Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TOPICS: Australian Defence Force support to Queensland flood relief and recovery effort
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you for coming. I want to provide some detail on the Prime Minister's announcement earlier today that the Australian Defence Force’s, Queensland Flood Assist taskforce will be very significantly enhanced, very considerably expanded to 1200 Defence personnel to assist on the clean up and initial recovery in the Queensland flood.
The 1200 Defence personnel will provide support and assistance to the Queensland authorities in the cleaning up of debris, and the initial recovery stage. The decision that the Prime Minister has announced today arises as a result of the Prime Minister's and my visit to Brisbane on Wednesday. In the course of Wednesday we of course met with Premier Bligh and her disaster management expert committee.
We also met with Major-General Slater, who heads up the Queensland Recovery and Reconstruction taskforce, and also, of course, with Colonel Foster, who heads up the Queensland Flood Assist taskforce, and I visited Enoggera Barracks, with the Prime Minister, and also the Amberley Air Base, which the Prime Minister visited yesterday and today.
As a result of those discussions it became clear that the Queensland authorities and people of Queensland would benefit by a significant expansion of the Defence Force effort.
Already we are seeing the Queensland floods move from immediate disaster relief, search and rescue and recovery, to the initial clean up stage. That is certainly so far as Brisbane and Ipswich are concerned; it is, of course, less true of the Lockyer Valley, where there continues to be very considerable work done by Queensland authorities and Australian Defence Force personnel in a search and rescue and recovery operation.
And in the Lockyer Valley you find not just the presence of over 15 Bushmasters, over 100 Defence personnel, but the continuing use of helicopters to assist in that search and rescue and recovery operation.
It is quite clear that in the rest of the state we are moving to the initial clean up stage, and the taskforce, the Queensland Flood Assist taskforce will now transition to assist in that initial clean up stage.
I am not proposing to detail, again, the contribution which the Australian Defence Force personnel have made, whether through the 19 helicopters that have been operating, the C-130s and the C-17s, which are continuing to do food and essential supply drops to isolated communities in the north of the state, and those regulars and reservists who are helping with the sandbagging, and already starting cleaning up in Brisbane.
I will not detail what is already comprehensively on the record. I will simply say we are very grateful, and thank very much all of those regulars and reservists who have made a significant contribution to the Queensland flood effort since the taskforce was established on 1 January.
It has been a terrific effort, and when the dust settles, and the waters recede, and the story is told, there will be great stories of search and rescue efforts made by Australian Defence Force personnel, particularly through the use of helicopters in the Lockyer Valley, when the violent storm and flash flood was at its peak.
If I can detail the purpose and the make up of the 1200 personnel who will engage now in that initial clean up phase. It will be clean up, debris removal, road clearance, road openings, and helping with the initial restoration. All of that work, of course, has to be done prior to making judgements about the long-term recovery and reconstruction, which is the taskforce that Major General Slater heads up.
The clean up, the removal of debris, the clearance of roads, will effectively start in earnest from today. In terms of the 1200 personnel; initially the personnel will come from Queensland, starting with the 7th Brigade based at the Enoggera Barracks. We have between 550 and 600 Defence personnel assisting in Queensland on the flood operations at the moment - the majority will come from the Army.
Rule of thumb – and very much rule of thumb - of the 600 personnel currently assisting, about 400 are from the Army, 50 from Navy and over 100 from the Air Force. But the majority will come from the Army, and we will start with the 7th Brigade based at Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane. But they will be complemented by both Air Force and Navy personnel.
In the first instance, Air Force personnel from the Amberley Air Base are very keen, and will be able to help with the clean up and initial recovery in Ipswich. Amberley, of course, is close to Ipswich, and when I visited Amberley on Wednesday we flew over Ipswich, and the expanse of the flood in Ipswich is frankly mind boggling.
So there is a significant job to be done in Ipswich, and RAAF base Amberley, and its personnel are very keen to assist. So we will have contributions from all three arms of the Defence Force. And, whilst in the first instance they will come from Queensland, they will of course be complemented by Defence Force personnel from other states.
In addition to that clean up, the removal of debris, the clearing of roads, the clearing of streets, the clearing of waterways, what we're also working very hard on at the moment, and we are committed to providing in conjunction with the Queensland authorities, is a significant engineering contribution. The Australian Defence Force and its personnel are of course world class exponents in engineering, and whilst in the main this is used for military and defence purposes we are of course highly experienced in using our engineering capacity for humanitarian relief and disaster relief and natural disaster management, not just in Australia but overseas.
And whilst I hope to be in a position to announce the precise detail of that engineering contribution early next week, in the main it will involve the following--the engineering component will firstly involve an engineering reconnaissance stage, an inspection and an assessment of infrastructure, and an inspection and an assessment of waterways. The infrastructure inspection will particularly relate to bridges and to culverts, and we expect we'll be able to make a significant contribution in the construction of temporary bridges and in the repair of culverts. This will provide a very significant contribution to opening up transport, to opening up communications and to restoring roads and waterways to essentially their original state and to a useable capacity.
In addition to that engineering capacity we have already, and will make a more significant contribution, to water purification. In recent weeks and days we've had a water purification unit operating in the north and west of the state, and in the course of the last 24 to 36 hours we've also engaged in actual water delivery. But there will be, we believe, a significant demand for water purification and we will be able to provide a substantial contribution on that front.
So the announcement today goes to the detail of the 1200 personnel who will assist in the initial clean up, the removal of debris and the initial recovery stage. We will also make a significant contribution so far as engineering is concerned. That will particularly relate to the construction of temporary bridges and to the repair of culverts.
In our discussions with the Queensland authorities we are also looking at what longer term ongoing niche or specialist contributions that the Defence force can make to complement the existing capacity and capability of the Queensland emergency services and police forces. And those specialist or niche capabilities will be required for the longer term recovery and reconstruction and we'll continue to be in close consultation with the Queensland authorities over those matters.
There's only one particular matter which I'd like to draw attention to today which falls within the umbrella of the Queensland flood assist taskforce. You may have seen earlier today the Premier of Queensland Anna Bligh indicate that Queensland had requested the Commonwealth and the Defence Force to assist essentially with checking the state of Moreton Bay and the Brisbane River in the margins of the Queensland port to ensure that Moreton Bay and the river is clear of any submerged substantial debris or blockages. And we are very happy to meet that request of the Queensland Government, it's very important that the waterways, particularly access to the ports are clear, and the Queensland authorities and the ADF have in recent days worked very hard to do their best to ensure that either barges or debris running down the river were kept to a minimum.
That work will be effected through a mine countermeasure taskforce, and we're also assuming the use of a mine hunter. The capability which is required is essentially a sonar capability which the mine countermeasure taskforce and the mine hunter will have. But that's a particularly specialised task which will be very important to the people of Queensland and to trade and commerce in Queensland, the Queensland Port Authority. That work will begin we expect, in the next 24 hours. We already have one Navy underwater group in Brisbane, but that will of course need to be complemented for this specialised or specific task.
Can I conclude where I, in a sense, started and that is to thank very much the regulars and the reservists from the Defence Force who have been helping since the beginning of this year, indeed some since late last year in the Queensland relief rescue. When I spoke to Defence Force personnel at Enoggera and at Amberley earlier in the week, very many of them had come off leave voluntarily to assist.
And the chief of the Defence Force in my discussions with him during the week and today, again made the point that very many reservists are out there on the streets helping, both in their formal capacity--we have a Brisbane regular reserve helping in Brisbane--but very many individual reservists have done what so many Queenslanders have done which is to get out there individually and help.
So we compliment them very much on their efforts and we thank them for it, but their enthusiasm to the task has been matched by the enthusiasm for the task of all Queenslanders to help their neighbours and help their friends and help their family members. So I'm happy to respond to your questions.
QUESTION: How long do you expect to keep 1200 personnel at a time there?
STEPHEN SMITH: The longer term reconstruction and recovery will of course, as the Premier has said, as the Prime Minister has said, as the Mayor of Brisbane has, said, take a long period of time, many months. The clean-up, which is what the 1200-strong personnel taskforce is designed to assist the initial removal of debris, the initial recovery mode - we expect to take weeks rather than months.
I'm not proposing to put a precise timetable on it. - It will be dependent upon the rate at which the water recedes, whether that is in Brisbane, whether that's in Ipswich - but we envisage that to be a period of weeks rather than months.
And as circumstances change, as the priority changes and the needs change, we are now transitioning from a focus on search and rescue and recovery, using helicopters, and Bushmasters, and amphibious vehicles, to that initial clean-up stage.
So we expect months, but our commitment, and the Defence Force and its personnel’s commitment, is to do the job. We expect a matter of weeks, but time will tell - that's subject to the current conditions continuing, and to the waters receding whether the waters are in Ipswich, or Brisbane or the Lockyer Valley.
QUESTION: [Inaudible question]
STEPHEN SMITH: Our commitment is to assist with the clean-up and the removal of debris in Queensland generally, but clearly there will be, in terms of the volume of water, and the number of people adversely affected, a focus on Brisbane, a focus on Ipswich, a focus on the Lockyer Valley. But we will also do that work as required. n parts of the north which have been previously adversely affected by the floods, and in flood impacted areas in Brisbane, and Ipswich.
It is an all of Queensland commitment, but the precise disposition and allocation of personnel will be a matter determined on the ground by the taskforce leader, Colonel Luke Foster, in conjunction with the Queensland Emergency Management authorities and the Police Force.
So those operational things will be determined on the ground, but the overall contribution, the 1200- personnel, has been the result of our conversations with the Premier, and work done by the Chief of the Defence Force, by the Chief of Joint Operations, Major General Evans, in consultation, not just with Major General Slater from the Recovery and Reconstruction Taskforce, but also with Colonel Foster.
The precise disposition will depend on circumstances on the ground, but again, as circumstances change. For example, I have been surprised today at the rate at which the water in Brisbane has receded, and the rate at which people in the Brisbane community have been able to start the cleaning up process.
So I won't put a precise timetable on it but we think weeks rather than months and we think the need will be throughout Queensland not just restricted to Brisbane or Ipswich or the Lockyer Valley.
QUESTION: Is there room to increase that number further?
STEPHEN SMITH: Currently the advice is that the number will be more than sufficient for the purpose, but if at any stage we receive a request from the Queensland Government or the Queensland authorities for an additional contribution we'll of course positively and favourably consider that as we have every request from day one. This is essentially in response to discussions between Queensland emergency authorities, the Prime Minister and the Premier, the CDF and Colonel Foster and Queensland authorities. We believe this is a substantial contribution which will help see the job done.
QUESTION: Given the nature of the work the ADF will be on the frontline [Indistinct] recovery [Indistinct] and that sort of thing. Given the length of time that people have been on the missing persons list there's a high potential that they're going to be making some grave discoveries. It's a grave task that they've been assigned.
STEPHEN SMITH: I have previously said, and I said it privately to Defence Force personnel in Brisbane, at Enoggera and at Amberley during the week, we have to steel ourselves for bad news out of the Lockyer Valley. Australian Defence Force personnel have been involved in the recovery of deceased people and the transportation of deceased people's bodies. So that is a role that they are performing in conjunction with the Queensland police and the Queensland emergency management authorities.
We need from time to time to constantly remind ourselves that in the first instance Australia disaster relief and disaster relief management is a matter for the states and territories and a matter for the civilian authorities. And I have to say how much the Prime Minister and I were impressed with the way in which the Queensland civilian authorities are dealing with a very difficult task.
So we are working in support of the Queensland authorities, and so as we speak, in the Lockyer Valley we're using our Bushmasters, we're using our small number of amphibious vehicles, we're also using our high wheel base trucks to transport Queensland Police and Queensland Emergency Management officers. On the Bushmasters you will find a combination of Queensland emergency service officers and Defence Force personnel, and we of course continue to use the helicopters.
But the contribution that we can bring is in the first instance by way of equipment. The state authorities obviously don't have access to the same number of helicopters or to bushmasters or to high wheel base army trucks or to amphibious vehicles, but we are not supplanting the role of the Queensland authorities and the Queensland Emergency Management officers or personnel or the police, we are complementing that and assisting them.
So they are –and have always been in charge of the operation and we assist them. But yes, there is some tough and difficult work for Defence Force personnel to do and they're doing that willingly and they're doing that in a first class manner.
QUESTION: And obviously there'll be - have access to counselling?
STEPHEN SMITH: You may have seen the Prime Minister refer to earlier today that one of the niche or specialist areas that we're looking at is the use of Defence Force psychological services to complement the psychological services available at the state level. We are always very conscious of the pressures and the stress on our personnel when they perform these difficult tasks whether it is a military or a combat environment or it is- but we also believe that the potential is there to make some of those services to complement the state based services for police and for emergency personnel.
QUESTION: [Inaudible question]
STEPHEN SMITH: Well certainly it is our largest Australian based disaster relief contribution since Cyclone Tracey. There's no question of that and that makes it the largest Defence Force contribution for a natural disaster in Australia in this century and for over 30 years. So it is a very significant contribution.
I haven't checked and I have no formal advice but in conversations with Defence Force personnel I'm told that the contribution we're making here is of the same dimension or larger than the contribution Defence Force personnel made in the 1974 flood in Brisbane and in Ipswich.
My impression is that in terms of equipment or assets that it is a substantially larger contribution primarily because of the use of a number of helicopters and the use of Bushmasters.
QUESTION: [Indistinct] and how will they coordinate with the army up there?
STEPHEN SMITH: The authority and the primary responsibility for these matters is with the Queensland authorities, with the Queensland management authority, with the Queensland Emergency Services and with the police. So we will cooperate with the Queensland Emergency Management and Emergency Services authorities and the police and essentially work hand in glove with them.
What you also know and what you've seen today is essentially the people of Brisbane, the people of Ipswich, the people of the Lockyer Valley communities coming out themselves voluntarily and pitching in. So there will be organised contributions from the Queensland authorities and from the Defence Force personnel but you're also seeing an outpouring of a voluntary community effort and that's a terrific thing to see.
QUESTION: Another topic--there's been quite a bit of correspondence to letters pages from people saying we should suspend all foreign aid while this disaster is being cleaned up in Australia. As the most recent foreign minister what do you have to say about that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly I have to confess I haven't been spending my time reading the letters to the editors pages in the last few days and assiduously as I might normally do so I'll put that to one side.
Secondly, on the general point Australia is a country which has warm-hearted people and we have a very good reputation for being a good international citizen. One of our natural characteristics, one of our national values and virtues is we always like to do the right thing by people who are less well off than ourselves, whether that is an Australian down the road in our neighbourhood, or a group of Australians in a different capital city or in a different state or a different territory. And what we've seen in the last few days has been that great Australian characteristic of giving a helping hand when someone is worse off that you.
You've also seen capacity for Australians who have been very seriously adversely affected by the flood in Queensland to say there is someone worse off than me, I may have lost my house but someone has lost a loved one.
So you've seen that great Australian characteristic as well which is that everything in life is relative and there's always someone worse off than me. That applies to how we approach things nationally as a country, it also applies to how we approach things as a member of the international community.
We are a prosperous and well developed country. We are in the top 20 economies. We are in the top 20 countries of prosperity in terms of income per capita and we have a very good track record of giving a helping hand to those countries and those people who are less well off than ourselves. And we are capable, given the nature of our country, to do both things at the same time and that is what we are doing.
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