Australian Bushfires

5 February 2020

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:26): My question is to Minister Reynolds representing the Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management. On the last sitting day of last year, I asked the then minister, Bridget McKenzie, if Australia had sufficient aerial firefighting capability. The answer was yes. As we all know, there was not enough capability, and the federal government and states had to substantially boost the aerial firefighting fleet and associated costs by leasing additional planes and sourcing crews from overseas. The delay most certainly hampered the firefighting capability. Minister, given that the economic cost of the bushfires is estimated by economists to exceed $100 billion and that due to climate change we are likely to have more horrific seasonal fires, isn't it now time for government to invest in a fleet of permanent large air tankers owned and operated by Australia?

Senator REYNOLDS (Western AustraliaMinister for Defence) (14:26): I thank Senator Griff for the question and also for his passion and commitment on this very important issue for our nation. The first point to make is that the Australian government doesn't specify the type or number of firefighting aircraft for professional fire and emergency services representatives in the states and territories. However, what we do is take advice, and we work extremely cooperatively with the states and territories, through the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, which advises the Commonwealth and state and territory governments every year about the assets that are required.

Traditionally, firefighting assets—aircraft in this case—have been leased for a number of reasons. The first one is the very high cost of purchasing and maintaining these specialist aircraft. There's the fact that the Australian bushfire season, while growing longer, generally mirrors the Northern Hemisphere's bushfire seasons. But also, and really importantly operationally, is that leasing them gives us much greater flexibility in terms of the aircraft that we need to lease every year to meet the particular demands of the bushfires then. It also allows us to make better use of technology, as it is emerging quite rapidly in this area.

I reject the part of your question that says we didn't have enough this year. According to the experts, we did. We were asked for support for one additional large aerial tanker, and we provided funding straight away for four as soon as we were asked for that. Although some firefighting aircraft are shared with the Northern Hemisphere, as I have described, the NAFC will contract 169 specialist aircraft across the country this year. But it's important to note that three-quarters of those already remain here in Australia and are largely contracted and owned by the state and territory governments.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Griff, a supplementary question?

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:28): After the recent tragic crash of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, Coulson Aviation grounded all their air tankers in Australia for a period as a safety precaution and a mark of respect. Whilst it was understandable that the company would do this, it demonstrated the risks in outsourcing Australia's ability to protect itself during extreme bushfires. Minister, do you seriously consider outsourcing aerial firefighting to be a wise decision for the country?

Senator REYNOLDS (Western AustraliaMinister for Defence) (14:29): I totally and utterly reject the premise of that question. There is absolutely no evidence that that tragic crash of the aircraft and the loss of three American firefighters—who were also, I note, veterans—had anything to do with the nature of the contracts themselves. They are a highly professional company. They were highly professional and experienced emergency services personnel.

An honourable senator: They're grounded.

Senator REYNOLDS: I'll take that interjection. Of course it's grounded. We always do that after any accident to take precautions. But the point is this—and I actually thank and acknowledge all of the air crews, because, as I said, this is a highly specialised skill that very few people globally have. It is dangerous work and the crews and the pilots are very skilled. They are brave and we should be acknowledging more their specialist skills. I entirely reject the premise of that question, Senator Griff. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator Griff, a final supplementary question?

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:30): A number of countries own a core fleet and supplement their capability through times of high fire activity. In the US, the Forest Service, the National Guard and the US Marines all maintain firefighting fleets that are supplemented by other operators. Minister, have you or would you consider the ADF taking on the function of maintaining a core aerial firefighting fleet for Australia?

Senator REYNOLDS (Western AustraliaMinister for Defence) (14:30): Senator Griff, in short, the answer is no, and there are very good reasons for that. Aerial firefighting is, as I've said, a very specialist core expertise which does not, in any way, reflect what, in this case, the ADF pilots of fixed wing and rotary air assets are for. Our air crews—Army, Air Force and Navy—have done an extraordinary job supporting the bushfires and supporting the bushfire volunteers and SES by doing what they do best—doing logistics, doing transport—and they are not specialist bushfire pilots. That's why we contract and engaged them, mostly from here in Australia and some from overseas.

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