Sid Hayward is an LGIU Content Officer who curates our Australian Daily News Service available to our Australian members. All Australian local government stakeholders can sign up for our weekly policy roundup – sign up here and choose our ‘Aware’ package.
At LGIU, we prepare a daily news service for Australian local government. When covering the recent flooding in NSW and Queensland, I was first struck by the unbelievable images and news updates coming from devastated towns like Lismore and Murwillumbah. Secondly, as the focus shifted from evacuation and rescue to recovery, the sheer volume of work required to get life back to normal for communities. Then, when searching for recovery measures, it became apparent that while councils were providing timely and innovative support to their communities, volunteers and emergency services, there was a degree of uncertainty when it came to state and Federal measures.
While some government announcements have been welcomed by councils, such as the $1 million in funding for disaster-declared councils to support clean-up efforts and the reestablishment of the Local Government Emergency Recovery Support Group, the timeliness and selectivity of national response measures have been criticised by communities and local governments alike.
If the Commonwealth, state governments and state emergency services fail to plan and respond to natural disasters adequately, councils will be faced with increasing pressure to help their communities respond and recover to future disasters, made more frequent and severe by ongoing impacts of climate change. On top of this will be the impacts to their regular services, such as strains on kerbside collections and roads closed by flooding and severe weather. While the best case remains councils responding to local issues with the backing of state and federal governments, through measures such the Queensland Government’s recent exemption to the state waste levy for 12 councils to help with flood-related waste clean-up, local governments and communities in regions devastated by the recent flooding have reacted swiftly and creatively by themselves.
In the cities, metropolitan councils quickly announced hardship policies. Brisbane received almost the same amount of rain in three days (677mm!) than London typically does over an entire year. In response, the City of Brisbane Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner announced a $250 cut to the rates bill of thousands of flood-affected ratepayers. The Council also announced that all residential rates notices across the city for the April quarter will be postponed by a month, ensuring bills aren’t sent out until at least the end of April. 20,000 houses were reportedly destroyed in the city, leading the council to offer additional payment extensions and payment plans to the worst affected residents.
The unprecedented period of flooding saw many unaffected councils step in to help their fellow local governments. The Local Government Association of Queensland’s (LGAQ) Council to Council (C2C) support program saw council crews from across the state converge in flood-hit areas. Council workers from Mackay, Gladstone, Central Highlands, Rockhampton, Redlands and the Gold Coast have travelled from their communities to help with the clean-up effort in Queensland’s south-east. The councils, many of whom were recipients of help in the past, sent the workers and spare equipment to assist with recovery efforts. The C2C program sees the LGAQ liaise with councils to send support where it’s needed. LGAQ President and Sunshine Coast Mayor Mark Jamieson said the “C2C support program has again proven its worth, with councils once more supporting each other in times of crisis. The councils that need help right now are some of Queensland’s largest councils, who have been called on to assist others in the past, so it’s great to see the favour returned”.
Also in Queensland, the Western Queensland Alliance of Councils (WQAC) pledged to donate funds to flood-affected councils in the south east. The 22 members of the alliance each pledged $5,000 to the Premier’s Queensland Floods Appeal. Blackall-Tambo Mayor Andrew Martin said the councils were returning the generosity of the flood-impacted councils, who had supported western communities during times of drought and flood. Many of the WQAC councils have also sent SES personnel to assist in the flood recovery.
In New South Wales, Shoalhaven City Council sent water utility supplies to assist councils in northern NSW impacted by the devastating recent flooding. The equipment sent by the council allows sewerage systems to be reinstated in flood affected areas, reducing the health risk to the community and environment. Shoalhaven Water has loaned equipment such as pressure sewer unit control panels, testing panels and domestic pump systems to the affected councils. Shoalhaven mayor Amanda Findley said: “when Shoalhaven was impacted by Bushfire a few years ago, many agencies came to our aid. Being able to repay that generosity is incredibly important”.
Despite this, the bulk of the responsibility for flood prevention and assistance still lies with the Australian Government and the states. Councils’ reaction to support from governments has been mixed. Some flood recovery measures, such as the $742 million flood funding package announced in mid-March, were welcomed by affected councils and local government associations alike. Other decisions drew criticism; the Prime Minister’s announcement that residents in the Lismore, Clarence Valley and Richmond Valley council areas would be eligible for additional payments of $2,000 for adults, under an extension of the Federal Disaster Recovery Payment scheme prompted anger from the nearby Byron, Ballina and Tweed councils, who despite also being struck by flooding had been left without any payments.
The uncertainty on the timeliness and extent of government support is partly why the Australian Local Government Association has repeatedly called for disaster mitigation to take priority in government spending. ALGA President Linda Scott said the floods in NSW and Queensland show Australia is failing to plan for natural disasters adequately. Cr Scott said councils are advocating for at least $200 million per year in disaster mitigation and a further $200 million over four years to address the impacts of climate change at a local level.
The extent and cost of the devastation caused by the flooding in NSW and Queensland is hard to determine. The flooding crisis has shown the resilience of local communities and the increasing exposure to natural disasters and hazards that Australians face from capital cities to the regions. It has also revealed the difference councils can make day-to-day in responding to disaster, and how much more important mitigation, planning and preparedness will become if immediate relief stalls and the severity and frequency of such disaster events are worsened by climate change.