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Tuesday, 6 October 2020
Page: 6680

Mr MARLES (CorioDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (12:31): The Defence Legislation Amendment (Enhancement of Defence Force Response to Emergencies) Bill 2020 arises out of the call-out of 3,000 ADF personnel during the 2019-20 black summer bushfires. In rising to speak on this bill, I do so in support of this bill in the House of Representatives and also indicate that the opposition will be seeking an inquiry in the Senate in relation to this bill, and the position we adopt in respect of the bill will ultimately be determined in the Senate after that inquiry.

This bill is a modest set of reforms that improve the process of calling out the reserves of the Australian Defence Force. What this bill is not is an excuse for the government's failure over the 2019-20 black summer bushfires, and the failures of the government in relation to that were manifest. The 2019-20 black summer came with warning. In August 2019 the bushfire CRC published a severe bushfire outlook for last summer, which was ignored by the government. Immediately after the federal election last year, in May 2019, the retired fire chiefs around Australia warned that last summer would be particularly dangerous, and they sought to meet with the government—a meeting that was ultimately refused.

On 22 November last year the Leader of the Opposition wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to convene COAG in order to discuss the impending bushfire season and the severity that was being presented. The government didn't listen to that request; nor did it act in relation to it. Actions could have been taken by the government in the lead-up to last year's bushfire season. It had put in place an emergency relief fund: $200 million every year, which would have been ready—was ready—to provide disbursements that could have been used to engage in the mitigation of risk in the lead-up to the 2019-20 black summer bushfires, but none of that occurred.

The National Aerial Firefighter Centre was asking for more funding back in September of last year. Nothing was provided. Indeed, even going back to February 2018, Emergency Management Australia highlighted that there was a need for increased funding for the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, but none of that occurred. The truth is that the National Aerial Firefighting Centre was in dire need of additional funding but all of that was ignored. The bill that we are considering today, while it will do some things, will not remediate any of that. This is not the excuse. This is not what the government can point to and say, 'Because we didn't have this last summer we weren't able to act.' All of those actions should've happened and they had nothing to do with the absence of this legislation being in place at that time.

The Australian Defence Force's involvement during the 2019-20 'black summer' bushfires was significant and it was magnificent. It started well before the call-out which occurred on 4 January this year. Prior to the call-out there were more than 2,000 members of our Defence Force who were engaged in support activities based on requests, largely from state agencies, in relation to supporting activities to fight the bushfires. From logistics to catering, from supporting the aerial tankers that were in play through to providing and assisting with accommodation, more than 2,000 of our personnel were engaged in the response to requests that were being made, in the normal way, in support of activities around the bushfires. In that, they were participating in an act and a heritage which has existed, in terms of the ADF's involvement in natural disasters in this country, for decades. States have asked for assistance and the ADF has always been there—those who wear our national uniform, helping in a moment of greatest need and being there with their uniform in a way that gave a sense of confidence and relief to those who were experiencing the worst effects of whatever the crisis was. That was playing out in this country in the 2019-20 'black summer' bushfires before 4 January this year when the formal call-out occurred.

On that day, to much fanfare, we saw the call-out, which was one of the biggest—if not the biggest—in our nation's history. There were 3,000 personnel called out to assist in the fighting of the bushfires. It was a very significant act. But it was one which was also done in a way that carried with it, on the part of the government, an outrageous claim, an outrageous act. On the very same day that this call-out occurred the government posted an advertisement, a Liberal Party advertisement, using the Australian Defence Force at the height of the crisis—at a moment when Australians were suffering, losing their homes, people were losing their lives, people were being injured. In that moment the Liberal Party, the government, chose to try and use the Australian Defence Force to raise money for the Liberal Party. It was an enormous indictment on the character of the government and the Liberal Party.

I can tell you this legislation won't remedy this government's lack of judgement on that question. This legislation won't remedy this government's lack of respect in that moment for those who wear our uniform, because that's what it was. It won't stop the Liberal Party from seeing the Australian Defence Force, a great institution which belongs to the entire nation, as, in some way, belonging only to the Liberal Party. It does not. It is the heritage of all of us. It is in the service of all of us. It deserves the respect of all of us. That ad on that day was a terrible indictment on the Liberal Party and the government.

The Australian Defence Force is made up of consummate professionals. In the aftermath of the call-out, looking at what had occurred, they did what they always do and reviewed the event, sought the learnings, worked out where things could've been done better. It was in the process of that that the legislation, the bill, that is before us today was conceived, and I want to make that clear from our point of view. We do accept that the measures that are contained in this bill, in terms of what they seek to do, are sensible, modest reforms, in respect of the system of calling out our reserves, that do improve things. It is to the credit of Defence that they have reviewed it in the way that they have and have come up with these measures.

There are four. The first relates to the streamlining of the process, in effect, by which the Governor-General provides his or her assent to the calling out of the Reserve. Right now, that is a process that involves a federal executive council meeting, with the Governor-General. If that can't occur, or the matter is urgent, the defence minister, with the Prime Minister, is able to take the matter to the Governor-General, without a federal executive council meeting. The point is made that, often, a call-out of the Reserve will be done in an emergency situation, and the process of establishing that there is an urgency, beyond what would be the normal requirement now, can itself take hours. The very fact of ringing the 45 members of the federal executive council to see whether or not an executive council meeting can be convened in the time required can, of itself, take hours, which, in the moment of a crisis, may in fact make the difference. This bill, if it were to be passed, provides that the urgent mechanism now becomes the normal mechanism. In other words, the defence minister, in consultation with the Prime Minister, is able to then take a decision to the Governor-General and to provide that advice for the calling out of the Reserve.

The second is to provide greater flexibility to the Chief of the Defence Force, once the call-out has occurred, in terms of the manner in which, or perhaps the mode in which, those who have been called out are engaged. Right now, it is a pretty inflexible system where, when a call-out occurs, essentially, to think of it in employment terms, a full-time engagement is required of those who are called out, for the period of the call-out. The flexibility that is provided in this bill will allow the CDF to determine the degree to which the Reserve is used, in terms of whether it is on a part-time or a full-time basis. That may relate to the particular skills the reservist brings to bear on the situation, and it can also be time limited, in the sense of it not being for the whole period of the call-out. There is greater flexibility for the CDF in relation to how reservists are called out—and that makes sense.

The third is in respect of trying to align the immunities that are enjoyed by the ADF with the immunities that are enjoyed by our civil emergency response agencies in moments of crisis. As an aspiration, that makes sense. The ADF should be engaging in the work that it does, in the midst of this crisis, on the same footing in respect of immunities as, say, a rural fire service or a state emergency service, or indeed a state police force. When you look at the range of immunities across the country—a lot of them are in the state legislation that exists for these agencies—there is a spectrum, but what is being sought here is that the ADF be placed in the middle of that spectrum, and not only the ADF but indeed foreign defence forces and foreign police, who may have donated or volunteered some of their forces to assist in a moment of crisis, which is in fact what occurred over the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires.

As this bill has been released, there has been some anxiety in respect of exactly how the immunities have been framed. This is an area where a short but important inquiry from the Senate, I think, is useful in terms of examining whether or not the aspiration that is being articulated here—that these immunities are brought into line with those enjoyed by state agencies—is in fact the effect of the legislation that is being proposed. That is one area where I think the Senate inquiry will be important. The fourth area, a situation which the bill improves, is to remedy an anomaly in relation to the superannuation that is paid for reservists who were called out in this manner. It should be noted those reservists who were called out last summer were paid superannuation, but this would make that a legislative right, as it should be.

There is one provision of the bill that I particularly want to highlight, and that's in proposed section 123AA(2). There has been a suggestion that this provision, which is directed to the question of immunities that would be provided to the ADF and indeed others in their participation in fighting or working with respect to a crisis, might inadvertently give rise to a greater power on the part of the minister in relation to call-outs generally. Let me be clear that it is obvious from the way in which the bill is framed that there is no intent to change the threshold for the call-out of the ADF. The Defence Act sets that out in some detail, and those provisions are not being altered by this bill, but there has been a suggestion that this particular subclause, albeit located in the immunities part of the act, might inadvertently have the effect of giving the minister greater power in relation to call-outs generally. We've sought clarity from the minister in relation to this, and I do thank the minister for providing us written advice that this is not the intent of the government in relation to this bill. That's an important piece of communication from the minister to me. But, again, the inquiry by the Senate committee will be able to look at this question and see whether or not there is an inadvertent outcome associated with the particular way in which that subclause has been drafted. We absolutely accept the minister's assurance that that is not the intent of the bill.

All of that puts us in the position of supporting this bill in the House today. We will, in the other place, be seeking to establish a short inquiry, which can absolutely take place prior to this coming bushfire season, to look at the matters which I have described. From there, the opposition will determine our final position in the Senate on the basis of that, but we acknowledge that the modest reforms contained within this bill seek to improve the situation with call-outs in the way in which I have described.