WILPF has submitted several recommendations to a Senate Select Committee for Australia’s Disaster Resilience regarding the possible reforms to be made to the Australian Governments disaster relief processes. The submission draws on a research report published by WILPF in 2020, Militarisation in Australia: Normalisation and Mythology.
WILPF Australia welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to this inquiry.
In contributing to this inquiry, the WILPF Australia Board would like to:
• Introduce WILPF Australia
• Respond to the Inquiry’s terms of reference
• Recommend the establishment of a fully funded civilian disaster agency as an alternative to the ADF.
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)
WILPF is a feminist, non-aligned, anti-war and peace-building member-based organisation of volunteer activists. WILPF
brings women together to oppose conflict, violence and global militarisation, and provides a unique space for peace
activists across Australia and globally to work together for a sustainable peace.
Response to Terms of Reference
This submission responds to point (a) i of the Terms of Reference: “the role of the Australian Defence Force in responding to domestic natural disasters”. The submission draws on a research report published by WILPF in 2020, Militarisation in Australia: Normalisation and Mythology.
Traditionally, domestic disasters and emergencies are managed and operated by the specific states, and usually do not include major involvement of the Commonwealth Government and consequently, the military. Aid in domestic natural disaster events from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is only offered following a formal request and once local, State and Commonwealth agencies announce they have exhausted available resources.
ADF participation in response to domestic natural disasters since 1974
Figures available on ADF aid show that it has increased significantly since the Darwin Cyclone Tracy response in 1974. Between July 2005 and June 2013 alone, Defence recorded at least 275 cases of military support provided under the Defence Assistance to the Civil Community agreements, and between 2010 and 2020, the ADF participated in a total of six major operations within Australia. While the number of domestic military operations remained relatively similar to that of previous decades, the degree of involvement by the ADF in domestic emergencies has significantly increased since 2010.
An approximate total of 1,900 ADF personnel of all three Branches, full-time and Reserves, participated in Operation Queensland Flood Assist 2010-2011. This was at that time the largest ADF deployment on record in response to a natural disaster, compared with 700 soldiers deployed in Operation Navy Help Darwin in 1974, about 1,500 deployed in the 1974 Brisbane Floods, and about 800 deployed in Operation VIC Fire Assist 2008-2009. The 2019-2020 Operation Bushfire Assist deployed an historic 8,236 personnel including calling up 2,500 Reserves.
This was the by far largest mobilisation of military forces within Australia to date.
In 2020, there was again extensive involvement of the military in ongoing participation in Coronavirus quarantine enforcement across Australia, with thousands of personnel carrying out the roles of civilians, as security guards and first responders.
It has become the norm to call on the ADF with each successive crisis. In all the flood events covering 5 states in 2022-23, up to 500 ADF personnel have been involved together with logistical support. The tasks have included clean-up and recovery efforts, transporting evacuated people, welfare checks, delivering critical supplies, clean-up of flooddamaged waste and delivery of fuel and pallets of sandbags. Most of these tasks could have been handled by civilian services.
Increasing natural disasters
The release of the latest report by the top-level global climate science group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, leaves us with no doubt that more frequent and intense disasters like bushfires, floods and droughts are now unavoidable.
This is echoed by CSIRO which states on its website that with “climate change exacerbating extreme weather events in Australia, we are experiencing more frequent and severe natural disasters”. Given that climatic events are going to increase in frequency and intensity in coming years, we need a reliable way of preparing for and responding to them, not the reliance on ad hoc assistance from the ADF which may not always be available. Given the increasing international security tensions, we assume the ADF, of necessity, will be concentrating on their primary role as a security force (as recommended in the recent Defence Strategic Review).
There has been no effort by the Commonwealth Government to enhance a domestic civilian capacity to deal with natural disaster crises.
On the contrary, the Government has made it easier to use the ADF, with the Defence Legislation Amendment (Enhancement to Defence Force Response to Emergencies) Bill 2020 amending the Defence Act 1903 to streamline the process for calling out ADF Reserves, including for the purposes of responding to natural disasters or emergencies, and to provide ADF, Defence personnel and foreign forces with immunity from criminal or civil liability while responding to civil emergencies and disasters.
The ‘Black Summer’ Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements made 80 recommendations, some with vast implications for the use of the ADF in domestic events. Among them was the simplification of the Australian Government Disaster Response Plan and the Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC) thresholds, weakening the obstructions in place for military intervention in domestic contexts.
Australia needs fully funded and ongoing disaster emergency bodies at all levels of government, with a properly trained and resourced civilian disaster response capacity to avoid the use of the ADF in responding to the increasing number of natural disasters and other domestic crises such as the current pandemic in Australia
Our national security is equally dependent on the stability and functioning of our national infrastructure, agriculture, industry and the natural environment. We must be able to deal efficiently and effectively with both our international and national security through a civilian capacity as well as the ADF.
A properly constituted statutory and independent civilian disaster response agency could include Emergency Management Australia, currently operating within the Department of Home Affairs, and the National Recovery and Resilience Agency. Fully funded and resourced and with well-trained personnel, it would be able to properly manage Australia’s preparation for and response to domestic crises of all kinds, rather than having to constantly call on the ADF. Recruitment and training for such a body would be based on gender equality and diversity.
Sourcing disaster response personnel from the local community will build stronger communities and ongoing local resilience.
The bones of a civilian capacity exist through services already in places. Proper planning and resourcing could bring it into full effect, leaving the ADF free to concentrate on it’s primary role as a security force.
There will probably always be times when the domestic crisis are so severe that extra assistance from the ADF is needed, particularly in terms of heavy equipment or evacuation facilities; however, increased dependency on ADF infrastructure and personnel to address disasters is to the detriment of capable, well-resourced and resilient civilian responses across Australian communities.
WILPF recommends that:
- The Australian government establish a statutory, independent civilian disaster response agency.
- Such an agency be fully funded with well-trained staff located at a community level.
- The use of the ADF in domestic natural disaster response be restricted to exceptionally severe situations.
Read other submissions made to the committee here.