Expert calls for reassessment of disaster relief

Responding to the Victorian bushfires. Photo: Getty Images

By Angela Dorizas

The Attorney-General’s Department will hold an internal staff meeting today to reorganise its emergency management and security divisions.

The proposed new structure, announced to Department of Attorney-General staff on the 29 January, will see Emergency Management Australia (EMA) merged with the Protective Security Coordination Centre.

Former director general of EMA, David Templeman, told Government News that the Department should not make any changes until it has heard back from the Federal Government’s review into Commonwealth and state government coordination in disaster relief and the Royal Commission into the Victorian bushfires.

“To have massive staff meetings today in Canberra to talk about a reorganisation in the midst of this crisis seems a bit nonsensical,” Templeman said.

“I think it would be far more appropriate to wait out and get the functionality sorted out and the planning sorted out on how things are going to work together for the future before we start drawing up line diagrams.”

Templeman said the decision had already caused some confusion among state and local authorities, who are now asking questions about what it will mean for existing relationships.

“I don’t think there’s been a proper broader consultation undertaken with the necessary stakeholders,” he added.

Templeman is also concerned that counter terrorism will be given priority over natural disaster emergency management, as seen in the United States Government response to Hurricane Katrina.

“We saw the hysteria that was created after 9/11, where they created a Department of Homeland Security in the US and brought the Federal Emergency Management Agency into it,” he said.

“They put 187,000 people in one organisation all focussed on counter terrorism. All the money was directed towards those resources, so when Hurricane Katrina came along, all of the relationships and all of the understandings that had previously existed in the earlier days, pre 9/11, at a state and local government level were all undone and of course, that’s why you had this unmitigated problem with coordination and communication in relation to the response and recovery effort as far as Katrina was concerned.”

Templeman said he did not deny the fact that counter terrorism was an important priority, but said the threat of natural disasters should not be forgotten.

“Extreme natural disasters caused by extreme weather events are now upon us and we need to seriously start ensuring that we’ve got some means to deal with it,” he said.

He said he had been voicing his concerns for many years, particularly when he was head of EMA, but his warnings had fallen on deaf ears.

“We need to ensure that we do have the very clear understanding about exactly what are the authorities for accountability and leadership arrangements that need to be in place. I don’t believe that they are there,” Templeman said.

“There isn’t any legislation, there isn’t any cabinet direction, there isn’t any instrument for authority of which any government official at the federal government level operates under in dealing with this. And it’s high time that they sorted that out.”

He said the Victorian Government had responded well to the bushfire diaster, but said it was still heavily reliant on the good will of volunteers and support from other jurisdictions.

“Under the Constitution, Victoria has responsibility for protection of life and property and that’s worked very well,” Templeman said.

“I get concerned to the point that a lot of this is dependent on the good will and support of volunteers. If you end up with a higher order event we’d have some difficulty in sustaining and maintaining that volunteer effort.”

A spokesperson from the Attorney-General’s Department told Government News that the restructuring would deliver a "more efficient dynamic and responsive Department that is better aligned to meet the Government’s current and emerging priorities."

In response to Templeman’s criticism of the effectiveness of EMA to respond to large scale natural disasters, the spokesperson said "a catastrophic disaster, the likes of Hurricane Katrina, would test the ability, resources and arrangements for any country.

"Certainly the Victorian bushfires are putting our processes for disaster response and assistance to the test – but it must be said that the level of cooperation and resources being demonstrated and employed does I believe give a positive indication of our abilities within Australia," he said.

"That being said, the Australian Government is not complacent on the priority that must be given to constantly strengthening our national emergency management abilities. Australia has put an enormous effort into building resilience in partnership with government stakeholders and the community."

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