Please enable javascript to access the full functionality of this site

Bushfire 20200129

Defence cannot — and shouldn’t — just walk away from disaster recovery

By John Coyne

Last week the Mandarin's Julian Bajkowski wrote about Defence's incoming ministerial brief, revealing how persistent emergencies increasingly tax the Australian Defence Force's capability. Julian painted a picture of our highly trained soldiers used as glorified 'garbos and cleaners'. He warned us that the Albanese government's Defence Strategic Review could relegate Army to a lesser role in the defence organisation by using the Army this way. If this accurately represents how Julian and the Defence Organisation think, neither have grasped the national and regional significance of the continuous and concurrent crises we now face.

...for the foreseeable future, we will experience more frequent and intense weather events...

Let's be clear here, for the foreseeable future, we will experience more frequent and intense weather events. As Australia enters a third La Nina summer, our beleaguered flood-prone regions can expect more storms and floods. When this rain pattern ends, the fire load across most of the East Coast will be of great concern.

For government agencies and their leaders, being at the centre of government always comes with a poison chalice. The Abbot, Turnball and Morrison governments had an almost religious faith in the defence organisation's ability to resolve a crisis. Whether in charge of operation sovereign borders or disaster response or having its senior members responsible for freight or foreign affairs, it's been a khaki Canberra for some time. This trend was a boon for star-ranked officers but resulted in various new service demands for the ADF's rank and file.

Defence used its incoming ministerial brief to try and turn the tide on government demands. It argued that the increasingly frequent emergencies at home and in our region are taxing the military. In the current strategic environment, disaster response has high direct and opportunity costs.

Julian argued, like defence, that civil agencies need to do more. But in saying this ignores the fact that these agencies, too, are under pressure.

Defence rightfully, from its perspective, encourages "enhanced community-based disaster response arrangements", adding that these "are outside Defence's remit".

Such statements don't consider the limited pool of volunteers and workers. The reality is that this pool is already tapped. For example, in many cases, our volunteer firefighters and first aiders are our Army reservists, police, nurses and doctors. Their contributions are often double and often triple counted. In the past, I have had staff who are police, volunteer firefighters and Army reservists.

Outsourcing disaster response isn't the answer either. As anyone outside of a capital city will tell you, getting skilled or unskilled labour in the current market is incredibly difficult. Relying on the market and local labour is, at best, a strawman argument.

The fact that we have increasing demands for Defence support in crisis is not an argument to withdraw. Instead, it is a driver for a new policy response that will need funding.

It's time to get serious about our national resilience. The government must consider establishing a national full-time civil defence capability. This capability needs to rapidly scale and integrate with our existing volunteers to respond to domestic crises: fires, floods and pandemics. And it is probably best served for such a capability to reside as a new service within the Defence Organisation.

Plenty of signs indicate that the next decade will likely be more challenging in complexity and crisis than any other since federation. We must accept that goodwill and good luck will only go so far. We must admit that there are actual costs for preparing for this future. Defence can't just walk away from this because it has more pressing demands. An economically and socially prosperous Australia is a secure Australia.

Originally published by: The Mandarin on 20 Sep 2022