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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1500

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (2:54 PM) —My question goes to Senator Evans, representing the Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister in government give consideration to establishing a global disaster coordination centre in Australia to deal with horrific circumstances like those now in China following the earthquake and Burma following the cyclone, to tap in to the enormous potential in Australia, both civil and military, for rapid aid to our region, and indeed our own country, in terms of disaster and, in particular, to get that aid targeted and available within hours so that we know it will be there as soon as humanly possible and is ready to go before the disaster strikes?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I thank Senator Brown for an important question. I am not aware of whether we are currently considering a global disaster coordination centre, as you describe it. I will take that part of the question on notice. I have not been briefed on that. What we do know is that Australia in the past has shown a great deal of capability in responding rapidly to the need for aid and emergency assistance. We saw that in the South Pacific and Asia, and we saw that very much in Bali in terms of the response there. I think our Australian defence forces, our medical teams and our charities have shown quite a deal of capability in this regard. That has been unfortunately developed in recent years as a result of having to deal with a large number of incidents, both terrorist related and climatic, which have caused a great loss of life and damage.

I think the role that Australia played in the aid to Aceh et cetera was exemplary and was a great credit to those involved. Obviously our contribution in a disaster such as has recently occurred in Burma and seems to have occurred overnight in China can only play a small but significant role. Clearly, we need coordination across countries in terms of any response. I think Australia has always been generous. Our capacities will be limited but significant. We have developed specialist skills in a range of areas inside the ADF and elsewhere, and inside the AFP. Senator Ellison knows about the work the AFP did in a whole range of areas, including the forensic area.

I think these two events have highlighted the need for quick response and for international response. Of course the great concern in Burma is the failure of their government to embrace that response and allow people to contribute more fully to help deal with what is an extraordinary disaster. I will take up the specific question you raised, Senator Brown. There may well be more work going on in that area that I am not aware of. I will take up your specific suggestion, Senator Brown, and get an answer from the Prime Minister. I think you identify what is a very important need which has again been highlighted, and I am sure we would be willing to participate in anything that gets a better and quicker response to those who are suffering in the sorts of disasters that we have seen in Burma and now in China.

Senator BOB BROWN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for that constructive response. I point to the news that the Czech Republic has supplied sniffer dogs, which I think, if not on the ground, are about to be on the ground in China, and will obviously be of assistance in finding people buried by the recent earthquake. It was a very rapid response which was ready to go before the earthquake happened, effectively. It demonstrates how a centre might be able to have its finger on every option that Australia could give to the great variety of disasters which can befall our region. Like Senator Evans, I know of an enormous amount of good work being done. But I ask if he would see if the government can look at preparedness and work out what can be done for a disaster scenario so that you are ready beforehand to get aid from one of the wealthiest countries on the planet to disaster areas more expeditiously. (Time expired)

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I thank Senator Brown for the supplementary question. It expands on the original question and I am happy, as I have said, to take it on notice and see what information I can get about how we can better prepare our capacity to respond. I am sure the whole parliament would be supportive of such an approach. As I have said, I have not got a brief on the level of current preparedness, so I will get a comprehensive answer as soon as I can. Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.