Minister for Defence Stephen Smith on Queensland flooding; Carnarvon flooding; Lake Clifton bushfires; and forced marriage

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turn­ing up. I just want­ed to make some remarks about the floods in Queens­land, the floods in Carnar­von, and also the bush­fires in Lake Clifton. Can I start first­ly with the floods in Queens­land and the tragedy overnight of the flash flood in Toowoom­ba and the Lock­y­er Val­ley. The Prime Min­is­ter dealt with this mat­ter exten­sive­ly ear­ly today.

I want­ed to focus now on the Aus­tralian Defence Force assets that are being cur­rent­ly deployed in the search and res­cue effort. Can I start though by express­ing my per­son­al con­do­lences to the fam­i­lies who have lost loved ones, and to fam­i­lies who cur­rent­ly have fam­i­ly mem­bers miss­ing in the Lock­y­er Val­ley. It’s a ter­ri­ble tragedy.

I’ve just got off the phone to Colonel Luke Fos­ter, who heads up the Aus­tralian Defence Force Task­force, Queens­land Flood Assist and I can detail to you the Aus­tralian Defence Force assets that are cur­rent­ly deployed in the search and res­cue oper­a­tion in the Lock­y­er Val­ley. Can I start by say­ing that weath­er con­di­tions are very bad, very bad on the ground but also very bad fly­ing con­di­tions. And it has been dif­fi­cult in the course of the day to get heli­copter access into the Lock­y­er Val­ley.

But effec­tive­ly as we speak there are two Sea King heli­copters which were rede­ployed from Roma and then to Oakey and sub­se­quent­ly to the Amber­ley Air Base this morn­ing.

The two Sea King heli­copters will base at Amber­ley for the present. They’ve been joined by two Black­hawk heli­copters which have been rede­ployed from Oakey to Amber­ley. And those Black­hawks will be based at Amber­ley for the present. And they’ve been based at Amber­ley because that gives them the eas­i­est access route to the Lock­y­er Val­ley.

Cur­rent­ly those four heli­copters are engaged in evac­u­at­ing peo­ple from For­est Hill to an evac­u­a­tion cen­tre in Gat­ton. I’m advised that there are some 200 to 300 peo­ple in For­est Hill requir­ing evac­u­a­tion. So that effort, that res­cue effort, will cer­tain­ly take the rest of the day and prob­a­bly beyond.

Ear­li­er in the day, efforts were made to utilise a num­ber of Army high-wheeled trucks to see whether it was pos­si­ble to deploy the high-wheeled trucks into the Lock­y­er Val­ley, but con­di­tions on the road ren­dered that unsuc­cess­ful. So cur­rent­ly we are rely­ing upon heli­copter assets for the res­cue mis­sion.

I’ve just got off the phone as well to the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Hous­ton, and I’m able to advise that as a result of dis­cus­sions between the Aus­tralian Defence Force and Queens­land Emer­gency Man­age­ment Author­i­ty, that the Aus­tralian Defence Force will deploy addi­tion­al heli­copter assets to aid the Queens­land Emer­gency Man­age­ment author­i­ty in the search and res­cue effort.

Two addi­tion­al Black­hawk heli­copters will be assigned and based at Amber­ley for the present, and four light heli­copters, Kiowa obser­va­tion heli­copters, par­tic­u­lar­ly well suit­ed for obser­va­tion and search and res­cue, will also be deployed to Amber­ley. Sub­ject to weath­er con­di­tions, we expect that those addi­tion­al heli­copter assets will be avail­able for use from tomor­row morn­ing.

The Chief of the Defence Force has made it clear to Emer­gency Man­age­ment Author­i­ty offi­cials from Queens­land, as the Prime Min­is­ter has made clear to Pre­mier Bligh from Queens­land, that if addi­tion­al assets are required, then obvi­ous­ly we would look very favourably and pos­i­tive­ly to deploy­ing addi­tion­al assets to help in what is a tragedy for Queens­land and a tragedy for the nation.

Lat­er this after­noon I will trav­el to Bris­bane. I will fly to Bris­bane tonight and tomor­row I’ll meet with Colonel Fos­ter who’s cur­rent­ly oper­at­ing out of the Enog­gera Bar­racks in Bris­bane. I’ll also meet with Major Gen­er­al Slater who is now the head of the Queens­land Recon­struc­tion and Recov­ery Task­force. And if cir­cum­stances allow, I’ll vis­it the Amber­ley Air Base to thank the ADF per­son­nel who are assist­ing in the search and res­cue and recov­ery effort. So I want­ed to detail those efforts to you.

Can I under­line that weath­er con­di­tions and fly­ing con­di­tions are very dif­fi­cult and at all times, of course, safe­ty will deter­mine the heli­copter assets made avail­able for the search and res­cue effort. And there is some sug­ges­tion to me that fly­ing con­di­tions may well dete­ri­o­rate. So we are lit­er­al­ly in the hands of adverse weath­er con­di­tions so far as effec­tive­ness of the effort is con­cerned.

Can I just deal very briefly with the floods in Carnar­von. As Act­ing Attor­ney-Gen­er­al, yes­ter­day I wrote to the Pre­mier of West­ern Aus­tralia indi­cat­ing to the Pre­mier for­mal­ly, as the Prime Min­is­ter had indi­cat­ed pub­licly last week, that it was open to the state of West­ern Aus­tralia to apply for max­i­mum grants of $25,000 under the dis­as­ter relief arrange­ments for pri­ma­ry pro­duc­ers and small busi­ness peo­ple in Carnar­von.

I wel­come very much the fact that yes­ter­day the Act­ing Pre­mier, Kim Hames, wrote to the Prime Min­is­ter request­ing that the max­i­mum amount be made avail­able to eli­gi­ble small busi­ness or pri­ma­ry pro­duc­ers from Carnar­von who have been adverse­ly affect­ed by the flood in Carnar­von.

The ini­tial approach from the state of West­ern Aus­tralia, as you would know, was for $15,000, $10,000 less than the max­i­mum amount avail­able. The Prime Min­is­ter has made it clear, as I do as Act­ing Attor­ney-Gen­er­al, that that appli­ca­tion will be con­sid­ered speed­i­ly and pos­i­tive­ly, and I hope in a mat­ter of hours and days there will be a pos­i­tive and speedy res­o­lu­tion to that issue. But I wel­come very much the fact that the Act­ing Pre­mier of West­ern Aus­tralia, Kim Hames, has for­mal­ly applied to the Com­mon­wealth seek­ing the max­i­mum pub­licly avail­able amount for pri­ma­ry pro­duc­ers and small busi­ness peo­ple adverse­ly affect­ed by the flood in Carnar­von.

Final­ly, can I just indi­cate as a West Aus­tralian, whilst we see both in the mid-west and north of our state floods, and in Queens­land we see ter­ri­ble dev­as­ta­tion and loss of life from floods, the great irony of our vast nation, of course, is at the same time we have bush­fires south of Man­durah, south of Perth.

So our thoughts are very much with the res­i­dents who have been adverse­ly affect­ed in the Lake Clifton area — homes destroyed, peo­ple evac­u­at­ed. And we com­mend very much the actions of the local fire fight­ers and the state author­i­ties who have been work­ing very hard over the last 24 to 36 hours to con­tain a very dif­fi­cult bush­fire. So our thoughts are also with the peo­ple adverse­ly affect­ed by the Lake Clifton bush­fires.

I’m hap­py to respond to your ques­tions.

QUESTION: Did the WA Gov­ern­ment botch its request for fed­er­al assis­tance?

STEPHEN SMITH: Look, at times like this, where on the east­ern seaboard of our con­ti­nent we’ve got a ter­ri­ble dis­as­ter where­fore the peo­ple Carnar­von, they have been very seri­ous­ly adverse­ly affect­ed, both in terms of their lives and their liveli­hood, I think the last thing I want to do is to make any pejo­ra­tive remarks about what has occurred. I sim­ply make a pre­cise state­ment of the facts. It was always open to the state of West­ern Aus­tralia to apply, as the Gov­ern­ment of Queens­land did, for a max­i­mum grant under the dis­as­ter relief arrange­ments of $25,000. That was on the pub­licly avail­able web­site. It is part of the long­stand­ing Com­mon­wealth-State arrange­ments in these mat­ters. For what­ev­er rea­son, the state of West­ern Aus­tralia applied for $15,000. I’m very pleased that they’ve now applied for the max­i­mum avail­able amount and as Act­ing Attor­ney-Gen­er­al I under­line that which the Prime Min­is­ter has stat­ed in recent times, which is that appli­ca­tion will be speed­i­ly and very favourably con­sid­ered.

QUESTION: Min­is­ter, you talked about the evac­u­a­tion effort. What sort of mea­sures are being put in place to — in terms of food deliv­ery? I imag­ine that’s where it becomes an issue?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think there are three issues. First­ly, the Queens­land Flood Assist Task­force was estab­lished on New Years Day and has been oper­at­ing through­out Queens­land, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the north of the state, in Rock­hamp­ton, and I won’t detail again what the Prime Min­is­ter has dealt with com­pre­hen­sive­ly over the New Year peri­od.

What we’ve been faced with in the last 12 to 18 hours has been a ter­ri­ble flash flood in Toowoom­ba. So whilst we con­tin­ue our efforts in the north of Queens­land, our imme­di­ate focus is now on the search and res­cue effort in the Lock­y­er Val­ley and in Toowoom­ba. And I’ve detailed that, and detailed the addi­tion­al assets that will be deployed. And I’ve also made it clear that if we believe that there is a need for fur­ther assets, we will also make them avail­able.

I think the third issue is the longer term issue which is the ques­tion or the issue of recov­ery and recon­struc­tion. Major Gen­er­al Slater, of course, we’ve made avail­able to head up the Queens­land Recon­struc­tion and Recov­ery Task­force and as the Prime Min­is­ter has indi­cat­ed, and as I am hap­py to indi­cate as Defence Min­is­ter, there may well be the pos­si­ble or the poten­tial for a role for the ADF in that recov­ery, clean-up and recon­struc­tion role. For exam­ple, in the past, where bridges have been destroyed by floods, the ADF, our Defence Forces, their engi­neer­ing capac­i­ty has seen the ADF con­struct tem­po­rary bridges to allow trans­port to resume.

So there are three phas­es. There is the response gen­er­al­ly to ter­ri­ble floods in Queens­land, the imme­di­ate response overnight and today and for the next few days in the ter­ri­ble cir­cum­stances of the Lock­y­er Val­ley. And then the longer term clean-up, recon­struc­tion and recov­ery. And that longer term mat­ter will, of course, be sub­ject to the flood waters reced­ing and fur­ther adverse weath­er con­di­tions. At this time yes­ter­day, for exam­ple, I don’t think any of us were expect­ing to see the ter­ri­ble cir­cum­stances of Toowoom­ba.

QUESTION: The Prime Min­is­ter talked about some New Zealand per­son­nel offer­ing to help. Can you tell us what they are help­ing with?

STEPHEN SMITH: Again, as the Prime Min­is­ter has detailed, we’ve had a num­ber of offers from oth­er coun­tries in our region and beyond for assis­tance. Act­ing on the advice of the Queens­land Emer­gency Man­age­ment Author­i­ty and our own Com­mon­wealth Emer­gency Man­age­ment Author­i­ty, the advice and the deci­sion to date is that we cur­rent­ly have suf­fi­cient — both civil­ian and mil­i­tary assets — to deal with the cir­cum­stances that we find.

We have accept­ed a request from, an offer, sor­ry, from New Zealand for a num­ber of New Zealand Emer­gency Ser­vice per­son­nel to assist in Queens­land and that’s what they’re cur­rent­ly doing, but that’s the only offer that we have accept­ed to date.

But we are, of course, very grate­ful for the offers that have come in from the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, both in our region and beyond. But the New Zealand offer of a small num­ber of Emer­gency Ser­vice per­son­nel is the only one that we’ve tak­en up, and they’re cur­rent­ly work­ing in Queens­land.

QUESTION: [Inaudi­ble]

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, not just nations in our region, but inter­na­tion­al insti­tu­tions, the Unit­ed Nations, the Euro­pean Union. We of course are very grate­ful for that. Aus­tralia prides itself as being a good inter­na­tion­al cit­i­zen and in the face of nat­ur­al dis­as­ters and dif­fi­cul­ties in oth­er coun­tries in our region and beyond, not just the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment of the day, but the Aus­tralian pub­lic respond gen­er­ous­ly. And we have been very grate­ful for the gen­er­ous response we’ve seen from the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty. But we are a pros­per­ous coun­try. We’re a well devel­oped coun­try. And to date all of the advice and all of the view is that we can man­age through our own resources. We have, of course, tak­en up the New Zealand offer because they were able to get expe­ri­enced per­son­nel on the ground very quick­ly.

QUESTION: Have you got fig­ures of the num­ber of ADF per­son­nel that are involved and their roles?

STEPHEN SMITH: The orig­i­nal or ini­tial Queens­land Flood Assist Task­force was in the order of about 150 Defence per­son­nel, and they vary in loca­tion from Amber­ley to Enog­gera to Rock­hamp­ton, scat­tered around lit­er­al­ly parts of Queens­land.

As a result of the addi­tion­al assets that we’re deploy­ing, the addi­tion­al heli­copter assets, that will take the num­ber of ADF per­son­nel assist­ing on the Queens­land floods clos­er to 200 than 150. But because of the spe­cial and ter­ri­ble cir­cum­stances of Toowoom­ba and the Lock­y­er Val­ley, we believed that that was a sen­si­ble addi­tion to the assets that we’ve made avail­able to help the peo­ple of Queens­land.

QUESTION: And is there scope to improve that num­ber?

STEPHEN SMITH: If there is a need then we will again respond favourably. The addi­tion­al deploy­ment that I’ve announced today is as a result of dis­cus­sions between the Defence Force and the Queens­land Emer­gency Man­age­ment author­i­ty. Those dis­cus­sions will obvi­ous­ly be ongo­ing as cir­cum­stances unfold and as cir­cum­stances change or devel­op.

QUESTION: [Inaudi­ble]

STEPHEN SMITH: No, they’re all ADF per­son­nel, and they’re all, I stand to be cor­rect­ed on the detail, but the two Black­hawks will come from Syd­ney and the four light heli­copters, the Kiowas, they will come from Oakey. So they’re all Aus­tralian-based Defence per­son­nel.

QUESTION: You’ve talked about the poor weath­er con­di­tions [indis­tinct]. Have you got any advice on whether that’s expect­ed to dete­ri­o­rate?

STEPHEN SMITH: The only point I make is that in my con­ver­sa­tions with Colonel Fos­ter and with Chief of the Defence Force Hous­ton, who is, of course, him­self a for­mer heli­copter pilot, both made the point that fly­ing and weath­er con­di­tions are bad and they may well dete­ri­o­rate. But again, that is an hour by hour and a day by day propo­si­tion. But I do under­line the point that whilst the ADF and its per­son­nel and the Queens­land Emer­gency Man­age­ment Authority’s per­son­nel will do every­thing they pos­si­bly can, we can’t put heli­copters into the sky if it’s not safe to do so. We don’t want to com­pound the dif­fi­cul­ty.

QUESTION: Do these ADF per­son­nel have expe­ri­ence with [indis­tinct]…

STEPHEN SMITH: The ADF, in terms of the indi­vid­ual per­son­nel, some obvi­ous­ly would have pri­or expe­ri­ence, and for some of them this would be the first occa­sion they’ve assist­ed on a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter. But the ADF, the Aus­tralian Defence Force, has got a proud his­to­ry not just of armed ser­vice in the field, but of dis­as­ter relief, recov­ery, and recon­struc­tion. In the Aus­tralian con­text, that is often from floods but it’s also from bush­fires. And you would recall, of course, the con­tri­bu­tion the ADF made to the Vic­to­ri­an bush­fires a cou­ple of years ago. QUESTION: [indis­tinct].

STEPHEN SMITH: Again, that will be a day by day judg­ment. It will depend upon con­di­tion of the roads, when the flood waters recede, and the reced­ing of the waters them­selves.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you in your role as Act­ing Attor­ney-Gen­er­al, forced mar­riages — do you know any spe­cif­ic pro­pos­als that the Gov­ern­ment is con­sid­er­ing at the moment to crack down on forced mar­riages?

STEPHEN SMITH: The Min­is­ter for Home Affairs, my col­league Bren­dan O’Connor, last year, late last year, I think in Novem­ber, issued a dis­cus­sion paper which he put out for con­sul­ta­tion into the com­mu­ni­ty and into a range of com­mu­ni­ty groups rais­ing ques­tions of sex­u­al servi­tude and forced mar­riages.

The con­sul­ta­tion process fin­ish­es in Feb­ru­ary and when that con­sul­ta­tion process is con­clud­ed, he’ll make a judg­ment about the way in which the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment will car­ry for­ward that issue. And as Act­ing Attor­ney-Gen­er­al and as Act­ing Min­is­ter for Home Affairs for two or three days over the Christ­mas New Year break I wouldn’t pro­pose to go into any more detail than that.

But the con­sul­ta­tion peri­od clos­es in Feb­ru­ary. I know there have been a range and a num­ber of sub­mis­sions. That’s a good thing. And he’ll deal with that in Feb­ru­ary when the sub­mis­sions close. But we have in the past had exam­ples of sex­u­al servi­tude come to light where there’ve been pros­e­cu­tions, and the issue of forced mar­riage is an issue that has been raised in the Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ty from time to time in the past.

All right? Thank you, thanks very much.

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

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