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Emergency management

Senator LUDLAM-I would like to go to emergency management. Could the officers come to the table for subprogram 2.1.2, emergency management? I have a couple of questions about preparedness for the coming fire season. Could we start off with the status of the states and territories' fire risk audits that were requested by the Deputy Prime Minister prior to the coming fire season?

Mr Rothery-The correspondence that you referred to was the matter of a discussion at the COAG meeting in April which resolved that the nature of the information provided would relate to areas of bushfire readiness that would benefit from national coordination, with the intention that that information be discussed at a later COAG meeting in 2009. That COAG meeting has yet to occur. I understand it is scheduled for later this year, and that information is being sought from jurisdictions to inform consideration of the matter at that COAG. At this point the department is working with state and territory officials to make sure that those reports are available for consideration at that meeting.

Senator LUDLAM-Is 5 November the date of the forthcoming COAG meeting?

Mr Rothery-The date that I am aware of is in December.

Senator LUDLAM-We are into the fire season already. I presume fire crews on the east coast would be telling us that. So that meeting is going to come too late to have these documents in place before the forthcoming fire season. Can you clarify for us whether those will be regional audits or whether each state and territory has been tasked with preparing such an audit.

Mr Rothery-My understanding is that the information that has been sought from the states is about those issues of bushfire readiness that relate to matters that would benefit from national coordination, so that would tend to indicate that they are matters to do with Commonwealth-state cooperation or interstate cooperation and they would therefore be unlikely to discuss regional matters.

Mr Wilkins-I just want to alert you to the fact that the Attorney hosted a ministerial meeting on 25 September and the subject matter of that meeting was bushfire preparedness, so the conversation between the Commonwealth and the states and territories about preparations for the coming bushfire season was at that meeting and there was an extensive amount of conversation on various topics and in various forums in the lead-up to that meeting. I want to give you a bit of a sense that there has been a very large amount of activity
in this particular arena.

Senator LUDLAM-That is helpful, but I suppose the risk and readiness audits were really a key part which is why they-

Mr Wilkins-I do not agree with that. I do not think they are necessarily a key part of what was required. I was not, for example, aware of it but there have been extensive negotiations and meetings over the last 12 months or so in relation to a whole range of issues about preparedness for bushfires and they have been through the AEMC committee of officials. There have been extensive meetings on all sorts of aspects and, as the deputy secretary just pointed out, the Attorney has had meetings with his counterparts on this as well, so I
would not overstate how critical that is. They have been overtaken a little bit by other ways of dealing with these issues.

Senator LUDLAM-Would it be overstating it to say these risk and readiness audits are not necessary? It doesn't appear that they will arrive in time to be of much assistance this summer.

Mr Wilkins-I am not entirely clear on what role they are going to play in relation to the other work that we are doing, but certainly the Attorney has had discussions with his counterparts and asked them about their readiness and about whether there is anything the Commonwealth can do to assist. The Commonwealth has done a lot of things to assist. There seems to me to be a reasonable amount of activity on this front, which is being properly coordinated. I am just saying that I do not know that I would elevate these issues. They are important, presumably, for longer term planning-for issues around land use planning and longer term issues around things like building codes et cetera. If you are looking at longer term policy, they probably are quite useful.

Senator LUDLAM-So it was not the intention of the Deputy Prime Minister that those would be ready and could be acted upon prior to the 2009 fire season.

Mr Wilkins-Was it?

Senator LUDLAM-I do not know; I am just putting that to you.

Mr Wilkins-I am not sure what her intentions were.

ACTING CHAIR-The officers are trying to get you answers. I am not sure this department can speak on behalf of the Deputy Prime Minister about this.

Mr Wilkins-I am not entirely clear on what the purpose is. I am surmising that it would be useful for medium-term and long-term planning, but the point is that we have been getting on with this irrespective of whether these reports and audits have appeared or not.

Senator LUDLAM-Is it the intention that those will be made public once they are complete?

Mr Wilkins-I do not even know what they are. I assume it is going to be a matter for COAG, actually. Since they have been provided by states and territories, I assume the premiers and chief ministers will have a view as to whether they should be made public or not.

Senator LUDLAM-Would you say that the states and territories are any better prepared in 2009 than they were four or five years ago or in the middle of the nineties? If so, in what regard are we better set up now than we were then?

Mr Wilkins-There are a range of things that we can point to where the Commonwealth has assisted them, not least in terms of, say, having the capacity for early warnings, having better intelligence at their disposal in terms of fire and having better facilities for fighting fire in being able to put aerial firefighting in place. There are a whole range of issues like that, and there are probably a number of other things. I have not got a list in front of me, but they are the things that we have been immediately discussing with them. There have also been
a variety of other initiatives through the AEMC and the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management in terms of supporting volunteers and looking at resilience planning. Some of the issues around climate change have clearly caused people to look at their plans and redo them in different ways. I think the answer to your question is, in a whole lot of ways, yes.

Senator LUDLAM-Can you tell us the status of a document from October 2005, Review of Australia's ability to respond to and recover from catastrophic disasters? It was not published at the time; it was suppressed for quite a long period. Are you familiar with the document that I am referring to?

Mr Wilkins-Yes.

Senator LUDLAM-Can you tell us what the status of that document is?

Mr Wilkins-I will ask Mr Pearce to respond.

Mr Pearce-That report was recently released under freedom of information to Channel 9. That was just after our previous estimates meeting. It is now available upon request. There have been a number of requests for it, and it has been provided. There was also a briefing provided or offered to this committee after the last estimates committee; Senator Humphries was the one senator who attended the briefing, and I briefed him on the report at the time and provided him with a whole range of details in relation to it.

Senator LUDLAM-That is great. If that is on the record, I can chase that. Can you tell us why the report was not made public in the first place and why it fell to an FOI request for it to make its way into the public domain.

Mr Pearce-There were two issues in there. One was in relation to the fact that the majority of the information actually contained within the report was provided by states and territories specifically relating to some scenarios that were developed. There was a level of discomfort in some areas in regard to whether or not that information should be released just because of the picture that it painted. The issue was that to release the report without actually providing a context to those scenarios. In other words, they had been developed to be
so severe that they were actually catastrophic and were, I suppose, realistically possible but highly unlikely. Had the report been released in that form with the detail that was in it at that time that would have posed some issues for the jurisdictions concerned. There was a lack of comfort about that.

Senator LUDLAM-Okay. It is a report entitled catastrophic disasters. It has now been made available in the public domain. Have there been any instances of panic or the report being read out of context?

Mr Pearce-I could not say whether anyone has read it out of context, but I have not seen anybody panicking, no.

Senator LUDLAM-Perhaps that is useful feedback to go back to the jurisdictions that were concerned about it being released in the first place. Maybe the public is able to assimilate this kind of material without running for the lifeboats.

Mr Pearce-I think that point has been made through the royal commission.

Senator LUDLAM-I expect that it has. Was this report signed off by those jurisdictions in 2005?

Mr Pearce-Yes, the jurisdictions themselves all agreed to the content and were satisfied for it to be contained within the report.

Senator LUDLAM-They were. Okay. That is great. It was a consensus report presumably.

Mr Pearce-Yes.

Senator LUDLAM-It did identify a number of major gaps in Australia's preparedness for catastrophic disasters. Can you tell us whether those things have been addressed in the four years since it was produced?

Mr Pearce-The recommendations themselves were not specifically targeted and addressed in the context of, ‘We will address 32 recommendations.' The Secretary has already alluded to the fact that, over the last number of years, a lot of work has been going on in partnership between the Commonwealth and the jurisdictions. A lot of that work has actually subsumed a number of the recommendations that came out of that report. Much of the work has been done, but not directly as a specific result of those recommendations being made.

Senator LUDLAM-Is it really just up on a shelf gathering dust? This report was not released to the public until earlier this year. Was it a document that was under or is under active consideration by emergency management authorities?

Mr Pearce-Yes, indeed it was. In fact, the jurisdictions have actually been using that as their guide to assess their own capability against the findings of that report so that was how the report is actually being used.

Senator LUDLAM-I will draw your attention to recommendation 26 of that report which reads in part: The working group recommends that the Australian government consider developing an overarching whole-ofgovernment disaster plan that clearly articulates authority roles and responsibilities of agencies, interdepartmental committees and key officials to link the range of existing government disaster plans. It is pretty clearly worded. Has that recommendation been taken forward?

Mr Pearce-It has indeed. A draft natural catastrophic disasters plan will be presented to the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management at its November meeting.

Senator LUDLAM-I am sure that will be cheerful reading. Can you foreshadow, without giving away too much of the detail, the broad nature of what that will encompass.

Mr Pearce-No, there is a lot of information in it. It is effectively at a very high level as was described in that recommendation about an overarching document that pulls together many of the arrangements that already exist.

Senator LUDLAM-Okay. That is December and a lot of this work is going to come too late for crews and communities battling the 2009 fire season.

Mr Pearce-Sorry, the ministerial council meeting is in November, but having said that the level of the recommendations are not such that they would impact on ground operations coming up to this fire season. It will not impact on the way states and territories respond to this season.

Senator LUDLAM-Okay. I will just put two questions to you and then we will wind up. Because this plan does not exist and Australia is facing probably a pretty serious season of bushfires again are there two commitments that the Attorney-General might be prepared to make in advance of that plan coming into existence? The first is whether the Attorney-General would consider a restructuring of the EMA to include operational fire chiefs. Is that under consideration?

Mr Pearce-EMA is an Australian government division of a department, so state and territory fire chiefs would not be a part of this organisation.

Senator LUDLAM-So that is a no. Would see EMA having a proactive role in national disaster matters in reversing the present onus on the states and territories to request or call in its assistance?

Mr Pearce-Again, in response to that, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission actually raised that issue and the Attorney announced that as EMA we were very, very happy to be as proactive as we could within the constitution and the responsibilities of the jurisdictions. The preseason operational fire briefings that were conducted in September was one of the results of the recommendations coming out of the commission. That prebriefing provided the jurisdictions the opportunity to identify ways to be more proactive in a way that
works with them with regard to their responsibility. So the work is ongoing with that. It has been recognised, and we are very happy to be more proactive within the bounds of our ability to do so.

Senator LUDLAM-So the constitution says you can. COAG seems to be the place where good ideas fly around moribund for large periods of time. Can you tell us what the pathway forward from the November meeting will be and when you might expect to have such a disaster plan operational?

Mr Wilkins-Senator, just on this national catastrophic plan, can I just explain what it is, because the way we are talking about it makes it sound like there is no plan to do anything in the case of a disaster. This is looking at a situation where a jurisdiction is basically disabled-a Darwin type situation-where there would not be a jurisdiction capable of responding to the disaster. It will require horizontal cooperation via the states and territories. And the Commonwealth will have to take a leading and facilitating role. That is the paradigm we are talking about. It is not even anything close to what happened, for example, in the bushfires in Victoria. So we are talking about that type of contingency. There are lots of plans that can be triggered, and EMA works across a whole range of possible catastrophes, in the event of disastrous fires or floods or pandemics-you name it-there are ways of dealing with these contingencies. So I do not want to create the impression in your mind that there is no plan in Australia to deal with catastrophes. This is a particularly dire form of catastrophe
that would have that sort of debilitating effect.

Senator LUDLAM-Think you. With that caveat on the table, could you maybe come to the question, which was: when would you expect on your current timetable that such a plan would come into force?

Mr Pearce-The COAG meeting is in December, isn't it? My understanding is that the ministerial Council are considering the plan and hopefully will endorse it in November. My understanding is that once the plan is endorsed it would simply go to COAG and it should be endorsed by COAG-unless there is an issue with it, and I cannot see that there would be by that time.

Mr Wilkins-It should be a matter of a couple of months.

Senator LUDLAM-Thank you.

Mr Studdert-Senator, it is probably worth noting that in July this year we conducted a national catastrophic disaster planning exercise. Each of the jurisdictions and the Commonwealth were represented. We went through a scenario that allowed us to consider the impact and ultimately what we would do to coordinate a solution to a catastrophic disaster plan. So it has been quite active in that regard.

Senator LUDLAM-Thank you.

 

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