Speech: Defence Legislation Amendment (Enhancement Of Defence Force Response To Emergencies) Bill 2020

Speech: Defence Legislation Amendment (Enhancement Of Defence Force Response To Emergencies) Bill 2020 Main Image

Mrs PHILLIPS (Gilmore) (16:56): I'm very pleased to speak on this important bill, the Defence Legislation Amendment (Enhancement of Defence Force Response to Emergencies) Bill 2020, in the House today. I say that as the Member for Gilmore, representing the New South Wales South Coast, where we saw some of the most horrific bushfires during 2019 and 2020. I really want to say thank you to our Defence personnel and our reservists for all their work during the bushfires. This bill is really important. It will simplify the process for advising the Governor-General, prior to the issuing of an order to call out Defence reservists. It will also increase the Chief of the Defence Force's flexibility to determine the periods and types of service reservists render during a call-out. It will provide immunity for our ADF and Defence personnel, in certain circumstances, from civil and criminal liability, similar to that enjoyed by civil emergency services. Importantly, it will also address a gap in current arrangements that currently mean reservists providing continuous full-time service during a call-out do not receive superannuation, with the change to be retrospective from November 2019.

Some time ago, I think I described the Currowan fire as 'out of this world'. There really was no way to describe a fire that tormented my community every single day for so many months. Our emergency services volunteers, our workers and HMAS Albatross, with our Defence Force members, were there from the beginning, from November 2019. I want to thank particularly our members from HMAS Albatross, who have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to support our state and local council areas through the bushfire crisis.

This bill is important and it deserves a proper government response. That's why I'm standing here talking on this bill today. I am standing here for the fine women and men in my community, for our children, for our organisations and for our businesses—everyone who went through the Currowan fires—for our extraordinary volunteer firefighters, for our emergency services volunteers and workers, for our councils and council workers, and for our dedicated Defence Force personnel at HMAS Albatross, who provided extraordinary support during the Currowan fires and elsewhere. Operation Bushfire Assist, from 4 January 2020, saw the call-out of 3,000 Australian Defence Force reservists to increase operational support on the ground. Since November 2019, HMAS Albatross had been involved in supporting the bushfire fighting effort. I want to particularly thank the outgoing commanding officer of HMAS Albatross, Captain Fiona Sneath, and the incoming commander officer, Captain Robyn Phillips. At the time, there was certainly a baptism of fire around HMAS Albatross.

At that time I was also going around and visiting our evacuation centres, and I just happened to run into Captain Fiona Sneath. I think it proves the point that everyone was impacted in some way by these bushfires. Even HMAS Albatross itself was under threat from the bushfires. It was a concerted community effort to fight the fires.

Of course, HMAS Albatross played a pivotal role, in having the bushfire aerial command base there. That was a base for all the Rural Fire Service fixed-wing planes and helicopter water bombers. Right along the South Coast people, including people from my electorate, would have looked up into the sky and seen those little yellow fixed-wing planes and helicopter water bombers. It was a great relief for people to see those and the amazing work that they did. The aerial command base was back at HMAS Albatross, and our ADF personnel were playing such a pivotal role in supporting the emergency management there.

HMAS Albatross also provided logistics support—and there were a lot of logistics—water refuelling and retardant loading of our aircraft fighting the fires. They also provided engineering support, day and night-time aerial mapping of fires, the transport of firefighters and accommodation and catering support for firefighters. We had a massive number of firefighters come into our area, which we are very grateful for. They came from all over the place. A lot of these firefighters were accommodated at HMAS Albatross. Again, our thanks go to our defence members and our reservists who provided that support.

Importantly, our defence liaison officers, I'm really, really proud to say, played an absolutely pivotal role in working side by side with our local emergency services management. Every morning, for months on end, I was really privileged to go into my local fire control or emergency management centre and have those morning briefings with all the different agencies, and defence were part of that. I think the reason that the efforts of HMAS Albatross were so successful was that they have literally been part of our community for decades. Their response was simply outstanding. Our squadrons at HMAS Albatross were ready and able to assist people, not only in our local area but right across Australia, during the bushfires.

The Royal Australian Navy's MRH-90 Taipan helicopters, based at HMAS Albatross, carried out many evacuations—some from Fishermans Paradise, North Sassafras and Yalwal. These were quite complex evacuations, where they were actually taking people out and there were flames all around them. It was quite difficult terrain and there were orange skies. They did an absolutely magnificent job. The 808 Squadron, in their MRH-90 helicopters, also played a key role across Australia—not only in the Shoalhaven—in assisting with evacuation operations in Victoria, delivering liaison teams into isolated areas, dropping off food, water and medical supplies into Mallacoota and resupplying HMAS Choules with everything from nappies for children of evacuees to food for the galley.

Since November 2019, flight squadrons flew a total of 640 hours in support of Operation Bushfire Assist 2019-2020. Of these 640 hours, 808 Squadron, based at HMAS Albatross, flew a total of 310 hours. That is an amazing amount of flying time. In addition, 808 Squadron conducted fodder drops for wildlife whose food sources had been destroyed by the bushfires. I want to thank the 808 Squadron members, their commanding officer, Commander Paul Hannigan, and their families. This happened at a time of the year when it's normally quiet, but they were there on red hot alert and helping and supporting everyone.

I see Defence Force members from 808 Squadron and other squadrons out in the community all the time. They are there supporting and fundraising to help our local community groups. So, whether it is the bushfires or supporting our community groups, they are there. We could not be more proud of them and their role at Albatross during the bushfires, and I want to publicly thank them for their efforts.

Of course, Reservists assisted with a whole range of duties in the bushfires. Often we didn't see them, because they were out in the middle of the bush, clearing fallen trees, clearing fire trails, creating fire breaks and putting up temporary bridges or workarounds, whether it was meals, logistics, transport support or more. So, our Reservists were there, and I really want to say thank you to our Reservists as well.

I want to mention another interesting aspect: Air Affairs, which is a local defence industry contractor physically based just outside of HMAS Albatross, at the Aviation Technology Park, played a pivotal role as well, through the fire schemes. That is basically the line mapping of the bushfire activity. People across Australia probably would have seen that through the bushfires. Line scanning is delivered during both day and night-time flight operations, providing imaging of the ground, clearly defining active fire and burnt terrain through dense smoke, which is invaluable support for the RFS, to our water bombers, to our firefighters, to Defence personnel—a really important service.

I want to talk a little bit about the Eurobodalla, particularly around Batemans Bay and Moruya in my electorate. Reservists played a vital role there. They were a familiar sight, particularly next to the Batemans Bay evacuation centre. And we've got to remember that people went through extraordinary—there's really no way to describe it. What people went through was horrendous, and I think during those difficult conditions it was certainly a welcome sight and a relief for locals to see the Army roll in and set that medical tent up and help with a whole range of duties. Again we didn't see the Reservists a lot, because they were out in the bush, but they were certainly assisting through clearing trees and fire trails and things like that. So, again I want to say thank you to our Reservists and our Defence Force personnel.

I also want to mention the Mogo Zoo. People might have heard about that, because it's been in the news quite a lot, and of course the Mogo Wildlife Park was really hit hard by the bushfires, as was the whole Mogo community. But Chad and his team of wildlife keepers did everything to protect their animals, and it was just amazing. When I went back to visit the zoo and to talk with Chad and the team I found a team of Army personnel working to build a veterinary hospital for native wildlife injured in the bushfires. We lost over one billion animals in the bushfires, and this is just another example of where our Army personnel have stepped in. When I went the first time the walls were just starting to go up, and I had the pleasure of talking to some of the Army personnel, which was terrific—Army personnel attached to the 5th Engineer Regiment Task Group, part of Defence's Joint Task Force 1110. I think also assisting them were some Army members from our regional neighbours, which really just goes to show the huge effort both from Australia and from right around the world to fight these fires and shows that our Army and our Reservists played a pivotal role in supporting that. Again, this was a real morale booster for wildlife keepers and their staff. I was delighted to return again at the official reopening of the zoo and see that vet hospital completed. It's a great example of how our Defence Force members, our councils, our state government and everybody else can work together to help fight the fires. I don't think there's ever been a greater example of that than the disaster effort on the New South Wales South Coast during the bushfires.

I want to conclude by saying that obviously there's been a lot of talk about Army Reservists and what role they can play in the future. I think this bill is really important, because it goes a small but very important way towards helping and supporting our Defence Reservists.

But it's not the be-all and end-all. I guess the integration of military, volunteer and paid civilians and contractors during a very long bushfire crisis can sometimes be a very tricky thing to implement. I know I'm certainly lucky to live in the Nowra area and have had HMAS Albatross there for decades. So for me and for people in my local area HMAS Albatross is part of our community. Our defence members are part of our community. Our reservists are part of our community. And it's those connections, along with our local emergency services, that are so important.

Today I've highlighted many positive examples of where our Defence Force members have done so well in helping through the bushfires. We do need to build on those links and ensure our defence reservists are ready into the future, and I think this bill will help reservists as well. I just want to say, to conclude, thank you to our Defence Force members and their families. We're immensely proud of you and your efforts. We will never forget that. Thank you.