Unprecedented is a word used all too often to describe natural disasters. In the case of the 2019‑2020 bushfires, it was a description used by many.
The 2019‑2020 bushfires were the catalyst for, although not the sole focus of, our inquiry. The fires started in Australia’s hottest and driest year on record, with much of the country that burnt already impacted by drought. The Forest Fire Danger Index was the highest since national records began.
We heard harrowing personal accounts of devastation and loss. Over 24 million hectares were burnt. Many Australians were impacted, directly or indirectly, by the fires. Tragically, 33 people died and extensive smoke coverage across much of eastern Australia may have caused many more deaths. Over 3,000 homes were destroyed. Estimates of the national financial impacts are over $10 billion. Nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced and many threatened species and other ecological communities were extensively harmed.
Every state and territory suffered fire to some extent. The fires did not respect state borders or local government boundaries. On some days, extreme conditions drove a fire behaviour that was impossible to control.
Thousands of Australians – locals and holidaymakers – became trapped. Communities were isolated, experiencing extended periods without power, communications, and ready access to essential goods and services, or access to cash or EFTPOS to pay for their most basic needs.
Australia wide, there was significant community loss, devastation of wildlife and adverse health impacts. These losses were exacerbated by severe hailstorms, and floods in some areas that were just starting to recover from the fires. Then COVID-19 hit.
Recovery will take years.
We heard stories of bravery and camaraderie – and luck. It was a true ‘campaign season’. The season commenced in July 2019 and was not declared over until 31 March 2020. The tremendous professionalism of Australia’s firefighters and emergency services personnel, both career and volunteer, demonstrated true Australian spirit in responding to the bushfires. Likewise, local communities pulled together in relief and recovery efforts.
Our task – looking to the future
Although born out of the 2019‑2020 bushfires, this Royal Commission did not focus solely on that natural disaster. We also looked at natural disasters more generally – that is, naturally occurring, rapid onset events that cause serious disruption to a community or region, such as floods, bushfires, earthquakes, storms, cyclones, storm surges, landslides and tsunami.
Our task was to consider national natural disaster coordination arrangements. It required us to look to the future. A future where such events will, regrettably, be more frequent and more severe. Consecutive and compounding natural disasters will place increasing stress on existing emergency management arrangements.
As the events of the 2019‑2020 bushfire season show, what was unprecedented is now our future.
Although informed by the existing national arrangements, we took a deliberate decision not to find fault, ‘point fingers’ or attribute blame. Rather, we focused on what should be done to improve arrangements, with a view to ensuring that Australia’s national natural disaster coordination arrangements are the best that they can be. Australia’s alarming disaster outlook requires these improvements. This opportunity should not be lost.
Other inquiries conducted in parallel with our Royal Commission focused on jurisdiction‑specific issues, and related to the actions of state and territory agencies and organisations during the 2019‑2020 summer. Recommendations from these and other reviews are already being implemented. We welcome these actions.
Our report focuses on broader questions of national arrangements and responsibilities in relation to all phases of natural disasters – before, during and after. Our inquiry required us to consider whether these existing arrangements are as effective as they can be in a future of more frequent, more severe, compounding natural disasters.
Our method of inquiry
We received extensive evidence, from more than 270 witnesses, almost 80,000 pages of tendered documents and more than 1,750 public submissions. Our recommendations do not address every matter raised with us, but are instead intended to inform the development of a national approach that, if in place, will be capable of building our resilience, and better addressing future preparation for, response to, and recovery from, natural disasters.
We have taken a principled approach that entrusts the implementation of our recommendations to the respective stakeholders. This approach ensures those who are best placed to effect improvements can do so.
A clearer role for the Australian Government
As we note many times throughout our report, state and territory governments have primary responsibility – and accountability – for emergency management. We do not propose this should change.
Nevertheless, during the 2019‑2020 bushfires, the Australian public expected greater Australian Government action. For that reason, our inquiry required us to consider the roles and responsibilities of all levels of governments in relation to natural disasters.
This aspect of our task raised the constitutional division of powers in the Australian federation in the context of natural disasters. This division of responsibility impacts upon the robustness of emergency management frameworks and systems, and the timeliness of assistance being sought from other jurisdictions, including the Australian Government. The Australian Government has at its disposal valuable capabilities and capacity, including those provided by the Australian Defence Force, to support the efforts of the states and territories in responding to, and recovering from, natural disasters.
We consider there is an important role for all levels of government in relation to managing natural disasters, including, significantly, national leadership from the Australian Government.
How do we best prepare for the future?
Achieving an effective national approach to natural disasters requires a clear, robust and accountable system capable of both providing a comprehensive understanding of, and responding to, the aggregated risks associated with mitigation, preparation for, response to and recovery from natural disasters.
Such a system must have unbroken linkages in place from the highest levels of government to individuals in the community; provide decision makers with timely, consistent and accurate information; be structured for decisions to be made at the most appropriate level; allow decision makers to understand and mitigate all risks so far as reasonably practicable; enable stakeholders to understand the residual risk and inform others so that they may take appropriate actions; and it must be resourced to fulfil these functions.
We were pleased that many stakeholders, including the Australian, state and territory governments, supported, at least in principle, improvements to national natural disaster arrangements. Of course, support is one thing – action is another. The national natural disaster arrangements Australians deserve require unity, not just of commitment or purpose, but of action. Only then can Australians have confidence that the arrangements are the best they can be. The time to act to improve arrangements is now.
Unprecedented is not a reason to be unprepared. We need to be prepared for the future.
I commend this report to all Australians. There are lessons for us all. Governments, essential service providers, insurers, charities, communities and individuals should consider what steps they must take across all phases of natural disasters to improve national natural disaster arrangements. It is undoubtedly in the national interest to do so.
28 October 2020
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