The federal government is being urged to acquire Australia’s Antarctic flagship as a specialist emergency response vessel for disasters such as the recent bushfires.
The icebreaker Aurora Australis, launched in 1989 as a multi-purpose research and resupply ship, is set to retire from Antarctic duties when the government’s contract with owner and operator P&O Maritime ends in March.
It will be replaced by the RSV Nuyina, which is scheduled to arrive in Hobart this year and begin Antarctic Service in the 2020/21 summer season.
The call to repurpose the ship as an emergency vessel capable of rescuing, supplying and evacuating people affected by natural disasters like bushfires and flood was led by Tasmanian Senator Carol Brown, who put the proposal to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a letter on January 30.
Senator Brown told the PM the recent fires had highlighted vulnerabilities in Australia’s supply and rescue capabilities and proposed purchasing the Aurora from P&O after its final Antarctic expedition.
“The vessel would require some modification to make it fit for purpose for the emergency response role, although it does already have a number of facilities that make it suitable to take on this role,” she said.
She said it could be repurposed for $10 million.
The proposal has garnered the support of the ACTU and Maritime Union of Australia, which says the retirement of the vessel presents an “unprecedented opportunity” for Australia to acquire a specialist emergency support vessel.
Union members were in Canberra on Wednesday lobbying MPs and rallying support for the proposal.
The vessel has the capacity to carry a million litres of fuel, a hospital, desalination equipment, a helicopter pad and a refuelling station.
It can accommodate and cater for more than 100 passengers and crew and can operate independently in tough ocean conditions for months.
“The recent bushfire crisis has demonstrated the need for the development of a formal, coordinated, emergency response that encompasses maritime capability to ensure the resources needed for large-scale emergency relief and rescue operations were always at the ready,” Assistant National Secretary Ian Bray said.
“Aurora comes ready-made with the ability to deliver emergency assistance directly to devastated coastal communities.”
Mr Bray, a merchant seafarer previously employed on the Aurora, says the government could launch the icebreaker as an emergency response vehicle ahead of the next bushfire season.
“Specialist emergency vessels usually come with eye-watering price tags, but the Aurora provides a unique opportunity to acquire a vessel perfectly suited to this role, with proven capability and reliability, at a fraction of the cost,” he said.
“Whether assessed operationally, economically, socially or politically, this opportunity to add to the depth and resilience of our emergency services in the face of an increasingly challenging world is simply too good for the country to pass up.”
The AAD did not comment on the proposal to repurpose the ship. “The AAD … is not the arm of government responsible for emergency response vessels,” a spokesman told Government News.
Comment has been sought from the government.
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