Opinion

If this massive disaster is not the time for a national response, when would be?

Genevieve Jacobs3 January 2020
Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says governments should not get in each other’s way during a crisis. Photo: File.

The Prime Minister has appealed for calm during the fire crisis and says the Federal Government is doing all it can.

“What you cannot have in these situations is governments stepping over the top of each other in responding to a natural disaster like this,” he said this week.

The Federal Government has been consistent (and indeed, insistent) in saying that bushfire emergencies are a state government responsibility. In “normal” emergencies – if such a thing still exists – the Government is correct to a significant degree.

States must request assistance. The Federal Government cannot ride roughshod over them.

But let’s reiterate the grim facts. Areas of land as large as European countries have been burned. There is no rain forecast. Communities have been razed and this weekend is likely to be as dangerous as New Year’s Eve, or worse. Seven people, likely more, have died.

There are estimates that perhaps four million animals may have died in the infernos. Surviving farm livestock and native animals alike risk thirst and starvation.

Our emergency responders are stretched beyond their limits. There will be a profound toll on their mental health and wellbeing.

This is well beyond an emergency. This is a natural disaster of unprecedented scale on the Australian continent as far as we are aware, stretching across state boundaries and with no end in sight.

NSW is the most populous and prosperous state and its resources are at breaking point. Imagine if a disaster on this scale were to happen in Tasmania? Or, God forbid, here in the ACT. Would it still be up to the state governments to respond?

But we’ve had not so much as a COAG meeting.

If it’s not the business of the Federal Government to lead a response now, then when would it be?

We have heard from Defence Minister Linda Reynolds about the ADF’s role in logistical support. She described “significant behind the scenes support” for frontline firefighters. And from Emergency Services Minister David Littleproud, also warning against “kneejerk reactions”.

Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton

Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Home Affairs/Immigration Peter Dutton. Photo: Wikicommons.

But there’s been a notable, almost hushed, silence from one other major Government figure: Peter Dutton.

The Home Affairs mega ministry was set up by Malcolm Turnbull in 2017 under Minister Dutton’s leadership and is seen as a key portfolio for a very powerful politician.

Described by Mr Turnbull as “the most significant reform of Australia’s national intelligence and domestic security arrangements” in more than 40 years, the super department combined the Immigration and Border Protection Department with parts of the Attorney-General’s, Infrastructure and Social Services departments.

Those parts include responsibility for Emergency Management. To quote from the Departmental website: “We lead the Australian Government disaster and emergency management response. We work to build a disaster-resilient Australia that prevents, prepares, responds and recovers from disasters and emergencies.”

It is difficult to see how and where this has happened during the unfolding crisis, and even harder to discern Mr Dutton’s role in this major national emergency.

Home Affairs could initiate a Crisis Coordination Centre, bringing together public and private infrastructure into a co-ordinated national emergency response across multiple sectors including telecommunications, energy supplies, transport, banking and retail, and many other areas where a strategic national approach could help alleviate the carnage.

Perhaps this is already happening. Perhaps not. We’ve certainly heard nothing to indicate that it is. And this emergency has been building inexorably for months now: nobody’s been caught on the hop without adequate time to respond.

So if now is not the time, when?

This is an awkward crisis for a government that does not want to discuss climate change because, they say, our focus should be on the disaster – as though we can’t all walk and chew gum at the same time.

It’s an awkward crisis because there’s no barnstorming piece of legislation that can “fix” the problem and work well in sound bites.

There’s no easy solution for this one.

But when we went to the polls in 2019, we elected a government for all Australians, for all of the time. That is what we asked Scott Morrison and his ministry to do for us. It’s time to see that leadership in action.

If not now, when?

Original Article published by Genevieve Jacobs on The RiotACT.

What's Your Opinion?

5 Responses to If this massive disaster is not the time for a national response, when would be?

John John 8:39 pm 03 Jan 20

Brilliant article. We sat for over 15 hours from midday to 3am in Milton last night waiting for the highway to re-open.

No information, no guidance, nothing.

ABC radio reported what it could but the official spokespersons told us nada, nix, nothing. In fact, it just made it worse.

They can send a message to us via sms so why the heck didn’t they send a message to everyone in the area explains the back burning got out of control?

There was/is no communication, no evident coordination and without being political, no empathy for people trapped, caught up, suffering or facing substantial loss. Not at a federal level anyway. There is so much that could have been done in the last 3 months to prepare including using the defence forces this week to manage comms and logistics.

Personally, I could not give a flying ‘you know what’ about states vs federal – we are in the midst of a major crisis and it requires leadership, coordination and communication. It needs resources to provide Immediate assistance to people, not visits to locations and tone deaf comments.

Whilst we were tired, frustrated and even angry at times we marvelled at the efforts of the volunteers in the RFS and SES who were making the path home safe for us. Though they didn’t hear us, we sat in the car thanking them as we drove through the still burning area south of Nowra.

The people along the main road of Milton were terrific! Opening their homes to use bathrooms, bringing sandwiches and drinks and charging mobile phones. The IGA stayed open and must have cooked more roast chickens than any other store in the country. The bakery left its toilets open all night. Sure, these are small acts, but they mean a lot when you are stuck in your car with no information and no understanding of what was going on.

Eventually it will be revealed the Emperor wasn’t wearing clothes and again relied on our innate sense of community to ‘get us through’.

We are safe back in Sydney and worry about those facing another dreadful weekend. We wish everyone well.

Ps I was told by a relative tonight they knew what was happening as the TV stations were reporting on it. Far out! Why couldn’t the police, government, rfs etc etc tell those forming the longest car park in the history of the world?

Pps, if Guinness book of records were there judging the car park effort then we would have had several well-meaning and concerned politicians there too…

Frank ward. OAM Frank ward. OAM 5:21 pm 03 Jan 20

I did a posting way back when the fires started up north that the troops should by directed to work beside the firefighters and it was argued that they were not trained in fighting fires but as the next months have shown many local residents have saved their homes by using common sense and bravery which when added to the discipline of the troops would have greatly increased the capacity of the firefighters and given them some relief and rest.
It appears that this horrific fire season has had no influence on the PM as he was busy planning a visit to India to sell coal and CO2 wilt his former cabinet mate Vaile now boss of a major coal mine. Surprise Surprise,! This government is owned by the fossil fuel industry but must be returned to the people so that we can be proud of our elected people knowing they represent us not the money that bought them

Di Di 4:10 pm 03 Jan 20

Scumo needs everything to burn so he can implement his next plan… https://www.infrastructure.gov.au/cities/smart-cities/plan/index.aspx

Trisha Trisha 9:18 am 03 Jan 20

The banks could open atms and record account transfers to supply cash for people to buy food and fuel. Regional airlines could supply discounted flights with support from major airlines. This is not the time for profit. Major fuel chains could offer fuel cards. This is a time for big business to demonstrate community engagement. In the last few years companies have written well scripted policies of supporting volunteering for the community. Often multinationals who avoid tax. If there is a national emergencies in other countries we do offer very effective Australian Defence Force Support to address safe water and sewerage. Parts of the South Coast have lost the basic services. The national disaster response is defined and legislated in each state. Politicians have the ability from November till now to have met and coordinated these responses with the ADF. The police and the emergency services are fatigued strong clear leadership does not have to be a politician. peter Cosgrove could be placed as a coordinator for a direct grouping of each state disaster recovery. We all know most effective work in government is by practical staff. It is not about Hawaii or who is a politician behind the microphone. It should be about those with community trust to logistically and without political point scoring to actually on the ground practically act.

Wouter Ypma Wouter Ypma 7:50 am 03 Jan 20

excellent opinion article that I support
Would the prime minister AND mr Dutton be told to read it?
Wouter (one of the many evacuees at the Bega Showground)

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