Environment & energy, Government and governance, National security | Australia

20 January 2020

Some are calling for the Australian Defence Force to take a greater role in responding to disasters like the bushfires, but with other challenges looming, this may be a mistake, John Blaxland writes.

After a slow start to the bushfire response, the Prime Minister has called out regular and reserve Australian Defence Force (ADF) to support local communities alongside the respective state police, fire and emergency service agencies.

The scale of the challenge has been of such a magnitude that a simple approach between any one state and the federal government has been inadequate. He is right to say a new approach is required, but what should that look like?

The fires have months yet to run, it appears, and we do not know what future fire seasons will hold for us. If the recent trend is a guide – and it looks like it can be – then policymakers need to anticipate fires of this level of severity if not worse in coming years.

Some say natural disasters now pose a larger scale policy problem than even terrorism. In these circumstances, it is inevitable the ADF will be called upon again to assist. So, why not make them fight fires too? There are a couple of complications to this proposition.

More on this: Putting people power into disaster response

First, while the ADF is very versatile and able to assist in a number of important ways, its members are not trained to fight fires, and are busy maintaining other skills. Military practitioners worry that calls for the ADF to become a supplementary fire service would detract from the time, effort, and resources needed to maintain the skills required to conduct the range of operations expected of it to meet other security needs.

Second, the fires are a real and immediate threat, yet the future may present an array of other domestic security challenges for which the ADF also will be expected to respond. Cyclones, floods, and other natural or human-made disasters spring to mind, as does the possibility of having to respond to a major cyberattack or terrorist incident – although Australia has been vigilant and lucky on that front so far.

The ADF has been excellent at supporting state and territory-based emergency responders to such crises in the past, ranging from Cyclone Tracy in Darwin on Christmas eve 1974, to a range of fires, floods, and other disasters. They’ve also provided precautionary security operations at major international events across the nation in the years before and since then.

Third, demands for ADF resources have seen their operational tempo rise in response to disasters and security challenges abroad, across the South Pacific and into Southeast Asia, over the last couple of decades. Meanwhile, the prospect of great power conflict in the Indo-Pacific affecting Australia’s security is adding pressure for the ADF to be increasingly high-tech, professional, and beefed-up in size and capability.

Greater and more capable naval, land, and air forces are required to respond to prospective humanitarian disasters, and, possibly, great power conflict affecting Australia’s direct national interests. Emerging and increasingly threatening advanced military technologies point to the need for further reconfiguration of the ADF’s capabilities if it hopes to keep up.

More on this: Townsville floods demonstrate need for better disaster planning

In essence, the nation faces a three-way set of security challenges. The threat of great power conflict, worsening environmental catastrophe, and a range of domestic and international governance issues. These three security challenges, in combination, will require the ADF to be able to do more, not less.

In short, the ADF needs to grow. Yet recruiting more people has proven to be excruciatingly difficult – to the point where the navy, for instance, has been forced to place a recently refurbished warship, the HMAS Perth, on stilts in Fremantle.

The ADF likely will have to work closely with other domestic and international agencies at short notice, in the face of cyber, terrorist, criminal, and environmental challenges like fires and floods, domestically and in the regional neighbourhood. Even if this tempo is to be sustained, let alone if anything more challenging emerges, the ADF may not be equal to the task.

Meanwhile, our state-based rural and country fire and emergency services, built on the remarkable volunteer spirit of ordinary hard-working and generous spirited Australians, are being challenged to an unreasonable and unfair degree over recent months – with no respite in sight.

Something has got to give. It has reached the point where natural disasters can no longer be treated simply as an issue for volunteers. Like in the response to terrorism, a professional approach is required, as are more fire fighters with more water bombers, who must operate for longer and with proper compensation.

ADF assets can make marginal adjustments to assist more readily and effectively, but with so many other concerns on the horizon, we cannot afford to have the ADF reconfigured to help firefighting.

There is another way, one that doesn’t involve this poor use of ADF resources. The government must lead in explaining the scale and the urgency of the challenge to the Australian people. Security expenditure will need to increase to match that need.

Beyond a royal commission, the government should look to establish a national institute of net assessment to weigh up the full extent of the challenges we face as a nation and beyond, holistically. Such an institute could help us to map out a visionary long-term plan for the future, with local, state and federal level input, not just for the next election, but with enough foresight and scope for our grandkids.

To meet the growing requirements across a range of agencies, an Australian Universal Scheme for National and Community Service should be introduced.

This could include a mix of full-time and part-time service in the Navy, Army, Air Force, Border Force, state or federal police forces, ambulance services, state emergency and rural fire services and Australian Aid abroad, akin to what was known as the United States ‘Peace Corps’.

Incentives could include university fee waivers, partial or complete qualification recognition, and even accelerated citizenship or other concessions. Indeed, the bonding effect of such a scheme may prove to be its most important contribution to a robust and harmonious multicultural society.

This proposal requires visionary leadership and the involvement of every state and territory government. The Prime Minister and the Council of Australian Governments should rise to the occasion.

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