Australia — Defence Minister Stephen Smith on Queensland flooding

KIERAN GILBERT: We’re going to chat now to the Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith who joins us from Perth. Defence Min­is­ter thank you very much for your time. You were here yes­ter­day, and as we know, the mil­i­tary are involved intrin­si­cal­ly in this search and res­cue, and then obvi­ous­ly in the recov­ery phase as well — but some of the grue­some tasks in the Lock­y­er Val­ley left in large part to the mil­i­tary.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Aus­tralian Defence Force per­son­nel are doing every­thing they can to assist the Queens­land author­i­ties, and obvi­ous­ly that’s the inten­tion of the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment some­thing the Prime Min­is­ter and I have expressed very strong­ly. First­ly the Defence Force per­son­nel are doing a ter­rif­ic job whether it’s trans­port­ing much need­ed sup­plies to the north of the state, whether it’s Townsville or Bund­aberg or whether it is sand­bag­ging or mop­ping up in Bris­bane or Ipswich or whether it’s doing that very dif­fi­cult work that you referred to. Today, the focus is on the Lock­y­er Val­ley and the search and res­cue and recov­ery there.

We have 120 Defence per­son­nel on the ground help­ing in the Lock­y­er Val­ley, help­ing Queens­land, police, and emer­gency per­son­nel, using Bush­mas­ters, using army assets and vehi­cles to get in and do that very demand­ing work, but as you’ve indi­cat­ed — and as I’ve said pub­licly, as the Pre­mier has said pub­licly there are between 60 and 70 peo­ple miss­ing — and we are expect­ing bad news out of the val­ley in the course of the next day or two.

KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, it’s just ter­ri­ble stuff out there isn’t it. Min­is­ter, from your own expe­ri­ence, from what you’ve seen over the last few days, and observed those images that come out of Toowoom­ba, Grantham, and so on, it’s just hard to get your head around.

STEPHEN SMITH: I spent all of yes­ter­day in Bris­bane. I also flew to the Amber­ley air base and flew over Ipswich. I have to say I was shocked by the flood of water, the great mass of water engulf­ing large parts of Ipswich – look­ing at very many hous­es all you could see was the roof. The ter­ri­ble scenes that we saw out of the Lock­y­er Val­ley, out of Toowoom­ba ear­li­er in the week. In some respects changed the dynam­ic, because we moved from a ris­ing large tide of water either in the north in Rock­hamp­ton and the like or in Bris­bane or Ipswich itself, to a flash flood and a tor­rent which swept away peo­ple, swept away their homes, and swept away their lives.

On the one hand it breaks your heart, but on the oth­er hand you see very many of the great Aus­tralian char­ac­ter­is­tics and virtues com­ing to the fore: peo­ple help­ing each oth­er, every­one doing what they can to help some­one who is in a worse posi­tion than they are, and remark­ably, one of the great Aus­tralian attrib­ut­es, a sense of humour in adver­si­ty — whether it’s peo­ple in Bris­bane or Ipswich or in the val­ley who have been ter­ri­bly affect­ed, they are still able to either find some­thing humor­ous in a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion, or to always make the point that there’s some­one worse off than they are. So some great Aus­tralian char­ac­ter­is­tics and val­ues and virtues com­ing to the fore. We’re very pleased that the Aus­tralian Defence Force per­son­nel have been part of that, very many of them com­ing back off leave to help out because they want to help fel­low Queens­lan­ders and fel­low Aus­tralians in a very dif­fi­cult time and in an hour of need.

KIERAN GILBERT: Beyond that imme­di­ate — that search, that grue­some task that they’re involved in, there are obvi­ous­ly Min­is­ter many towns, iso­lat­ed towns that need sup­ply, resup­ply. What sort of involve­ment do the — well, does the mil­i­tary have in that sense. No doubt the helicopter’s play­ing a key role.

STEPHEN SMITH: We do need to always bear in mind that there are dif­fer­ent parts of this tragedy. There is the tragedy of the Lock­y­er Val­ley, there are the very dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances in Ipswich and Bris­bane and we can’t for­get the north. So as we speak today, Aus­tralian Defence Force C130s and C17s, the large air-lift air­craft, have been tak­ing much need­ed sup­plies both to Townsville — which will be used as a hub to dis­trib­ute urgent essen­tial sup­plies — and also to Bund­aberg, because we know that very many of those com­mu­ni­ties have been iso­lat­ed from the south.

So that will con­tin­ue. And we’re also look­ing at emer­gency sup­plies to some parts of north­ern New South Wales where some com­mu­ni­ties have also been iso­lat­ed. There’s a small role for the heli­copters in that. But the heli­copters are of course play­ing the much more, in a sense, urgent, role of help­ing in search and res­cue and recov­ery in the Lock­y­er Val­ley itself.

We’ve got access to up to 19 heli­copters and our Defence Force per­son­nel — whether it’s from navy or army or the air force out of Amber­ley air base — are work­ing very close­ly with the Queens­land Police and emer­gency author­i­ties to con­tin­ue to effect that search and res­cue and recov­ery work through the use of those heli­copters. But also, now in the Lock­y­er Val­ley, up to 120 reg­u­lar Defence Force per­son­nel are engaged in a ground search. We also have work­ing some 17 Bush­mas­ter vehi­cles which are designed to be able to get into dif­fi­cult ter­ri­to­ry and ter­rain, that we find in the after­math of major flood waters.

KIERAN GILBERT: I’ve received a state­ment from the, emailed from the British High Com­mis­sion. It’s a state­ment from the British Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron express­ing his con­do­lences, and offer of sup­port. Of course the — for those that don’t know, but you’re obvi­ous­ly aware that the Defence Sec­re­tary, Dr Liam Fox, the UK Defence Sec­re­tary, and William Hague the For­eign Sec­re­tary will be here next week for the annu­al min­is­te­r­i­al talks. They’ve offered any sup­port that the UK can pro­vide, one of 100 coun­tries to do so. Min­is­ter, can you antic­i­pate any need for that sort of assis­tance?

STEPHEN SMITH: We have been just over­whelmed by the offers of sup­port and assis­tance, whether it’s civil­ian, emer­gency ser­vices per­son­nel, whether it’s Defence per­son­nel, whether it is mon­ey or goods and mate­ri­als in kind. And just today for exam­ple I’ve spo­ken to my coun­ter­parts from New Zealand and from Sin­ga­pore — just two of many coun­tries that are offer­ing sup­port.

So far as our Defence per­son­nel and Defence assets are con­cerned, whilst of course we very much appre­ci­ate the sol­i­dar­i­ty, we very much appre­ci­ate the offers of assis­tance, in terms of our Defence assets, we have more than enough of our own avail­able to do the task that the Queens­land Gov­ern­ment has cur­rent­ly request­ed of us.

But we do know that, for exam­ple in the case of New Zealand, they have emer­gency ser­vice work­ers on the ground as we speak — and those civil­ian emer­gency ser­vice work­ers from New Zealand will be rotat­ed and giv­en respite over the com­ing days.

So we very much grate­ful­ly appre­ci­ate those offers from coun­tries in our region, includ­ing for exam­ple Indone­sia, which has made a mon­e­tary con­tri­bu­tion to the Queens­land Premier’s relief fund, and we very much appre­ci­ate the offer of assis­tance from the Unit­ed King­dom. As you say, next week, For­eign Min­is­ter Rudd and I will for­mal­ly meet with our coun­ter­parts, For­eign Sec­re­tary Hague and Defence Sec­re­tary Fox. We very much appre­ci­ate the offers that have come from the Unit­ed King­dom just as we appre­ci­ate the offers that have come from very many coun­tries through­out the world. Aus­tralia prides itself as being a good inter­na­tion­al cit­i­zen, and on this occa­sion in a sense the boot is on the oth­er foot, but to date we believe very much we’ve been able to,- togeth­er with the good work of Queens­land state author­i­ties and the local author­i­ties in Queens­land togeth­er with Defence Force per­son­nel, to more than man­age in terms of resources avail­able and the need for resources, assets, and peo­ple on the ground.

But we cer­tain­ly very much appre­ci­ate all the offers that have come from afar. It’s warm­ly wel­comed and much appre­ci­at­ed.

KIERAN GILBERT: Min­is­ter, we’re just await­ing Pre­mier Anna Bligh at a news con­fer­ence any moment now. I’m sure you’ll under­stand if I have to inter­rupt and we’ll cross to that live, there could of course be some urgent infor­ma­tion that we need. But before she does arrive can I ask you about the var­i­ous oper­a­tions that are under­way in terms of the Queens­land Flood Assist which is being con­trolled by Colonel Luke Fos­ter and the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between that and the oth­er oper­a­tion which is being over­seen by Major Gen­er­al Mick Slater.

STEPHEN SMITH: Very hap­py to do that, and very hap­py to be inter­rupt­ed if you need to lis­ten to the Pre­mier.

On that can I say yes­ter­day the Prime Min­is­ter and I were very, very impressed at the way in which the Pre­mier and her team, the Dis­as­ter Man­age­ment Team, had organ­ised itself. We sat through their reg­u­lar morn­ing brief­ing ses­sion and we have absolute con­fi­dence that the arrange­ments that Queens­land have put in place are the best pos­si­ble arrange­ments to deal with a very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion.

So far as Queens­land Flood Assist is con­cerned, the Defence Task­force head­ed by Colonel Luke Fos­ter, who I met yes­ter­day on a num­ber of occa­sions and also spoke to again today, is doing good work. We’ve now got over 400 Defence per­son­nel avail­able in Queens­land to sup­port Queens­land Flood Assist, some reg­u­lars, some reservists. And Colonel Fos­ter has avail­able to him the assets that I have referred to, whether it’s a half a dozen C‑130s or C‑17s to air­lift emer­gency sup­plies to the north. Whether it’s high-wheel based vehi­cles or Bush­mas­ters to help in the search and res­cue and recov­ery in the Lock­y­er Val­ley, or whether it’s lit­er­al­ly troops on the ground help­ing in Bris­bane, help­ing in Ipswich, fill­ing sand­bags, going door to door with Queens­land Police and emer­gency ser­vice work­ers mak­ing sure that peo­ple evac­u­ate when they need to or have to.

And I must say, not only was I very impressed with the work that Colonel Fos­ter and his team were doing, but also very proud to see young Aus­tralians in the Defence Force doing the work that they’re doing.

As well, of course, we have made avail­able Major Gen­er­al Mick Slater as the head of the Queens­land Recon­struc­tion and Recov­ery Task­force. The Prime Min­is­ter and I spoke on a cou­ple of occa­sions, to Major Gen­er­al Slater yes­ter­day. And we’re of course now look­ing at those things that we can do, the fur­ther things that the Aus­tralian Defence Force and the Com­mon­wealth can do to assist, not just in the imme­di­ate search and res­cue and recov­ery but what more we can do in terms of recov­ery and recon­struc­tion.

We are also look­ing at what we can do in terms of the inevitable clean-up oper­a­tion in Ipswich and Bris­bane, and what we can do by way of recon­struc­tion. For exam­ple, when the waters recede there is a real­is­tic prospect that a num­ber of bridges will be knocked out. And of course the Aus­tralian Defence Force engi­neers have become very, very good, world class, over the years in quick­ly con­struct­ing tem­po­rary bridges to restore trans­port and com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works.

So we’re also engaged now in the work of look­ing very care­ful­ly at what more we can do to try and help Queens­land effec­tive­ly rebuild itself and we had very good dis­cus­sions, not just with Gen­er­al Slater yes­ter­day but also with the Pre­mier and those con­ver­sa­tions will be ongo­ing because we want to do every­thing we pos­si­bly can to help Queens­land recov­er.

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Aus­tralia

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