Heather Wheeler – 2020 Statement on Australian Bushfires

Below is the text of the statement made by Heather Wheeler, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, in the House of Commons on 9 January 2020.

Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to see you returned as first Deputy Chair of Ways and Means. With your permission, I will update the House on the bushfires in Australia.

In the past four months, bushfires in Australia have killed at least 25 people and displaced thousands more, with over 1,900 homes destroyed. Millions more people have been affected by poor air quality as a result of fire smoke, with 10 million acres of land burnt. Meteorologists predict that the fires will get worse before they get better, as peak summer temperatures are yet to come. This crisis has been devastating and our hearts go out to the Australian people.

The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for the Commonwealth, the UN and South Asia, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, have been in contact with their Australian counterparts to offer our condolences and stress our readiness to help in whatever way they need. Furthermore, our high commission and consulates general are in close contact with Australian authorities at federal and state level, exploring how the UK can support them and what assistance they would find most useful.

The Australian Government have agreed an offer by the Foreign Secretary to deploy an expert support and assessment team of specialists from defence, health and fire. We have deployed this team to meet Australian officials, and they will be on site in the coming days. The team will include a senior member of the UK fire and rescue service, a medical specialist in trauma and mental health, and a military liaison officer. The team will work with Australian colleagues to establish the types, extent and duration of support that will be of most use to Australian emergency responders, and ensure that such contributions are fully integrated with Australian efforts. The specialists will liaise with regional co-ordinators as well as with the central Australian Government. The important point is that the help we are giving is the help we have been asked for.

Such is the nature of our close relationship that co-operation between the UK and Australia is taking place all the time. Across the globe, UK forces are deployed alongside Australian counterparts. The recent radio interview with Lieutenant Grimmer, a Royal Navy pilot on exchange to the Royal Australian Navy who has been working on evacuation operations, demonstrates how we are already helping through our established relationships. The close ties between the UK and Australia are of course mirrored across families and friends in both countries, which makes this a very personal tragedy.

As ever, our greatest and most immediate concern is the security of British citizens. We are grateful to the Australian authorities for the timely and professional advice they are providing to help keep British visitors to Australia safe. We also pay tribute to the heroism and professionalism of Australia’s emergency services, many of whom are volunteers, and some of whom have lost their lives as they tackle an unprecedented level of bushfire destruction. I am sure that the whole House will join me in extending our sympathies to the people ​of Australia, given what they are going through. The stories of valour that are coming out of Australia, which we have seen in the media and on an individual level, have been deeply moving.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) has pointed out on social media, fighting sustained crises is exhausting and we should support one of closest allies at this time. She has also rightly drawn attention to the impact on Australia’s unique wildlife, including koalas. The Government recognise that the environmental and agricultural impact of the bushfires is staggering. Almost half a billion animals are thought to have perished, and there are concerns that some species found only in certain areas of Australia may have been wiped out altogether. We stand ready to support Australian authorities to address the ecological damage in due course, and this is something that our support and assessment team will cover.

Australia is one of our most valued allies, partners and friends. As the Foreign Secretary has said, we stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with the people of Australia and are ready to help in whatever way they need. The UK deployment this week reflects our measured approach, which will ensure that any assistance is appropriate and meets Australia’s specific needs, but the UK support is ongoing and long-term, reflecting the deep ties between our countries. The Australian authorities, from the Foreign Minister to Emergency Management Australia, have expressed how welcome our enduring assistance remains. I commend this statement to the House.