Collaboration between government agencies and across borders at heart of bushfire royal commission recommendations

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday October 30, 2020


The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements has made 80 recommendations to governments, calling for increased collaboration across jurisdictions through means such as common information platforms, shared technologies, and an advisory group responsible for strategic policy.

The commission tabled its 594-page final report in Parliament on Friday, after hearing from more than 270 witnesses, almost 80,000 pages of tendered documents, and more than 1750 public submissions.

In his foreword, commission chair Mark Binskin noted that while the word ‘unprecedented’ has been used “all too often” to describe natural disasters, the 2019-2020 bushfire season has shown that “what was unprecedented is now our future”.

“Unprecedented is not a reason to be unprepared. We need to be prepared for the future,” he wrote.

Binskin said the commission has chosen not to “point fingers or attribute blame”, and has focused on what should be done to make Australia’s national natural disaster coordination arrangements the best that they can be. However, the report noted that state and territory governments have primary responsibility and accountability for emergency management, and the public “expected greater Australian government action” during the bushfires.

The inquiry highlighted the “constitutional division of powers in the Australian federation in the context of natural disasters”, which has negatively impacted emergency management frameworks and systems, Binskin said. He argued that achieving an effective national approach to disasters requires a “clear, robust and accountable system” that gives a comprehensive understanding of, and response to, the risks associated with mitigation, preparation for, response to and recovery from natural disasters.

“Such a system must have unbroken linkages in place from the highest levels of government to individuals in the community; provide decision makers with timely, consistent and accurate information; be structured for decisions to be made at the most appropriate level; allow decision makers to understand and mitigate all risks so far as reasonably practicable; enable stakeholders to understand the residual risk and inform others so that they may take appropriate actions; and it must be resourced to fulfil these functions,” he wrote.

The commission made a number of recommendations aimed at improving national coordination arrangements, including for federal government agencies to work together across all phases of disaster management, and for the responsibilities of Emergency Management Australia to be enhanced.

Read more: APRA executive calls for Australia to increase investment in natural disaster mitigation

The report said the national cabinet could be a potential model for a strategic forum for disasters with national implications. It referenced Department of Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo, who had described how such an arrangement might work:

“…the national cabinet, would make a number of binding decisions because of the way the national cabinet is working. Constitutionally they are pooling their sovereignty. And so, in effect, nine sovereign governments would say: okay, we’ve heard about the risk, we’ve heard about the preparedness side, we’ve heard about the concurrency side. We’ve taken advice from our experts, the chiefs of the fire and emergency services about pooled resources.”

The report argued an advisory group responsible for strategic policy and operational advice on disaster management would be valuable.

“Such a group could consolidate advice across Australian, state and territory government agencies, and other appropriate experts, about disaster management for ministers,” it said.

“This would provide ministers with a clearer understanding of the short, medium and long-term impacts of decisions, and their flow-on implications to other areas of policy, such as education, health, community development and essential services, to name but a few.”

However, the commission noted an “exact replication” would not be suitable for national disasters, and argued against ministers making operational decisions “for which officials from state and territory fire and emergency services have responsibility under legislation”.

The commission recommended an authoritative advisory body be established, to consolidate advice on strategic policy and relevant operational considerations for ministers in relation to natural disasters.

It also called for the creation of a standing national recovery and resilience agency, focused on long-term disaster risk reduction. Through the mechanism of the recovery and resilience agency, the federal government should convene regular and ongoing national forums for charities, non-government organisations and volunteer groups, with a role in natural disaster recovery, with a view to continuous improvement of coordination of recovery support.

In regards to improving resilience, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens told the commission that:

  • Building resilience by reducing disaster risk involves long timescales, short-and long-term trade-offs, and high levels of uncertainty,
  • No single agency, portfolio or level of government controls all the levers to reduce risk,
  • Different actors are exposed to different levels of risk, and have different capabilities to minimise or manage their risk exposure,
  • The cost of de-risking retrospectively, or in response to a deteriorating risk outlook, is likely to be higher than the costs of actions to manage risk — particularly when it comes to land-use planning in the built environment.

Mark Crossweller, a former director-general of EMA, agreed with Gaetjens, the report said. He also noted that the federal government must work cooperatively with the private sector throughout implementation of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework.

Read more: Royal commission calls for creation of federal recovery and resilience agency, national cabinet-style response to natural disasters

The commission called for common information platforms and shared technologies between federal, state and territory governments, as well as consistent data standards to measure disaster impact, and a greater capacity to collect and share standardised and comprehensive natural disaster impact data.

Federal and state governments should also produce downscaled climate projections to inform the assessment of future natural disaster risk by decision makers, including the relevant government agencies. The report noted the projections would be underpinned by an agreed common core set of climate trajectories and timelines, and would be regularly reviewed.

In regards to national emergency response capability, governments should conduct “multi-agency, national-level exercises, not limited to cross-border jurisdictions” that assess national capacity, inform capability development and coordination in response to — and recovery from — natural disasters, and use scenarios that stress current capabilities.

To improve the delivery of recovery services and financial assistance, the commission has proposed that federal and state governments ensure that the personal information of individuals affected by a natural disaster can be shared between all levels of government, agencies, insurers, charities and organisations delivering recovery services.

Read more: Report calls for Indigenous-led fire strategy, major disaster law to hold feds to account


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