Governments across jurisdictions must work together to coordinate strategic decision-making and share resources in order to tackle natural disasters in the future, according to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.
The commission’s interim report, released on Monday, noted that Australia would likely experience “more frequent and intense” natural disasters over the coming decades.
It highlighted the need for clarity about the roles and responsibilities of various levels of government to ensure services would be delivered effectively and efficiently while upholding accountability.
“Current arrangements do not provide a clear mechanism to elevate matters to national leaders—that is, the prime minister and other first ministers of states and territories,” the report said.
The commission has suggested that the functions of the national cabinet or a similar intergovernmental decision making body be adopted for the national management of future natural disasters.
Such an entity could receive advice from appropriate intergovernmental bodies including the Australian New Zealand Emergency Management Committee, which could in turn be informed by subordinate groups such as Commissioners and Chief Officers Strategic Committee, and the Community Outcomes and Recovery Sub-committee.
“This arrangement would be analogous to that between the national cabinet and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (now the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said.
In response to the interim findings, Queensland fire and emergency services minister Craig Crawford noted that while the state government would support greater national coordination and increased resourcing from the federal government, he preferred local solutions.
“The state’s long experience with floods, cyclones and bushfires has demonstrated that the most effective disaster management arrangements are locally led, regionally coordinated, and state-facilitated,” he said.
“In the lead up to the 2020 bushfire season, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) and its partners have completed twice the number of hazard mitigation activities compared to 2019. QFES has worked harder than ever before to prepare Queensland for bushfire season.”
Prompted by the valuable roles of disaster-specific recovery agencies including the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and Bushfire Recovery Victoria, the commission has called for a national recovery and resilience agency to be established.
“Rapidly establishing new agencies as a natural disaster is unfolding can be disruptive, delay necessary and immediate assistance, and create confusion. There may be benefit in a single, scalable standing body responsible for natural disaster recovery and resilience at the Australian government level,” the report said.
“Such a body would be responsible for commonwealth recovery coordination, prioritisation, policy and collation of relevant data. The body could also provide national leadership for broader resilience policy and national programs.”
A national recovery and resilience agency would also be able to support the development of skills and expertise and would work closely with governments and organisations at the state, territory and local levels, the report noted.
“This body would require a strong connection with Australian government preparation and response capabilities and policy making,” it said.
Nationally consistent and comparable data and information would deliver efficiencies, avoid duplication, improve understanding, and facilitate decision making, the royal commission found.
Governments across Australia currently have a range of systems to gather and share information about natural disasters. The report argued that this information differed in quality, and was not directly comparable between jurisdictions, leaving “gaps and inefficiencies” in data collection, sharing, and the use of data in products and services.
While federal entities such as the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO have been valuable in regards to natural disasters, the report called for additional products and services that could further benefit from a national approach, including climate information and services, platforms to store and distribute information, and systems to provide warnings, predictions and real-time monitoring and reporting during a disaster.
The report also suggested that managers from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation be consistently embedded within state and territory emergency management centres, and proposed the creation of a national app detailing information about all natural disasters.
Shadow emergency management minister Murray Watt said the interim report has revealed “major shortcomings” in the federal government’s approach to disaster management.
“Last bushfire season Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to listen to the experts and failed to prepare for the crisis. Twelve months on, the devastation is still fresh for many Australians and victims are still trying to get back on their feet,” he said.
He noted that the latest Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook has shown that many parts of the country would face above-average fire threats this Spring.
“A La Niña weather event also makes other types of natural disasters, like floods and cyclones more likely,” he said.
“The federal government must do better to be prepared for disasters. It must listen to the royal commission, so it is not stuck playing catch-up like it was last year.”