Australia has been described both as 'the lucky country' and one that is ‘…sunburnt with ragged mountains and droughts and flooding rains’. Since September 2019, we have not been so lucky. Experiences of long-term drought, water scarcity, changing rainfall patterns, historical land management, agricultural and water management practices, rural/urban growth and a warming climate have contributed to the emergence of devastating fires across vast areas. As these challenges increase, we should not underestimate the complexity of the issues in play and the agility required by both the public and private sectors to manage them.
The scale, rapid spread and concurrence of the bushfires in multiple locations and states created the need for an emergency response effort that has been unprecedented in modern Australia. The eventual mobilisation of the Australian Defence Force under conventional Defence Aid to the Civil Community arrangements and the callout of the defence reserve forces to support volunteer and professional emergency responders and impacted communities with road clearance, logistics, veterinary assistance, health services, and engineering support has contributed strongly to recovery efforts.
The familiar use of the ADF’s fixed wing and rotary aircraft in rescue and ground-based logistics support, added with deployment of HMAS Choules to evacuate tourists and locals (including pets) from Mallacoota and the later addition of HMAS Adelaide in ongoing relief and evacuation operations, collectively demonstrated the dual use/benefit of our capable and professional military forces. The inclusion of international military support from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Indonesia, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan, operating alongside our service personnel directly in impacted communities, emphasised not only the goodwill of our regional neighbours but the severity of the catastrophe and its effects.
Many would have noted, possibly with a degree of irony, the recent widespread torrential rainfall and multi-state flooding that triggered transition of our exhausted emergency services and support agencies from fire response to ‘fast water rescue’ and flood mitigation efforts. While the rain events eventually put out most of the fires, the damage and losses from the ongoing disaster season have registered deeply in our national psyche, our economy, and our policy debates. These recent disasters have triggered consideration of how governance of disaster risk and emergency management might be better supported across federal, state and local jurisdictions.
The Prime Minister has announced his intention to seek a royal commission into the bushfire crisis with a completion date in August. Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced her intention to hold a formal review into all aspects of the fire season in New South Wales and Premier Daniel Andrews has tasked Victoria’s Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM) with leading an inquiry into preparedness for and response to the fires and to review relief and recovery efforts. The Prime Minister has also tasked the CSIRO, in collaboration with other agencies, to develop immediate and longer-term plans and recommendations for building Australia’s climate and disaster resilience.
Disaster recovery is complicated and inevitably slow. A viable intent for governmental support should be returning communities and local economies to a semblance of pre-disturbance normality as efficiently as possible. Physical damage to essential lifelines, loss of housing stock, and the difficulties caused by evacuation will significantly add to community-wide and regional impacts. However, the experience of living through a disaster challenges the wellbeing and sense of safety of all those involved and is particularly disruptive to community cohesion and viability.
During these investigations, we need to acquire a fuller appreciation of what constitutes a cohesive and resilient community (pre-disturbance) and from this develop effective understanding of how to promote and support the re-establishment and sustainment of viable localities.
Central to all inquiries is a convergence of complex social, technical, economic and environmental issues. By anyone’s assessment, options for mitigation, response and recovery – all within the context of climate weather variability – constitute wicked
, real-world problems. Such issues are:
- individually unique.
- (often) with no clear definition.
- consistently multi-causal, multi-scalar & interconnected.
- involving multiple stakeholders often with conflicting agendas.
- straddling organisational & disciplinary boundaries.
- having candidate solutions that are not right or wrong but merely better or worse.
- requiring a long time to evaluate solutions.
- being never completely solved.
Without pre-empting any advice or recommendations that will flow from these official lines of inquiry, addressing these complex issues will require both new and conventional thinking. Options will need to include an amalgam of comprehensive risk mitigation (reducing the likelihood of future damage) vulnerability assessment (identifying where and how damage has occurred), reacquiring lessons learned from past emergencies, enhancing the resilience of communities, towns and cities and, importantly, critical infrastructure systems.
We also need to ensure that institutions such as the Insurance Council of Australia, the Australian Sustainable Finance Initiative, the Reserve Bank and the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities, as well as scientific and technical bodies, are central in planning for longer term recovery. The recent series of roundtable meetings convened by the Federal Government with business groups and scientific research groups seems to address this need.
Australia needs to acknowledge the complex interdependence of the many diverse issues and relevant stakeholders involved as it considers how to proceed towards a more climate resilient and agile version of itself
The government should also:
- make sure it is not caught flat-footed by the almost inevitable future emergence of catastrophic events
- ensure the ‘right’ voices are heard in post-disaster reviews and future planning processes that are needed for building sustained national resilience
- translate the many available and competing approaches to risk and vulnerability assessment and resilience building into the design and regulatory thinking needed to reduce risk exposure in our social, technical, environmental and built environments.
Donald Horne’s seminal 1964 work The Lucky Count
ry states that while … “its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise”. Now, 55 years later, some might wonder if we came into the current disaster season standing in a similar place.