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Goodwill and good luck can only get us so far against natural disasters

By John Coyne

Up north, Queenslanders are bracing themselves for yet another potential natural disaster. For the second time in a less than a year, they're facing down floods.

Like many weary Australians, Queenslanders are now well versed in dealing with disaster and adversity. Resilient communities are preparing to come together once again. However, with increasingly frequent and intense disasters across the country, should Australians be relying so heavily on goodwill?

Our national resilience insurance policy cannot continue to so heavily rely on Australians' "all hands-on deck" approach to crises.

This isn't because we are less resilient or unwilling to chip in when things are tough. Australians, individually and collectively, consistently demonstrate a willingness to give of themselves during a crisis.

At the individual level, we've seen this over and over again.

In Rwanda in 1995, Australian soldiers rushed forward under fire to save men, women and children from being massacred.

In 2018, Australian Federal Police divers braved pitch-black waters to help save a trapped children's soccer team from caves in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The goodwill of volunteer firefighters shone for weeks as beacons of hope during the 2019-20 bushfires in Australia's southern states.

Of course, we should be proud of this community-minded spirit, our culture of volunteerism, and our willingness to help our neighbours when things get tough.

This will be important for Australia when it's facing a future of strategic uncertainty and the spectre of increasingly frequent and more extreme weather events. But this will no longer be enough to ensure our national resilience.

All of the goodwill in the world hasn't helped overcome complex problems like a national shortage in the diesel exhaust fuel additive AdBlue. A global shortage of urea last year, a key ingredient of AdBlue, led to this crisis. It could have grounded our diesel vehicle fleet, which would've been disastrous for our agricultural and transport industries.

Last year's wet spring delayed the fire season for Australia's east coast. Things weren't as rosy on our west coast. So earlier this year, while country fire services fought fires in the west, their partners in the east were sandbagging communities and undertaking swift-water rescues.

This year's heavy rain means big fuel loads for the 2022 and 2023 fire seasons. The disastrous 2019-20 fire season showed us that our great Australian volunteers may no longer be enough.

The government's answer to the limits of our volunteers and emergency workers has increasingly involved a military response. From bushfires to COVID-19, defence has been the go-to. However, this is occurring against the backdrop of increased strategic uncertainty. Raising, training, and sustaining our national warfighting capability is more critical than ever. Soldiers probably aren't the crisis insurance policy we are looking for.

It's time to get serious about our national resilience. For starters, we need to better mitigate the risk of crisis. At the top of the list of the things to do, we must identify our supply-chain risks. We need to rapidly assess these risks in partnership with the private sector.

Secondly, 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.

Thirdly, we need to regularly stress-test our communities, capabilities and decision-making to ensure we are ready for the next flood, fire or pandemic. Then we need public servants and a government to courageously engage with the results of such tests and think in terms of their responsibility to Australia, not in terms of department, portfolio, state or federal, private or public-sector siloes of responsibility.

No one can predict the future. However, plenty of signs indicate that the next decade will likely be more challenging in complexity and crisis than any other since federation. We have to accept that goodwill and good luck will only go so far. We have to admit that there are actual costs for preparing for this future.

Originally published by: on 16 May 2022