Firefighting Aircraft

5 December 2019

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:21): My question is for the Minister representing the Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management, Senator McKenzie. Minister, questions have been raised by a former New South Wales fire chief about whether Australia's longstanding practice of leasing firefighting aircraft is sustainable as global fire seasons converge. The Commonwealth provides 90 per cent of the funding of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, which leases aircraft for use by state and territory governments. In less than a decade, the number of aircraft released by the NAFC has almost tripled, from 52 to more than 140. These aircraft come at considerable cost from private companies who lease to other countries, such as Greece and the US. The New South Wales government has recently started acquiring its own firefighting aircraft, such as its new Boeing 737 air tanker. The state minister said that will give them year-round access to aircraft. Is the federal government confident the NAFC has leased sufficient firefighting aircraft for this summer?

Senator McKENZIE (VictoriaMinister for Agriculture and Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (14:22): Thank you, Senator Griff, for your sensible question, and thank you for some notice so that I can actually provide you with an answer. Aerial firefighting plays an important role in protecting communities and essential infrastructure and in providing vital support to firefighters on the ground. Whilst aerial firefighting is one method of fire suppression, fire and land management agencies across the jurisdictions use a combination of firefighting tactics prior to enduring operations. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre was an incorporated company formed by states and territories with the assistance of the Australian government in 2003, and it is now the business unit of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council. This represents a cost-effective method for the Australian government to deliver a critical emergency management capability. Commissioners and chief fire officers within each jurisdiction work with the NAFC to determine the type and base location of aerial firefighting assets based on the assessed bushfire risk. The NAFC then coordinate, contract and arrange the leasing arrangements. Minister Littleproud has written to the AFAC, and their CEO advised the government that there are enough aerial firefighting assets at present. So the minister responsible directly wrote to them, asking, 'Do you have what you need, given the context that you're fighting these fires in?' and they have returned that they do, at present. However, the government remains open to requests for further assistance. That will continue to be a flexible arrange arrangement, with us responding as needed.

We remain committed to supporting this important emergency management capability. The NAFC has contracts in place which guarantee a minimum number of aircraft are on stand-by during the fire season. These centralised contracts are the result of a collaborative procurement and evaluation process by the jurisdictions. This is the case for both small local aircraft and the large aircraft, which are mostly sourced internationally.

The PRESIDENT: Order, Senator McKenzie. Senator Griff, a supplementary question?

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:24): Minister, thank you for your response. As fire seasons last longer in countries like Greece and the US and start earlier in Australia, there is a risk that available leased aircraft over future years will be in use overseas and not be available for us here. What is the government's long-term plan to ensure aircraft are available when they're needed?

Senator McKENZIE (VictoriaMinister for Agriculture and Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (14:24): We have 147 aircraft that are leased at the moment, and these figures change throughout the bushfire season, depending upon assessed risk and the contracted time frames. I'm happy to go through those, but in the interests of time, going to your direct question, there is an apparent trend of longer fire seasons in both southern and northern hemispheres. Although some firefighting aircraft are shared with the Northern Hemisphere, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre will contract 141 specialised aircraft across the country, and over three-quarters of these remain resident in Australia year-round. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre acknowledges the potential challenge of longer fire seasons and the need to continue to closely manage international movement of resources.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Griff, on a final supplementary question?

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:25): In Canada the federal government owns a fleet of firefighting aircraft that it leases out to provincial governments to support local resources. Has the federal government determined the value and the cost if it were to purchase a core fleet of firefighting aircraft for Australia for future firefighting seasons?

Senator McKENZIE (VictoriaMinister for Agriculture and Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (14:25): Firefighting aircraft are generally leased, due to the very high cost of purchasing and maintaining specialist firefighting aircraft. The Australian bushfire season typically occurs during the off-season for US, Canadian and European firefighting aircraft. Because it gives us greater flexibility to adjust resourcing levels based on forecast risk and the ability to cost-effectively introduce new technologies, these are the reasons the Australian government this time has decided to lease this capability, rather than to purchase.

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