SUBJECTS: Telecommunications outages during NSW Floods; Morrison’s mishandling of Emergency Relief Fund (ERF); Local Councils needing better support for resilience projects.

PETER STEFANOVIC, HOST: Widespread telecommunication outages are hampering flood relief efforts in Northern New South Wales, making it even more difficult for residents to seek financial assistance. Let’s bring in Michelle Rowland. She's the Shadow Communications Minister. Michelle, good to see you. Thanks for your time. So what are the challenges here on in?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: They are probably two-fold to summarise. The first is in terms of power. A lot of these telecommunications assets obviously require power in the form of battery, or petrol powered generators to keep going. A lot of those generators under water. A lot of those batteries have run out of life. But there's also physical access to this infrastructure and physical cuts to cables that impact on the upstream and downstream transmission issues there. Without wanting to do a hierarchy of natural disasters, as Telstra has explained to me, with a fire it's different to a flood. It comes in, you see what's happened, you can go in. A flood takes time to recede. You don't know where these assets are or precisely what the problem is that you're seeking to diagnose while those floodwaters are up. If exchanges are flooded, you don't know what you're looking for. So, it’s a really difficult time for people. Clearly, communications is an essential service and the inability to access that is really frustrating local residents. 

STEFANOVIC: So essentially, that’s out of Government, or that's out of the authorities control at the moment, because of the sheer volume of water that's about?

ROWLAND: Well, I think what's also clear is that a lot has been learned from previous natural disasters. Hats off to the carriers, including NBNCo, for after the bushfires, for example, seeking to have a much better coordination with a lot of the agencies including the power companies. That's been welcomed. But again, let's look at this $4 billion Emergency Relief Fund that the Government established that is sitting there earning interest. Who knows what could have been done in terms of either flood mitigation, or some important expenditure that could have made a difference in this case. I think the fact that not a cent of it seems to have gone for these purposes. You can understand why people are asking the question, well are you even trying?

STEFANOVIC: But what can you do differently? Because this is the worst in history. It's hard to plan for these sorts of things because you don't expect them all the time.

ROWLAND: Absolutely. But think about it — I was involved in local government before I took this job and the one thing that I know cost a lot of money that no one saw, but you knew when it wasn't done properly was flood mitigation works. Local councils are expected to do a lot with the limited resources they have. We have rate pegging in New South Wales. A lot of these councils know that a lot of work needs to be done. I think that there will need to be a conversation at the appropriate time about what local councils need to make their communities more resilient and safe. Whilst we cannot anticipate every event, we certainly know that there are things that can be done to help alleviate some of this impacts.

STEFANOVIC: So what would you do if you win in May?

ROWLAND: We would put this fund to work. We would actually start expenditure by identifying those projects which could make a difference. It could be anything from those flood levees to specific flood mitigation works. But I think again, it comes back to this point — it shouldn't be sitting there earning interest. It should actually be performing its function.

STEFANOVIC: But despite best intentions, that's not going to stop a lot of houses from being flooded when you've got such a sheer two weeks worth of nonstop rain.

ROWLAND: Absolutely not. And just to bring this back to the human and social cost here, I saw Susan Templeman, my neighbour, my electorate neighbour on earlier. Just in this term, she has had communities go through bushfires, floods, more floods. The layers of trauma here and the scale of trauma is intense. I think we should be thinking very closely - governments at all levels - about what needs to be done to support these communities because they have been through so much and they're still going through so much.

STEFANOVIC: Michelle Rowland, thank you for your time. 

ROWLAND: Pleasure.