Recently, Labor MP and former Australian Army officer Mike Kelly proposed a new form of civil service that could be mobilised in response to national emergencies like the climate-induced bushfires currently ravaging the country. While it is good to see bold solutions being proposed to deal with the climate emergency, the civil defence corps proposed by Dr Kelly is inherently flawed.
Conscription and national service occupy a controversial and contested ground in Australian history. The wartime mobilisations Dr Kelly points to in the 20th century were fiercely resisted by trade unions, churches and civil society. From the rejection of military conscription in the First World War through to the anti-war sentiments inspired by the Vietnam War, Australians have consistently opposed mandatory service requirements.
Mandatory service is unpalatable because of two key aspects. The first is the disproportionate way it affects different populations of Australians. Service is often exempt under certain circumstances, usually in ways that benefit more affluent families, making less fortunate, working class or culturally diverse communities more likely to be conscripted into service.
Secondly, and most importantly, mandatory service regimes are built on the idea that young people are rudderless and need to be taught the values of hard work against their will. This view is baseless, and academic studies of Australian youth show how hard young Australians are working. As a cohort, young Australians are overworked, overeducated and underpaid, and while they consistently list the environment and lack of jobs as the two most important issues affecting their generation, a year of mandatory service fighting fires is unlikely to lead to a safer climate or secure employment.
While the proposal is flawed, it is fundamentally grounded in reality. As Dr Kelly notes, the current crisis management system is no longer fit for purpose as the climate changes. Our firefighters are stretched well beyond normal limits, and there is little doubt that our ability to mobilise additional resources in times of crisis will become essential to our survival as extreme weather events become more common.
Yet Dr Kelly's civil defence corps is oddly reminiscent of the recently defunded Green Army initiative, created under former prime minister Tony Abbott as the environmental wing of the government's highly unpopular work-for-the-dole scheme.
In 2015 the Green Army were mobilised for just under 50 disaster response projects around the country, mostly dealing with flood and storm recovery initiatives. This workforce was comprised of young Australians who were out of work, and employed them to do unskilled labouring, regardless of skills or qualifications. Worse still, there has been no evidence to suggest that the participants in this program found ongoing employment as a result of their participation.
That is because this kind of solution only deals with one side of the equation. We need to not only invest in strategies that are responsive and reactionary, but in preventative measures as well. We need to build permanent pathways for skilled and unskilled work that provide secure employment as well as contribute to disaster prevention.
Instead of investing in a Green Army Reserves, the government could create a dedicated institution that would oversee and manage our response to climate-induced disasters - a National Climate Response and Mitigation Authority. This body could operate as a branch within the Department of Home Affairs, and could provide employment across a range of skilled and unskilled areas.
Public servants would help to co-ordinate the activities of state-based emergency services, as well as preventative and regenerative specialists, such as arborists, environmental engineers, and planners. Labourers and tradespeople could be employed to build infrastructure that would make areas less prone to extreme weather events, such as water pipelines and dams.
The authority could draw on First Nations expertise regarding native plant propagation and land management, working with local elders to make sure vegetation is sustainable in the Australian climate. They could invest in research that investigates best-practice response to climate-induced disasters, as well as preventative technologies and techniques.
Most importantly, any investment in disaster response and management should be built on providing secure, ongoing employment to Australians of all ages, and ensure that career pathways are available that comply with our industrial relations framework.
Conscripting young people to be reservists in the climate war is not the solution. We need dedicated professionals who can help prevent crises, not just manage and respond to them. Only then can we attempt to combat the twin crises of environment and employment that threaten our country as the climate changes.
- Shirley Jackson is a senior economist at progressive think tank Per Capita.