ve taken this up before. So yes, we have to do it. There has been $10 million announced to do it through CSIRO doing some flood mitigation that was announced the other day. But we need a serious look. And not just – like this is why I want to commission because we need to have these hard conversations with our community about what sort of flood mitigation where voluntary house repurchase, house raising, can we do amphibious architecture? You know, there’s a whole range of things that hasn’t happened, needs to happen now. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Could I just ask , this week we’re seeing a fair bit of industrial action in the health sector, we’ve got paramedics today, and [inaudible] on Thursday? Yeah, this is just a little month over [inaudible] went on strike. Why has there been no progress do you think?

MINNS: It’s hard for me to answer that question. I hope that the government’s not distracted from the real work that needs to happen between worker representatives and the NSW Government. We do know that inflation is projected to be well over three per cent in the coming financial year. I think that that will be reported in the budget – the Commonwealth budget later tonight. The wage cap is at 2.5 per cent. So as it stands today, the NSW Government is asking hundreds of thousands of frontline workers, many of them had put in huge a huge effort during the COVID-19 emergency to take a real wage cut, right when the cost of living in Sydney is going through the roof. They need to sit down and explain to their own workforce, what the status is of those negotiations and are – and I’d say to the Treasurer, and the Premier, if you’re going to move on that wage cap, announce it now before the budget comes down. Because every day lost to industrial action between now when the budget comes down, may not be necessary. If in the end, you’re going to give away on wages in a environment with rising inflation.

JOURNALIST: And they’ve taken into the industrial relations commission again in an attempt to strike like they did last time. Do you think that’s a good use of resources when they could just use that time meeting with the unions?

MINNS: Well, I certainly urge them to sit down and negotiate. I understand in the past, that Brad Hazzard has had fruitful negotiations with frontline workers, particularly in conjunction with Kerry Chant over the last two years. I don’t understand why that hasn’t continued. It’s important that it does. And I point you to the example of the former Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who had successful negotiations, industrial negotiations with transport unions over a 10 year period from the period when she was Transport Minister to Treasurer and then Premier. And we hadn’t had a strike for nearly a decade. So the government can’t have it both ways. You can’t have a situation, where petrol is increasing by 30 per cent, fresh food by 10 per cent, rent by 10 per cent, transport by seven per cent. All of these cost of living measures going through the roof while at the same time putting downward pressure on wages, because Sydney’s already one of the most expensive cities in the world. And many people are saying I can’t afford to live here anymore.

Look, I want to make one last point in relation to trains. March has been the most disruptive public transport date in the last 10 years, people have lost hundreds of hours of work and haven’t been able to get home as a result of the transport chaos in New South Wales, calling on the NSW Transport Minister to start focusing on the mess, we all know when there’s heavy rain and natural disasters, there will be chaos in the transport network. That’s all the more reason to solve every other measure in the transport system so that we can have some kind of reliance when it comes to people getting to and from work because as the system stands at the moment, it’s completely unreliable. And hundreds of thousands of people are missing out on the opportunity to get to and from work.

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