Wednesday, 2 December 2020
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, Senator Rushton. The royal commission into the 2019-20 bushfire season recommended developing a national aerial firefighting capability, warning:
… the increasing duration of fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres, and the increasing duration and severity of fire seasons in Australia, will make it increasingly difficult to share aircraft domestically, and to acquire aviation services when we need them …
The Morrison government dismissed this recommendation, claiming that the government is comfortable with current arrangements. Why?
I thank Senator Chisholm for the question—and inform him that there's no 'H' in my name. But thank you very much. You raise a very important issue. Aerial firefighting plays an extraordinarily important role in protecting communities' essential infrastructure and providing the wider support that our bushfire fighters on the ground so importantly need. Also, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre is an effective method for the government to deliver critical emergency management capacity. I know that the commissioners and the chief fire officers within each jurisdiction work very closely with that centre to determine the type and location of aerial firefighting assets on the basis of the assessed bushfire risk.
This collaborative approach is absolutely essential right now as we enter into the bushfire season. We remain absolutely committed to supporting this important emergency management capability and we know that our aerial firefighters are integral to the safety of our communities as they fight fires and deliver important resources when and wherever a disaster might strike. In fact, we announced a permanent increase in funding of $11 million a year to the centre, taking the annual contributions to in excess of $25 million. Additionally, the government supplements the operating costs of aircraft through the disaster recovery funding arrangements with the states and territories.
Mr President, we've had more than half the time now, and my point of order is on relevance. The question was specifically about the recommendation from the bushfire royal commission and why the government had dismissed it. If the minister wants to table the brief she's reading from, we're very happy to allow that to be tabled. But an answer to the question would be preferable.
I am listening to the minister's answer. I've allowed you to restate that. But I think, when a question is asked as to why a particular action is taken or not taken, that is relatively open-ended. And as long as the minister is directly relevant to the subject matter—and, if I correctly understand, she is talking about aerial firefighting capacity—I believe she is being directly relevant.
The government has noted recommendation 8.3 of the bushfire royal commission's final report concerning the Commonwealth, state and territory governments' adoption of procurement and contracting strategies to develop a broader sovereign aerial firefighting capability. The government has clearly stated that it has no intention of taking over the role of the states and territories, but it will work closely with them to ensure that we support aerial firefighting to keep Australia safe. (Time expired)
The royal commission's report noted that there were inconsistencies during the last bushfire season, stating:
… requests for aerial firefighting assistance were not fulfilled because there were no aircraft available.
Why did the Morrison government fail to ensure requests for aerial firefighting assistance were fulfilled?
I thank Senator Chisholm for his follow-up question. I think to a large extent I answered your question in the first part of my answer—that is, the Australian government is absolutely committed to making sure we have a sovereign aerial firefighting capability that is appropriate for the conditions we find. We have a very comprehensive response to bushfires. We continue to work across jurisdictions, acknowledging Senator Reynolds and the huge role that the military played in supporting Australians and our firefighters during the terrible bushfires at the end of 2019 and into 2020. We remain absolutely committed to doing that. We also remain committed to making sure that a broad range of support is put in place, whether that be making sure that we support telecommunications or making sure that we've got wildfire protections in place. In terms of our aerial firefighting capability, we are absolutely committed to providing and working with the states to include this— (Time expired)
Thank you, Senator Chisholm, for your question. I would refute the context of the question that you have just put forward, because I don't believe that the Australian government is doing what you've accused it of doing. I believe the Australian government is absolutely supporting the Australian public by making sure that we put in the capabilities to ensure that we keep Australians safe. We put those things in place last year through some of the most devastating bushfires this country has ever seen. We remain committed to working with the states and territories—
You've reminded the minister of the question. I will continue to listen closely. The question did ask 'why', and then it asserted a claim about the government. As long as the minister is directly addressing the claim and the subject matter within it directly, I think she's being relevant.
Thank you, Mr President. To Senator Wong's point, I refuted the accusation that was made and the premise of the question that was asked in the first place. I believe the Australian government is supporting our aerial firefighting capacity through 159 aircraft, providing 185 services. If you'd like me to, I can list or put on the record all of those capabilities.