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Parliament House Canberra

National bushfires emergency? Let’s have a national response.

By Anthony Bergin and David Templeman

After the weekend’s snap meeting of the National Security Committee of cabinet, the Morrison government has announced it will ramp up the use of defence assets to respond to the bushfires.

The measures introduced are commendable, including the announcement yesterday of former AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin as head of a National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

Last November we observed that when massive disasters occur the community expects the nation’s full resources to be mobilised to the extent necessary to save lives and properties.

We argued that domestic disaster assistance should be a core military activity.

The NSC meets again on Monday to consider the long-term response to the bushfires.

The scale and speed of the fires have shocked Australians, tested our resources and challenged our way of life. This is on par with other security challenges and worthy of the NSC’s attention.

Our approach to the mega-fires, in terms of assessing and monitoring the risks, developing capabilities to minimise the risks, absorbing whatever harm occurs and then returning to normal as soon as possible is similar to countering terrorism.

Over the past 15 years, there has been considerable planning and investment by the Australian government focused on our capacity to prevent, respond to and recover from a major terrorist attack. While a mass-casualty terror attack remains a possibility, assessed against the risk of probability, we have more to fear from natural disasters, which are regular events.

In the case of a national terror episode, the government is responsible for determining policy and strategies.

But this role isn’t yet replicated for large-scale natural disasters that cause catastrophic damage.

The need to think big in relation to disasters of any kind (including realistic testing of response and recovery, and acting on identified shortcomings) has been raised with successive federal governments. It has fallen on deaf ears because of concerns about scaring the community.

In 2009, Black Saturday was a wake-up call with 173 deaths, 414 injuries and 2000 homes lost.

But this event didn’t have the added complication of managing 4000 displaced people across two states. It’s unclear what would occur if 1000 of them required medical assistance.

Following Saturday’s welcome announcement on the compulsory call-out of up to 3000 defence force reservists to deploy to fire-affected communities and more naval and air force assets to assist, there is a number of measures that should be considered at Monday’s NSC meeting.

The most important is the need to establish clear leadership. The states have constitutional responsibilities for overseeing emergency management and they control most of the functions essential for effective disaster prevention, response and recovery.

But there is uncertainty about who will be in charge in the event of a major national disaster and how responses would be co-ordinated across borders.

With the agreement of the states and territories, the government should appoint a co-ordinator-general with national executive authority.

This person would have executive powers to direct and oversee the utilisation of federal and state resources for a specific period in order that assistance is rendered quickly and efficiently.

Beyond the immediate fire crisis, the federal government should nominate a single point of commonwealth responsibility that can provide the prime minister and COAG with the combined picture of emerging needs and on what progress is being made.

In the absence of agreed national emergency management legislation, it is unclear exactly who leads. This makes it harder to meet community needs in any response and recovery situation.

The commonwealth body seen to be responsible for this, Emergency Management Australia (a division within the Department of Home Affairs), has no mandate, legislation or cabinet endorsement with which to take command, make executive decisions and provide national co-ordination. The delivery of its functions, for the most part, is the result of goodwill on behalf of other agencies.

It’s hardly satisfactory. EMA should be a statutory authority with legislated capability to provide nationwide assurance to the federal minister for emergency management and the community that mitigation efforts, along with response and recovery resources, have been as applied as efficiently and effectively as possible.

There needs to be an instrument of delegation issued by the federal government with the agreement of the states.

This authority would need to direct action when the event was such that a state (or states) agreed that the severity warranted overall command and control by the commonwealth. Think wartime.

Not having officials provide clear messaging may inflict more damage — and does nothing to educate and protect the public.

Finally, it is encouraging that the government has considered the ongoing recovery process for all those affected by the present bushfire crisis.

Recovery is the long-haul stuff post-disaster, which many forget about after a couple of months. A national co-ordinator-general should work in concert with each affected state recovery manager.

Australians have a nose for the truth and, until shown otherwise, will trust their leaders. This is a precious commodity.

The government will lose community trust if ideas to deal with larger events are swept under the carpet or ridiculed by their leaders.

Originally published by: The Australian on 06 Jan 2020