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Wednesday, 29 June 1994
Page: 2214

Senator COULTER (10.25 a.m.) —I thank Senator Murphy for those introductory remarks because, yes, I certainly will want to deal with that part of the report which is covered on pages 91 to 93 and deals with the aerial suppression of fires. Very briefly I want to reiterate something that I put in an adjournment speech a few weeks ago in relation to Project Aquarius, a computer based study carried out in the early 1980s into the aerial suppression of fires.

  As a consequence of the results which came from that computer based study, into which a number of quite false assumptions were fed—and that helps to explain it very substantially—over the succeeding years, the various bushfire fighting organisations around this country have tended to ignore the very important role which the Canadair CL215 and the updated version, the Canadair CL415, could have played.

  I will reiterate a few of the factors which were fed into the computer based study, Project Aquarius. As I said several weeks ago, Project Aquarius carried out no practical tests whatsoever on this aircraft. Project Aquarius fed into its study a height for water dropping of 200 metres. When I visited the Greek operation which uses a large number of CL215 aircraft for aerial suppression of fires, every man who flew those aircraft simply burst out laughing and pointed out that they come in at tree top height, roughly about 30 to 50 feet.

  I think the committee saw some video footage of the use of this aircraft in a fire in California—the Laurel Canyon fire—where in fact these aircraft were coming in and brushing the tree tops. That is a very significant factor to feed into these sorts of studies because it is important that the water be got down to the forest floor. Project Aquarius also regarded this aircraft as one which would necessarily have to pick up from bodies of fresh water and pointed out that fresh water was a scarce commodity in Australia.

  In fact, this aircraft picks up six tonnes of water in 10 seconds, it scoops while it is in flight, and it picks up very successfully from the ocean. It can land in oceans with seas up to two metres in height. By 1992 this aircraft had passed its one millionth drop of sea water. In the case of the New South Wales fires, evidence was given to the committee that practically all those fires were within five minutes flying time of water, particularly the ocean.

  I draw special attention to the Royal National Park fire which of course was right on the seafront. Again, while Project Aquarius talked about one or two drops an hour, this aircraft has achieved up to 31 and 32 water drops an hour when the water is close to the source of the fire. This aircraft, of which I have a model here, is a completely amphibious aircraft. It can land on land or in the ocean. It can trundle out of the water onto land—

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator McGauran)—Do you seek leave to table your model?

Senator COULTER —I am not seeking to table the model, Mr Acting Deputy President. But thank you for drawing attention to that.

Senator Colston —Do not try to incorporate it.

Senator COULTERHansard has had difficulty incorporating other things in the past; I think it might have some difficulty incorporating that. The fact is that this aircraft has been very effective, not only in Canada but also right across southern Europe. It is used in this capacity in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and also former Yugoslavia. There is no doubt that this aircraft has played a very significant part in other parts of the world in suppressing bushfires. The committee clearly has no doubt that it would be very worth while to test this aircraft under actual practical conditions in Australia. I am very pleased that the committee has made that recommendation.

  The committee was aware of the fact that this aircraft is expensive—each aircraft costs roughly $25 million. The answer to that problem is to multi-task the aircraft—to use it in a range of other capacities. It would be extremely useful for northern surveillance, sea rescue, oil spills at sea, servicing lights and buoys at sea, and a range of similar tasks. In the event of war it can carry a fully armed platoon of soldiers into remote areas, land on the water and take the soldiers up onto a beach. In fact, Indonesia is using the aircraft in that particular military capacity.

  The way in which Australia could address the problem of the high cost of the aircraft would be to multi-task them. My personal recommendation to government would be to put them under an organisation such as the Fleet Air Arm that is similar to the Greek operation and then make them available to the various services as they are needed—whether it is the quarantine service, the immigration service, the fishery service or rescue in remote areas of the ocean of people who are in difficulties in the sea. All those individual services could then call on the Fleet Air Arm to make this aircraft available. That is the way in which the aircraft's costs for firefighting could be kept down. The committee has recommended that:

. . . the Commonwealth Government in conjunction with state governments trial at least 4 CL-215 water bombing aircraft on a shared cost basis, and that other uses for these aircraft be fully explored.

Very late in the taking of evidence the committee received a letter from Bombadier Inc. in Canada offering to fly these aircraft from Canada during the next northern winter, our summer, make them available from 1 December 1994 to 31 March—that is, right through our bushfire season—for $1 million per aircraft, fully crew them with both ground and aircrews and include 350 hours of flying time in Australia which should be more than an adequate number of hours to fully test these aircraft under operational conditions.

  Since the committee drafted its report, I have heard from an organisation called the Australian Aero Medical Services Association. I will be meeting with its chief executive officer tomorrow. That organisation, which is centred in Sydney, plans to launch a fundraising campaign in Australia beginning on 1 August to raise $2 million for just this purpose—in other words, to subsidise dollar for dollar that recommendation of the committee.

  Again, I very strongly press the government to accept this recommendation in the light of the fact that other sources of funding are likely to be available, and therefore give Australians an opportunity not only to look at these aircraft from the point of view of bushfire fighting but also to test the full range of their capabilities. I think it is terribly important that the government, as Senator Murphy has said, look very seriously at this recommendation and accept it. I believe that in the long run this aircraft will add very significantly to our ability to deal with those disastrous bushfires which visit Australia essentially every eight to 10 years.