Calls for PM to have clear disaster role

Tim Dornin
·3-min read

The federal government should have the power to declare a national emergency, with the prime minister making the call, as part of a more co-ordinated approach to managing devastating bushfires and other natural disasters, a royal commission has urged.

Sparked by last summer's catastrophic and deadly fires across NSW, Victoria, the ACT and South Australia, the commission has also called for Australia to develop its own aerial firefighting fleet and introduce more consistent warnings and fire danger ratings across the country.

Amid fears fires, floods and other events will become more complex, more unpredictable and more difficult to manage because of climate change, the commission proposed a "whole of nation" response.

Governments at all levels should be engaged, along with indigenous and other communities, to ensure effective disaster management, action and recovery.

"This does not mean that the Australian government should take over from state and territory governments," the commission said in its report released on Friday.

"Rather, it means that we need whole-of-nation, whole-of-government and whole-of-society co-operation and effort."

The commission said it should fall to the prime minister to declare a state of national emergency, which would be the catalyst for a more coherent, pre-emptive and expeditious mobilisation of federal government resources.

A declaration would be an important signal to communities and individuals about the severity of the disaster and the need for government agencies, including the defence force, to be on high alert to help states and territories in the response and recovery efforts.

The commission found that states should remain primarily responsible for managing the on-the-ground response to any particular event, at the same time restating a previous recommendation that a body similar to national cabinet be established to take charge of high-level, strategic decisions.

The NSW Rural Fire Service Association said the royal commission had backed a number of its proposals.

"Firstly, we strongly support states remaining primarily responsible for disaster management," president Brian McDonough said.

"Local knowledge and experience is incredibly important in the management of natural disasters.

"Secondly, we urged the commission to make it easier for states to call on support from the Commonwealth, in particular from the ADF, which has been adopted."

The RFS also supported the commission's call for a more consistent approach to bushfire warnings and danger ratings.

The report described the current differences as "confusing, upsetting, and sometimes even dangerous", with past efforts at reform "disappointingly slow".

On the question of fuel management, the royal commission said state and territory governments should clearly communicate their fuel load strategies and review legislation to ensure land managers knew exactly how and when they could undertake hazard reduction.

Rather than relying on leased resources, it recommended a national aerial firefighting capability include the purchase of air tankers and helicopters which could be tasked to the areas of greatest need.

Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud said the federal government intended to work collaboratively with the states to respond to the commission's 80 recommendations.

Fourteen of those are directed to the federal government, 23 to the states and territories, 41 are shared between the jurisdictions, and two are specifically focused on the insurance industry and the Australian Building Code board.

"The royal commission report outlines lessons for us all on how to better prepare for, manage and recover from natural disasters," Mr Littleproud said.

"There are lessons for governments, essential service providers, insurers, charities, communities and individuals."

He said the next step would be to call a meeting of emergency service ministers.

"The government does not intend to take a backward step on this. We intend to address these recommendations as quickly as we can," the minister said.

Last summer's fires burned through 10 million hectares, claiming 33 lives and destroyed 10,000 homes and other structures.

More than 80,000 head of livestock were killed and millions of native plants and animals were lost.