21 September 2022

DFAT's COVID repatriation response under the microscope

| Chris Johnson
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DFAT’s response to COVID-19 is being investigated by parliament. Photo: File.

The ability of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to respond to large-scale complex crises is being scrutinised by a new parliamentary inquiry.

The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit will examine what can be learned from the weaknesses exposed during DFAT’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; in particular, the return of Australians stranded overseas during the pandemic.

The inquiry follows the Australian National Audit Office’s just-released report into DFAT’s response.

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The ANAO report says that while DFAT measures were partly effective, they missed key government objectives.

“DFAT’s underlying crisis management structures and capabilities require strengthening to ensure it is prepared to respond to future major and complex crises,” it states.

The pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in responding to “standard and complex, large-scale” crises.

“There is scope to strengthen crisis management planning, capability development and assurance processes over DFAT’s crisis management capability.”

While policy advice to the government was largely appropriate, it continues, DFAT’s reporting to government on its return of Australians could not be verified by the ANAO.

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Committee Chair Julian Hill MP said the Auditor-General has identified scope to improve the department’s crisis management and response arrangements.

“The Committee is seeking to understand whether DFAT was adequately prepared for major crises prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what measures the Department has taken in response to the Auditor-General’s recommendations to ensure it is well placed to respond to similar crises in the future,” Mr Hill said.

“We want to know what lessons have been learned so far and whether DFAT has put in place robust plans for anticipating and responding to future complex and large-scale crises.”

Among the recommendations from the Auditor-General is that DFAT consolidates its policy and guidance for crisis management, drawing on the Australian Government Crisis Management Framework.

The framework should set out key crisis management functions and assign clear accountability for these and for developing and ensuring key capabilities.

It also recommends that the department establish a data and information strategy and capability to strengthen its capacity to rapidly and effectively source, analyse and use data from all sources for crisis planning and response.

The committee invites submissions to the inquiry addressing the terms of reference to be received by Friday, 4 November 2022. Details of public hearings will be made available on the inquiry website.

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Trevor Willis6:15 pm 21 Sep 22

Some 20 years ago DFAT set up a separate consular emergency room in its building which was set up to deal with major situations around the world. This was to deal with major problems outside the normal realm of assisting Australian citizens who run into difficulties while overseas. It was set up initially to deal with the 9/11 bombing in USA, then the Bali bombing. The staff in the operations section did an outstanding job but were slightly overwhelmed owing to their lack of experience and training. Staff came from all sections simply to answer phone queries without really having any experience in a disaster. There were however some staff who had been overseas on a few postings and their advice and guidance were crucial. I would hope that DFAT can again draw on some of their older and experienced retired staff to assist it with setting up a unit that has been trained not only in Australia but also overseas. The comments are made without any knowledge of the present situation and are meant to be helpful not critical.

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