National firefighting fleet plan yet to find federal support

A Royal Commission called for better fire-fighting services but the Morrison Government believes more research is needed

Feb 19, 2021, updated Feb 19, 2021
The Queensland Government last year leased an air tanker so it would not have to be so reliant on aircraft leased by the NSW Government.

The Queensland Government last year leased an air tanker so it would not have to be so reliant on aircraft leased by the NSW Government.

In recent years, state and territory governments have become increasingly reliant on specialist water-bombing aircraft leased from overseas companies, either directly or via the National Aerial Firefighting Centre.

In some cases, these aircraft can be shared, however a bad bushfire season can leave firefighters without much-needed air support. The Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements found the lack of a sovereign fleet put Australia at risk.

“A standing national fleet would ensure that the states and territories have the necessary resources to call upon during periods of high demand, without the need to reduce the operational capabilities of other jurisdictions,” the Royal Commission reported.

“This standing fleet should also include situational awareness and support capabilities which may benefit from a nationally coordinated approach.”

The Royal Commission said “Australian, state and territory governments should develop an Australian-based and registered national aerial firefighting capability” and “support ongoing research and evaluation into aerial firefighting”.

The Senate subsequently moved that the Morrison Government implement the recommendation of a national fleet, however Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud now believes that would be premature.

“Before any decision or long-term commitment is made regarding particular aircraft in the fleet, ownership and strategic operation, it is imperative the government has a full and evidence-based understanding of the capability actually required,” Littleproud wrote in a letter to the Senate, tabled on Wednesday.

“This will be pivotal to informing decisions on the future of aerial firefighting to deliver an operationally effective fleet that is scalable, adaptive and provides value for money.”

The Commonwealth has rejected similar calls for a national fleet for at least five years.

In his letter, Littleproud, a Queensland MP and Deputy Leader of the Nationals, was adamant the Commonwealth would not replicate the states’ role – and suggested they continue to engage with the private sector.

“The government continues to encourage states and territories to work collaboratively and with industry to build Australian-based aerial firefighting capacity, consistent with their sovereign obligations to maintain appropriate operational response capabilities,” Littleproud said.

If there was to be any further research, Littleproud said it could potentially come from the Commonwealth’s annual contribution of $26 million to the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, or the $88 million announced last year for an expanded research centre for bushfires and natural hazards.

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