The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Wayne Swan

Wayne Swan

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer

3 December 2007 - 27 June 2013

17 January 2011

Interview with Rebecca Levingston

ABC 612

17 January 2011

SUBJECTS: Queensland Floods

LEVINGSTON:

Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister, Wayne Swan, was in the United States as the floods began to roll into southeast Queensland last week and he returned home to a city on high alert.  Treasurer, good morning.

TREASURER:

Good morning Rebecca.

LEVINGSTON:

Did you cut your trip short to come home?

TREASURER:

Most certainly.  I was due to give a speech at the Australian/US Leadership Dialogue but the minute I heard of the floods and their possible impact on the city, I jumped on the first available plane and got back as quickly as I possibly could.  Since I've been back I've been working with the Premier, State Emergency Services Minister, the Prime Minister and a whole lot of Federal Ministers on the response.

LEVINGSTON:

Plenty of people interested an indeed concerned about the impact of all of this on the Australian economy, but before we talk on a national scale, in terms of your own electorate how have people coped?

TREASURER:

Well, fortunately in my electorate of Lilley we've not had the massive impact that we've seen elsewhere in the city.  This area does tend to flood but it hasn't flooded like it can flood on this occasion and we're very fortunate for that. But what has been extraordinary, and what I've seen here on the north side, has  been the amazing  response from all of the volunteers. 

Last Wednesday for example I went over to a council depot over at Zillmere where locals were filling sandbags and there were a couple of hundred people there that had just turned up almost out of the blue and were shovelling sand into sandbags.  There's been a fantastic community response in this area where people have not been immediately affected and they've travelled right across the city to help their fellow Brisbane-ites, if you like.  It's just been truly amazing. But it has been a bit surreal here on the north side where I live where there hasn't been the impact that we've seen particularly on the south side at places like Rocklea and Goodna and Chelmer and so on.

LEVINGSTON:

No doubt people are all commending the magnificent volunteer effort.  I guess the question is, can our economy galvanise as well as the people of Queensland?  Treasurer what are your priorities this week?

TREASURER:

My priorities this week have been on the immediate rescue and recovery.  Making sure that resources go in the right direction.  Making sure that there are enough Centrelink staff in the right areas assisting people to make claims because many people are in great distress - they have no access to support at all.

And of course, as you know, we do make emergency payments.  There have been something like 54,000 emergency payments have been made already and certainly many more will be made. And of course, there's going to be those people who can't go to work who don't have a job at the moment.  There's going to be many of those small businesses that aren't operating.  So we do make a range of payments in those areas.  So that's been a very important priority for the Federal Government.

But also working with local members of Parliament from all political parties, that's been another thing that I've been doing through the week – making sure that not only Centrelink staff are available but also getting the correct advice out there, liaising with the state Emergency Services Minister, working with our Defence Minister in particular. As you would be aware there are now thousands of people out there from our defence forces working, helicopters are there, they've played an incredible role. And of course, as you know we've now got some naval ships about to begin work in the bay. 

LEVINGSTON:

A huge recovery effort already underway and one that will carry on for weeks and months and I think the Lord Mayor of Brisbane Campbell Newman suggested it would be one and a half to two years before the capital city of Queensland will be back on track.  Do you have an idea at this stage of a dollar figure, or perhaps parameters for a dollar figure, on how much this recovery effort could cost Australia?

TREASURER:

No I don't, but it's not just the recovery effort, it's also the reconstruction,  it's also the rebuilding because we should never forget that it's not just Brisbane, the Lockyer Valley or Toowoomba.  There are vast areas of Queensland that have also been impacted and what we're going to have to do is to engage also, in addition to the recovery, in a massive rebuilding effort. And of course, the Commonwealth will be making a very significant contribution to that rebuilding effort. 

Under our natural disaster relief arrangements the Commonwealth is responsible for a very substantial amount of money.  I don't want to talk about the quantums at the moment, it's not possible to accurately say what they will be, but what I can say to you is that it looks like this is possibly going to be, in economic terms, the largest natural disaster in our history.  And of course, it will involve billions of dollars of commonwealth money and also State Government money and there's going to be impacts on local governments as well.  So this is very big and as the Lord Mayor has said it's not just something which is going to occupy our time for the next few months, it will be a question of years as we go through the rebuilding process as well.

LEVINGSTON:

Do you have some major industries who are coming to you desperately seeking help?  I'm thinking in terms of the mining industry, transport, food. And are you able to prioritise them in order to get the economy back on track?

TREASURER:

Well, we've already been working with some of our major industries and some of our major businesses just in terms of the distribution of food.  They have been magnificent in terms of their cooperation working with the responsible local authorities to ensure that food gets through to parts of the state that have been cut off.  There have been some extraordinary efforts in terms of the shipping of food from out of state to places like Rockhampton just to name one issue.  But as time goes on there will be many small businesses that are dramatically impacted upon.  Many people are going to struggle, are going to find it very hard, and we will be in the days, weeks and months ahead working closely with local business organisations in our response to all of those circumstances.

LEVINGSTON:

Treasurer, do you expect the cost of living in Australia to go up as a result of this flood crisis?

TREASURER:

Well, there's no doubt there will be some impact yes, on the cost of living because as you know the Lockyer Valley is a food bowl which not just supplies Queensland but the rest of the country.  So there will be all sorts of impacts. But Rebecca, it is far too early to be putting figures on those, we're working on all of those issues as you would expect we would be, but far too early to get an accurate handle on the precise impacts.

LEVINGSTON:

Nonetheless, I heard you over the weekend pleading with insurance companies to be reasonable in their response to claims.  How much power can you exercise over insurance companies as we go through putting back the pieces of this mess?

TREASURER:

Well, certainly Minister Shorten and I as well as State Minister Fraser had a meeting with the insurance companies late last week because there are very substantive issues involved here in terms of the definition of flood, the differences in policies that people will have between companies.  Some aspects of flood are covered and some are not.  It is very clear that some people will have full flood insurance, some people will not.  There will be grey areas where there will be disputes. 

So what we did sitting down with the insurance industry was to discuss all of these issues.  It is very important that those that have insurance make sure that they make contact with their insurance company as soon as possible.  It is very important that the insurance companies have the resources on the ground to get out there and work with their customers.  It is also very important that where there are grey areas that we have a dispute resolution service in operations, and we've been talking to the State Government about people having access to some forms of legal advice.  It's also very important from my point of view that where there is a doubt about the policy that the customer gets the benefit of the doubt and is treated with a degree of compassion.  These are all complex issues that do need to be resolved and on which we are working with the industry as well.

LEVINGSTON:

Finally Treasurer, the Government committed to getting the Budget back into surplus by 2013. Given the scale of this flood situation is that still a reasonable goal?  Is it still possible?

TREASURER:

Well, we're on track to come back to surplus in 2013 and we've got in place a very strict set of spending guidelines.  There's no doubt that the costs involved in responding to this natural disaster are substantial, but we shouldn't forget that we've also got a very strong economy, a strong investment pipeline and strong public finances.  We'll just work our way through all of those issues in a sensible way and we'll take our time to accurately assess the impact of this on the economy and we'll provide full support to the people as we go through that process, but it' s just too early to speculate. But I just want to make this point, our fiscal strategy is very important to the country.  We've come through the challenge of a global recession in a way which has been vastly different from every other economy in the world.  So we do have underlying economic strength to deal with the challenges that are proposed by this natural disaster, but of course it will involve difficult decisions for us as we go forward.

LEVINGSTON:

Treasurer I appreciate your time this morning thank you.

TREASURER:

Good to be with you.