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Shane Stone out on the road

The Drought and Flood Agency, through its work since early 2019 in the North Queensland flood zone, and through its expanded remit to include drought last December, has proven to be an effective model for on-the-ground delivery of support in regional Australia.

As an Agency, we understand that the issues affecting recovery are complex and go beyond the specific economic hardships caused by flood and drought. We see the bigger picture, adapt our approach to reflect changing circumstances, and empower communities by ensuring the work we undertake remains ‘Locally led, locally understood and locally implemented’. We continue to use our influence and congestion-busting approach to ‘Work together. Simplify. Act’.

We remain deeply committed to staying well connected with the communities we are here to serve. Since March 2019, Agency staff and I have driven over 100,000 km across Australia, visiting individuals, businesses and communities in affected regions.

The Agency remains committed to a ‘boots on the ground’ approach because we know it works. In early 2020, we established a national network of Regional Recovery Officers (RROs), who serve as champions for their regions. We have turned up and listened to people’s needs, provided information and advice on how to access Australian Government assistance and acted to ensure individuals, families, businesses and communities are appropriately supported in the short, medium and long term. Over the coming years, the Agency will continue to build on the extensive work achieved to date to ensure regional communities are better prepared to respond to future droughts and natural disasters.

Our RROs offer a direct voice for people living outside of the larger cities to inform the Agency, so local ideas and feedback are regularly delivered to the highest levels of government. The regional team also plays a key coordination role, working with all levels of government, health professionals, counsellors, small businesses, charities, and agricultural and community organisations to ensure the Australian Government is delivering coordinated and effective on-the-ground assistance and advice.

It has been 18 months since the North Queensland flood event, and communities show positive signs of starting to recover. We were there from the beginning, when the floods caused catastrophic and unprecedented damage to lives, property, businesses, and infrastructure, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of animals and substantial damage to infrastructure and landscapes. We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with affected North Queenslanders on their journey of recovery.

The Australian Government has committed more than $3.3 billion in flood assistance, including grants and low interest loans for primary producers and small businesses, and projects that strengthen community cohesion and improve infrastructure. The Special Disaster Assistance Recovery Grant program was a very welcome source of immediate funding support for those affected by the 2019 North Queensland Monsoon Trough. Primary producers were able to apply for a grant of up to $75,000 and small businesses and not-for-profit organisations could apply for grants up to $50,000 to assist with immediate clean up and repair. As at 30 June 2020, the day
the program closed, 3,223 grant applications worth $127.9 million had been approved.

Not long after the floods, the Agency commenced working closely with affected communities to develop a blueprint for the region’s long-term recovery and future prosperity. This blueprint highlighted five strategic priorities:

  • to broaden the regions’ economic base
  • to build more resilient infrastructure (including water infrastructure)
  • to support prosperous enterprises
  • to foster connected and cohesive communities
  • to improve the quality and accessibility of information to support decision making by those in the region

While the flood event was the catalyst for this blueprint, these five strategic priorities may be
used to assist other regions to recover from, and to strengthen resilience for, a range of future shocks— whether that be another flood, a drought, fire or other economic disruptions such as COVID-19.

While a drought has a slower impact than floods or bushfires, it is no less destructive to the individuals, businesses and communities that rely on a healthy agricultural industry to survive. Some people have been living with the current drought for more than seven years— there is no denying the financial, physical and emotional strain this causes.

Despite the recent rain that some parts of Australia have received, the drought is far from over and recovery will take many years. Until farmers in affected regions receive consistent rain and their soil moisture improves, they will not be in a strong position to recover.

On top of this, bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic have brought added challenges to rural and regional communities already under pressure.

The Australian Government has committed more than $8 billion in drought assistance and concessional loans since 2018–19. The Agency has played an integral role in guiding the Australian Government’s response and helped lead the scaling up and coordination of drought assistance in response to changing conditions on-the-ground. We have also worked closely with state governments and charities, which are providing their own funding measures.

It is important for governments to take a step back, have a look at how collectively things have been delivered and ask what works well—and what doesn’t. It’s for this reason the Agency has undertaken a review of the appropriateness, effectiveness and any identified gaps in the Australian Government’s drought response to date.

In June, I appeared before the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, which has been gathering evidence about the nation’s preparedness, response to, and recovery from, natural disasters. My hope is that sharing our experience working alongside communities will model how the Australian Government will manage future disaster response and recovery work.

My Agency has demonstrated that it is okay to do things differently, and we have achieved excellent results by taking a more hands-on and community-minded approach to providing targeted Australian Government support. Our regional team will continue talking to farmers, small businesses and people in regional and rural communities to find out what people need to get through the many challenges they face—whether it be drought, flood, bushfire, COVID-19 or other emergencies—and ensure they know what assistance is available and how to access it.

We’re all in this together.

The Hon Shane L Stone AC QC
National Drought and North Queensland Flood
Response and Recovery Agency