Australia is struggling under the cumulative effects of continuous and concurrent crises

In 1990, British psychologist James T. Reason developed his ‘cumulative act effect’ theory (also known as the ‘Swiss cheese model’) in which he argued that most accidents can be traced to one or more of four levels of failure: organisational influences, unsafe supervision, preconditions for unsafe acts, and the unsafe acts themselves. Applying this model to the interdependent relationships between the diverse sectors and systems that underpin Australia’s national security quickly exposes a problem. It reveals that rural and regional Australia’s role in maintaining national stability, prosperity and resilience is being undermined by continuous and concurrent crises.

Climate volatility and geopolitical instability are contributing to the risk of concurrent crises happening with more frequency and greater severity. The cumulative nature of these events contributes to their impact by eroding our ability to respond and fatiguing our emergency management response systems. This extinguishes recovery time, let alone time to reset. Our ability to protect our critical infrastructure and productive capacity is compromised, disproportionately affecting rural and regional Australia, where nearly 70% of the nation’s export value is generated. Crucially, the people we rely on to operate those systems are physically and psychologically worn out, with no light at the end of the tunnel.

In 2019, fires raged across the east coast, taking an immense toll on our emergency management framework. They are estimated to have cost the agriculture sector alone between $4 billion and $5 billion and triggered multiple reviews, including a royal commission. Anecdotally, the aftermath still draws resources from electricity network providers, which to this day are continuing to work to repair damaged or destroyed infrastructure. It’s widely accepted that such events take years to recover from financially. From a societal perspective, some wounds never heal entirely.

The fires were followed closely by the Covid-19 pandemic, which added significant pressure. Fatigue resulting from the use of cross-sectoral personnel who were drawn upon to contact-trace and take part in multifaceted responses was amplified by the insidious demand placed on people to administer lockdowns, while themselves being subject to them. The societal effects of the pandemic from a human and mental health point of view will be felt for a generation. So, too, will the pandemic’s effects on our emergency management systems.

Flooding has now become the latest challenge, although for some communities it has been a trial that they’ve faced continuously since the aftermath of the fires in 2019. Some local government areas have experienced three to four flood emergencies since the beginning of Covid-19. At the time of writing, New South Wales has endured 62 consecutive days of flood emergencies. Our emergency management frameworks are again being activated and those same people—volunteer, semi-professional and professional—are again being called on to serve and respond. Flooding, as always, significantly impacts public and private infrastructure and by now its cumulative impact may well be outpacing our ability to respond.

ASPI’s John Coyne has highlighted that many of these personnel are often double- and even triple-counted in the context of what our emergency management frameworks must draw on in the event of a single crisis. But as we have seen in recent years, crises are happening more frequently and often at the same time. As a member of my local Rural Fire Service branch, I receive requests to respond to traffic incidents and fires, as well as increasing requests to join strike teams to assist in responding to events occurring elsewhere in flood recovery and even biosecurity, like varroa mite containment efforts in NSW.

The next most obvious challenge in rural and regional Australia is the rapidly deteriorating state of our road network. Almost every road, lane, byway, highway and motorway is suffering the impacts of successive La Niña wet-weather cycles that are estimated to cost the economy $5 billion in lost economic activity. This matters because aside from the obvious safety consideration, our national productivity will be affected. Functioning transport infrastructure is literally the difference between getting products to market and not.

For the agriculture sector, the potential consequences of multiple crises taking place more frequently and concurrently are many. For example, there may be few or no personnel available to respond to a livestock biosecurity outbreak such as foot-and-mouth disease if it occurs at the same time as a natural disaster or human biosecurity outbreak. Human health will always take priority over animal health.

The only way to prepare for events like this is to ensure that our response plans are seamless in their interaction and are linked with sophisticated digitised systems that require as few human resources as possible. In the case of a foot-and-mouth outbreak, it’s almost inevitable that defence resources will be called on to assist, as they have been in disaster recovery and in some jurisdictions’ Covid-19 responses.

Whether or not defence resources will continue to be available for domestic responses is an open question. This was hinted at in the terms of reference for the defence strategic review that’s now underway: ‘Military modernisation, technological disruption and the risk of state-on-state conflict are complicating Australia’s strategic circumstances. These strategic changes demand that the Australian Government re-assess the capabilities and posture of the Australian Defence Force and broader Department of Defence.’

We must also consider that all of this is taking place against the backdrop of an economy-wide workforce shortage. This is a crisis of a different nature that’s also limiting the capacity of rural and regional communities to meet the expectations demanded of them in our post-Covid-19 recovery.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers has said that the world economy is ‘treading a precarious and perilous path’ at a time when multiple crises are occurring here at home. For governments, it means that collectively ensuring the maintenance of the productive capacity of rural and regional Australia and our critical infrastructure will require a rethink of our approach to policymaking and budgetary prioritisation. This includes an increasing need for whole-of-government response capabilities. It also requires a deepening of our understanding of national security that focuses on much more than the existential threat posed by great-power conflict and China’s increasing coercive activities in our region.

National security must be viewed as a product of our ability to collectively respond to and recover from events that are beyond our immediate control. It’s determined by our ability to do things like maintain basic road infrastructure that facilitates the connectedness and productivity of our regions. National security is inherently linked to our ability to produce food. As Saba Sinai highlighted in an ASPI report earlier this year, ‘[P]ositive food security adds to Australia’s resilience and cohesion in times of crisis and is a required strength should conflict return to our region as it has to Europe.’

National security encompasses our ability to keep communities connected to power and rebuild homes and other public infrastructure that makes up the basic fabric of society. It necessitates the activation of parts of our population that have otherwise been dormant in the context of contributing to volunteer, semi-professional and professional emergency services. National security also encompasses our ability to maintain emergency response frameworks by caring for the people who give life to those frameworks and maintaining their ability to recover, reset and continue to serve.

In this context, starting from the top would be a sound approach. The government should give serious consideration to providing Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry and Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt with some backup in fulfilling his portfolio responsibilities. The minister is widely regarded as having started at a sprint and has impressed many, but no one person can maintain the weight of responsibility he and his office currently bear. Appointing assistant ministers to support the portfolio would allow for a more fulsome and dedicated government response capability. So too would the addition of convening powers akin to those available to the prime minister through the National Security Committee. This would facilitate the whole-of-government outcomes required to meet the growing challenges Australia faces.

With another volatile summer closing in and multiple crises well underway, including multiple high-impact biosecurity threats on our doorstep, the time to act is now.