Scenes from the January bushfires. Pictures: Sitthixay Ditthavong, Dion Georgopoulos

Scenes from the January bushfires. Pictures: Sitthixay Ditthavong, Dion Georgopoulos

Feds must lead during major disasters

Bushfires royal commission findings released

Infrastructure
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ROYAL COMMISSION: National disasters require national response, landmark report finds

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Stacey Wilson from the Milton Volunteer Rural Fire Brigade at the bushfire front on Murramarang Road in Bawley Point on December 5, 2019. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Stacey Wilson from the Milton Volunteer Rural Fire Brigade at the bushfire front on Murramarang Road in Bawley Point on December 5, 2019. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The Commonwealth government must play a larger role in responding to future natural disasters, the royal commission convened after the devastating Black Summer bushfires has found.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements said there needed to be greater leadership from the federal government during national disasters, despite states holding the primary responsibility for emergency management.

It called for the Prime Minister to be able to declare a state of national emergency during such crises.

"We have concluded that the Australian government has the power to, and should, play a greater role in relation to natural disasters on a national scale. For such disasters, the Australian government should be able to declare a state of national emergency," the report said.

"A declaration would provide an important formal signal to communities and individuals about the severity of a disaster, and signal to Australian government agencies, including the Australian Defence Force, that they need to be on high-alert, ready to help the states and territories in their response and recovery efforts."

The Beard bushfire near Queanbeyan. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The Beard bushfire near Queanbeyan. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

However a declaration should not give the Commonwealth the power to commandeer state-based resources, the report said.

"A declaration should be the catalyst for a more 'coherent, pre-emptive and expeditious' mobilisation of Australian government resources," it reads.

"It should not purport to give the Australian government the power to determine how the resources of states and territories are to be used or allocated, without their consent."

Read more: Are last summer's bushfires the new normal?

It also called for a body such as national cabinet to make high-level decisions during a natural disaster with national implications.

"Certain strategic decisions concerning national natural disasters should be made by the nation's most senior ministers - by those clearly accountable to the Australian public," the report said.

Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud said cabinet could approve actions to address the 14 recommendations for the Commonwealth government as soon as next week.

"The government does not intend to take a backward step on this," Mr Littleproud said.

"We intend to address these recommendations as quickly as we can."

He said before a national state of emergency was introduced, Emergency Management Australia and Home Affairs would need to clearly define in what circumstances the government would step in.

"I must reiterate [this] is not about the federal government coming in to take over and fight fires," Mr Littleproud said.

"The states are the best ones to do that."

Firefighters work to put out fires at the edge of the NSW North Black Range bushfire. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Firefighters work to put out fires at the edge of the NSW North Black Range bushfire. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The Morrison government came under fire for its slow response to the Black Summer fires, which swept through more than 24 million hectares of land, killing 33 people and destroying more than 3000 homes. An estimated 3 billion animals were killed or displaced by the fires and the economic impact is believed to be around $10 billion. However Mr Morrison said the bushfire response was a matter for the states. He was criticised for saying "I don't hold a hose, mate" when questioned why he went on holidays while much of the country was burning. He eventually took the extraordinary step of calling in 3000 Australian Defence Force reservists to assist with the fire efforts across four states.

Firefighters at the NSW North Black Range bushfire. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Firefighters at the NSW North Black Range bushfire. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Through 1750 public submissions, 270 witnesses and nearly 80,000 pages of documents, the royal commission heard last summer's fire season was unprecedented. However royal commission chair Mark Binskin said, "unprecedented is not a reason to be unprepared".

"We need to be prepared for the future," he said.

The story Feds must lead during major disasters first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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