President’s column – 4 September 2020

Image shows President David O'Loughlin smiling in front of a black background

The first major bushfire of the 2020-21 season occurred on Monday near Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, reminding us that bushfires wait for no-one, let alone the outcome of a Royal Commission.

Ironically, the Trewantin fire took hold the day before the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements published its interim report – “mindful of the need to allow for preparations ahead of the new season,” it said.

From a local government perspective, the “interim observations” in report are encouraging.

Directly echoing ALGA’s submission, the inquiry observed: “All states have delegated to local governments significant responsibilities for aspects of managing natural disasters.

“However, their capability and capacity to do this work appears to depend on their relative size and the resources available to them and varies across Australia.

“Notwithstanding this delegation, we would expect state governments to ensure that they retain oversight and understanding of the capabilities and capacity of local government to perform these responsibilities, and to provide support as necessary.”

On the issue of coordination and resource-sharing – the inquiry’s primary focus – the report said: “Coordination and resource sharing between local governments often rely on regional arrangements and, in some cases, informal understandings.

“Current processes to facilitate sharing resources between local governments during natural disasters appear beneficial, and warrant greater support.”

This is terrific recognition of the many involved in these behind the scenes roles, who have worked incredibly long hours during and well beyond the apparent emergency response, coordinating relief and recovery efforts, and channeling the inherent generosity of our sector to those who need it most.

In its submission, ALGA also highlighted:

  • the need for a targeted natural disaster mitigation program to be established and funded to the tune of $200 million a year for four years;
  • the difficulty of converting the “building back better” rhetoric into appropriate funding and approvals under current Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA); and
  • the reality that significant council assets, including those important for community recovery and wellbeing, are not covered by DRFA arrangements.

On these points, the interim report had this to say: “We have learned of a number of issues, including the scope of ‘betterment’ initiatives, the eligibility of certain public assets, and administrative requirements.

“We welcome the current review of the DRFA which, in part, seeks to identify pre-agreed recovery programs that can promote quick and effective delivery of recovery assistance to communities.”

Fortunately, there are signs the coming bushfire season will not be as bad as last year. Indeed, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC suggested in its Spring Seasonal Bushfire Outlook that a La Nina event will contribute to wetter than average conditions over much of eastern Australia.

That will come as a relief to those local governments in SA, Victoria, NSW, and Queensland still in recovery mode from last summer’s bushfires.

However, both the Royal Commission and the recent NSW inquiry made the point that fire seasons in Australia and around the world are growing longer and becoming more intense.

The gravitas of these findings should galvanise people’s thinking. If it doesn’t, presumably because others know better than the experts who appeared before these two peak inquiries, then an ever-higher damages toll will surely result.

Insurance losses from the 2019-20 fires alone were $2 billion, the Federal Government’s response was another $2 billion, the states and local government contributions have not been tallied, and add in funds from established and extraordinary relief channels and the cost to the community would easily exceed $5 billion.

Aside from economic loss, we can only guess the true extent of the environmental losses and the psychological damage inflicted on affected individuals, families, and their communities.

A natural disaster mitigation fund seeded with $200 million for four years looks cheap by comparison – noting ALGA’s advocacy for this fund relates to many forms of natural disasters, not just fires.

As the NSW bushfire inquiry made clear, councils are not just “first responders” when natural disasters occur.

Our Councils are also vital to ensuring local communities are prepared well beforehand, that essential asset are protected, that recovery assistance is quick and effective, and, in the event essential assets do need replacing, it is done with the ethos of “build back better” where appropriate funding is available.

The Royal Commission’s comments on betterment, coordination, and resource-sharing are encouraging, and an excellent platform for renewing our continued advocacy on the need for:

  • Local Government Financial Assistance Grants funding to be restored to 1 percent of Commonwealth tax revenue;
  • ensuring that betterment, and appropriate funding, is a core element of disaster recovery;
  • including publicly-owned community infrastructure for eligibility under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements; 
  • ensuring local government waste, water and waste-water assets are also eligible; and
  • ensuring the Federal Government commits to enabling communities – particularly in regional and rural areas – to build resilience and preparedness for emergency situations.

We will await the Inquiry’s final report (due to be handed to the Governor-General and state governors on 28 October) to see how the findings might impact ALGA’s advocacy.

In the meantime, there is nothing to lose from elected councillors impressing on their state and federal members that cursory nods to these and previous natural disaster inquiry recommendations, and there have been dozens of them, are no longer acceptable.

Let’s keep our decision-makers accountable.

David O’Loughlin,
ALGA President