Flood relief has become a political pawn while victims fend for themselves


You’re reading VICE Australia’s weekly introduction to the general election. Progressive or conservative, they all have a reason to play the game – shouldn’t you know enough to talk about it in the pub?

A crowd of opposition MPs took to Twitter earlier in the week to accuse the Morrison government of sending more flood-recovery resources to coalition-held voters than to Labor ones. The ensuing political turmoil sent a clear message: as so often, flood victims could only rely on themselves.

It all started on Wednesday when the handiwork of a colour-coded spreadsheet from the Prime Minister’s Office reportedly politicized the distribution of Services Australia relief workers in flood-hit areas. In other words, Scott Morrison has been accused of sending more resources to coalition seat residents than to Labor-led ones, whatever their circumstances.

Terri Butler, a Labor MP for the Griffith constituency in south Brisbane, made the claim first. Shortly thereafter, Labor Party shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers; Shadow Minister for Emergency Management, Murray Watt; and Moreton MP, Graham Perrett, each followed suit. Perett then tweeted a screenshot of the list sent to resources, which listed three in Longman but none of the Labor-held Brisbane River seats, and urged Government Services Secretary Linda Reynolds to clarify.

“People should get help as needed, not by choice,” he said.

Like the welfare of womentransgender students, firefighters, indigenous communities and countless others, residents of the northern rivers of NSW and southeast Queensland, had become a political pawn. A ticket to clip.

Reynolds later tried, and perhaps unsurprisingly, to keep the ball in the air by accusing the Labor MPs involved of “playing cheap politics,” according to a report in The guard. But the damage was already done. Flood victims already felt isolated – and the situation for the coalition could only get worse.

The Prime Minister announced he tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday and was nowhere to be seen. Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce tried to step into Morrison’s shadow on Thursday and only stumbled, eventually being drawn into Labour’s mudslinging. That left Reynolds only to try and make it appear like the Morrison government cared about everyone — not just those whose votes they could count on. It was a tough sell.

Eventually, Services Australia staff – tasked with helping local people without electricity or access to the internet to collect the $1,000 in disaster relief payments due to them – made their way to Red Seats in southeast Queensland. Reynolds was sure to alarm the press and Labor’s Terri Butler quickly clinched the win.

As all of this was happening, communities from across northern NSW, parts of Brisbane and beyond could be seen supporting rescue and recovery efforts led by volunteer forces such as the State Emergency Services and the Rural Fire Service. By late Thursday, they had been working around the clock tirelessly and with insufficient resources to recover bodies from the floodwaters and clear the debris left behind by Australia’s ‘rain bomb’.

At this point, world leaders had to foot the bill, were forced to reach into empty pockets, and had little choice but to turn to the federal government for help.

New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet was the first to get it.

On Thursday, his government announced a $437.7 million funding package for flood victims, co-funded by the Commonwealth government. That money, Perrottet’s office said, will be used to help communities clean up debris and set up business grants for “primary producers,” small businesses and nonprofits.

Queensland is still waiting.

The week once again put the financing of disaster relief and prevention firmly at the center of the federal election debate in May. Flickers of this were revealed on Monday when Defense Secretary Peter Dutton was yanked for setting up a GoFundMe page for flood-affected members of his own Queensland constituency rather than mobilizing government money.

Critics were quick to point out that the government already has a fairly robust fundraising system in place: the Australian Taxation Office. The irony was not lost on Labour’s Josh Wilson, who suggested the move reflected the coalition’s mismanagement of natural disasters in recent years.

Funding for disaster relief has become, among other things, an Achilles’ heel for the Morrison administration. As of 2019, the coalition has more than $4.7 billion worth of funding earmarked for contingency response to events like those in north east Australia. But they have refused to even assign it — let alone spend it. (The longer they hold it back, the more interest they earn).

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese identified this as an electoral opportunity back in January when he pledged that a Labor government would not only provide the billions in aid money but add another $200m each year for disaster prevention protocols. The goal? To minimize the damage left by floods, hurricanes and bush fires.

It was a simple piece aimed at those who needed it most. Albanese appeared himself in Queensland in the early weeks of the year, trying to convince voters who iced out his party in 2019 that he had his eye on them this time.

The idea wasn’t new.

Albanese’s plan borrows heavily from recommendations in a 2015 Productivity Commission report on natural disaster financing that was released largely ignored by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. At the time, however, Turnbull argued that most of the report’s recommendations fell under the jurisdiction of state governments and that his government would instead lead coordination efforts among them.

In its 2021 federal budget, the Morrison government announced a new Prepare Australia fund that will provide $600 million over six years for disaster response. The fund drew heat from opposition, which accused the Morrison government of sitting on the funds, which “had done nothing to help ailing Australians”.

But those stranded in communities like Mullumbimby in NSW need no reminder. This morning, images from regions like theirs, across the northern rivers and now even north-west Sydney, showed the efforts of a stoic volunteer effort that is reluctant to raise hopes for the day when a leader arrives in Canberra and reclaims the work they did done for too long.

They organize themselves and distribute Google Docs with a range of emergency contacts, evacuation centers and the phone numbers of 4WD or Motorized Tinnie volunteers ready to help. Of course, these documents are only available to the select few who still have WiFi running. They bond each other with clothing, food, and even midwives and medical assistance.

They knew they would be left to their own devices and they prepared for it.

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