Bushfire royal commission points way to evolution and revolution in disaster management
16 Nov 2020|

The royal commission into Australia’s natural disaster arrangements released its findings on 30 October. The commission’s report was the result of many long hours of consultation, investigation and analysis, including consideration of 1,772 submissions, with the support of legal counsel assisting.

In the lead-up to the inquiry’s formal commencement, some commentators (including me) questioned whether a royal commission was needed given that the New South government had already announced a review of aspects of the fire season in that state and Victoria had indicated that its inspector-general for emergency management would lead an inquiry into the state’s preparedness for and response to the fires and the relief and recovery efforts.

As far back as 2014, ASPI noted the well-trodden path of post-event reviews in a report, Working as one: a road map to disaster resilience for Australia. That work also detailed several common themes occurring in reviews of natural hazard events in Australia and overseas. A concern I voiced in January this year was that a royal commission must not simply rediscover the same lessons that had already been garnered over many years from previous investigations into emergencies and crises.

This position was fuelled in part by having read the very comprehensive but relatively unnoticed 2005 Review of Australia’s ability to respond to and recover from catastrophic disasters by the Catastrophic Disasters Emergency Management Capability Working Group. This group was set up following deliberations by the Council of Australian Governments in 2001.

So, how useful are the findings of the bushfire royal commission and has it moved the debate forward? Most of the recommendations in the report are logical and obvious. Others fit into two categories: clear improvements, and definite evolutions in thought and form. Some of the evolutionary suggestions have the potential to be revolutionary.

Two sets of recommendations point to evolutions in practice that could generate opportunities for agility in decision-making in support of efforts to reduce disaster risk in Australia.

The first pair relates to establishing ‘clear and accountable national arrangements’ for disaster management and recovery. Recommendation 3.2 states that ‘Australian, state and territory governments should establish an authoritative advisory body to consolidate advice on strategic policy and relevant operational considerations for ministers in relation to natural disasters.’ Recommendation 3.5 further suggests that ‘The Australian Government should establish a standing entity that will enhance national natural disaster resilience and recovery, focused on long-term disaster risk reduction.’

The second area of evolution relates to ensuring adequate levels of capability and capacity for disaster management at national and state levels. Recommendation 24.1 states: ‘The Australian Government should establish accountability and assurance mechanisms to promote continuous improvement and best practice in natural disaster arrangements.’ In parallel, recommendation 24.2 suggests:Each state and territory government should establish an independent accountability and assurance mechanism to promote continuous improvement and best practice in natural disaster arrangements.’

The government’s announcement last week that it intends to develop a ‘National Resilience, Relief and Recovery Agency’ and an information-focused ‘Resilience Services’ function in support of both the new agency and Emergency Management Australia is timely. While details are yet to come, they seem promising initial steps forward in response to the recommendations.

Effective disaster risk reduction focuses heavily on prevention and preparedness capacities, but it also implies coordination—an element that is central to an effective use of the breakthrough that these directives of the royal commission imply.

Both the proposed new national agency and resilience services function will hopefully facilitate breaking down historical silos between national, state and local agencies responsible for infrastructure planning, energy, social cohesion, housing, health care, education, economic development, social welfare, disaster management and environmental protection—all things of value to society. Collaboration is a key aspect of the evolution of Australia’s capability in disaster risk reduction.

It is critically important that Australia enhances its coordination of ‘lessons remembered’ from our collective experiences of dealing with natural hazards. Such outcomes would certainly be better than repeatedly rediscovering things that we’ve all forgotten we already knew.

We need to always appreciate the benefits of anticipating the appearance of emergent natural threats, risk vectors and related cascading and cumulative impacts. In this respect, I return often to the words of a former chair of the Coordinating Committee of the International Standard on Risk Management (ISO 31000): ‘We need to skate to where the puck will be.’

For Australia’s future needs, following the ‘puck’ as quickly as we can is likely to not be enough. We need to act quickly yet carefully to enact and sustain the royal commission’s evolutionary recommendations and then ensure they deliver revolutionary impacts.