Save our island homes: Newman govt urged to commit funds


Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

TSIRC Mayor Fred Gela (centre) with Regional Development Minister Simon Crean on Badu Island earlier this year.

NATIONAL: The Torres Strait Island Regional Council has won a small victory in the fight to protect their islands against rising king tides. But now they need the Newman government to act, writes AMY McQUIRE.

While the rest of the country waits to see what economic tides the carbon tax will bring, communities in the Torres Strait are calling on the Newman government to help protect their island homes against a more immediate threat.

This past month has seen Australia engage in a fierce debate about whether the Gillard government’s carbon tax will heighten cost of living pressures.

The people of the Torres Strait already have one of the highest costs of living in the country.

They pay sky-high rates for fuel and food, the latter of which is often of poor quality and small quantity.

The Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC) is still waiting to see how the carbon tax will affect them.

But they are facing an even more urgent problem – rebuilding 50-year-old sea-walls which are being battered each year by rising king tides.

The tides were particularly extreme in 2008, when images of waves washing under the stilts of houses and into graveyards on Saibai, an outlying island close to PNG, were recorded.

“We had saltwater basically going straight into the streets, running right through,” TSIRC Mayor Fred Gela told Tracker.

“We had tinnies running in the main street, going from house to shop and commuting people and so forth. Families standing waist deep in their backyards, hanging their clothes up.

“That’s not to mention that these are saltwater areas where crocodiles are like sardines.”

It’s safe to say the king tides are having a devastating effect and its been seen by some as a symptom of climate change.

But battling king tides is nothing compared to battling governments for funding.

The TSIRC has been campaigning for government funds to protect these vulnerable islands for years.

Finally, in June this year, the federal government announced the TSIRC and other agencies would receive $12 million to help build sea walls and other infrastructure in the six most vulnerable communities – Boigu, Saibai, Masig, Warraber and Poruma.

The new funding comes after the TSIRC were successful in receiving a $5 million grant under round two of the RDAF, and up to $7 million in addition funding.

But the TSIRC estimates it needs about $26 million in total to fully equip the six communities most vulnerable to the effects of the king tides.

Councillor Gela says the council was now busy planning how best to use the limited funds, along with the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA).

Scheduling of work has been done, the scientific studies had been completed, and work would begin very shortly. The council is trying to start work on Saibai before the Monsoon hits in November-December.

But there is still the shortfall.

The council are still lobbying the state to back the Commonwealth’s funds.

“(Queensland Premier) Campbell Newman has made it quite clear through media statements and openly said the state doesn’t have that $12 million,” Councillor Gela told Tracker.

“What we would be requesting is that while we acknowledge the state doesn’t have $12 million, we are trying to lobby and ask them to at least look at the budgeting over the next three financial years and contribute $4 million a year.”

The federal government’s announcement of $12 million to support the TSIRC and Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) in re-building the sea walls is a far cry from the original call for the federal government to foot the entire bill.

In March this year, the government announced it would give $22 million for the construction of sea-walls, after it supported a private members bill put up by Leichhardt MP Warren Entsch, who’s electorate takes in the Torres Strait.

But Mr Entsch was again in Parliament in June this year following the $12 million announcement, stating that the government had bypassed the issue as one “for the state and local council”.

His plea in Parliament illustrated just how dire the situation is.

“How would anybody in this place, whose mother or father, brother or sister, grandparents or whomever was interred in a cemetery, feel when they went there the next day to visit them to find that they had been washed out to sea, never to be found.

“Anywhere else in this country it would be absolutely outrageous and the matter would be fixed immediately, but up there, it seems, from this minister’s perspective, it really does not matter….

“… There is $1 billion worth of infrastructure on the six affected islands and every year there is a couple of million dollars worth of damage.

“Yet every year they are prepared to fix up that damage but not to fix the cause of the problem.

“It is not about climate change, it is not about rising sea levels, it is about failing, ageing, 50-year old infrastructure. That is the problem and it is easily fixed.”

Mr Entsch says the Newman government can’t be expected to cough up $12 million after inheriting a debt of $100 million from the Bligh government.

But Councillor Gela says that is no excuse for the state government.

“With any government it’s the norm to go in and highlight the deficit,” Councillor Gela told Tracker.

“… But there needs to be some logic behind the cut backs and so forth. There needs to be some logic in saving.
“Look at this logic. What we are trying to achieve here is safeguarding these communities for 30 years or more. There are millions of millions of dollars of infrastructure invested in these communities.”
One of the first acts by Queensland Premier Campbell Newman on winning office was to dismantle the state’s climate change department, headed by former Premier Anna Bligh’s husband.

A spokesperson for Local Government minister David Crisafulli told Tracker that the Newman government was still waiting on a response from Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin on the matter.

“The Newman Government wrote to Minister Jenny Macklin on July 25 inviting her to work with us to bring about the best results for the Torres Strait Islanders,” the spokesperson said.

“We have not received a response from her, despite asking for discussions to start.

“We’re particularly interested in helping Indigenous Councils avoid the pitfalls of being “gifted” with major infrastructure projects from other levels of government, only to realise they can’t afford the operating costs.

“We need to ensure the right infrastructure is delivered to meet the needs of the community from a social and financial perspective.”

For now, Councillor Gela says work on communities, particularly Saibai and Boigu would begin urgently, before the monsoon season.

“We want to get in before the monsoon, so our constituents can see that things are happening.
“From one monsoon to another we’ve had politicians after politicians coming and going.

“But it’s leaving a sour taste in the constituents’ mouths, seeing nothing happening.

“Hopefully if this work commences before the monsoon it gives a bit of credibility back to all the parties involved.”

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