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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