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National coordination and accountability arrangements

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National coordination and accountability arrangements

25. Cooperation and collaboration between Australian, state, territory and local governments is vital in national natural disasters, particularly in disasters that affect multiple communities and multiple jurisdictions concurrently. Clarity about the roles and responsibilities of various levels of government is therefore necessary to ensure services are delivered effectively and efficiently, and to ensure appropriate levels of accountability.
26. Over the coming decades, Australia is likely to experience more frequent and intense natural disasters. This will require all jurisdictions to work together to coordinate strategic decision making and share resources across the jurisdictions and the Australian Government.
27. During this inquiry, we heard how a number of forums have evolved to fill gaps in national coordination arrangements between state and territory bushfire and emergency response agencies.
28. At the centre of the Australian Government’s coordination of natural disasters is Emergency Management Australia (EMA). Its mission spans disaster risk reduction, disaster preparedness and capability development, critical incident planning, crisis and security management and disaster recovery. It was first established in 1974, within the Department of Defence. Today, it sits within the Department of Home Affairs.
29. The Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) was established in 1993 as a non-government, not-for-profit company—whose 31 members include Australian and New Zealand Fire and Emergency Services agencies. It was formed by its industry to be a national facilitator of common standards, doctrine and resource sharing. In 2003, AFAC established the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) to provide a national collaborative arrangement for the provision of aerial firefighting resources for combating bushfires. NAFC’s role includes coordinating contract leasing and facilitating the sharing of aerial firefighting resources on behalf of state and territory fire agencies.
30. In May 2013, the Australian New Zealand Emergency Management Committee (ANZEMC), the peak government committee responsible for emergency management, rejected a proposal originating from EMA to establish a representative group of operational emergency management leaders at a national level. By December 2013 AFAC had, in effect, established a group that operated collegially to perform this function, called the Commissioners and Chief Officers Strategic Committee (CCOSC). CCOSC was created by AFAC to provide jurisdictional consideration and representation on behalf of AFAC to the Australian Government. The functions of this group included consideration of strategic issues, progressing national initiatives, and developing fire and emergency services capability.
31. Following the 2014-15 bushfire season, CCOSC took ownership of the Arrangement for Interstate Assistance (AIA), the policy and doctrine underpinning interstate and New Zealand fire and emergency service resource sharing, which had first been developed by EMA. The AIA provides that agencies control the resources being shared, but CCOSC makes 'preliminary decisions' about the fulfilment of requests. However, CCOSC, as a body, cannot direct any jurisdiction. Rather, it is a cross-agency forum for information sharing and collective deliberation. Nevertheless, we have heard different accounts from CCOSC members about CCOSC’s authority and capacity to make decisions, and not necessarily limited to those under the AIA.
32. In 2016, AFAC established the National Resource Sharing Centre (NRSC) to implement the resource sharing decisions of CCOSC members and to develop and maintain the AIA, and develop arrangements for international assistance with Canada and the United States of America. These had grown organically over time. Following its establishment, NRSC then coordinated outbound deployments to Canada in 2017, and the USA and Canada in 2018, and resource sharing for Tropical Cyclone Debbie in 2018, the Queensland fires of 2018, and the Tasmanian fires of early 2019.
33. CCOSC’s membership, and more importantly its functions, have grown to include a more operational role. Its functions now include coordinating national deployments during significant events, and providing oversight and direction to the NRSC in relation to facilitating interstate and international sharing of resources.
34. CCOSC attendees, including Australian, state and territory officials, have told us of the valuable functions performed by CCOSC, NAFC and NRSC. While AFAC members suggest that CCOSC represents the broader fire and emergency services sector, CCOSC members emphasised that their primary responsibility was to their own agencies and jurisdictions.
35. CCOSC, NAFC and NRSC, operating under the auspices of a not-for-profit company, were not intended, and may not be well-suited to, determining or giving effect to what is in the national interest in preparing for, and responding to, all natural disasters. AFAC is not subject to the organisational governance principles and public accountability requirements that apply to government agencies.
36. Current arrangements do not provide a clear mechanism to elevate matters to national leaders—that is, the Prime Minister and other First Ministers of states and territories. We appreciate that current arrangements reflect changes that have occurred over time, but, due to an increasing need for better coordination, these arrangements might not be suitable to facilitate national decisions in appropriate circumstances, such as where a natural disaster is considered to amount to a national emergency or where resources need to be prioritised.
37. The 2019-2020 bushfires demonstrated challenges with coordinating resource sharing on a large scale and prolonged responses under current national arrangements. We are examining whether more suitable arrangements can be made to facilitate timely and fully-informed strategic decisions nationally to prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

National Cabinet

38. National Cabinet was established following a meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) on 20 March 2020 in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
39. The functions of the National Cabinet, or a similar peak intergovernmental decision-making body, could be adopted for the national management of future natural disasters.
40. For national natural disasters, a body like the National Cabinet could receive advice from appropriate intergovernmental bodies, such as the ANZEMC. ANZEMC could in turn be informed by subordinate groups such as CCOSC, the Community Outcomes and Recovery Sub-committee (CORS), and other bodies relevant to the particular natural disaster.
41. This arrangement would be analogous to that between the National Cabinet and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and the National COVID 19 Coordination Commission (now the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A national recovery and resilience agency

42. The recently created disaster specific recovery agencies, such as the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, Bushfire Recovery Victoria and the National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency, have performed a valuable role in recovery.
43. Rapidly establishing new agencies as a natural disaster is unfolding can be disruptive, delay necessary and immediate assistance, and create confusion. There may be benefit in a single, scalable standing body responsible for natural disaster recovery and resilience at the Australian Government level. Such a body would be responsible for Commonwealth recovery coordination, prioritisation, policy and collation of relevant data.
44. The body could also provide national leadership for broader resilience policy and national programs. It would support the development of skills and expertise in recovery, and foster consistent approaches to recovery and lessons management, including by building resilience in communities. It would work closely with governments and organisations at the state, territory and local levels. This body would require a strong connection with Australian Government preparation and response capabilities and policy making.

Assurance capability

45. Australia has a long history of seeking to understand the causes and impacts of natural disasters, and how disaster arrangements can be improved, with more than 240 previous inquiries being brought to our attention.
46. We have learned that recommendations, findings and directions from the last 20 years of natural disaster inquiries, roadmaps, strategies and frameworks have advocated for consistent disaster risk information, greater investment in national resilience and in mitigation of risk, and improved collaboration. However, it is difficult to determine the implementation status for many recommendations. We observe that many initiatives have not yet been adequately implemented and we question why this is so.
47. We have seen how governance and accountability arrangements have been improved in recent years within emergency management sectors with the introduction of external review and assurance bodies, such as the Inspectors-General of Emergency Management in Victoria and Queensland—two states that have experienced significant natural disasters. These bodies have supported a culture of continuous improvement and collaboration.
48. A level of national consistency in review and assurance functions would likely strengthen the national capability to respond to natural disasters.
49. We continue to consider ways to track the implementation of recommendations of reviews and to monitor and assure the implementation of national plans and frameworks.