Fighting fires is not the Australian Defence Force’s job
17 Dec 2019|

If this year’s bushfire season is anything like the new normal, then Australia certainly needs to think about adopting a new normal for the way it fights bushfires. I agree with Peter Layton’s recent Strategist piece in that regard. But I strongly disagree that the new approach should be centred on the Department of Defence.

Layton’s thesis is that because Defence’s core business is defending Australia against external threats and 99% of the emissions that cause global warming are generated overseas, Defence’s core business should now include firefighting. It’s an odd thesis.

By extension, since threats such as biohazards, illicit drugs and illegal immigrants also come from overseas, Defence should also make some of the functions of the Department of Agriculture, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Border Force its core business too. So the argument seems to be a stretch, unless we want Defence to become a mega-mega-department.

But let’s agree that we do need a new, national approach. Is Defence the best agency to lead it? (Though it’s not clear if Layton’s view is that Defence would be the lead agency or just another contributor in addition to the states’ rural fire services, national parks services, and so on.) There are two reasons to doubt it, both of which involve the concept of opportunity costs. First, Defence already has a core role that no other agency can perform, which is to develop and, if necessary, apply exquisite military capabilities to deter and defeat the nation’s adversaries.

Whenever Defence is called upon to deploy these capabilities, and the personnel who are trained to use them, to roles that other agencies or the private sector can do, it comes at a cost to readiness and training. Calling out the army to help clean up after occasional cyclones is one thing. But when you have a frigate regularly sitting off Christmas Island to pick up boat people, it is not exercising its anti-submarine or anti-air-warfare capabilities and they degrade; the nation isn’t getting value for money for the billion-dollar asset and its people.

So Defence would need new people and equipment dedicated solely to firefighting. Layton suggests 5,000 additional people in the army plus a lot of new air force aircraft. This gets us to the second problem. Every person and asset in the Australian Defence Force comes with a huge overhead. Defence just can’t provide people as cost effectively as other agencies can.

Every ADF member has a range of core skills in addition to their professional specialisation that take time and money to develop and maintain. An army bushfire fighter would also need to first and foremost be a soldier and probably an engineer, for example.

How Defence could provide aircraft more cost effectively than other agencies or the private sector is mystifying. Moreover, Defence’s capability development schedules are in a different time zone to the rest of the world’s. Layton was perhaps being ironic when he suggested that if Defence started now it could provide the people and resources by 2032 when the first future submarine is handed over to Defence—but any state agency or private company worth its salt would have boots and trucks on the ground and planes in the air long before then if they got the money.

But Layton is right in that there is a case to be made for a new, nationally coordinated approach to firefighting. However, the problem isn’t primarily that the lead firefighting agencies currently belong to the states rather than the Commonwealth. The states’ rural fire services are already well coordinated. There’s the National Aerial Firefighting Centre that coordinates the procurement and sharing of firefighting aircraft across states and territories, for example.

The problem is that the burden of bushfire fighting currently falls on those who have the least capacity to carry it, and that situation is going to get worse.

State rural fire services are essentially built on community organisations—the local bushfire brigades, which are made up of unpaid volunteers. Virtually everybody on a fireground in New South Wales, for example—putting water on a running fire, raking a firebreak to light up a backburn, or blacking out smouldering cow poo—is an unpaid volunteer.

But the demographics of rural fire brigades mirror the demographics of rural Australia—ageing and declining in number. That situation is likely to get much worse, because the changing climate that is driving larger and more destructive bushfires is also putting the ‘business model’ of much of rural Australia at risk. For example, without water for farms and agribusinesses, for environmental flows to support tourism and recreation and, most fundamental of all, for human consumption in rural towns and villages, rural populations will continue to dwindle.

The current model might work if rural fire brigades are just dealing with small, local fires in their communities. But if bushfires are a national problem—and with smoke blanketing the state and national capitals we finally seem to be realising they are—how is it fair to expect a self-employed plumber from Armidale or a farmer from outside Ballarat to give up weeks of their time and income to fight fires across their state or indeed interstate? Particularly when doctors, lawyers and parliamentarians from Sydney and Melbourne don’t?

We need to have a long, hard think about how we develop a more robust, national firefighting capability. It may well be that we need an agency with a strategic reserve of professional bushfire fighters and aircraft that can be deployed anywhere in the country when needed to support local efforts. There’s also the option of some form of national service.

If the government thinks that this is a higher priority for public funding than developing military capabilities to defend Australia against armed threats in an age of strategic uncertainty, so be it. But we should not default to an assumption that Defence is the best agency to deliver the necessary firefighting capabilities, particularly when we already have organisations in this country with vast experience and expertise in firefighting.