2CC Canberra Drive

October 30, 2020



SUBJECTS: Bushfire Royal Commission final report; Scott Morrison’s bushfire failures; lack of national leadership; lack of climate action; untouched $4B Emergency Response Fund. 

LEON DELANEY, HOST: The Government has now released the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements final report, just days ahead of the bushfire season here in the ACT. The report makes 80 recommendations for how Australia can be better prepared and how Australia can better respond to natural disasters that take on a national scale. Joining me now, the Shadow Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management, Senator Murray Watt, good afternoon.


DELANEY: Very well, thanks. Thanks for joining us today. Obviously, a lot of people have been waiting very anxiously to hear the outcomes from this royal commission. Have you been able to read all of the 594 pages since it was released?

WATT: You'll be surprised to hear that we haven't been able to make it through every page in the couple of hours that we've had the report! But I've certainly had a good look at the recommendations and the forward. And I think it really confirms what most Australians already knew, which was that the Morrison Government failed bushfire victims across our country last year. This report has exposed major shortcomings with how the Government prepared for the bushfires, how it responded to the bushfires, and how it's now recovering from the bushfires and assisting people with recovery. So it's absolutely vital that we see the Morrison Government get on and implement these recommendations and not leave people behind like they have done in the past.

DELANEY: Nevertheless, the Prime Minister was right last summer when he said it's not a Commonwealth responsibility, it's a state responsibility. And isn't this, therefore a systemic problem, a systemic failure, rather than a failure of this particular government?

WATT: Well, certainly the report makes clear that the primary responsibility for responding to natural disasters does lie with the states and territories. But what it also makes clear is that we now need national leadership to deal with natural disasters. What the report shows is that due to climate change, we are going to be facing more intense and more frequent natural disasters into the future. And we can't just simply leave it to the states and territories to manage these things. Even last year, we saw fires across state borders. You know, it's not as if fires decide to pull up stumps once they get to a particular state or territory border. And that's why we need that sort of national coordination and national leadership that we just did not see from the Federal Government last year.

DELANEY: Indeed, the report does say a lot about coordination, but one of the key recommendations that has received wide coverage today has been the suggestion that there needs to be a new power for the Commonwealth to be able to declare a national state of emergency. And in some respects, that's the sort of thing that is such a no brainer you would have imagined that it already existed, but apparently not?

WATT: I agree Leon, I think it surprises everyone that the Commonwealth hasn't had that power. And I must admit, I found it a bit disappointing that we saw the Prime Minister hide behind that as the excuse for why his Government didn't do more to prepare and respond to the bushfires last year. Clearly, the Federal Government, even under its existing powers, has immense ability and resources to assist the states to respond to, and prepare for bushfires. But they just didn't want to know about it last year. I mean, I don't think any of us will forget where the Prime Minister was when the bushfires were at their height, rather than leading the nation through it and giving direction with the powers that he already had.

DELANEY: Once again, I know you like to shift blame home to the Prime Minister, but the real problem here was the structural nature of the system, wasn't it?

WATT: Well, clearly, there have been some big problems with the systems and processes and structures that we've had, for fighting natural disasters. But it's not as if this was the first time that these were identified. There've been countless reports into natural disasters in the past. And I've got to say, this Government's been in power for seven years, so they've had ample time to implement the recommendations of previous reports and get those systems and processes working. I mean, I think probably the most damning line in the entire report is, you know, we all knew that these fires were unprecedented in their scale. But what the report says is that "unprecedented is not a reason to be unprepared". So clearly, the royal commission has found that we weren't adequately prepared and we do need our federal leaders to step up and take responsibility for fixing it. 

DELANEY: Now, of course, a recommendation for a new power for the Commonwealth to declare a state of emergency is one thing. It's also recommended some sort of national agency that can better coordinate and better manage the response. There's a lot of structural work to be done here, isn't there?

WATT: There is. That does seem like a very sensible recommendation to me. After these bushfires the Federal Government established a National Bushfire Recovery Agency to coordinate that kind of activity around bushfire recovery across the Federal Government and also to liaise with state governments as well. And again, I think if we are entering a world where we're going to be seeing more of these types of natural disasters in the future, then it's important to have a national body that can be working with states, territories, local governments, community organisations to ensure that we're better prepared for disasters as well. And that's something that we don't seem to have at the moment.

DELANEY: We already have an emergency management agency, is that an agency that could be up-scaled and expanded to perform that role? Or do we need a whole new organisation?

WATT: Well, the royal commission has hinted that an expansion of the existing Emergency Management Australia is probably something worth looking at. It also talks about modelling a new recovery and resilience agency on that existing National Bushfire Recovery Agency. I think that it's always better to try to build on existing organisations where you can rather than try to start from scratch and come up with something new. And look, in the end, I don't think it matters too much exactly what the authority looks like. What we really need is to make sure that, at last, we have a Federal Government agency that is doing the work around preventing and preparing us for future disasters that are coming down the track.

DELANEY: Another recommendation centres around the creation of a national aerial firefighting fleet. Is that an essential recommendation? Is that a good idea? 

WATT: I think so, and it's something that Federal Labor's been calling for, for some time now. I think that was one of the most frightening aspects of the poor response from the Federal Government last year was that we were shown up as clearly not having the water bombing aircraft and other aerial firefighting equipment that we needed. Again, what we've been able to do in the past is rely on other countries and lease water bombers and helicopters and other things to help deal with bushfires. But in this day and age, with more fires that are going for longer in other parts of the world as well, we can't just snap our fingers and think that we can bring in an air tanker from California or Europe or anywhere else. It makes sense for Australia to be a bit more self-sufficient with these things and to be able to stand on our own two feet. So Federal Labor's been calling for this for a while, and I really hope that the Federal Government takes this one seriously.

DELANEY: A lot of people have held a lot of expectations, and it's become abundantly clear in recent days, that this report would have a lot to say about climate change. Now, it certainly mentions climate change and warns that there will be more extreme weather events in the future. But it doesn't really recommend that the Government do anything in particular about climate change, does it?  

WATT: No, I think it's one of the things that was probably a little bit disappointing about the way the Government structured this royal commission. Its terms of reference clearly excluded the possibility that the royal commission could have a good look at the climate change issue and make recommendations there. You know, you can read into that whatever you want about why the Government didn't want a royal commission looking at its climate change record. But it is clear from the report that, and I remember the evidence that was given to the royal commission by the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO and others, who are saying there is absolutely no doubt on the science that due to climate change, we do face more bushfires for longer times of the year. Up my way in Queensland, our biggest risk is more cyclones and floods, including in the coming season. So it would be madness for us to not take action to deal with that climate change risk. And the longer we put our heads in the sand and the longer the Government refuses to take serious action, it's just putting Australians at risk. It's an irresponsible thing to do. And I would have thought that the royal commission's findings should prompt stronger action from the Government on climate change. 

DELANEY: How quickly do you think the more important ones of these recommendations might be implemented? Obviously takes time to establish new agencies and various other recommendations, but is there anything here that we can get moving on virtually immediately, bearing in mind that summer is upon us once again?

WATT: I noticed this morning that the Federal Government Minister, David Littleproud, said that he thought that a number of these recommendations could be dealt with by the national cabinet very quickly. And I certainly hope that that's what the Government does. I mean, there are parts of the country where we've already seen bushfires start this season. And as I say, the Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting very intense cyclones and floods in the north of the country even before Christmas this year. So there's no time to waste. The longer the Government takes to implement these recommendations, the more risky the situation that Australians will face. I mean, one example I can give you is that the Government in last year's budget, 18 months ago, they established a new Emergency Response Fund, which holds $4 billion that can be used to help pay for disaster recovery and mitigation measures. So for cyclone shelters, for fire breaks, for evacuation centres, all the sort of things that we could be putting in place now to keep people safe. But even though they announced that fund 18 months ago, they haven't spent a single cent from it. And we're now going into another disaster season where that opportunity to put in place protective measures has been missed. So they've really got to get on with it. They can't leave people stranded.

DELANEY: Are any of these recommendations directed at individuals or is it all government, and there's a little bit about insurance in there as well, but is there anything there for individuals that people can do at a personal level?  

WATT: Certainly the major focus of the recommendations is on what governments can do - federal, state, territory and local. But it certainly also picks up on the idea that this is a shared responsibility, preparing for disasters and responding to them. And there are things that individuals and communities can do. There are things that people can be doing around structuring their homes and building up their homes and repairing their homes in a way that makes them more resilient for disasters. There are things that people can be doing if they are living near forests and other fire-prone areas to keep their homes a bit more safe by putting in place the sprinkler systems, by choosing certain building materials rather than others that are more flammable. So the report definitely makes clear that there are things we can do on an individual level, but that individuals and communities need support from governments. They need information from government. In some cases, they'll need financial backing from government. But it is one of those things that we've all got to take responsibility for.

DELANEY: And, of course, it says a bit about building codes and that sort of thing. But does it really settle the question about land clearing and hazard reduction? Because there's a lot of debate about, you know, people managing their own land and about being able to provide fire breaks around their buildings, that sort of thing. That's been very controversial, hasn't it? 

WATT: Yeah, it's certainly one of the more contentious issues here, and I suppose it's kind of connected to the climate change debate, which we know has been very polarising within the community. I think what was clear from the evidence given to the royal commission is that hazard reduction is an important step in preparing for bushfires. But it's not a silver bullet. It's not the only thing we can do. There are some people out there who want to make this debate all about hazard reduction. That all we need is for farmers and homeowners to have greater powers to go down and chop down trees. I think all of the evidence that the royal commission received showed that, you know, getting that hazard reduction happening definitely matters, but it's not the only thing. We do need to take these other steps about better national coordination, taking action on climate change is important as well. I mean, one of the problems that fire services and volunteers have these days with hazard reduction is that the window to do that hazard reduction work is shortening with temperatures rising, with drier weather, it's much harder for people to be able to do that hazard reduction work compared to what they used to be able to. So it's certainly part of the mix, but it's not the only solution.

DELANEY: Indeed, Senator Watt, thanks very much for your time today. 

WATT: Great to talk to you Leon.