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Declaration of national emergency

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Declaration of national emergency

50. The Australian Government can, if it chooses, declare a national emergency. There can be little dispute about this. However, the consequences of a declaration, beyond symbolic, require elaboration, and we continue to consider this issue.
51. A declaration of a national emergency could serve several purposes. It could emphasise the gravity of a situation and galvanise the population in the face of a national natural disaster. It could signal to Australian Government departments and agencies the need for a state of readiness or action, and mobilise them to support states and territories. It could provide for a better coordinated national approach and action.
52. It might enable or facilitate the securing of international resources to, for example, fight bushfires. It could also facilitate the early deployment of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade liaison officers to EMA to assist with offers of international assistance.
53. States and territories already have legislated power to make emergency declarations and have done so in respect of a number of natural disasters, including during the 2019 2020 bushfire season and the COVID-19 pandemic. We are considering how any national declaration would 'interact with state and territory emergency management frameworks', and whether the Australian Government should have 'clearer authority' to take action 'in the national interest'.

The Australian Defence Force

54. The contribution of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in supporting state and territory governments during response and recovery efforts during the 2019 2020 bushfires was without parallel in peacetime. Between September 2019 and March 2020, 'Operation Bushfire Assist' saw some 8,000 defence force personnel assist with the bushfires, including more than 2,500 ADF Reserves. Approximately 500 defence personnel from abroad also helped, from countries including New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Japan and Fiji.
55. The ADF does not directly combat bushfires, but is an important component of response and recovery for bushfires and other natural disasters. The ADF provides a set of specialist support capabilities. For example, ADF vessels HMAS Choules and MV Sycamore evacuated hundreds of people from fire-affected Mallacoota in Victoria in early January 2020.
56. The involvement of the ADF in natural disasters in Australia is already contemplated in government disaster plans. However, there was some uncertainty about the 'thresholds' that must be met before seeking the assistance of the ADF, and how the thresholds apply. Those thresholds are set out in NATCATDISPLAN, COMDISPLAN, and the Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC) Manual. We understand that the Australian Government is currently working to clarify the thresholds and we support these efforts.
57. Additionally, some state government agencies and some local governments did not understand what tasks the ADF could perform, how to seek ADF assistance, or how best to interact with the ADF once it was deployed, during both the response and recovery phases. It appears this arose from unfamiliarity with working with the ADF in natural disasters and the relevant processes.
58. Separately, some stakeholders questioned the limits of the existing authority to support DACC tasking. It has been said, in the context of the 2019 2020 bushfire season, that the limits of the existing legal framework were 'tested'. We have not yet reached a view about whether further legislative authority is required, and have sought further information on this issue.
59. We have also heard that the ADF lacks privileges and immunities otherwise afforded to state and territory emergency responders, and that the legislative provisions for the call-out of the ADF Reserve force may not have been sufficiently flexible. We have sought further information on the nature and effect of those challenges.