AUSTRALIA – Scott Morrison’s decision to take a holiday in Hawaii as fires engulfed the east coast of Australia will go down as among the most unfortunate political missteps in recent history. The trip became emblematic of a federal government caught flat-footed for last summer’s unfolding bushfire catastrophe.
New documents, some released under freedom of information provisions, have shed more light on the government’s preparations for the bushfire season and response to it. The documents show that while some parts of the bureaucracy were aware by August that the country was facing a horror season, that urgency did not reach their political masters.
One of the most important questions for the royal commission into the bushfire crisis will be whether state and federal authorities effectively coordinated their response.
Disaster management is primarily a state responsibility, but the commonwealth also has a role, particularly when fires cross state lines and states need additional resources. Surprisingly, there is no clear power in the constitution to declare a national emergency.
Some important functions – notably aerial firefighting, telecommunications infrastructure, emergency broadcasts on the ABC, electricity grids and assistance from the military – are in the hands of the commonwealth, or funded by it.
But despite a scientific assessment in August warning of a dire outlook, many of the follow-up actions, such as more funding for aerial firefighting equipment, were slow to flow. There appears to have been little appreciation at the executive level of just how horrific the bushfire season was predicted to be.
Aerial firefighting funding slides
Most notable was the commonwealth’s ad hoc response on aerial firefighting, which was well documented during the fires.
A funding agreement between the states and the commonwealth for the National Aerial Firefighting Agency was reached in 2003 after a particularly fierce bushfire season. The Howard government agreed the commonwealth would provide 50% of the funds each year.
But by 2017, the federal share of funding had fallen to 23%.
Despite a formal request in 2017 from the national agency to permanently increase its budget, the federal Coalition chose to offer an $11m “one-off” top-up to the centre’s $14.8m funding in 2018. That was renewed on 12 December 2019. But by then the east coast was already ablaze.
“When you look at that … over the last couple of years and the additional resource that is being provided on top of our standing commitment of $15m, it means the resources were delivered,” a defensive Morrison said.
Part of the reason for the slow commonwealth response is perhaps that no single minister or department, with the possible exception of the Department of Home Affairs, has ownership of planning for a natural disaster on a national scale.
At least five portfolios – health, defence, communications, energy and home affairs – have control over critical resources. Agencies such as the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology have important roles in predicting the likely impact of a bushfire.
Arguably there are more agencies – notably the environment department, which has responsibility for threatened species and climate change – that should also be involved in bushfire response planning.
Heightened fire risks predicted
In the federal sphere, the main responsibility for assessing the outlook for the bushfire season fell to Emergency Management Australia (EMA) – once a separate agency, now a branch within the sprawling home affairs portfolio.
The branch told the Guardian it hosted 11 disaster preparedness briefings across all states, beginning in August 2019 when the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre released its seasonal outlook.
The outlook warned, quite accurately though in somewhat muted language, where the risk lay.
“Australia faces the likelihood of an active fire season with above-normal fire potential forecast for significant parts of Australia, particularly the south-east,” it said.
“It has been the fifth-driest start to the year on record, and the driest since 1970. This is especially the case over the southern half of the country, which has experienced the driest January to July on record (January to July 1902 is the second driest).”
The outlook pinpointed the areas that faced the higher risk. In NSW, it said, there was “significant concern for the potential of an above-normal fire season in forested areas on and east of the Great Dividing Range”.
The risk for the ACT was said to be “above normal”, while in Victoria “above-normal bushfire activity continues across the coastal and foothill forests of East Gippsland, extending into West Gippsland and the Great Dividing Range”.
It also highlighted the risks on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, which had “a combination of drier than average and wetter than average conditions across the island which may result in above average fuel loads in parts”.
These were the areas that were ravaged by fires over Christmas and New year.
EMA said it held a further nine briefings with defence department and other agencies that needed to be involved in the co-ordination between August and November.
But for some reason the impending risk does not seem to have permeated into the executive or to cabinet.
EMA’s first briefings with ministers on preparedness for the bushfire season took place in November, and by then bushfires had already raged through parts of Queensland and northern NSW. It did not say who attended.
The minister for emergency management, David Littleproud, issued three press releases between August and November describing the coming bushfire season as “challenging”, “tough”, “testing” and “above average”. But the gist of the releases was that communities needed to start getting organised, not what the federal government was doing.
Warnings ‘fobbed off’
Some who sought to warn the federal government early, such as the former NSW fire chief Greg Mullins, felt they were fobbed off by the federal government.
As reported last year, Mullins – in his capacity as head of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action – contacted the prime minister’s office in April, seeking a meeting to outline the potential calamity he believed was looming.
In the aftermath of the fires, Morrison has said he didn’t need to hear from former chiefs as the government could hear from the current ones. But Mullins has said it was precisely their “ex” status that allowed them to speak freely both about bushfire preparedness and its link to climate change.
Mullins’s request was referred to the minister for energy and emissions reduction, Angus Taylor, in July.
Taylor responded on 10 September, offering a date in October for a meeting in Sydney.
Mullins immediately wrote back, saying it was “unfortunate” it had taken several months to receive an invitation and that the catastrophic conditions he and his fellow fire experts had predicted had now manifested.
“Considering the gravity of the situation, a national response from the highest levels of the Australian government is required,” Mullins wrote. He requested an urgent meeting with Morrison, Taylor, Littleproud, finance minister Matthias Cormann and any other ministers involved.
Taylor replied that he had copied in Littleproud, and perhaps Mullins should seek a meeting with him.
By then Mullins could see what was unfolding. In November he told the ABC how worried he was. He said he been “fobbed off” by the prime minister, and that Taylor was “not the right person to meet with”.
Finally a meeting took place with Littleproud and Taylor on 3 December.
Mullins told the Guardian: “It was clear that there was never any intention by the PM to listen to us. We were treated with open contempt by the PM, who said he would deal with the current chiefs.
Asked in November why he did not meet Mullins, Morrison said the government already had advice from “existing fire chiefs doing the existing job” and his office said the Mullins group had been offered meetings with senior cabinet ministers “several times this year”.
Documents released under freedom of information also show that Taylor did not ask his department for a briefing before the meeting with Mullins – the usual step for a minister.
Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday cited
A similar request to the then-Department of Environment and Energy reveals how little thought had been devoted in that portfolio to the potential impact of the bushfire season on the environment, threatened species and its relationship to climate change.
One cabinet document was withheld, its subject unknown. The only other document produced was an assessment of what bushfires could do to the national electricity network.
In December the department warned that the Forest Fire Danger Index was high around the electricity corridors for the Queensland-NSW interconnector and the NSW-Victoria interconnector, and that dust storms were possible, which could further threaten the transmission network.
“The FDDI is tracking similar to those conditions preceding the Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday events,” it warned.
Emergency Management Australia said it activated the COMDISPLAN – which outlines how states could access non-financial assistance from the commonwealth during disasters – in early September 2019.
It coordinated the first requests for commonwealth disaster assistance itself. The Australian defence forces became involved soon after, and by November had liaison officers in the NSW bushfire headquarters.
There have been suggestions in the media that NSW rebuffed help from the federal government, particularly around the use of Navy ships, during the crisis.
The dispute between Morrison and the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, if there was one, appears to have related to whether a naval vessel should be sent in to Bermagui to evacuate residents .
Documents obtained from the Department of Defence show there was close co-operation on the aerial firefighting tasks, with the RFS using Defence facilities at Richmond, on the fringes of Sydney, and that Defence rapidly scaled up to provide teams that could deal with displaced residents and help clear roads.
But after the Mallacoota fires in Victoria on New Year’s Eve, when thousands of people were forced on to beaches to escape the fires, the government began deploying naval ships to the coast.
At the request of the Victorian authorities, HMAS Choules and MV Sycamore left Sydney on 1 January and arrived in the Mallacoota area the next day to provide support and evacuate 1,100 people who were sleeping on the beach.
There were fears that a similar scene could unfold in one of several towns along the NSW south coast as fires threatened again on 4 January. The documents show HMAS Adelaide sailed on 4 January, as the second wave of fires tore through communities and cut roads. But Bermagui, while ringed by fire, did not burn.
The documents show the NSW government and the RFS preferred to request Defence help clearing the Princes Highway before and after 4 January and evacuate by road, rather than by sea.
Berejiklian refused to release an email exchange with the prime minister’s office on 2 January, on the grounds that it would damage federal-state relations. Morrison’s office refused the request on the grounds that it was too wide.
RFS personnel say the liaison with Defence went very well, barring a few hiccups. A briefing note from Defence to the minister on 2 January recounted how Defence helicopters had assisted in the rescue of three people in Moruya the previous day.
“The rescue was undertaken in extremely difficult conditions and was only successful due to close co-operation between the NSW RFS, NSW Ambulance Toll AME and the Australian defence force,” the note said.
But questions remain about whether the bushfire response was adequately managed by the responsible ministers.
The summer of 2019-20 suggests there is much room for improvement in Australia’s arrangements to protect it from natural disasters.