Mark Crosweller AFSM has a stellar 35-year career in emergency management, including operational experience as a firefighter as well as roles in senior executive leadership and strategic management.
He was the former Head the National Resilience Taskforce and Director General of Emergency Management Australia and is now a senior advisor to KPMG.
The Mandarin sat down with Crosweller to discuss disaster management, resilience and the role of compassion and care.
With a career spanning three and a half decades, Crosweller has seen significant changes in the field of disaster management. He identifies climate and the environment as the biggest.
“The presence of catastrophic fire on the Australian landscape is something we need to get comfortable with or as comfortable as we can. We are going to have to adapt to category five cyclones, severe wind events, and underlying heat stress in our energy systems from prolonged periods of drought.”
He describes the environment as more intense and more frequent from a hazard perspective. “We are continuing to build in difficult places. Essentially where and how we place ourselves on the landscape determines whether natural hazard becomes a disaster or not.”
Politics is another major change. Crosweller says it’s become a lot more tactical and operational.
“Earlier in my career, there was a reasonable distance between the heads of agencies and the government and there was more room breathe. Not quite so much now as I think politicians tend to step into the detail of operations pretty quickly. I think that’s in response to the need to be seen as caring and doing something about the problem. It essentially started with Anna Bligh in the 2010-11 floods in Queensland and most premiers and prime ministers have followed suit since then.”
The downside of this involvement is it leaves little room for independent scrutiny.
“For example, who is asking the difficult question?”
From natural hazard to disaster
When asked about the tipping point from natural hazard to disaster, Crosweller says it is a philosophical distinction arising principally from sociology.
“A natural hazard only becomes a disaster because we haven’t adequately contemplated and prepared for the meeting of the forces of nature with our societies.”
In Crosweller’s view, nature simply exhibits and exerts forces of earth, wind, fire and water as part of the interaction between the landscape and the atmosphere. The extent to which we take those into account is the difference between them simply being an event and being a disastrous event.
“The trouble is actually caused by us, not by nature. We call them natural disasters but they’re in fact natural hazards. The disaster is human caused because of the inadequate consideration of these forces on our societies. And we tend to replicate the mistake. We tend to go and build back the same way in similar place with a false optimism that it was a one in a hundred year event.”
Crosweller suggests we need to take these forces of nature more seriously and think about how we are going to either resist, persist, absorb, adapt or transform as a result. He says it’s a sophisticated policy conversation.
“But it needs to be had because we keep avoiding it because it appears to be difficult, and it is difficult.”
In pursuing a policy of resilience, Crosweller sees a tension between individual responsibility as a citizen and the role of government. He says individuals don’t build societies, institutions do.
“Institutions create the very risks that we’re asking people to be resilient to.
People still have their own risk production, they still produce their own risks, but it’s a microcosm of what’s actually happening in society.”
Crosweller points to a housing development by way of practical example. “It’s never the individual that decides where to put the development. It’s an institutional decision. It’s a political decision.
“If we end up putting that housing development in an inappropriate place, we’ve created a risk that we then ask people to be resilient to.”
However, it may be that that the location is so hazardous or so risky that it’s not possible to be resilient yet people are being told to be resilient.
He also notes that individuals need sufficient agency to be able to be resilient. If you’re socially disadvantaged or economically disadvantaged, if you’re mentally unwell or physically unwell or constrained, your capacity to be resilient is limited”.
“It’s not just as simple as telling the public to be more resilient. If we don’t get control of the risk production institutionally and address it, then the capacity to be resilient rapidly deteriorates.”
Care and compassion in public policy
For Crosweller, public policy has to care about the wellbeing of the citizen. “Putting wellbeing at the top of the tree is more beneficial than the alternative which is a dry economic narrative. The economy should enable well-being, it shouldn’t be an end in its own right.”
This shift in narrative occurred with most Australian political leaders during the initial response to COVID-19 with very beneficial results. Trust in Government increased and citizen’s felt ‘safer’.
Crosweller’s own philosophy to emergency and disaster management has been shaped by understanding the nature of suffering and what can be done. “I came to realise that when leaders of great influence emotionally connected with constituents directly and symbolically, things got better.
It is the personal experience of sitting in the space of the suffering of another human being, and the symbolism of that suffering that would motivate a politician to make a change, to make a difference.
This compassion and care needs to infuse our policy thinking. He points to New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s style as an empathetic, compassionate leader who understands suffering, demonstrate care and marries that with government policy.
“We need to get our public service, politicians and leaders back to taking a risk, being vulnerable and holding space with those who are going through difficult times and help to do something about it. It’s the most rewarding thing and I’ve done it for 35 years. It’s not necessarily easy but it’s rewarding.”