Thursday, 25 February 2021
On 2 December last year Australian bushfires were discussed as a matter of public importance in this chamber, with sovereign aerial firefighting as a focal point. Last week a response from Minister Littleproud was tabled here in the Senate. The letter included the statement:
… before any decision or long-term commitment is made regarding particular aircraft in the fleet, ownership and strategic operation, it is imperative we have a full and evidence-based understanding of the capability actually required.
The government sees this recommendation as being pivotal to informing decisions on the future of aerial firefighting to deliver an operationally effective fleet that is scalable, adaptive and provides value for money.
I almost had to sit down after reading that statement. I mean, seriously. Australia first conducted aerial firefighting in Benambra, Victoria, in February 1967. That was before I was born. That's 54 years ago. Since that time, we've had multiple Australian organisations, including CSIRO, AFAC, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment and the Western Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management, all reporting on aerial firefighting. We've had multiple inquiries, up to and including a royal commission. The bottom line is: there is data available and there has been analysis.
The reference to value for money makes my blood boil. Commonwealth and state procurement rules require officials to obtain value for money with public moneys, and there have clearly been many years—54 of them—for government procurement authorities to determine if they've obtained value for money for the money they've spent. So they should know. Adding to the confusion is that the Department of Home Affairs put this into the Senate inquiry into lessons to be learned in relation to the Australian bushfire season 2019-20: 'Leasing of aircraft between the northern and southern hemispheres has proven to be cost-effective.' 'Cost-effective' sounds a little bit like 'value for money' to me. So there has clearly been some analysis.
When I rose to speak about this during the MPI, I suggested that all we need is a bit of a tweak to occur, and largely the problems will be solved. One of the problems we have right now is that we give Australian contractors contracts for short terms, maybe two or three years, and they can't go to their bank and say, 'Let me buy an aircraft,' because the contract terms are too short. They're not asking for any more money, but, if we extended out the contract terms, they would have the surety to be able to go to the bank and actually get some finance to have aircraft that we could have operating here in Australia—sovereign—and that we could be selling overseas in our off-season, making money, bringing foreign dollars into this country.
So I was a bit dumbfounded by some of the analysis that has taken place so far, particularly where the government says, 'We need more time,' without even so much as an explanation as to what they're actually doing or the tasks that they're completing. For example, they could have indicated that they were looking at things like properly integrating remotely piloted vehicles, also known as drones, into the aerial fleet. They could have talked about engaging CASA to make sure that the regulations are not getting in the way. They could have said that modelling was being done.
The bottom line is: we know all about aerial firefighting. There are no more questions to be answered. If someone thinks that that is the case, then, for 54 years, people have not been doing their jobs. It's unforgivable. While the bureaucrats want to do more analysis, the people who do hold a hose are proposing solutions that will help them deal with the very real and increasing dangers of bushfires. But, sadly, all I can hear is the hollow, clanking sound of a can being kicked down the road yet again.
Senate adjourned at 17:20