Federal failure and the fires: How Australia’s government got it wrong

Alice Stafford

This week, the hearings for the commission into the summer bushfires will begin. In a COVID-19 age, Australia’s recent fires have already become a relic of the past. Yet, the absence of a national response agency implemented by the federal government to distribute funds and resources amongst states is cause for major concern going into the future. National disasters are being dealt with at a state level–exposing the inefficacy of the status quo. A question of equity amongst states is raised due to their varying capacities to obtain and supply vital resources. This is an issue that cannot be swept under the rug.

In place of an overarching federal approach, distribution of funding to bushfire defence plans is left up to the discretion of individual state governments. Tactics to obtain funding differ immensely–where Victoria draws the majority of their funding from a property levy, New South Wales also draws from insurance payments. This notable absence of a national regime suggests that states with lesser populations–and thus an impeded ability to obtain funds–would not be well equipped to deal with such a disaster based on the current model. Bushfires do not obey arbitrary state borders.

This issue boils down to two major underlying causes, a lack of constitutional recognition and role confusion amongst the levels of government. The Australian Constitution does not explicitly refer to the implementation of national emergency powers for natural disasters. There is a grey zone in the legal framework when navigating how the Commonwealth can be involved. The implication of the absence of an emergency management legislation means that the federal government has no power to declare a national emergency. Such a call would be purely symbolic and without legal impact as it extends beyond the power afforded to the Commonwealth by the Constitution. It is in the national interest to revise this–legal enforcement of a national emergency would invoke collective action that transcends geographical divides. Hypothetically, it would offer equal access to emergency funds and extended powers of authority.

It is here that the secondary cause–role confusion–is brought to light. Due to a mix of High Court rulings and an acknowledgement of constitutional ambiguities, the actions of the federal government have become increasingly intertwined with those of the states and territories. The process of forging roles and responsibilities for itself has become a campaign tactic of the Coalition as they seek to perpetuate an image of supporting local communities. For example, in the recent bushfires, their Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements plan both interfered with state jurisdiction and was criticised for being too slow and ineffective to achieve legitimate change.

The livelihood of the everyday Australian is at risk. As is–and perhaps more worryingly–the financial viability of large stakeholders, who could face mass losses as a result of absent federal legislation. It is also inevitable that some states and territories will be in a less fortuitous financial situation than others. Differences between population sizes, income distribution and the concentration of wealth all impact the state governments’ ability to prepare for natural disasters.

In accepting the fact that there will be more climate disasters in the future that are also likely to be of greater severity and increased frequency, it is paramount to assess the capacity of insurance companies. The number of individuals and businesses left with irreparable financial damages after disasters such as the recent bushfires will only grow. This is a burden that organisations such as the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) do not have the capacity to cope with. In October 2019 the RBA’s Financial Stability Review called for the government to act as ‘these risks may become uninsurable, forcing households, businesses or governments to bear this risk.’ The ICA also suggested federal intervention as they stated that insuring such events must move to the public sector. The possibility that countless Australians could be left without financial support in a major national crisis enforces the urgency to act.

A National Royal Commission into the bushfires is underway. It has outlined three major goals pertaining to the coordination of natural disaster management across each level of government, improving national readiness and revising the legal capacity of the Commonwealth to respond. Ways to fulfil these goals seem clear-cut. Steps could include the creation of a national task force, the ability afforded to the federal government to declare a national emergency and constitutional revision. Above all, extensive consolidation and collaboration amongst states is required. With natural disasters on the rise, those in power must alter their approach and assume a greater level of authority. A clock is ticking for the federal government.


Alice Stafford is an undergraduate student of International and Global Studies/ Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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