On 28 October 2020, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements delivered its report to the Federal Government.
The Royal Commission’s terms of reference were to examine the emergency response and recovery arrangements into the 2019 – 2020 bushfires, which spanned Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. The bushfires burnt 24million hectares of land, took 33 lives, devasted wildlife and animal stock, and destroyed more than 3,000 homes. Experts estimate that the economic impact of the fires to surpass $10billion.
By way of comparison, Australia’s other crisis this year, the COVID-19 pandemic, has infected 27,649, taken 907 lives and ravaged the domestic economy. Some experts believe that the pandemic will leave the Australian economy $160billion worse off than it otherwise would have been.
Historically, Australia’s State and Territory Governments are responsible for emergency management protocols. They arrange emergency services, health care, and other agencies. At the same time, the Federal Government is responsible for Emergency funding and providing resources, such as the military. Although these arrangements generally work well, the fires were a significant challenge because they spanned across domestic borders.
Reflecting on these challenges, the Royal Commission made the following recommendation:
“Achieving an effective national approach to natural disasters requires a clear, robust and accountable system capable of both providing a comprehensive understanding of, and responding to, the aggregated risks associated with mitigation, preparation for, response to and recovery from natural disasters”.
Although there is debate as to what caused the disaster, the pandemic tests the Federation’s ability to coordinate their response to the same extent as the 2019-20 bushfires. The ‘National Cabinet’ established in March is an acknowledgement of that challenge. Without a clear, coherent and shared response, Australia would not have been able to manage this virus so successfully. In contrast, many of our global partners like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom can only dream of being in the position that Australia finds itself.
Such a successful response, however, does not come without its costs. Closed borders make conducting business challenging at best, impossible at worse. Our clients have raised the challenges of moving their ‘fly in fly out’ (FIFO) workers around the continent. Each State and Territory has differing FIFO permit rules; hence, they have had to adapt six processes to enable their staff to move and work.
Ultimately families feel the impact. As an example, one of our clients has FIFO staff in Queensland who have not seen their families in New South Wales for more than five months. If they were to leave Queensland, they would face mandatory quarantine periods upon their return. If they were to leave Queensland, they would not be able to work for at least two weeks after returning. This situation may persist until the end of 2020. Somewhat surprisingly given their contrasting fortunes, there are murmurs that the Queensland Government is considering reopening its borders to Victorians earlier than residents of Greater Sydney.
We can all agree that States and Territories should be able to control their borders. Similarly, they should all should be congratulated in the management of COVID-19. Much like the bushfires, there is scope for further collaboration and shared planning in the recovery phase of the pandemic. Although we had some promising news this week, a vaccine is still a little while away. Currently, the Federation has a patch quilt cover of rules which need to be re-examined as we enter the final stretch of this crisis.
With Victoria seemingly having weathered the worse of the storm, border restrictions, travel rules and quarantine periods should be the first to be reviewed.