Australian Bushfires

1 September 2020

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:21): My question is to the Minister representing the minister for emergency management, Senator Ruston. In the past week we have had two reports flagging problems with aerial firefighting arrangements. Yesterday, the royal commission into natural disasters published an interim report which found the Commonwealth's aerial firefighting procurement requires reassessment. Last week, the NSW Bushfire Inquiry report found a lack of aircraft hampered firefighting, including the vital work of extinguishing small fires before they spread out of control. That inquiry recommended a review of the current mix of aviation assets. Minister Littleproud has committed to acting quickly and says the government's financial commitment will be there, but, Minister, what will the government actually do?

Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaMinister for Families and Social Services and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:22): Thank you very much, Senator Griff, for the question and for some advanced notice on the topic. As you rightly point out, the royal commission interim report in relation to the natural disaster arrangements was brought down yesterday and made reference to Australia's capacity to deal with natural disasters, particularly in relation to bushfires. It also did make the point that bushfires are not the only natural disaster which we have to address.

In relation to aerial firefighting, Minister Littleproud has made it very clear that the Australian government understands that we do need to address aerial firefighting capability on the basis of what is going to be the new normal when it comes to bushfires. In fact, I think the royal commission itself acknowledged the fact that the conditions leading up to last year's bushfires were absolutely unprecedented, but we should never expect them to be unprecedented again. As part of that, the Australian government has made a commitment in this year's budget to over $26 million to the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, and this money will contribute towards the lease of 150 firefighting aircraft. They will be made up of a number of different types of aircraft, some of which will be dedicated to the response to the smaller fires that you refer to, whilst others, like the large, fixed-wing aircraft and air tankers, are much more dedicated to delivering a service to fight fires on a much wider scale. The government has absolutely acknowledged the need for and the commitment to supporting our amazing firefighters out on the ground to deal with what has proven to be over recent years a continuing worsening of our bushfire season. I also acknowledge the extraordinary on-the-ground support that we received from the ADF.

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:24): Minister, both reports identified procurement arrangements, which include leasing, which you referenced, as being inadequate. Both flagged that the risk of converging fire seasons will make it far more difficult to ensure access to aircraft. Has the government studied the possibility of having an Australian dedicated firefighting aircraft fleet? And, if not, will you commit to undertaking such a study urgently?

Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaMinister for Families and Social Services and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:25): As the senator has pointed out, the changing nature of our bushfire seasons require us to take a new look at how we address the assets we need in order to combat them. One of the things that the royal commission's interim report did highlight was that we need to have a look at that ongoing Australian capacity. As the senator would be aware, in the past we have used leased aircraft for a number of reasons. One is, clearly, that the cost of purchasing aircraft is extremely high, and there is the maintenance of specialist firefighting equipment which may only be used occasionally. We hope that it would only ever be used occasionally. We compare that with the capacity to lease aircraft and also the opportunity to share resources with colleagues and counterparts in the Northern Hemisphere, whose seasons are often countercyclical.

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:26): Minister, recommendation 50 of the bushfire inquiry was that the Commonwealth trial the feasibility of retrofitting RAAF C-130 aircraft with modular airborne firefighting systems. The New South Wales government also supported this recommendation. Will the government support such a trial and, if not, why not?

Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaMinister for Families and Social Services and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:26): The government is obviously very keen to investigate all options, to make sure that we have full capacity for our firefighters come fire season. It's been very clear that the ADF is not trained or equipped or certified to undertake firefighting, whether that be on-ground firefighting or aerial firefighting. Civilian aircraft that are used for aerial firefighting are modified significantly for the purpose of firefighting. Defence's transport aircraft fleet is primarily configured for airlift missions to support military activities. Those are terribly important when it comes to assisting our firefighting activities. However, whilst of course we're going to look at all the recommendations that exist in the interim report, as we will in the final report, clearly the ADF's capability is much better suited for on-ground activity because of the extraordinary requirements for modification.

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