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How Australia needs to adapt to face the inevitable disruptions heading our way

By Paul Barnes and Anthony Bergin

Australia may be a land of sweeping plains and rugged mountains ranges, but it's increasingly a land of densely urbanised populations living on the coast. Our identity may be less well defined as our people travel to and from other lands and our economy becomes integrated into global markets.

We face different and significant challenges including managing border threats, such as pandemics and animal and plant diseases. We rely on international maritime and aviation based supply chains for a range of essential products.

Research released this week by German-based Climate Analytics has given fresh insight into what global warming is likely to mean for Australians if it is not curbed.

The report suggests southern Australia would have longer heatwaves and dry spells, and intense rain storms would be 2 to 3 per cent heavier. The change in northern Australia is much more dramatic, according to the study.

We confront uncertainties from global economic volatility and transnational terrorism. All these shocks can occur with limited warning, or their onset not noticed.

In short, we face many events or situations, which may threaten our welfare, environment, economy, national security and identity. Just like droughts and flooding rains, how serious these disruptions are depends on the likelihood of them happening and on the consequences or impacts that people and the economy will feel if they do occur.

In the face of these disruptive events we need to feel that our people are not only resilient but that they will pull together and bounce back stronger. It's about our capacity to persevere and adapt when we're faced with challenges.

Our communities, and businesses can thrive only if the systems and networks that underpin our daily lives, whether physical, technological or social, are able to better withstand, recover from and adapt to the inevitable shocks and disruptive events we're likely to see.

Confidence could be boosted at a national level, by better integrating national security, social and economic policy so that thinking about resilience becomes everyone's business. There are a couple of initiatives that should be considered.

First, Australia should develop an aggregated national risk assessment that would evaluate our national risk exposures in terms of their impact, plausibility and likelihood. This would aid preparation for all kinds of emergencies and help the development of state, local and city-based resilience plans.

Such an assessment would set out the capabilities required to meet a range of likely threats from, for example, natural hazards, pandemics, major accidents, failures of essential services, terrorism and cyber attacks.

By examining how these emergencies compare in terms of likelihood, and the scale and extent of the consequences, we can anticipate the future capability needs of governments. It would ensure we're better able to prevent, mitigate, respond and recover from disruptive challenges.

In essence, this is 'behind the scenes' work by state and federal agencies and experts, albeit with levels of broader consultation.

Second, and to give this work a public face, we should establish a Chief Resilience Officer for Australia. Melbourne and Sydney have appointed city-focused Chief Resilience Officers who consider a range of sustainability factors unique to each location, enhance community and wider stakeholder engagement, mobilise resources and promote agile forms of city governance.

An Australian Chief Resilience Officer could help break down 'silos' between national agencies responsible for infrastructure planning, energy, social cohesion, housing, healthcare, education, economic development, social welfare, disaster management and environmental protection.

We have seen such people appointed for short periods when a major disaster occurs – think Cyclone Tracy or Australia's involvement in East Timor. It is now time to establish a permanent role so that we are pro-active rather than re-active.

An Australian Chief Resilience Officer, answerable to the Prime Minister, will help ensure our communities, metropolitan and regional areas, and nation can better withstand, nimbly respond, recover, and adapt to the inevitable disruptions heading our way.

It's about finding the synergies and nurturing the shared capabilities to enable the nation and our communities to face significant challenges that can disrupt the way we normally live. The tasks are so many and varied that a single national focus point for resilience thinking and coordination will yield the results.

At the start of the Turnbull government's three year term there are few more important imperatives to progress than bolstering national resilience.

Paul Barnes is Head Risk and Resilience Program and Anthony Bergin is a Senior Analyst with ASPI .

Originally published: Sydney Morning Herald. 24 August 2016.

Originally published by: Sydney Morning Herald on 25 Aug 2016