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Coordinator-General message

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

In his latest video, National Coordinator-General for Drought and Flood, Shane Stone outlines the ways the Agency continues working for people affected by drought and the 2019 North Queensland floods and now the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. You have not been forgotten, Agency staff continue to work hard to ensure all the Australian Government’s assistance measures are available for people to access, and we are also placing 17 Regional Recovery Officers across the Nation to give communities support and ensure they have a voice back into the Agency.   

You can watch the video here or read the transcript below.

“In these difficult and extraordinary times this is a message for all those Australians in North Queensland impacted by the monsoonal event of 2019 and those who have endured one of the longest droughts in recent years.

Foremost I want to assure you that you have not been forgotten and the work of the Agency I lead continues.

When I was assigned the role to manage the aftermath of the floods in North QLD I took a deep breath and remembered an old political lesson that sometimes what you don’t say is more important than what you say. On my appointment I avoided the big press conference in Canberra in the Prime Minister’s Courtyard and headed north.

I had experienced flood firsthand as Chief Minister of the Northern Territory but had limited experience in managing a disaster, and a very superficial understanding of the cattle industry. As many of you are aware, I am not a farmer. That said I have a tool kit of skills honed over a life of working as a teacher, Member of Parliament, Minister, Head of Government, Federal Party President, company director and decades of service in the Australian Defence Force Reserve. Most importantly I had a commitment to serve instilled by my parents to do what I could to help my fellow Australians in a time of need. I also knew something about leadership, what works and delivers.

As many of you are aware, I am also Chairman of the Order of Australia Council and in that role, I continue to be inspired and encouraged by the actions of fellow Australians who continue to put service ahead of self. The stories I read in nominations are amongst the most inspirational accounts imaginable. The recipients of these Awards are the glue that hold our community together, they are often the quiet achievers, the local volunteer helping their fellow Australians.

With that in mind I travelled to Townsville, then onto Cloncurry, among the epicentres of the flood. I decided the best approach was to turn up, listen and act and I have lived by that mantra since including in the drought zones. In Cloncurry I spoke to locals – battered, bruised, distraught, tearful and angry. Out of town the stench of rotting carcasses was overwhelming. People were transfixed with fear etched into their faces.

People’s livelihoods had been trashed, economic disruption was everywhere, local businesses were on their knees. In a world where many despaired at their loss my most pressing priority was to offer hope. But to deliver on hope I had to win the support and confidence of people. Following the early visit and support of Prime Minister Scott Morrison someone had to make the promises a reality.

Support is always contingent on people trusting, believing in your leadership. That belief often requires people to act differently, changing the way they do things, trust in the judgement of others. We are seeing this now in response to the virus pandemic.

That same support in response to leadership involves taking the people with you, listening to them, understanding the impact on their lives and livelihoods, and empathising with their plight – being one with the people you are helping. Not so much dictating but rather persuading.

For example, part of the flood recovery and preparedness for the future is for producers to have an up to date business plan, a line of sight on succession planning and diversification where possible.

Further in the future it is critically important in the flood zone that there is access to better weather radars and connectivity to communication networks without exception. Importantly, that we capture and make use of the vast seasonal water resources that come and go at times causing havoc and destruction. Those ideas have all been developed on the basis of discussions with locals - that’s you - to see what you need and to work with you.

The key to recovery in flood and drought, is to lead people through change. We can’t drought-proof, flood-proof or fireproof Australia. However, we can get people to change, modify, plan with the right funding and Government support.

This is not a case for farm welfare but rather giving people a hand up and not a handout. For example, the Future Drought Fund with a commitment of $100 million a year for 10 years presents an opportunity to validate what works, not reinvent the wheel every time a drought rolls around and further instil certainty in the ‘ground rules’ going forward. For example, in my view the Drought Communities Program Local Government Grants have largely been very successful and have funded more than 350 local infrastructure and drought relief projects. Local Governments have acted responsibly and effectively in supporting their drought affected towns who are as critically important as the farms they support. They allow communities to work together to identify their own particular needs, using local products and local labour.

Part of the challenge in dealing with flood and drought has been effective communications. If people can’t make sense of what you are doing and why, then they have no reason to follow you or trust in your leadership.

In the Agency I lead ‘comms’ has been paramount. Farm and town visits, street walks, social media, telephone calls, town hall meetings and roundtables all help keep me informed and connected.

One of the greatest challenges in the flood recovery was ‘self-assessment’. Fortunately, officers from the Agency, our agents QRIDA, accountants and Rural Financial Counsellors were able to help people and point them in the right direction. As an example of this strong collaboration, QRIDA had the flood $75,000 grants for primary producers up and running within 5 days of the funding becoming available. These initial grants gave people a sense of hope.

One of the positive outcomes of local engagement was the crafting of the guiding principles’ ‘’locally led, locally understood, locally implemented’’. 

If the people you lead, the industry that you set out to help and restore don’t own the policies and strategies then the effort is made more difficult. The resulting grants, loans and assistance on boarding school fees, mental health services, small business grants and loans totalling thus far over $655 million, and recently extended, demonstrate in flood we are hitting the mark.

They also demonstrate that the Australian Government, though this Agency, was working with affected areas not just after the flood but providing a longer-term commitment to genuine recovery. In drought we still have much to do; I know I am not satisfied as to how some of those measures work but that is my challenge to get it right, it’s my job.

The Australian Government has committed over $8 billion in drought assistance and concessional loans. However, we need to ensure this gets to the people who need it most.

With that said, I can assure Australians that support is out there. Under the Round 2 of the Drought Community Support Initiative, over 16,000 households have received financial assistance, while over $500 million in RIC loans have been approved – flood and drought.

As bushfires and the corona virus dominate the news headlines and the attention of Governments at every level is currently focused elsewhere, my commitment to the flood and drought zones is that you are not forgotten.

The Agency I lead might be working from home and in an otherwise difficult environment, but we have your back. We are still progressing grants, financial support and working on the many ideas you have come forward with to transform them into doable policies.

I have fast-tracked appointing 17 Regional Recovery Officers across Australia who are available to help with Australian Government drought and flood assistance measures, and now also the coronavirus assistance as well once we can get back on the road.

We are costing and refining a range of local ideas like ‘pharmassist’ and around employee support ready to go once we get to the other side of the virus.

The Budget may have been pushed back to October but come the time to get back into the swing of things we will be more than ready.

Most importantly I look forward to resuming our regular road trips, the best way possible to stay connected.

Thank you for your patience and your expressed faith in our efforts. As I said back in February last year ‘”We are all in this together’’.  I meant it and have lived the commitment to work with you.

Look after your families and neighbours and stay safe.

Please stay in contact through our Agency website, Facebook and regular newsletters. I am always happy to take calls as many know. Be assured you have not been forgotten.

Thank you very much for watching this broadcast.”