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Estimates: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee (Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 23 Oct 2014

CHAIR: Senator Faulkner, could you pause there for a moment, please? I will go to Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: To continue there, with Sierra Leone, Liberia, Britain, the United States and also the NGOs that have approached you about managing the Ebola crisis, which ones have asked for teams to be deployed into west Africa?

Mr Exell : I will have to take on notice the specific details of which organisation asked for what support. As I was saying before, the overall requests have come in for both financial support and other forms of assistance, such as personnel and material-for example, personal protective equipment.

Senator RHIANNON: I want to see if you have any information here now, considering the urgency of this. To take those four countries, have any of those asked for teams to be deployed-that is, for any personnel from Australia to go to west Africa? Has that been one of the requests?

Mr Exell : The United Kingdom's request included personnel as part of their overall operations in Sierra Leone and, indeed, funding. That was the nature of their request.

Senator FAULKNER: So it was split into parts was it-personnel and funding?

Mr Exell : Broadly, yes.

Senator FAULKNER: And we have responded with a $2 million grant with the funding request at this stage?

Mr Exell : Correct.

Senator RHIANNON: Have Sierra Leone and Liberia requested personnel?

Mr Exell : I will have to take that on notice. I don't have a copy of the letter to the Prime Minister.

Senator RHIANNON: I noted that the Prime Minister on October 12, in speaking about this issue, said:

But I do want to stress it would be irresponsible of the Australian government to order our personnel into harm's way without all appropriate precautions being in place...
Could you outline what kind of precautions the Prime Minister is referring to here and does that go beyond the issue of medivacs?

Mr Exell : I think what the Prime Minister is covering is a broad set of issues that are around support to personnel who may be working in West Africa as part of the Ebola response. That includes how people would be deployed, where they would live, how they would get there, what security arrangements are around them, non-Ebola health care, food, accommodation and logistics. All of those normal things that you need to do when people are deploying overseas. In addition, then, to the issues around medical treatment-non-Ebola related health care-are provisions around if a person should be exposed to or contract Ebola-that is, how they may be treated or evacuated as necessary.

Senator RHIANNON: What steps is DFAT taking to put these appropriate precautions in place?

Mr Exell : For some time we have been working through what I would essentially describe as duty-of-care arrangements. We have been using the IDC, which I described earlier, to talk through the requirements and the issues and what we need to cover. We have, in particular, been working with partners who are talking about establishing in-country treatment facilities to get an understanding of what stage they are at, what the issues are around those facilities and whether Australians would have access to those and under what conditions. And, indeed, working through the issues around medical evacuations. Issues of access to flights and issues of a receiving country. There has been a lot of discussion around the distance, the geography, from Australia and the flying time required. We have been looking at a range of other options about closer locations.

Senator RHIANNON: How well advanced is it? Have you got that work 80 per cent done, or is just starting and you only have the framework and nothing has really been worked out? Can you give us an idea of progress, please.

Mr Exell : I would not say that it is just starting. We have been working very diligently since August with a range of people across the department and, indeed, across the government. But I am not able to give an estimate of where we are at. Those discussions are ongoing and we continue to work on them.

Senator RHIANNON: What about the Department of Defence? Are you working with them in regards to the logistics capacity? I would imagine that would come into it.

Mr Exell : Defence are part of the IDC. I cannot speak on behalf of their planning arrangements, but I am aware that they are doing planning themselves.

Senator RHIANNON: You are coordinating with them?

Mr Exell : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Overall, how much money has been earmarked for this deployment and for the preparation for the deployment?

Mr Exell : When you say 'earmarked', what do you mean?

Senator RHIANNON: How much money has been allocated? Some information about funding allocation.

CHAIR: Senator Faulkner, could you pause there for a moment, please? I will go to Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: To continue there, with Sierra Leone, Liberia, Britain, the United States and also the NGOs that have approached you about managing the Ebola crisis, which ones have asked for teams to be deployed into west Africa?

Mr Exell : I will have to take on notice the specific details of which organisation asked for what support. As I was saying before, the overall requests have come in for both financial support and other forms of assistance, such as personnel and material—for example, personal protective equipment.

Senator RHIANNON: I want to see if you have any information here now, considering the urgency of this. To take those four countries, have any of those asked for teams to be deployed—that is, for any personnel from Australia to go to west Africa? Has that been one of the requests?

Mr Exell : The United Kingdom's request included personnel as part of their overall operations in Sierra Leone and, indeed, funding. That was the nature of their request.

Senator FAULKNER: So it was split into parts was it—personnel and funding?

Mr Exell : Broadly, yes.

Senator FAULKNER: And we have responded with a $2 million grant with the funding request at this stage?

Mr Exell : Correct.

Senator RHIANNON: Have Sierra Leone and Liberia requested personnel?

Mr Exell : I will have to take that on notice. I don't have a copy of the letter to the Prime Minister.

Senator RHIANNON: I noted that the Prime Minister on October 12, in speaking about this issue, said:

But I do want to stress it would be irresponsible of the Australian government to order our personnel into harm's way without all appropriate precautions being in place…

Could you outline what kind of precautions the Prime Minister is referring to here and does that go beyond the issue of medivacs?

Mr Exell : I think what the Prime Minister is covering is a broad set of issues that are around support to personnel who may be working in West Africa as part of the Ebola response. That includes how people would be deployed, where they would live, how they would get there, what security arrangements are around them, non-Ebola health care, food, accommodation and logistics. All of those normal things that you need to do when people are deploying overseas. In addition, then, to the issues around medical treatment—non-Ebola related health care—are provisions around if a person should be exposed to or contract Ebola—that is, how they may be treated or evacuated as necessary.

Senator RHIANNON: What steps is DFAT taking to put these appropriate precautions in place?

Mr Exell : For some time we have been working through what I would essentially describe as duty-of-care arrangements. We have been using the IDC, which I described earlier, to talk through the requirements and the issues and what we need to cover. We have, in particular, been working with partners who are talking about establishing in-country treatment facilities to get an understanding of what stage they are at, what the issues are around those facilities and whether Australians would have access to those and under what conditions. And, indeed, working through the issues around medical evacuations. Issues of access to flights and issues of a receiving country. There has been a lot of discussion around the distance, the geography, from Australia and the flying time required. We have been looking at a range of other options about closer locations.

Senator RHIANNON: How well advanced is it? Have you got that work 80 per cent done, or is just starting and you only have the framework and nothing has really been worked out? Can you give us an idea of progress, please.

Mr Exell : I would not say that it is just starting. We have been working very diligently since August with a range of people across the department and, indeed, across the government. But I am not able to give an estimate of where we are at. Those discussions are ongoing and we continue to work on them.

Senator RHIANNON: What about the Department of Defence? Are you working with them in regards to the logistics capacity? I would imagine that would come into it.

Mr Exell : Defence are part of the IDC. I cannot speak on behalf of their planning arrangements, but I am aware that they are doing planning themselves.

Senator RHIANNON: You are coordinating with them?

Mr Exell : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Overall, how much money has been earmarked for this deployment and for the preparation for the deployment?

Mr Exell : When you say 'earmarked', what do you mean?

Senator RHIANNON: How much money has been allocated? Some information about funding allocation.

Mr Varghese : I think the allocation of funds depends on whatever decisions the government takes, the nature of those decisions and what the nature of the deployment, if there is any, would be. We have funded $18 million up to now. I do not think we can put a figure on any subsequent activity until we know the details of it.

Mr McDonald : If I could add to that. We also, as you would be aware, fund UN agencies through core funding, which enables them to use that funding depending on the particular crisis. In this case, UNICEF and the World Food Programme are two examples. We also provide both core and bilateral funding to the WHO and funding to the UN CERF fund, which also allocates money according to the crisis. So there are multiple sources already in place and then we are adding to that. The bucket that we use for that is the humanitarian funding. As you would recall from previous discussions here, that bucket has increased by about 30 per cent this year. That is the funding source that would be used, depending on the needs going forward.

Mr Exell : I want to note, as Mr McDonald referred to before, $2.5 million has been used to support Australian non-government organisations. Some of that funding actually supports personnel in west Africa. I think there has been a characterisation that the only way that we can support personnel is to send them from Australia. A number of these NGOs are funding people from within west Africa, and that adds to the overall number of people. I just wanted to note that that is an equally important part of the response.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you expand on the discussions with the Department of Defence, because that would seem to be a critical part of medivacs and possibly also resources going there in the first place? Have there been discussions about the use of their aircraft, helicopters and land transport equipment on the ground? Are you at that level of detail yet in the preparations?

Mr Exell : My IDC discussions with Defence have principally focused on the issue of medical evacuation and the use of assets there. I could not comment on the broader use of military assets for the response in west Africa. That would be a question for Defence. But I am aware that they are doing planning, as Defence does, around the range of those options.

Senator RHIANNON: I am just trying to differentiate that. If I understand you correctly, you have had talks about evacuations. Have you had talks about the Department of Defence's involvement in getting us up to speed on the ground and the deployment at that stage? Have those discussions occurred?

Mr Exell : Not in detail through the IDC.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Varghese, can I come back to you on this one? Considering the enormity of this crisis, is the work of the overseas aid program being reassessed? What is the impact of the expanding crisis on DFAT's objectives of strengthening Australia's prosperity and security in the context of its national interests? Are those broader discussions occurring and ,if so, could you share some of the responses, please?

Mr Varghese : Our program is structured to try and be flexible in terms of responding to unforeseen humanitarian issues. We have already allocated $18 million from the program to deal with Ebola. It is possible that the government may want to do more. That is a question for the government to decide. Whatever it decides will be funded from within our humanitarian program.

Senator RHIANNON: In the course of these discussions, have you taken into account the World Bank's assessment? The World Bank is seeing it in a very serious way and judged that it will have a medium-term economic impact measured in tens of billions of dollars and that tens of thousands of lives will be lost if urgent action is not taken. Was that part of that briefing to help inform your discussions on this point?

Mr Varghese : I don't think there is any lack of clarity on the scale of this problem and the need to address it. The World Bank and other studies would only reinforce that judgement.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Rhiannon. I think the allocation of funds depends on whatever decisions the government takes, the nature of those decisions and what the nature of the deployment, if there is any, would be. We have funded $18 million up to now. I do not think we can put a figure on any subsequent activity until we know the details of it.

Mr McDonald : If I could add to that. We also, as you would be aware, fund UN agencies through core funding, which enables them to use that funding depending on the particular crisis. In this case, UNICEF and the World Food Programme are two examples. We also provide both core and bilateral funding to the WHO and funding to the UN CERF fund, which also allocates money according to the crisis. So there are multiple sources already in place and then we are adding to that. The bucket that we use for that is the humanitarian funding. As you would recall from previous discussions here, that bucket has increased by about 30 per cent this year. That is the funding source that would be used, depending on the needs going forward.

Mr Exell : I want to note, as Mr McDonald referred to before, $2.5 million has been used to support Australian non-government organisations. Some of that funding actually supports personnel in west Africa. I think there has been a characterisation that the only way that we can support personnel is to send them from Australia. A number of these NGOs are funding people from within west Africa, and that adds to the overall number of people. I just wanted to note that that is an equally important part of the response.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you expand on the discussions with the Department of Defence, because that would seem to be a critical part of medivacs and possibly also resources going there in the first place? Have there been discussions about the use of their aircraft, helicopters and land transport equipment on the ground? Are you at that level of detail yet in the preparations?

Mr Exell : My IDC discussions with Defence have principally focused on the issue of medical evacuation and the use of assets there. I could not comment on the broader use of military assets for the response in west Africa. That would be a question for Defence. But I am aware that they are doing planning, as Defence does, around the range of those options.

Senator RHIANNON: I am just trying to differentiate that. If I understand you correctly, you have had talks about evacuations. Have you had talks about the Department of Defence's involvement in getting us up to speed on the ground and the deployment at that stage? Have those discussions occurred?

Mr Exell : Not in detail through the IDC.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Varghese, can I come back to you on this one? Considering the enormity of this crisis, is the work of the overseas aid program being reassessed? What is the impact of the expanding crisis on DFAT's objectives of strengthening Australia's prosperity and security in the context of its national interests? Are those broader discussions occurring and ,if so, could you share some of the responses, please?

Mr Varghese : Our program is structured to try and be flexible in terms of responding to unforeseen humanitarian issues. We have already allocated $18 million from the program to deal with Ebola. It is possible that the government may want to do more. That is a question for the government to decide. Whatever it decides will be funded from within our humanitarian program.

Senator RHIANNON: In the course of these discussions, have you taken into account the World Bank's assessment? The World Bank is seeing it in a very serious way and judged that it will have a medium-term economic impact measured in tens of billions of dollars and that tens of thousands of lives will be lost if urgent action is not taken. Was that part of that briefing to help inform your discussions on this point?

Mr Varghese : I don't think there is any lack of clarity on the scale of this problem and the need to address it. The World Bank and other studies would only reinforce that judgement.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Rhiannon.

 

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