AUSTRALIA – Expanding federal government powers to call out the military, national standards for hazard reduction and the mitigation of natural disasters – but not climate change itself – will be the focus of the bushfire royal commission.
On Thursday, Scott Morrison released the letters patent establishing the national inquiry, pushing ahead despite concerns over federal overreach into states’ emergency management powers and pressure from Labor jurisdictions to focus more explicitly on reducing emissions.
The royal commission will be led by the retired air chief marshal Mark Binskin, who is joined by the former federal court judge and Ruddock religious freedom review panel member, Annabelle Bennett, and professor Andrew Macintosh, a specialist in climate risk and impact management.
Morrison said in a statement: “My priority is to keep Australians safe and to do that, we need to learn from the Black Summer bushfires how nationally we can work better with the states and territories to better protect and equip Australians for living in hotter, drier and longer summers.”
The letters patent state the royal commission will examine “Australia’s arrangements for improving resilience and adapting to changing climatic conditions, what actions should be taken to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters, and whether accountability for natural disaster risk management … should be enhanced”.
The terms also ask the commission to consider “thresholds for, and any obstacles to, state or territory requests for commonwealth assistance”, whether the commonwealth should have a power to declare a national state of emergency to create “clearer authority to take action … in the national interest”, such as deploying the Australian Defence Force.
Morrison said that the inquiry “acknowledges climate change, the broader impact of our summers getting longer, drier and hotter and is focussed on practical action that has a direct link to making Australians safer”.
“That’s why we need to look at what actions should be taken to enhance our preparedness, resilience and recovery through the actions of all levels of government and the community, for the environment we are living in,” he said.
Earlier in February, the ACT chief minister, Andrew Barr, said the draft letters patent “[ignore] the important role Australia must play in reducing global emissions to minimise the extent of climate change and its potential impacts on the Australian community”.
The Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, backed this view, telling Guardian Australia the proposal to examine resilience and adaptation was “too narrow in scope”.
“The inquiry needs to look at the impact of climate change on Australian natural disasters and what can be done to reduce the impact, including meeting our international climate agreements,” he said on Friday.
In a sign of further potential trouble with the states, a Victorian government spokesman told Guardian Australia it will review the letters patent “before making a final decision as to whether the state signs up to the royal commission”.
“We will have more to say in due course.”
While the states cannot prevent a royal commission proceeding, refusing to sign up would hamper the operation of an inquiry designed to forge consensus on changes to the federal balance of responsibilities for emergency management.
On Thursday, Morrison said the commonwealth had “entered a constitutional grey zone” during the Black Summer bushfires, by deploying 6,500 ADF personnel “without clear rules”.
Morrison said there were currently “no powers” to declare a national state of emergency to trigger “direct federal government responses”. All federal responses “are supposed to only be undertaken in response to state requests and authorisations”, he said.
Morrison told reporters in Sydney the royal commission had “nothing to do” with showing the states have not done enough on hazard reduction, suggesting this was a “pretty cynical view”. He refused to criticise NSW for not requesting ADF help.
Morrison said it was “not that usual” for the prime minister to appear at a royal commission but noted it had the power to call him. Two former Labor prime ministers, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, appeared before royal commissions initiated by Coalition governments.
Morrison argued that while the “overwhelming majority” of emergency management is controlled by states, including resourcing fire services, hazard reduction, land-clearing and planning, nevertheless Australians want “greater assurances at a national level that these important tasks are getting done”.
The inquiry will also consider “nationally consistent accountability and reporting framework and national standards” for disaster preparedness, response and resilience.
Before the final letters patent were released, a Victorian government spokesman suggested the Morrison government should “focus on areas of commonwealth responsibility, rather than encroaching on matters that traditionally have been a state’s responsibility”.