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.
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