AUSTRALIA – The Federal Government rejected repeated requests to fund extra air support for fighting bushfires ahead of the last deadly season, arguing resources within the Home Affairs budget were too stretched.
Documents released under Freedom of Information show the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), supported by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC), had been trying to secure a permanent increase in funding for water bombers and other large firefighting aircraft for more than a year.
NAFC, which co-ordinates national water-bombing and air-support resources, had secured a one-off $11 million boost in December 2018, but the Commonwealth rejected a 2018 business case calling for an ongoing increase “due to other priorities within Government”.
The FOI documents reveal AFAC and NAFC directly lobbied Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud earlier in August.
After the bushfire outlook was released, the Minister backed the funding submission as having “merit”.
But Mr Littleproud was advised by the Home Affairs Department that it had “no capacity to offset or absorb” extra spending. Mr Littleproud responded that he wanted to seek an exemption from the offset requirements.
The departmental submission also noted the optics of delaying a decision.
By November, significant fires were burning across multiple states and Queensland’s Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk vented her frustrations about not being able to access extra water bombers to support firefighting.
“We need more national resources,” she said on November 12.
She went on to say that a written request to the Prime Minister to secure a Large Air Tanker for the state had been denied.
Government stalled on water bomber request
AFAC chief executive Stuart Ellis told Radio National that same month that there was a real indication Australia was “moving into uncharted territory” because of the number of fires burning at the same time, and resources were being pushed to the limit.
AFAC was managing requests for assistance from fire and emergency services agencies across the country, and Mr Ellis said it would have been “helpful” to have the requested federal money at that point.
In a November 13 interview with Sky News, Mr Ellis was asked directly whether Australia had enough air support available.
“Our assessment is we do,” he responded.
But behind the scenes, the documents show AFAC approached Mr Littleproud again four days later, with a letter reiterating the need to provide the extra money for aerial assets and to make it a permanent increase.
“Having this as an outstanding issue does no credit to the Federal Government or fire and emergency services,” Mr Ellis wrote.
An attached AFAC document warned that if demand stretched to other jurisdictions, there may be “insufficient” resources available.
On top of that, the AFAC correspondence stated there was an issue with potential long lead times for sourcing large water tankers from overseas.
It said if funding had been provided in August, it would have been possible to provide an air asset for Queensland to help deal with extensive fire activity in November.
It was another three weeks before Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mr Littleproud announced a funding boost of $11 million to NAFC to bolster resources for the rest of the 2019/20 bushfire season.
Within weeks, the Prime Minister would go even further, committing an extra $20 million to lease another four planes.
Labor’s emergency management spokesman, Murray Watt, said this year’s Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements had heard clear evidence water bombers played a “vital role” in rapidly attacking fires, controlling them and putting them out.
“There’s no doubt that the Government properly resourcing water bombing aircraft is a life-and-death matter for Australians in bushfire regions.”
Senator Watt said if the Commonwealth had provided earlier funding assistance, the outcome of the fire season may have changed.
“It’s gross negligence on the part of the Government to ignore or reject advice they were given that they should increase funding.”
That’s a claim Mr Littleproud adamantly rejected. He said the states always knew they could rely on the Commonwealth to provide funding.
“We’ve always made those contributions,” he said.
“The states know that, they can bank on that, and have done that in the past and were going to do that in the future.”
Mr Littleproud said last November Mr Ellis assured him NAFC had “sufficient resources” and that questions about resourcing should be put to AFAC, because it was the peak body representing fire agencies.
The Minister said at that time he had assured AFAC the business case for ongoing funding was under “active consideration”.
The Government was repeatedly asked to invest in aerial fire fighting ahead of last summer
More money was only provided weeks before the black summer bushfires intensified
Labor says the documents show “gross negligence” on the Government’s part