What has Australia learned from the coronavirus and bushfire crises?

Australian governments at all levels have learned a lot between the onset of the bushfire season and the first stages of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

There’s a clear understanding that national crises require coherent national responses. And that the seams between and among the Commonwealth and the states and territories that are tolerable during normal circumstances become unacceptable when the situation isn’t normal. Australians look to their prime minister to lead and to other leaders—including state premiers—to work coherently, positively and constructively together, if only for the period the crisis lasts.

Such crises empower prime ministers well beyond the letter of the constitution and beyond any political conventions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has recognised this and clearly knows that we need more than periodic Council of Australian Governments meetings to make our way through the coronavirus crisis, so he has formed a national cabinet with premiers and chief ministers that will meet as often as needed.

But there’s more to managing crises nationally than creating greater coherence and coordination at the political level. Below the waterline, ministers expect public-sector leaders and agencies to work across portfolio boundaries and, like the public in their expectations of state–federal relations, have no patience for jurisdictional or portfolio-based boundary claims. That’s a good thing.

As important as national leadership and improved inter- and intra-government operation is the return of the experts. In an era of dismissal of expertise and subject-matter knowledge, during crises governments and publics look to experts for guidance. We saw this with the rural fire service and emergency services chiefs during the bushfires and we are seeing it now with chief medical officers. These experts also become key to trusted communication with the public.

The good news is that the new national cabinet has support from respected experts and senior officials. Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, and the governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, both participated in Friday’s emergency COAG meeting. And the new cabinet will receive continual expert advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, meaning this expert body will be a primary driver of national policy and action throughout the pandemic—which is all to the good.

This new national machinery will provide consistency of advice and decision-making. Once it gets into stride, we’ll have less of the discordant actions and advice we were starting to see—like some political figures recommending particular measures such as school closures or avoiding handshaking, while others still promoted large public events like Melbourne’s Formula 1 Grand Prix.

That’s a big step forward, and will help meet Australians’ need for clear and consistent messages from our leaders during this time of anxiety and uncertainty. National decisions are complex, so we should expect the national cabinet to expand or to at least have sub-groupings that bring in key private-sector leaders—from the food and logistics sectors, for example.

But there are differences between what we saw during the bushfires and what we are already seeing with coronavirus, so there are new lessons to be learned.

The bushfires generated a great surge of community spirit, with neighbours helping neighbours evacuate, strangers opening their homes to and feeding people in need, and a whole set of small businesses from motels to restaurants offering accommodation and free food.

The recovery phase, now interrupted by the coronavirus, has been bringing out similar qualities—from the Business Council of Australia’s BizReBuild initiative that has the top end of town helping small businesses in regional communities, to the huge public donations to charities, like the $180 million donated to the Red Cross for bushfire recovery.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus has already brought out some of the opposite behaviours: fights over toilet paper and panic hoarding show a tendency for this crisis to drive our community apart rather than be a source of unity. Disease outbreaks in history show that fear and anxiety drive people to narrowly selfish behaviours, even within families. And the unfortunate fact that social isolation is a primary public health response to the virus means that what we’ll all need to do in coming days and weeks will make it harder to reach out and help those around us.

Toilet paper skirmishes may seem trivial, but there’s real work for leaders at all levels of government and society to do to tend to the sense of community and cohesion that we’ll need during and in the recovery from this global pandemic.

As we saw with our firefighting volunteers, we know that Australian medical professionals—community nurses, GPs, staff and specialists in our hospitals and aged care facilities—will provide countless examples of service and compassion to their fellow Australians. Similarly, the behind-the-scenes work of people across essential supply systems—from fuel to food, and from health supplies to waste removal, will be invaluable.

The work these Australians do matters on a very practical level, but it will also matter as glue to hold our communities together. To encourage what Abraham Lincoln called the ‘better angels of our nature’, perhaps the communications campaign the federal government is putting together needs to portray their work. Healthcare workers and essential service providers must not be taken for granted; they need to be made visible to us as we live out weeks of social isolation.

And for all our public cynicism, the visible presence of our national leaders and their words and behaviour will be a source of comfort and reassurance.

In the middle of this national health, societal, financial and economic crisis, it’s hard to look ahead. But we need to.

One thing we need to learn and keep from both crises is that events now routinely cross our fixed organisational boundaries. The national cabinet machinery will need to be kept and improved and probably exercised more often than we expect. This has redesign implications for the machinery of government at the federal, state and territory levels and is probably best thought through with the lessons from this crisis fresh, but outside the crucible of the crisis itself.

A challenge we have yet to comprehend or deal with is the likely future where different crises overlap, with effects that compound and interact. My colleague Robert Glasser’s report Preparing for the Era of Disasters shows how regional disasters will likely not be isolated but will cascade and escalate. An example we are experiencing now is that communities damaged by the bushfires are simply in a worse position to cope with coronavirus than those left unaffected by the fires. They will need particular attention in broader plans.

And one other major challenge will be how we tune our national systems to spot indicators of potential crises earlier and empower ourselves to act rapidly and decisively at the earliest stage.

A last element will be revitalising our international engagement. That means more investment in our diplomats and diplomacy as well as currently derided international organisations like the UN, NGOs and more prosaic ones like international standards and regulatory agencies. This is a necessary reinvestment in experts, including in our public service.

It is also part of a recognition that, no matter how elegant Australia’s national crisis machinery becomes, our interconnected world requires a sense of global community and a structured system for this community of nations to act together.