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Thursday, 31 May 1984
Page: 2317

(Question No. 789)


Senator Jones asked the Minister representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs, upon notice, on 3 April 1984:

(1) What preparations have been made to assist the Papua New Guinea Government in the event of the expected eruption of Mount Vulcan at Rabaul.

(2) What is the anticipated response time after the initial eruption before Australian assistance would be on the scene.

(3) What requests have been received by the Australian Government from the Papua New Guinea Government in relation to the potential crisis in Rabaul.


Senator Gareth Evans —The Minister for Foreign Affairs has provided the following answer to the honourable senator's question:

(1) (i) Under new arrangements agreed between the Ministers for Defence and Foreign Affairs, the Natural Disasters Organisation (NDO), as an agent of the Australian Development Assistance Bureau, is now co-ordinating the provision of Australian Government physical assistance to Papua New Guinea for the relief of the Rabaul situation. On 7 March all disaster service liaison officers representing their relevant Commonwealth departments were briefed at NDO on current plans and possible disaster relief which could be required from each department. The Australian Defence Force remains on alert under the overseas disaster plan 'sprocket'.

(ii) In addition to the Australian technical advice provided to Papua New Guinea under current Department of Foreign Affairs agreements, the following Commonwealth support has been provided in response to Papua New Guinea requests:

(a) Dr Hugh Davies, a volcanologist, was attached to the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory as a technical adviser for six weeks and returned on 11 April;

(b) Captain Doyne Hunt Royal Australian Navy (retired), who until recently was the Assistant Director Plans and Operations in the Natural Disasters Organisation, has spent two periods totalling nearly six weeks in Papua New Guinea assisting emergency authorities with the updating of the East New Britain provincial disaster plan;

(c) Tarpaulins and other emergency accommodation stores have been supplied to the East New Britain authorities for use in designated evacuation areas. These were transported to Rabaul in a Royal Australian Air Force C130 Hercules on a programmed training flight. This flight as well as testing a newly constructed emergency airstrip also transferred some Papua New Guinea Government records to Port Moresby;

(d) Dr Gladwin of the University of Queensland installed additional technical instruments (magnetometers and tiltmeters) on 10 April;

(e) The National Safety Council of Australia has provided an infra-red survey of the Rabaul area free of charge.

(iii) Further disaster relief resources that may be required if an eruption occurs are being held in Australia at an advanced state of readiness.

(2) (i) The Rabaul Volcanological Observatory predicts that the eruption should not be any larger than the eruption experienced in 1937. If this is the case it is possible that no further Australian assistance may be required due to the extensive pre-eruption planning being conducted within Papua New Guinea.

(ii) If the eruption is of significantly larger scale and an immediate response is required the following units of the Australian Defence Force have been warned for deployment:

(a) HMAS Tobruk,

(b) HMAS Stalwart,

(c) a Navy Iroquois helicopter,

(d) Units of the 6th Brigade,

(e) RAAF C130 Hercules aircraft, and

(f) RAAF Iroquois helicopters, or RAAF Chinook helicopters.

(iii) The reaction time to deploy Australian aid to the Gazelle Peninsula will depend upon the post eruption condition of the in-area facilities. During the eruptions in 1878 and 1937 the harbour was blocked with pumice and the air became choked with volcanic ash. These conditions would probably pertain during the predicted eruption with the result that sea and air operations into the Rabaul area may be temporarily inhibited. The units deployed will comply with Papua New Guinea requirements, to ensure minimal disruption of that country's own operations. Australian plans impose varying response times dependent on the level of need as determined by the alert stages issued by the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory. Currently a stage two alert is in force which indicates that an eruption is possible in a period of months to weeks. The Australian response will be commensurate with Papua New Guinea's requirements and the safe operations of our ships and aircraft.

(3) The physical resources deployed to Rabaul as outlined in the answer to question one were all supplied in response to formal requests by the Papua New Guinea Government. There are no other requests outstanding.