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Tuesday, 29 November 1983
Page: 2970

Question No. 348

Senator Macklin asked the Minister representing the Minister for Defence, upon notice, on 13 September 1983:

(1) Was a Royal Australian Air Force Caribou used for feeding cattle isolated by flood waters in the Walgett area and did this cease on 4 August 1983.

(2) Did the Minister for Defence refuse a request by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Fund for Animals to use the aircraft to feed starving wildlife isolated by flood waters on the grounds that it was claimed to be waste of taxpayers' money and would weaken Australia's defences.

(3) Was an RAAF Caribou flown into Walgett so members of the Air Force involved in the feeding programme could attend a rodeo and farewell party on 20-21 August 1983; if so, does the Minister consider this to be proper use of taxpayers' money and a weakening of our defences and will the Minister reconsider his decision regarding the use of the Caribou for feeding the starving wildlife in the Walgett area.

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

(1) An RAAF Caribou was used to drop feed to cattle isolated by flood waters in the Walgett area and ceased operations on 4 August 1983. More than 600 hours were flown on this task and the State of New South Wales was required to make a substantial contribution to the cost of the operation.

(2) Requests for Commonwealth assistance following a natural disaster are a State Government responsibility. Furthermore, before State Government authorities request Commonwealth assistance, they are required to investigate other means of fulfilling a request. These 'other means' include commercially available assets. In the case of the recent floods in New South Wales and Queensland, the Defence Force provided air dropping assistance at the specific request of those States and in accordance with tasks and priorities recommended by them. The request for fodder dropping to stranded wildlife was made independently by 'IFAW Australia' directly to the Minister for Defence without any consultation with the State Government. The request came at a time when the emergency had largely passed and State authorities had indicated their ability to meet any further emergency needs from their own resources. As the request from IFAW Australia was properly a matter of State responsibility, and since the State had agreed that further support by the Defence Force in the form of RAAF Caribou flights was unnecessary, the aircraft were withdrawn to meet other Defence tasks. IFAW Australia was advised that RAAF aircraft could not be further diverted without serious disruption to current defence tasks. As an alternative, the possibility of investigating assistance from commercial aviation sources was suggested.

(3) A RAAF Caribou training flight arrived in Walgett on Friday 19 August 1983 and departed on Sunday 21 August 1983. The tactical training flight was undertaken as part of a normal tactical training program, with the flying hours involved coming from the associated training hours allocation. As such, the flight was an entirely proper use of Defence resources. The opportunity of this flight was taken to allow the citizens of Walgett to express their appreciation of the work done by the RAAF crews in helping to ensure the survival of valuable stock in the area in the preceding weeks.

As to reconsideration of the request from IFAW, the arrangements for provision of assistance by the Commonwealth in natural disaster situations require that a request must first be made by the relevant State government(s). Where it has the necessary resources available, the Commonwealth would normally comply with such a request, subject to cost recovery arrangements being agreed with the State government(s) concerned. In the absence of such a request, however, the Commonwealth may not, except in the Australian Capital Territory, intervene in the situation. The Commonwealth did not at any time during or after the recent floods in New South Wales and Queensland, receive a request from either state government for assistance in dropping fodder to stranded wildlife.

Given that IFAW indicated at the time of its request that it would strive to meet the full cost of its proposal to drop fodder to stranded wildlife, it is not clear why the organisation did not approach a commercial operator to undertake the task. Indeed, commercial aviation operators have made vigorous representations on this and other occasions, claiming that they have the capacity to undertake work associated with natural disasters and that by providing RAAF resources, the Commonwealth is undermining their opportunities to earn a livelihood.