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Wednesday, 29 June 1994
Page: 2210

Senator CHILDS —I present the report of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science, Technology, Transport, Communications and Infrastructure on disaster management, together with the transcript of evidence.

  Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator CHILDS —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

On 15 October 1992, the Senate referred to the transport, communications and infrastructure committee for inquiry and report the following matter: the capacity of public sector authorities to plan for, forecast and respond to major disasters and large-scale emergencies, fully respecting and utilising the skills and capabilities of volunteer organisations. At the commencement of the 37th Parliament in May 1993 the industry, science and technology committee was amalgamated with the transport, communications and infrastructure committee. After the merger the new committee agreed to continue the reference.

  The report that is before the Senate is a unanimous report and its findings have the strong support of all members of the committee. The inquiry considered the role the Commonwealth government plays in disaster management and the functions and activities of its central disaster management organisation, Emergency Management Australia. EMA's role in responding to a disaster is one of coordination of state or territory requests, assessment of those requests and, when necessary, arranging for the deployment of Commonwealth resources. EMA performs this function efficiently and there is widespread support of EMA from the emergency management community in the states and territories.

  However, the committee believes that EMA has been too response oriented. The report outlines the need for a change in emphasis by EMA in order to provide a more comprehensive and integrated approach to emergency management. The report emphasises the need for EMA to refocus its role to provide leadership and support to the states and territories in the other critical areas of emergency management preparedness planning, prevention, mitigation, training and recovery. The committee makes a number of recommendations to allow this to happen. Creating EMA as an independent body and moving it from the Defence portfolio to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is a key recommendation. EMA must be given the independence and the means to allow it to set standards in training, support, information gathering and distribution, as well as coordinating the Commonwealth's response to disasters.

  The need for a more coordinated approach to disaster management between the Commonwealth and the states, between states and within the states themselves was clearly evident during the recent disastrous bushfires in NSW and Western Australia. In Sydney last January, there were many generous offers of assistance but there were also many problems associated with delivery of that assistance. Among the more serious problems were a lack of compatibility of communication frequencies and of basic equipment such as hose couplings on fire trucks.

  The committee strongly supports the retention of EMA's training institute at Mount Macedon and recommends that it be developed as a centre of excellence in emergency management. Properly developed, the institute should provide the resources and training needed by the states and territories which will result in a more integrated approach to emergency management. From the Commonwealth's perspective this is a critical activity for which EMA must take responsibility. The need for increased levels of training was emphasised throughout the committee's inquiry, particularly in the fields of bushfire suppression and chemical spills. The committee recommends in the report that EMA use the United Nation's International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction to showcase the benefits of preparedness/mitigation by more actively seeking out projects and assisting their implementation.

  In addition to EMA, the Commonwealth provides assistance in emergency management through a number of other agencies: the Bureau of Meteorology, the Australian Geological Survey Organisation, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Maritime Safety Authority and the Exotic Animal Diseases Preparedness Consultative Council, among others. While these agencies each make a significant contribution in their own fields of emergency management, there is insufficient coordination between agencies. The committee therefore recommends that the Commonwealth Counter Disaster Task Force coordinate forward planning of Australian government disaster relief systems.

  The report makes over 40 other recommendations on specific aspects of disaster management, through the phases of preparedness, response, and recovery, as well as recommendations relating to the specific role the Commonwealth has in its own zones of responsibility such as the Great Barrier Reef and armed services land.

  As directed by the inquiry's terms of reference, the report also considers the role of volunteers in emergency management and concludes that volunteers have a fundamental and indispensable role to play in disaster management, which is often overlooked by governments. Australia has a proud history of responding generously to communities affected by disaster. The response of people giving of their time and money has again and again eased the plight of those directly affected. The recent Sydney bushfires and the response of the community across Australia shows this clearly.

  The committee has nothing but praise for the efforts of volunteers and professionals alike who respond in these circumstances. However, the committee found that a more comprehensive and integrated approach to emergency management planning would significantly reduce the effect of some types of disaster, for example bushfires, and in other situations would ensure that recovery took place faster and with less traumatic effect. This would certainly have been the case in Newcastle following the earthquake in 1989, where many critical decisions had to be taken for which there was no planning and no response framework.

  In evidence to the committee, EMA indicated that it was changing its focus to address emergency management in a more comprehensive and integrated way. The committee believes that EMA should provide greater leadership in this way and, through its institute at Mount Macedon, establish a centre of excellence in emergency management.

  As well as praising the community volunteers and professionals for the efforts that they put into responding to disasters, I wish to pass on the praise the committee heard for the support of other agencies at the Commonwealth level. These include the Bureau of Meteorology, Telecom, the Department of Social Security and defence support.

  I also wish to thank my colleagues on the committee. We have visited many of the disaster prone areas of Australia and reviewed the mass of evidence obtained. Of course, I would also like to thank very much Rob Diamond, the secretary of the committee, and the other officers in the secretariat. The committee's recommendations will do much to improve emergency management arrangements at the Commonwealth level and, as a consequence, should result in better preparedness and support in the event of a disaster.