House of Representatives

Dr HAINES (Indi) (17:14): Today, I rise in support of the National Emergency Declaration Bill 2020. This bill makes a significant and important change to the way our country responds to national disasters. What we saw last summer, to be frank, was an inadequate response from the Commonwealth to the bushfire crisis. In Indi, as fires ripped across the High Country over the new year period, when people turned to the government for support, instead of helping immediately, it hesitated.

For too many weeks, the Commonwealth failed to understand what its role was in responding to the national bushfires and what support it would provide to frontline communities. To be fair to the Commonwealth, primary responsibility for immediate disaster management response rests with the states, but the Commonwealth plays a significant role in disaster response and has access to many tools to which the states do not. Funding aerial firefighting, telecommunications infrastructure, running ABC broadcasts, electricity grids, military assistance—these are all in the hands of the Commonwealth.

Many of the key challenges that our community faced were linked to these Commonwealth responsibilities. Towns like Walwa and Corryong lost power for days as a result of the bushfires ripping through the powerlines because, as a nation, we’ve not invested in energy reliability in remote and regional communities through secure local power generation. In the Upper Murray, where the fires killed thousands of livestock, the mayor of Towong Shire told me: ‘We need the ADF. We need them now to help us bury our animals.’

The Deputy Prime Minister kindly called me during that time and asked me, ‘What can the government do to help?’ My answer was exactly what the mayor of Towong told me. I said, ‘Deputy Prime Minister, we need the ADF.’ As a result of the delays in deploying the ADF, livestock burial and the clean-up operation took weeks longer than it needed to, with enormous distress. Communities along the border, like Walwa and Jingellic, faced uncertainty and confusion when fires in one state did not appear on the emergency app from the other state. Moving towards a standardised national emergency notification system is a clear role for the Commonwealth. But on each issue, the important point is that in a crisis everyday Australians shouldn’t have to navigate the complexities of the Federation—they just need a system that works. When the fire crests the hill of your property, when you’ve been sheltering in the Corryong College Hall for six days, when you’ve been evacuated to Wangaratta Showgrounds for the third time this summer, when your home burned down in January and it’s December and you’re still living in a caravan, the thing you care least about is the constitutional delineation of responsibilities. You just need help. This summer, in too many cases, the Commonwealth was flat-footed and slow to respond. In too many cases more damage was done, the recovery was slowed and the harm compounded by a convoluted and bureaucratic response to a crisis.

In a disaster, to quote the Attorney-General:

The Australian community rightly expects and deserves swift and unambiguous action …

And, last summer, we did not get that. Indeed, this was exactly the finding of the royal commission into last summer’s bushfires. The commission found that our disaster management framework is not fit for purpose. It’s not fit for purpose now, and it needs significant reform to prepare us for a more uncertain future. The 80 recommendations of the royal commission make clear that Australia was not prepared for the Black Summer bushfires and is not prepared for the hottest summers to come.

This bill is the first actual legislative response to those recommendations, and I support it. This bill will enable the Governor-General on advice of the Prime Minister to declare a national emergency. In order to seek that declaration, the Prime Minister must be satisfied that the emergency has, or will cause, nationally significant harm. The Prime Minister will be required to declare a national emergency at the request of the relevant state or territory. However, the bill also empowers the Prime Minister to unilaterally request the declaration in extremely limited circumstances, including if it is not practicable to make a declaration at the request of a state or territory, if Commonwealth interests are affected or if the Prime Minister is satisfied that it is appropriate to make the declaration without a prior request from the states and territories. This is a significant power that, if used, will do two things. First, it will streamline the Commonwealth’s response to disasters by bringing into a single framework all the powers that ministers have to respond to a disaster. Second, it will send a powerful message across Australia and internationally about the severity of a crisis, focusing our national attention on the response and mobilising resources from right across our community to respond.

I support this bill because I believe it takes us closer to a more robust national disaster response framework, and closer to a system that will work better for the people I represent. To explain my reasons, I’d like to read from a letter I sent to the Prime Minister on 3 January this year at the height of our fires. At that time, when heavy smoke blanketed our beautiful region, when thousands had been evacuated and when it looked like the uncontrollable flames would burn until the heavy rains came in spring, I wrote to the Prime Minister to request that he declare a national emergency. I wrote: ‘Dear Prime Minister, I have travelled widely through my severely affected border electorate of Indi over these past few days. The situation is unprecedented, with mass evacuations taking place as I write. Small hospitals are evacuating the frail aged, pregnant women and tens of thousands of summer holidaymakers. Our neighbours in New South Wales and East Gippsland are likewise in dire situations. The weather forecast for tomorrow, as I’m sure you are aware, is dreadful. The state government emergency services are magnificent, and the local response is absolutely extraordinary. But it is only 3 January and the capacity for these small communities to maintain momentum for months to come is a huge concern. Likewise is the need for infrastructure, physical and emotional recovery when that time comes. The economic impact on agriculture, tourism and small business will be serious and long term.’

My letter went on: ‘Today, I spoke with the Deputy Prime Minister to describe our situation. At emergency briefings and community meetings I have attended, the message is clear: no-one has seen a situation like this before. What is also clear is that people are asking why the Prime Minister has failed to declare a national emergency. I am hearing this from measured, experienced country people.’

In my letter I said, ‘Prime Minister, I call on you to declare a national emergency. In doing that, the federal government can support a fully coordinated approach that crosses state boundaries, operationalises supplies to firefighters and damaged communities, provides military support to logistics, deceased animal burial, fuel supplies, traffic management and relief centres, and put in place a long-term recovery plan. It can consider backup support for our heavily burdened rural emergency, local government and health workforce. Prime Minister, these fires are exactly what were predicted months ago. These fires are what our leading scientists, fire chiefs, peak medical bodies and agricultural and community leaders have warned will be a regular feature for Australia as a result of climate change. Prime Minister, I know that my rural community and so many like it are the ones that take the full brunt of these natural disasters. I offer my full support to your government to operationalise any emergency plan for our nation.’

That was written late at night on 3 January. The fires would burn for many more weeks to come. Many more cattle would die, more homes would be lost and more people would be lost. Three weeks later a C-130 Hercules tanker would crash into the Snowy Mountains, killing three US firefighters who had flown across the Pacific to support us.

I support this bill, because last summer I saw up close, as our beautiful region burned, why we need the ability to respond rapidly in a crisis. At the same time, I’d like to record two concerns I have with the bill. In extreme circumstances this bill allows the Commonwealth to declare a national emergency in a given state or territory without consulting with the relevant premier or chief minister, and yet the bill has been drafted without consulting the states or territories. I understand the need to move quickly with this legislation, I truly do, but establishing a unilateral power to declare a national emergency in a sovereign jurisdiction is indeed an extraordinary power and the states and territories should be consulted in that process. I welcome the decision to review the bill immediately upon commencement. I call upon the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee to consult deeply with state and territory governments in that review.

Secondly, I’m concerned that this bill barely begins to implement the recommendations of the bushfire royal commission. Today is the second-last day of parliament for the year. Tomorrow we’re scheduled to rise for a summer break which we all hope will be better than last summer. It’s concerning to me not just that the government has waited until the last possible moment to debate this important legislation but that we’re going into the next season in essentially the same position as we went into the last one. We have no sovereign aerial firefighting fleet, no single app for sending out disaster notifications, no national register of fire and emergency services personnel and equipment and no interoperable communications for emergency services across jurisdictions.

These were all recommendations of the royal commission. These are all the things we must do because the royal commission said it is a matter of urgency. They are things we must do because the royal commission said ‘it is plain that the shortcomings that we have identified must be addressed’. And yet, a year on from the fires, we have done none of it. So I support the passage of this bill through the House not because it will solve all the problems in our bushfire response but because it addresses one of the many shortcomings the royal commission identified in our current bushfire response framework.

Today we are legislating to prepare ourselves for circumstances we hope will never darken our nation’s door. But we must be clear eyed about this. Australia will again see times in which resorting to these powers is necessary. The time to prepare properly is now, not when the lightning sparks, not when the virus morphs, not when the tsunami swells. I appeal to the government to move with the urgency this issue deserves and fully implement the recommendations of the royal commission. When the next fires hit, we must be ready. I commend this legislation to the House.

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