Last Monday I took to Facebook to propose several ideas to enable our nation to meet the increasing scale of our national disasters, which thankfully have created a lot of discussion. One of my objectives was to stimulate that discussion on the issues confronting us, and hopefully see new ideas come forward.
Some media reports and commentary have given the impression that I am proposing the immediate introduction of a kind of "conscription" to meet our personnel issues in disaster response. However, my primary focus was to suggest several incentives and recruitment measures to promote voluntary participation - I'd encourage you to read the original post in full.
My proposal would include putting all voluntary organisations under one umbrella and applying the sort of support framework that exists for ADF Reserves to encourage these volunteer responders. Younger volunteers could also be offered the payment of their HECS and VET fees, and employers could be offered payroll tax exemption for employee volunteers under the employment protection regime.
This would be underpinned by a major recruitment and advertising campaign. It has been greatly heartening to see reports that the number of volunteers has risen sharply in response to this disaster but we will need to ensure we take the measures I have suggested to support, retain and sustain this.
If measures like this don't result in the required numbers over a few years, that's when we might need to discuss what the next steps might be. I included in my proposal the idea of a scheme where school leavers might do a compulsory extra or "Gap Year", similar to a community service idea - and purely non-military.
I make this point to emphasise the enormous increase in firefighters that will be needed as we face more protracted and more intense bushfire seasons in the future. The Climate Council has found that we will need double the number of firefighters by 2030. It is one possible solution, and I am certainly not calling for it to happen immediately, as I believe exploring incentives and support for voluntary options should be given several years of trial and experimentation. I welcome other ideas being put forward to rapidly increase our volunteer force.
One notable suggestion of a voluntary, full-time, paid body was put forward in these pages as an alternative, with doubt being cast about the ability to train to the required standard under the part-time option I have suggested. This skills concern, however, is not borne out by the fact that the RFS, without question, perform to the required standard now, validating the part-time approach. We can see the same is true in the ADF Reserves.
I think a full-time paid body would be great, but I doubt this would be enough. It is unlikely there would be sufficient numbers of people prepared to make a full-time career out of this who are not already full-time firefighters, police or members of the ADF. We could certainly try this option first, if the other voluntary options I put forward do not achieve the goal, and see how it goes. I do think it would be possible - and worthwhile - to recruit a full-time "cadre" helping to administer and maintain the standards of part-time units, as happens with the ADF Reserve now.
My main demand is that we have an immediate strategic national review into our future disaster response capability, where we canvass all the facts and projections as to the nature of the threat we will be facing from all types of natural disasters. It should include the evaluation of all the capability and personnel needs flowing from this, and trawl through the lessons learned by all those who are involved in managing and responding to large scale crises.
The review should be tasked with producing a national strategic plan that addresses all of the organisation, consultation, liaison, planning, mobilisation, command and control, communications, logistics and operational framework issues that arise. Naturally this review should be led by authoritative experts, supported by research and advisory agencies like the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and tertiary institutions. It of course should have input from all the responder organisations as well as the states, territories and councils, and it should encourage all the ideas our nation can put forward.
Beyond this, my overarching point is that we must, now, finally have a bipartisan policy on seriously addressing climate change if we are to give our kids and grandkids a fighting chance. Part of that policy will serve a major purpose in underpinning the recovery effort, especially for rural and regional areas, as pointed out in Ross Garnaut's excellent book Superpower.
- Dr Mike Kelly AM is the Member for Eden-Monaro and a former Australian Army Colonel.