How the bushfires and COVID-19 have helped Australia’s defence sector become more agile

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday May 26, 2020

(L-R) Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell and Secretary of the Department of Defence Greg Moriarty pose for pictures ahead of a meeting at Parliament House in Canberra, Saturday, August 25, 2018. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Recent events have required the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force to be more flexible than ever before, according to Defence secretary Greg Moriarty and ADF chief General Angus Campbell.

Speaking on IPAA ACT and contentgroup’s podcast Work with Purpose, Moriarty and Campbell reflected on the huge mobilisation and coordination efforts of the defence sector in recent months, as well as lessons learned.

Much like the rest of the public service, the Department of Defence and the ADF have been faced with two crises which happened to coincide in March: the bushfires that ravaged most of Australia, and the coronavirus pandemic.

Campbell recalled how, back in November, the ADF deployed a small group of reserve personnel to parts of Queensland that were burning as part of a trial.

“We wanted to test and learn from a model call out activity, undertaken only by a small, indicative group of perhaps around 30 reservists, so that we could ensure we had a mechanism available, if an emergency were to arise, where we needed a large number of people at very short notice,” he said.

“And I don’t think any of us particularly thought, two months later, that that would be the time [to respond to a real emergency]. But it does show the value of planning, and being open to considering the range of contingent possibilities in that planning.”

Moriarty argued the bushfires “had a very significant impact” on the way the ADF, the department and the broader defence sector operate.

“It’s also making us think more about what type of equipment and stores and provisioning we might need in advance of the next bushfire season, but also thinking about what we might need to do in the region, in our region, to be able to support our friends and partners. If there are regional contingencies, how we can adjust our doctrine, our processes, and have the skills to be able to deal with that,” he said.

Operation Bushfire Assist wrapped up on March 26, after more than 6500 ADF members provided support as part of emergency relief, response and recovery operations, including 3000 Reserve forces. It was the largest mobilisation of the ADF for domestic disaster relief in Australia’s history.

Around the same time, the ADF began deploying personnel to help health authorities around the country as part of the national coronavirus response.

Moriarty noted the department quickly became involved with federal response processes, such as the national coordination mechanism, and the Chief Operating Officers Committee.

“These challenges do require a whole-of-government response, and defence needs to find its appropriate place in that,” he said.

“And I think there’s many lessons for us for the future, but that-whole-of-government coordination, and making sure that Defence is joined up — that we are leaning in to support other departments, but also part of the information sharing — I think, is really important, both for the ADF and our defence civilian workforce.”

He said Defence’s scientists have been designing face shields for healthcare workers, a rapid response group has helped build ventilators, and public servants have been redeployed to Services Australia.

“We’ve been very pleased. We’ve had around about 200 public servants at any given time with Services Australia, answering calls, all the way from graduates to senior executives,” he said.

“And they’ve really enjoyed that different type of public service, so in addition to our ADF colleagues, Australian public servants have been able to make a real contribution during this crisis.”

Learning from COVID-19

Defence and the wider APS have learned from the COVID-19 response in various ways, according to Moriarty. For example, working from home has proven “quite successful”, he said.

“And I also think we’re thinking about what the implications and the impacts of [the pandemic] on gender issues in our workforce, because women are impacted and have, I think, been impacted differently than men, in particular in the working-from-home arrangements. And we just need to be conscious of that, and think about it in terms of our personnel policies,” he added.

Campbell, meanwhile, argued the pandemic has shown the benefits of technology.

“I just reflect that 10 years ago, the ease of communication in teleconferencing and video conferencing that we’re now experiencing, wouldn’t have been possible. And I have been surprised, pleasantly, at how consistently and effectively our communication systems across the commonwealth, and the variety of systems, are working for us,” he said.

“And that’s got to be something that we take and use into the future. It gives us all more time, and more flexibility in the way we work together, whether it’s from home, whether it’s a face to face, or whether it’s through some intermediary system, like a video conferencing system.”

The General noted COVID-19 has “affected the totality of the nation”, unlike past crises.

“Every single person in Australia will feel the economic challenges that we’ll all have to work together to deal with as the nation moves out of this pandemic,” he said.

“And we’ll all have to, for some time, be disciplined in the way we approach the relaxation of social distancing measures, because until a vaccine is developed, if it is developed, we’ve got to keep the mindset that we’re all in this together, and we can all get out of this together.”

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