10 March 2022

Is it time Australia looked beyond Defence for disaster response?

| Ian Bushnell
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Troops in Lismore floods

Australian Army sappers from 6th Engineer Support Regiment clear debris from a street in Lismore as part of Operation Flood Assist 2022. Photo: Defence.

It’s happening again. Not just the latest in the cavalcade of disasters raining down on Australia, but the tardy response that has left people feeling abandoned by their governments.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison walked into the lion’s den of Lismore this week, away from the cameras to avoid any repeat of the Cobargo bushfire debacle, and tried to calm the troubled waters, repeatedly praising the heroic community craft response which defied orders to stay away and rescued stranded flood victims.

There is palpable anger in the flooded north mirroring that which still persists in bushfire affected areas such as the South Coast.

The story is familiar. A region is overwhelmed by a natural disaster unlike any it has seen before, cue climate change, and it is left to its own devices for days before serious help arrives as local emergency services find they are way out of their depth.

The Dunkirk spirit gets people through but they are left exhausted, angry, and looking for someone to blame.

The buck, as ever, stops with the PM. Unjustified though some of the criticism may be, he can’t seem to get the messaging right or strike the right tone, despite the fistful of dollars he brings.

He talks of unrealistic expectations, unprecedented disasters that couldn’t be foretold, state responsibilities and how government can’t solve everybody’s economic problems.

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He admits the climate has changed and Australia is getting harder to live in.

But the inertia, blame-shifting and resistance to accepting that the way Australia has coped with its already extreme environment is no longer viable is telling.

It may be the final nail in his electoral coffin.

The fragmented, reactive approach that has characterised the bushfire and flood catastrophes has been a function of the state-federal division of responsibilities and its accompanying tensions.

But there has also been a lack of risk management, for example, poor town planning and development decisions, inaction on mitigation measures and a seeming inability to be prescient enough about events to enact disaster plans and deploy resources.

The Northern Rivers flood disaster was eminently predictable based on what the same weather system unleashed on south-east Queensland, and during the bushfires it took catastrophe after catastrophe before the Federal Government acted and brought the military into play.

Where was the army in Lismore, the Richmond Valley, Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah when disaster struck, many flood victims have said.

Well, the federal government has deployed thousands of troops in the flood-hit areas but the situation raises the question whether the Australian Defence Force should be the key disaster response and relief organisation.

It does a great job once the orders go out and the machine starts rolling but is it the agile, rapid response force that is needed, and will such responsibilities dilute its main military mission to defend the country?

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And not everyone is comfortable with troops in the streets.

What may be required is a new overarching national agency that coordinates all resources from weather forecasting and modelling to actual boots on the ground or boats in the water, to mobile communications and command centres.

It would also need to be fully equipped and have the necessary logistics capability, with strategically located hubs from which initial disaster responses and ongoing relief can be launched.

Some will baulk at the cost but considering the billions being spent on some dubious military acquisitions and the amounts that will be thrown at marginal seats and selected segments of the electorate soon, it would be money well spent if the current failing ad hoc arrangement of disaster response is upgraded to the level the new paradigm is demanding.

The PM is right that the community would not want to, or even could be, excluded from involving itself in the response. It is a natural human reflex to come to each other’s aid in a crisis.

And that will continue. But the nation can’t go on as it is, reeling from one disaster to the next.

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Soldiers aren’t employed to clean up after disasters. Dumping them on mass in a disaster zone creates its own issues. Where do they sleep? Eat? Wash? Or aren’t they entitled to these ‘luxuries’?

HiddenDragon7:32 pm 11 Mar 22

The development of something more explicitly along the lines of the US National Guard might assist with this, and other issues – including the plans announced earlier this week to increase the numbers working on national defence.

Tom Worthington4:41 pm 11 Mar 22

Australia is a big country, where a disaster can strike quickly over an area larger than many countries. So we have local volunteers, with propositioned equipment, to respond. Creating a large central bureaucracy would divert money and equipment away from these people on the ground. Instead we can give the people with the tinnies some training, and a uniform. Officially acknowledge them as part of the volunteer system, so next time they can be better supported in their rescue efforts. https://blog.tomw.net.au/search/label/emergency%20management

What this article is saying is that we as a nation could do so much better preparing, recruiting, training, transporting and supporting volunteers from all communities to assist themselves and each other in times of need. I agree. People want to help and muck in. If you say there are already ways to do that, then those ways obviously need to be improved by identifying and removing the obstacles and impediments. Before the inevitable next drought, flood, cyclone earthquake or bushfire.

Stephen Saunders9:03 am 11 Mar 22

Look, Chewy, I agree, state governments are also at fault, having their appointed tasks in land release, building controls, and emergency response.

But it is firm federal policy to grow population 40% by 2050, which absolutely requires settling millions more onto fire and flood prone tracts near the eastern seaboard cities, which absolutely requires regular act-of-god (as it were) disasters.

Plus which, Morrison has a irrational mania for major generals and archbishops, and would deploy them for all the problems of the world if he could.

“But it is firm federal policy to grow population 40% by 2050, which absolutely requires settling millions more onto fire and flood prone tracts near the eastern seaboard cities, which absolutely requires regular act-of-god (as it were) disasters.”

This is so incorrect I don’t know where to start.

Stephen Saunders8:45 pm 11 Mar 22

Oh come on, Chews, tell me where I am wrong. The 40% growth is easily derived from the Treasury Budget, IGR, and Population Statement. And where do you think that most of these extra 12-13m punters are going to be parked, if not adjacent to Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, sprawl? In Mount Gambier?

“firm federal policy”

No such thing exists. Link it if you think I’m wrong. The Feds even cut the overall immigration intake prior to Covid.

And there is literally no logical link between population growth and settling people on “fire and flood prone” tracts of land.

In fact, if you did think so poorly of the government, it’s far easier for them to pack city areas not subject to either.

They aren’t going to move them to the bush where the majority of natural disasters strike worst.

“What may be required is a new overarching national agency that coordinates all resources”

Emergency Management Australia already is the national agency that coordinates emergency response to large natural disasters. They coordinate government and volunteer agencies, on everything from preparations to recovery.

Instead of “nailing political coffin lids”, go and join your local SES team.

The PM is definitely right that there are unrealistic expectations and huge misunderstandings around who is supposed to be managing the majority of disaster response (hint, it’s not the feds).

But that hasn’t stopped the opportunists trying to use these events to gain political mileage out of tragedy.

As for having a dedicated disaster response force, it simply wouldn’t work unless you threw billions of dollars at it every year. For services and equipment that would be used too infrequently to be efficient.

Prevention, disaster preparedness and more adaptable support services is what’s needed to make response times faster.

Unfortunately on the prevention piece, many people don’t want to hear that their house or land should never have been built (on), much easier to blame the government when something goes wrong.

I fully agree, most natural disaster events are not really to responsibility of the Federal Government.

However the point you make about politician opportunists using these events to gain political mileage out of tragedy also works in reverse. And that is where the likes of Morrison has basically painted himself in a corner. Wanting to appear to be doing something, but doing nothing. For him however it has kind of backfired.

Of course the government also attempts to create politic mileage out if issues, all current politicians do.

Which is why I won’t support any of them.

Doesn’t change my opinion on this issue though, some of the public are simply too ignorant and lazy looking to blame anyone but themselves.

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