Chief Minister Andrew Barr has called for an overhaul of the Commonwealth’s Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA), saying the scheme’s rollout was convoluted, inefficient and delayed support during the recent summer’s bushfires.
The “timeliness, complexity, scope and quantum” of the cost-sharing arrangements between the Federal Government and states and territories were a concern for the ACT, Mr Barr said in a submission provided to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (also known as the bushfire royal commission).
“Reviewing and updating the DRFA to make it more practical and responsive during prolonged and changing disasters across multiple jurisdictions is one practical step governments can take,” Mr Barr said.
“The 2019-20 bushfire disaster has highlighted that many government systems and structures that have served us well in the past may no longer be suitable for responding to the emergencies this country faces.
“The DRFA, which has been suitable after previous disasters, proved cumbersome and challenging to implement in these particular circumstances.”
Mr Barr also called on the Commonwealth Government to help with the recovery costs for the Namadgi National Park and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve which were impacted by the Orroral Valley fire.
The royal commission heard that the DRFA did not allow the money to be used for environmental restoration, which will leave a substantial hole in the ACT’s budget after 78 per cent of Namadgi and 22 per cent of Tidbinbilla were burnt.
“Despite a number of successful conservation measures put in place to limit the loss of wildlife and sensitive sites in the park, the ecological damage and environmental impact have been extensive,” Mr Barr said.
“Protecting the National Park including the Cotter River catchment, ACT’s primary water supply, from further damage and supporting its recovery will be a significant and expensive task that will need to be undertaken jointly with the Australian Government.”
Government documents say “initial investment has been secured from the commonwealth with an estimated total environmental recovery cost of up to $25 million”. However, the ACT Government will also pursue the Commonwealth for compensation after the landing light of an army helicopter was found to have started the Orroral Valley fire.
In her testimony to the royal commission, the Secretary of Tasmania’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, Jenny Gale, said that the ineligibility of environmental restoration under the DRFA would leave the state to take a responsibility to replant and replenish [the environment]”.
“At the moment the DRFA does not acknowledge or enable us to actually look into that,” she said.
“We think there is value in protecting and funding recovery of environmental and cultural heritage experiences.”
The ACT Government submission also called on the royal commission to review the circumstances and thresholds under which the states and territories can call on the Australian Government for support during an emergency. Mr Barr called the current criteria “somewhat unclear”.
Resources and emergency infrastructure that would be called upon could include emergency alerts and warnings, the Australian Defence Force and aerial firefighting appliances. Canberra could also be used as a strategic hub for aerial assets that are operating across south-east Australia, Mr Barr suggested.
However, longer-term plans for Australia’s aerial firefighting capability need to be implemented as longer bushfire seasons make it harder to borrow resources and lease equipment from overseas as fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres begin to overlap, Mr Barr said.
The lengthening of the fire seasons led the Chief Minister to request the royal commission to look at climate change mitigation strategies.
“It will not be possible for state and territory land management agencies to adapt to the climate-influenced increase in fire risk without strong national leadership and investment in research, and a commitment to maintaining a national research capability currently in place through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre,” he said.