Disasters come and go, but the threat of them never leaves us. This being so, how well are we placed to reflect on the policy implications? I would argue: less well than we could and should be.
We are well served by the present instruments of government but only to a point. They are primarily geared to first response to and later review of major disasters as presently defined.
But they are less so for any wider set of disasters such as, say, another GFC perhaps triggered by a collapse in the US stock market bubble fuelled by the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing.
I have looked for but cannot find any integrative policy or delivery arm of government that takes a truly holistic view of disaster management.
Emergency Management Australia offers an opportunity. But it’s role centres on co-ordinating national responses to any of the classic natural and man-made disasters that transcend national borders. It did an excellent job, for instance, in co-ordinating the response to the 2002 Bali bombing.
The Defence Department plays its own keen role in responding to natural and man-made disasters. The present hunt for the black box from Malaysian flight MH370 is both a clear example of this and Australia’s ability to project its highly professional disaster management capacities, no small thing in a region where natural disasters cause damage in the tens of billions every year. The business opportunities alone are worthy of serious consideration.
Defence also funds the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which publishes high-quality research papers on various areas of strategic risk (its paper on policy challenges in Antarctica should be required reading for anyone ignorant of the threat from the south). But its defence brief limits ASPI’s thinking, as does the security brief that rightly preoccupies Attorney General’s in concern to terrorist threats, that of organised and cross-border crime with the AFP and the infrastructure brief of the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development.
Some seriously good work is being done in various Australian universities but this too seems fragmented; and the role of tertiary and trade training is geared to qualifying people in various disciplines rather than any emergency readjustments in knowledge and skills so essential to the speed with which individuals and communities can adapt to disasters.
The balance in resource allocation likewise favours those at the pointy end, the first responders, rather than those in wider recovery operations; and this latter group, wherever they may be, lacks any reasonable voice in the policy arenas of government or the media which might stimulate government to think more cogently about community resilience and recovery (as opposed to physical reconstruction) as core elements of effective disaster management.
Likewise, there is no centre for national advocacy in these wider aspects of disaster management. The media naturally fixates on the emergency itself and quickly loses interest once it passes until and unless there is a cheap point to be scored somewhere along the way.
Media ideology in this area can be wholly counterproductive. I was personally attacked in The Australian for supposedly being overpaid by the Australian government for my role as senior advisor the Indonesian Government for Aceh’s recovery following the 2004 tsunami. My professional fees (wrongly lumped with operational costs) were contrasted with the dollar or two a day Acehnese locals could earn in an article that totally misunderstood and misrepresented the great professional demands of and value made by professionally managing a $US6.7 billion emergency reconstruction program. You can read my side of the story in Tsunami Chronicles. The journalist who wrote the offending article displayed his utter ignorance of disaster management and came close to entirely destroying my own contribution.
But that is the reality of disaster management. It is no less an ideological battleground in the media than it is a fragmented policy black hole across the whole of government. Australia’s approach to disaster management is unlikely to make any significant advances until we establish a far more coherent and professional voice for disaster policy. That day, I suspect, is still a long way off.
This is the sixth article in a series entitled The Disaster Blogs.
PHOTO CREDIT: US Pacific Fleet