Legislative Council: Wednesday, June 28, 2023



River Murray Flood

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (Leader of the Opposition) (12:19): I move:

1. That a select committee of the Legislative Council be established to inquire into the 2022-23 River Murray flood event including the preparation, response and recovery, with particular consideration being given to—

(a) roles and responsibilities of:

(i) state government and federal government agencies;

(ii) local government;

(iii) non-profit organisations; and

(iv) public and private utilities;

(b) review of communication between key stakeholders;

(c) river flow management and modelling;

(d) effectiveness of mitigating infrastructure including but not limited to levee banks and stormwater;

(e) review of flood response funding, its utilisation and effectiveness;

(f) government (local, state and federal) grant process, eligibility and uptake;

(g) river restrictions methodology, communications and operation;

(h) impact of planning decisions on property inundation;

(i) insurance industry response and responsibilities;

(j) planning and mitigation for future emergency events; and

(k) any other related matters.

2. That this council permits the select committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it sees fit, of any evidence or documents presented to the committee prior to such evidence being presented to the council.

The 2022-23 South Australian flood event affected, and continues to affect, many people living and working along the banks and flood plains of the River Murray. The flooding was the worst recorded since the 1950s, and was described as 'the most significant natural disaster in South Australia's history' by the state's emergency services minister. At the time, the Premier stated their financial package around the flood response was the largest the state has ever seen.

The most significant flooding occurred between November 2022 and January 2023, with an estimated 4,000 properties being inundated. I will be forever proud of the way the community—my own Riverland community in particular—pulled together to help one another during this flooding event. The community continues to work together to rebuild. Some people are frustrated, stating the response mechanisms are slow or the grant process is too cumbersome, to give just two quick examples. These issues ought to be worked through.

As alluded to, given the economic and social significance of the event, it is important to conduct an independent inquiry into several, and indeed all, aspects of the flood. In fact, at a recent Economic and Finance Committee hearing, the general manager of the State Emergency Service (the SES) revealed that the organisation is close to finishing their own internal review and stated, and I quote: 'Whilst we are coordinating our own review, I would expect that it would be happening across government.' When asked if she would expect there to be a review incorporating the views of those within the wider government as well as those outside the government, to give a broad picture of the response, the general manager replied yes.

Sadly, the Malinauskas Labor government has ruled out an independent inquiry, with the Minister for Police, Emergency Services and Correctional Services stating in parliament on 1 June 2023, and I quote:

I can advise that there is no imminent intention of the government to institute an independent inquiry. This flooding event has been to every extent, both possible and in a planned way, managed in a considered, appropriate way and in a way that has been responsive to community concerns…

Given this response to the question on 1 June 2023, I am moving that an independent inquiry be achieved by establishing a parliamentary select committee. This should by no means be a finger-pointing exercise. That is not what this is about. This is about celebrating the things that went well, acknowledging the things that perhaps did not go so well and making recommendations for any future flooding event.

After the 2019-20 bushfires, an independent review was conducted in South Australia with the cooperation of SAFECOM, and the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements was viewed as critical. People felt so passionate about the importance of that royal commission that over 1,770 submissions were made and its website has had, as of fairly recently, over 673,000 hits. Similarly, when this chamber called for an inquiry into the COVID-19 emergency management response, we did not oppose that concept.

We know that our state government agencies must investigate if there are lessons to be learned, efficiencies to build upon and collaborations to improve, should another pandemic befall us in the future. Reviewing and reporting on the response after an emergency is simply best practice.

It is important that an independent review inquiry into the flood event occurs for a number of reasons—firstly, accountability. A public inquiry ensures that government agencies involved in flood response and management are held accountable for their actions. It allows for a transparent evaluation of their performance and decisions, ensuring that they are answerable to the public.

Secondly, to build public trust: public inquiries demonstrate a commitment to transparency and open communication between the government and the public. By openly evaluating the government's response to a flood, it helps build trust and confidence among affected communities. It allows for a better understanding of the decision-making processes and actions taken during the flood event, ensuring that the public has accurate information and can provide input into future flood management strategies.

Thirdly, to enhance future preparedness: public inquiries generate insights and recommendations that can inform policy changes, legislation and investment decisions related to flood management. For example, by examining the strengths and weaknesses of a government's response, the inquiry can highlight areas where additional resources, training or infrastructure improvements are needed. This knowledge enables better preparedness for future flood events, minimising their impacts on communities, and of course on infrastructure.

In regard to the terms of reference, I am keen to quickly step the chamber through these. Term of reference (a) really points to the roles and responsibilities of state and federal government agencies, local government, not-for-profit organisations, and public and private utilities. State and federal government agencies have played an important role in the flood preparation, response and recovery. It is essential that their roles and responsibilities be examined so that they can be acknowledged and held to account for improvements to be made where relevant.

Furthermore, throughout the flood event, there was some uncertainty within the public and business community regarding the roles and responsibilities of key state and federal agencies, and this inquiry can help the public and businesses better understand those roles and responsibilities for future emergency events.

Local governments played a critical role in the flood preparation, response and recovery phases, and it is essential that their roles and responsibilities be examined so that they can be recognised for their efforts and any improvements made where relevant. It is also important for not-for-profit agencies such as the Lions Club, Salvation Army and other organisations to be fully recognised for their role in the floods and that their views on possible improvements are also heard.

Some public and privately owned utilities played a role throughout the flood event. SA Water had a role to play with water and wastewater systems. SA Power Networks also played a significant role in the provision and cessation of power. Both attracted a deal of scrutiny and it is critical that these organisations be included in an inquiry.

Term of reference (b) is about reviewing the communication between key stakeholders. Effective communication between stakeholders is essential to ensure preparation, response and recovery occur in a timely and efficient manner. It is therefore proposed that this be part of the scope of the inquiry.

River flow management and modelling is term of reference (c), and this is an essential input into decisions relating to preparedness and response that can have huge economic and social ramifications. Furthermore, in the flood event, there were significant concerns raised regarding the variations in forecasts of flow and peak information provided by the Department for Environment and Water and for these reasons this must be considered as part of the inquiry.

Term of reference (d) is about reviewing the effectiveness of mitigating infrastructure including but not limited to levee banks and stormwater. We know that during the early stages of the flooding event there was significant concern over the integrity of existing levee banks and there was some commentary over whose responsibility they were. I would like to commend the local councils across the River Murray, but particularly those in my home of the Riverland, who stepped up and took it upon themselves to ensure the integrity of these levee banks was realised, because they understood the critical nature of the levees to a town's survival. But we need to have a wider conversation about roles and responsibilities of flood mitigation infrastructure.

A review of the flood response funding, its utilisation and its effectiveness, which is term of reference (e), is also an important area to review. It is critical that we scrutinise the funding granted by government and associated agencies—where was it spent and what was it used for—for example, what funds were aligned with mental health, what funds were allocated to emergency accommodation for residents, and what funds were given to tourism in our River Murray communities?

In regard to grant funding associated with the floods noted in term of reference (f), a significant amount of grant money was announced throughout the flood event, with state and federal governments in particular offering tens of millions of dollars in funding. However, we do know that uptake has been slow; for example, as at 17 April 2023, businesses have only received 0.49 per cent of the tens of millions of dollars worth of funding made available through the Flood Recovery Grant programs.

Discussions with funding applicants and recipients suggest that there is anecdotal evidence that the eligibility criteria and payment processes were and continue to be overly complex and bureaucratic. In any instance, given the scale of the funding set aside and the importance that this funding gets to the right people and businesses in a timely manner, it is recommended that this be a core part of the terms of reference.

Term of reference (g) relates to the river restrictions methodology, communications and operation. The South Australian government placed restrictions on access and use of the river environment at certain times during the flood event in the interest of public safety. There were views amongst many river users and businesses that rely upon the river that it was unclear how and why certain restrictions were set, that the restrictions were overly complex to understand, and it was unclear when the restrictions were to be lifted. Given the significant economic loss incurred by certain river businesses, it is recommended that this be included in the inquiry.

The flood event raised questions and concerns regarding the impact that planning decisions and regulations had and have on property damage and loss. Areas such as Paisley saw almost entire communities submerged. This is an important matter to examine and should be included in the scope of the inquiry and is therefore point (h) in the terms of reference.

There is anecdotal evidence regarding the questionable conduct of some insurance companies throughout the flood event. For example, it was reported in December 2022 that a woman in South Australia's flood zone had her home insurance cancelled just weeks before that peak was due to hit, only to have it reinstated after the ABC contacted her insurance company. Given the impact that insurance has on those directly impacted by the floods, it is appropriate that this clause be included in the inquiry's terms of reference as point (i).

Finally, the final term of reference (j) includes planning and mitigation for future emergency events. As has been mentioned previously, it is essential that the committee consider this as part of the inquiry to build public trust and to enhance future preparedness.

I will be looking to bring this motion to a vote during the next sitting week after the winter break, and I do hope that all parties will support this motion, in particular those sitting across the chamber on the government benches. As I said, this is not a witch-hunt, we are simply asking the government and our hardworking state departments to be transparent with the South Australian public.

As I mentioned at the start of this speech, the South Australian Liberal Party believes these reviews are a part of best practice in any aftermath of any emergency response. It is best practice to review and report on your communications, coordinations, actions and responses. My community of the Riverland, and indeed all river communities, deserve the same attention as would be given to any other natural disaster.

Our SES and CFS volunteers deserve acknowledgement. Our state departments deserve the opportunity to share the challenges they overcame and to understand what they require to do even better the next time our River Murray floods. Our taxpayers deserve to feel confident that their funds are being used to help South Aussies in crisis. With that, I commend this motion to the chamber.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. R.B. Martin.