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Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Page: 19703

Mr McARTHUR (3:19 PM) —My question is addressed to the Attorney-General. Would the Attorney-General advise the House how the government is strengthening Australia's ability to deal with disasters, such as chemical, biological and radiological incidents?

Mr WILLIAMS (Attorney-General) —I thank the member for Corangamite for his question and commend him on his continuing interest in the subject of national security. I was very pleased this morning to have the opportunity to open Emergency Management Australia's Safer Sustainable Communities Conference in Canberra. Some 700 people are attending that conference. It is a conference on disaster management and brings together Australian and international experts to share their experience and the lessons learned from past disasters, both natural ones and those caused by human hands. It is just one of the many examples of the Australian government's commitment to close and effective cooperation with the states and territories and our international counterparts on national security issues.

Another example of that is our program to strengthen Australia's ability to deal with chemical, biological and radiological incidents—so-called CBR incidents. Whilst the states and territories have front-line responsibility for emergency response, we must all work together to protect the Australian community. It is in this spirit that in the 2002-03 budget the government committed $17.8 million over four years to enhance the capacity of all states and territories to deal with CBR incidents and their consequences. In order to ensure that the appropriate equipment is provided and to ensure consistency of capability across Australia, the government has established a national CBR working group, which is chaired by Emergency Management Australia and includes representatives from all states and territories. The recommendations of this working group have guided the program.

I am pleased to announce that the first tranche of specialist equipment is now being distributed to all states and territories. In the last financial year, a total of $8.36 million was used to purchase equipment and conduct training. Each jurisdiction will receive equipment to a value of about $900,000. This includes chemical protection suits, specialist breathing systems, equipment to detect chemicals and radiation and units to detect bioterrorism agents through DNA analysis. Other support includes high-resolution digital still and video cameras for forensic investigation.

The next stage of the CBR enhancement program, to be completed by June 2004, will focus on mobile large-scale decontamination systems, decontamination foam, casualty extraction equipment such as stretchers and sleds, chemical agent antidotes, first aid equipment, forensic sampling kits and hazard prediction software and hardware. All states and territories have signed memoranda of understanding with the government regarding long-term provision of the equipment. The equipment remains the property of the Australian government, and we will provide $30,000 annually to assist with maintenance and repair of the equipment. A review of the program will be conducted by the end of 2005-06. This is significant practical support for the states and territories and ensures that Australia is in the best possible position to respond to a CBR attack or an inadvertent CBR incident.

This program is just one of a range of government measures to protect the Australian community against terrorism, funded by nearly $2 billion in extra funding, which has been provided since 11 September 2001. We have comprehensive counter-terrorism legislation. We conduct regular exercises to test the effectiveness and cooperation of counter-terrorism and emergency management agencies at all levels and across all jurisdictions.

As the Prime Minister pointed out earlier in question time, the performance of the states and territories on counter-terrorism is far from perfect. On this occasion, however, I can congratulate the states and territories on their cooperation with the government on this significant measure. Like the Prime Minister, I look forward to cooperation on other valuable counter-terrorism actions. I hope that in relation to national security those opposite take the advice of their state colleagues, like the New South Wales Premier, and recognise that it is time for federal Labor to demonstrate a commitment to national security and stop political point scoring.