I associate myself with the remarks of earlier speakers and I compliment, commend and congratulate the Member for Wright for his contribution. At times like this, at the aftermath of national crises - some aspects of which are ongoing - the Parliamentary contribution can be at one of two levels. It can be at a national leadership level, as we saw with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. In that context it can be at a portfolio level, as we have seen for example with the Attorney-General, who has formal portfolio responsibility for disaster relief matters. Or it can be at the local community level. Already, we have seen in the course of today’s debate on the Condolence Motion for Natural Disasters that mix of contributions—a fine contribution from the Member for Wright and equally fine contributions from the local Members for Oxley and Capricornia.
This has been a particularly bad and onerous Australian summer. On one side of the continent we see drought broken with a vengeance and on the other side of the continent—the West, where I come from—we see ongoing drought and pernicious and ferocious bushfires in and around Perth.
We see floods from Queensland to Victoria, to the mid-west of Western Australia and to the Carnarvon-Gascoyne region; a cyclone in North Queensland; a terrible bushfire south of Perth, in the Lake Clifton area, before the New Year; and, in the last couple of days in the north-eastern and south-eastern suburbs of Perth, as you come off the Darling Scarp, ferocious, damaging and heartbreaking bushfires.
Other than my Perth or Western Australian contribution, my contribution today is as Minister for Defence. Other Members have spoken of the magnificent contribution our Defence personnel have rendered in the course of this very difficult summer and Christmas-New Year period.
I had the great honour, as Minister for Defence, to travel to both Brisbane and Ipswich at the height of the flood and to visit Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane and the Amberley Airbase.
I talked with our Defence personnel and heard firsthand about the great work that they are effecting, whether from Army at Enoggera Barracks or from Air Force at the Amberley Airbase.
I make particular mention of the two heads of the Operation Queensland Flood Assist Task Force. Firstly, Colonel Luke Foster and, subsequently, Brigadier Paul McLachlan. They both made an exemplary contribution. There was a period over the summer where I would speak to them on a regular, indeed, daily, basis. The effort and the work that they put in was first-class and widely appreciated, not just by the people of Brisbane or Ipswich but by the broader community.
I said earlier today in a different context that the two great contributions that our Defence personnel make are, firstly, in the core business area of military, defence and national security work and, secondly, in what has become much more prominent than in the past, the area of disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, whether it is in Australia during, for example, the Victorian bushfires some 24 months ago or floods or cyclones in Queensland, or whether it is working in that capacity in our region, most recently, for example, due to the earthquake in Indonesia and the cyclone and tsunami in Samoa and Tonga.
As the Prime Minister and others have said, underappreciated is the contribution that personnel from Army, Navy and Air Force made through the use of helicopters in the aftermath of the flash flood and storm through the Lockyer Valley and Toowoomba. Underappreciated because, in some respects, it was really the devastation at that moment which caused the entire country to stop and appreciate that this was a natural disaster of an enormous scale.
At Amberley I had the privilege to speak to helicopter pilots and crews who had worked effectively on that rescue mission. In one 24-hour period, they moved some 417 people to an evacuation centre in Forest Hill at a time when the storm was such that some of our most experienced pilots have said that they have never had helicopters in the air in the face of such bad weather or climatic conditions.
It was an understated and underappreciated act of great heroism, to which one gets the usual and the typical response from our Defence Force personnel: ‘I was doing my job; I wanted to help; It was the right thing to do.’
In addition to that effort on the floods, in recent days of course we have seen the work done by Defence Force personnel to assist in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi, with Brigadier Stuart Smith heading up our cyclone task force from Lavarack Barracks in Townsville.
Again, there was a period when I was speaking to him on a daily, if not a couple of times a day, basis. The calm, assured, methodical manner of Brigadier Smith and his forces from Lavarack Barracks filled one with confidence.
I have had the general remark made to me not only that the people of Queensland in the devastated areas were pleased to see our Defence Force personnel on the ground but also that Australians generally seeing the presence of our Defence Force personnel on the ground, not just engaging in emergency search and rescue but also cleaning and mopping up, fills the country and its people with a great sense of confidence that everything that the nation can do is being done, including with the assistance of our Defence Force personnel.
In the context of Brisbane, Ipswich, the Lockyer Valley, the cyclone in the North and the earlier floods in Central Queensland, in some respects the Victorian floods snuck up on us in terms of a national appreciation. But again we saw, very much in an understated way, Defence Force personnel helping out, under the leadership of Brigadier Robert Marsh.
When Australian Defence Force personnel come to the assistance of fellow Australians during times of natural disasters they can get there in three separate ways.
Firstly, it is not uncommon to find reservists out on the street just helping out in their local community. That occurs on a regular basis whether or not reservists are formally called up.
Secondly, it is open to a local commander in the exercise of his or her discretion to authorise the allocation of emergency assistance if circumstances are such that there is a threat in his or her local command area. That occurred in Victoria and also in Carnarvon.
Thirdly, where the magnitude of the crisis and the devastation are such that an individual authority, in this case the state of Queensland, is on the receiving end of such devastation that national help is required, there is a formal request for Defence Force personnel to assist.
At each of those levels we saw over the summer in a range of states in the Commonwealth that assistance at a first-class level from our Defence Force personnel. Indeed, I think it now well known that here we have seen far and away the largest deployment of Australian Defence Force personnel in the face of natural disasters since Cyclone Tracy.
I would like to pay a couple of particular compliments. I have referred to Colonel Foster, Brigadier McLachlan, Brigadier Marsh and Brigadier Smith in terms of their responsibility and leadership of the various task forces.
One January morning in Brisbane I, together with the Prime Minister, had the privilege of attending a meeting of the Queensland Emergency Disaster Committee and I was struck by officers of a state doing what in very many respects is core business for a state in the Commonwealth. Seeing the dedication, foresight, methodical approach and leadership of the Police officers and Emergency Management Authority officers it struck me that, at this point in time in Queensland’s crisis, Queensland is very, very well served by the application, planning, foresight and the plain hard work and perspiration of all of those emergency service leadership teams and workers.
Secondly, can I pay, as I did to the Member for Wright, a compliment to the local Member on this side of the Chamber with whom I had most contact over this period, the member for Blair. The Member for Blair’s electorate effectively abuts RAAF Amberley and so the work being done out of RAAF Amberley to help the people of Ipswich and the assiduous on-the-ground work the Member for Blair was doing over that period and continues to do
is well worth putting on the record. He was acting like a local Member should: assiduously trying to help and assist disadvantaged and adversely affected members of his local community.
One of the things which occurred at Air Force Base Amberley over that break when people were on leave, was that personnel came back early from leave to help out. The Chief of Air Force told me on one occasion that many of the Amberley personnel were coming back from leave early with one purpose in mind: to help the people of Ipswich.
The Member for Blair is to be complimented on the good work that he has done and continues to do, as are the Defence Force personnel I have referred to.
I conclude my remarks by making some references to my own state of Western Australia and my own capital city of Perth.
Whilst the current terrible bushfires that we see in the south-east of Perth and in the north-east of Perth are not part of my local community, they are very much heart and soul of Perth. We look out over a West coast. As you fly into Perth, you go over the Darling Scarp and, as you go over the Darling Scarp into those suburbs of the north-east of the hills district of Perth, which are now subject to such a devastating bushfire, you see the intermingling of human civilisation and the bush. In that area, as Members would recognise if I refer to the electorates of Hasluck and Pearce, you find that constant threat which local community members and emergency services personnel are only too conscious of.
The Kelmscott, Armadale and Roleystone areas in the south-east have a similar disposition, coming over the scarp where the sprawling community of Perth meets the bush in the Darling Scarp hinterland.
It is a devastating fire in the south-west. I know that the respective Members for those local communities, the Member for Canning, the Member for Pearce and the Member for Hasluck, will be doing all that they can to assist their local communities.
Whilst very much of the focus has been on floods in recent times, people from Western Australia will be conscious of that other great threat that we find constant in times of spring and summer, namely, ferocious bushfires, which Perth is now suffering the adverse consequences of. Our thoughts are very much with those south-east and north-east communities in Perth.
I conclude where I started by complimenting the fine contribution of the Member for Wright and drawing attention to a number of great values, virtues and characteristics of the Australian community. In times of great difficulty and hardship, people will always find someone who is less well placed than they and lend a helping hand, whether it is someone adversely affected, whether it is a member of our Defence Force personnel or whether it is emergency service personnel.
In the course of his heartfelt contribution, the Member for Wright also exposed one of our great national characteristics and virtues as well, which is that at all times in adversity we always retain the Australian sense of humour, and that has been there on display in abundance.
We will always find someone less well off than ourselves to whom we can lend a helping hand, irrespective of our own circumstances, and Australians can always find a sense of humour as collectively we do our best to help those who are in a time of great need.