Darwin’s Howard Springs facility a model for building national resilience

Modern society proceeds on the basis that complex systems—human-made and natural—work reliably, both individually and in interaction with one another. However, the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme climate events, alongside actions by autocratic nations straining supply chains, are spreading failures of individual systems to the system as a whole.

Traditional risk-assessment and risk-management processes are often used to harden components exposed to specific threats, although they can be expensive to implement. Resilience approaches emphasise the development of building and planning capabilities that allow systems to absorb, recover and adapt. This too, is expensive. Yet the most honest cost comparator is the cost of inaction.

As the Australian government undertakes a series of reviews into everything from critical technology to defence strategy, there’s a risk that some instances of good luck will be mistaken for the development of good resilience policy. Howard Springs—the accommodation site in the Northern Territory that was recently used for Covid quarantine—is a case in point. It played a central, if accidental, role in our pandemic response.

In 2012, Japanese oil and gas company Inpex began working on Darwin’s Ichthys liquefied natural gas project. In 2014, after spending almost $600 million, Inpex opened an accommodation village for its construction workforce at Howard Springs, 30 kilometres southeast of Darwin.

When the construction phase of the project was completed, Inpex no longer needed the village and faced a $30 million remediation bill for the site. But, in an underappreciated stroke of luck for the Australian government, Inpex sold the village to the Northern Territory government for a peppercorn of $1. Over the next 12 months, the NT government spent $8 million maintaining the site. The decision to maintain the site without a clear customer was high risk—the creation of spare capacity is often not a commercially viable prospect.

Until 2020, few would have heard of Howard Springs. The camp sat dormant while the NT government canvassed public opinion on what to do with it.

Suddenly, the spotlight swung and the reality of Australia’s Covid-19 quarantine rules made spare capacity a premium product. National safety relied on access to a secure, hitherto abandoned workers’ camp on the outskirts of Darwin.

Its potential became apparent during the initial days and weeks of the pandemic: a self-sustained village to house thousands, complete with a commercial kitchen, sports facilities and medical centre. Its placement close to an international airport and a tertiary hospital, but far enough from nearby residential populations, was what we needed to start to carefully and slowly bring Australians home.

By the end of February 2020, the camp housed 266 evacuees directly from Wuhan, China, and another 180 from the infamous Diamond Princess cruise ship. Over the next two years, it served as Australia’s premier quarantine facility for 64,000 people.

Its success was due largely to some fortunate design decisions and good luck. Thanks to stand-alone cabins and no shared hallways, residents in quarantine could access fresh air and even recreation and exercise facilities if appropriately masked. Its advantages for the mental health of residents and the safety of communities were evident, especially after repeated hotel quarantine leaks in other parts of the country.

Saltbush Social Enterprises was one of the unsung heroes of this period. A small catering company that exclusively uses local suppliers and focuses on training and employment of at-risk Indigenous Territorians, it rapidly scaled up to provide the catering needed by those being quarantined.

Howard Springs was so successful that the government committed to building three more ‘centres for national resilience’ in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. A network of dedicated infrastructure like this presents a significant expense for taxpayers.

Cut to two and a half years later, and the Melbourne facility closed as a quarantine centre. Just one week after that, however, it reopened to accommodate up to 250 people evacuated from their homes due to flooding in Victoria. Rolling, concurrent and cascading crises will no doubt increase pressure on Australia’s emergency services and infrastructure to respond swiftly and decisively.

With Covid quarantine fresh in our minds, public expenditure on Howard Springs and the rest of the national resilience centres is still justifiable. However, it is only natural that the longer the time between crises, the greater the likelihood that some policymakers will prefer to rely on luck.

With the end of mandatory isolation and emergency declarations in most Australian states and territories, we turn our minds to the future. We need a plan to best leverage the centres; we fell upon Howard Springs through sheer good fortune, but it will take clear intentions and careful planning to see us through the challenges to come.

At least in the case of Howard Springs, the solution, like other pieces of much-needed national infrastructure, is a multiuser approach. It does probably need a few guaranteed users and the ability to open for surge capacity.

Howard Springs could, with limited construction, serve as accommodation for the Australian Defence Force and the US Marine Rotational Force—Darwin. The model proposed by Saltbush would see the centre used as transitional supported accommodation and a training village for Territorians in vocational programs, allowing for genuine and sustained investment in local workforces and communities.

The trick is finding a balance whereby the community can benefit from the infrastructure when it’s on standby, and the facility can be rapidly pivoted or scaled up to meet new challenges.

Developing a workable public–private multiuser strategy for our national resilience centres will require a great deal of cooperation and coordination. However, there seem to be few other fiscally responsible options that will ensure they’re available when we need them. Building and planning in a way that anticipates change of use will be a sure sign that resilience approaches are taking root in national planning.