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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 8278


Mr McCLELLAND (Attorney-General) (9:46 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

As preparations for another bushfire season commence around Australia, we need no reminder of the devastating effects of emergencies and disasters on the lives and welfare of all of us.

In an environment like ours, it is imperative that we have the resources needed to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies and disasters. This bill is directed to ensuring that the states and territories have access to logistical support from overseas to assist them during bushfire seasons.

The Australia-United States exchange program

For some years now, the United States and Victoria have participated in a cooperative exchange program for fire suppression resources.

The program permits firefighters and equipment from one country to be deployed to the other country to provide vital operational assistance during the bushfire season. It also allows Australian firefighters to share and develop specialist skills and knowledge through training and conducting exercises and study tours.

Over 170 United States firefighters have been deployed to Victoria since 2003, including, including, of course, their very welcome support during the devastating Black Saturday fires this year.

Because of their training and the similarity between Australian and United States conditions, United States firefighters are able to fit straight into crucial roles at short notice. This additional capability is invaluable during bushfire campaigns, when local resources become overstretched and our firefighters exhausted.

The new agreement

Negotiations are currently underway to finalise a new agreement with the United States to ensure the continued success of the exchange program. While the negotiations are being led by Victoria, the new agreement will apply Australia-wide, allowing all states and territories to access United States fire suppression resources.

One aspect of the new agreement which remains outstanding is the status of the United States and its firefighters in legal proceedings that may potentially be brought in Australia. Due to their domestic legal requirements, the United States cannot finalise the agreement unless immunity from tort proceedings is provided concerning the actions of their firefighters in the course of their duties.

The Foreign States Immunities Act and the bill

In Australia, the Foreign States Immunities Act 1985 provides the legislative regime for the immunity of foreign states from the civil jurisdiction of our courts. At present, under section 13 of that act, foreign state immunity does not extend to proceedings concerning death, personal injury or property damage arising from acts or omissions in Australia. This means that foreign governments could be exposed to legal proceedings as a result of sending their personnel to assist in emergencies in Australia.

Understandably, the United States is concerned about the entanglement of their firefighters in legal disputes in another country when acting upon a request for assistance—and usually at the command and direction of Australian firefighters.

The bill amends the act by inserting a power for the Governor-General to make regulations so that a foreign state that assists the Commonwealth or a state or territory in preparing for, preventing or managing emergencies or disasters is immune from tort proceedings arising out of that assistance.

This immunity would only apply to acts and omissions of the foreign personnel in the course of providing the emergency management assistance. This means that any negligence by a foreign official outside of their duties would remain subject to the jurisdiction of Australian courts.

I note also that the immunity would not apply in any criminal proceedings.

The agreement under negotiation provides for a reciprocal immunity to be granted to Australia and its firefighters under United States law. This will ensure an equivalent level of protection for Australian firefighters operating in the United States.

Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission

Before concluding in terms of this bill, I take this opportunity to welcome again the release of the interim report of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.

The government has commenced a detailed analysis of the recommendations in the interim report and will continue to provide whatever assistance we possibly can to the royal commission.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this bill is one way the Australian government can assist the states and territories with bushfire prevention and management.

The bushfire exchange program with the United States will form an integral part of the fire management and response capability of the states and territories.

The bill, if passed, will facilitate the finalisation of this significant agreement.

By enhancing our collective ability to withstand disasters and emergencies, the bill will contribute to the safety and security of all Australians.

Debate (on motion by Dr Stone) adjourned.