Disaster response review kept secret: author

Disaster response review kept secret: author

27 May 2009

published by www.abc.net.au

Australia —

The Royal Commission into the Victorian bushfires has heard that Australian governments kept a review of the nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters secret.

It has emerged that Australian governments were warned years before that they would have difficulty dealing with a catastrophic disaster like the February bushfires which killed 173 people in Victoria.

A report on the topic was prepared in October 2005 by Australia’s Catastrophic Disasters Emergency Management Capability Working Group.

It was only released in the months after the February bushfires.

The report modelled responses to four hypothetical scenarios; an earthquake in Western Australia, a cyclone in Cairns, a tsunami in New South Wales and a national influenza pandemic.

One of the authors of the report was Tony Pearce who is now the head of Emergency Management Australia which is in charge of the Commonwealth Government’s response to disasters.

Mr Pearce faced questions about the report from counsel assisting the royal commission, Rachel Doyle.

When questioned, Mr Pearce confirmed the report was not released until two weeks ago.

Senior officials for state and territory governments, and the Federal Government, were shown the report in December 2006.

The report found ‘significant limitations’ in Australia’s capacity to deal with catastrophic events and recommended the Federal Government take a leadership role.

Mr Pearce was asked to explain why the report was kept under wraps.

He said the decision was made by all Australian governments.

“Ultimately the decision taken was a national decision taken by all states and territories not to release the report, it was not a Commonwealth stand alone position,” he said.

Mr Pearce said that the report could have engendered fear in the community if it had been taken out of context.

“If you didn’t understand the ways that the scenarios are being developed and the fact that the scenarios were, whilst credible, very highly unlikely but were developed specifically to a level to make sure that we could achieve a catastrophic state so that we knew what we were trying to respond to.

“If people didn’t understand that, if you just simply read the report, read one of these scenarios and read one of the recommendations, that could lead you down any number of pathways as to whether or not that was going to happen to you tomorrow.

Last year a journalist tried to get hold of the report, but a freedom of information request was rejected on the grounds its publication could damage government relations.

The Commission heard it was only after the Victorian bushfires, on April 30 this year, the Council of Australian Governments agreed there was an “urgent need” to re-examine Australia’s capacity to cope with natural disasters.

Tony Pearce told the hearing the 2005 report made 32 recommendations, half of which have already been acted on or are being progressed.

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