Australia can do better on managing disasters

Robert McClelland has a roadmap for a FEMA-like disaster management authority. AAP Image/Raoul Wegat

Who comes to the rescue when there is a disaster? Who pays the bills?

It is well accepted doctrine that in Australia the primary responsibility for protecting life and property lies with the states and territories. However, with the potential for large scale damage from disasters, the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department (AGD) assumes responsibility for national emergency management response capabilities and for supporting states and territories in developing their capacity for dealing with disasters such as major floods, bushfires and earthquakes.

Collectively, these initiatives provide Australia’s disaster management framework. They potentially involve substantial amounts of money and agencies with conflicting agendas. They affect individual victims, communities and the national economy.

The current framework has been at the centre of media and political attention over the past 12 months, spurred by calls for reform from federal and state politicians. There have been claims that we’ve got it wrong.

The Victorian Deputy Premier for example complained that problems mean communities can’t get “a straight answer about when, where and why $25,000 clean-up grants are activated or not”. Getting money, rather than just an answer, is harder.

Most recently, former Commonwealth Attorney-General and Minister for Emergency Management, the Hon Robert McClelland MP, has sounded a warning about underfunding and the inadequacies of Australia’s disaster framework. His claims appear in Next Generation Disaster and Security Management, a book that was launched this week.

McClelland’s chapter - Enhancing Commonwealth Leadership of National Resilience Strategy - has already been broadly circulated through the national media. It criticises Australia’s approach to disaster management, coordination and funding practices. In particular it condemns the government’s focus on post-disaster assistance through the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment (AGDRP) rather than through funding for disaster resilience and community preparedness.

In addition to previous scathing criticisms of Commonwealth assistance being used for political point scoring and publicity, McClelland recommends consolidating the AGD’s currently dispersed disaster management divisions into a dedicated national body consistent with America’s one-stop-shop for disaster related needs - the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Notwithstanding criticisms of FEMA (particularly for its slow and bureaucratic response to Katrina), there is merit in this idea. It could be regarded as a logical extension of existing disaster response coordination through the AGD’s Emergency Management (EM) unit. There’s no reason why disaster funding must be disbursed through a social services or national infrastructure department, in the same way that funding does not necessarily have to come from the Attorney-General’s Department. (The latter is best occupied developing and implementing a coherent law and justice policy rather than serving as a state paymaster.)

As a consequence of the Government’s current fiscal troubles, where exactly would funds for an Australian FEMA originate from? McClelland seemingly suggests tightening the eligibility criteria for the AGDRP. The trade-off would be less collateral damage through enhanced disaster coordination, mitigation and resilience. More money for rebuilding communities and preventing harm, fewer spontaneous flat screen television purchases at the taxpayers’ expense?

One response might be that disaster management and disaster recovery is a matter for state or local government, with the Commonwealth simply acting as a giant piggybank that provides funds. An enhanced disaster recovery regime would, for example, involve strengthening state bureaucracies. The expectation would be that premiers will sort out squabbling agencies and the taxpayer will look after individual hardship through conventional income transfer to people in need. That need would be determined by state agencies, with the piggybank providing funds, coping with complaints but having little control. It’s a grossly inefficient response. We need to be more positive.

Disasters are an acknowledged inevitability in Australia’s unforgiving climate. They are a common occurrence and accepted by communities as part of life. However there is much to be said for minimising the inevitable impacts of a disaster through mitigation and by scaling back poorly targeted financial assistance such as the AGDRP.

The government focuses on easily accessible - and on occasion easily exploited - grants. But for true community resilience we need to emphasise strategic funding. A balance must be struck between the importance of disaster resilience and preparedness and people being able to get financial assistance. Until such time as “resilience building” is clearly implemented it will continue to remain merely a “priority” and political point scorer.

There is merit in the former Attorney-General’s chapter and subsequent recommendations. It is never too late for a conversion on the road to Damascus, offsetting Mr McClelland’s inaction regarding the ideas when he was in the ministry. It remains to be seen whether his successor as Australia’s first legal officer, Nicola Roxon, will embrace his recommendations. Will she shape the future of Australia’s emergency management framework, or trace her own wavering path to disaster reform?