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Overview

The 2019‑2020 disaster season

1. The 2019‑2020 bushfires started in Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Much of the country was in drought, and the first bushfire started in the middle of winter. Over the following months, fires burnt across tens of millions of hectares of land, threatening and displacing hundreds of communities. Many thousands of volunteers and professional emergency responders worked tirelessly and made great sacrifices to save lives, homes and precious natural landscapes.

2. Thirty-three people died, including six Australian firefighters and three American aerial firefighters. Thousands of homes were destroyed or damaged. Smoke blanketed much of Australia, including capital cities, and contributed to hundreds of deaths. Nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced, and the fires harmed many threatened species and ecological communities. Overall, the fires caused billions of dollars of damage.

3. For many communities, the bushfires were not the only disaster they faced that summer. After the drought and the fires came storms and floods, and before the last fire was extinguished, Australia announced its first case of COVID-19. Australia’s ability to coordinate nationally, learn and adapt, in the face of deep uncertainties and rising risks, had been tested.

4. We provide here an overview of our report. Our recommendations are listed up‑front, but to be properly understood, they should be read in the context of the chapters in which they appear.

Our inquiry

5. Our inquiry was announced in February 2020. The terms of reference were broad and directed us to examine, among other things:

  • the responsibilities of, and coordination between, Australian, state, territory and local governments relating to natural disasters
  • Australia’s arrangements for improving resilience and adapting to changing climatic conditions
  • what actions should be taken to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters, and
  • whether changes are needed to Australia’s legal framework for the involvement of the Commonwealth in responding to national emergencies.

6. Our central task was to inquire into, and report on, national natural disaster arrangements – that is, arrangements involving all levels of government, the private and not-for-profit sectors, communities, families, and individuals. These arrangements concern all phases of disaster management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

7. The expression ‘natural disaster’ is something of a misnomer, in part because some naturally-occurring hazards (such as fires and earthquakes) may only turn into a disaster because of what humans do and fail to do. The expression ‘natural disaster’, while common and used in this report, should not be taken to suggest that there is nothing we can do.

A clear role for governments

8. Few doubt that governments have a significant role in disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Many of the measures that are needed to manage the risk of disasters are matters for government.

9. Governments also own and manage land, property and other assets, including state forests and national parks, government buildings, and some critical infrastructure. Governments must manage risks to these assets, just as businesses and individuals must manage risks to their own assets.

10. Individuals and communities play a role, but governments should educate people and provide accessible information to help them make informed decisions and take appropriate action. This is necessary because managing disaster risk is inherently complex.

States and territories have primary responsibility

11. In Australia, state and territory governments have primary responsibility for the protection of life, property and the environment, within their jurisdictions. With responsibility comes accountability.

12. State and territory governments are primarily responsible for disaster response, including for police, ambulance, and fire and emergency services. State and territory governments manage roads and most public land, including state forests and most national parks; provide or regulate essential services; regulate land-use, development, and building construction; and manage native vegetation and wildlife. State and territory governments also lead emergency relief and recovery efforts.

13. State and territory governments delegate some of their responsibilities to local governments. For example, local governments play a central role in land-use planning and the management of local roads, as well as the coordination of emergency centres and the provision of emergency relief. Ultimately, state and territory governments remain accountable, and should therefore ensure local governments have the support and resources they need to carry out their responsibilities.

14. There are compelling reasons for state and territory governments to continue to be responsible for disaster management. They have considerable experience, capacity and capability to manage natural disasters. Our witnesses did not call for the Australian Government to ‘take over’ this work. Many praised state and territory agencies, and the Australian Government acknowledged that it should ‘enhance and support, not supplant’ the capabilities of the states and territories.

15. While there is clearly scope and power under the Constitution for the Australian Government to play a complementary or supporting role, and a greater role than it has played in the past, disaster management is not a matter expressly assigned to the Commonwealth in the Australian Constitution.

Local knowledge and the principle of subsidiarity

16. Perhaps the strongest policy reason why state and territory governments should retain primary responsibility stems from the principle of subsidiarity. This principle suggests that risk should be managed by the lowest level of government that is capable of managing it, and emphasises the importance of local knowledge, which is vital to managing natural disasters.

17. Many policies and services should be ‘tailored to meet the needs of people and communities they directly affect’ and account for differences in climate, geography, ecosystems, demography, culture, and resources. While natural disasters on a national scale are likely to become more common, all disasters large and small require a local response.

18. The importance of local knowledge to disaster management, and particularly to disaster response, was emphasised by many people we heard from, including firefighters and the public. State, territory and local governments expressed strong support for the principle, and stressed the need for ‘deep engagement’ with affected communities. A locally-led response was described as ‘one of the strengths of the disaster management system’ and a ‘foundational principle’.

19. We heard that recovery efforts after disasters must also be ‘locally led’ and alert to the particular needs of affected communities. Local governments are usually best placed to do this work, but they should be guided and supported by state and territory governments.

Indigenous land management

20. Indigenous land management is an example of how local knowledge has successfully informed land management, and it has done so for tens of thousands of years. Indigenous land management draws on a deep knowledge of Australia’s landscapes. It is based on cultural understandings of Country, is tailored to specific places, and engages local people in development and implementation. Partly for these reasons, Indigenous land management differs widely across Australia.

21. There is a growing recognition of the value of Indigenous land and fire management practices as a way to mitigate the effects of bushfires and improve disaster resilience. Governments should continue to engage with Traditional Owners to explore the relationship between Indigenous land management and disaster resilience.

Disasters have changed

22. Natural disasters have changed, and it has become clear to us that the nation’s disaster management arrangements must also change.

23. Extreme weather has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable. Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.

Compounding disasters

24. Natural disasters are expected to become more complex, more unpredictable, and more difficult to manage. We are likely to see more compounding disasters on a national scale with far-reaching consequences. Compounding disasters may be caused by multiple disasters happening simultaneously, or one after another. Some may involve multiple hazards – fires, floods and storms. Some have cascading effects – threatening not only lives and homes, but also the nation’s economy, critical infrastructure and essential services, such as our electricity, telecommunications and water supply, and our roads, railways and airports.

25. Australia needs to be better prepared for these natural disasters. They may not happen every year, but when they happen, they can be catastrophic. The summer of 2019‑2020 – in which some communities experienced drought, heatwaves, bushfires, hailstorms, and flooding – provided only a glimpse of the types of events that Australia may face in the future.

We need to act on multiple fronts

26. To make Australia more resilient to natural disasters demands action on multiple fronts. We need to do much more than put out fires. A resilient nation will seek to mitigate the risk of disasters through a wide range of measures, and it will attend to all of the complex and sometimes long-term consequences.

27. The extent of damage and harm caused by natural disasters depends not only on the intensity of the hazard itself, but also on a range of other factors, such as where people choose to live, how they build their homes, how public and private land is managed, and how well people and communities are prepared, supported and cared for during and after disasters.

28. Government measures will be necessary across land-use planning, infrastructure, emergency management, social policy, agriculture, education, health, community development, energy and the environment.

29. A resilient nation will plan thoroughly for disasters, and seek to manage and mitigate all of the attendant risks. It will build the capacity of communities to prepare for, adapt to, and recover from disasters.

We need a national approach

30. We have concluded that Australia needs a national approach to natural disasters. This does not mean that the Australian Government should ‘take over’ from state and territory governments. Rather, it means that we need ‘whole-of-nation’, ‘whole-of-government’ and ‘whole-of-society’ cooperation and effort.

31. More will be required of all. Neither individuals nor any one level of government will be able to cope alone.

Shared responsibility

32. It has long been necessary, and is now widely recognised and accepted, that governments, businesses, communities and individuals each play a role in various aspects of natural disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. National cooperation is essential to make Australia resilient to natural disasters.

More cooperation and coordination

33. A national approach calls for greater cooperation and coordination across governments and agencies; a greater sharing of resources across jurisdictions; an agile emergency response and recovery capability, with skills and technology that can be used across the country; and the data, systems and research to help us manage and mitigate disaster risk, efficiently and effectively. These and other national measures are outlined below, and explored more fully throughout the report.

34. Action and cooperation will increasingly be required across all levels of government. The community expects governments to work together to build our social and economic resilience. A ‘pluralism of governmental actors, with complementary capabilities’ has been called a ‘defining feature of Australian democracy’.

35. A number of our recommendations reflect the importance of effective cooperation across multiple levels of government, supported by timely, informed and effective intergovernmental decision-making.

Accountability and assurance mechanisms

36. Two Australian states have dedicated institutional arrangements to promote a culture of continuous improvement within the emergency management sector and to monitor whether recommendations of past inquiries have been implemented. Other states and territories should introduce similar arrangements, and the Australian Government should also have robust accountability and assurance mechanisms to support the national effort.

A greater role for the Australian Government

37. A national approach to natural disasters calls for the Australian Government to play a greater role than it currently plays. Generally, the Australian Government should complement, enhance and support the role of the states and territories. It should continue to be focused primarily on areas in which national consistency, coordination and cooperation across jurisdictions would help the states and territories to manage natural disasters more effectively.

38. However, as discussed further below, the Australian Government also has capabilities and capacities not available to the states and territories. It can play a greater role in assisting the states and territories to respond to and recover from natural disasters on a national scale – for which a declaration of a state of national emergency, assistance from the Australian Defence Force, and other national measures and resources, may be necessary.

39. For example, the Australian Government can provide logistical support, help transport personnel and equipment during and after disasters, assist in large-scale evacuations, and provide food, water and medical assistance to emergency responders and communities.

40. National disaster plans set out how and when state and territory governments can request assistance from the Australian Government and the Australian Defence Force. However, the thresholds for requesting assistance under these plans are unclear, and precisely how the Australian Defence Force can help is not always well understood. This has caused unnecessary delay and confusion.

41. The thresholds should be clarified and the Australian Defence Force should be more involved when state and territory governments plan and prepare for natural disasters.

Declaration of national emergency

42. For some disasters, the assistance of the Australian Government will be particularly necessary and pressing. We have concluded that the Australian Government has the power to, and should, play a greater role in relation to natural disasters on a national scale. For such disasters, the Australian Government should be able to declare a state of national emergency.

43. The declaration should be made by the Prime Minister, and legislation should be clear about the circumstances in which a declaration may be made, and the actions that the Australian Government can then take to support state and territory governments.

44. A declaration would provide an important formal signal to communities and individuals about the severity of a disaster, and signal to Australian Government agencies, including the Australian Defence Force, that they need to be on high-alert, ready to help the states and territories in their response and recovery efforts.

45. A declaration should be the catalyst for a more ‘coherent, pre-emptive and expeditious’ mobilisation of Australian Government resources. It should not purport to give the Australian Government the power to determine how the resources of states and territories are to be used or allocated, without their consent.

46. In most cases, a state or territory government will have requested assistance when needed. However, in some limited circumstances, the Australian Government should be able to take action in response to a natural disaster, whether or not a state has requested assistance. A higher threshold should be required to be met before the Australian Government can take such unilateral action.

We need strategic leadership directed at resilience

47. Making the nation more resilient to natural disasters calls for ‘strategic imagination’ and ‘big country thinking’ – a national response and national strategic leadership.

48. The Australian Government should lead in the development and coordination of long-term, national strategic policy directed at making Australia resilient to natural disasters. It is uniquely placed to see the national picture, the national risks, and the impacts on all Australians. However, like all governments, it should also increase its capacity to address the complex and long-term strategic problems in disaster risk management and resilience.

Senior ministerial leadership across the nation

49. National strategic decision-making about disaster management calls for the attention of the Prime Minister and state and territory Premiers and Chief Ministers – perhaps through a forum such as the National Cabinet.

50. We consider that the authority of the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers is critical for high-level strategic decision‑making concerning disasters that have national implications. Certain strategic decisions concerning national natural disasters should be made by the nation’s most senior ministers – by those clearly accountable to the Australian public.

51. Australian, state and territory governments should also establish a senior ministerial forum, supporting National Cabinet, to make strategic decisions about national natural disaster arrangements. This forum should consider both long-term strategic policy matters directed at making Australia more resilient, and shorter-term strategic matters concerning specific national disasters, like the 2019‑2020 bushfires.

52. These ministerial forums should not, of course, be responsible for the day-to-day operational and tactical decisions about how to respond to disasters. However, they may at times need to make strategic decisions about, for example, how finite resources might be best shared across jurisdictions; how to communicate with the public about a disaster; and how and when financial assistance should be provided.

An advisory body

53. These ministerial forums should be supported and informed by an authoritative advisory body of senior officials from Australian, state and territory governments. The advisory body would draw on advice from across government agencies, industry, experts and practitioners.

54. This should be a standing advisory body that helps develop strategic advice across all phases of disaster management. It should not be limited to operating in times of crisis or disaster. A new advisory body would take a holistic approach to all disasters and disaster risk. In response to a particular disaster, it would draw on additional, specialist expertise.

A standing national resilience and recovery entity

Resilience

55. As emphasised above, there needs to be a fundamental shift in strategic thinking about national natural disaster management. If there were one word that encapsulates this shift, it would be ‘resilience’.

56. To think broadly about how to make the nation more resilient to natural disasters is to think about all of the different hazards we might face, all of the complex consequences of natural disasters, and all of the interrelated policy measures necessary to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. A narrow focus on response and recovery will leave Australia vulnerable.

57. A national entity dedicated to championing resilience across the nation should be established. Its remit should be to think broadly about all of the measures necessary to make the country resilient to natural disasters, and plan and respond accordingly. It should focus on reducing long-term disaster risk and harmonising approaches across Australia. It should be accountable to ministers and, in turn, the Australian public.

58. The work of this Australian Government body will involve long-term thinking, planning and cooperation across multiple government departments and agencies at all levels of government, including local government, and extensive engagement with the private sector, non-government organisations and Australian communities. No one government or organisation controls all the levers that can be used to reduce the risk of natural disasters.

Recovery

59. This national resilience entity should also be responsible for the Australian Government’s disaster recovery work. Disaster recovery is a core part of resilience, particularly when it aims to ‘build back better’ – that is, recover in a way that makes the nation better prepared to withstand the next disaster. Indeed, the remit of the recently established National Bushfire Recovery Agency could well be expanded to encompass resilience.

60. The National Bushfire Recovery Agency provides a compelling illustration of the value of national coordination, and of the positive effects of bringing together stakeholders across jurisdictions, sectors and different levels of government. It should continue its work on disaster recovery arrangements, particularly to make recovery more responsive to local needs.

61. Rapidly establishing new recovery agencies after a disaster can cause confusion and uncertainty. A standing resilience and recovery body that can scale-up to meet the needs of a future disaster would allow for institutional knowledge and relationships to develop and mature. It would also allow it to plan for national recovery efforts well in advance of a disaster.

A standing national emergency management entity

62. The Australian Government should also expand its national preparedness and response functions, particularly as they relate to inter-jurisdictional cooperation, coordination and resource sharing.

63. We see a greater role for Emergency Management Australia in this work. Emergency Management Australia has been central to coordinating the Australian Government’s activities during crises. It is responsible for providing situational awareness to the Australian Government and facilitating Australian Government assistance to state and territory governments. It should continue to perform these important functions, and also lead on national disaster preparedness and response initiatives.

64. Current resource sharing relies too much on ‘goodwill’. Those making decisions about how people and resources might be shared between jurisdictions need to be accountable for those decisions. Emergency Management Australia’s role should be expanded to facilitate the sharing of finite national resources. Some of this work is currently performed by the National Resource Sharing Centre, but would be more appropriate for government. State and territory governments should of course retain control over their own resources.

65. Emergency Management Australia should also be responsible for coordinating the procurement of aerial firefighting services, a function currently performed by the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, to supplement the services owned and managed directly by state and territory governments.

Sharing people and resources

66. Efforts to make Australia more resilient to natural disasters are likely to become increasingly costly, and therefore will call for more resources and a more effective and efficient use of resources. The Australian Government can find nationwide efficiencies and economies of scale through, for example, facilitating greater cooperation and the sharing of resources within and between states and territories.

67. There is little doubt that sharing people and resources across state borders is now critical to responding to national disasters. Each state and territory could, in theory, try to be self-sufficient, and resource their fire and emergency service agencies to meet peak demand in the worst disaster seasons. But a national approach to disaster management would use national emergency resources more effectively and efficiently across the nation.

Technology that works together

68. Differences across jurisdictions in equipment, technology, training, processes and protocols all make it more difficult for people to help to respond to disasters outside their home state. During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, some fire and emergency responders working interstate struggled to communicate with other responders. Some even faced these difficulties when working within their own state or territory.

69. Fire and emergency services have for some time worked to make systems more interoperable, but challenges remain. Communications technology, for example, is different in many states. While it is costly and takes time, making emergency response technologies work seamlessly across jurisdictions is an essential part of an effective national response to disasters. This work should be expedited, as should the delivery of a Public Safety Mobile Broadband capability, which will enable first responders to make better use of internet-based technologies and applications to access images, location tracking and other data.

Training, accreditation and joint exercises

70. A level of national consistency in training and competency standards also aids resource sharing, enabling someone trained in one state or territory to work effectively in another. There has been substantial progress towards this end, but there is further work to be done.

71. There should be a national register of personnel and equipment, which could be supported by a personnel accreditation scheme. These initiatives will enable available resources to be easily identified and deployed.

72. National-level exercises for natural disasters, including disasters that cross state borders, are also critical.

Sharing firefighting aircraft

73. Aircraft have unique capabilities that can be employed in response to natural disasters. They can deploy quickly and over great distances to gain situational awareness, access remote communities to deliver essential supplies or conduct evacuations, and transport emergency and recovery teams to remote areas.

74. The high demand for aircraft in the 2019‑2020 bushfire season is unlikely to be rare. Longer and more severe fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres, and indeed within Australia, will make it increasingly difficult to access aviation services when we need them, particularly at short notice.

75. Australian, state and territory governments should develop a modest, Australian‑based and registered, national aerial firefighting capability comprising more specialised platforms, to be tasked according to the greatest national need. This would supplement the aerial firefighting capability of the states and territories.

A national picture needs national data

76. There are significant inconsistencies across the nation in much of the information and data that governments and others need to make informed decisions about managing natural disaster risk. As discussed further below, there are confusing and unnecessary inconsistencies in some of the information provided to the public. Greater consistency in emergency warnings and air quality information, for example, is clearly necessary.

77. Inconsistent data also hamper the efforts of governments and other organisations to manage disaster risk. For example, there are fundamental differences in how information about the impact of past disasters, and about exposure and vulnerability to future hazards, is collected, stored and shared. To make Australia more resilient to national natural disasters requires a much clearer picture of where the nation stands as a whole. This will also create efficiencies, improve situational awareness, and help evaluate our collective efforts to manage disaster risk.

78. The Australian Government should play a national leadership role in coordinating national data, information and standard setting. Having national standards and policy is not inconsistent with the principle of subsidiarity, provided that they are not overly prescriptive, and allow each jurisdiction to tailor appropriate matters to local conditions and circumstances.

79. However, this work should not be left to the Australian Government alone. All governments should prioritise the harmonisation of data governance, the creation of national data standards, and the sharing of common technologies. This will enable greater collaboration and build our nation’s collective knowledge of climate and disaster risks.

80. For example, Australian, state and territory governments should agree to develop consistent and compatible methods and metrics to measure the health effects of disasters, including on mental health. They should also work together to collect and manage information about wildlife more consistently.

Individuals preparing for disasters and managing risk

81. It is widely recognised that individuals need to prepare for and manage the risk of natural disasters, to the extent that they are able to do so. They need to take steps to mitigate the risks they face and know what to do when disaster strikes. Individuals, like governments, need to consider disaster risk holistically and take action on multiple fronts. While individuals will have varying abilities to manage risk for themselves, and varying vulnerabilities, there are a number of things that most people can do.

82. Of course, many Australians already prepare for disasters and take steps to protect themselves, their families and their communities.

Some of the steps

83. This report is not a guide to the practical steps that people should take. However, the evidence we heard, and other reports, suggest that individuals should, among many other things, understand the environment in which they live; buy adequate home and contents insurance; know when and how to evacuate, and when it might be safe to ‘stay and defend’; and understand emergency warnings and what to do in response. They should also consider carefully where to live and how they should build their homes, in light of the risk of natural disasters.

Danger of complacency

84. Complacency is always a danger. It tends to set in as memories of past disasters fade. Disaster planning is not a ‘set and forget’ exercise, nor should it only be considered immediately after a disaster, when the risks and dangers are fresh in people’s minds. All Australians, and particularly those living in high-risk areas (a growing population), may well need to make disaster planning and preparation a part of their lives.

85. Some Australians may not appreciate the extent of the risk they face, the self‑reliance they need, or the range of things that may be necessary to cope with natural disasters. Some have only recently moved to a high-risk area. As temperatures rise and landscapes change, others may find that the risk has moved to them. We heard that some Australians do not have the experience, knowledge and community ties necessary to manage disaster risk effectively.

In some disasters, it is impossible to protect everyone

86. It can be dangerous for people to assume that others will always be there to help during a natural disaster. Even the best prepared and resourced governments and fire and emergency services cannot entirely protect the public from the impact of natural disasters. Some bushfires, for example, will be too widespread; some Australians will live too remotely; and there are only so many firefighters, aircraft and trucks that can be deployed at the same time. Furthermore, governments and charities by no means cover the cost of rebuilding uninsured homes and replacing other property lost in natural disasters.

Practical and economic reasons for individuals to manage disaster risk

87. There are also practical and economic reasons for individuals to take some personal responsibility for their own risk exposure. They are best placed to make many decisions about how to manage risks to their own homes, health and wellbeing. They also have the legal authority to make many of these decisions, and the incentive to choose the options that most closely align with their ‘risk appetite’.

Many things are outside the control of individuals

88. A person’s exposure to natural disasters is not, however, entirely a matter of choice, but rather is affected by many factors outside their control. While responsibility for resilience and disaster risk management is shared between governments, individuals and others, it is often not shared equally. Individuals simply do not control many of the levers needed to reduce their exposure and vulnerability to natural disasters.

89. For example, while for many Australians, living in the bush or other high-risk areas might be a ‘lifestyle choice’, for others, the choice is not entirely free. Many people must live near where they work; farmers are an obvious example. Children who live with their parents may be exposed to the risks their parents assume. And some people will find that the risk of a natural disaster where they live has grown.

90. There are other differences in people’s ability to mitigate the risks they face from disasters, aside from where they live. For example, some are better able to build or modify their homes to withstand disasters, or to afford adequate home insurance, or medical care. Some are better able to clear fuel from around their homes, to protect themselves during a disaster, and to recover afterwards.

91. The decisions people make concerning where they live and how they manage risk are also affected by government decisions and laws. An individual’s decision about where to live, for example, is informed by how governments zone land; their decisions about how to build their homes are informed by government building codes; and the extent to which they can clear fuel and manage their land is constrained by government regulations.

Supporting individuals to make good decisions

92. Governments have a vital role in educating communities and providing people with the information they need to make sound and informed decisions about how to manage the risks they face from natural disasters.

Community education

93. Community education about how to prepare for disasters is clearly an ongoing and pressing need. It has been recognised and emphasised in many inquiries, and its importance is similarly stressed in this report. State and territory governments should continue to deliver, evaluate and improve education and engagement programs aimed at promoting disaster resilience for individuals and communities.

94. We also heard of the need for community education about how Australians can best help others affected by natural disasters. The generosity of the Australian people after a disaster is heart-warming and no doubt greatly appreciated, but unfortunately, some donated goods are not really needed, and many are difficult to transport and store. Communities affected by disasters will often be better assisted by cash donations.

95. Other examples of the need for community education are highlighted in this report – including education about emergency warnings.

Inconsistencies in warnings, danger ratings, and other information

96. Throughout our inquiry we heard about the many ways in which governments can provide people with better information about how to manage disaster risk. Preparing for disasters and managing risk is complex, and should not be made more difficult by confusing, inconsistent or inadequate information from government agencies, or by slow and bureaucratic processes.

97. Inconsistency across jurisdictions is one notable obstacle that many individuals face. For example, there are inconsistencies across jurisdictions in bushfire warnings, fire danger ratings, and the names and functions of various types of evacuation centres and shelters. We have recommended national consistency for all of these. Past efforts to this end have been disappointingly slow.

98. For some people, consistency across jurisdictions might not seem important, but many Australians travel interstate or live close to state borders. Others pay close attention to how loved ones in other parts of the country are faring, particularly during disasters. For these people, inconsistencies across jurisdictions can be confusing, upsetting, and sometimes even dangerous.

Unnecessary complexity

99. The information provided to individuals is also sometimes unnecessarily complex. For example, we heard that the emergency warning ‘Watch and Act’, and the fire danger ratings system, are confusing to many people. Work to improve these should be expedited.

100. For those recovering from a natural disaster – perhaps claiming insurance, applying for support from governments and charities, rebuilding their homes, and attending to health and mental health concerns – we heard that navigating the recovery support system can be complex and exhausting. These processes should be designed with closer attention to the needs of these people.

101. Having to tell one’s story multiple times to different recovery assistance providers may increase the trauma. Providers should be able to share people’s personal information more easily for recovery purposes, when appropriate.

102. Insurance is another cause of confusion. We heard that some people do not understand what their insurance policies cover (with the cost of clearing debris after a disaster a common point of confusion), or what they might be able to do to their homes and properties to reduce their insurance premiums. The insurance industry should produce clear guidance for consumers about what they can do to mitigate the risk of natural hazards to their homes. These mitigation actions should be reflected in lower insurance premiums.

Unclear information about land management

103. Some information is also simply not available to the public, not available in sufficient detail, or difficult to access. For example, clear information about government fuel load management strategies can be difficult to obtain. This undermines public confidence and affects the broader public debate about this polarising topic. Information about fuel loads and fuel load management should be more accessible. State and territory governments should clearly communicate their fuel load management strategies to the public, report on the outcomes of those strategies, and educate the public about fuel and fuel management.

104. Australian, state and territory governments should also review their legislation and processes relating to vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction, to ensure that there is clarity about how and when land managers can undertake bushfire hazard reduction activities.

In the dark about risk exposure

105. Clear risk information can help people make better-informed decisions about, for example, where to buy and live, how to design and build homes, and how to manage land. Governments should develop ways in which natural hazard risk information can be better communicated to the public – particularly to people who are making decisions that will affect their exposure to those risks. For example, those selling a home might be required to disclose this type of information to prospective purchasers.

Whole-of-nation effort required

106. ‘Whole-of-nation’ effort and cooperation is necessary to make Australia more resilient to natural disasters. This calls for action, not only by governments and individuals, but also by industry, businesses, charities, volunteers, the media, community groups and others.

107. Emergency planning should involve a wider range of stakeholders, such as primary healthcare providers, wildlife organisations and infrastructure operators.

108. Recognising the vital role of the media, particularly in communicating disaster warnings and other information to the public, state and territory governments should explore how to improve the engagement between emergency managers and media representatives before, during and after natural disasters, and ensure that timely warnings and public information are provided to appropriate media.

109. Recovery planning would be similarly assisted by broader cooperation and consultation. For example, the non-government sector should be better incorporated in recovery planning processes – at the local, regional, jurisdictional and national levels.

110. Charities play a crucial role in disaster recovery efforts, but their value is sometimes not fully understood. While larger non-government organisations and charities are generally included in recovery arrangements and planning, many smaller organisations and charities are not. We recommend that there be regular and ongoing national forums for charities, non‑government organisations and volunteer groups with a role in natural disaster recovery.

Our recommendations

111. Many of our recommendations identify what needs to be done, rather than how it should be done. This provides flexibility to governments in implementing recommendations to take into account jurisdictional and local needs. It does not, however, diminish the importance of implementation.

112. Australia has a history of more than 240 inquiries about natural disasters. Many of these inquiries would have been time consuming and costly, and great care and consideration was no doubt invested in them. While many recommendations have been faithfully implemented and have led to significant improvements, others have not.

113. Our recommendations should be implemented, some as a matter of urgency. Several will take time to achieve the intended outcome, but meaningful steps should be taken now towards timely implementation. Each recommendation would improve our national natural disaster arrangements, but taken as a whole, they will have greatest effect.

114. Implementing our recommendations calls for a cohesive and unified national effort. National natural disaster arrangements are a shared responsibility. Failure by governments to act on our recommendations will shift risk to others.

115. It is plain to us that the shortcomings that we have identified must be addressed. Progress on implementing our recommendations should be monitored and communicated nationally. If a recommendation is not accepted, reasons should be given, so that others know that they may need to act. Governments need to commit to action and cooperate, and hold each other to account. They should not prevaricate.

116. Australians need confidence in our national natural disaster arrangements. Implementing our recommendations will help to deliver this and make Australia safer. Australians expect no less.

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