With today’s announcements that the federal government wants children back in schools, whilst the states continue to keep them home, clearly we are suffering from the problem of “Too Many Chiefs” in this national disaster. Australians deserve a more effective national structure for dealing with national disasters because the resilience strategies (1) of the past have not worked.
The problem with disasters is that they don’t care about borders, gender, ethnicity, economics, parochialism, politics or federations. They are a risk that threatens people, their communities and their way of lives. Every few years, we repeat a cycle of apathetic risk management and poor preparedness investment and receive a reminder from nature that we are simply not that well equipped to respond. Then we quickly turn to blame and “How could you let this happen?”.
In August 2019, NSW Senator Jim Molan recommended we adopt a “whole-of-nation approach to strategy that must go beyond purely military concerns to include social, financial and economic factors.” The reality is that we have neither a coherent national strategy nor an effective national structure to deal with a “whole of nation” response and we’ve now been shown up twice within 6 months.
The current situation
When disasters occur, our state – based emergency management systems and organisations kick into operation. Bottom-up responses from police, fire, emergency and medical services, escalate into regional operations centres and into state disaster coordination centres or state emergency operations centres.
Depending on which state you’re in, these each have different names, each have different full-time and volunteer capabilities and despite applying all hazards principles, they are each more prepared for a specific threat (such as fire). They use terminology like “all hazards, command, control, coordination, inter-agency coordination, common operating picture, intelligence and public information”. These heroic people are the frontline response agencies, owned, resourced and commanded by the states. To be clear, there is no federal government response agency in this mix (2).
Each season we see the Politicians, flanked by the relevant Commissioners and Auslan interpreters briefing their constituents, urging them to follow the advice, and in some cases, threatening them when they don’t (3). We see the “disaster tourists”(4), politicians followed around by media wearing hi-vis SES jackets (acting like their own version of a war correspondent), posing for announcements and hand-shakes with unwilling participants.
Sometimes, when the disaster reaches a certain level, federal government support is requested. In these instances, the Defence Forces are often deployed to provide specialist capabilities in support of state-based response organisations. In parallel, federal and state agencies deliver economic packages to provide relief to affected communities and assist in the recovery effort.
During the recent fire season, the scale of the disasters and the duration of the impact required significantly more federal support than ever before. This prompted criticism from the public, who were clearly confused over the role of the federal government versus those of the states during a disaster. Whilst one may argue this was a political view, clearly there were fractures in the federation model that were exposed by the scale of the fire season.
Fast-forward a few months and COVID-19 has turned these fractures into chasms. COVID – 19 has dislocated federation here and in other countries like nothing else before it. Whilst zealots on both sides of the political spectrum will argue till they’re blue in the face that that political leadership is the issue (that I have challenged previously in my blog post), I contend that the ‘structure’ of federation response models, is not capable of adequately responding to national emergencies. In the USA, we have seen the same challenges between the governors and the President.
New Zealand, on the other hand, is managing this calmly, efficiently and effectively. Whilst many will argue that this is because of the leadership of Jacinda Ardern, another factor is that she doesn’t have the clutter and noise of states, each demanding their own voice in the response. They have a coherent alert system, a single source of truth, and clarity of communication.
Single source of truth
Emergency Management Structures are based on a bottom-up, scalable command and control model that are contained within a state-based framework . The problem is, large-scale national emergencies do not conform to this. They require a unified approach, a single source of truth, clarity of communications and common approaches for dealing with a common threat.
With the unfolding COVID-19 crisis in Australia, alert levels, stages of restrictions and messaging have differed from state to state and to the Federal Government, resulting in confusion with communities unclear about what they should be doing to “#stop-the-spread”. Daily briefings combined with 24 hour news cycles are bombarding people with differing advice from the PM, the Premiers and their seemingly infinite supply of Chief Medical Officers.
The NSW Government’s stunning response to the Ruby Princess debacle demonstrates the failures of these structures. Amazingly, the Premier and Police Commissioner were scathing of Bondi beachgoers turning out in their hordes despite the warnings, whilst at the same time permitting 2,700 passengers to disembark the Ruby Princess. This incident alone has been responsible for 660 COVID-19 cases (currently nearly 10 percent of all cases in Australia) and 18 deaths. (5)
On one hand, we’re told that only essential workers are permitted to attend work but hairdressers can remain open. Schools are required to stay open, but the states can make their own minds up (despite supposed “alignment” at the National Cabinet). States are running their ads in the same breaks as federal ads, all saying the same thing about social distancing and hand hygiene.
All this is creating is duplication, mixed messages, wastage, blameshift and confusion. Ultimately, this has cost the lives of people in our communities and our businesses have been placed into a self-induced coma.
How can we have one threat, yet multiple interpretations of how it should be managed in each state in a country of nearly 25 million people?
Too Many Chiefs
This is where Federation is letting us down. Communities require a simple structure that they can clearly understand before a disaster so that when the chaos kicks off, they know who they can turn to and have comfort in the strategy that is being executed.
If this is the National Cabinet, then each state needs to fall into line, and let the PM get on with leading this response with a unified national approach. If it’s not, then it’s time to define a unified response structure, capable of handling a top-down or bottoms-up, nation-wide disaster, with clear roles and responsibilities and with common alert levels that people can clearly understand.
The time to adapt is now. Disasters don’t give a stuff about politics or state borders.
(1) National Strategy for Disaster Resilience, 2012 ABC Article, 25th March 2020 (2) Department of Home Affairs “To be clear, there is no federal government response agency in this mix”. (3) “While the focus was on Bondi Beach, coronavirus was silently spreading elsewhere in Sydney”, (4) Ashleigh Raper Article “Scott Morrison is on a hiding to nothing when it comes to bushfires”. Peta Credlin. (Daily Telegraph) (5) 7 News, Coronavirus ruby princess debacle responsible for more than ten percent of australian cases