NORMALLY I WOULD refrain from engaging in broader commentary while my region is under such a threat as we currently face. I believe however that it is crucial to stimulate thinking even as we fight, to encourage all those who are involved to put down their fresh thoughts as they take the odd break or make mental notes, concerning the lessons learned from this unprecedented national crisis. The reality is that we are facing the kind of existential threat through climate change that demands the same sort of national mobilisation of will as we required in World War II. This contribution represents my personal views only and does not purport to be Labor policy.
Of course, the ultimate hope is that we all combine to take the more serious action we must do to give future generations a fighting chance. We must have a serious approach to climate change policy and much more vigorous leadership internationally. That leadership will be underpinned by our example, if we are not to be laughed out of the room. In the same way as we have always endeavoured to give our farmers a fair go in international trade because they were the most hard done by under protectionist regimes, we must provide our whole nation a fair go when engaging in international advocacy, because Australia stands to be the worst affected nation by worsening climate change.
National review process
What I am putting forward is a concept paper with the aim of starting the discussion. What will need to happen from here is the establishment of a national review process that gathers the facts and credible expert projections, invites the contribution of ideas and proposals and distills a plan of action. This review needs to be a whole-of-Commonwealth effort led by the Federal Government with the participation of the States, Territories, Councils and their agencies. I also want to stress there is no criticism implied here of our crisis respondents who have served us so well, courageously and faithfully. This is about ensuring they have the support they need and can be deployed to the best effect. With that context in mind, I contribute the following.
To deal with the climate change we cannot prevent and that is already here we must immediately begin work on the framework we need for effective mega-crisis management. It is well beyond time that some serious national strategic planning was initiated to address the extreme disaster amplification generated by climate change. The fire season has extended by 19% since the 1970s, and this in the first instance poses significant problems in accessing the air support that we often share with the Northern Hemisphere. This was illustrated in the current situation where early and out-of-season fires in California and NSW overlapped. As was set out in the policy Labor took to the 2019 election, we need to seriously expand our self-sufficiency in air fire fighting capability. For the long term, this means that in acquiring future ADF air assets we need to ensure there is modularity factored in to their design to reconfigure for firebombing.
We need to invest in drones that can provide long lingering coverage during fire seasons in high-risk areas and near population centres, using sensors that can detect very low thermal and smoke signatures. The ACT has invested in a rotary wing asset that provides this, which was deployed to great effect in managing the North Black Range fire near Braidwood. Still, such options are expensive compared to multiple drone solutions, where no pilot fatigue is a factor. Drones can constantly be patrolling when there is no fire so that we can vector as quickly as possible to an ignition, hopefully before it becomes a mega-fire.
Another massive issue relates to personnel capacity. A firefighter out there on the front line in the current crisis who I have been staying in touch with told me, “The volunteers are buggered, mate. My brigade has been running back-to-back crews day and night coming up to 6 weeks. Our previous record is 4.”
The Climate Council estimates that by 2030
we will need double the number of
firefighters we have now.
The current model of response will not be adequate or sustainable to deal with this. I have called for greater use of the ADF as part of a national emergency response in the current crisis. On 4 January the Prime Minister finally responded by announcing that Army Reserves would be called out and additional Regular Army forces deployed.
The ADF has been providing air, naval and other support but much more was needed and possible. I acknowledge that the ADF is not trained for fire fighting, but there are many relevant skills and capabilities they can deploy under direction from the expert civilian authorities, as is envisaged in the ADF call out model. These include, cutting fire trails, assisting with evacuations, logistics support, the Engineers heavy plant for clearing and earthmoving, bulk water carriers, transport, combat engineers for route clearance and facilitating mobility, Military Police for supplementary heavy traffic coordination during evacuations and heavy vehicle movement, temporary refueling points, communications, field catering and more. The fundamental skills of planning, management, deploying organised bodies of personnel is ingrained in the ADF. The Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) vessels have a massive capacity to do amphibious support where there are no or damaged ports and can load modular hospital units and accommodation, vehicles, provide high grade communications and air traffic control and large quantities of stores and vehicles.
Conceptualise a national disaster response reserve
For the future though, we need to explore the concept of a national disaster response reserve, built along the lines of the ADF Reserve with similar legislative support and arrangements. In effect, I believe we should establish a national Civil Defence Corps (CDC). This CDC should encompass all existing volunteer organisations and would be a national resource that could be mobilized for any disaster. The common support framework as with the Reserves would include:
- Introduce tax-free daily pay and allowances for CDC members when engaged with CDC activities and training.
- Mimic the Defence Employer Support Payment Scheme (ESPS) to provide financial assistance equivalent to the average weekly full-time adult ordinary time earnings (AWOTE) to eligible employers to help offset the costs of releasing employees with no restrictions on the way employers can use the money. All employers including government organisations, public and proprietary companies, private employers, discretionary or unit trusts and self-employed CDC members and would be subject similar eligibility criteria as ADF Reservists.
- Mimic the Defence Reserve Service (Protection) Act 2001 to protect CDC members undertaking various forms of response service. This would include making it an offence for an employer to discriminate against, disadvantage, hinder or dismiss an employee or prospective employee for rendering CDC service and requiring employers to release employees who are CDC members to undertake CDC service and for the training necessary to prepare them for that service.
Based on a suggestion I received regarding the RFS, CDC members could be provided with a card similar to a NSW Seniors Card. Benefits could include concessional travel, reduced vehicle registrations and personal fire insurance charges, together with limited private medical and life insurance for injuries received during front-line firefighting. Similar to recent initiatives regarding veterans, businesses could offer discounts to card holders. The card would be available after a minimum period of service.
Employers of CDC members could also be given status as “Gold Star” contributors to national security and community safety which they would be free to advertise, and they should also be given payroll tax exemption by the States/Territories for employing CDC members. The CDC would come under a Division of the Department of Home Affairs for administration and coordination including some aspects of funding and management of strategic assets. They would otherwise be organised under State/Territory authority who would have the ability to deploy CDC members freely as they do now with State/Territory-based volunteer groups such as the RFS in NSW.
These volunteer groups could retain their designations and current arrangements but would have the overarching identity as CDC members, bringing with it the legislative protection and other Federal support. In a major national emergency, particularly those straddling State/Territory boundaries requiring national coordination, the possibility would exist for a Commonwealth initiated callout with the possibility of deployment of CDC members into other States or Territories. The Commonwealth would pay remuneration to mobilized members which would be tax-exempt. The Strategic assets of the CDC would include a national air fire fighting and drone pool.
There should be other recognition incentives for members as well, including the issuing of appropriate awards and decorations such as “campaign” medals for mobilisations for national emergencies with a cumulative service qualification, which could be worn in public and I believe should entitle them to march on ANZAC days.
Funding for the CDC and all the aspects referred to above could be funded from a National Disaster Levy that would be modelled on the levy response Labor instituted for the massive flood damage experienced in 2011. This Levy would either be permanent or in place only as long as needed to deal with establishment costs as we move through the urgency phase of the next few years. Alternatively it could remain in place to serve the dual purpose of disaster recovery on an enduring basis. Of course, there is a range of funding options that could be open for debate in this respect, but I believe the Australian public are ready to support a bipartisan approach on this as a measure that will keep them and their properties as safe as we can make them.
The bottom line is we need
younger people getting on board
As I have visited the many RFS stations around Eden-Monaro, I have been particularly struck by the ageing of the volunteers. The bottom line is we need younger people getting on board along with much higher numbers generally. If through the measures I have outlined above accompanied by heavily advertised recruitment campaigns, we do not get the numbers we need we may need to think about other options. One model we could apply would be to use the “Gap Year” system from ADF experience and offer payment of individual HECS or VET fees for members. If this doesn’t deliver the response required we may need to prepare for the idea of re-instituting a non-military National Service scheme. This would require all High School graduates to be absorbed into the CDC on leaving school for perhaps a one year period, after which they would be required to render service as required and attend refresher training annually up until the age of 40, after which continuing service would be voluntary.
There will be those who will regard these options as controversial and I offer them in the hope that there may be better ideas or improvements to these concepts. In any event the climate change projections we are looking at may leave no other choice, and we must talk about this now. I believe the concepts I am presenting could be a valuable and rewarding experience for the young Australians involved and serve many other outcomes that would be of benefit to our nation. This of course would be in addition to all those who volunteer at whatever age as the scheme matures.
Until a CDC is created, we will need to continue to be prepared to call out the ADF at the scale that is now happening, much more efficiently and quickly than has happened, with the preparedness for Federally led national command and control arrangements. This will require its own short term lessons learned process and subsequent measures.
In relation to command and control we also require a review of the nature of the arrangements and organisational relationships. It would also include the scope of issues within that remit. My Army service revolved largely around counter insurgency, post conflict reconstruction, public security and civil military planning. This involved coming up with mechanisms to incorporate military and civil agencies and NGOs. It is that hybrid approach that is required to eliminate the blind spots we have seen on the ground in our towns, evacuation centres, communications, supply and evacuation management etc. We need to draw the lessons that have been emerging from this crisis concerning the multidimensional factors requiring coordination, planning and pre-crisis preparation.
Finally, I emphasise that we need a proper national review that considers all out-of-the-box ideas, projections and facts, personnel and capability requirements, resulting in a national plan and long term strategy that should have happened a long time ago. I have offered the above only as an example of some of the concepts that might be considered. There is much more we need to be talking about at all levels down to Councils, Control Centres, fire stations and homes. In some ways this required effort is similar to the way nations under risk of nuclear attack had to organise civil Defence during the cold war. Now we are in effect in a very hot war. If this loss of life, property destruction and damage to our economy is not a national security or emergency issue, I don’t know what is. Fires don’t respect borders, and our region of Eden-Monaro is a perfect example right now, where fires are straddling the NSW/Victoria border, where we tragically lost young firefighter Samuel McPaul near Jingelic. We need the Federal Government with bipartisan, State/Territory, Council, business and community support to get on with this now. Not doing so would be the most serious dereliction of duty in our history.
IMAGE SOURCE: Australian Army Facebook post 31 January 2020.