'EMBARRASSING': Barnaby Joyce grilled over disaster response

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Deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce has been met with a deluge of criticism on social media after having a difficult time defending the federal government's record on disaster planning and response.

In the wake of the flooding catastrophe to hit Queensland and NSW, anger at the government's slow response was reportedly palpable as Scott Morrison visited the town of Lismore on Wednesday.

When asked during an interview with the ABC's 7:30 program why it took 10 days for a national emergency to be called – powers Mr Morrison sought after recent bushfires – Mr Joyce apologised, after repeatedly talking about "bureaucratic process".

The answers offered by the deputy PM were described as
The answers offered by the deputy PM were described as "gibberish" and "perplexing". Source: ABC

Mr Joyce said the process of going through "the expenditure review committee" and getting the prime minister to Lismore were all important work undertaken by his government.

"You can always look back and say 'I would have done things differently', but we've got to make sure as we go through this disaster that we look to the future and it's been declared now," he said. "This allows us to get through the bureaucratic process a lot quicker."

ABC host Leigh Sales was then forced to interrupt.

"Sorry, could I just interrupt? Firstly, do you think people on the ground real care about whether the Prime Minister is there or not?

"And what you've said so far doesn't really answer why this couldn't have been declared a national emergency. It was obvious, surely, a couple of weeks ago," she pressed.

Mr Joyce conceded that people on the ground would be "incredibly upset" and "angry" but was keen to shift the focus to the impending work of the government, again invoking the bureaucracy.

"A national emergency, one of the biggest parts of it is to get through the bureaucratic process in a more efficient way. The resources of course have been going into these areas. But to get through the bureaucratic process as the bureaucratic process becomes more pronounced ... then I think it's going to assist us a lot from here," he offered.

The laws associated with the declaration allow ministers to "suspend, vary or substitute 'red tape' requirements in laws that they administer, where doing so would be of benefit to the public".

This can include such things as removing barriers to people in emergency-affected areas accessing payments, benefits or services without the need for ID documents or witnessed signatures.

It also allows the prime minister to find out what stockpiles, assets and resources the government has at its disposal, whether stockpiles need supplementing, and what could be made available to assist in the recovery.

"I grant if people say it should have happened last week, well, if we made that mistake we made that mistake and we're sorry for it," Mr Joyce told 7:30.

Piles of flood-damaged goods line a main street in central Lismore.
Piles of flood-damaged goods line a main street in central Lismore. Source: Getty

Interview answers labelled 'embarrassing' and 'gibberish'

The reaction to the deputy prime minister's comments were less than flattering online as viewers criticised Mr Joyce's meandering and vague explanations.

Australian actress and broadcaster Noni Hazlehurst labelled the interview "embarrassing and tragic" on Twitter.

The former independent for Mr Joyce's New England electorate, Tony Windsor, said it was "gibberish at its best".

"Can anyone imagine [former Nationals leader] Doug Anthony delivering this rubbish to traumatised constituents," he wrote.

Journalist Natasha Mitchell described it as "a perplexingly detail-free communique" from the deputy PM while other viewers labelled it a "car crash interview" and "a train wreck".

Government accused of using floods to pork barrel

The federal government has frequently faced criticism that it is slow to act, but Mr Joyce also defended another common accusation levelled against his government – that it politicises grants and aid to prioritise Coalition-held electorates.

The government announced greater financial support for three local government areas, tripling the disaster relief payment for the Richmond Valley, Clarence Valley and Lismore – which fall mostly in a Nationals-held seat.

However residents in Labor-held electorates of Ballina, Tweed and Byron were conspicuously left off, which were also impacted by floods with hundreds of homes damaged or destroyed.

"And that's not going down all that well with locals here who say they should also be able to receive that assistance," the ABC's Jeremy Fernandez reported on Thursday morning from Mullumbimby.

During the 7:30 interview, Mr Joyce denied it was a political exercise from the government.

"The Prime Minister's announced additional disaster relief payments. Residents of Ballina and Byron can't access them and they're in a federal Labor seat but people in the neighbouring National seat which takes in Lismore do get the extra money. How do you figure that?" host Leigh Sales asked.

"Well I don't think for one second ... payments are being withheld from places because of the way the people vote," Mr Joyce said.

"But how do you explain it?" Sales wondered.

"Well, I know the inference behind that and it's wrong. We make sure we look after all Australians in an equivalent form," he responded, pointing to Lismore as the epicentre of the flooding disaster.

However political opponents were quick to lay the boot in.

"This is a masterclass on incompetence. He is the Deputy PM and leader of the National Party and he can't explain why they are providing flood assistance to towns in Coalition seats but not in Labor seats," Labor MP Stephen Jones chided on Twitter.

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